Bible Notes 9: Gospels and Acts

This weekend I’m studying Matthew. As I wrote a few posts ago, a favorite book from my college religion courses was Burton Throckmorton’s Gospel Parallels, which lays out the Synoptic Gospels—Mathew, Mark, and Luke—in order to show textual similarities and differences. Over 90% of Mark’s gospel is also found in Matthew and Luke, and the latter two gospels have material in common that is not found in Mark: the so-called “Q” material (likely meaning “Quelle,” the German word for “source”). Matthew and Luke also have material unique to their own gospels, implying other sources that they used.

(Here is a site, based on another book, that provides the parallels of texts among the three Synoptics:

If you’re reading the Old Testament through to the New, Matthew’s gospel provides a segue by starting with a genealogy back to Abraham, reminding us of the genealogies of Genesis and 1 Chronicles, as well as the census material in the Torah. Matthew’s genealogy does omit some generations, but also likes Jesus to the tribe of Judah through the families of David, the Davidic kings of the southern kingdom through the deportation to Babylon and the post-exilic period.

Matthew gives us half of what I think of as the “total” Christmas story: the Magi from the east, Herod’s murderous rage and Joseph and Mary’s escape with their son to Egypt, reminding us of the birth narrative of Moses. The linkage of Jesus with the Emmanuel prophecy (Isaiah 7:14) announces God’s presence among the people in Jesus, which continues across the gospel (18:20, 25:34-45, 28:20).

We’ve no accounts of Jesus’ childhood or young adulthood until he presents himself for baptism to John the Baptist, connected to Second Isaiah’s exilic declarations of hope and promise (Isa. 40:3). As with many heroes in religion and mythology, Jesus undergoes a time of testing before he begins the main journey of his life (chapter 4). Jesus dwelled in Capernaum, a mix of Jewish and Gentile heritage as reflected in Isaiah’s words (4:15-16). Gathering disciples and crowds, he taught on the side of the mountain (Chaps. 5-7), and continued to teach while also performing miracles of care and healing (chaps. 8-9). Needless to say, the mountain setting of Jesus’ sermon, along with Jesus’ teachings of Torah and faithfulness, give us a very Moses-like image.

Matthew arranges Jesus’ teachings in five discourses (chapters 5-7, 10, 13, 18, 24-25), and uniquely gives us teachings such as the wicked slave (18:21-35), the landowner (20:1-18), the ten virgins (25:1-13), the talents (25:14-30), and the narrative of the last judgment (25:1-46). Although Mark contains no birth narratives, Matthew otherwise retains Mark’s basic geographical framework (the Galilean ministry, chapters 4-18; the journey to Jerusalem, 19-20; and the week in Jerusalem, 21-28:15). Jesus’ teachings are filled with Jewish themes of lovingkindness, mercy, prayer, faithfulness to God, God’s radical faithfulness to his people, the idea of having a minyan (quorum) for prayer, and others. In announcing the kingdom of heaven, Jesus signals a coming fulfillment of God’s promises, as do people’s identification of him as the prophet promised by Moses and/or the Son of David. Jesus himself prefers the name Son of Man (ὁ υἱὸς τοὺ ἀνθρώπου) that reminds us of Daniel’s apocalyptic passages. But Jesus also links these themes to his own person, sometimes cryptically.

Here are ways that Matthew frames the material:

10: The meanings of servanthood and discipleship

11-12: Implications of Jesus’ own servanthood

13: Parables of the kingdom

14-17: Jesus’ own signs of the kingdom, e.g., the miraculous feedings, Peter’s confession, the Transfiguration, and others. 

18: Teachings on humility and the community (ekklesia)

19-23: Jesus’ humble entry into Jerusalem and the controversies (his anger at the Temple moneychangers, his anger at the Pharisees, his anger at the fig tree, parables of his approaching death

24-25: The Olivet Discourse on sufferings of the end of the age, and the coming of the Son of man.

26-27: The trial and execution of the Son of man. 

28: Jesus’ resurrection and Great Commission.

In his Writings of the New Testament, Luke T. Johnson considers Matthew as instruction for a community trying to distinguish itself from the Pharisaic tradition in the Judaism of that time. Jesus becomes not only the authoritative interpreter of Torah but also the fulfillment and personification of Torah (pp. 183-190). This is not a rejection of Torah, however (p. 185) but a call to understand Torah via Jesus. Helpfully, Johnson calls the Sermon on the Mount “a sketch, not a system” for interpreting Torah (p. 188). Being a disciple (student) of Jesus will require ongoing study, prayer, and service.

Helpfully, too, Johnson compares the personification of Jesus as Torah to something already done in Scripture: the personification of Torah as Sophia (Wisdom) in Proverbs and the Wisdom of Solomon, not to mention the Mishnah’s Haggadic traditions (p. 189).

In Matthew, Jesus addresses his mission to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel” (15:24). It seems the most Jewish Gospel but also the most angry in terms of the Jewish leadership. We get Jesus’ bitter diatribe in Matthew 23, but we also get strong connections of Jesus with the Jewish scriptures and traditions. Jesus by no means repudiates the Torah, but interprets it by his own authority. At the same time, Jesus provides hope for Gentiles, too (12:18, 15:28, 24:14, etc.), and among the gospels only Matthew uses the word “church” (ekklēsia).Yet (likely reflecting tensions within Matthew’s community) the Gospel is also a little hostile toward Gentiles, for Jesus frequently criticizes or makes light of the practices of non-Jews (Johnson, p. 191).

Matthew’s desire to distinguish his community of Jesus-following Jews from the Jewish leadership of his (rather than Jesus’) time, had far-reaching results. In her book The Reluctant Parting, Julie Galambush discusses the bitterness of Jesus’ and Matthew’s language toward Pharisees and other leaders (e.g., pp. 72-77). For instance, the seven “woes” of chapter 23 “is disturbing in its rancor and has long provided fodder to those seeking proof that Jews are legalistic, hypocritical, and self-serving” (p. 73). But this and other bitter passages reflect heightened tensions between Jesus’ followers an the Pharisees in Matthew’s period, not Jesus’. But the prophecy of the temple’s demise—an event that had taken place within the reader’s memory—serve to underscore Jesus’ credibility in the debate” (p. 74).

Tragically, Matthew’s gospel has provided generations of Christians with material to become anti-Jewish or antisemitic— as well as to feel self-righteous and persecuted whenever someone disagrees with them. Galambush continues, “Read through the lens of Christianity’s triumph over the entire Western world, Matthew’s predictions [of persecution of Jesus-followers by Jews] appear grandiose and self-serving. Anything Christians suffer is proof of their righteousness and a produce to eternal exaltation over everything and everyone else. Such a reading… ignores the reality of Matthew’s original social and historical setting” (p. 74). So we must not accept Matthew’s portrayal of the Pharisees as “self-serving religious bullies” but understand, instead, that Matthew was a leader who trying to maintain the community in an embattled time when its future was very unclear (p. 74). (Think of the way you think about the rival sports team of you own favorite team.) During the last third of the first century, Pharisees themselves were struggling, too, hoping to save an embattled and persecuted Judaism.

While keeping in mind Matthew’s reasons for his more bitter passages (and repenting if we have our own prejudices toward Jews), we also turn to this gospel for rich teaching. Luke Johnson (who also discusses Matthew’s characterization of Jews) notes that Matthew contains more homiletical material than Mark: Matthew is “broadly catechetical” for his community because it contains instructions for the community about piety, church discipline, and instructions for missionaries (p. 176).

Matthew also connects to Judaism in positive ways, as I noted above: for instance, he makes over seventy references to the Scriptures, fewer than Mark. Like the other gospel writers, he recognizes that the suffering and death of the Messiah was not an expected outcome—and yet it was, if one mines the rich Scriptures about Jewish suffering and hope and understands therein predictions and patterns of Jesus’ own experience.  (See my list here.)

Another, more subtle connection to the scriptural heritage (and another reason not to be anti-Jewish), is the way the gospel describes human failure in the face of God’s wonderful works, just as the Old Testament does. This is something we’ll see throughout the New Testament. Remember how the Israelites failed again and again as they traveled through Wilderness? If the Pharisees and others didn’t “get” Jesus, Jesus’ own followers failed to “get” him, too, missing the point of his teachings, disappointing him in his darkest hour—and, of course, Judas sold him out and Peter denied him. (Peter doesn’t get rehabilitated in this Gospel, although it’s surely assumed.) Mark’s gospel is even darker in this regard. The Bible is very truthful about God’s nature and human nature alike.

I’m thinking about Jesus’ parting words: “Go and make disciples [students] of all nations.” How do you be Jesus’ follower and student? Telling people about Jesus is one way, of course, but also by acting in the ways of humility, mercy, and service that Matthew’s very Jewish Jesus teaches throughout the gospel. Circling back to Matt. 25:31-46, we know Jesus is already among those who are in need, whoever and wherever they may be. To tell people about Jesus, is also to be where Jesus already is.

This week I’m studying Mark. Back in the fall of 1981, I was a grad assistant for a lecture course on Mark at Albertus Magnus College, a women’s college at the time. The margins of my old Bible are filled with interesting insights that the professor offered during that course.

I had not thought of Mark, for instance, as a rather “dark” gospel. The story is framed by two declarations of Jesus as the (or a) Son of God, the first verse, and … the regretful declaration of the centurion who watched Jesus die (15:39). If you knew nothing about Jesus, you might ask, What kind of “good news” (1:1) is this?

Furthermore, Jesus’ identity is a matter of some mystery. Very early in the account, the powers that be want to destroy him (3:6), and his own friends and family consistently fail to understand him. Those who are on the “outside” (the demon-possessed, other Gentiles like that Roman soldier) do understand him. Some would like to proclaim Jesus, but he tells them to stay quiet (3:12), reflecting a theme of what scholars have called “the Messianic secret” in Mark (1:25, 34, 44, 3:12, 5:19, 43, 7:36, 8:30, 9:9, 16:7). Nearly from the beginning of the Gospel, Jesus creates misunderstanding and confusion.

At the end, Jesus’ own followers let him down. “And they all forsook him, and fled,” reads 15:50. (During that 1981 class, I wrote in the margin, “Now they understand!” That is, they realized that following Jesus would indeed involve suffering and possibly death, and at this stage they fled such a prospect.) Like the other gospels, Jesus’ women friends and relatives are most loyal to him (15:40). But the gospel ends with them, too, running away in fear (16:8). The somewhat abrupt beginning of Mark is framed with an abrupt ending.

Of course, we know now that the risen Jesus did appear to his followers and friends, male and female, and they gained new faith and courage. But if you just read Mark “cold” for the first time, you might scratch your head at the gospel’s sadness and irony. In her book The Reluctant Parting, Julie Galambush suggests that Mark’s community may have been in a crisis situation during the dark times of the revolt against Rome in 67-73 CE.

As I wrote a few posts ago, a favorite book from my college religion courses was Gospel Parallels, which lays out the Synoptic Gospels—Mathew, Mark, and Luke—in order to show textual similarities and differences. Over 90% of Mark’s gospel is also found in Matthew and Luke, and the latter two gospels have material in common that is not found in Mark: the so-called “Q” material (likely meaning “Quelle,” the German word for “source”). Matthew and Luke also have material unique to their own gospels, implying other sources that they used.

A basic outline of Mark:

The beginning of Jesus’ story, John the Baptist, Jesus’ baptism, and the wilderness temptation (1:1-13). There are no “Christmas stories” here.

Jesus’ ministry in Galilee (1:14-9:50)
Jesus’ miracles of healing
His teaching about the Sabbath, fasting, his true kindred
His parables (chapter 5)
Other miracles like the thousands fed, the walk upon the sea, the healing of the Gentile woman’s daughter, and others
The Transfiguration, and Jesus’ teachings about his death and resurrection

Jesus and his group journey to Jerusalem (10:1-52)

Jesus’ final week (11:1-16:8)
The Palm Sunday entry
The cursed fig tree
The temple incident
Disputes with Sadducees and Pharisees
The Apocalyptic Discourse
The Last Supper and Gethsemane
Jesus’ arrest, trial, execution, death, and resurrection

A later addition to Mark’s gospel, including extra teaching to the disciples by the risen Jesus (16:9-20)

In his Writings of the New Testament, Luke T. Johnson points out that we don’t really know Mark’s identity’s community, and the reasons why he wrote (p. 148). While we an figure out that Mark was the major source for Matthew and Luke, we don’t know Mark’s sources (p. 149). My old Harper’s Study Bible suggests the traditional idea that Peter the disciple who informed Mark, and that Mark may have been the young man strangely referred to in 14:50-51.

Johnson (I keep wanting to call him “Luke,” because that’s what all of us students of his call him) notes that Mark has an triadic “architectonic principle”: things appear in threes, like the three seed parables (4:3-32), three sets of public opinion (6:14-15, 8:27-28), three predictions of Jesus’ suffering (8:31, 9:31, 10:33-34), and of course Peter’s three details (14:66-72) (p. 151).

Johnson discusses several aspects of Mark’s structure (pp. 151-153). But one very key turning point is the declaration of Jesus’ identity by Peter (8:27-30), followed by the Transfiguration (9:1-7). At this point in the story, the assurance that Jesus is the Son of God connects with the opening verse, the centurion’s realization, and also Jesus’ own declaration in 14:62 (pp. 152-153).

The original ending of Mark seems to be 16:8, attested to by the earliest manuscripts. The longer ending of 16:9-20 does give us a famous verse about snake-handling.

I like Johnson’s ideas about Mark’s gospel: “Mark’s readers would naturally, as we still do, identify themselves with the disciples. Mark therefore uses that relationship to teach his readers. The message is mainly one of warning against smugness and self-assurance. He seems to be saying ‘If you think you are an insider, you may not be; if you think you understand the mystery of the kingdom and even control it, watch out; it remains alive and fearful beyond your comprehension. If you think discipleship consists in power because of the presence of God, beware; you are called to follow the one who suffered and died. Your discipleship is defined by his messiahship, in terms of obedience and service’” (p. 158).

A wonderful, always timely warning and reminder.


As I wrote a few posts ago, a favorite book from my college religion courses was Gospel Parallels, which lays out the Synoptic Gospels—Mathew, Mark, and Luke—in order to show textual similarities and differences. Over 90% of Mark’s gospel is also found in Matthew and Luke, and the latter two gospels have material in common that is not found in Mark: the so-called “Q” material (likely meaning “Quelle,” the German word for “source”). Matthew and Luke also have material unique to their own gospels, implying other sources that they used. Unfortunately, we do not know what sources Luke used for the first fifteen chapters of Acts (that is, up to the point where Luke himself subtly and personally joins the story).

(Here is a site, based on another book, that provides the parallels of texts among the three Synoptics:

While Matthew gives us the Wise Men and Herod’s murderous rage and the flight to Egypt, Luke gives us “the rest” of the Christmas story: the stories of John the Baptist and his family, Mary’s visit to Elizabeth, the Magnificat, the Benedictus, the journey to Bethlehem and the manger, the shepherds, the angels.  We also have Jesus’ circumcision, his presentation at the Temple, and the praise of Simeon and Anna. The only canonical story from Jesus’ growing-up years is found in Luke: the accidental abandonment at the Temple. Thankfully we have a positive story of the Jewish teachers at the Temple: not only did they enjoy his company but they also must have fed him and tucked him into bed at night for three days. Luke genealogy is different from Matthew’s.

There are several passages—-some of them quite beloved—that are unique to Luke’s gospel: Jesus’ first rejection at Nazareth, the stories of Mary and Martha, Zacchaeus, the widow’s son, the Walk to Emmaus, the brief story of the widow and her small contribution, the saying about the narrow door, and also the parables of the rich fool, the Prodigal Son, the Good Samaritan, the friend at midnight, the Pharisee and the tax collector in contrasting prayer, and others. Little wonder that Luke is a favorite among the gospels for many people, including myself. While in Dublin several years ago, I purchased a pewter goblet featuring Luke’s symbol, the ox.

Here is a good outline of Luke’s gospel: In his book The Writings of the New Testament, Luke Johnson points out that Luke together with Acts occupied about a fourth of the entire New Testament in terms of chapters—though the writing style is not verbose and is a high quality Greek.

Analogous to 1 Chronicles, Luke-Acts actually begins with Adam (in the genealogy of Jesus) and through the abbreviation of genealogy gives us a vision from the beginning of biblical history to Luke’s own time, when the apostle Paul was still alive and preaching. The narrative itself covers about sixty years.

Luke’s gospel lacks the darkness and irony of Mark and also the xenophobia of Matthew (Johnson, p. 202). The Romans and other Gentiles are not portrayed so negatively, and neither are Jews (although the Pharisees, Sadducees and scribes are, as usual, criticized by Jesus). Luke’s gospel seems to depict Christians as no political threat to Rome, and to depict Jesus’ life, teachings, suffering, and death as part of Israel’s history and consistent with the Hebrew scriptures (Johnson, pp. 202-203). But Luke-Acts also offer to Jewish contemporaries a chance to follow Jesus, and when many do not, Gentiles acceptably become part of the new community.

In her book The Reluctant Parting, Julie Galambush points out that Luke’s theology of the fulfillment of scripture (and Matthew’s, too) has given Gentile Christians assurance of being part of God’s promises to Israel—and, in fact, the authentic kind of Judaism, to the exclusion of the broader community of Jews. Again, we are dealing with Christianity not as a major religion that looks disdainfully at its parent religion, but as a tiny sect that considers itself still Jewish and compares itself to other Jews. In her interest in showing how early Christianity and rabbinic Judaism went their separate ways, Galambush notes Luke’s gospel has been a popular source of religious validation for Gentile Christians, as well as for messianic Jewish movements (which, she points out, are not considered religiously Jewish by the larger Jewish community) (pp. 90-91).

One characteristic of Luke’s gospel is his concern for the poor (see, for instance, 6:3-4, 6:20-25, 16:22, 18:22, 21:1-3). In my study book, What’s in the Bible about Life Together? (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2008), I reflected on Luke 6:20-25:

“If you feel disdain for poor people, avoid Luke’s Gospel. one of Luke’s themes is the blessedness of the poor, to just ‘the poor in spirit’ (Matthew 5:3). The gospel is good news preached to the poor (Luke 1:52-53; 4:1-19)… God has special love for the por. When the kingdom of God comes, the poor will be redeemed, given pride and joy. The hungry will have food; the sorrowful will find happiness.

“What about the rich? According to Jesus, the tables will turn on them in the Kingdom if wealth is at the center of their lives and concern or the poor is lacking… A lack of money is a terrible source of heartache and worry… It’s tough to hang on to God’s promises when you’re choosing between paying for your medicine and buying food or when you made a financial decision that seemed sensible but now is failing. An abundance of money is a source of heartache, too, because in times of prosperity, we still worry… (p. 39). Luke gives those of us who are financially better-off to consider our uses of money and the devotions of our hearts.

This post is based on my article, “John, the Different Gospel,” in Adult Bible Studies (Teacher), March-April-May, 1999), 2-5.

Here’s an outline of the gospel:

1: Introduction. The Word is with God and the Word is God, and the Word became flesh. John the Baptist is not the Word but came to bear witness.

2:1-5:47: Speeches, miracles, and incidents: the wedding at Cana, the “cleansing” of the Temple, the meeting with Nicodemus, the meeting with the Samaritan woman, healing opportunities, and conflicts with authorities. Of course, this is where we find the famous John 3:16.

6:1-10:42: Miracles like the feeding of the five thousand, the healing of the man born blind; Jesus’ Temple teachings, and more conflicts. Chapter 10 has some of the gospel’s most famous phrases: “I am the gate [or “door”]. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture” (vs. 9). “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (vs. 10b). “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (vs. 11). “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold” (vs. 16). “The Father and I are one” (vs. 30). “…the scripture cannot be annulled [or “broken”]… (vs. 35b).

11:1-12:50: The raising of Lazarus, foreshadowing of Jesus’ “hour”, the anointing by Mary, and the entry into Jerusalem. “I am the resurrection and the life” (11:25). The appearance of Greeks (i.e. Gentiles) in chapter 12 is a bit of foreshadowing, that Jesus will be executed by Gentiles and also that his message will eventually go out into the Gentile world.

The content of John’s Gospel turns toward Jesus’ last days in Jerusalem.

13:1-17:26: The washing of the disciples’ feet, his farewell speech to them, and his “high priestly prayer.” “Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (14:6).

18:1-19:42: Jesus’ arrest, trial, death, and burial.

20: Jesus’ resurrection appearances and an allusion to his ascension.

21: His resurrection appearance at the sea.

Anyone who has read the Gospels know that John is both similar to and quite different from the Synoptic Gospels. The Synoptics, of course, were likely written as part of shared traditions, with Matthew and Luke reliant upon Mark and other sources. John shares with the Synoptics the basic outline of Jesus’ ministry: the work of John the Baptist; the call of the disciples; Jesus’ ministry of healing, teaching, and controversy; the entry into Jerusalem; the Last Supper; Jesus’ trial, passion, and death; and the Resurrection. John and the Synoptics also share several stories: the incident at the Temple, the healing of the son of the official, the feeding of the five thousand, the sea miracle, the confession of Peter, and the anointing at Bethany.

The Synoptics has stories that John lacks, like infancy stories, and the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. While Jesus teaches in parables in the Synoptics, he teaches in longer discourses in John.

The Synoptics seem to have a one-year ministry for Jesus (that is, they only mention one Passover); but John mentions three Passovers (2:13, 6:4, 11:55). In John, Jesus journeys to Jerusalem three times (2:13, 5:1; 7:10), but in the Synoptics, Jesus’ ministry is mostly in Galilee and its vicinity, and Jesus only goes down to Jerusalem at the end.

John has stories that the Synoptics lack: the miracle of the wine; the Samaritan woman; the healing at Beth-sada; the healing of the man born blind; and the raising of Lazarus. Although the story of the woman caught in adultery is not in the oldest manuscripts of John, it did become added to John later, and it is not found in the Synoptics.

In John, Jesus died the day before Passover (18:28; 19:14), which was on a Friday, while in the Synoptics, Good Friday was the first day of Passover.

In John, the disciples have less of a role, compared to Matthew, Mark, and Luke—although Nathaniel (chapter 1) and Thomas (chapter 20) have significant appearances, and Peter is important in all four Gospels. John’s gospel refers to “the disciple whom Jesus loved,” whom church tradition back to Irenaeus has identified as John. If John was not the actual author, his testimony is the foundation of the narrative (21:24).

While John has a few parables and proverbs, Jesus talks less about the kingdom of God than of themes like light and life, in longer monologues, dialogues, and stories. Jesus’ speech is John 14-17 is a little longer than his other long speech, the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7).

While in the Synoptics Jesus uses third-person references to the Son of Man, and Jesus also tells people not to say anything about their experiences of his healing, etc. But in John, Jesus speaks more boldly about himself; he refers to his unity with God the Father, and the fact that Jesus does the work of the Father (5:17, 5:38, 6:45, 8:29, 14:6, and others. John’s gospel is more of a theological reflection upon the meaning of Jesus.

Certainly the prologue of John is unlike anything we’ve seen so far in the New Testament. The Gospel author affirms that Jesus is the creative glory of God, who has now become human and dwells among the people. That word “dwells” makes us think of the “dwelling” of the glory of God in the Temple.

Although Jesus refers to God’s Holy Spirit in the other Gospels, John chapter 14 has Jesus teaching more about the parakletos, or “Paraclete,” which means counselor, comforter, advocate in different translations. The Spirit will continue Jesus’ ministry after Jesus is no longer physically present with his followers.

John’s Gospel also affirms a very present presence of Christ, not just in the end times (5:24, 12:31, 14:30, 17:3-4, and others). The “ruler of this world” is already condemned, and God’s life is already given to believers (5:24). We are thus called to believe and have confidence even though we have not experienced Jesus’ physical presence (20:29b, 31).

In a way, the very last verse of John includes all of us, as we have our own stories of the living Christ that we can tell, and all the books in the world could scarcely contain all of our testimonies from all the centuries.

Unfortunately, John is the most anti-Jewish-sounding Gospel, and that has been a tragedy for Jews over the centuries. My friend of blessed memory, Rabbi Albert Plotkin of Phoenix, wrote in his memoirs: “I am always concerned about religious anti-Semitism because unless the New Testament is interpreted correctly, you get a very hostile picture of Jews in the Gospel of John. He was not very friendly to us. Of course, John is the heart of Christian theology. John’s thinking and John’s teachings became the central focus in the historical development of Christianity. That was the one Gospel that took center stage, and all the Christian theological thinking and all of the passion plays come from John… The other Gospels are pro-Jewish… We have to overcome that hostility in some way. That is why I have worked hard at interfaith programs. i really feel that the answer has to come from greater communication between us. We need to understand one another… We need dialogue for many purposes because there are many non0Jews who do not understand Judaism, who have certain stereotypes about Jews and Jewish thinking and Jewish ideas about who we need to educate our community” (Rabbi Plotkin, Tempe: ASU Libraries, 1992, p. 123).

This is a helpful site that illustrates the anti-Judaism in John’s Gospel. John uses “the Jews” 71 times (compared to 16 in the Synoptics), almost always in a negative way, linking Jews to the devil (8:44), blaming them for Jesus’ death (18:3, 19-24, et al.), and holding them at a distance (21:13, 11:55, et al.) as if Jesus and his disciples weren’t observant Jews, too! The author notes that it’s hard to read John as a criticism of Jews as an ethnic group, and not what John’s Gospel was, a group of Jews who had been removed from the synagogue and felt oppressed as a new, “inside” group of Jews.

Here also is a helpful article, by D. Moody Smith, “Judaism and the Gospel of John.” Smith has a number of good points about this problem. Toward the conclusion of the article, he reminds us that both Judaism and the new Christian movement were in a time of stress and entrenchment at the time (late first century). In the aftermath of the Roman War of 66-73 CE, in which the Temple were destroyed, the Jewish leadership addressed the future of Judaism (see my earlier summary of the Talmud) which, in turn, omitted sectarian groups from the character of Judaism. The Johannine community, on the other hand, was zealous about Jesus and Jesus Faith, and they saw themselves as possessors of the true kind of Judaism. (I’ve met Christians, fresh from an energizing spiritual retreat, who return to their congregations and think everyone is far less “spiritual” than they. These “newly spiritual” people can be quite intolerant and divisive!)

Smith writes: “Historical circumstances have changed, and continue to change. The setting of modern Judaism is in many respects both more diverse and more hopeful than that of its late first-century counterpart. Yet the continued threat to the existence of modern Israel is almost universally viewed by Jews as a threat to Jewish survival. The Holocaust, of recent and bitter memory, represented a more dire threat to Judaism than the Roman war. After all, the Romans only wanted the Jews to be reasonable–by Roman standards, of course; they did not want to destroy the Jewish people or their religion. The Nazis wanted to destroy both.

“There is something in the Johannine blacklisting of the Jews, the consigning of them to this world and to Satan, that in Jewish eyes foreshadows the Holocaust or the annihilation of Judaism. Such a dire, negative view of Jews and of the whole world is undeniably present in John. But, paradoxically, it is precisely John’s Gospel that presents the motivation, meaning, and effect of God’s revelation in Jesus as love. Furthermore, the love of God finds its true response in reciprocal human love that will lead to the unity of the community of love. It is a concept of revelation and response that is in principle universal. In the course of the vagaries and vicissitudes of history, the universal goal was jeopardized, and the dualistic division between truth and falsehood, light and darkness, seemed to be the last word.”

Smith continues that although we shouldn’t characterize the Johannine Community and Pharisaic Judaism as “liberal” and “conservative”—labels that oversimplify the situation—they do represent opposites, demanding loyalty to their respective positions—but opposites WITHIN THE JEWISH TRADITION. We Christians no longer need to feel competitors with Jews but can and should be friends and partners in witnessing to God.

One more set of notes about the Gospel of John. I’m always interested in discovering connections between the Old and New Testaments. At the recent Social of Biblical Literature meeting, I found a fascinating book by Brian Neil Peterson, John’s Use of Ezekiel: Understanding the Unique Perspective of the Fourth Gospel (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015). Those are two books I’d never thought to connect!

In his first chapter, Peterson summarizes several of the differences between John’s gospel and the Synoptics—including the fact that John seems to allude to or quote the Old Testament less often than the Synoptics (27 times, compared to 124 for Matthew). But Peterson argues that Ezekiel was a major influence for John. Some of the connections include:

The vine imagery in Ezekiel 15 and John 15 (p. 13).

The shepherd imagery in Ezekiel 34 and John 10 (p. 13).

The emphasis in Ezekiel upon God’s majesty and holy name, compared to passages in John like chapter 1, and Jesus’ self-identification with God (pp. 14-15).

Ezekiel’s use of extended oracles, and Jesus’ longer speeches (instead of the Synoptics’ pericopes and parables) (p. 15).

The ministry of Ezekiel in a foreign land, and the “foreignness” of Jesus who relates to people outside the usual circles (pp. 15-16).

The way both John and Ezekiel begin with a vision of majesty (John 1 and Ezekiel 1-3) (chapter 2).

The way the John emphasizes Jesus’ miracles as “signs,” and Ezekiel’s several sign acts (chapter 3).

The departure of God’s Glory from the Temple (Ez. 8-11) connects to Jesus’ “cleansing” of the Temple, and John’s early placement of the event in Jesus’ ministry (chapter 4).

Ezekiel’s vision of a restored Temple (Ez. 40-43), and Jesus’ own teaching of a restored Temple—in his own person (chapter 7).

Ezekiel’s frequent use of the expression “that they/you will know that I am Yahweh”, compared to Jesus’ several “I am” statements in John’s Gospel (chapter 5).

Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones (Ez. 37), and Jesus’ teaching of resurrection and unity, particularly John 17 and Ez. 37:15-28, and John 20 with Ez. 37 (chapter 6).

Overall, the setting of Ezekiel is the destruction of the Temple in 586 BCE and the hardships of the aftermath, while the background of John (likely a late first-century document) was the Roman destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE and the hardships faced by Jews and Christians (p. 205). Ezekiel—whose prophetic-priestly ministry required personal suffering—became a useful prophet that shaped John’s vision.

Peterson makes numerous interesting points of analysis in this book, recommended for your study!

This week I’m studying Acts of the Apostles (in Greek, Πράξεις τῶν Ἀποστόλων, “Práxeis tôn Apostólōn” or “deeds of the Apostles.” “Praxis” is a Greek word that has moved into English). I wrote most of this post on Dr. King’s birthday, thinking about ways we are faithful to the Gospel today.

Acts gives us the account of the spread of Jesus-Belief from Jerusalem to Rome, in the course of a little over thirty years. Luke addresses “most excellent Theophilus,” who is possibly an important person of some kind who had questions about Jesus and his followers, but who was receptive to the new Christianity. Although Philip, Barnabas, Apollos, and others are important characters in the story, Peter dominates the first part of the story, Paul the second.

My seminary classmate William Shepherds wrote a good book describing the Holy Spirit as a “character” in Luke-Acts. As one reads these biblical books, it’s helpful to think of God’s Spirit as the major figure in the narrative.

The”journeys of Paul” is one of those blocks of biblical geographical material—like post-Noah migrations of Genesis 10-11, the tribal allotments in Joshua, and the Israelite kingdoms of 1 and 2 Kings—which can be rewarding to study. I read somewhere (and didn’t note the source) that Acts implicitly connects us back to Genesis 10-11. In Genesis, the generations following Noah spread into the world, with an accompanying confusion of languages. In Acts 2, the Holy Spirit creates understanding of the Gospel among persons of many languages, and consequently the message of Christ goes out into the world.

The author of this site,, points out that Acts stresses the unity of the church (2, 4, 15, 20) and provides “progress reports on how the church advanced through the world (2:47; 6:7; 9:31; 12:24; 16:5; 19:20; 28:30, 31). Theophilus would have thus understood how a Jewish sect in Jerusalem reached Rome within a generation. (Acts and Joshua and quite different Bible books, but they both tell a story of a unified purpose and notable success thanks to divine grace and guidance.)

Acts opens with the last days on earth of Jesus in his visible, resurrected body. He ascends to Heaven, but it’s easy to overlook the importance of the Ascension in the overall drama taking place (Christ’s passion, death, resurrection, ascension, and promised gift of the Holy Spirit).

The disciples replace Judas. As they’re gathered together a little later, they are filled with God’s Spirit which allows them to speak and be understood in different languages, impressive for Diaspora Jews who have traveled to Jerusalem for Pentecost (Shavuot). Peter’s sermon results in a positive response from pilgrims, with 3000 becoming the first assembly of unified Jesus Believers.

Peter heals a lame man, for which he is detained for a while, and he takes the opportunity to preach another sermon to his opponents. As the assembly of Jesus Believers grows, they face different kinds of struggles, like the deceit of Sapphire and Ananias, opposition of religious leadership, and tensions between Hellenistic and Hebraic Jews. The later is addressed when the apostles establish a more organized ministry to assist widows. One of the selected assistants, Stephen, becomes a noted preacher, too—-but his sermon results in his impromptu execution on the charge of blasphemy. As we saw in Matthew’s gospel, too, Stephen has a “deuteronomistic” attitude toward the religious leadership, viewing them through the history of the rejection of God’s prophets. But Stephen also alludes to Psalm 110:1, a favorite verse throughout the New Testament, that envisions Jesus as sitting with God in the position of power. As he died, Stephen offered prayers of intercession and forgiveness (Acs 7:60), a lesson for all of us.

Although the church becomes scattered around Palestine and Syria as a result of Stephen’s death, Philip has a notable ministry in and around Samaria, including his conversation with the Ethiopian eunuch, presumably the first Gentile convert to Jesus Belief.

Saul, a diaspora Jew and Pharisee also known by his Roman name Paulus, becomes a crucial figure in the movement in chapter 9, when the feared persecutor has an experience of the risen Jesus, is ministered to by Ananias, and becomes a preacher of Christ.

The story returns to Peter in chapters 9, 10, 11, and 12, which tell of his healing ministry as well as his meeting with Cornelius (a meeting which the Holy Spirit had set up). Another turning point in the story of the gift of the Spirit to the gentile soldier and his family. James dies and Peter is imprisoned during a time of persecution, but Peter is saved through God’s intervention.

Paul is the major figure in Acts 13 on. First, he and Barnabas travel to Cyrpus, Pisidian Antioch, and Iconic to Lycaonia, Lystra and Derbe. They return to Antioch, but meanwhile the issue of Gentile inclusion in the predominantly Jewish sect required attention. The Jerusalem Council of the church (chapter 15) ruled that just a few Jewish mitzvot were required for Gentile converts, but not circumcision for the men. (The following six paragraphs are from an earlier post.)

I took down a favorite book that my grandmother gave me when I was 14: The Zondervan Pictorial Bible Dictionary, Merrill C. Tenney general editor (Zondervan, twelfth printing 1971). In the center of the book, following page 624, there is a section called “The Journeys of St. Paul,” with clear plastic pages that you can place over the map of Greece and Asia Minor, to see the approximate routes of Paul’s travels.

That same section has summaries of Paul’s travels. This is a lot to quote, but I copied the material here for my own interesting:

“First Journey of St. Paul. Acts 13:1-14:28. The church at Antioch ‘set apart’ Paul and Barnabas for ‘the work whereunto I have called them’ and they sailed to Salamis on Cyprus, Barnabas’ native island. Assisted by John Mark, they preached at Salamis and then journeyed across to Paphos, from which port they sailed to Perga in Pamphylia where Mark left them. From this point they invaded Asia Minor, touching Antioch in Pisidia, Iconic, Lystra, where Paul was stoned and left for dead, and Derbe. Retracing their steps, they further instructed the converts and organized them into churches with properly selected leaders. Sailing from Attalia, they returned to their starting point in Syrian Antioch.

“Second Journey of St. Paul. Acts 15:36-18:22. Because of contention with Barnabas over John Mark, Paul chose Silas as his companion on the second journey. Leaving Antioch, they visited churches in Syria on their way to Derbe and Lystra. Here Timothy joined them and they traveled throughout Phrygia and Galatia. At Troas they received the call to Macedonia where churches were founded at Philippi, Thessalonica and Berea. Moving on to Athens, Paul delivered his great sermon before the Stoic and Epicurean philosophers on Mars Hill. Leaving thens, they journeyed to Corinth and founded the church there before going on to Ephesus. From there Paul sailed to Caesarea and visited Jerusalem.

“Third Journey of St. Paul. Acts 18:23-21:16. Departing once more from Antioch, Paul ‘strengthened the disciples’ in Galatia and Phrygia on his way to Ephesus where he spent two years and three months teaching and preaching. It was here at Paul’s preaching provoked violent conflict with the silversmiths, and the financially-prompted riot led by Demetrius brought his ministry to an abrupt end. After a stay of three months in Greece, Paul sailed from Philippi to Troas and then on to Miletus where he had his meeting with the Ephesian elders. From Miletus Paul took a ship to Tyre, and after a brief delay he continued on to Jerusalem.

“Fourth Journey of St. Paul. Acts 21:17-28:31 Following Paul’s arrest in Jerusalem and the exposure of the plot to kill him, he was moved under heavy protective guard to Caesarea, where he remained in prison for some two years. During this period Paul’s case was heard first by Felix, then by Agrippa. But because of his appeal to Caesar, he, accompanied by Luke and Aristarchus, was displayed on a ship to Rome. At Myra they transferred to an Alexandrian grain ship bound for Italy, but after riding out a typhoon for fourteen days, the ship was wrecked on Malta. Three months later they continued on to Rome, where Paul was placed in custody. He probably was set free and had a further unrecorded ministry. According to tradition he was executed in Rome in A.D. 66 or early 67.”

I’ve been thinking about ways the New Testament communicates an unintentional anti-Judaism that evolved over time to overt prejudice and persecution of Jews. Acts depicts Jesus-believing Jews and Gentiles as the true Israel, and since Jews opposed the Christians, sometimes violently, they become enemies of the Gospel. Unfortunately, Christians begin to adopt anti-Jewish or antisemitic attitudes for their own time and place. In his Writings of the New Testament, my seminary prof Luke Johnson indicates that in Acts 16-28, the term “Jew” is used about 70 times to refer to opponents to Paul’s message (p. 237), although Acts does include Gentile hostility to Paul as well. This is not meant to be a rejection of Judaism or the Jewish scriptures, but a new time in Israel’s history, and Paul understood himself to be a teacher of Judaism (p. 237).

Johnson reminds us that “God had always willed in principle that Israel’s blessing should be extended to the Gentiles as well” (p. 228). This is a theme that begins back in Luke, with the allusion to Isaiah 42:6 in Luke 2:32, as well as the citation of Isaiah 40:5 in Luke chapter 3 (p. 228). Luke 24:47 and Acts 1:8, as well, teach Jesus’ command to preach to all the world (p. 228).

Acts depicts an important process that is still part of the church’s life: how do we perceive God’s work in something new that is happening? How do we know it is the Spirit at work? How do we address resistance to our message? How do we both show and tell people about Christ in a positive, helpful way, that is truly the good news of which Jesus spoke back in Luke 4:16-21?