Saint Thomas – The Apostle Full of Faith An Exegesis of John 20:19-31
In the Orthodox Church, the feast day of St Thomas, the faithful disciple of the risen Lord, also known as ‘the twin’ (didymus) is celebrated precisely one week after Easter – that is, on the Sunday following Pascha, which is known both as the ‘Sunday of Thomas’ and the ‘After-feast of Pascha’ (Antipascha). Even though popular piety has wrongly attributed to him names such as the ‘doubting’ or ‘faithless’ Thomas because of his alleged suspicions concerning the resurrection of Jesus, his place in the Liturgical cycle of feasts affirms a radically different theological vision of St Thomas the apostle full of faith. Indeed, a correct exegetical examination of the Gospel passage which is heard on the ‘Sunday of Thomas’ (Jn 20:19-31) will confirm Thomas’ profound depth of faith, expressed, as we shall see, in his confession in the divinity of the risen Jesus. This exegesis will be carried out in two complementary stages: whereas the first will examine the passage from a literary perspective as this will shed light on the Evangelist’s true purpose for including the Thomas narrative in the Gospel, the second will reflect theologically on the person of St Thomas based on an interpretation of the Biblical text itself.
It has to be admitted that St Thomas’ ecstatic declaration of faith in Jesus Christ in terms of ‘My Lord and my God’ (Jn 20:28) is one of the most profound pronouncement of the deity of Jesus in the entire corpus of the New Testament since it not only attributes to Christ the highest Christological title in terms of His divinity [Jesus Christ is referred to as ‘God’] but also demonstrates the unconditional acceptance of Thomas in the risen Lord [this is seen in the use of ‘my’ God – the predicate of dedication]. In this way, far from being a story ostensibly about the lack of faith on the part of this apostle, the fourth Gospel writer presented St Thomas as a man who desired nothing less than a personal and palpable encounter with the risen Lord. And the reason why St Thomas wanted nothing less than an immediate encounter with the risen Lord was so that he could see for himself the continuity with the Jesus that he had known during His earthly life before His crucifixion – as opposed to One who had mysteriously risen and left the disciples orphaned. Therefore, throughout the episode involving the apostle Thomas the most important dimension of the self-revelation of Jesus as both the risen Lord and God is accordingly given. However, before looking specifically at the passage in question, a few brief remarks from other passages in the New Testament, where St Thomas is mentioned, will show the fidelity and trust in Jesus Christ even before His resurrection.
The fidelity and courageous character of St Thomas is seen in other episodes in the Gospel of St John. Two such examples are the following: firstly, upon hearing that Lazarus had ‘fallen asleep’, Jesus told the disciples that He would return to Judea to bring Lazarus back to life. Whilst the Gospel of St John records the disciples alerting Jesus of the dangers of the journey, since the Jews were trying to stone Jesus, the Evangelist notes the apostle Thomas as unhesitatingly stating: “let us also go, that we may die with him” (Jn 11:16). Surely such a spontaneously spirited and bold response by Thomas, expressing his willingness even to die together with Jesus is totally incompatible with a person characterized by doubt, hesitation and scepticism. A second episode in which the spiritual insight and unwavering faith of Thomas in Jesus is verified is when the resurrected Lord appeared to seven of his disciples after His resurrection – Thomas being one of them. When Jesus showed Himself to these seven apostles by the Sea of Tiberias and told them to cast their nets on the right side of the boat (cf Jn 21:6), since they had caught nothing all night, the Gospel records that they obeyed Jesus immediately. Again such a response by St Thomas (together with the other disciples) would have nothing to do with a person who had doubted or lacked faith in Jesus. These two episodes, together with Thomas’ encounter with the risen Lord eight days after the Resurrection, will demonstrate without doubt Thomas’ profound depth of faith in Jesus Christ. And it is to this that we now turn.
Literary, Historical and Theological Exegesis
This Gospel passage in Jn 20:19-31 beautifully relates the faith experience of the apostle Thomas. Upon setting the scene (it was evening and all the disciples were gathered together in one room for fear of the Jews), the Gospel writer proceeds to describe Thomas with some precision: we read that he was called the ‘Twin’, that he was one of the twelve and that he was absent when the risen Jesus had formerly appeared to the disciples bringing His peace. The pericope continues to depict the appearance of the Lord eight day later, this time to all the disciples including Thomas. And after stating that Jesus had appeared amongst them, the Evangelist records how Jesus invited Thomas to touch His nail prints and put his fingers into them. With such a strong attestation, the Gospel writer does not tell the reader whether Thomas accepted Jesus’ invitation but simply recounts Thomas’ spontaneous and heartfelt outburst expressing his faith in the divinity of the risen Lord. What follows is Jesus’ universal blessing of believing without seeing, together with the conclusion of the Gospel which conveys the purpose of the entire book – that is, to lead all subsequent readers into their own personal and deepened experience of faith in the risen Lord.
For reasons of clarity and in order to appreciate better Thomas’ experience and confession of faith in Jesus [as opposed to his alleged dubiety], it would be helpful to see briefly how this specific Biblical passage fits in with the entire structure of St John’s Gospel as this will confirm our proposition that St Thomas was a man possessed by a profound depth of faith in the risen Lord. The episode of the apostle Thomas and his encounter with the risen Lord occurs within that part of St John’s Gospel which is called the ‘Book of Glory’ (Jn 13:1-20:31).
According to most biblical scholars, in their commentaries on this Gospel, this part of the Gospel is usually further divided into three sections:
A) The Last Discourse: Jn 13:1-17:26;
B) The Passion: Jn: 18:1-19:42;
C) The Resurrection: Jn 20:1-29.
Except for verses 30 and 31 of chapter 20 which form the conclusion of the Gospel before the Epilogue, the entire chapter deals with events which had taken place on Easter Sunday both in the morning and evening in Jerusalem, together with the appearance of the risen Jesus to Thomas eight days later. Its place within the ‘Book of Glory’ tells the reader immediately that the Thomas story is not concerned with highlighting Thomas’ doubt but rather showing the splendour and revelation of Jesus as God.
The Thomas story (verses 24-29) occurs immediately after the appearance of Jesus to Mary Magdalene (verses 11-18). It is precisely within this context that the reader would know that the Evangelist would have wanted to show that, just as Jesus had led Mary Magdalene on her journey to faith, so too would He now lead Thomas to an unconditional faith. That is to say that, just as Mary Magdalene and the Myrrh-bearing women in general were the first witnesses to the empty tomb and announced its meaning to the disciples, so too would Thomas bring the Christian faith in the resurrection to its climax becoming in this way a bridge for future believers. Even from this brief yet succinct literary analysis, one can see that the Thomas narrative, which is intertwined with dialogue is part of the Evangelist’s central purpose: namely to record the appearance of the risen Lord to an increasing number of people and to lead them to a faith which is not dependent upon seeing. That is to say, the Evangelist wanted to emphasize that just as St Thomas was an apostle who embraced the risen Christ, so too were subsequent communities to do the same, since faith in the Lord was not purely dependent upon ‘seeing’. We now turn our attention to exegete the Biblical text itself.
The Appearance and Blessing of Peace of the Risen Lord to Thomas (Jn 20:24-26)
In the verses preceding verse 24, the Gospel begins by pointing out that even though the doors of the house, where the disciples had gathered, were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood amongst them. And before showing His hands and side to Thomas in order to demonstrate the continuity with His earthly life before the resurrection, Jesus said to all the apostles: “Peace be with you!” (Jn 20:26). Firstly, the gift of peace was a fulfilment of the words which Jesus had formerly spoken to His disciples during His earthly ministry. In chapter fourteen in the Gospel according to St John, Jesus had said:
“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid” (Jn 14:27).
From this it becomes apparent that Jesus’ peace was totally unlike the peace of the world, which was built upon violence, oppression, self-assertive competition and victimisation. Rather, the peace of Jesus was His gift of reconciliation and communion with God. That is to say, Jesus’ gift of peace to His disciples was nothing other than the very gift of the presence of God in their midst. Accordingly, the peace that Jesus bestowed was the gift of His own very self to His disciples.
From this we can see that it was this experience of the very presence of God in the person of the risen Jesus that dispersed the disciples’ panic and fear so that they could embrace entirely the miracle of Christ’s victory over death. As we shall see, having also experienced the very gift of God’s presence, in the peace of Jesus eight days later, Thomas also would be led to embrace the Lord without the need to physically touch the side of Jesus. However, before this, it was quite natural for Thomas to be afraid, confused – as the other disciples had previously been – and hoping for nothing other than his own immediate and personal encounter with, and gift of peace from, the risen Jesus. That the outcome with Thomas would be a favourable one can be presumed by the Johannine phrase: “and eight days later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them” (Jn 20:26). This can be surmised specifically by the phrase: “and eight day later” (Jn 20:26). In the ancient world, the number eight was highly significant and would have given an insight to the reader that the story would have a favourable ending. In the ancient tradition, the eighth day – the day after the seventh – signified the beginning of a new reality, the inauguration of the time of the Resurrection and the presence of heaven on earth here and now. Already we can see a positive portrait of the apostle Thomas which will further be confirmed in the second part of this article.
In the next part, we will look at Jesus’ invitation to Thomas to teach Him along with Thomas’ confession of faith and Jesus’ universal blessing of believing without seeing in order to uncover the profound depth of Thomas’ faith.
Dr Philip Kariatlis
Academic Director and Senior Lecturer in Theology,
St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College
1. Thomas is also known as ‘the twin’ because his name comes from Aramaic meaning twin, for which the Gospel of John gave the Greek equivalent Didymus. However the Gospels do not tell us who Thomas’ twin was. It is said that after the Resurrection, Thomas went to India to preach the Christian message. Today the Oriental Orthodox Church of St Thomas in India claims St Thomas to have been its founding apostle.
2. In a deeply insightful article on the person and faith of St Thomas, Archbishop Stylianos of Australia rightly argued that since Pascha is the climax of the entire ecclesiastical year, then one would have expected the Sunday immediately following Easter to be considered a most significant feast, indeed more important than the remaining Sundays of the Liturgical year. (‘St Thomas and the Truth’, Voice of Orthodoxy 11.5(1990): 41). Furthermore, I am gratefully indebted to many of the thoughts expressed in this article regarding the faithfulness of the apostle Thomas.
3. The Gospel according to St John is conventionally divided into five sections by Biblical schools: 1) The Prologue (Jn 1:1-18); 2) The Book of Signs (Jn 1:19-12:50) -there are seven signs: a) Jesus changing water into wine; b) the healing of the nobleman’s son; c) the healing of the lame man; d) the feeding of the multitude; e) the walking on water; f) the healing of the man born blind; g) the raising of Lazarus; 3) The Book of Glory (Jn 13:1-20:31); 4) The Conclusion of the Gospel
4. Even in the ancient Greek world ‘peace’ was considered to be a state of rest between conflicts and wars – that is to say, a time when there was reconciliation and positive relations between people.
5. Cf Phil 4:7: “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in union with Christ Jesus.”
6. Cf. Archbishop Stylianos, St Thomas and Truth, 42.
(Jn 20:30-31); 5) The Epilogue (Jn 21:1-25).
Saint Thomas – The Apostle Full of Faith An Exegesis of John 20:24-31
In the last issue of VEMA, we began to examine the Bible reading, which is dedicated to the Sunday of St Thomas the apostle directly one week after Pascha. In this brief study, we saw that, far from being an ‘unbeliever’ as is commonly said, St Thomas was an apostle full of zeal, fervour and unwavering commitment to the Lord not only during Jesus’ earthly life but also especially after the Resurrection. In this issue we continue our reflection on St Thomas, the apostle full of faith.
Unlike the other Gospel writers, St John the Evangelist wanted to emphasize, in quite some detail, the reaction of the apostles – particularly St Thomas – at the news that Christ had risen. In the case of Thomas the apostle, we discover that he wanted nothing less than to meet the risen Lord for himself. Indeed, this desire by Thomas to meet the Lord personally and not simply depend on somebody else’s account is heightened by the Gospel writer in his description of the continued insistence of the disciples to convince Thomas of the Resurrection. In verse 25 we read: “So the other disciples told (elegon) him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put (balw) my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe” (Jn 20:25). One can only imagine why the disciples continuously insisted in relating their encounter of the risen Jesus to Thomas. Most probably the reason lies in that Thomas would have unremittingly discarded their account, wanting instead to have his own personal meeting with the risen Lord. To be sure, eight days had to pass before Thomas would meet Jesus for himself. And in that time we learn that Thomas had been continuously subjected to the insistence of his fellow disciples’ testimony to having seen the Lord. It is the imperfect tense of the verb ‘told’ in Greek [elegon] which indicates a continuous action on the part of the disciples to convince Thomas. This repeated ‘telling’ however resulted in nothing since Thomas had to experience the personal presence of Jesus for himself.
Indeed Thomas’ response is very clear: he will only believe once he puts his fingers into Jesus’ side. In this case, we see that the Gospel writer used a very strong verb to describe this action – balw – where he could have used a softer verb, like ‘to place’ – tiqhmi. According to some Biblical scholars, the verb balw indicated the idea of energetic thrust. That is to say, it was not enough for this apostle to simple place his hands onto Jesus’ side, but instead wanted to plunge his fingers into the marks of his side. As Archbishop Stylianos underlined, Thomas was not simply satisfied with simply seeing the risen Lord, as the other disciples had been, but wished to immerse himself fully, with fingers and hands, indeed with all his faculties, into Christ’s exposed wounds in order that he may relieve to some extent the humanity and fleshliness of Christ before confessing Him, as we shall see, as ‘Lord’ and ‘God’.
Jesus’ Invitation for Thomas to Touch Him.
And it happened, eight days later, when the disciples were assembled in the house again, Jesus is depicted appearing to them all, including Thomas this time. Furthermore we see Jesus following exactly the same procedure as he had done before: upon entering the house, He said: “Peace be with you!” And upon receiving the Lord’s peace, the apostle Thomas was immediately set free from any confusion since the peace and presence of the Lord was upon him. Immediately Jesus said to Thomas: “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt (mhginou apistoß) but believe” (Jn 20:27). Even though Thomas was invited to put his fingers into the side of Christ, the evangelist does not indicate whether this was actually carried through. One would imagine that since Thomas had received the ‘peace’ of the Lord, he no longer would have had the need to touch the side of Jesus’ wounds.
It is highly significant, as Archbishop Stylianos again accurately noted, that when Christ invited Thomas to put his fingers into His side, he did not say for example: “do not be faithless [kaiv mhv eso apisto”]” but “do not become faithless”. This detail, usually overlooked by most biblical scholars is highly significant since it affirms once again the Evangelist’s favourable portrait of the apostle Thomas. With the phrase in question, Jesus was saying: ‘do not change or develop into becoming a disbeliever; that is, do not turn out to be unfaithful’. On the contrary, the inference is: ‘remain faithful’. And so we can see that Jesus was simply protecting Thomas from an ensuing faithlessness and not one which already existed. This is important to note because many modern commentators see in the words of Jesus a rebuke which is to miss the point entirely. Still other scholars have seen in this appeal of Jesus a reference to all unbelievers in the Thomas community, using the figure of Thomas as a literary device. Rather, Jesus’ words were an appeal to Thomas, and by extension to all believers, to remain firm in their faith.
Thomas’ Confession of Faith
Following his ultimate self-surrender, which came about as a response to God’s act of gratuitous self-disclosure, Thomas was led to proclaim ecstatically his unreserved acceptance in the risen Lord with the following confession: “My Lord and my God!” (Jn 20:28). This constitutes the most climactic moment in the entire narrative since it discerns the true identity of Jesus as Theanthropos (the God-man) and therefore the completion of Thomas’ journey of faith. In the Old Testament the juxtaposition of ‘Lord’ and ‘God’ was often encountered as a reference to God. Therefore there is no question that in this confession there is the proclamation of the unity of Jesus with the Father. All that Jesus had said and done during His earthly life was suddenly seen from another transfigured and eschatological perspective by Thomas – the perspective which the three disciples had momentarily seen at Christ’s Transfiguration on Mount Tabor.
Furthermore, in proclaiming the risen Lord in terms of ‘Lord’ and ‘God’, St Thomas discerned Christ as the glorified Son of God in the Father’s eternal kingdom to which all Christians look forward with eager expectation. In this way, far from simply being an utterance which acknowledged the presence of the risen Lord, Thomas’ confession expressed the very identity of Jesus as ‘one with His Father’ (Jn 10:30). In this proclamation we see the verification of what the opening words of the Gospel had announced, namely that “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (Jn 1:1). The apostle Thomas was able to discern that the one who had become a human person and dwelt on earth was the one “full of grace and truth” (Jn 1:14).
Upon recognizing Jesus to be ‘God’, Thomas was able to dedicate himself entirely to Him. His total commitment to the risen Lord is betrayed in the predicate ‘my’ which leaves no doubt as to the extent of Thomas’ own personal faith. Indeed the ‘my’ is of vital importance as it betrays not only Thomas’ unwavering faith but also his untiring commitment to the Lord. On this issue, a modern commentator of the Gospel of St John, wrote: “my Lord and my God… confesses to the risen Jesus that he [Thomas] belongs to him as his willing subject; he adores him and henceforth will serve him as he deserves.” In this way, Thomas had fulfilled the words of Jesus who had invited all his followers to honour Him as they honour God: “so that all may honour the Son just as they honour the Father” (Jn 5:23). That Thomas had taken a most profound leap of faith is shown clearly in the fact that up to that point no body had made such a proclamation of faith in Jesus Christ. The one who was crucified but now alive would be worshipped in precisely the same manner as God the Father.
Jesus’ Universal Blessing of Believing Without Seeing
The risen Jesus ended His dialogue with Thomas with the following words: “have you believed [Thomas] because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (Jn 20:29). These words are not to be understood as a judgement or reproach by Jesus to Thomas who had also believed by beholding the risen Lord just like the other disciples. The main purpose of the Evangelist throughout the entire Gospel was to lead his readers to a deepened faith in, and commitment to, Christ. And so, with these words, the Evangelist was inviting all to embrace the ‘Word made flesh’. Just as Christ was a permanent living reality for the Evangelist, so too, was St John concerned to lead others to the Risen Lord as well. Knowing already (c.a. 90 A.D.) that ensuing generations would not have had any such extraordinary appearances of Christ, the Gospel found it appropriate to put the entire Thomas incident into perspective by reminding readers of the importance of believing without seeing. In this way, the Gospel wanted to emphasise that there was no reason why the ‘faith experience’ of all future generation could not match the faith of the apostles as a whole. In this way the Gospel writer affirmed an equally profound aspect of faith not based purely on sight.
At the end of this study the authentic personality of St Thomas has become clear. Far from being a disbeliever, St Thomas was the apostle responsible for offering all future Christians a most exalted portrait of Jesus Christ as ‘Lord’ and ‘God’. Indeed it was St Thomas who was able to uncover the deepest identity of Jesus Christ, thereby affirming Jesus to be the very revelation of the life-giving mystery of God. In this way, he was able express most succinctly, in his confession of faith, the intention of the entire Gospel: namely that all have been called to believe that Jesus is not only the Messiah and the Son of God but also ‘God’, divine with exactly the same divinity as God the Father. And in being divine, Jesus Christ continues to be the one who gives life to all those who believe in Him, and together with the Holy Spirit, who leads all to the Father.
Dr Philip Kariatlis
Academic Director and Senior Lecturer in Theology,
St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College
1. Raymond Brown, The Gospel According to John, Anchor Bible 29a (Garden City, N.Y., Doubleday, 1966), 1025.
2. Cf. Archbishop Stylianos of Australia, St Thomas and the Truth, 42.
3. Cf. Archbishop Stylianos of Australia, ‘St Thomas and the Truth’, Voice of Orthodoxy 11.5(1990): 42.
4. Murray wrote: “here [the Evangelist] adds a saying which is half rebuke and half appeal”. Georgy R. Beasley-Murray, John, Word Biblical Commentary 36 (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1999), 385.
5. Cf Rudolf Schnackenburg, The Gospel According to St John, vol.3, trans. David Smith and G.A. Kon (N.Y.: Crossroad, 1982), 332.
6. Cf Ps 35:23-24. Interestingly, there was also the cult of the Roman Emperor who was addressed as “dominus et deus noster [lord and our god]”. At the time of writing of the Fourth Gospel, the Roman Emperor Domitian (81-96AD) wished to be addressed in this way. Consequently it may not seem at all unlikely that St John may have wanted Thomas’ confession to counter the claims to divinity of the Roman Emperor.
7. Eschatological is simply a word meaning the ‘end or future times’ which the Church claims that, with the resurrection of Christ, we are living already by way of foretaste.
8. Archbishop Stylianos of Australia, St Thomas and the Truth, 43. Incidentally Thomas’ personal confession of faith is similar to that of Mary Magdalene: “They have taken away my Lord” (Jn 20:13). Both use the predicate ‘my’ which show the person to whom they are totally dedicated.
9. George R. Beasley-Murray, John, 386.
The Contribution of Women in the Post Resurrection Stories as Described by the Gospel of St John
One of the primary tasks of the Church today should be to study the contribution of women in the New Testament as this will not only shed light on how women aided in communicating the gospel message of Christ in a rather patriarchal society – as was the first century CE – but will also bring to the foreground possible roles and functions for women in the Church today.
It is interesting to note the significant role that women play in the post-Resurrection accounts. In the Orthodox tradition, the second Sunday after Easter is dedicated to the Myrrh-Bearing women who were the first to see Jesus after His Resurrection according to the synoptic gospels, while on the fourth Sunday after Pascha we commemorate the encounter of Jesus with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well leading to the evangelisation of the Christian message to the Samaritan towns. This paper, however will not examine the Orthodox lectionary to evaluate the positive role it ascribes to women but will take a close look at the gospel of St John since it portrays women in a very positive way. In fact, the gospel according to St John features women in a more prominent light than the synoptic gospel traditions.
In fact a comprehensive study of the contribution of women in the fourth gospel would a entail a close study of the following women:
• The Mother of Jesus (Jn 2:1-12);
• The Samaritan woman (Jn 4:4-42);
• Martha and Mary, especially Martha’s confession of faith at the raising of Lazarus from the dead (Jn 11:1-44) and the anointing at Bethany/ Martha serving at the meal (Jn 12:1-8);
• Mary Magdalene’s discovery of the empty tomb (Jn 20:1-2) and the first to behold Jesus after His Resurrection (Jn 20:11-18).
Being so vast a topic, this paper will concentrate on only two women’s contribution, namely Mary Magdalene and the Samaritan women since they are remembered during the festive post-Resurrection period of the Church’s calendar.
MARY MAGDALENE – Jn 20:11-18
In St John’s gospel, Mary Magdalene is the first person to meet the living Christ after the Resurrection (Jn 20: 15-17). Not only does she receive the first post-Paschal theophany but she is given the apostolic commission to announce the glory of the risen Lord to the disciples. According to St John: “They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, „I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God..”
Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.” (John 20:13-18). The significant function that Peter has in the synoptic traditions, in that he is attributed with being the first to see the risen Christ is now given to a woman by the name of Mary Magdalene in the fourth gospel. It is she who is instructed to go and tell the disciples of Jesus’ Resurrection. Unlike the synoptics, where it is the myrrh-bearing women who are given the specific message to proclaim the risen Christ to the apostles, in St John’s gospel it is to Mary Magdalene alone.
In St John’s gospel it is also a woman who responds to Jesus with a saving confession of faith parallel to the confession of faith by Peter in the synoptic gospels. The answer to the ultimate question of “who do you say that I am?” is given by a woman in St John’s gospel, whereas, in the synoptic gospels by Peter. In the synoptic gospels Jesus is presented as doing all the signs that the Old Testament Scriptures said that the Messiah would do. At the very centre of the synoptic gospels, is the quintessential question that Jesus asked His disciples as they were walking on the way to Caesarea Philipi, “who do people say that I am?” (Mk 8:27). And the answer to Jesus’ question in all three gospels is given by the apostle Peter who responds with “You are the Messiah” (Mk 8:29). In the gospel of St John, however, it is a woman who makes the fundamental declaration of faith regarding the Messiahship of Jesus. Martha says to Jesus: “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” (John 11:27).
The contribution of Martha in the Johannine community is analogous to Peter’s role as a representative of the apostolic faith. If one is to see these words as the theological climax of St John’s gospel, it is significant that they are offered by a woman. Just as Martha gives the confession of faith in St John’s gospel, so too, it is a woman who is the first to witness the Resurrection. It is, in fact most striking that St John’s gospel has a woman announcing the Resurrection as women in Jewish law were considered unreliable witnesses. To Mary Magdalene is entrusted the role of announcing to the disciples that Jesus has risen from the dead. And it is for this reason that she is revered in both the Western and Eastern Christian traditions not only as “equal to the apostles” (ijsapovstolo”) but also as “the apostle to the apostles” (apostola apostolarum).
THE SAMARITAN WOMAN – Jn 4:4-42
The account of the Samaritan woman’s encounter with Christ at Jacob’s well is one of the most poetic passages in the Johannine gospel showing not only the personal journey of a woman’s faith but also her response which will others to Christ as well. It is this Samaritan woman who will take the message of Jesus beyond the narrow confines of Judea to the people of Samaria who were considered outcasts in first century Judaism. Only after the Samaritan woman has made the personal acceptance of faith, will she be able to communicate it to her fellow people as well. Slowly the woman will make her faith journey from simply perceiving Jesus as Ioudaios, Kyrios and Prophet to making a Chistological statement about Him as Messiah. Not only has a personal faith in Jesus begun to shine within her, but she becomes an apostle “leaving all things” (symbolised by the water jug) and becoming a witness to the person and truth of Jesus to her fellow country men and women.
St John uses this woman to show that faith and worship in God transcends exterior acts of devotion on particular mountains (Mt Gerizim or Jerusalem) to a real encounter with God the Father. At best holy mountains are a means to an end – the end being Christ Himself. According to St John, it is a Samaritan woman who contributes to the initial belief of “many” Samaritans: “Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman.s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done” (John 4:39). It is through this woman that many believe in Jesus as the Messiah.
It is important to note that the woman acts as an instrument for the people to receive the word of God. After having met Christ Himself, the Samaritans say: “They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Saviour of the world.” (John 4:42). According to St John, true disciples do not show themselves, but bring others to Christ after which they themselves fade away (cf especially John [the Baptist] Jn 3:27-30). Once again we can see what an active role women take in St John’s gospel. It is a woman who establishes the Christian Church in Samaria with its first converts. Like many other women, she too is a significant figure in the Johannine community contributing to the rapid spread of Christianity.
It is for this reason that she is called “apostle” and “evangelist” in the Orthodox Churches. Furthermore, the Byzantine hagiographers developed the story that the name of the Samaritan woman was St Photini who had five sisters and two sons. She is said to have travelled the Roman Empire preaching the good news of the Messiah’s coming, death and Resurrection. It is even said that she was the one to convert Nero’s daughter, Domnina to the Christian faith which ultimately brought about her death by fire. Furthermore, in its dismissal hymn, the Orthodox Church addresses this prayer to the woman who was exalted by Jesus when He sat by the well in Samaria and talked with her: “Illuminated by the Holy Spirit, all-glorious one, from Christ the Saviour you drank the water of salvation. With open hand you give it to those who thirst, great martyr Photini, equal to the apostles, pray to Christ for the salvation of our souls.”
In the fourth gospel, Mary Magdalene and the Samaritan woman are only two examples of recipients of Jesus’ most fundamental self revelatory acts. Mary Magdalene is the first to witness the Resurrection of Christ and to take this message to the disciples of Jesus. The Samaritan woman, upon accepting Jesus in her life, plays a major role in not only giving witness to the gospel to a whole Samaritan town but also converting it. These gospel passages, written nearly two thousand years ago help significantly in reminding an often male dominated society that an authentic Christian anthropology will recognise the distinct charisms and vocations of both men and women, which is definitely found in the fourth gospel so unsparingly.
Dr Philip Kariatlis
Academic Director and Senior Lecturer in Theology,
St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College
Are We Bound by Moral Laws?
The answer to the question is “No”. Now, this will almost certainly shock some people. I can hear cries of : “What of the Ten Commandments?” “What of the Church canons?” “What of the just fulminations of hierarchs against the sins of wayward flocks?” I can almost hear the cries of “Heresy! Fetch the faggots, light the fire and be done with this libertarian Pom”. So, before arrows descend upon me from the skies,let me hasten to explain.
The Gospel message Orthodoxy grounds its approach to morality firmly in the teaching of the Gospel. Christ taught not that the Jewish law was abolished, with His coming, but rather that it was subsumed under, and reinterpreted through, the New Commandment of love of God and love of one’s neighbour. When the Pharisee lawyer tested Christ by asking Him the question “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?” Christ replied: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbour as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets” (Matt. 22:37-40 RSV).
A new Commandment
Love of God and love of one’s neighbour are the two sides of the same coin. If you sincerely love God then you will also love your neighbour, because your neighbour is in God’s image. If you love your neighbour then you will love God, because in your neighbour you will see the face of Christ. In Luke’s account of the New Commandment, the lawyer puts the question to Christ: “And who is my neighbour?” And Jesus answers him by means of the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luk. 10:30-37). Every person with whom we come into contact or are in a position to help is our neighbour. At the Last Supper Christ says to the Apostles:
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn. 13:34-35).
Christ Himself frequently violated the letter of the law to make the point that the law was given for the benefit of humanity and should be followed in its spirit rather than letter: “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath” (Mk. 2:27). Christ died to free us from bondage to the law and give us the freedom of sons of light in union with Him. Christians are bound by the spirit of the law, “interpreted by love”, but not by the letter. Paradoxically, it is by being yoked to Christ that we become free of the law.
Freedom from the Law
Paul’s Message For Paul, the Jewish law was a dividing wall which stood between humanity and God, indicting of sin those in bondage to the law (Eph. 2:14-16). This partition Christ has broken down. Now Christians can have a direct personal relationship with God by virtue of being clothed in Christ through their baptism into His death and resurrection (Gal. 3:27). Christians, as a consequence, have been freed from the obligations of the law: “All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are helpful.
“All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be enslaved by anything (1 Cor. 6:12).
The connection between baptism and freedom from the law is clear from the verse immediately before the one just quoted: “you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of God.” Now the only law for Christians is the law of love: “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbour has fulfilled the law” (Rom. 13:8). “So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor. 13:13). But obedience to the over-arching New Commandment of love does not entail a lesser demand on us than the keeping of the Jewish law entailed but a greater.
We do not belong to ourselves, we belong to Christ. If we are true followers of Christ, it is not we who make decisions as to what is right or wrong according to individual reason or inclination, the dictates of the ego, or to public or even ecclesiastical morality, but Christ who is within us and owns us. Our moral freedom is a consequence of our enslavement to Christ: “You are not your own; you were bought with a price (1 Cor. 6:19-20). And Christ Himself says: “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me” (Matt. 11:29). But the Mystery is deeper even than this. By freely accepting enslavement to Him, Christ not only frees us from bondage to the law and enslavement to “the elemental spirits of the universe”, but bestows on us, if we will but accept it, the ultimate gift, the perfect freedom of sons of God (Gal. 4:3-7).
The person who knows “the mind of the Lord”, Paul says, cannot be judged or instructed by another: The spiritual man judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. “For who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ (1 Cor. 2:15-16).
The Christian Moral Life
Having fulfilled the Jewish Law, it was certainly not Christ’s will that His disciples should erect a body of Christian law to replace it. As the Christian matures in the life in Christ, moral rules should be allowed to fall away and moral action determined by the indwelling Saviour. We are justified not “by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ” (Gal. 2:16; see also, 16 through 21).
The person born again into Christ is Christ’s slave and no one has the right – no Pope, Patriarch or Council – to intervene in that personal relationship, any more than anyone had the right to intervene under Roman law in the relationship of master and slave.
For those living in Christ the law has been totally absorbed into the New Commandment of love. The New Commandment is not, however, a new law added to or replacing the Deuteronomic Law or its summary, the Ten Commandments. In fact, it is not strictly a moral law at all but, in philosopher-speak, a meta-ethical law. That is, a directive that tells Christians by what criterion they should make decisions when confronted by a moral choice. Is this a recipe for moral anarchy? It is not. For while Christians might enjoy absolute moral freedom in Christ, they are at the same time members of the Good Shepherd’s fold, the Church. No Christian is an island. In the view of Orthodoxy, the Christian life can only be led within the body of Christ. The committed Orthodox Christian is immersed in and guided by Holy Tradition in its entirety –the Scriptures, the theological consensus and spiritual wisdom of the Fathers, the dogmatic decisions of the ecumenical councils, the teaching of the holy icons, the liturgical and sacramental life of the Church. Moreover, they will give heed to the teaching of those appointed as earthly shepherds of Christ’s flock and to the counsel of spiritual mothers and fathers.
The moral teaching of the New Testament finds its liturgical expression in doxology, as is the case with its dogmatic teaching summarised in the Creed. It is interesting to note that at the precise place that the English Reformer, Archbishop Cranmer, introduced the recitation of the Ten Commandments into the Prayer Book Communion service, the Orthodox Church, in the Divine Liturgy, chants the Beatitudes (Mat. 5:3-12) as part of the Typica. (Regrettably, in modern Greek usage antiphons usually replace the Typica.) For Orthodox, the moral exemplar liturgically set before them is not the proscriptive Ten Commandments of the Old Dispensation but the liberating doxological Beatitudes of the New.
For Orthodoxy, then, Christian morality is right thought and behaviour learnt through the life in Christ within the worship of the body of Christ, rather than through subjection to an exterior moral law. The only law is the law that is no law, the interior law of love. But does our moral freedom in Christ mean that we can totally dispense with all rules, laws and commandments? Of course not.
Commandments, Civil Laws and Canons
St Paul says that the Jewish law was a schoolmaster (Gal. 3:23-26). By this he means that the covenant of Sinai and the Deuteronomic law provided a God-given moral education to the Jews. With the incarnation of Christ, and the proclamation of the New Commandment, there was, however, no further need of the schoolmaster since Christ Himself was now the moral guide of mature Christians.
The sacrament of baptism is only the start of the full life in Christ. Each one of us has to mature in Christ. While our personhood develops, and we (hopefully) struggle to conform our lives to the Spirit of Christ working within us, we need the help and discipline of moral rules. And obviously in the bringing up of children we need to inculcate in them moral principles such as those of the Ten Commandments, though this is better done through example than by the imposition of rules.
But, for a Christian, moral rules must always be construted as expedients to help us along the path to theosis; till that day when we can have no further use of a rule book. Two dangers in particular must be carefully guarded against in relation to moral rules. Firstly, any notion that one size fits all. Secondly, any notion that breaking this or that rule is necessarily wrong. The law of love, the New Commandment, over-rides all rules. Christians are not bound by rules governing personal morality, but they are not the only kind of rules. There are civil laws and Church laws, canons. Proper discussion of such laws would require two further articles; so topics to which we might return. Suffice it to say here, our obligation to obey civil laws is governed by Christ’s pronouncement, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mat. 22:21). It is only when Caesar, that is the State, usurps that which belongs to God that the Christian conscience might dictate the disobeying of the law of the land.
Thus, early Christians suffered martyrdom because the refused to offer a pinch of incense to the genius of the, supposedly divine, emperor. The defining of the line between what belongs to Caesar and what to God is, of course, by no means always an easy matter. The primary function of canon law is to secure proper order in the worship and governance of the Church, the ministry of the clergy, and the regulation of monasteries etc. Canon law thus reflects St Paul’s constant concern that “all things should be done decently and in order” (1 Cor. 14:40).
True there are canons that stray into the domain of personal morality, but the Church has never understood such canons juridically. Canons do not have the same authority as dogmatic definitions, being attempts to apply dogmatic teaching to prevailing conditions in accordance with current knowledge. If conditions or background knowledge change, a canon might become redundant or be in need of revision. In any event, canons must always be administered with economy; that is, taking into account particular circumstances, level of spiritual development, evidence of contrition, or prevailing social and political conditions etc. The Church has never construed its body of canon law as a Christian replacement of the Old Testament law. Moral canons have always been understood therapeutically rather than legalistically.
Dr Guy Freeland
Honorary Member of Faculty (1986 – present),
Lecturing in Hermeneutics and Liturgical Studies,
St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College
Doing the Right Thing by Adam and Eve
In the last issue of Vema, I attempted to show that the Augustinian doctrine of original sin, the doctrine that we have all inherited the guilt and the punishment of the sin of Adam, collapses because certain premises essential to the argument are simply wrong. Most decisively, the doctrine rests on the following two false premises: First, the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis is basically historical record (it isn’t).
Second, the sin of Adam could be biologically transmitted down through the centuries (it couldn’t)While hopefully we might have cleared away some dead wood, we are still left with the conundrums for which the doctrine seemingly provided at least partial answers. Why, in St Paul’s words, is it that I “not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do” (Romans 7:19 RSV)? Is infant baptism essential to wash away innate sin? Why was the incarnation of Christ and His crucifixion necessary? These are major questions and I am not going to attempt comprehensive answers. Rather, I invite the reader to join with me in a little gentle rumination on the text of Genesis. First, however, we need to set down some rules of engagement.
Laying down some rules most obviously, we must restrict ourselves to well-attested Orthodox principles of interpretation. One such principle is that we must commence with the literal meaning of the text. Here, the first task is to establish exactly what the literary genre of the text is. Is it historical record, prophecy, allegory, just what? Once we have given our best shot at tying down the literal meaning, we can proceed to search for deeper spiritual meaning lying beneath the surface of the text; the sensus plenior, the fuller meaning of Scripture. In determining the sensus plenior, we must interpret the text Christocentrically. Christ is the Logos, the eternal Word of the Father, and as such is the divine (as opposed to human) author of Scripture (see, e.g., John 5:39- 40, 46).
The Old Testament must be read through the lens of the New, especially the Gospels. As we proceed, we must bring our background scientific, archaeological, historical, philological etc knowledge along with us. It is a most extraordinary thing that many people, including a good few misguided Orthodox, think that it is virtuous to deposit their brains outside the church door before entering. The Fathers of the Church would have been overjoyed had they had access to our vastly superior background knowledge. We have been made in the image of God and, whatever else that means, it means that we are logical sheep – “logical” having the double meaning “of the Logos”, that is of Christ, the Good Shepherd, and “rational”. God has given us rational minds, if we refuse to use them they will atrophy and we will become dingbats, illogical sheep in both senses.
While, on the one hand, we should bring our background knowledge along, on the other hand we should bring along the deep spiritual and theological insights of the Fathers, one of the great treasures of Orthodoxy. With something old and something new (not the same thing as putting new wine into old bottles!), let us see what we can do with Genesis 2:4 – 3:24. An Alternative Approach. We know today that the Genesis narrative is not historical record but an allegory concerning the human condition and humanity’s relation to God. Origen (c.185– c.254) did regard the narrative as an allegory, but the Fathers in general, while they typically observed that much of the language was anthropomorphic and allegorical, assumed that there was a core of historical fact. For this we cannot blame them, given the limitations of their background knowledge.
Purpose of Incarnation
In some cases, particularly in the case of Greek Fathers, this assumption had no serious consequences. In the case of Augustine (354-430) it did; not only because of his reliance on it as a necessary premise in his argument for original sin but for another reason. Stressing that Adam and Eve were biologically the first pair of ancestors led to his treating the narrative as a description of the first moments in a continuing chain of causally linked events. It says a great deal for the perspicacity of certain Fathers that they did not read the narrative in this linear historical way. As early as the second century, Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons in France and probably a Greek from Smyrna (c.135-c.202), regarded Paradise as a future state of blessedness to which we are called. Moreover, that state had already been mystically realised in Christ, the New Adam, in whom the whole history of humanity was recapilated.
The purpose of the Paschal Mystery of Our Lord (and hence of baptism) was not, for Irenaeus, to redeem us from original sin (of which he knows nothing) but to make possible our theosis/ deification: “The Logos [the Word, i.e. Christ] was made human in order that we might be made God”. These words were echoed by virtually every Greek Father of the Church. Irenaeus had laid the foundations for an alternative tradition to that later established by Augustine. Following our ground rules, let me try to sketch a non- Augustinian way of reading the narrative, bearing in mind that there can be no such thing as a definitive reading.
As we believe that the Logos is the divine (as opposed to the human) author of Scripture, we can never claim that we have plumbed any passage of Scripture to its depths or seized the fulness of its meaning. Reading the Genesis Narrative with Irenaeus, Gregory of Nyssa (c.335-394) and others, we should take ourselves as our point of reference. We live in a fallen world characterised by the struggle for survival, a world of sin and death, of violence and suffering, and of alienation from God, our fellow human beings and the non-human creation.
And that is how it has always been. Augustine was at least right in maintaining that there is a deep-seated rottenness in human beings, an innate disposition to choose evil over good. (Some Greek Fathers call this disposition “original sin” and trace its source to our solidarity with Adam. But a disposition to sin is not an actual sin.) But is human life today, as throughout history, what God intends it to be? Are human beings beyond perfectibility? The answer to both questions is “No”.
The mythopoeic allegory of the Garden of Eden reveals both God’s intention for humanity, and explains why that intention has been thwarted. The allegory tells us that God created humanity in His own image and likeness. But as the Fathers teach, while the image cannot be obliterated by sin, the likeness, the beauty of spiritual perfection, is something that is only achieved through baptism and the life in Christ. Moreover, its realisation involves ascetic struggle. According to the Genesis narrative, God’s intention for humanity is plain. We should live in perpetual communion with Him, and we should desire freely to choose the good, as Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury (c.1033-1109) put it, just because it is the good (a pretty good characterisation of what it means to enjoy perfect freedom through servitude to Christ).
Paradise, depicted as a state of blessedness in which human beings dwell in harmony not only with God and their fellow human beings but with the whole creation, is achievable only through the Paschal Mystery of Christ. Paradise is to come, yet it is already realised in Christ in the Church. But this Paradiseto- come, but which now is, is not equatable with the primeval state of humanity. Rousseau’s noble savage never existed.
Adam as every human being
Before the creation of Eve, within the allegory, Adam exemplifies the fulness and integration of humanity per se – remember St Paul’s, in Christ there is neither male nor female (Galations 3:28). For a fleeting moment, Adam is revealed as archetypal humanity as God intended us to be. But it is an indistinct foreshadowing of the incarnation, when Christ, the prototype of humanity in all its perfection, became flesh. Christ is the New Adam who will redeem the Old Adam of Genesis; that is, each and every one of us because Adam is not an historical person but every human being, Everyman.
It is in this sense, not the Augustinian, that we should understand St Paul when he says “as in Adam all die…” (1 Corinthians 15:22) and “sin came into the world through one man … ” (Romans 5:12). St Paul is writing within the allegory in order to make an important theological point, not making assertions about the historicity of the narrative. Even if he did take it to be basically historical record, that is irrelevant. Further, Paul is certainly not asserting that Adam’s sin was inherited. This becomes clear from the full text of Romans 5:12: “Therefore as sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned” (RSV).
We share in Adam’s sin through our solidarity with him by virtue of the fact that we also have sinned. St Paul’s interest is in contrasting one man, the prototype of perfect humanity, Christ, with another single individual, Adam, the prototype of fallen humanity. For Paul, Adam “was a type of the one who was to come” (Romans 5:14). So, the fleeting moment of wholeness passes, archetypal
Adam/Everyman gives up a rib and Eve is created. Man and woman, beguiled by Satan, eat the fruit. But this is not so much a choice of whether to obey or disobey a moral injunction as an existential dividing of the ways.
Reintegration into the Kingdom of God
Adam and Eve have the choice of living in communion with God, freely choosing the good because it is the good, or to go the way of the ego, of making their own wilful choices, for good or for ill, irrespective of God’s good. In Adam/Everyman we have, like lost sheep, taken the route that leads to sin and death – sin being that which severs communion with God, and hence leads to spiritual death. Rebirth in Christ But all is not lost, what we cannot do for ourselves, be born again, Christ can do for us. Baptism does not wash away original sin because original sin, as understood in the Augustinian tradition, does not exist. Rather, through baptism (and, of course, Augustine is not unaware of this) we appropriate to ourselves the Paschal Mystery of Our Lord. We sacramentally die with Him, are buried with Him, and are resurrected with, and clothed in, Him.
The font is the mystic womb, and through emersion in its uterine waters we are made into new creatures and filled with the Holy Spirit. As a consequence of this rebirthing all actual personal sin is cleansed. But even adults emerge from the waters as spiritual infants (and are so depicted in early iconography). Baptism is the beginning of the life in Christ, but there is a long way still to travel. In the eucharistic life of the Church, the fruit of the Tree of Life, denied to Adam and Eve, becomes our food in Christ. As Gregory of Nazianzus (329/330-389) says, “Christ is brought up to the tree and nailed to it – yet by the Tree of Life He restores us.” We will still stumble, time and again, but from now on we travel the Way which leads to Paradise by, with, through and in He who said: “I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life, no one can come to the Father but by me” (John:14:6).
Dr Guy Freeland
Honorary Member of Faculty (1986 – present),
Lecturing in Hermeneutics and Liturgical Studies,
St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College
So Now We Don’t Believe in the Bible! Whatever Will They Think of Next?
Some observant Sydney-side readers might have noted a report in The Sydney Morning Herald on 14 October by the paper’s Religious Affairs Writer, Kelly Burke, headed “Bible believers ‘schism’ threat to Anglicans”. The article told how the new Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, Dr Peter Jensen, was intending to get the endorsement of the 46th Synod of the Anglican Archdiocese of Sydney to launch a ‘Bible believing’ denomination, with the aim of ‘converting’ 10% of Sydney’s population within 10 years.
Note carefully that the Archbishop isn’t planning to ‘convert’ 10% of Sydney’s population to Anglicanism, but to a new ‘denomination’ of ‘Bible believers’.
Very odd; I have never met a Christian who didn’t believe in the Bible. Ah, but what does Dr Jensen mean by ‘Bible believing’? There is the rub. ‘Bible believing’ means, the article reports the Archbishop as saying, ‘Bible based’. Again, I have never met a Christian who didn’t claim that their faith was ‘Bible based’. However, Dr Jensen’s definition of ‘Bible believing’ doesn’t stop there. According to the Herald, the Archbishop added, ‘By Bible believing I mean the Bible taking precedence over church tradition, human reason and Christian experience’.
A ‘Stipulative Definition’
Now, that is what philosophers call a ‘stipulative definition’. Cut all the cackle and confusion, state what you take the meaning of a word or expression to be, and then we can all know exactly what you are trying to say. There is a lot to be said for it and when teaching philosophy I used to sing the praises of stipulative definition loud and long. Although of great assistance to clear thinking, speaking and writing, stipulative definition can be abused. Take Lewis Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty (you know, the ‘bloke’ in the nursery rhyme who sat on a wall and had a great fall) in Through the Looking Glass:
“There’s glory for you!’ ‘I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory’”, Alice said.
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. ‘Of course you don’t till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock down argument for you!’
‘But glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock down argument’”, Alice objected.
‘When I use a word’, Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean neither more nor less’.
This is where the misuse of stipulative definition comes in. Take a common word or expression, define it in an outlandish fashion, and thereby deprive any one that uses the expression in its customary sense, who might wish to take issue with you, of the use of it! Surely, the customary meaning of ‘Bible-believing’ is something like ‘believing the Bible to be the Word of God’. But to believe the Bible as the authentic Word of God isn’t enough for Dr Jensen, the only true Bible believers are those who regard the Bible as the sole source of the faith. The Bible takes precedence over everything else. If that is what Archbishop Jensen, Humpty Dumpty like, chooses to mean by ‘Bible believing’ that is what he chooses to mean. But it is singularly unhelpful, as Stephen James, an Anglican layperson quoted by the Herald, observed: ‘Of course all Christian churches believe in the Bible. It’s totally offensive and outrageous to imply otherwise’.
Mr James further observed, in the words of the Herald correspondent, that ‘Bible believing’, in the Archbishop’s stipulative sense, leaves ‘out in the cold’: Middle and high church Anglicans; All Catholics (given their obedience to papal authority); and Pretty much most of the Uniting Church, Presbyterian, Baptist and Lutheran denominations. Of course, to whatever extent it really does leave out in the cold mainstream Protestant denominations, it certainly leaves out all Orthodox; despite the fact that, as usual, we don’t rate a mention. Clearly, the implication is that Orthodox – who many are prone to dismiss contemptuously as ‘ethnic’ Christians – are ripe for ‘conversion’ to true ‘Bible believing’ Christianity.
Orthodox Christians should have little difficulty in recognising that the Church’s teaching is seriously at variance (as is that of the Roman Catholic Church and mainstream Anglicanism) with the position adopted by Archbishop Jensen. However, what exactly is the Orthodox position, and what, from an Orthodox perspective, is wrong with Dr Jensen’s position?
What, I take it, Dr Jensen is defending is the doctrine of sola Scriptura (Scripture alone), which was advanced by the sixteenth century Protestant reformers. The reformers rejected the authority of tradition and asserted that the Bible is the only acceptable source of doctrine and moral teaching. For defenders of sola Scriptura (and many Protestants have distanced themselves from the strict, uncompromising Reformation stance) the Church is founded on the Bible and on the Bible alone.
Sola Scriptura, at least in its rigorous form, is, I believe, simply impossible. Consider the question, ‘Which came first, the Bible or the Church?’ There can only be one answer, the Church. The Church was founded by Christ and received the Holy Spirit for its mission to the world in accordance with the Lord’s commandment to, ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’ (Mt 28:19) at the feast of Pentecost, 50 days after the Resurrection.
The Bible didn’t descend from the heavens on a wire one morning, like a pagan god in a Greek drama. It has a history and its numerous books have to be placed into their proper contexts. In fact at the start of the Apostolic mission not a single book of the New Testament existed. True, from the beginning the Church regarded the Jewish Scriptures as the inspired word of God, but no common agreement had been reached as to exactly which of these books the Church should accept as authoritative for Christians.
Cannon of the Bible
In the early Church many texts gospels, acts, sayings of Jesus, letters, apocalypses were written from the mid first century on and circulated widely amongst the various Christian communities. Certain of these texts came, in the course of time, to be recognised as suitable for public reading in the Church’s liturgy, others as unsuitable.
It is in this way, through the unfolding tradition of Christian worship, and that means spiritual experience that what is called the canon of Scripture, the Old and New Testaments as we know them, came into existence. The sole authority for what is and what is not included in our Bible is Church tradition. In addition, it is not just that tradition cannot be separated from Scripture, Scripture actually inheres in tradition.
Essentially two criteria were applied by the Church in determining the canon of the New Testament:
1. A work for inclusion had to be of apostolic provenance. That is, it had to be written by an eyewitness of those things that the Lord did and said, or at the least by a person who had received directly an eyewitness’s account. Furthermore, it had to be free from contamination by Gnostic or other such sources.
2. The breath of the Holy Spirit had to speak through the text. Unlike most excluded works, which are mere lifeless historical oddities, the Word of God speaks directly through the books of the New Testament to the faithful in every age.
The New Testament tells us much of the Lord’s life and work, but, as St John the Theologian asserts at the close of his Gospel, it does not begin to exhaust the tradition of the Lord: “There are many other things which Jesus did; were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (Matt. 21:25). Consequently, in addition to the New Testament the Church accepts as authoritative those things that the Lord did and taught which are not recorded in the New Testament, but were handed over orally by the Apostles to their disciples, and on through the ages to us. These are the so called ‘traditions of the Apostles’.
It is from the experienced life in Christ, within the Scripture imbued worship of the Church gathered around its Bishop, that the formulation of the summary of the doctrine of the Church known as the Rule of Faith (eventually encapsulated in the Creed by the first two ecumenical councils) developed lex orandi est lex credendi (the rule of prayer is the rule of belief). For Orthodox, the Creed is a hymn of praise, doxology, rather than a set of propositions.
Every aspect of the faith the Scriptures, the oral tradition of the Apostles, the liturgy, the dogmatic decisions of the ecumenical councils, the consensus of the Fathers, the episcopacy and Church order, the sacred icons inherent in and constitute tradition, which is nothing more nor less than the movement of the Holy Spirit within the Church, ever making present the Word and saving mysteries of Our Lord.
Scripture is not above or outside tradition, but it does interpenetrate every facet of tradition, much as linear perspective interpenetrates the entirety a Renaissance painting. For example, not only is the Bible read and expounded in the services of the Orthodox Church, but it has been calculated that the basic text of the Divine Liturgy alone contains 212 quotations from the Bible. Take Scripture out of tradition, then tradition becomes an incomprehensible jumble.
If the Bible moulds every facet of tradition, Scripture cannot meaningfully subsist outside of tradition. Ripped out from tradition, Scripture is simply historically interesting literature. However, the Bible is not just literature; it is a collection of sacred text that is saturated with latent spiritual energy that bursts into incandescent flame when it is proclaimed with power in the midst of the worshipping Apostolic Church. Only then is it fully manifested as the living Word of God. This is not to say that it ceases to be the Word of God when we read the Bible privately, provided that we read it in a spiritual manner and within the context of the Church, of tradition.
The Bible is the property of the Church, and that includes the Old Testament considered as Christian Scripture. Of course, we recognise Jewish ‘Native Title’ to the Old Testament, but the Church claims a co existing ‘Pastoral Title’. From the perspective of the Church, the Bible is a whole and the Old Testament is to be read, through the lens of the New Testament as both being about Christ and by Christ, the eternal Logos.
Archbishop Jensen is no fundamentalist who believes that the meaning of Scripture is exhausted by its plain grammatical sense (a position which is totally unacceptable to Orthodoxy). However, the protestant doctrine of sola Scriptura that he espouses, which eliminates any external guidance and control of Scriptural interpretation by the Church, is left dangerously vulnerable to literalism.
From the early Fathers onwards, orthodox interpreters have insisted that Scripture must be interpreted in the light of Church tradition as a whole, and in particular accordance with the Rule of Faith.
Dr Guy Freeland
Honorary Member of Faculty (1986 – present),
Lecturing in Hermeneutics and Liturgical Studies,
St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College
The Great Ball Lightning Event
Twice a year something very special takes place at St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College in Sydney. For two weeks in January and again in July the College holds intensive vacation schools open to any adult – whether Orthodox or non-Orthodox, Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female (apologies to St Paul) – with a thirst for the living waters of Wisdom. Yes, the crystal clear waters flow freely, but WHERE ARE YOU ALL? Just down the road the Anglican Moore Theological College is bursting at the seams, while the sound of our feet echoes off the walls of our elegant but sparsely populated hall.
The reapers await, but where is the harvest? Withered on the stony ground, wilted at the stem like the crops afflicted by the great drying out of much of Australia? But are numbers everything (in January, the first week of our intensives we had twelve customers, the second eight)? At chapel one morning of the second week we read those beautiful words of Christ: “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom (Luke 12:32 RSV).” And there around me was Christ’s little flock.
Would this little flock flutter off on Friday and inspire others with the zeal of the Lord? Yes, indeed it would! The MA in Theological Studies St Andrew’s is a full member institution of the Sydney College of Divinity (SCD), a federation of university level theological colleges of several denominations. All of the units that we teach by means of five-day vacation schools can be counted towards a Master of Arts degree program in theological studies designed for graduates with qualifications in fields other than theology. Students do not have to complete all Twelve course units required for a Master’s degree but can hop off the tram with a SCD Graduate Certificate (four units) or Diploma (eight units).
But our doors are not closed to non-graduates, any one can apply to attend the vacation schools as an auditor (literally, “hearer”). Auditors are expected to participate fully in schools but are not required to complete essays or other assessment tasks, and the fees are lower than for those enrolled with the SCD. Attend four schools and we will award you a College Certificate of Participation to hang on your wall – though, unlike accredited SCD qualifications, you will not be able to use it as a meal ticket. What subjects do we teach by means of intensives? Units, all of which are taught exclusively in English, range across the fields of theology (including patristics), biblical studies, liturgical studies and Church history. The College has designated two subjects as foundation units, Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics (hermeneutics is theory of interpretation in contrast to the practice of interpretation, which is exegesis) and Introducing Theology.
Currently, we teach the two foundation subjects by means of vacation schools in alternate years (2008, 2010 etc). Those Special Weeks so, what is special about St Andrew’s intensive weeks?
As I am actively engaged in coordinating and teaching vacation schools, it would be inappropriate for me to comment on the quality of the lectures. Suffice it to say, I have personally heard many truly excellent lectures by both faculty and visiting lecturers. But about other things I can enthuse to my heart’s content.
First, it is our wonderful students, the crème de la crème of the laity (with the occasional priest or deacon), who make our intensives so special. These are women and men, often with demanding jobs and / or heavy family responsibilities, who give up several weeks a year to attend schools, and most of whom then go back home to work away at assignments. With young people leaving the life of the Church in droves, never was there such a need for a core of theologically educated lay Orthodox.
The second thing that is so special about St Andrew’s intensive weeks is that they are far more than just academic lecture series. For the weeks that they are with us, students are immersed in the same authentically Orthodox ethos of prayer, worship, fellowship, study, reflection and discussion as are our pastoral studies and Bachelor of Theology students who are with us most of the year. So normally, every day starts with a short service in English in the College’s beautiful little chapel of St John the Divine / Evangelist (or perhaps on one or even two days a Liturgy in the Cathedral) and end’s with evening prayers.
Coffee / tea breaks and lunch (all included) give opportunity for students not only to get to know one another but also to chat informally with lecturers. Similarly, the College’s well-stocked library is not only a place to browse amongst the shelves, round up material for assignments or to do a little private study but is another place to interact with lecturers and fellow students, not to mention our inimitable and super-helpful librarian, Chris Harvey.
But above all what impresses me most about our special weeks is the palpable presence of the Holy Spirit. This is a constant, but it was the very first school that I coordinated, in January 2004, the year that we commenced intensives, that is most deeply etched on my memory. Wherever the Holy Spirit is present in power strange things tend to happen. They happened that week. Let me tell you of the strangest happening of all, an event so strange that I got the eyewitnesses to record their experience at the time.
Ball Lightning Visits the Library
The event occurred on Thursday, January 22 shortly before 7.30 pm, though no one recorded the exact time. I left shortly after evening chapel but some of the students stayed on to work in the library. Chris Harvey and three students, one a presbytera – let us call them Faith, Hope and Presbytera Charity – were still in the library when the visitation occurred. The library is situated at the first floor level up external stairs from a courtyard. As one passes through the door at the top of the steps, one enters an open area with the Librarian’s desk a short distance across to one’s left. Ahead is a small round table and chairs behind which is the wall of the photocopying room.
Today this wall is covered by a bookcase, but in 2004 it was blank save for an icon of St Andrew with a shiny metal cover. That evening there was a violent storm directly over St Andrew’s, with thunder, lightning and rain. When the storm appeared to have died down, Chris turned off the air conditioning, opened the library door to let the cooling breeze in, and returned to his desk.
Faith could not see the entrance area at all as she was at the rear of the library. For Chris, at his desk, the library door was ahead and to his right. From this vantage point, he had a perfect view of any one (or any thing!) passing through the door into the library (that is the way he likes it).
Hope had just left the photocopying room and taken a couple of steps in the direction of the door. From her position she would have seen anything coming through the door almost head on. Presbytera Charity was seated at the round table with her back to the door, facing the icon of St Andrew. The scene was set. There was a deafening crack and a ball of incandescent blue light shot through the open door 5-6 feet above the floor. It travelled about 10 feet into the entrance area to just behind the head of the Presbytera and then abruptly vanished. Chris, viewing the phenomenon from the side, experienced it as a line of light that resolved itself as a sphere just Before disappearing.
Hope, seeing it head on, saw it as a “brilliant blue ball of light” framed by the doorway. Faith was unable to see the phenomenon but she heard a very loud noise which sounded like an explosion. Presbytera Charity had her back to the door but incredibly saw the ball of light reflected in the metal cover of the icon. It was, she said, “as if the icon had caught the thunder”.
Immediately following the event it was discovered that both of the library’s computers were out of action (next day it was found that most phones and computers in the Archdiocesan offices were dead). A smell of burning was coming from outside the door, where the shattered witnesses believed lightning had struck. “We had a look outside for scorch marks,” Hope wrote, “but couldn’t find anything and Presbytera Charity furiously continued her prayer knots.” And then it started to rain again.
What is ball Lightning?
There seems no doubt that a sphere of ball lightning entered the library, immediately following a lightning strike outside. Ball lightning is a rare and bizarre meteorological phenomenon that seems to defy the laws of physics. Indeed, most scientists were sceptical that such a phenomenon could occur. That is, until a group of scientists flying to Washington one stormy night in 1963 witnessed it for themselves. Emerging through the wall of the pilot’s cabin, a blue sphere of light, about 20 cm in diameter, drifted down the aisle of the passenger cabin and disappeared through the rear of the plane. Ball lightning normally forms following a lightning strike and is usually experienced as a solid-looking incandescent sphere of light of c. 15 cm in diameter, which is about the diameter estimated by Chris. It can, however, be much larger or smaller. It might be of any colour but blue is common.
It can pass through solid structures but likes exploring open and enclosed spaces. It has been known to enter by one door of a house, drift around from room to room, and leave by another door! It seems that it can last anything up to five minutes and often disappears with a loud bang. This might well have happened with St Andrew’s ball as Faith reported an explosive noise which she was certain came from within the library itself. Several scientific theories have been proposed but none appears to account for all of the phenomena. Inevitably, some lunatics have Suggested lighning balls are aliens trying to collect human DNA.
Ball lightning does not have the reputation for being particularly dangerous but it does have at least one fatality to its credit; as it happens, the first recorded instance of the phenomenon.
In 1754, a Dr Richmann of St Petersburg decided to repeat Benjamin Franklin’s famous experiment on lightning. As he did so, a large sphere of ball lightning suddenly manifested itself, struck him on the head and killed him. Was Presbytera Charity in serious danger of meeting the same fate? Did our patron, St Andrew, intervene and draw the lightning into his icon? Did a miracle occur that stormy evening? If by “miracle” one means an event which violates the laws of nature, then great scepticism is called for.
Orthodoxy has been averse to ascribing phenomena to the supernatural, preferring to restrict the denotation of “supernatural” to the supercelestial, supersensible eternal domain. There is not the slightest reason to suppose that the St Andrew’s event was beyond the limits of scientific explanation.
An extraordinary occurrence, a wonder? Certainly. A sign? Possibly. (But isn’t a sign an event to which we ascribe meaning?) Strange coincidence? Of course. Coincidences belong to the realm of natural (scientifically explicable, at least in principle) phenomena. But many events which people are given to calling “miracles” are in fact wondrous coincidences. As William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury, noted: “When I pray, coincidences happen – when I don’t, they don’t!” Indeed, the Holy Spirit acts mysteriously through the silence of prayer. Wonders I cannot promise you, should you join us at St Andrew’s in July or January, a spiritually and intellectually rejuvenating experience I can.
Honorary Member of Faculty (1986 – present),
Lecturing in Hermeneutics and Liturgical Studies,
St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College
The Labyrinth – a Christian Mandala?
Theseus and the Minotaur
It is difficult to imagine that there can be any reader of Vema, Greek or (like me) Barbarian, who has not known the story of Theseus and the Minotaur from infancy. But, of course, there is one reader, because there always is. So, briefly, ignoring the many variants and sticking to the bits that will concern us …
Minos, King of Crete, set off to Athens to seek redress for the death of his son. While he was away, his wife, Pasiphae, fell madly in love with a bull. (These things happen even in the best of families.) The fruit of this union was a monster with the body of a man and the head of a bull, the Minotaur. On his return, Minos commissioned his architect, Daedalus, to construct a labyrinth, a building with such an intricate complex of passageways that, once imprisoned in the centre, the Minotaur would never be able to effect an escape.
The penalty imposed on Athens was a tribute, payable every nine years, of Athenian youths and maidens. These young people were fed to the Minotaur. Came the year when the lot fell to Theseus, son of Aegeus King of Athens, to form part of the tribute. Theseus determined to kill the monster, but how to get back out of the labyrinth?
Minos’ daughter, Ariadne, being a bright girl, solved the problem by giving Theseus a ball of thread which he could unravel as he penetrated the labyrinth and, having slain the monster, follow back to the entrance. Job done, and the lads and lassies the Minotaur hadn’t eaten for brekkie released, Theseus set sail for Athens, stopping off en route at Delos to give the first performance of the labyrinthine geranos, the crane dance.
The Church has always used pre-Christian myths and legends as types (foreshadowings) of episodes in the life of Our Lord, antitypes, in much the same way that it uses narratives from the Old Testament. This is possible because it is not the content, the story line, or historicity of the type that matters in typology but the structural identity and deep underlying spiritual meaning it shares with the antitype. It requires little imagination to see how Church Fathers could readily take Theseus as a type of Christ and typologically interpret the myth in a variety of ways.
The most basic interpretation would see Theseus’ journey into the labyrinth and slaying of the Minotaur as a type of Christ’s descent into Hades, conquest of Satan and release of the imprisoned souls.
Equally fundamental is the interpretation of the labyrinth as symbolic of the maze of the world, with its traps, pitfalls, wrong turnings and blind alleys, through which Christ has threaded the pathway to salvation. As St Gregory of Nyssa puts it:
The labyrinth of this our life cannot be threaded by the faculties of human nature unless a person pursues that same path as He [Christ] did who, though once in it, yet got beyond the difficulties which hemmed Him in.
For Gregory, to follow Christ-Theseus along the pathway through the labyrinth to eternal salvation necessitates repentance and regeneration through baptism (a sacramental antitype of the Paschal Mystery of the Lord, which, in its turn, is an antitype of Theseus slaying the Minotaur).
The Fathers construct a polar opposition between the actual labyrinth of life, with its many bewildering junctions and crossroads and where it is all too easy to end up down a dead end or follow a one-way street to perdition, and the single pathway to salvation threaded by Christ.
As we shall see, this opposition generated two different representations: those with many diverging paths, known as multicursal labyrinths, and those, though possessing frequent turnings, with a single pathway, known as unicursal labyrinths.
The Multicursal Labyrinth
The British archaeologist, Sir Arthur Evans, the excavator of Knossos on Crete, thought that the origin of the myth might lie in the maze of passageways in the palace. Attention was also drawn to frescoes, which might connect with the myth, depicting a ritual in which agile nubile young ladies vaulted over charging bulls. Whether or not the palace was the original labyrinth, there seems no doubt that there was a building known as the labyrinth in Egypt, an enormous complex of halls and temples threaded together by a confusing web of passageways.
Without a superimposed threaded pathway, the maze often reveals a sinister aspect, which is frequently picked up by the Fathers, as by Gregory when he adds to the above quotation:
“I apply this figure of a labyrinth to that prison of death that is without an exit and envelopes the wretched race of humankind.”
Medieval Christian depictions of the Cretan labyrinth, as well as Greek and other Ancient visual representations, seem all to be unicursal. The multicursal maze (“labyrinth” and “maze” are usually used as synonyms) only came into their own with the Renaissance and Reformation, in the form of the garden hedge maze.
The best known of these devices is that at Hamton Court Palace near London (1690), made famous by Jerome K. Jerome in his classic novel Three Men in a Boat (1889). (Readers who watched the recreation of Jerome’s boat trip on the Thames, shown on the two first Sundays of this month on ABC Television, will have seen footage of the maze in the first episode.)
Although garden mazes were constructed for amusement and exercise – and were popular for providing hidden trysting-places for lovers – they nevertheless conveyed a moral message.
Traditional Catholic/Orthodox theology stresses the necessity of the doctrine, spiritual counsel and mysteries of the Church in guiding the Christian along the path threaded by Christ-Theseus to salvation. Protestant theology stresses the responsibility of each Christian to discover their own path to salvation, guided only by the direct voice of the Spirit and the Scriptures. The many junctions of pathways of the maze represented the many moral choices that must be made in working out the way to salvation.
It is as easy to become totally lost and confused in an intricate hedge maze as it is in the complex of pathways and blind alleys of life. I well remember getting seriously frustrated trying to get out of the diabolical hedge maze (1833) at Glendurgan, Cornwall (illustrated). Had I not found a hole in the hedge, I would probably still be imprisoned there today. It is not surprising that Fathers of the Church could refer to Hell as a labyrinth.
The Church Labyrinth
Pavement labyrinths marked out in mosaic made their appearance in Roman times. These labyrinths were unicursal and divided into four sections, through which one travelled in sequence, and probably symbolised the four corners of the world, the four seasons, the four ages of human life, and so forth. This kind of Ancient labyrinth made its way into the Church. There is a surviving fourth century example of this form in the church of San Reparatus in Orléansville, Algeria.
It is probably from such Roman labyrinths that the classic pattern of the Church labyrinth evolved. The surviving tile labyrinth (c.1200) extending some 40 feet across the entire width of the nave of Chartres Cathedral, near Paris, is usually taken as the paradigm of Church labyrinths (see plan).
Few remain, but pavement labyrinths were once common (we know the plans of a number now destroyed) particularly in Gothic cathedrals and large churches in France. The pattern also appears on walls and in manuscripts and early printed books. A fine medieval example, with accompanying inscription, is engraved in miniature on a wall of the exonarthex of Lucca Cathedral, near Pisa, Northern Italy (illustrated).
While the concepts encompassed within the medieval Church labyrinth might well have originated in writings of Eastern Fathers of the Church, the Church labyrinth per se seems to have been a Western development. From the East, I can muster only one example. I have seen a photograph of such a labyrinth painted on a wall of a Meteora monastery. However, I have also seen an illustration of an eighteenth-century Russian icon depicting a circular multicursal labyrinth. If any reader knows of other Orthodox examples, drop me an e-mail ([email protected]).
In England, pavement labyrinths seem not to have been constructed in churches; instead, labyrinths with closely similar or identical patterns to that of Chartres were cut into turf (illustrated is the turf labyrinth at Wing, Rutland). There is as yet no scientific way of dating turf labyrinths, but there is no real doubt of their medieval origins. There are few literary references, but one does occur in Shakespeare’s, A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
I had actually seen the famous labyrinth of Chartres as a child, but the labyrinth only really entered my life through an encounter in 1978 with the presumed medieval “Mizmaze” at Breamore, Hampshire. Today, labyrinths are all the rage and children are kept busy by Sunday school teachers, and those splendid lady vicars, constructing them in churchyards across the length and breadth of England. But back in 1978 very few people knew anything about them. I hadn’t even heard of turf labyrinths until I stumbled across the Breamore Mizmaze.
My Labyrinth was circular and of the Chartres pattern. It had a diameter of some 70 feet with a low mound at the centre. But what on earth was it? Contemplating the design, I was impressed by its beautiful intricate geometry and the fact that the pathway inscribed a cross within the circumference of the labyrinth.
I set off to “tread’ (since that is what one does in labyrinths) the grassy pathway to the central mound. Looking at the pattern from outside, it was the harmony and geometrical elegance, even in a sense simplicity, of the labyrinth which struck me, but from within simplicity gave way to confusion. One moment the path took one in very close to the centre, one’s destination (trace the diagram with your finger), next moment one was propelled to the periphery.
What does it mean?
The meaning of the labyrinth began to dawn on me. Clearly, it was an image of every person’s pilgrimage through life, with its frequent stumblings and turnings (the Greek word for repentance, metanoia, means turning around from sin). The spiritual life is punctuated by ecstatic moments when one feels close to God (= the centre of the labyrinth) but also periods of dryness when one feels deserted by God (= the periphery). Within the labyrinth one cannot tell how far along the pathway one has progressed.
The labyrinth teaches that what is demanded of the pilgrim is persistence to follow the path threaded by Christ-Theseus. If we tread the Way with Christ, as Luke and Cleopas did on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35), no harm can overcome us in the multicursal mizmaze of earthly life.
I reached the mount spiritually enriched by my experience. But surveying the whole pattern again another level of meaning was revealed, a cosmic level. If one ignored the turnings and joined up the sections of pathway, the labyrinth readily transformed into a nest of eleven concentric rings (try it) forming a diagram of the Ancient geocentric cosmology.
I was standing on the earth, so the eleven rings could represent the three rings of matter surrounding earth (= water, air and fire), the seven planets (= the five naked-eye planets plus the sun and the moon) and the sphere of fixed stars, equated with the primum mobile (= the source of motion of the cosmos).
So, on one level the labyrinth is a model of the Ancient cosmos, on another the key to the mystery of every person’s pilgrimage through life. In other words, the labyrinth is what the Buddhists call a mandala (there seems to be no equivalent Christian term).
So much for my experience of an English turf labyrinth, but let us get back to the pavement labyrinth in medieval churches. Clearly they could have been understood in all of the ways I have noted. There is, however, abundant evidence that they were also seen as tributes to the architects of great churches, since images of architects were sometimes depicted on them, as at Amiens.
The reason is that the labyrinth represented the Cretan labyrinth and, although two-dimensional, was thought of as a three-dimensional building. According to the myth, the Cretan labyrinth was the work of Daedalus, traditionally held to be the greatest of all architects (significantly, a common French word for a labyrinth is dédale).
Associating the labyrinth with the architect(s) of the church was thus a declaration that their skill was comparable to that of the greatest architect of Antiquity. Even God, the (metaphorically speaking) great architect of the cosmos, was sometimes conceived of as a divine Daedalus.
But how were the Church labyrinths actually used?
Well certainly they were not, as has been surmised, traversed on one’s knees as a penitential act or as a substitute for the pilgrimage to Jerusalem. However, we do have evidence that they were used as the setting for a liturgical dance at Easter. The only surviving account of the ritual is from Auxerre Cathedral in France.
After Vespers on Monday of Bright Week a large ball, called the pilota, was passed back and forth between the Dean and canons (= the Cathedral clergy) as the Dean performed a tripudium (= a religious dance) at the centre of the labyrinth and the canons danced circa daedalum (around the labyrinth). Probably the canons danced along the pathway rather than just around the circumference of the labyrinth, but the text is unclear on this point.
While this ceremonial was performed, the Easter Sequence, Victimae Paschali laudes (c.1030), was sung. (A sequence is a hymn that immediately precedes the Gospel reading at Mass.) The relevance of the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur, as a type of the Paschal Mystery of the Lord, is clear from the wording of the Sequence, which in translation begins:
Let Christians offer praises to the Paschal victim. / The Lamb has redeemed the sheep : Christ who was innocent has reconciled sinners to the Father. / Death and life have fought in a wonderful duel …
Honorary Member of Faculty (1986 – present),
Lecturing in Hermeneutics and Liturgical Studies,
St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College
Why Portray Christ as the Sun God?
Christ the Sun god? The very idea! Has your columnist been not a Sun was portrayed in Early Christian times as the Sun God, or (in Latin) Sol.
Deep under St Peter’s in Rome, below the floor level of the Constantinian basilica whose foundations lie beneath the present building, are to be found the remains of the graveyard on the Vatican Hill where St Peter was crucified, according to tradition upside down. Amongst the tombs is one of special interest, that known to archaeologists as Mausoleum M (of the Julii) or to most other people as the Chapel of the Fisherman. Of Pagan origin, the tomb was converted to Christian use. On its vaulted ceiling is an extensive third-century Christian mosaic depicting Christ as the Sun god driving the chariot of the Sun across the sky. Two white horses rear up in front of the charioteer, who holds an orb (a symbol of the cosmos and of kingship) in his left hand. Unfortunately the mosaic is damaged, but, judging from the angle of the arm, Christ is almost certainly giving a blessing with His missing right hand.
There is not the slightest doubt that the mosaic is Christian. The scene is placed within an octagonal space created by stems of the gape vine that forms the background of the mosaic. The vine is symbolic of Christ “I am the true vine and my Father is the vinedresser” (John 15:1 RSV) and, of course, of the Eucharist. The eight-sided frame to the scene is symbolic of the Eighth Day, the Lord’s Day, Sunday, the day of the Resurrection and the new creation in Christ, the day that signifies eternity. Rays emanating from the golden disk of the Sun, which creates a halo around the head of the charioteer, form the figure of a cross.
Any remaining doubts are set to rest by the existence of other scenes in the mosaic typical of early Christian iconography: Jonah and the whale, which Christ interprets (Matthew 12:40-41) as a type of His forthcoming passion and resurrection; the Good Shepherd carrying the lost sheep (John 10:14, Matthew
18:12); an angel hooking a fish. This last scene, which gives the tomb its popular name, is similar to many other fishing scenes in early Christian art. Such scenes probably derive from Christ’s words to the Apostles, “I will make you become fishers of men” (Mark 1:17). Portraying Christ as the pagan Sun god might seem strange, but the fact is that myths can legitimately be used as types (foreshadowings) of New Testament narratives (antitypes) in precisely the same way as Old Testament narratives. Mythological scenes that would have been understood typologically, such as Orpheus charming the animals (Christ subduing the passions), were particularly popular in early Byzantine times as church floor mosaics.
Converts from Paganism would be far more familiar with pagan mythology than with the Old Testament, and doubtless were helped by being able to see structural parallels between familiar myths and Gospel narratives or the mysteries of the Church. Further, in an age of persecution, mythological scenes with a double meaning would not have attracted the suspicions of the authorities.
There are a number of New Testament linkages between Christ and the Sun. In Matthew’s account of the transfiguration, Christ’s face is said to have “shone like the sun, and his garments became white as light” (17:2). Similarly, in the vision of the Son of Man in Revelation, Christ’s face is described as being “like the sun shining in full strength” (1:16), and His eyes “like a flame of fire” (1:14).
Then there is the “woman clothed with the sun” in Revelation 12:1-6. Although, literally understood, the woman signified the Church, she came to be understood as referring to the Theotokos, and the Sun with which she was clothed was taken as referring to Christ, whom she bore. One of the more common titles of Christ is that of the Sun of Righteousness. This derives from the prophecy of the Day of the Lord in Malachi 3 and 4: For behold, the day comes burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all the evil doers will be stubble … But for you who fear my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings (4:1-2). This passage was understood to be a prophecy of the coming of Christ. Christ declared Himself to be the light of the world (John 8:12). He is the radiance or reflection of the glory of the Father (Hebrews 1:3).
It comes as no surprise that, in addition to the metaphor of the Sun, the liturgy is replete with metaphors of light and fire. An extract from the prayer of the Great Blessing of the Waters at the Theophany will have to serve as a representative example: Today the Sun that never sets [i.e., Christ] has risen and the world is filled with splendour by the light of the Lord … Today Paradise has been opened to men and the Sun of Righteousness shines down upon us … Today the blinding mist of the world is dispersed by the Epiphany of our God … The waters saw Thee, O God, the waters saw Thee and were afraid. The Jordan turned back, seeing the fire of the Godhead descending bodily and entering its stream. (Mother Mary and Archimandrite Kallistos Ware, pp. 354-355.)
But there is solider evidence that our mosaic does indeed depict Christ as Christ to be the “Sun of Resurrection”, the “one begotten before the morning star, who gives life with his own rays”. (Since the planet Venus, as a morning “star”, rises on the eastern horizon shortly before sunrise, it has often been taken as symbolic of the Theotokos.) Clement goes further, actually describing Christ as a charioteer who brings eternal life with the dawn as He begins His ascent through the heavens in the chariot of the Sun: “he who rides over all creation is the ‘Sun of Righteousness’ who … has changed sunset into sunrise, and crucified death into life.” Quoted in R.M.Jensen, Art The pagans identified their Sun god, physical Sun, but for Christians the physical Sun is simply a symbol or metaphor for the Spiritual Sun, Christ, who as Pantocrator governs the whole universe from the centre of the spiritual supercelestial and supersensible heavens. (This is why the image of the Pantocrator is usually placed in the centre of the dome of an Orthodox church.) The Festal Menaion, London: Faber, 1977,Helios/Sol. Clement of Alexandria declares Understanding Early Christian, London: Routledge, 2000, pp. 42-43.)Helios/Sol, with the Light Comes from the East. The Scriptures and the liturgy aside, it was natural for Christians to associate the rising of the sun on the eastern horizon with the Resurrection of Christ. Further, it was believed that Christ would appear in the East at His Second Coming. According to Genesis the Garden of Eden was situated in the East, and so Christians symbolically placed the celestial Paradise in the East also. For these reasons, early Christians prayed facing East and were also buried facing East, so as to be ready to greet the risen Christ at the resurrection of the dead. Not surprisingly, churches were usually oriented to the East (and should be today where at all possible).
The Resurrection had occurred on the first day of the Jewish week, which commemorated the first day of the creation of Genesis. This led the Church from the beginning to adopt the first day of the week, rather than the last, the Sabbath, as the Lord’s Day (Revelation 1:10). On this day the local Christian community met for the regular celebration of the Eucharist and a common meal the day of the week the pagans dedicated to This coincidence established a firm link between the Sun and the Lord’s Day, the day of the new creation, the Eighth Day.
But another reason has been widely advanced as to why a strong association came to be established between Christ and the Sun. This is that the Church in the fourth-century chose December 25 as the feast of Christ’s Nativity in order to counteract the pagan festivities associated with the winter solstice, observed on the Julian calendar on this day. Nice theory, but is it correct? agape. This day also happened to be the Sol/Helios, Sunday.
Why Celebrate Christmas on December 25?
Although the actual history is very confusing and complicated, the gist of the story goes something like this. The birth of Christ had originally been commemorated along with the visit of the Magi, the baptism of Christ, and Christ’s first miracle at Cana in Galilee on January 6, the feast of Epiphany. These biblical events were seen as theophanic, as manifestations of God incarnate. Then in the fourth century a new feast was created on December 25 to celebrate the birth of Christ. In the East, commemoration of the visit of the Magi was also transferred, but in the West it became the principal event commemorated at Epiphany, being seen as Christ’s manifestation to the Gentiles. In the East, the Epiphany (or Theophany) became the feast of the baptism of Christ. The Armenian Church never did adopt the feast of Christmas on December 25, and to this day continues to commemorate the birth of Christ on January 6. The theory is that the Church promoted the Nativity of the Sun of Righteousness (pagan feast of the Nativity of the Unconquered Sun) solis invicti on December 25. The pagan solar feast had been instituted by the emperor Aurelian on 25th December 274 in order to promote a monotheistic cult of the Sun with the intention of unifying all existing cults (shades of Akhnaton). As such, the festival of the Nativity of the Unconquered Sun, the theory runs, would have been seen as particularly pernicious by the Church.
The trouble is, there appears to be no concrete evidence to support this theory. And, indeed, at least as early as 243, thirty one years before Aurelian’s creation of the festival of the Unconquered Sun, a direct connection had been made between the Malachi prophecy and the nativity of Christ. So, why was December 25 chosen?
In early times, there were two particularly widely canvassed dates for when the Crucifixion might have occurred, March 25 and April 6. But there was also a tradition that the conception of Christ, the Annunciation, occurred on the same day of the year as the Crucifixion. Allowing for gestation, the birth of Christ would have occurred nine months after His conception, on either December 25 or January 6. The commemoration of the birth of Christ on January 6 was in harmony with April 6. They moved in favour of March 25. Part of the argument in favour of March 25 for the conception was that it was the conventional date of the spring (we are talking about the Northern Hemisphere, of course) equinox, the beginning of the astronomical year. Surely the Word would have become flesh at the spring equinox.
But there was another reason for favouring the 25th of March. This was that it was believed (following the apocryphal Book of James) that the annunciation to Zechariah – John the Baptist’s dad – occurred on the Jewish Day of Atonement, which falls around the time of the autumn equinox. The conventional date for the equinox was September 24.
So, Conception of John on the autumn equinox, September 24 (though in the East the feast is celebrated on the 23rd); Nativity of John, nine months later, on the summer solstice, June 24; the Annunciation on the spring equinox, March 25, and the Nativity of Christ (who, according to Luke 1:26 was conceived six months after John) on the winter solstice, December 25. natalis solis iustitiae) in opposition to thenatalis) and of the Sun god, Mithras, which was also keptzeitgeist, however, Voilà!
The spiritual/liturgical year of the Sun of Righteousness, and of His Forerunner, John, is brought into perfect accord with the tropical (seasonal) year of the physical Sun. It all fits together; and so it should! Christmas in its origins is no pagan feast in disguise, though regrettably much energy has been expended in recent times in paganising it.
Honorary Member of Faculty (1986 – present),
Lecturing in Hermeneutics and Liturgical Studies,
St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College
Sunday of the Myrrh-Bearing Women
Two weeks after Easter – known in the liturgical calendar as the third Sunday of Pascha – the Orthodox Church celebrates two events, which are recounted in the Gospel reading designated for the Divine Liturgy of that day (Mark 15:43 – 16:8). Firstly, the day honours the action taken by Joseph of Arimathea, a highly respected Jewish Councillor, who had approached Pontius Pilate directly and asked for the body of the executed ‘King of the Jews’, so that he could bury it in his own tomb (Mk 15:43-47).
The Gospel passage also reveals the reason for this action – namely his conviction that, with Jesus, the kingdom of God had indeed been inaugurated. Secondly, the day pays tribute to the courageous initiative taken by the myrrh-bearing women (Mary Magdalene and Mary (mother) of James and Salome) to go to the tomb of Jesus early in the morning, so that they could anoint His all-pure body. However, as the story unfolds, to their utter astonishment, they would discover the tomb open and the corpse of Jesus no-where to be found (Mk 16:1-8). In this way, these women were to become the first witnesses of Christ’s resurrection. Before carefully examining these two separate events in detail, however, we briefly need to consider their connection, since they ostensibly deal with two sets of different characters.
Even though, these two distinct events, might, at first glance, appear seemingly unrelated – since the first refers to Joseph of Arimathea and the burial of Jesus whilst the latter with the myrrh-bearing women and their discovery that the tomb of Christ was empty – a closer reading shows their deep connection. Together, these two episodes came to form the principal core of what subsequently came to be known as the apostolic canon of faith (the kanovna pivstew” or regula fidei). The essential content of this apostolic proclamation of faith included the conviction that the historical person of Jesus of Nazareth, was really God’s only begotten Son in human form and that, as a matter of fact He had been crucified as part of God’s eternal plan of salvation for the world, dying, in this way, a horrific and humiliating death.
It must be remembered that the first followers of Jesus would have never expected such a shameful death of their long-awaited Jewish Messianic King. Secondly, beyond the death of Jesus the Messiah, the apostolic message further consisted in the belief that God, who was Jesus’ genuine Father, had raised Jesus from the dead on the third day, explaining, in this way, the reason why the tomb of Jesus was empty. Accordingly, in their juxtaposition, these two events summed up in a very succinct manner the entire message of Christianity – namely that Jesus had truly died and that His resurrection was therefore truly genuine.
Upon further reflection of the profound correlation between the two events described in the Gospel passage, one comes to appreciate the reason why the Evangelist brought them together the way he did. Since the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ constituted the most fundamental proclamation of the early Church , the Evangelist had to leave no shadow of doubt in the minds of his readers that the myrrh-bearing women had indeed gone to the correct tomb and that the resurrection was therefore real. It was precisely for this reason that St Mark’s Gospel noted, right at the end of the Joseph of Arimathea story that, whilst Joseph was busy performing the customary funerary rites on the body of Jesus, Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Jose were observing from afar, for a long time , where the body of Jesus had been laid (cf. Mk 15:47). This minor detail, which can easily be overlooked, is extremely important since it underscores the fact that the women had to be seen to know precisely the whereabouts of the tomb, if they were to visit it in the early hours of Sunday morning; especially in view of the fact that the disciples, out of fear, had gone into hiding. Therefore, the modern claim that the women went to the wrong tomb does not stand. Accordingly, the details of Christ’s burial related in the Gospel account served a transitional function, which reinforced the death of Jesus and prepared for the interpretation that the empty tomb episode was indeed testimony to the resurrection of Jesus. Having looked at the two events synthetically, we are now in a position to deal with them distinctly, and it is to this that we now turn.
JOSEPH OF ARIMATHEA – A NOBLE AND RESPECTED FOLLOWER OF JESUS
The first section of the Gospel reading (Mk 15:43-47) outlines the events that took place immediately after Christ’s suffering and crucifixion. The reader is specifically given an insight into the person responsible for organising the burial of the dead body of Jesus. The importance of this event can invariably be surmised from the fact that all four Gospels attest to it (cf. Mt 27:57; Mk 15:43; Lk 23:51 and Jn 19.38). We are told that a man, by the name of Joseph of Arimathea, sought the body of Jesus from Pilate, against all personal impending danger, so that he could give it a proper burial. In asking for the dead body of Jesus, Joseph could easily have been suspected, by Pilate, of being a member of the Jesus movement and this could have impacted negatively in any future advancement in the social, political and religious arena of his life. However, had not Joseph taken such an initiative, it is more than likely that the body of Jesus would have been thrown into a common grave and therefore not given the dignified burial befitting any human person, let alone the Son of God, the Theanthropos. Consequently, this reveals the boldness and courage of Joseph. Beyond this, however, the burial by Joseph affirmed, in an unambiguous way, that Jesus had truly died, so that no one could subsequently claim that He had not really been raised from the dead.
In reading the first section of the profoundly important pericope, one is initially struck at the short phrasal clauses portraying the actions of Joseph of Arimathea, which recreate, in a very effective way, the sense of haste that he must have experienced: Joseph of Arimathea… having come, being told… requested the body of Jesus (Mk 15:43)… and buying a linen cloth, taking Him down, He wrapped Him in the linen shroud and laid Him in the tomb. (Mk 15:46).
The seven verbs, in close succession, serve to heighten not only the angst that Joseph must have felt in having to request the body of a recently convicted ‘criminal’ according to Roman law (which, as noted above, may have even had negative consequences for his future career) but also in the fact that time was against him, since he had to make sure that the body was buried before sunset, in line with the Jewish customs of the time. According to Jewish sensibilities, a body would not be left hanging unattended throughout the night. In Deuteronomy, we read: When someone is convicted of a crime punishable by death and is executed, and you hang him on a tree, his corpse must not remain all night upon the tree; you shall bury him that same day, for anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse. (Deut 21:22-23).
Therefore, the Gospel description of the haste, with which Christ’s body had to be taken down from the Cross and buried before the commencement of the Sabbath, aligns itself totally with the Jewish customs of those times. Furthermore, it reveals the degree of danger that Joseph was putting himself in on the part of the Roman authorities for asking for the body, and on the part of his fellow Council members, who had condemned Jesus to death and handed Him over to Pilate.
One last point, with respect to the first section of the Gospel text, is that, contrary to popular belief, which suggests that the early social composition of the apostolic Church included only those from the poor and lower classes of society, the person of Joseph of Arimathea clearly indicates otherwise. The Gospel passage points out that Joseph was a respected and noble member of the Jewish Council, and that he was looking for the kingdom of God (Mk 15:43). Even though the Markan phrase ‘looking for the kingdom’ does not explicitly reveal that Joseph was a disciple of Jesus Christ, it does illustrate that he was, at the very least, a sympathiser of Jesus and His movement. Elaborating upon the Markan depiction, the Gospel according to St Matthew not only reveals Joseph’s financial wellbeing but also clearly specifies that he was a disciple of Jesus:
When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who was also a disciple of Jesus. (Mt 27:57).
Given this, it cannot be concluded, as is often done so, with respect to the sociological shape of the first followers of Jesus, that all were illiterate and poor. On the contrary, evidence, not only from Mark, but from the entire New Testament undeniably demonstrates that the early ecclesial communities basically reflected the broad cross-section of the demographic mix of each particular locality in which Christianity arose. And so, it included all classes of society: both rich and poor, learned and illiterate, Jews and Gentiles and so on. Having looked at the protagonist of Christ’s burial, we now turn our attention to those exceptional myrrh-bearing women, who were first to experience the joy of Christ’s resurrection (cf. Jn 20:1318).
In the second part, we will consider the actions specifically of the myrrh-bearing women and examine what lessons can be drawn for those of us living in the twenty-first century.
Academic Director and Senior Lecturer in Theology,
St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College
1. For example, Bultmann believed that Mk 16:1-8 was a later redaction, which awkwardly fit in with the preceding pericope. History of the Synoptic Tradition, trans. John Marsh (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1968), 284-87.
2. Cf. an early confession of faith as recorded by St Paul in 1 Cor 15:3-4: “For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.”
3. Cf. the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed: “And was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate and suffered and was buried, and rose on the third day according to the Scriptures.”
4. The use of the imperfect past tense in Greek by Mark to describe the women’s observing highlights that they were doing this for a long time, carefully noting the exact location of Christ’s resting place.
5. The reality of Christ’s death is also affirmed in Mk 15:45, which describes the body of Jesus in Greek as ‘ptw’ma [corpse], leaving no doubt that it was now a dead corpse.
The Joyous Feast of Christmas: Insights from Matthew 2:1-12
The joyous feast of Christmas, its astounding beauty and profound mystery can never, ultimately, be fully exhausted in any theological treatise since that festive event celebrates the birth, in the flesh, of the heavenly and eternal Son of God. That is to say, Christmas is a proclamation of the birth, as a man of the transcendent One, who, having been ‘begotten before all ages’, from His heavenly Father, nonetheless entered human history being incarnate ‘of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary’ without a human father. Furthermore, He became a ‘curse for us’ so as to redeem us from the ‘curse of the law’ (cf. Gal 3:13). Accordingly the message of Christmas could easily be summarised as a celebration marking the world’s salvation through the Son of God, who became a human being for our sake, so that through Him we might become divine sons of the living God by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in us. And as children of God, we too can claim to have become ‘heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ’ (Rom 8:17) having obtained the ultimate freedom – a freedom even from the bounds of decay and death (cf. Rom 8:19). It is precisely for this reason that Christmas is a matter of life and death since Christ’s birth bestows upon the world the possibility for the world to exist in the eternal mode of God, outside of time, space, corruption and death.
Exegesis of Matthew 2:1-12
The wonder and awe of Christmas is beautifully depicted in the Gospel reading assigned for the Divine Liturgy on Christmas day – that is, the account from Matthew 2:1-12. Divided into two parts, according to the location at which the events took place – that is, Jerusalem and Bethlehem – the biblical pericope recounts the coming of the Magi from the East to Jerusalem (Mt 2:1-8), enquiring to Herod about the whereabouts of Jesus, ‘the king of the Jews’ and their subsequent journey to Bethlehem to worship the vulnerable ‘child’ and offer Him the well-known gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh (Mt 2:9-12). Further reflecting on the structure of the passage, the two main parts of the narrative could alternatively be divided in terms of their description of the two encounters of the Magi with two ‘kings’ – the false kings of the Jews, Herod, and Jesus, the genuine royal babe in Bethlehem.
In more detail, the first part of the infancy drama depicts:
a) the journey of the Magi, coming from the East in order to find the newly born king of the Jews (Mt 2:1-2);
b) their meeting with Herod who gathered the chief priests and scribes so that he could learn where the Messiah was to be born (Mt 2:3-6); and lastly,
c) Herod’s instruction to the Magi to return back to Jerusalem so as to divulge to him where the new born ‘babe’ was so that he too could allegedly pay homage to Him (Mt 2:7-8).
The second section relates the events, which took place in Bethlehem, namely:
a) the Magi who followed the star to Bethlehem (Mt 2:9-10);
b) their joy and worship of the infant and
c) finally their dream not to return to Herod upon leaving Bethlehem (Mt 2:11-12) to go back to their homeland.
In the first section, the biblical account recounts that, upon hearing the news of the birth of Jesus, King Herod became ‘frightened’:
“When King Herod heard this, he was frightened [ἐταράχθη], and all Jerusalem with him” (Mt 2:3).
Very simply put, this verse tells the reader that not only Herod, but indeed all of Jerusalem’s citizens were troubled by the birth of Jesus, the royal babe. The first point to be made is that the English translation, of the original Greek word for ejtaravcqh, as ‘was frightened’ is far too weak. The Greek word used in this case signifies not only a state of fear, but a condition in which Herod became deeply disturbed and unsettled or totally shaken up and thrown into agitation and confusion at the news of the birth of Jesus. Now, as to the attitude of Herod (3), one is not surprised at such a reaction. Since he was the appointed king of the Jews, it is quite natural that he would have become profoundly terrified upon hearing the news of the birth of, what he would have considered to be, a rival king. Under no circumstance would Herod have tolerated homage being paid to another king as this would have been an indicator to him of his imminent demise. (4) Indeed in verse sixteen of the same chapter, the Gospel records not only the fury of the frenzied Herod at being tricked by the Magi, who had returned back to their homeland another way but also Herod’s subsequent ordering to have all innocent boys two years of age or under killed.
The question, however, which arises, and which incidentally often goes unnoticed is why ‘all Jerusalem’ was also deeply troubled. On the contrary, one would have anticipated an eager expectation on their part, since the Old Testament prophets had foretold the coming of a Messiah who would deliver the house of Israel from slavery and bondage. (5) However, as the prophet Isaiah had predicted, the coming of the Messiah would be greeted with indifference or spiritual complacency since the Jews had become entrenched in their deceitful ways opting for slavery with which they were all too familiar, instead of the greatest gift of freedom:
“They shall compensate for every garment that has been acquired by deceit and all clothing with restitution; and they shall be willing, even if they had been burnt with fire. For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given” (Is 9:5-6 LXX).
Unlike the wise men from Persia, who had been attracted by the birth of ‘Jesus, the king of the Jews’, the house of Israel did not even seek to ask where, let alone follow the Magi to find their newly born King. One would have expected, even purely out of self-interest and gain, that they would, at least follow so as to verify the truth of the suggestions made by the Magi since this newly born king was claimed to be their king – i.e., ‘the king of the Jews’ – who would rescue them from slavery. One can only imagine, from this, the extent to which they had been consumed by their daily, human and earthly affairs thereby remaining entirely apathetic. It is precisely for this reason that St Matthew openly displayed his vehemence against Israel and especially its religious establishment.
Reception of the Gentiles
Following on from this, it could be said that the most salient detail in this part of the narrative, is this strikingly contrasting reaction, to Jesus, between those residing in Jerusalem and the non-Israelites, in this case the Magi. Indeed it would be no overstatement to claim that the adoration of Jesus by the Gentiles, and His rejection by the house of Israel is at the foreground of the entire Matthean Gospel and culminates in the passion narrative. Whereas one would have expected the house of Israel to receive Jesus with open arms, since He was of Jewish lineage – indeed from Davidic progeny – the Gospel narrates an entirely opposite phenomenon. In this case, it was the foreigners who set off on a long and arduous journey to meet the One, for whom the Jewish nation had long-awaited, exhibiting, in this way an overtly keen receptivity to Jesus, one not evident amongst the Israelites. In setting up this deliberate contrast (synkrisis) between the Magi and the Jews, the Gospel emphasizes, in this way, not only the openness of God to all nations but also anticipates Jerusalem’s rejection and persecution of the Messiah in the Gospel (cf Mt 23:37-39).
Theologically speaking, the Gospel clearly states that the new-born king would embrace the entire world and be king for all, irrespective of class, gender or nationality. In this sense, not only is the propriety of the worship of the Son of God for all the nations clearly underscored but also the fact that God’s salvation is a universal one, a blessing for all nations and not just Israel, as indeed God had formerly promised to Abraham and the prophets. Thus, the Gospel beautifully captures them universalism of Christianity in the Magi who prefigure the inclusivity, on the part of God in His koinonia with the entire cosmos.
The gospel passage continues by noting Bethlehem of Judea as the birthplace of Jesus. That this was the commonly accepted belief regarding where Jesus, as the descendent of David, would be born is suggested throughout the New Testament Scriptures – one example being the following:
“Has not the scripture said that the Messiah is descended from David and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David lived?” (Jn 7:42).
Bethlehem, also known as Ephratah, and meaning ‘the house of bread’ was situated on a high fertile grey limestone ridge which had a summit at each end resembling an elongated ‘u’ shape figure. It was approximately ten kilometres to the south of Jerusalem and a considerably insignificant town. However its importance lay in its long history, especially since Bethlehem was the city from where David had come and it was from this city that God would send the great deliverer to His people, Jesus Christ, David’s greater son as suggested for example by the prophet Micah:
“But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days” (Mic 5:2).
According to the prophecy, the significance of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, even though His home was Nazareth, lies in that it fulfilled Micah’s prediction, thereby further substantiating Jesus’ royal Davidic descent and underscoring yet again that He was the awaited saving Messiah. That is to say, the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem served to identify him as the long-awaited Messiah who was of David’s line of progeny.
The Journey of the Magi
The journey of the Magi to Bethlehem is described as one which was divinely guided, in that the Magi’s quest to find Jesus was directed by a star – the very same star which they had formerly seen in the East upon setting off for their journey. This star, which now went before them, emphasized God’s continued providence not only for the commencement of the Magi’s journey but also for their entire sojourn. Furthermore, the star showed the cosmic importance of Jesus’ birth in that, even the stars – i.e., created nature in general – paid tribute to Jesus. In having experienced God’s continual presence throughout their journey, coupled with the fact that they were about to see the child, the Magi are depicted in the Gospel as being filled with joy:
“There, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy [ἐχάρησαν χαράν μεγάλην σφόδρα]” (Mt 2:9-10).
The joy of the Magi’s encounter with the new-born infant is emphatically expressed. Whereas St Matthew could have simply written that the Magi were joyous [simply with one word – ἐχάρησαν], he added three extra words – namely, χαράν μεγάλην σφόδρα [literally ‘they rejoiced with an exceedingly great joy] – to emphasize the extremely heightened sense of joy upon meeting the long-awaited Messiah. In finding the One whom they were seeking, they were at once delighted by, and captivated at, the glorious vision of heaven’s encounter with the world. Indeed, it is this festive air of the celebratory character of Christmas which is especially evident in the Liturgical tradition of the Orthodox Church..
The Joy of the Magi
The result of this overwhelming joy led them to ‘worship’ Jesus – an action exclusively reserved to the one God in the Old Testament Scriptures. Indeed the threefold repetition of the Greek word for ‘worship’ – προσκυνέω throughout the pericope (Mt 2:2, 8 & 11) – climaxing in verse eleven, reinforces the honour and worship rendered to the infant Jesus, thereby declaring in the strongest possible ways not only Jesus’ royalty but also His divinity. The profundity of this worship is heightened when one remains mindful of the fact that what the Magi saw were not majestic palaces decorated in marble, or a mother crowned like a queen with a diadem or still more, a royal babe clothed in purple and gold, and holding a sceptre. Instead, what they saw was a carpenter’s wife dressed in modest clothes; a ‘house’ (Mt 2:11) fit more for animals than people, and a new-born king dressed in swaddling clothes (cf Lk 2:12). Yet, their doxological attitude was able to transform the ‘strange mystery’ right before their eyes, so that they could now behold it in an entirely different light – as the very encounter and unity of the heavenly realm with that of the earthly. And so, at the sight of, what the world could call a ‘seemingly unworthy boy’ lay the grandeur and majesty of the divinity, the ineffable grandeur of God.
Both God and Human
Such a depiction by St Matthew, not only beautifully brought to the fore the reality of Christ’s divinity – portrayed in the Magi’s worship of the child Jesus, but also His humanity – the emphasis, for example on the ordinariness of the boy Jesus with His mother (cf Mt 2:11). That this Theanthropic Christological theme is evident throughout the pericope can be seen by at least two other references: firstly, the symbolism of the gifts bestowed by the Magi to Jesus and secondly, the choice of certain words employed by St Matthew which bring to light the divine-human ‘character’ of Christ. As to the specific gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh – itself the fulfilment of a prophecy from Isaiah (6) – they betray both the divinity and humanity of Jesus: gold symbolizing royalty; frankincense, divinity; and myrrh, a symbol of the mortification of human flesh, and therefore the child’s humanity. In a hymn sung at the Vespers Service of Christmas, (7) we note:
“When the Lord Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judah, Magi coming from the east worshipped God made man. And eagerly opening their treasures, they offered to Him precious gifts: refined gold, as to the king of the ages, and frankincense, as to the God of all; and myrrh they offered to the Immortal, as to one, three days dead. Come all you nations, and let us worship Him who was born to save our souls”.
Therefore in both cases we see that the gifts are an indication that Jesus was both perfect God and perfect man. The divine and human natures in the one person of the baby Jesus are further emphasised by St Matthew in certain words used to describe Jesus as the newborn king – especially in Mt 2:1-2 – the words in question being those which refer to ‘being born’ – gennavw and tivktw:
“In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born [tou dev ΔIhsou gennhqevnto] in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men… came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king [oJ tecqeiv” basileuv”] of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage” (Mt 2:1-2).
Since the English translation of the two different Greek verbal forms for ‘to be born’ is the same – even though in Greek they are different, ‘gennavw’ and ‘tivktw’ are used – there is accordingly nothing particularly instructive, from the English, which could show the divine-human qualities of Jesus. This gives rise to the following questions: why are there two different Greek words indicating the idea ‘to be born’? Is there any significance in this or are two different words employed purely for stylistic variation? Strictly speaking, the literal meaning of ‘gennavw’ is ‘I become the father of’ in the sense of begetting or engendering (8) whereas as ‘tivktw’ signifies the role of the woman who gives birth to or bears a child.
Without excluding the assertion to a linguistic variance outrightly, and aware of the dangers of drawing subsequent theological conclusions purely from linguistic data, a suggestion, which might explain this variance, but which is, in no way binding is the following: knowing, from both the Biblical and Patristic traditions, that Jesus was born in time from a human mother but without a human father, since He was ‘incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary’ as the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Symbol of Faith states, could not the first phrase in verse two, which states that ‘after Jesus was born’, using the Greek verb ‘gennhqevnto’ be an indication, that in the birth or incarnation of the Son of God, it was God the Father who willed that this take place by the Holy Spirit.(9) Understood in this way, it would be said that the verb ‘gennhqevnto’ in verse 2 is a reference to the role of God the Father in begetting the Son of God by the Holy Spirit. Consequently, the birth of the pre-eternal Son of God in history would rightly be understood from its Trinitarian perspective: that is, God the Father who willed that Jesus be born into the world by the Holy Spirit. This is in line with Orthodox Trinitarian theology, which would want to speak, at the same time, of the distinctive actions of the Father and the Holy Spirit in the incarnation of the historical person of Jesus Christ. And so, it is not unreasonable to suggest that the linguistic variance could serve to betray the divine and human natures of Jesus, the new born child.
From all the above it can be concluded that the joy and marvellous wonder of Christmas lies in that the wall of partition dividing heaven and earth was destroyed once and for all, thereby opening up and inaugurating God’s heavenly kingdom within the world. That is, in becoming a human being, Jesus Christ bestowed upon the human person the possibility of becoming ‘god’ by grace (2Pt 1:4). Indeed, in the birth of Jesus Christ, the mysterious wonder of the divine Godhead was decisively revealed and experienced giving the world a vision of the invisible, ineffable and indescribable God. That is, bearing the express image of the Father (cf Heb 1:3), Jesus Christ’s birth in human history, bestowed upon the entire cosmos the possibility of beholding the grandeur of God. And this ‘strange paradox’ of God becoming human was not an event which concerned only the past, but is significant for the present, and indeed for the future of the world, since, by it, the whole of the created human nature was taken out of the narrow and death-begetting boundaries of isolation and inspired with the optimism of deification by grace. It is this unprecedented joy of God who is now Emmanuel, that is, God with us – and indeed forever with us – that the feast of Christmas invites all faithful to experience.
Academic Director and Senior Lecturer in Theology,
St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College
1. Even though too much is not known about the Magi, it can be said that they were members of a Persian priestly class whose knowledge of astronomy gave them insights unknown to other nations. Their Persian origin however have not gone unquestioned – for example St Justin Martyr, an early Christian apologist believed that the Magi were from Arabia (Dial. 77.4; 78.1; 106,4). Clement of Alexandria believed that they were from Persia (Strom. 22.214.171.124). In the Liturgical tradition they are identified as wise men coming from Persia. In the early Middle Ages, in the West the names of the Magi came to be identified as follows: Casper, Melchior and Balthasar.
2. Cf the King James version which reads: “When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him” (Mt 2:3). .
3. Herod, the most influential member of an Idumean family, had deeply immersed himself in Jewish affairs of the first century B.C. and A.D., and had been appointed King of the Jews by the Roman Senate
in 40 B.C. He was a skilful and masterful politician who was able to gain control of Jerusalem in 37 B.C. by playing off Roman and Jewish factions against each other. He was known for his brutality, even to members of his own family. Beyond the Biblical evidence pointing to the cruelty of Herod, much can be learnt from the historian Josephus in Ant. 14-18.
4. Interestingly, the Patristic tradition understood the Egyptian Pharaoh who sought to kill Moses, ‘the first redeemer’ as a typology of Herod’s attempt to kill Jesus, the second Redeemer.
5. Indeed from this pericope, the words ‘king’ and ‘Messiah’ are used interchangeably signifying Jesus’ Messianic role.
6. Cf. Is 60:6-7: “A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the LORD. All the flocks of Kedar shall be gathered to you, the rams of Nebaioth shall minister to you; they shall be acceptable on my altar, and I will glorify my glorious house”.
7. Lity, Vespers of Christmas.
8. Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 2nd ed. (Chicago: CUP, 1958), 155.
9. Cf. also the use of the verb ‘gennavw’ in the first chapter of Matthew’s Gospel which lists the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah. Also cf. the Christmas Katavasia of the third ode: “To the Son who was begotten of the Father [ejk Patrov” gennhqevnti] without change before all ages, and in the last times was without seed made flesh of the Virgin…”.