This is HARDLY a comprehensive New Testament blog, though that is something I would like to do some day. But inasmuch as the LDS Gospel Doctrine course of study is New Testament this year, I wanted to at least have a venue where I could post some links, resources, excerpts from other things I have written, and, as the title suggest, "thoughts."

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Palm Sunday, Holy Week, and Easter.

Yes, I am several weeks behind, thanks to speaking schedules and family obligations. And I am not even sure where my ward is . . . I think we just did Matt 13 and parables (lesson 11?). But inasmuch as tomorrow is Palm Sunday and the next week is Easter (and LDS General Conference), I am going to just refer readers to my LDS Seasonal Materials blog.

Please take the links below for posts in my LDS Seasonal Materials blog that treat each of the events and days of the Savior's final days:

The Passion Week and the Resurrection

  • Palm Sunday: The Triumphal Entry; the Cleansing of the Temple
  • Monday:  The Marcan Cleansing of the Temple; Teachings in the Temple
  • Tuesday: More Teachings in the Temple; the Olivet Discourse
  • "Spy" Wednesday: The Anointing in Mark and Matthew; Judas agrees to betray Jesus
  • Holy or "Maundy" Thursday: The Last Supper; Farewell Discourses; Gethsemane; Before the Jewish Authorities
  • Good Friday: Jesus in the Hands of the Romans; the Crucifixion; the Burial
  • Saturday: Jesus in the Spirit World
  • Easter Sunday: The Resurrection

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Raising the Son of the Widow of Nain

Excerpted from The Miracles of Jesus, 106–108

The Church at Nain, with BYU Jerusalem Center students, summer 2012

Only Luke tells the story of the widow of Nain, whose son Jesus revived even as his body was being taken to its burial (Luke 7:11–17).  Placed after the healing of the centurion’s son and before the calming of the storm, this story may have been the first instance of Jesus’ raising someone from the dead (see “List of the Miracles of Jesus” in the Appendix).  According to the Lucan account, Jesus approached the city of Nain in Galilee, accompanied by a large following of disciples and others.  The site of ancient Nain, is now occupied by the Arab village of Na`in some four miles southeast of Nazareth.  The town has a beautiful view of the Jezreel Valley, which might have given it its name, meaning “lovely” or “charming.”[1]  At the gate of this town Jesus met the funeral procession of the young man, described as “the only son (Greek, monogenēs huios) of his mother, and she was a widow” (Luke 7:12, emphasis added).   Moved with compassion, Jesus told the bereft mother not to weep, reached out and touched the funeral bier, and called upon the young man, saying, “Young man, I say unto thee, Arise (Greek, egerthēti)” (Luke 7:14, emphasis added).  Immediately the young man sat up alive and began to speak. 

Of the three recorded instances of Jesus raising the dead, this story has the most in common with the Old Testament stories of Elijah and Elisha.  Elijah had raised the son of the woman of Zarephath, who, as in this story, was also a widow.  Elisha revived the only son of the Shunamite woman, whose home, Shunem, was probably at the site of the modern Arab village of Sulam less than two miles southwest of Nain.[2]  Yet while Jesus’ miracle at Nain might have been anticipated by these earlier Old Testament stories, there were significant differences.  Jesus does not seem to have known the widow at Nain before, and he helped her without any request or expression of faith on her part.  Elijah and Elisha, on the other hand, had been guests of the women whom they helped, and both mothers had begged the prophets to help their sons.  Their sons were resuscitated privately in their own houses, whereas Jesus performed the miracle at Nain in public before much of the town.  Finally, the Shunamite woman, whose son’s earlier conception had been a miracle itself, was not only married but also quite wealthy.[3]

The emphasis on the widowhood of the woman at Nain, however, underscores her desperate plight: not only had she now lost her son, she had earlier lost a husband.  The term used for the young man when Jesus calls upon him to arise is neaniske.  Though this means “youth,” it can refer to any man until about the age of forty,[4] making it possible that he had been a young adult and his widowed mother’s only source of support.  His death was thus not only a devastating personal loss for her, it may also have represented an economic catastrophe.  In Luke’s account, she neither speaks nor acts at any point in the story; she is, according to Barbara Reid, “a nameless, silent object of pity.”[5]  As a result, the miracle is portrayed as a pure act of kindheartedness on the part of Jesus, illustrating his interest in and concern for women, the poor, and the marginalized.[6]  

 James Tissot, Jesus Raising the Son of the Widow at Nain

Jesus stopped the procession of the funeral cortege by touching the bier, an act that would have incurred ritual defilement according to strict interpretation of the law.  As usual for Jesus, such considerations were not important in view of his healing ministry and his desire to help those who were suffering.  Just as Jesus frequently healed people by “raising” them from their sick beds, here Jesus commanded the young man to “arise,” using a form of the same verb egeirō that is also used in connection with resurrection.  Thus while this man’s resuscitation was only a return to mortal life, it nevertheless serves as anticipation with Jesus’ own permanent conquest of death.  This connection might be underscored by Luke’s emphasizing that the young man was the widow’s only son (monogenēs huios), even as Christ is the Only Begotten (monogenēs) of the Father (John 1:18).[7]  While Mary had other children by Joseph (see Mark 6:3; Matthew 13:55), Joseph is never mentioned again as being alive after the stories of Jesus’ birth and boyhood.  As a result, there is also a certain parallelism between the widow of Nain and Mary, a widow who also witnessed the death of her own beloved son.

After the young man arose, Jesus “delivered him to his mother” (Luke 7:15), even as Elijah had “delivered” the child of the widow of Zarephath back to her, saying “See, thy son liveth” (1 Kings 17:23).   At Nain the crowd reacted with both fear and awe, giving glory to God and exclaiming “that a great prophet is risen up among us” and “God hath visited his people” (Luke 7:16).  Given Nain’s proximity to Old Testament Shunem, the multitude may well have had Elisha in mind.  Yet the public wonder and expressions of praise must have paled when compared to the heartfelt relief and overwhelming joy of the mother, which was not recorded.  The miracle of Jesus’ raising the widow’s son was only the first of others he would perform, each of which looked forward to a much greater, everlasting restoration of life.  This ultimate miracle will not only return one woman’s child to her but will restore all of our loved ones to us, with a promise of our never being separated again if we are true and faithful.

[1]Knight, The Holy Land, 225–26.
[2]Knight, The Holy Land, 226–27.
[3]Meier, A Marginal Jew, 2.792–93.
[4]Dabelstein, “Neaniskos,” Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament, 2.459.
[5]Reid, Choosing the Better Part, 104.
[6]Witherington, Women and the Genesis of Christianity, 85.
[7]Some important manuscripts of John 1:18 actually read “only begotten god” (monogenēs theos), though the adjective “only begotten” here is the same.  See Metzger, Textual Commentary, 169–70.

Calming the Stormy Sea

Excerpted from The Miracles of Jesus, 19–22

            The divinity of Jesus that the miracle at Cana symbolized was even more clearly demonstrated in those nature miracles that are the clearest examples of epiphanies, or direct revelations of a divine identity.[1]  The twin examples of Jesus’ calming a storm on the Sea of Galilee and his later walking on that same body of water are striking illustrations of this because they employ common Near Eastern symbols of creation, which often involved a deity defeating the unruly powers of chaos, which were often represented with images of stormy seas.[2]  But more importantly, because the Hebrew Bible credited YHWH, or Jehovah, with the ability to subdue the sea and tread upon the face of the waters, these New Testament miracles directly connect Jesus with the Jehovah of the Old Testament.

First century Galilee boat, Nof Ginosar, Israel
Mark 4:35–41 gives the earliest account of Jesus stilling a storm and thereby saving his disciples.  His account is followed with only some modifications by Matthew 8:23–27 and Luke 8:22–25.[3]  The first part of the episode sets the scene by describing the great storm that arose while Jesus and his disciples were on the Sea of Galilee in a small boat.   The disciples’ terror contrasts with the unperturbed calm of Jesus, who seemingly would have slept through the storm had his friends had not roused him, begging for his aid.  In the second part of this miracle story, Jesus, in a moment of divine majesty, “arose, and rebuked (Greek, epitimēsen) the wind, and said unto the sea, Peace, be still. And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm” (Mark 4:39).  Jesus’ direct rebuke of the storm is followed by an implicit reprimand of his disciples in the next verse, when he says, “Why are ye so fearful? how is it that ye have no faith?”  The concluding part of the story relates the reaction of the disciples: “they feared exceedingly, and said one to another, What manner of man is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him? (Mark 4:41).  The common literary motif of greatness weaves the sections of the miracle story together, stressing the great storm that occasions the miracle, the great calm that ensues, and the great fear of the disciples that results.[4] 

Eugene Delacroix, Christ Asleep during the Tempest
            This repeated emphasis on greatness underscores Jesus’ connection with the Old Testament YHWH who could cause the flood to recede (Genesis 8:1), divide the Red Sea (Exodus 14:21; Psalm 106:7–11; Isaiah 51:10), and cause storms to arise and to subside (Jonah 1:4, 15–16; Psalm 89:8–10; 93:3–4; 107:25–30).  But while God could be the force behind tempests to accomplish his purposes, some storms result from independently acting forces of nature, which since the fall can be unpredictable, dangerous, and even contrary to his purposes.  As a result, the Lord at times must rebuke the waters (Psalm 104:7), even as Jesus rebuked the wind on the Sea of Galilee (Mark 4:39).  This adds an important element to the image of Jesus as Jehovah: whereas he had originally brought order out of chaos as Creator, since the fall his creation has become prone to disorder, making it necessary for him to “reorganize” it.  This idea of re-creation is, in fact, a type of Jesus’ role as the one who would reverse the effects of the fall, giving us hope that sickness, disability, age, war, other conflicts, and even the death that characterizes mortality will one day be overcome and set right.[5]

            But beyond being an epiphany that reveals the divine identity of Jesus as Creator and Re-creator, the mighty act of calming the storm can also be characterized as a rescue miracle.[6]  Indeed, in Matthew’s version, the disciples cry out, “save (Greek, sōson) us: we perish” (Matthew 8:25, emphasis added).  Just as the sailors on the ship to Tarshish had to rouse a sleeping Jonah to pray for the Lord to end the storm that threatened them, so Jesus slumbered during the Galilee storm, untroubled, and apparently not in any danger, from such a temporal tempest.[7]  But where Jonah prayed to the Lord, asking him to calm the tempest, Jesus himself rebukes the storm and brings peace.  The original audience of Mark is generally understood to have consisted of a small, persecuted Christian community in and around Rome,[8] which would have compared their own trials and struggles to being caught in a dangerous storm.  They, like the original disciples on the boat with Jesus, may have had a crisis of faith as they waited for the Lord to rescue them but would have taken heart that he would, in fact, save them in time.[9]  This is where readers and believers today can find modern application: just as YHWH could rescue his people from actual storms on the sea and bring them safely to their port (see again Psalm 107:23–30), when storms of life arise for us, Jesus will save us if we have faith and will call upon him.  Beyond that, the use of the word “save” (Greek, sōzō) also connects Jesus’ miracle here to the deeper, spiritual salvation that comes through the atonement.[10]

[1]Theissen, The Miracle Stories of the Early Christian Tradition, 94–99.
[2]Achtemeier, “Person and Deed: Jesus and the Storm-Tossed Sea,” 170–75; Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew, 123.
[3]Twelftree, Jesus the Miracle Worker, 113–14, 155–56.
[4]Meier, A Marginal Jew, 2.925–28.
[5]Achtemeier, “Person and Deed: Jesus and the Storm-Tossed Sea,” 176.
[6]Theissen, The Miracle Stories of the Early Christian Tradition, 99–101.
[7]Meier, A Marginal Jew, 2.931–32; Twelftree, Jesus the Miracle Worker, 70–71.
[8]Witherington, The Gospel of Mark, 31, 34–36.
[9]Marcus, Mark 1–8, 336–37.
[10]Twelftree, Jesus the Miracle Worker, 112–13.