Visions, vindication and victory: the strange world of the Apocalypse

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

The Revelation to John, also known as the Apocalypse, contains seven letters, which make up the second and third chapters. However, it is not itself a letter, but the only New Testament book which as a whole is in the literary genre of apocalyptic. This is a type of literary description of visions that claim to unveil the meaning of history for those in the know.1 They often contain the metaphor of a journey through heavenly or spiritual realms with a guide. The vision at the heart of the Apocalypse is that the soft power of the Lamb’s self-sacrifice will be triumphant over the hard power of the mighty Roman empire. While readings from this book are used on a number of feast days,1 Revelation also provides the second reading for the Sundays of Easter in Year C. Its celebration of Christ’s triumph draws out a key aspect of the Easter gospel.

Readers are somewhat prone to introducing readings from this book wrongly. It is the Book of Revelation in the singular, not Revelations in the plural. The book itself claims to be the record of a single revelation, handed from God to Jesus and from Jesus via an angel to his servant John. There is only one secret to be unveiled: the triumph of God over evil through the cross of Christ.

Continue reading “Visions, vindication and victory: the strange world of the Apocalypse”

The material reality of love: the letters of John

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

Although there are three letters which bear John’s name, the second and third are very short, and perhaps show something of how the teaching of the longer letter is put into action in some specific relationships. Only the first letter is used in the lectionary. This letter in particular shares some significant thinking and vocabulary with the Fourth Gospel. Whether this means they come from the same person or simply the same theological circles is impossible to say. None of them give their author a name. Tradition has associated them with John the Apostle, but there is no way of knowing exactly what relationship, if any, he had with the circles from which these writings came.

Detail from a portrait of John the Apostle by Alonso Cano. John is often portrayed blessing a poisoned chalice. For more on this story, see the page for this picture at the Louvre.
Continue reading “The material reality of love: the letters of John”

On the periphery of the Bible: 2 Peter and Jude

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

Some books of the Bible are effectively marginalised. In today’s church, Second Peter and Jude are among those which are pushed out to the edge of the canon. Modern scholars’ doubts that 2 Peter was written by Peter are paralleled by the early church’s reluctance to accept the book as one for public reading. Jude was rather more popular in the earliest centuries. When it comes to our lectionaries, there are only two readings from second Peter, and none from Jude. One comes in Advent,1 and the other is one of those provided for the Feast of the Transfiguration.2

Today’s scholarship is overwhelmingly convinced that 2 Peter is not from Peter’s hand, but written to perpetuate the author’s view of Peter’s teaching. It seems something almost written in the genre of a testament or farewell speech (see 2 Pet 1:14-15). Quite oddly, Peter’s second chapter plagiarises the letter of Jude, which is a good reason for treating them together. Jude’s letter, like Peter’s second chapter, is rooted in traditions of Jewish interpretation and apocalyptic literature. Both are full of urgent and dire moral warning.

Continue reading “On the periphery of the Bible: 2 Peter and Jude”

The first papal encyclical? 1 Peter

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

My title is somewhat tongue-in-cheek. Historically, Rome seems not to have had a single monarchical bishop until well into the second century. Nonetheless, there is a sense that, in looking back to Peter as the first pope, church tradition reflects his calling to be first among the apostles, the rather wobbly rock on which Jesus chooses to start building his church, as well as his clear association with Rome, from where this letter appears to be written. More accurately, calling it an encyclical picks up the way in which it is written to a circle of churches rather than a single congregation.

Continue reading “The first papal encyclical? 1 Peter”

Keeping it in the family: James

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

Short selections of James are read mainly in the latter part of Year B.1 The letter, largely full of practical moral guidance in a largely traditional Jewish mode, sometimes has echoes of Jesus’ teaching. Tradition attributes it to James, the brother of Jesus, and nearly all its content fits with the picture we gain elsewhere of James, clearly a leader in the Jerusalem church in Paul’s day. In this prominence of Jesus’ brother in the community, the early Jesus movement is showing that traditional Jewish family and community values were maintained alongside the more radical prophetic note Jesus often sounded.

The strongest arguments against James’ authorship are the high quality of the Greek the letter is written in and perhaps the apparently settled and socially unequal nature of the Christian synagogue James is challenging about their behaviour. The question of who wrote the letter does not substantially affect its meaning.2

Continue reading “Keeping it in the family: James”

More perfect priest, superior sacrifice: Hebrews

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

There’s a long tradition of grouping Hebrews with Paul’s letters. In the Latin and King James Bible tradition it has usually been titled “Paul’s letter to the Hebrews” as well. Despite that, it has still always been placed after the letters which stand under Paul’s name. Paul’s letters come in order from the longest, Romans, with sixteen chapters, to the shortest, Philemon, with only a single chapter. Even when Hebrews was referred to as Paul’s letter, then, its position in the New Testament put a question mark over the attribution. The style and content have persuaded most contemporary readers that Paul, whose name is entirely missing from the anonymous text, cannot possibly be the author.

Continue reading “More perfect priest, superior sacrifice: Hebrews”

Negotiating the master-slave relationship in a church family: the letter to Philemon

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

Philemon is the shortest of all Paul’s letters. (That hasn’t stopped someone writing a 600 page commentary on its 25 verses!) In the Roman Catholic lectionary selected verses are read on the 23rd Sunday of Ordinary Time in Year C. The corresponding Proper 18 in the Revised Common Lectionary, as so often, lengthens the reading to almost the whole letter, leaving out only the closing greetings. 

While some of the precise details are obscure, the overall picture is generally agreed to be straightforward. Philemon seems to be a member of the church at Colossae, who found his Christian faith through Paul’s ministry. Onesimus is a runaway slave of Philemon who has ended up in Paul’s company, and been visiting him while Paul is under arrest. As a result of his contact with Paul, he has come to faith in Christ independently of the commitment made by his master. 

Continue reading “Negotiating the master-slave relationship in a church family: the letter to Philemon”

House rules and cultural accommodation: the Pastoral letters

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

Icon of St Timothy. Via Wikimedia Commons.

The Sunday lectionary reads selections from 1 & 2 Timothy through in sequence towards the end of Year C,1 and uses a couple of short excerpts from Titus in the selections for Christmas Day. As I noted in my introduction to Paul’s letters, these three are sufficiently like each other to be grouped together, and sufficiently different from Paul’s other letters for many people to wonder if he wrote them. Although they are usually called, collectively, the Pastoral Letters, I think they might better be thought of as “organisational letters” written for those who have some responsibility for organising the church.

Continue reading “House rules and cultural accommodation: the Pastoral letters”

It’s the end of the world as we know it: the Thessalonian letters

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

I take both the letters to the church at Thessalonica together. Between them they have no more lectionary readings than the individual letters we have already looked at, and they cover much the same territory. Their key theme is how to live when you are expecting the end of the world as you know it. While living in expectation of Christ’s appearing remains a significant theme in Paul’s letters, it is at its most intense here. It also seems to be an expectation that is not fully understood by his Gentile converts in Thessalonica, who lack the grounding in Old Testament texts to fully appreciate it. Unsurprisingly, given this emphasis, the majority of readings from these letters comes in the Advent season.

Continue reading “It’s the end of the world as we know it: the Thessalonian letters”

King of the universe: Colossians

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

A small number of passages from Colossians crop up several times over the course of the lectionary. Selections from the letter are read through in the earlier summer weeks of post-Easter Ordinary Time, in Year C. The hymnic passage extolling Christ as the centre of both creation and its restoration as new creation (Col 1:15-20) is also read on Christ the King (again Year C). And the opening of chapter 3 is also read on Easter Day (Year A).

The letter as a whole reads a little like a first rehearsal for some of the themes we have seen developed in Ephesians. The story of human redemption is told on the same cosmic scale. In his description of Christ as “the image of the invisible God”, Paul seems to be echoing Wisdom chapter 7, especially verses 23-27. If Jewish thinkers increasingly saw Torah as the repository of divine wisdom, Paul leads the way for Christian thinkers in seeing Christ as wisdom’s true incarnation, a theme that is developed in John’s gospel.

Continue reading “King of the universe: Colossians”