Holy Week and Easter 2014


The traditions associated with Holy Week and Easter lie at the heart of the Christian faith dealing, as they do, with the character of Jesus, the circumstances of his death and the affirmation that not even death could prevent the successful outcome of the divine program (the good news of God’s alternative empire) which Christians believe to have been expressed (indeed, embodied) in and through his words and actions.

There are doubtless historical elements in all this, however inaccessible to us after two thousand years, and no matter how variously weighted by those studying them. There is also a powerful mythology at work here, as the imagination of faith sees through and beyond the historical details to catch a glimpse of a transforming reality; a faith to live by.

Our primary access to both the history of Jesus and the myth of Jesus is through story, and it is that story which Christian communities around the world will recount all over this week, this ‘Holy Week’. Like the Native American storyteller quoted in Marcus Borg, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time (p. 50) we may find ourselves saying:

Now I don’t know if it happened this way or not,
but I know this story is true.

For many people, their personal and communal preparations for Easter are deeply impacted by the publication of some new discovery, or a controversial new theory, relating to Christian origins. It is, I suppose, a perverse kind of compliment to the enduring influence of Christianity even in our largely secular societies that the media sees an opportunity to make an impact (increase viewers, and multiply advertising revenues) by such tactics. In 2006 it was the Gospel of Judas story, in 2007 the so-called Jesus Tomb story, and in 2011 the anticipated Paschal media beat up was a claim to have two of the nails used to crucify Jesus. In 2013 the election of a new pope seem to exhaust the media interest in religion for a while, but this year we have the Noah film.

These regular media events timed for release around Easter reinforce the wisdom of the native story tellers who know the truth power of a story lies in its capacity to speak the truth to the present, not the accuracy of its description of the past or its projection of the future.

At the very least, we know that the earliest Christians found story telling a powerful way to develop and test their theology. The different stories created by those ancient Christian faith communities both encapsulated what they were thinking and also extended their thoughts in new directions. The contest of sacred stories reflects a contest of theologies.

Our modern question (But did it happen that way?) is ultimately not as urgent, nor its answer so satisfying, as the ancient question: What truth is in this story?


Palm Sunday

Palm Sunday marks the transition from the observance of Lent to the beginning of Holy Week. Its themes are not restricted to those of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, but extend through to the trial and execution of Jesus. With the solemn reading of the Passion at the Gospel, there is a vast amount of biblical text to process. The passion narrative is the most history-like part of the Gospel tradition. In addition, here we seem to have a connected and coherent series of events from the Last Supper through to the arrest in the garden and then the trials and the execution itself.

  • See Passion Narrative for a list of the major episodes with links to texts and discussion.

NT scholarship in the mid-20C was persuaded that the Passion Narrative was the first part of the Gospel tradition to take definite shape. The events were so central to the apostolic preaching (the “kerygma”) that some account of how Christians came to believe in a crucified Messiah would have had to be offered to Jews and Greeks alike.

More recent scholarship has questioned this assumption. Even if the story of Jesus’ betrayal and death was fashioned in the 40s, as Crossan suggests, it is no longer seen as a simple historical narrative. In particular, the relationship between the OT prophecies and the Gospel narrative has been reconsidered. As a result, while the historicity of the core event (Jesus crucified) is affirmed, the political and theological agenda of the Gospel narratives has been increasingly recognized. Key themes running through the passion narrative include:

  • Jesus as an heroic figure familiar to a Greek world
  • Jesus as an innocent victim familiar from Jewish tradition
  • “according to the Scriptures” as a sign of divine providence
  • transfer of responsibility for Jesus’ death from Rome to the Jews
  • claims to apostolic authority by those who were witnesses to the resurrection


Maundy Thursday

The readings for Thursday in Holy Week focus on the character of the Lord’s Supper:

  • a Christian ritual with paschal overtones
  • a commemoration of the Last Supper
  • a sacrament that celebrates our calling as disciples of the Master

First Reading: Exodus 12:1-4, (5-10), 11-14

The first reading draws on that portion of the exodus tradition that prescribes the rules for the future observance of Passover. While clearly a later projection back into the exodus narrative, the association of each and every Passover meal with the mythic events of great escape from Egypt is an essential element of the ritual. The participants think of themselves as having been present on the night of salvation, and as having been the direct recipients of divine grace.

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 11:23-26

Paul’s account of the institution of the Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians 11 is our earliest extant reference to the Eucharist. Having been composed by Paul in the mid-50s—and seemingly drawing on even older traditions—this version of the Last Supper story predates the Gospel accounts by at least two decades (in the case of Mark) and perhaps by 60 years or more (in the case of Luke-Acts).

As we celebrate Eucharist in our contemporary Christian communities we are participating in a defining Christian ritual that can be traced back to within 20 years of Jesus’ death in 30 CE. In this ritual—which seems only to be known to the Pauline tradition within the New Testament writings—we can see the “Jesus movement” undergoing a profound transition to become the “Christ cult.”

Within the emerging Christian communities associated with Paul, Jesus has already become a divine figure whose devotees gather as a distinctive community (a collegium, or voluntary religious association). The “supper of the Lord” was at the centre of their religious identity, and in those ancient meals we see the beginnings of the Christian Eucharist.

Gospel: John 13:1-17, 31b-35

The gospel portions have been carefully selected to focus on the theme of loving service to one another:

  • The initial set of verses presents the story of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet in an act of “servant leadership” intended to inspire a change within the group dynamics of Jesus’ followers. In a totally different cultural setting, where feet rarely get soiled, the practical relevance of this gesture passes us by. In our culture, we might imagine Jesus stacking the dishwasher at the end of a pleasant evening, or even washing the dishes by hand over the protests of his embarrassed hosts.
  • The second set of verses presents us with the “great commandment”—seemingly the signature of Christianity identity within the Johannine community, as it seems also to be attested in the Johannine letters.


Good Friday

The traditional phrase from the creed—crucified under Pontius Pilate—anchors the Jesus tradition in a specific event, involving at least some historical figures known to us (Pontius Pilate the Roman procurator of Judea, Caiaphas the Jewish high priest, Herod Antipas), from a particular place. This is ground zero for the Jesus tradition, and an event of even more certainty than the baptism of Jesus by John. Here we stand on solid ground. Here we stand on holy ground. Here we seek to understand the significance of Jesus for us today.

These issues are explored in chapter 8 of Jesus Then and Jesus Now: Looking for Jesus, Finding Ourselves, and there is an earlier version of that material available online.

The Death of Jesus in the Jesus Database

  • 005 Crucifixion of Jesus: (1) 1 Cor 15:3b; (2a) Gos. Pet. 4:10-5:16,18-20; 6:22; (2b) Mark 15:22-38 = Matt 27:33-51a = Luke 23:32-46; (2c) John 19:17b-25a,28-36; (3) Barn. 7:3-5; (4a) 1 Clem. 16:3-4 (=Isaiah 53:1-12); (4b) 1 Clem. 16.15-16 (=Psalm 22:6-8); (5a) Ign. Mag. 11; (5b) Ign. Trall. 9:1b; (5c) Ign. Smyrn. 1.2.
  • 180 Pilates Questions:(1a) Gos. Pet. pre-1:1 from later 3:6,9 (Son of God) & 3:7; 4:11 (King of Israel), (1b) Mark 15:1-5 = Matt 27:1-2,11-14 = Luke 23:1-5, (1c) John 18:28-38;19:4-16;
  • 181 The People Repent: (1a) Gos. Pet. 7:25(!); 8:28, 1b) Luke 23:48;
  • 182 Jesus Tomb Guarded: (1a) Gos. Pet. 8:29-33, (1b) Matt 27:62-66, (1c) Gos. Naz. 22;
  • 183 Crowds Visit Tomb: (1) Gos. Pet. 9:34;
  • 184 Transfiguration of Jesus: (1a) Gos. Pet. 9:35-10:40, (1b) Mark 9:2-10 = Matt 17:1-9 = Luke 9:28-36, (1c) 2 Pet 1:17-18;
  • 185 The Guards Report: (1) Gos. Pet. 11:45-49, (1b) Matt 28:11-15;
  • 186 Apostolic Grief: (1) Gos. Pet. 7:26-27; 14:58-59
  • 272 Release of Barabbas: (1a) Mark 15:6-15 = Matt 27:15-23,26 = Luke 23:18-25, (1b) John 18:39-40, (1c) Acts 3:13-14, (1d) Gos. Naz. 20;
  • 273 Simon of Cyrene: (1a) Mark 15:20b-21 = Matt 27:31b-32 = Luke 23:26, (1b!) John 19:17a;
  • 274 Women at the Crucifixion: (1a) Mark 15:40-41 = Matt 27:55-56 = Luke 23:49, (1b) John 19: 25b-27.


Holy Saturday

By definition, the traditions at the centre of Holy Saturday are not elements from the inventory of historical Jesus materials. However, the idea that Jesus in some sense raided Hell (the traditional “harrowing of Hades”) is perhaps an early Christian way of expressing the resurrection belief within classic Jewish terms.

Crossan discusses the “Harrowing of Hell” briefly [Historical Jesus, 387-89] as part of his treatment of the death and burial traditions. He notes that the harrowing of Hades was a major theological issue in early Jewish Christianity since it was “in Sheol, Hades, or Hell, that the souls of holy and righteous, persecuted and martyred Jews awaited their final and promised deliverance.” In the account of Jesus’ suffering, his death was necessary both as an historical fact that could not be avoided and as a theological device to allow Jesus to enter the house of “those that slept,” the dead.

While barely mentioned in the NT and soon marginalized as an embarrassment to developing classical theology, the harrowing of hell remains an important theme in Eastern iconography. It also survives as the brief statement within the Creed: “he descended into Hell.”

Crossan suggests four reasons for this theological theme being pushed to boundaries of Christian belief:

1. It was an intensely Jewish theme, and the Christians were increasingly non-Jewish in character.

2. It was intensely mythological, and involved three related motifs: “a deception in which the demons were allowed to crucify Jesus not knowing who he was; a descent that was the actual reason for his death and burial; and a despoiling whereby Jesus, as Son of God broke open the prison of Hell and released both himself and all the righteous who had preceded him there.”

3. It created many theological problems as Christianity developed: was repentance required of them? were they baptized? etc

4. If Jesus was manifested to the dead and led them in triumph directly to heaven how was it possible for him also to be manifested to the apostles between resurrection and ascension? What of their mandate from the risen Jesus? Crossan notes how the tradition sought to resolve that dilemma in the Shepherd of Hermes, Similitude 9.


Easter Day

The following material is comprised of excerpts (from pp. 141–42) in chapter 10 (“Easter People” in Jesus Then & Jesus Now: Looking for Jesus, Finding Ourselves (Melbourne: Mosaic Press / Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2014).

One of the ways in which the resurrection of Jesus is both ‘good news’ and transformative is the value it assigns to life rather than to martyrdom. At a time when religious extremists have both the inclination and the capacity to destroy life for the sake of their beliefs, the resurrection offers an opposing paradigm of faithfulness: Choose life! God is not in the business of recruiting martyrs for the cause, but she is in the business of creating life, blessing life, sustaining life, and restoring life.

How might the world be transformed if the followers of Jesus gained a reputation as a pro-life movement that would never use violence to achieve its goals, never cause harm to any of the ‘little ones’ in its care, never glorify suffering, never seek martyrdom, and would always ‘turn the other cheek’ when abused? If such a description of Christianity seems improbable, that is itself a sad index of how far Christianity has moved away from the legacy of Jesus.

A reclaimed resurrection faith will focus on more than individual human destinies after death. An unsuspected mystery of the faith lurks like leaven in the eucharistic acclamations: “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.” That leaven has not yet risen to transform the whole loaf, but perhaps the time is coming. This acclamation proclaims the mystery of the faith, but its significance is for the most part missed. The Christ who has died, who is risen, and who will come again, is not simply Jesus of Nazareth, but the whole of God’s transformed creation.

This resurrected and much beloved ‘Son’ is not simply Jesus, but all of us—together. Not just homo sapiens, let alone homo christiani—but all of creation. This is not simply a recurrence of universalism, but a reclaiming of Paul’s vision of cosmic salvation extending to the whole of creation.

Understood this way, the resurrection of Jesus is not only the action of a generous and faithful God at the very heart of life, but also the charter for a Christian mission in the global village. The purpose of Christianity is not to gain adherents from other spiritual communities, but to pray and work for the coming of God’s kingdom, for the resurrection of all creation, for the day of cosmic liberation. This is a vision that can shape the way people of Christian faith understand God, the world, and ourselves. It is a broad and generous vision. It offers a basis for lives that are holy and authentic. It might even allow us to form and sustain communities of faith where the ‘dangerous’ memory of Jesus is kept alive, and where “the future of what Jesus started is being lived out.”

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Lent 6A | Palm Sunday (13 April 2014)



Liturgy of the Palms
Matthew 21:1-11 (Year A)
Mark 11:1-11 or John 12:12-16 (Year B)
Luke 19:28-40 (Year C)
Liturgy of the Passion
Hebrew Scriptures: Isaiah 50:4-9a & Psalm 31:9-16
The Apostle: Phil 2:5-11
The Gospel:
Matthew 26:14-27:66 or Matthew 27:11-54 (Year A)
Mark 14:1-15:47 or Mark 15:1-39,(40-47) (Year B)
Luke 22:14-23:56 or Luke 23:1-49 (Year C)

The readings shown here are from the RCL list, and some passages may slightly in other listings.


This Sunday marks the transition from the observance of Lent to the beginning of Holy Week. Its themes are not restricted to those of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, but extend through to the trial and execution of Jesus. With the solemn reading of the Passion at the Gospel, there is a vast amount of biblical text to process.

The passion narrative is the most history-like part of the Gospel tradition. Here we are dealing with political events, in a familiar place and involving historical figures known to us. Further, we are dealing with perhaps the most secure historical fact of the entire Jesus tradition, namely his crucifixion. In addition, here we seem to have a connected and coherent series of events from the Last Supper through to the arrest in the garden and then the trials and the execution itself.

  • See Passion Narrative for a list of the major episodes with links to texts and discussion.

The international controversy surrounding the release of Mel Gibson’s film, The Passion of the Christ in 2004 made regular worshippers as well as the wider community more conscious of the personal and historical dimensions of Jesus’ trial and execution. Regardless of our views on that particular film and its treatment of the passion story, the interest shown in the film may deepen our appreciation of Palm Sunday and Holy Week.

NT scholarship in the mid-20C was persuaded that the Passion Narrative was the first part of the Gospel tradition to take definite shape. The events were so central to the apostolic preaching (the “kerygma”) that some account of how Christians came to believe in a crucified Messiah would have had to be offered to Jews and Greeks alike.

More recent scholarship has questioned this assumption. Even if the story of Jesus’ betrayal and death was fashioned in the 40s, as Crossan suggests, it is no longer seen as a simple historical narrative. In particular, the relationship between the OT prophecies and the Gospel narrative has been reconsidered.

As a result, while the historicity of the core event (Jesus crucified) is affirmed, the political and theological agenda of the Gospel narratives has been increasingly recognized.

Key themes running through the passion narrative include:

  • Jesus as an heroic figure familiar to a Greek world
  • Jesus as an innocent victim familiar from Jewish tradition
  • “according to the Scriptures” as a sign of divine providence
  • transfer of responsibility for Jesus’ death from Rome to the Jews
  • claims to apostolic authority by those who were witnesses to the resurrection

The online resources gathered in this site may be helpful when thinking about these traditions, along with the following selected perspectives.


The Greek hero myth

The pervasive Greek hero myth seems to have provided GMark with a way of presenting the Jesus story to people familiar with Greek culture. The classic forms of the hero myth, as outlined by Gregory Riley in One Jesus, Many Christs (1997:39ff), may be paraphrased as follows. The points of contact with the familiar story of Jesus are immediately evident.

The Greek hero was properly the offspring of divine and human parents: most often a virgin human mother and a male god. As offspring of divine-human liaisons they were especially gifted: prowess, or strength, or beauty, or wisdom. The hero was a kind of bridge between divine and human worlds, and destined to be a central player in divine plan to control balance of justice (diké) among humans. As the one chosen by fate for such a destiny, the hero was also something of a victim to fate: constrained by something beyond personal control. Under these circumstances the willing choice to die for principle and with honor could be a pivotal heroic event. These gifted yet tragic heroes often found they had powerful enemies: sometimes a divine parent (or a jealous divine rival) may turn against the hero. In any case, success and popularity could provoke divine envy. Closer to home, however, were the major human opponents—usually rulers and kings with the hero cast as a subversive element boldly refusing the unjust dictates of those in authority. In the stories of the hero, ruler and city can suffer for their unjust treatment of the innocent hero. Inevitably, the hero faces a test of character that provides an opportunity to reveal his true colors. Not all heroes pass the test, but those who do can find that suffering results in learning. At times the hero is something of a bait in a cosmic trap, with his own suffering and death serving as bait to catch and destroy the wicked. In the Greek tradition, heroes often face an early death: painful and in the prime of life. While skepticism about an afterlife was typical of the Greek outlook, heroes were assured a place of honor after death. They would inherit immortality and claim their place in the Elysian Fields. The dead hero could then become an immortal protector of the living, having secured an ironic victory in his untimely and undeserved death. After such a faithful death the hero could protect his own devotees as they also faced the test of living faithfully in a dangerous world. These dead heroes offered protection and help in dire circumstances, with the cult of the heroes being most widespread religious activity in ancient world.

It is immediately clear that the early Christian accounts of Jesus fit well with this common structure of meaning in the Hellenistic world. Those accounts would have resonated with the ancient archetype of The Hero. Indeed, Jesus himself would have been affected to some degree at least by such models of perfection. While the ancient Jewish biblical tradition can be assumed as the major influence upon Jesus and the earliest Christian storytellers, we cannot exclude the possibility that he was familiar with this widely-attested mythic pattern. At the same time, it is more likely that the early Christian storytellers chose to cast Jesus into this role, rather than the traditional assumption that Jesus is described this way because that was the historical reality.

The Innocent Victim

Jewish traditions about the suffering of the innocent victim would also have played their part in shaping Jesus’s own mind set and in determining how Christians would later choose to describe him.

This pattern is best known to many people these days from the stories of Joseph (Genesis 37-50) or perhaps Daniel in the lions’ den (Daniel 6), but in the 1C the Wisdom of Solomon 2:12-5:23 offered a powerful outline of the innocent victim who suffers at the hands of the wicked. When reading that passage, it is not hard to imagine a Jewish-Christian audience hearing it as a description of Jesus.

Burton L. Mack (A Myth of Innocence, 1988:267) has taken up the work done by George W.E. Nickelsburg on the innocent victim tradition in second Temple Judaism and applied it to Mark’s Gospel. The basic elements of this Jewish myth of the innocent victim may be paraphrased as follows:

After an introduction to the characters, there is some act by the victim that provokes the unjustified hostility of the wicked and results in them engaging in a conspiracy to eliminate this threat to their power. When the decision is made to dispose of this troublesome opponent, the response by the victim is one of trust and obedience to the divine requirements. A false accusation is brought against the innocent person, resulting in a trial and condemnation. The innocent can protest in vain (when the accusation is false) and pray for deliverance, but must still suffer the ordeal imposed on them by the unjust rulers. The reaction of others to the unjust treatment of the victim may also be noted. In the end, of course, the victim is rescued in some way and vindicated. This vindication can involve some form of exaltation to a place of substantial dignity and power, much to the shame of the unjust perpetrators. the newly invested judge/ruler is acclaimed by the faithful, while those who had mistreated him fear for their own fates before receiving their deserved punishment.

This indigenous Jewish tradition about the innocent victim may offer one way to interpret the early Christian claim that Jesus’ suffering and exaltation were “according to the Scriptures.” We may be mistaken to look for texts that predict the suffering of the Messiah. Instead, perhaps we need to read the story of Jesus through the lens of the suffering Righteous One.

The words placed on the lips of Peter by the author of Luke-Acts show just such a way of speaking about Jesus’ death:

When Peter saw it, he addressed the people, “You Israelites, why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we had made him walk? The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our ancestors has glorified his servant Jesus, whom you handed over and rejected in the presence of Pilate, though he had decided to release him. But you rejected the Holy and Righteous One and asked to have a murderer given to you, and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses. [Acts 3:12-15]


Biblical Interpretation

Jewish midrash, and particularly the technique of pesher interpretation, may provide a clue as to how such classic models from both Greek and Jewish sources could be applied to Jesus. The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls has given us many examples of how the ancient sacred writings were read during the time of Jesus and the first Christians. Operating from the assumption that the texts were intended to provide clues for the reader to identify God’s purposes in the present time, details in the older writings were reinterpreted as cryptic references to current events and persons.

What is true of isolated lines from the Psalms is also true of extended passages such as Psalm 22 (widely seen until recently as an awesome prediction of Jesus’ crucifixion rather than as the quarry from which Mark derived the details for his passion narrative) or Isaiah — both of which feature in this week’s lectionaries.


The Letters of Paul

Paul’s own writings offer an opportunity to approach the traditions of Jesus’ death from another perspective. While the impact of the previous considerations has been to deconstruct the historicity of the Gospel accounts, the letters of Paul allow us to see how someone writing before any of the Gospels were composed could talk about the death of Jesus.

Several important passages are to be found in 1 Corinthians. In 1 Cor 11, Paul refers to the last supper as an event on the night that Jesus was betrayed and to the institution of the “Supper of the Lord.” Later, in ch. 15, Paul quotes a summary of the core events concerning Jesus:

Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you–unless you have come to believe in vain. 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, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. (1Cor 15:1-7)

Elsewhere in that same letter we find Paul extolling the cross as the central theme of the gospel that he proclaims:

For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. (1Cor 1:18-24)

It is clear that Paul has an interpretation of Jesus that is centered around his death. While the later Gospel narratives might present Jesus’ life and death in heroic terms, and eulogize him as the innocent victim of corrupt rulers, those are not the notes struck by Paul. Instead, Paul is more inclined to speak of Jesus’ death as a sacrificial demonstration of ultimate trust (pistis) by Jesus in God — a trust that allows God to be forgiving to everyone, just as Abraham’s legendary trust had resulted in covenant blessings for the Jewish people.

Elizabeth A. Johnson

Johnson offers a fresh interpretation of the death of Jesus in her essay, “The Word was Made Flesh and Dwelt Among Us: Jesus Research and Christian Faith.” Her views are perhaps captured in this provocative paragraph:

To put it simply, Jesus, far from being a masochist, came not to die but to live and to help others live in the joy of the divine love. To put it boldly, God the Creator and Lover of the human race did not need Jesus’ death as an act of atonement but wanted him to flourish in his ministry of the coming reign of God. Human sin thwarted this divine desire yet did not defeat it. (p. 158)

See Jesus Research and Christian Faith for additional notes and extracts from Johnson’s essay.

See The Once and Future Bible: Easter for a more detailed set of online resources relating to the death of Jesus and the significance of the resurrection tradition in earliest Christianity.

For a more recent discussion see the following chapters from Jesus Then & Jesus Now:

  • ch. 8: Crucified under Pontius Pilate
  • ch. 10: Easter People


Liturgies and Prayers

For liturgies and sermons each week, shaped by a progressive theology, check Rex Hunt’s web site

Other recommended sites include:

Music Suggestions

See the following sites for recommendations from a variety of contemporary genre:

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Lent 5A (6 April 2014)



  • Ezekiel 37:1-14 & Psalm 130
  • Romans 8:6-11
  • John 11:1-45

Life beyond Death: Questions and Assumptions

It is helpful to be clear in our own minds about what kinds of things we consider possible, credible or plausible. For many modern people, the very idea of a dead person being revived to life is implausible — unless the outcome is achieved through sophisticated high technology.

Part of the problem lies in the definition of “death” and there is a whole body of literature dealing with the ethical questions about that point. How dead does one have to be in order to be harvested as a source for organ transplants? Or to have one’s remains released for burial? Our precise technologies have not provided simple certainty in such human questions. They may even have exacerbated the dilemma since we now appreciate the subtle line between conscious life and death.

Another preliminary issue to consider concerns the allowance we make for our own religious texts but deny to other texts. It is not reasonable to exclude all non-Christian stories of resurrection, while affirming all biblical accounts. Other factors are at play in such decisions, and they need to be identified and validated.

We also need to be clear about what precisely are we considering in the case of stories of dead persons restored to life? What is at stake is not the philosophical and religious question of whether human existence continues beyound biological death, but rather whether any individuals have returned to this life after having actually died?

The question before us this week is historical rather than philosophical, although a negative view on the possibility of resurrection will naturally exclude the historical question even being asked.

John P. Meier limits the questions even further. He sets aside both the philosophical questions and the major historical question (Did Jesus raise dead persons back to life?) so that he can focus on a much more circumscribed question:

Whatever the actual explanation, all that a historical investigation like ours can hope to ask (and perhaps decide) is whether a particular story of Jesus’ raising a person from the dead is purely a creation of the early church or whether it goes back to some event — whatever that may have been — in the public ministry. If the story does go back in some way to Jesus’ ministry, then the possibility arises that a belief that Jesus raised the dead already existed among his disciples during his lifetime. That is the extent of what historical-critical research, operating at a distance of 1900 years from the creation of these Gospel stories, can hope to establish. [A Marginal Jew. II, 775]

In the ancient societies of biblical times, the capacity to raise even the dead back to life seems to have been a proverbial attribute of God. There are numerous texts that attribute this amazing power to God. If not the attribute beyond all others, it is at least on a par with such fundamental divine attributes as holiness and life-giver. It is God’s omnipotence which is at stake when the Bible describes God as the one who raises the dead to life.

Such an expression of divine goodness to the faithful dead was expected as a blessing of the messianic age. In 2 Maccabees 12:39-45 the new Jewish ruler, Judas Maccabeus, undertakes public rites of moruning for the dead because of his expectation that God will raise them at the last day:

On the next day, as had now become necessary, Judas and his men went to take up the bodies of the fallen and to bring them back to lie with their kindred in the sepulchres of their ancestors. Then under the tunic of each one of the dead they found sacred tokens of the idols of Jamnia, which the law forbids the Jews to wear. And it became clear to all that this was the reason these men had fallen. So they all blessed the ways of the Lord, the righteous judge, who reveals the things that are hidden; and they turned to supplication, praying that the sin that had been committed might be wholly blotted out. The noble Judas exhorted the people to keep themselves free from sin, for they had seen with their own eyes what had happened as the result of the sin of those who had fallen. He also took up a collection, man by man, to the amount of two thousand drachmas of silver, and sent it to Jerusalem to provide for a sin offering. In doing this he acted very well and honorably, taking account of the resurrection. For if he were not expecting that those who had fallen would rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead. But if he was looking to the splendid reward that is laid up for those who fall asleep in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Therefore he made atonement for the dead, so that they might be delivered from their sin.

An Inventory of Raised Persons?

The Bible actually has a very limited list of persons who are said to have been raised from the dead. Apart from Jesus, they are all presumed to have subsequently experienced another normal human death experience from which they did not return:

  • Elijah raises dead son of a widow at Zarepath (1 Kings 17:17-24)
  • Elisha raises dead son of pious woman from Shunem (2 Kings 4:18-37)
  • Accidental contact with the bones of the virtuous Elisha raise a dead man to life (2 Kings 13:20-21)
  • John the Baptist was falsely rumoured to have come back as Jesus (Mark 6:14)
  • Jesus raises the daughter of Jairus (Mark 5:21-24,35-43 = Matt 9:18-19, 23-26 = Luke 8:40-42, 49-56)
  • Jesus raised dead son of a widow from Nain (Luke 7:11-17)
  • Jesus raised Lazarus at Bethany after he had been dead four days (John 11:1-45)
  • The faithful dead at time of Jesus’ death (Matthew 27:53)
  • Peter raises Tabitha from death (Acts 9:36-43)
  • Paul restores Eutychus to life after an accidental death (Acts 20:9-12)
  • Summary statement: Women received their dead by resurrection … (Hebrews 11:35)

The idea of a dead person being restored to life was also a common theme in pagan antiquity, although more educated cirlces tended to treat specific cases with suspicion. In the case of such a feared character as Nero, the belief that he had returned even from Hades to wreak further devastation on the world caused many Neronic pretenders to attract popular followings. The Nero redivivus myth played a significant part in the development of the early Antichrist myth.

The following extract from Richard Carrier, Was Christianity Too Improbable to be False? provides a convenient summary of the hold such ideas had in the Hellenistic world:

James Holding’s next argument is that pagans would not buy a physical resurrection of the flesh. “Indeed,” he says “among the pagans, resurrection was deemed impossible.” Of course, this would be no problem for the mission to the Jews, since a great many Jews (though not all of them) already expected such a thing. But it is false anyway: many pagans regarded resurrection as not only possible, but desirable. And those were probably the very pagans the Christians converted. Even to begin with, the Jews had gotten the idea of a resurrection of the flesh from pagans: it was Zoroastrian in origin, and throughout the Roman period Zoroastrianism was the common national religion in the Persian Empire (in practical terms, everything east of the Roman Empire up to about India). Theopompus and Eudemus of Rhodes, both Greek historians of the 4th century B.C., described this Persian belief. Theopompus wrote in particular that “according to the [Persian] Magi, men will be resurrected and become immortal, and what then exists will endure through their incantations.” So the idea of a physical resurrection would be readily accepted by enough Jews and Persians to present no difficulty for the Christian message.
But even a great many Greco-Roman pagans were ecstatic about the possibility of being raised from the dead. We have so many stories and claims of physical resurrection within the pagan tradition that there can be no doubt the Christian claim would face no more difficulty than these tales did in finding pagan believers. Herodotus records the Thracians believed in the physical resurrection of Zalmoxis, and formed a religion around it that promised heavenly paradise for believers, and later on certain Italians came to believe in the resurrection of Aristeas of Proconnesus. Lucian records that the pagan Antigonus had told him: “I know a man who came to life more than twenty days after his burial, having attended the fellow both before his death and after he came to life.” Celsus, though himself a doubter, attested to a widespread belief in resurrected men among pagans, rattling off a list of those whom pagans believed rose again:

Zalmoxis in Scythia, the slave of Pythagoras; and Pythagoras himself in Italy; and Rhampsinitus in Egypt, whom, they say, played at dice with Demeter in Hades, and returned to the upper world with a golden napkin which he had received from her as a gift; and also Orpheus among the Odrysians, and Protesilaus in Thessaly, and Hercules at Cape Taenarus, and Theseus.

Later on Celsus added to this list the aforementioned Aristeas of Proconnesus–as well as the deified Dioscuri, Asclepius (see below), and Dionysus. And we’ve already discussed the resurrections of Romulus, Osiris, Adonis and Inanna as well (in Chapter 1), and we could add several mortals who were resurrected in Greek myth besides the Dioscuri, such as Eurydice and Alcestis–and in legend, Theseus. So it is plainly false to claim that no pagans would believe in a resurrection of the body, especially for a deified or divine man. Even Hercules, whose “resurrection” is usually portrayed only as an ascent to heaven, nevertheless ascended in his divine body, after its mortal material was burned away on the pyre. In like fashion, Celsus reports that “a great many Greeks and Barbarians claim they have frequently seen, and still see, no mere phantom, but Asclepius himself.” And not only was Asclepius a resurrected and deified mortal, but he was the preeminent “resurrector of the dead,” and that was a prominent reason pagans held him in such esteem, prompting Justin to claim that, since he could not deny the fact, “the Devil” must have introduced “Asclepius as the raiser of the dead” in order to undermine the Christian message in advance.
It goes well beyond this. Lucian and Apuleius both report the common belief that resurrecting the dead (“calling moldy corpses to life,” as Lucian puts it) was one of the expected powers of a sorcerer, and sorcery was very popular among the majority of pagans. Hence Apuleius has his fictional sorcerer Zatchlas raise Telephron from the dead. But among historical claims, Apuleius relates a medical resurrection by Asclepiades. Apollonius of Tyana was believed to have risen a girl from the dead using a spell. In the 4th century B.C. Heraclides of Pontus recorded that through some mysterious art Empedocles “preserved the body of a lifeless woman without pulse or respiration for thirty days” and then “he sent away the dead woman alive.”
Pliny the Elder reports there were numerous such tales believed by many people, even without magic. He says Varro reported on two different occasions seeing “a person carried out on a bier to burial who returned home on foot,” besides witnessing the apparent resurrection of his uncle-in-law Corfidius. Pliny also reports that a sailor serving Julius Caesar had his throat cut “and almost severed” yet returned from the dead that evening, to report on his visit to Hades. Plato records a similar story related by Alcinous about Er the Pamphylian, who “was slain in battle” and ten days later his body was recovered and brought home, then “at the moment of his funeral, on the twelfth day, as he lay upon the pyre, he revived” and “after coming to life he related what he said he’d seen in the world beyond.” In a similar story, the Syrian commander Vouplagus rises from the dead on a body-strewn battlefield (despite having been stabbed ten times), as Roman soldiers were looting the bodies, and tells them about his trip to Hades. The Lady Philinnion returned to life to visit her lover. The villainous Aridaeus fell to his death but returned to life two days later to relate his trip to heaven, and was so transformed by what he learned there that he led a life of impeccable virtue thereafter. Timarchus spent two nights and a day in a sacred crypt, during which time he died, visited heaven, and returned. Ultimately, Pliny the Elder says he also knew of “cases of persons appearing after burial” but chose not to discuss them because his book was about “works of nature, not prodigies.” This nevertheless proves such tales were transmitted and believed by many people. Pliny himself doesn’t say what he believed, only that these stories weren’t the subject of his book. But he still records numerous returns from death, and as we have seen there are many, many more. The shear abundance of these tales reflects a widespread hope of returning to life within the pagan community.

The evidence is overwhelming: that one could return to life in the body that died, or in an even better body, was a commonplace belief among a great many pagans. It was not deemed “impossible,” except by a few skeptical elites (such as the Epicureans). The point here is not what the true events were behind all these stories of resurrected men and women, but that many people clearly believed these were genuine risings from the dead, or that such a thing could and did happen, or was something they could imagine happening. Nor does it matter how much any of these stories resemble that of Jesus, for the relevant underlying concept remains the same: a bodily returning to life. Therefore Holding cannot maintain there was any significant resistance to the Christian claim among those pagans who actually did convert. To the contrary, they would have found a large and ready audience eager to believe just such a thing.

Post-biblical Christian legends have many stories of the saints performing miracles that included raising the dead to life. Some evangelical and pentecostal Christian groups continue to make such claims even in our own time.

Jesus and the raising of the dead

Sayings Gospel Q: Go tell John …

In the Sayings Gospel Q we have a prophetic statement attributed to Jesus that includes the claim that the dead are being raised to life through his ministry:

The disciples of John reported all these things to him. So John summoned two of his disciples and sent them to the Lord to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” When the men had come to him, they said, “John the Baptist has sent us to you to ask, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’” Jesus had just then cured many people of diseases, plagues, and evil spirits, and had given sight to many who were blind. And he answered them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

This early saying of Jesus comes from a source that otherwise shows very little interest in the miracles of Jesus or other narrative expressions of the tradition. It therefore adds to the multiple attestation across major independent sources (Mark, Luke and John) the additional support of attestation in multiple forms of the tradition.

It may be best to see this saying as a rhetorical flourish that affirms the proverbial blessings of God’s eschatological salvation are now being enjoyed by those in the circle of Jesus. Numerous classic “hard cases” thought to require divine power are cited, including the raising of the dead. Similar claims would be made by the “Pastor for Publicity” at any number of Pentecostal congregations around the world this week. If pressed for living examples of once blind but now clear-sighted persons, of clear-skinned lepers, of formerly deaf persons now enjoying excellent hearing, or of walking corpses, Jesus and his followers may have been hard-pressed to validate their press releases. We seem to be moving on the edges of enthusiasm (“in-God-ness”) where amazing things do happen and even more amazing things are claimed.
Within the Kingdom movement sins were forgiven, disease remitted and death itself made redundant. At least to the eyes of faith. Like the post-Easter presence of the Risen One himself, those looking without the benefit of such faith may not see the same realities as claimed by those on the inside of the experience.

The Daughter of Jairus

According to John P. Meier [A Marginal Jew: II,779] the underlying tradition as received by Mark from his older sources may have been as follows:

Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet and begged him repeatedly, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.” While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader’s house to say, “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?” But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, “Do not fear, only believe.” He allowed no one to follow him … When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. When he had entered, he said to them, “Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.” And they laughed at him. Then he put them all outside, and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was. He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha cum,” which means, “Little girl, get up!” And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement.

After a detailed discussion [A Marginal Jew: II,777-88] of various aspects of the story in Mark, Meier concludes as follows:

None of the considerations listed above establishes by itself that the Jairus story goes back to some event in the life of Jesus. Yet the convergenece of all the considerations in one miracle story — its lengthy tradition history, the unusual mentioning of a petitioner’s name and his status as a synagogue ruler, the implications of a Semitic substratum and especially the striking talitha koum, the absence of any christological title or affirmation, and the elements of embarrassment and discontinuity — incline me to the view that the Jairus story does reflect and stem from some event in Jesus’ public ministry. In other words, the story is not an invention of the early church pure and simple, however much it may have been expanded and reinterpreted by Christian faith.
But if some historical event lies behind the Jairus story, what was it? What did Jesus do that triggered this narrative? Here we reach the limits of the knowable, and pure speculation takes over. As I have already indicated, it is possible that the daughter of Jairus was actually the recipient of one of Jesus’ miracles of healing; but, since she was so close to death, the enthusiastic followers of Jesus early on, even during his own lifetime, transformed the event into a story of raising the dead. [A Marginal Jew: II,787]

The Widow’s Son at Nain

The second example of a resurrection being attributed to Jesus occurs in a tradition attested only in Luke:

Soon afterwards he went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went with him. As he approached the gate of the town, a man who had died was being carried out. He was his mother’s only son, and she was a widow; and with her was a large crowd from the town. When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, “Do not weep.” Then he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, rise!” The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. Fear seized all of them; and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has risen among us!” and “God has looked favorably on his people!” This word about him spread throughout Judea and all the surrounding country. [Luke 7:11-17]

John P. Meier [A Marginal Jew: II,788-98] explores the various literary dimensions of this Lucan story. He notes that it seems to form a pair with the account of Jesus healing the centurion’s “boy” from a distance. The beneificary of that miracle, incidentally, could have been the child of the centurion, his servant, or his male lover. Both the text and the culture are open to all three interpretations, although the third possibility is rarely entertained by the dominant heterosexual tradition of the Church.

Together, the two miracles illustrate Luke’s distinctive and otherwise unattested interpretation of Jesus’ ministry as a visitation of Israel by God. The literary and theological interests of Luke seem to be at work in the creation and placement of this story. Meier is decidedly more sceptical about this story having been received by Luke, rather than created by him. In the end, Meier will argue that Luke extensively reshaped a simple story inherited as part of a “special L tradition,” but it is not clear whether that is anything more than a convenient device since the existence of “special L” materials is highly problematic. His final qualified judgment in favor of a story originating long before Luke himself set about the task of writing the gospel is greatly influenced by the occurence of the otherwise unattested village of Nain in the story:

… I can readily understand why some scholars prefer a judgement of non liquet or even Rochias’ judgment of unhistorical. Nevertheless, given the anchoring of Luke 7:11-17 in the otherwise unheard-of town of Nain plus the general tendency of the traditions of the Four Gospels, I incline (with some hesitation) to the view that the story goes back to some incident involving Jesus at Nain during his public ministry. [A Marginal Jew: II,798]

The Raising of Lazarus

Those two miracle stories of uncertain provenance and an isolated saying that may be little more than a rhetorical flourish provide the only material from the Jesus tradition to assist us as we now consider the much more developed story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead a full four days after his demise.

However, there is also the tantalising possibility that the tradition preserved (even if in a richly elaborated form) in John 11 was known to Mark but excised from the version of Mark which attained canonical status in the Scriptures. The so-called Secret Gospel of Mark appears to be a variant of Mark 10 that included a reference to the raising of Lazarus from Bethany. The text reportedly discovered by Morton Smith reads as follows:

Fragment 1: To be located between Mark 10:34 and 10:35.

And they come into Bethany, and this woman was there whose brother had died. She knelt down in front of Jesus and says to him,”Son of David, have mercy on me.” But the disciples rebuked her. And Jesus got angry and went with her into the garden where the tomb was. Just then a loud voice was heard from inside the tomb. Then Jesus went up and rolled the stone away from the entrance to the tomb. He went right in where the young man was, stuck out his hand, grabbed him by the hand, and raised him up. The young man looked at Jesus, loved him, and began to beg him to be with him. Then they left the tomb and went into the young man’s house. (Incidentally, he was rich.) 10 Six days later Jesus gave him an order; and when evening had come, the young man went to him, dressed only in a linen cloth. He spent that night with him, because Jesus taught him the mystery of God’s domain. From there <Jesus> got up and returned to the other side of the Jordan. [Complete Gospels]
[Clement to Theodore, Folio 1, verso, line 23--Folio 2, recto, line 11]

Fragment 2: To be located between 10:46a (“Then they came to Jericho”) and 10;46b (“As he was leaving Jericho…”).

The sister of the young man whom Jesus loved was there, along with his mother and Salome, but Jesus refused to see them. [Complete Gospels]
[Clement to Theodore, Folio 2, recto, lines 14--16]

If those scholars who consider this story to be an earlier variant of the Lazarus story are correct, then the version known to us in John is considerably developed. In SecMark it seems much closer to the kind of story already seen in the case of Jairus’ daughter and the widow’s son at Nain. Indeed, in this form of the tradition, the buried man may not have been dead. After all, he attracts Jesus’ attention by calling out from within the tomb.

It is doubtful that we shall ever solve the historical puzzle of how the Johannine story of Lazarus reached the form known to us, but the function of the story in John’s Gospel is very clear. It sets the scene for both the death of Jesus (the authorities are afraid of him) and for his resurrection.

What may have once been a simple story of Jesus rescuing (again) a person near death has become a complex story of faith, elaborated in classic Johannine style so that it has become one of the great discourses on Christian faith. Without ever mentioning the controversial SecMark text, Meier offers something akin to independent verification of this possibility when he suggests deleting all materials related to Martha from the account, and outlines a hypothetical pre-Gospel version of the story as follows:

Once there was a sick man, Lazarus of Bethany, the town [in which] Mary his sister [also lived]. His sister sent [a message] to Jesus, saying, “Lord, behold he whom you love is sick.” When Jesus heard that he was sick, he then remained in the place where he was for two days. … When Jesus came [to Bethany], he found him already four days in the tomb. Many of the Jews had come to Mary to comfort her over her brother. [Mary was sitting at home.] When she heard [that Jesus had come], she arose quickly and came to him. [Jesus had not yet come into the town.] When the Jews who were with her in the house and were comforting her saw that Mary had qicky arsien and went out, they followed her, thinking that she was going to the tomb to weep there. When Mary came to the place where Jesus was, seeing him she fell at his feet, saying to him: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When he saw her weeping and the Jews who had come with her weeping, Jesus groaned in spirit. And he said: “Where have you laid him?” They said to him: “Lord, come and see.” Jesus came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone lay over its entrance. Jesus said: “Take the stone away.” They therefore took the stone away. In a loud voice voice Jesus shouted: “Lazarus, come forth.” The dead man came forth, [with his feet and hands bound with burial cloths, and his face wrapped in a handkerchief]. Jesus said to them: “Untie him and let him go.” Now many of the Jews who had come to Mary and had seen what he had done believed in him. [A Marginal Jew: II,818f]

Meier’s final conclusions on this episode may be worth citing at some length:

The upshot of this lengthy disquisition is that the Fourth Gospel’s story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead is not a pure creation of John the Evangelist but rather goes back to a miracle story circulating in the Johannine tradition before the Gospel was written. … At the same time, one must be cautious about making historical claims; the tradition passed through many decades and many modifications before it came to the Evangelist.
In the end, I find myself adopting a position similar to the one I hold with regard to the Lucan story of the raising of the son of the widow of Nain. The signs of a lengthy tradition history and the anchoring of the event in a set place (plus in the Johannine tradition, the presence of the proper names of the principal actors, something contrary to the general tendency of the miracle traditions in all Four Gospels) incline me to think that the the Lazarus story ultimately reflects some incident in the life of the historical Jesus. As in all the other stories of raising the dead, the question of what actually happened cannot be resolved by us today. It is possible that a story about Jesus healing a mortally ill Lazarus grew into a story of raising the dead. However, there is no indication in the tradition histories suggested by most present-day scholars that the story of Lazarus ever existed as a story of healing rather than a story of restoring the dead to life. I think it likely that John 11:1-45 goes back ultimately to some event involving Lazarus, a disciple of jesus, and that this event was believed by Jesus’ disciples even during his lifetime to be a miracle of raising the dead. In other words, the basic idea that Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead does not seem to have been simply created out of thin air by the early church.
A final observation on arguments about the historicity of the Lazarus story: Once we appreciate how a short and isolated story about Jesus raising Lazarus grew over decades into the huge theological masterpiece of John the Evangeist, we can understand why the silence of the other evangelists provides no solid proof that the raising of Lazarus cannot go back to an event in the life of Jesus. In the early tradition, the raising of Lazarus was not a major cause of Jesus’ arrest and passion; that connection is a creation of the Fourth Evangelist. Nor did the earliest form of the story in the tradition carry such impressive literary and theological weight; it was much more Synoptic-like in appearance. [A Marginal Jew: II,831f]

Jesus Database

Liturgies and Prayers

For liturgies and sermons each week, shaped by a progressive theology, check Rex Hunt’s web site

Other recommended sites include:

Music Suggestions

See David MacGregor’s Together to Celebrate site for recommendations from a variety of contemporary genre.

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Jesus Then and Jesus Now

Please join us for this event as we celebrate the publication of my latest book:

JesusThenJesusNow Jesus Then and Jesus Now:
Looking for Jesus, Finding Ourselves

Melbourne: Mosaic Press, 2014



The book will be launched by the Revd Dr Nigel Leaves at SFC on Thursday, 10 April at 3.30pm.

Copies are now available for purchase at an early bird discount rate that will be available on the day of the launch and through to 15 April.

[Please note that orders can only be accepted from customers in Australia. Orders from overseas, including New Zealand, should be directed to the publisher: Mosaic Press. A North American edition will be available soon from Wipf & Stock.]

The venue will be Lecture Room 1, below the Roscoe Library at SFC (233 Milton Road, Milton).

To assist with catering arrangements, please register online for a free ticket.

You are welcome to join us for the book launch beginning at 3.30pm, or else to come at 2.00pm for two presentations in the SFC Research Seminar series:

  • 2.00pm – Richard Tutin (SFC): “Receptive Ecumenism”
  • 2.45pm – Serena Love (UQ Archaeology): “Chemical analysis of sun-dried bricks in ancient structures.”


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A birth certificate for Jesus

A Birth Certificate for Jesus

This is a pre-publication extract from Gregory C. Jenks,  Jesus Then and Jesus Now: Looking for Jesus, Finding Ourselves. (Melbourne: Mosaic Press, 2014) Pages 118–22.

For people researching their family history, the birth certificate of an ancestor is a key document. It preserves valuable information with a presumed degree of accuracy about the person whose birth is being documented, and various relatives of that person at the time of their birth.

How might we imagine a birth certificate for Jesus? Before we attempt that exercise in holy imagination, a comment about the sources for our information is needed.

There are a number of items in the Jesus Database that relate to the traditions around the birth of Jesus: 007 Of Davids Lineage; 026 Jesus Virginally Conceived; 367 Birth of Jesus; 368 Genealogy of Jesus; 369 Star of Revelation; 431 Conception of John; and 432 Birth of John.[1] I include the last two items relating to John the Baptist since they are integral parts of Luke’s story about the birth of Jesus.

As we have already seen, the NT offers confusing and contradictory information about the family of Jesus. This is not surprising, as such information is not the reason for the Gospels being composed. The data is simply transmitted by the tradition without any desire to coordinate with other documents.[2] In brief, the information in the NT can be summarized as follows.

In the letters of Paul there is just a single reference to the birth of Jesus (Gal 4:4). Jesus is simply described as having been “born of a woman, born under the Law.” Paul’s letters are the earliest Christian documents that have survived, and they offer no hint of any special circumstances attending the conception and childhood of Jesus.

In the Gospel of Mark not much has changed. As we have already seen, Jesus is described as the son of Mary, and a brother to several siblings. This suggests a typical Jewish family, except that there is no mention of his father in Mark. On the basis of this early Christian Gospel we would never imagine anything unusual about the birth of Jesus.

In the Gospel of Matthew things begin to change. Now a stepfather appears on the scene in the infancy narratives, along with an explicit denial of any natural paternity. Despite this, Jesus is called “son of the carpenter” in Matthew’s revised version of Mark’s episode from the village of Nazareth. In my view, Matthew is the source for the virginal conception idea, and his Joseph character is surely shaped to evoke the legacy of Joseph the dreamer from Genesis.

As we have seen already, in the Gospel of John the identity of Jesus’ parents is not a mystery. The crowds claim to know both his parents (John 6:42) and Jesus is explicitly called the “son of Joseph” (John 1:45; 7:40–44). His mother is mentioned several times, but never named. This natural biological conception sits alongside the most sophisticated Christology to be found in the NT, as John celebrates Jesus as the “only begotten Son” of the Father, and the incarnation of the divine Logos (John 1:1–18). This should reassure people who worry that taking Jesus as the natural child of Joseph and Mary will necessarily result in a ‘low’ Christology.

Finally, in the Gospel of Luke we find our early second-century author reviewing the earlier accounts about Jesus. In Luke 1:1–4 he claims to be familiar with their work and sets himself the task of providing a more accurate account. It is possible that Luke understood his version as correcting and replacing these earlier versions that he considered inadequate to the task. He begins that revisionist task with his version of the birth of Jesus. In the Gospel of Luke Jesus has a more complete family context, including two relatives of his mother, Elizabeth and her priestly husband, Zechariah. Indeed, Luke’s story of Jesus’ conception and birth is closely entwined with the story of the conception and birth of his cousin, John the Baptist (Luke 1:5–2:52).

As a matter of critical method I give no historical weight to any of the traditions in the infancy narratives, including the motif of an irregular conception of Jesus. Rather, I see these traditions—and especially those in Matthew and Luke—as late additions, and expressing the developing devotion to Jesus around the end of the first century. They provide no additional historical information about the childhood of Jesus or the circumstances of his conception.

In any case, why would we give any credibility to the idea that Jesus was conceived in anything other than a perfectly normal way for his time and culture? The idea seems only to be derived from the infancy legends in Matthew and Luke, and specifically Matthew.[3] Indeed, we find no hint of anything irregular about the circumstances of Jesus’ birth in Paul, Mark, John or any part of the NT except for Luke and Matthew.

One possible exception is the comment in John 8:41.

[Jesus said to them,] “You are indeed doing what your father does.” They said to him, “We are not illegitimate children; we have one father, God himself.”

This turn in the dispute between Jesus and the Jewish crowd is sometimes understood as an allusion to there being something irregular about Jesus’ conception.[4] Such an irregularity—whether arising from his parents not being married when he was conceived, or his father being someone other than his mother’s husband—would result in him having the status of a ‘mamzer’ (a social outcast).’ I think it is a stretch to connect this verse from the Gospel of John with traditions of Jesus’ alleged status as a mamzer. I also note that the gospels nowhere reflect any sense that Jesus was excluded from full participation in the religious life of his community.[5]

Most critical scholars reject the miraculous elements of the story, but some would suggest that there was some historical core to the tradition. The idea that the gospels preserve a memory of something irregular or shameful about the circumstances of Jesus’ birth seems to me to be a survival of traditional beliefs rather than a natural interpretation of the biblical texts. While we know very little about Jesus as an adult, and even less about him as a child, it seems clear that the biblical texts themselves do not require a supernatural conception for Jesus.

In light of the most natural reading of the biblical material, a naturalistic explanation along the following lines seems most probable. Stories about a miraculous conception are best understood as Christological statements rather than reports on Mary’s reproductive history. Indeed, I wonder if we would ever have wondered about the paternity of Jesus were it not for the Gospel of Matthew? It seems that we only contemplate the circumstances around Jesus’ conception, including the mamzer theory, because of the influence of the virginal conception motif introduced by Matthew.

Matthew represents Isaiah as predicting that a virgin (Greek, parthenos) will conceive and bear a son.[6] This is the term found in the Greek versions of the Jewish Scriptures, but the Hebrew text has ‘almah (maiden, young woman). Most likely, Matthew was working with a testimonium, a list of biblical verses extracted for convenience, as scrolls were not easy documents to consult. The genre is known from examples discovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran, but Matthew’s list of proof texts seems to have drawn from the Greek version of the Jewish Scriptures.

Matthew may have been quite unaware that the Hebrew tradition did not use the word for “virgin” but rather a more generic term that describes a young woman eligible for sexual relations.[7] The term does not occur often in the Tanakh, but this example is typical, and hardly suggests a sexual virgin.

Three things are too wonderful for me;
four I do not understand:
the way of an eagle in the sky,
the way of a snake on a rock,
the way of a ship on the high seas,
and the way of a man with a girl (‘almah). (Prov 30:18–19)

People shaped by our contemporary secular and scientific worldview are generally not disposed to accept stories about a virginal conception as historical, and we therefore consider various alternatives. There are just three options. In the first place, there is the default option of normal conception within a first-century Jewish family system with its traditional patterns of betrothal, marriage, etc. Secondly, there is the option of a normal conception through consensual sexual activity outside of such cultural norms. In addition, there is the possibility of a normal conception as a result of non-consensual sexual violence.[8]

Either option two or three could have resulted in the child suffering some form of discrimination and loss of social status. This seems to be the core of the mamzer hypothesis. However, there is also the broader question of what evidence we have for the mamzer status in the first few decades of the first century CE—and especially in a remote and extremely small village such as Nazareth must have been. For example, would Mary have been the first or only young woman in that social system to become pregnant before she was in a recognized relationship with her male partner?

In any case, Luke is certainly unaware of such a tradition. Rather than portray Jesus as a social outcast, Luke has Jesus circumcised according to Jewish tradition (Luke 2:21), presented in the Jerusalem temple (Luke 2:22–24), and even engaging deeply in the religious life of the temple as a twelve year old boy (Luke 2:41–49). In Luke’s imagination, Jesus also has a regular custom of attending prayers at his local synagogue where he even reads from the Scriptures before offering a sermon (Luke 4:16–21). We do not have to take any of these episodes as historical in order to see that Luke entertained no concept of Jesus as a mamzer. For Luke, Jesus is an insider rather than an outsider, and he participates actively in the religious life of his community, as do his followers in the Acts of the Apostles.

For the record, I think Jesus was probably born in Nazareth as a result of normal sexual relations between his parents. Joseph and Mary subsequently had other children. Joseph does not feature in the tradition outside of the infancy legends even though his name and his paternity are preserved in the Gospel of John. Given the mortality rates at the time, an early demise for Joseph is unremarkable, although Mary seems to have done surprisingly well to survive several pregnancies despite the risks of childbirth in such a society.

Perhaps we can now attempt to complete the birth certificate for Jesus?

Parents: Joseph of Nazareth, also known as Joseph son of Jacob (Matt 1:16) and Joseph son of Heli (Luke 3:23); Mary of Nazareth.

Place of birth: Nazareth.

Date of birth: unknown, but most likely late in the reign of Herod the Great (37–4 BCE) and certainly not 25 December.

Siblings: James, Joses, Judas, and Simon, plus at least two sisters.



[1]For details see Appendix 3, The Birth of Jesus in the Jesus Database.

[2] For representative scholarship around these Gospel narratives, see Raymond E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah. A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in Matthew and Luke  (London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1977); John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus. 1. The Roots of the Problem and the Person, ABRL (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1991); Robert J. Miller, Born Divine: The Births of Jesus and Other Sons of God (Santa Rosa, CA: Polebridge, 2003); Jane Schaberg, Illegitimacy of Jesus: A Feminist Theological Interpretation of the Infancy Traditions. Expanded Twentieth Anniversary Edition, 2nd ed., Biblical Seminar (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2006).

[3] A close reading of Luke suggests no lack of human paternity, just a providential blessing of the child that Mary will bear once she is married to the man with whom she is already betrothed.

[4]For one example of this interpretation, see Brown, Raymond E. The Gospel According to John. Introduction, Translation, and Notes. Anchor Bible 29. (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1966), I, 357. For an opposing view, see Miller, Born Divine, 213–15.

[5] For a different view, with which I disagree, see Bruce D. Chilton, Rabbi Jesus. An Intimate Biography  (New York, NY: Doubleday, 2000).

[6] See http://www.jesusdatabase.org/index.php?title=026_Jesus_Virginally_Conceived

[7] For a more detailed discussion of Isaiah 7:14 in Christian interpretation, see Gregory C. Jenks, The Once and Future Bible: An Introduction to the Bible for Religious Progressives (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2011). 100-03.

[8] It is also possible that the mother of Jesus may have conceived him as a result of an involuntary sex act, such as rape by a Roman soldier. However, we have absolutely no evidence for that and we can therefore set it aside as baseless speculation, as Robert Miller also does in Born Divine, 215–16. Roman soldiers would not normally have been present in the territory ruled by Herod and his sons, although Miller (ibid., 220–21) notes that Roman forces were in the vicinity of Nazareth to suppress the rebellion at Sepphoris following the death of Herod in 4 BCE.

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Lent 4A (30 March 2014)



  • 1 Samuel 16:1-13 & Psalm 23
  • Ephesians 5:8-14
  • John 9:1-41

Introduction: Fourth Sunday of Lent

The Fourth Sunday of Lent is often observed as a distinctive Sunday within the austerities of Lent. The traditional reading for this Sunday were characterised by themes of rejoicing and refreshment, and in Britain it was traditional for those serving in wealthy homes to take a gift of fresh cakes (simnel cakes) to their mothers on this Sunday. The English tradition of Mothering Sunday has its origins in these ancient customs, and thus a very different pedigree from the North American “Mother’s Day” and similar secular celebrations of motherhood in various countries around the world.

Incipit of the Gregorian chant introit for Laetare Sunday, the fourth Sunday of Lent.

With the development of three year lectionary cycle the traditional Laetare Sunday themes have been dissipated somewhat, but elements of the traditional themes can still be discerned in the readings for this day in each of the three years. This year it is especially seen in the theme of the Good Shepherd and the use of the popular Twenty-Third Psalm.

First Reading: David is anointed as king

This delightful story celebrates the divine choice of David as the future ruler of “Israel.”

It may be helpful to explore this passage by paying attention to each of the three “worlds” relevant to biblical hermeneutics:

  • the world BEHIND the text
  • the world WITHIN the text
  • the world BEYOND the text


Historical perspectives on the David tradition

In attending to the world behind this passage we are enquiring about the historical dynamics that created the text as well as the historical events to which the text seems to refer. After all, this is not a story that strikes the reader as inherently improbable as it does not invoke mythic themes, supernatural events, or non-human agents (angels, demons, and the like).

With respect to genre, this is an edifying legend about the humble origins of the man who would later become the great king, and the story makes it clear that the initiative for his selection and rise lay with God. David is not portrayed as an ambitious military leader who would exploit his connections with the Saul family to promote his own interests.

The key historical questions relating to the David traditions do not focus on the historicity of this episode, but on the wider historical questions that beset the biblical accounts of David and Solomon. Some of the most hotly contested positions in OT studies at the present time revolve around the character and status of Jerusalem in the tenth century BCE, and the historicity of the biblical depiction of David and Solomon.

Confidence in the historical value of the OT narratives has been steadily declining over the past few decades. Where once scholars debated the historicity of the patriarchal narratives of Genesis 12-50, or even the different dates proposed for the exodus from Egypt, for much of the last thirty years the frontline in the argument between the maximalists and the minimalists has been the historicity of the kingdom of David in the early decades of the tenth century BCE.

  • The minimalists, with whom I have considerable sympathies, observe that Jerusalem seems to have been an unwalled village in the 900s, with insufficient population to support the military adventures attributed to David, and with no surviving archaeological remains to serve as evidence of the major building projects associated with the time of David and Solomon.
  • The maximalists, for whose careful scholarship I have great respect, note that absence of evidence is not evidence for absence, and especially so given the present political realities that prevent archaeologists from examining what may lie beneath of the Temple mount in Jerusalem. While some recent finds at the “City of David” (sic) site south of the Haram al sharif have been interpreted as evidence of major public structures in the tenth century, the dating and function of these remains are hotly debated.

It seems that the current consensus is that David was a historical figure, even if his CV was not as impressive as the OT would suggest. Certainly later kings in Jerusalem invoked the figure of David to authenticate their rule, and we have at least one inscription (from Tel Dan in the far north of Israel) that suggests neighbouring countries may have called the Jerusalem kingdom, “the House of David.”

Literary perspectives on the David traditions

The name “David” is almost exclusively used of this early ruler of Jerusalem, and yet it seems to be pet name rather than an actual name of a person. The basic meaning of the Hebrew term is “father’s beloved” and, as such, we could imagine it being applied to Joseph whose father, Jacob, seems to have especially favoured Joseph. There are some echoes of the Jacob/Joseph relationship in the Jesse/David story, but these are not developed by the ancient narrator.

In any case, the name seems never to be applied to anyone in the OT except this Jerusalem ruler, and its distribution in the Old Testament is also uneven. Not surprisingly it is mostly found in the historical books and the Psalms. Outside these “natural” locations for references to David, we find the word occuring infrequently in the prophetic texts and even then often in the phrase “House of David:”

Isa 7:2, 13; 9:7; 16:5; 22:9, 22; 29:1, 3; 37:35; 38:5; 55:3; Jer 17:25; 21:12; 22:2, 4, 30; 23:5; 29:16; 30:9; 33:15, 17, 21–22, 26; 36:30; Ezek 34:23–24; 37:24–25; Hos 3:5; Amos 6:5; 9:11; Zech 12:7–8, 10, 12; 13:1.

Within the major witnesses to the David tradition in 1 & 2 Samuel, we find the following extended complexes:

  • The Rise of David (1 Sam 16 – 2 Sam 8)
  • The Court History of David (2 Sam 9 – 2 Kings 2)

These extended narratives seem to combine many different traditions. The David who is portrayed in these dramatic stories may not be the “historical David” but he is certainly a “canonical David” who looms large over the biblical text and indeed over Western civilisation:

  • David the shepherd boy hero
  • David the composer of sacred poetry
  • David the fugitive
  • David the warrior
  • David the sexually-compromised ruler
  • David the ineffective father
  • David the founder of the Temple
  • David the beneficiary of an unconditional covenant with YHWH
  • David the man after God’s own heart

This week’s OT reading plays a key part in the creation of this canonical figure, and the story itself betrays the marks of oral tradition as it depicts Samuel seeking in vain for the chosen one among the seven sons of Jesse until the old man admits that he has another son, but one not worthy of consideration. Of course, the overlooked youngest son turns out to be exactly the person God sent Samuel to find! In the story of David ancient Israel has a parable of its own story as the overlooked younger son among the nations of the world.

The legacy of the David traditions

What ever the actual achievements of the man known to history as “David,” he has come to be the embodiment of a pious ruler, a successful warrior, and even the poet-king. As a passionate and flawed man, who nonetheless enjoyed God’s favour, this David has been an inspiration and a model for generations of Western rulers.

One particular expression of the Davidic legacy is worth a further comment in this week’s notes.

As post-exilic Judaism dreamt of a great reversal in its historical situation, hopes emerged of a coming messianic figure from the line of David. In the historical Jesus inventory developed by John Dominic Crossan, the early Christian assertion that Jesus was just such a Davidic messiah is ranked seventh out of 522 items:

7±. 007 Of Davids Lineage: (1a) Rom 1:3; (1b) 2 Tim 2:8; (2) Matt 2:1-12; (3) Luke 2:1-20; (4) John 7:41-42; (5a) Ign. Smyrn. 1:1a; (5b) Ign. Eph. 18:2c; (5c) Ign. Trall. 9:1a.

Gospel: Jesus and the man born blind

This week’s Gospel presents another lengthy scene which has it its centre a profound misunderstanding. We have already seen several such stories in the Gospel of John:

  • ch 2: Jesus turns water into wine (neither Mary nor the steward understand)
  • ch 3: Nicodemus fails to understand Jesus’ call for rebirth from above
  • ch 4: the Samaritan woman does not understand Jesus’ offer of living water

Now in ch 9 we find a story constructed round the irony of the religious authorities not seeing who Jesus is, while a man born blind comes to see it.

Whether or not Jesus ever healed blind people, a story such as this is clearly a symbolic story with no necessary (or even probable) historical basis. The Gospel of John is replete with such fictions that offer profound truth even when speaking of things that never happened.

These are not parables, but they share with parables a capacity to work with fiction in order to convey deep truth.

Oddly enough, as modern Westerners we seem to have no problem accepted parables as stories that convey spiritual truth without any need for them to be historical, but we struggle with the idea that narratives can be fictive and yet profoundly true at some level.

Jesus Database


Liturgies and Prayers

For liturgies and sermons each week, shaped by a progressive theology, check Rex Hunt’s web site

Other recommended sites include:


Music Suggestions

See the following sites for recommendations from a variety of contemporary genre:

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Lent 3A (23 March 2014)



  • Exodus 17:1-7 & Psalm 95
  • Romans 5:1-11
  • John 4:5-42

Wells as Sacred Places

Wells and springs often feature as significant places for epiphanies and other encounters in the biblical narrative. The well at Sychar (ancient Shechem) which features in this Sunday’s gospel is perhaps the most famous of them all. Presumably the wells at Beer-Sheba would have been significant to even more people over a longer period of time,

Shechem itself is first mentioned in Genesis 12 as the place where Abram builds an altar, and it was already a sacred site associated with the oak of Moreh (i.e, the oak of the oracler) which may have been near the ancient well. The well itself is not mentioned at this point in the story:

So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the possessions that they had gathered, and the persons whom they had acquired in Haran; and they set forth to go to the land of Canaan. When they had come to the land of Canaan, Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. [Genesis 12:4-6]

Abram and Sarai return to central Palestine after their troubled sojourn in Egypt:

So Abram went up from Egypt, he and his wife, and all that he had, and Lot with him, into the Negeb. Now Abram was very rich in livestock, in silver, and in gold. He journeyed on by stages from the Negeb as far as Bethel, to the place where his tent had been at the beginning, between Bethel and Ai, to the place where he had made an altar at the first; and there Abram called on the name of the Lord. [Genesis 13:1-4]

The troubles between their herdsmen and those of Lot’s herdsmen presumably involved a dispute over access to the well:

Now Lot, who went with Abram, also had flocks and herds and tents, so that the land could not support both of them living together; for their possessions were so great that they could not live together, and there was strife between the herders of Abram’s livestock and the herders of Lot’s livestock. At that time the Canaanites and the Perizzites lived in the land. Then Abram said to Lot, “Let there be no strife between you and me, and between your herders and my herders; for we are kindred. Is not the whole land before you? Separate yourself from me. If you take the left hand, then I will go to the right; or if you take the right hand, then I will go to the left.” [Genesis 13:5-9]

As required by the deal cut with Lot, Abram and Sarai move south to Hebron where they settle by another sacred grove (the oaks, or terebrinths) of Mamre the Amorite and its well (or spring):

The Lord said to Abram, after Lot had separated from him, “Raise your eyes now, and look from the place where you are, northward and southward and eastward and westward; for all the land that you see I will give to you and to your offspring1 forever. I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth; so that if one can count the dust of the earth, your offspring also can be counted. Rise up, walk through the length and the breadth of the land, for I will give it to you.” So Abram moved his tent, and came and settled by the oaks of Mamre, which are at Hebron; and there he built an altar to the Lord. [Genesis 13:14-18]

It would later be by a spring on the way to Shur that Hagar would have an epiphany:

The angel of the Lord found her by a spring of water in the wilderness, the spring on the way to Shur. And he said, “Hagar, slave-girl of Sarai, where have you come from and where are you going?” She said, “I am running away from my mistress Sarai.” The angel of the Lord said to her, “Return to your mistress, and submit to her.” The angel of the Lord also said to her, “I will so greatly multiply your offspring that they cannot be counted for multitude.” And the angel of the Lord said to her,
“Now you have conceived and shall bear a son;
you shall call him Ishmael,
for the Lord has given heed to your affliction.
He shall be a wild ass of a man,
with his hand against everyone,
and everyone’s hand against him;
and he shall live at odds with all his kin.”
So she named the Lord who spoke to her, “You are El-roi”;
for she said, “Have I really seen God and remained alive after seeing him?”
Therefore the well was called Beer-lahai-roi; it lies between Kadesh and Bered. [Genesis 16:7-14).

In Genesis 21 Hagar would be blessed with a second epiphany at yet another well, one whose presence went unnoticed until God opened her eyes to see it:

When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes. Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, "Do not let me look on the death of the child." And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept. And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, "What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him." Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink. [Genesis 21:15-19]

These stories of Hagar’s well-side epiphanies may have had some influence on the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman in John 4.

Beer-sheba, where Abraham and Abimelech conclude a treaty in Genesis 21 was to feature in many of the stories in the Hebrew Bible. Its seven wells made Beer-Sheba a famous location and especially suited to special events. Abraham eventually relocated there following his narrow escape from almost killing his son, Isaac, as a human sacrifice:

The angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven, and said, “By myself I have sworn, says the Lord: Because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of their enemies, and by your offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves, because you have obeyed my voice.” So Abraham returned to his young men, and they arose and went together to Beer-sheba; and Abraham lived at Beer-sheba. [Genesis 22:15-19]

The well at Haran features in the story of Rebekah being chosen by Abraham’s trusted slave to be the bride for Isaac:

Then the servant took ten of his master’s camels and departed, taking all kinds of choice gifts from his master; and he set out and went to Aram-naharaim, to the city of Nahor. He made the camels kneel down outside the city by the well of water; it was toward evening, the time when women go out to draw water. And he said, “O Lord, God of my master Abraham, please grant me success today and show steadfast love to my master Abraham. I am standing here by the spring of water, and the daughters of the townspeople are coming out to draw water. Let the girl to whom I shall say, ‘Please offer your jar that I may drink,’ and who shall say, ‘Drink, and I will water your camels’–let her be the one whom you have appointed for your servant Isaac. By this I shall know that you have shown steadfast love to my master.”
Before he had finished speaking, there was Rebekah, who was born to Bethuel son of Milcah, the wife of Nahor, Abraham’s brother, coming out with her water jar on her shoulder. The girl was very fair to look upon, a virgin, whom no man had known. She went down to the spring, filled her jar, and came up. Then the servant ran to meet her and said, “Please let me sip a little water from your jar.” “Drink, my lord,” she said, and quickly lowered her jar upon her hand and gave him a drink. When she had finished giving him a drink, she said, “I will draw for your camels also, until they have finished drinking.” So she quickly emptied her jar into the trough and ran again to the well to draw, and she drew for all his camels. The man gazed at her in silence to learn whether or not the Lord had made his journey successful.
When the camels had finished drinking, the man took a gold nose-ring weighing a half shekel, and two bracelets for her arms weighing ten gold shekels, and said, “Tell me whose daughter you are. Is there room in your father’s house for us to spend the night?” She said to him, “I am the daughter of Bethuel son of Milcah, whom she bore to Nahor.” She added, “We have plenty of straw and fodder and a place to spend the night.” The man bowed his head and worshiped the Lord and said, “Blessed be the Lord, the God of my master Abraham, who has not forsaken his steadfast love and his faithfulness toward my master. As for me, the Lord has led me on the way to the house of my master’s kin.”
Then the girl ran and told her mother’s household about these things. Rebekah had a brother whose name was Laban; and Laban ran out to the man, to the spring. As soon as he had seen the nose-ring, and the bracelets on his sister’s arms, and when he heard the words of his sister Rebekah, “Thus the man spoke to me,” he went to the man; and there he was, standing by the camels at the spring. He said, “Come in, O blessed of the Lord. Why do you stand outside when I have prepared the house and a place for the camels?” So the man came into the house; and Laban unloaded the camels, and gave him straw and fodder for the camels, and water to wash his feet and the feet of the men who were with him. Then food was set before him to eat; but he said, “I will not eat until I have told my errand.” He said, “Speak on.”
So he said, “I am Abraham’s servant. The Lord has greatly blessed my master, and he has become wealthy; he has given him flocks and herds, silver and gold, male and female slaves, camels and donkeys. And Sarah my master’s wife bore a son to my master when she was old; and he has given him all that he has. My master made me swear, saying, ‘You shall not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, in whose land I live; but you shall go to my father’s house, to my kindred, and get a wife for my son.’ I said to my master, ‘Perhaps the woman will not follow me.’ But he said to me, ‘The Lord, before whom I walk, will send his angel with you and make your way successful. You shall get a wife for my son from my kindred, from my father’s house. Then you will be free from my oath, when you come to my kindred; even if they will not give her to you, you will be free from my oath.’
“I came today to the spring, and said, ‘O Lord, the God of my master Abraham, if now you will only make successful the way I am going! I am standing here by the spring of water; let the young woman who comes out to draw, to whom I shall say, “Please give me a little water from your jar to drink,” and who will say to me, “Drink, and I will draw for your camels also”–let her be the woman whom the Lord has appointed for my master’s son.’
“Before I had finished speaking in my heart, there was Rebekah coming out with her water jar on her shoulder; and she went down to the spring, and drew. I said to her, ‘Please let me drink.’ She quickly let down her jar from her shoulder, and said, ‘Drink, and I will also water your camels.’ So I drank, and she also watered the camels. Then I asked her, ‘Whose daughter are you?’ She said, ‘The daughter of Bethuel, Nahor’s son, whom Milcah bore to him.’ So I put the ring on her nose, and the bracelets on her arms. Then I bowed my head and worshiped the Lord, and blessed the Lord, the God of my master Abraham, who had led me by the right way to obtain the daughter of my master’s kinsman for his son. Now then, if you will deal loyally and truly with my master, tell me; and if not, tell me, so that I may turn either to the right hand or to the left.”
Then Laban and Bethuel answered, “The thing comes from the Lord; we cannot speak to you anything bad or good. Look, Rebekah is before you, take her and go, and let her be the wife of your master’s son, as the Lord has spoken.” [Genesis 24:10-51]

Disputes over access to wells occur again in the second version of the troubles at Gerar (cf. Genesis 21 for the earlier version):

Isaac sowed seed in that land, and in the same year reaped a hundredfold. The Lord blessed him, and the man became rich; he prospered more and more until he became very wealthy. He had possessions of flocks and herds, and a great household, so that the Philistines envied him. (Now the Philistines had stopped up and filled with earth all the wells that his father’s servants had dug in the days of his father Abraham.) And Abimelech said to Isaac, “Go away from us; you have become too powerful for us.”
So Isaac departed from there and camped in the valley of Gerar and settled there. Isaac dug again the wells of water that had been dug in the days of his father Abraham; for the Philistines had stopped them up after the death of Abraham; and he gave them the names that his father had given them. But when Isaac’s servants dug in the valley and found there a well of spring water, the herders of Gerar quarreled with Isaac’s herders, saying, “The water is ours.” So he called the well Esek, because they contended with him. Then they dug another well, and they quarreled over that one also; so he called it Sitnah. He moved from there and dug another well, and they did not quarrel over it; so he called it Rehoboth, saying, “Now the Lord has made room for us, and we shall be fruitful in the land.”
From there he went up to Beer-sheba. And that very night the Lord appeared to him and said, “I am the God of your father Abraham; do not be afraid, for I am with you and will bless you and make your offspring numerous for my servant Abraham’s sake.” So he built an altar there, called on the name of the Lord, and pitched his tent there. And there Isaac’s servants dug a well.
Then Abimelech went to him from Gerar, with Ahuzzath his adviser and Phicol the commander of his army. Isaac said to them, “Why have you come to me, seeing that you hate me and have sent me away from you?” They said, “We see plainly that the Lord has been with you; so we say, let there be an oath between you and us, and let us make a covenant with you so that you will do us no harm, just as we have not touched you and have done to you nothing but good and have sent you away in peace. You are now the blessed of the Lord.” So he made them a feast, and they ate and drank. In the morning they rose early and exchanged oaths; and Isaac set them on their way, and they departed from him in peace. . [Genesis 26:12-32]

Indeed, by the end of that chapter the narrator is claiming that Isaac (or at least his servants) dug the original well that made Beer-Sheba famous:

That same day Isaac’s servants came and told him about the well that they had dug,
and said to him, “We have found water!”
He called it Shibah;
therefore the name of the city is Beer-sheba to this day [Genesis 26:32-33]

When Jacob flees after his deception of Isaac and his theft of the patriarchal blessing from his older twin, Esau, the well at Haran again features as the meeting place where God’s chosen one find his destined spouse:

Then Jacob went on his journey, and came to the land of the people of the east. As he looked, he saw a well in the field and three flocks of sheep lying there beside it; for out of that well the flocks were watered. The stone on the well’s mouth was large, and when all the flocks were gathered there, the shepherds would roll the stone from the mouth of the well, and water the sheep, and put the stone back in its place on the mouth of the well.
Jacob said to them, “My brothers, where do you come from?” They said, “We are from Haran.” He said to them, “Do you know Laban son of Nahor?” They said, “We do.” He said to them, “Is it well with him?” “Yes,” they replied, “and here is his daughter Rachel, coming with the sheep.” He said, “Look, it is still broad daylight; it is not time for the animals to be gathered together. Water the sheep, and go, pasture them.” But they said, “We cannot until all the flocks are gathered together, and the stone is rolled from the mouth of the well; then we water the sheep.”
While he was still speaking with them, Rachel came with her father’s sheep; for she kept them. Now when Jacob saw Rachel, the daughter of his mother’s brother Laban, and the sheep of his mother’s brother Laban, Jacob went up and rolled the stone from the well’s mouth, and watered the flock of his mother’s brother Laban. Then Jacob kissed Rachel, and wept aloud. And Jacob told Rachel that he was her father’s kinsman, and that he was Rebekah’s son; and she ran and told her father.
When Laban heard the news about his sister’s son Jacob, he ran to meet him; he embraced him and kissed him, and brought him to his house. Jacob told Laban all these things, and Laban said to him, “Surely you are my bone and my flesh!” And he stayed with him a month. [Genesis 29:1-14]

The tradition (found in John 4) that Jacob had owned the well at Shechem seems to arise from the following passage in Genesis 33:18-19:

Jacob came safely to the city of Shechem, which is in the land of Canaan,
on his way from Paddan-aram; and he camped before the city.
And from the sons of Hamor, Shechem’s father,
he bought for one hundred pieces of money the plot of land on which he had pitched his tent.

There is, of course, no mention of a well in this text and it is hardly likely that the townspeople of Shechem would have sold their town water rights to a newly-arrived Hebrew. Still, as early as John’s Gospel, there was a tradition that the well had passed into Hebrew hands at the time of Jacob.

In an interesting echo of the stories of Isaac and Jacob finding their wives at the father-in-law’s ancestral well, Moses was to meet his wife at a well in Midian where his future father-in-law was the local (pagan?) priest:

Moses fled from Pharaoh. He settled in the land of Midian, and sat down by a well. The priest of Midian had seven daughters. They came to draw water, and filled the troughs to water their father’s flock. But some shepherds came and drove them away. Moses got up and came to their defense and watered their flock. When they returned to their father Reuel, he said, “How is it that you have come back so soon today?” They said, “An Egyptian helped us against the shepherds; he even drew water for us and watered the flock.” He said to his daughters, “Where is he? Why did you leave the man? Invite him to break bread.” Moses agreed to stay with the man, and he gave Moses his daughter Zipporah in marriage. She bore a son, and he named him Gershom; for he said, “I have been an alien residing in a foreign land.” [Exodus 2:15b-22].


While this has not been an exhaustive survey of all the times when wells occur in the biblical narrative it has picked up the most significant epiphanies and other human encounters involving wells. These were also stories likely to have been known to the NT authors, and especially John. They provide evidence of an important traditional theme (the encounter at the well/spring) against which we can read both the Old Testament reading and the Gospel reading this week. Doubtless they were part of a wider genre of such stories in the ancient world, since communal water facilities would have been the natural settings for many significant encounters.

In Isaiah 12 we find this ancient sense of springs or wells as places of divine encounter expressed in poetic form:

You will say in that day:
I will give thanks to you, O Lord,
for though you were angry with me,
your anger turned away,
and you comforted me.

Surely God is my salvation;
I will trust, and will not be afraid,
for the Lord God is my strength and my might;
he has become my salvation.

With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.
And you will say in that day:
Give thanks to the Lord,
call on his name;
make known his deeds among the nations;
proclaim that his name is exalted.

Sing praises to the Lord, for he has done gloriously;
let this be known in all the earth.
Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion,
for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.

Given this ancient tradition of divine encounters taking place at wells, it is no surprise that the Church in Nazareth venerates the ancient village well as the site of the Anunication. While Luke does not mention a well, the ancient mind would naturally imagine such an event occurring at the communal well.

Moses and the miraculous rock

In the absence of wells, Moses performs a miracle by striking a rock in the desert so that water flowed from it to meet the needs of the vast multitude said to be traveling with him through the wilderness:

From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. The people quarreled with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” So Moses cried out to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” The Lord said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?” [Exodus 17:1-7]

There is also a variant of this story in another part of the Pentateuch:

The Israelites, the whole congregation, came into the wilderness of Zin in the first month, and the people stayed in Kadesh. Miriam died there, and was buried there. Now there was no water for the congregation; so they gathered together against Moses and against Aaron. The people quarreled with Moses and said, “Would that we had died when our kindred died before the Lord! Why have you brought the assembly of the Lord into this wilderness for us and our livestock to die here? Why have you brought us up out of Egypt, to bring us to this wretched place? It is no place for grain, or figs, or vines, or pomegranates; and there is no water to drink.” Then Moses and Aaron went away from the assembly to the entrance of the tent of meeting; they fell on their faces, and the glory of the Lord appeared to them. The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Take the staff, and assemble the congregation, you and your brother Aaron, and command the rock before their eyes to yield its water. Thus you shall bring water out of the rock for them; thus you shall provide drink for the congregation and their livestock.
So Moses took the staff from before the Lord, as he had commanded him. Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly together before the rock, and he said to them, “Listen, you rebels, shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” Then Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock twice with his staff; water came out abundantly, and the congregation and their livestock drank. But the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust in me, to show my holiness before the eyes of the Israelites, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them.” These are the waters of Meribah, where the people of Israel quarreled with the Lord, and by which he showed his holiness. [Numbers 20:1-13]

In 1Cor 10:1-5 Paul was refers to a miraculous rock that followed the Israelites through the wilderness like a magical water tanker, meeting their needs for forty years. That rock, says Paul, was Christ. Paul is presumably drawing on ancient Jewish midrash for this since he seems to know that his readers will have heard of this amazing rock:

I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ.

W.G. Plaut [The Torah. A Modern Commenatry, 513] cites the following Jewish traditions that elaborate on this story:

God said, “I will be standing there before you on the rock” (17:6).
This implies: “In every place where a man leaves his footprint., there I too will stand.” [Midrash Mechilta Vayassa 7]

Plaut continues:

“This thought found its expression also in the legend that the rock that yielded water followed Israel miraculously throughout their wanderings in the desert.”

Targum Pseudo-Jonathan says on Num. 20:19:

The well that had been given as a present to them climbed up with them on the high mountains
and from the high mountains came down with them into the valleys,
surrounded the entire camp of Israel, and refreshed them, each at the door of his tent.


Jesus the true well-spring

The Gospel of John presents Jesus as the embodiment of the ancient mystery of the well/spring. Jesus is both the site where the epiphany occurs, and also the source of the living water that gushes up within a person once they believe in him.

In other discourses throughout the Gospel of John, Jesus will be represented as someone who fulfills ancient spiritual hopes:

  • “the beloved Son” sent to bring life to a world in darkness (John 3)
  • the bread (manna) from heaven (John 6),
  • the bearer of the new Torah (John 7)
  • greater than Abraham (John 8)
  • the light of the world (John 9)
  • the good shepherd (John 10)
  • and the life that death cannot extinguish (John 11)

Jesus as the true well, the spring that refreshes from within, and the ultimate epiphany of God is celebrated in this classic story of Jesus’ own encounter with a woman at a well. Like many characters in the biblical drama, Jesus meets a female stranger at the well and they engage in intimate conversation. But he is not seeking a wife, and she has already had several husbands. Beyond the familiar characterizations of the well-known genre there is a larger story being unfolded.

Jesus is not simply meeting a woman at a well. He is the well, and what he offers is far more sustaining than the water that flows from Jacob’s ancient spring. The woman is meeting Jesus at a well, and he offers her living water although he had no bucket. None is needed when the spring flows inside us.

Ancient mythic themes converge in this familiar Gospel story.

Jesus Database

Some elements within this larger story have parallels in other complexes:

Liturgies and Prayers

For liturgies and sermons each week, shaped by a progressive theology, check Rex Hunt’s web site

Other recommended sites include:

Music Suggestions

See David MacGregor’s Together to Celebrate site for recommendations from a variety of contemporary genre.

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