To Harmonize or Not: A Brief Answer

120628-four-gospelsFrom time to time I receive random questions from people I don’t even know. One from yesterday went as follows:

“Does Trinity Bible College hold the position that the four Gospels can or cannot be perfectly harmonized into one account?”

And my brief response (that I thought could be of interest to some who follow this blog) after letting the individual know that Trinity does not have any official position on this:

The four Gospel accounts can be harmonized with one another, but must also be allowed to remain distinct voices from one another. This has been the historic response to such ideas. Irenaeus in the second century contended for the necessity of the four distinct accounts that each in their own ways reveal Jesus as God’s self-revelation and belong being heard together (though as individual voices). Tatian (another second century Church father) attempted a harmony as the text of the Syriac Church (it was called the Diatessaron), but this was rightly rejected by the wider Church as failing to allow for the distinctions of each individual Gospel account. In other words, I would say that while we believe that the Gospels do not actually contradict one another they remain as differentiated testimonies to Jesus that should be honored as distinct witnesses.

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Sometimes It Causes Me to Tremble: Reflections on Mark 16.1-8

Following the lectionary, I preached the Gospel portion from Mark 16.1-8 this morning. This may not seem strange to others, but for a Pentecostal preacher to end before the well known long ending of Mark is tantamount to heresy (not really, but it is a rare phenomenon that cuts against the grain). The Gospel of Mark ends quite abruptly in certain of the manuscript traditions (the one I believe better represents the earliest final form; on the variants and textual witnesses see the NET notes). The longer endings which most are familiar with offer appearances of Jesus, empowerment and calling to mission, and the successful engagement of the good news to the ends of the earth. But that is not where the Gospel ends in the most likely origin:

“When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body. Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb and they asked each other, “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?” But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed. “Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’ ” Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.” (Mark 16.1-8 NIV)

In this ending there are no angels. There is no earthquake. No appearance of Jesus to any of his disciples or the women. No commission to evangelize. There are only mourning women encountering a “young man” dressed in “white” who reminds them of the words of Jesus and informs them to tell Jesus’ “disciples and Peter” to head up to Galilee where Jesus has gone ahead of them. The passage ends with silence and fear. Talk about a heavy ending. What are we to do with such an ending? (Apparently enough folks believed something needed added thus lending itself to the multiple forms of the endings preserved).

We, likewise, are left with only the witness of others speaking the words of Jesus regarding his resurrection (and soon coming). We do not ourselves encounter the risen Christ directly. It is mediated to us. We find ourselves often confused in silence and fear. But the words return, “Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen!” And we also hear the “Go, tell…”. Our hearts tremble. Our minds quake.

But this story continues on in victory. It continues to be passed on and lived out. We only hear this account because those same trembling women did in fact testify to the words concerning the risen Christ. They were faithful! The task they had been entrusted in fear becomes the task we all bear: to share the words of others to us of the risen Lord. To tremble…then testify!

When King Jesus Reigns: “They will pick up snakes”

This second Sunday of Advent, one of the readings was Isaiah 11.1-10 (and the one from which I preached):

11 “A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
    from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.
The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—
    the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
    the Spirit of counsel and of might,
    the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord
and he will delight in the fear of the Lord.

He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes,
    or decide by what he hears with his ears;
but with righteousness he will judge the needy,
    with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth.
He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth;
    with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked.
Righteousness will be his belt
    and faithfulness the sash around his waist.

The wolf will live with the lamb,
    the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling[a] together;
    and a little child will lead them.
The cow will feed with the bear,
    their young will lie down together,
    and the lion will eat straw like the ox.
The infant will play near the cobra’s den,
    and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest.
They will neither harm nor destroy
    on all my holy mountain,
for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord
    as the waters cover the sea.

10 In that day the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations will rally to him, and his resting place will be glorious.” (NIV 2011, emphasis added)

In the reign of King Jesus, the promised “shoot” from the “stump of Jesse” and the “root of Jesse”, there would be a full undoing of the present order of existence: injustice and violence as normal parts of life.

The Spirit endowed King would cause even the animal kingdom to align with his reign of life and righteousness over the whole earth. The serpents become not even an enemy whose head would be crushed (see Gen. 3.15) and who would bruise the heel of the ‘seed’ of woman. Instead, the serpent and child live as friends. Seeming eternal enemies playing together. What a strange world indeed! The very image of the toddler with serpent strikes fear into my heart!

snake-and-baby

And the fear I felt sent my thoughts rushing to Mark 16.18* which reports the words of Jesus concerning those whom he was sending out into the world as witnesses of the good news of his reign: “they will pick of up snakes with their hands” without being harmed.

The Messianic Age imagined by the prophet Isaiah appears to be taken up by Mark as the reality of the apostolic witnesses! The King enthroned signaled the end of injustice and violence (even that which was considered “normal” to the order of life as experienced)…the end of the dangers of this age. It was the dawning of a new day…indeed a new creation order! The end was not yet, but was already witnessed in the undoing of injustice and violence at the hands of the apostles, in the undoing of the animosity of serpent and ‘seed’.

King Jesus ascended. His reign commenced. His servants gathered to his banner. He would come again and all of creation would be set to rights. Until that day, the citizens of his kingdom would go out and “pick up snakes with their hands”** as testimony to his soon coming.

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* Despite the later addition of the long ending of Mark this text still offers an intriguing literary and theological intersection with the Isaiah 11 passage.

** I am not here advocating for “snake-handling” as certain within the Pentecostal traditions. In other words, DON’T PICK UP SNAKES! Those who have made this a practice are regularly harmed (and many have died, including the founder of this movement: George Hensley) by doing such. Their experiences actually reveal that the kingdom is not witnessed among them, but offers a deeper understanding of the remaking of creation. I am advocating for the working in light of the reigning King as those who live between worlds and testify to a new heavens and new earth even as we bear the cruciform marks of our Lord Jesus in this world of sin and sorrow.

Greek Manuscripts, Mark 1 and Nomina Sacra