Friday, August 13

Mark 13:14-27: This section of Mark, about the Abomination of Desolation and the Great Tribulation, is shared with Matthew (Matthew 24:15-28) and Luke (21:20-24). Jesus alludes to a remembered past event in order to prophesy about the near future. In doing so, He follows a pattern of historical interpretation common to the Old Testament prophets.

In verse 14 the bdelygma tou eremoseos—literally, “the Abomination of Desolation”—is a translation of a Hebrew expression found three times in the prophet Daniel (9:27; 11:31; 12:11; cf. 1 Maccabees 1:54), to refer to the idol erected to Zeus in the Second Temple by the Seleucid king, Antiochus IV Epiphanes (1 Maccabees 1:54-64).

The desecration, which had occurred in 167 B.C, only two centuries earlier, was still a vivid memory to the Jews, who understandably regarded it as a low point in their history and a source of profound shock and outrage. At that time the Temple itself was stripped of its adornments; other pagan altars were erected, and unclean animals were sacrificed upon them (Josephus, Antiquities 12.54). This had been a time of great persecution of the righteous Jews by the unrighteous, not only by pagans but also by fellow Jews.

In Daniel’s text the Hebrew expression for Abomination of Desolation is hashuqqus meshomem, appears to be a parody of the name that refers to Zeus, ba‘al shamayim, “lord of heaven.”

Mark (followed by Matthew) uses a parenthetical note, “let the reader understand.” This exhortation, which clearly comes from the evangelists and not from Jesus, perhaps calls attention to the plan of the Roman emperor Caligula to erect a statue of himself in the Temple in A.D. 40. This proposed desecration of the holy place would have repeated what had occurred two centuries earlier under Antiochus IV Epiphanes. This seems to be what both evangelists had in mind.

Saturday, August 14

Acts 26:12-32: Paul goes on to describe his conversion. We have here the third and most elaborate account of that event in the Acts of the Apostles and the only version of the story to contain the detail about Paul’s “kicking against the goad,” a metaphor for resistance to divine grace. This detail insinuates that Paul had already been feeling the pangs of conscience for his grievous mistreatment of Christians. This verse suggests, then, that Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus represented a sort of climax to a spiritual struggle already being waged in his own soul.

In this experience Paul was “grabbed” by Christ (Philippians 3:12), and a radical destiny was laid upon him (1 Corinthians 9:15-18). Like Ezekiel (2:1-2), he is told to stand on his feet (verse 16). Indeed, this account of Paul’s calling should be compared with the stories of the callings of several of the Old Testament prophets, chiefly Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Zechariah. What Paul is called to preach is the fulfillment of all that the prophets wrote. Thus, various prophetic themes appear in this account of his call. For example, in the metaphor of the opening of the eyes from darkness to light (cf. Isaiah 42:7,16). Paul clearly regards his ministry as a completion of the work of Moses and the prophets (verse 22).

When Paul mentions the Resurrection, however, Festus believes that he has gone too far. Paul’s excessive study of literature (polla grammata)—that is to say, the Hebrew Scriptures and the rabbinical sources–has caused his mind to snap, Festus asserts, so that he can no longer distinguish between reality and fantasy. In this response of Festus we discern the reaction of the pagan world to this most Christian of doctrines—the rRsurrection. Greco-Roman culture, with its chronic disrespect for the material world (as evidenced, for example, in the pagan custom of cremating dead bodies), would have scanty respect for the doctrine of the resurrection, which takes so seriously the holiness inherent in the human body sanctified by the Holy Spirit. The situation is not so different today.

Faced by a pagan unfamiliar with belief in the Resurrection, Paul turns to Agrippa for a more sympathetic hearing. However, when Paul, answering what seems to be something of a jest on the king’s part, invites him to become a Christian, the king becomes uncomfortable, and the hearing is abruptly ended. Festus, now confident that he can send Paul to Rome with precise instructions to the legal system there, resolves to hand him over to guards for the journey.

Sunday, August 15

Marian Feast: Uniting John's portrayal of Mary at the wedding at Cana (the beginning of Jesus' earthly ministry) and at the foot of the cross (the end) is what we might call "the theme of the royal mother." John stresses Mary's maternal relationship to Jesus; his use of the term "mother of Jesus" seems to convey a certain reverence, much as it does in Luke's portrayal of the nascent Church gathered in the upper room, waiting for the coming of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:14).

This maternal relationship of Mary to Jesus is linked to John's emphasis on Jesus' kingship, particularly in the context of his passion. Many Bible scholars have noted how John goes to some length to stress that Jesus died as a king. Unlike the other evangelists, John shows how Jesus' claim to kingship was made a major component of his trial before Pilate (18:33, 36-37). The Roman soldiers mock Jesus with the words, "Hail, King of the Jews!" (19:2) At the last it is Jesus' assertion of his kingship that becomes the decisive charge leading directly to his condemnation (19:12-15).

Although the other gospels do speak of the sign over Jesus' cross identifying him as "King of the Jews" (Matthew 27:37; Mark 15:26; Luke 23:38), only in John does this designation become a point of controversy between Pilate and Jesus' accusers (John 19:18-22), thereby drawing more explicit attention to it. In John's account Jesus is even buried in a garden (19:41), like His royal ancestors, the covenanted kings of Judah (2 Kings 21:18, 26). Jesus' cross, then, is inseparable from his kingship.

Now it is in connection with Jesus' kingship on the cross that John speaks of "the mother of Jesus" (19:25). In placing this description of Mary in this context of kingship, John summons to mind the biblical tradition of the queen mother. Biblical kings sometimes had numerous wives, but they had only one mother, and she was a person of considerable prestige and power. Described as wearing a crown (Jeremiah 13:18) in the royal court (22:26; 29:2), the king's mother, the gebirah, was regarded with reverence by his subjects.

To gain a proper sense of the difference between a biblical king's wife and his mother, one need only compare two scenes found close together in the First Book of Kings. In the first of those scenes, Bathsheba "bowed down and did homage" to her husband David (1:16); in the second, however, her son Solomon "rose up to meet her and bowed down to her, and sat on his throne and had a throne set for the king's mother; so she sat at his right hand" (2:19).

Such regard for the queen mother was most conspicuous in the line of the covenanted Davidic kings, Solomon being the first. We observe that in the passion accounts Jesus is not called the "King of Israel," but specifically "the King of the Jews." It is the royal house of Judah that is envisaged. Now in all but two instances the Books of Kings explicitly name the mothers of the kings of Judah, in striking contrast to the uncovenanted kings of Israel. John's simple reference to "the mother of Jesus," then, evokes this ancient institution of Judah's royalty. Mary takes her place as the last and greatest of the queen mothers of Judah. (In Luke this evocation is conveyed by the expression "mother of my Lord" in 1:43).

rong>Monday, August 16

Acts 27:1-12: This trip to Rome, which will fill the two final chapters of the book, is the point to which the literary tension of the Acts of the Apostles has been building. This is the journey that matches the Aeneid of Vergil, for Rome is the goal of both books. Paul’s going to Rome is a matter of his destiny (cf. 19:21). Accordingly, Luke’s inclusion of so many nautical details obliges the reader to slow down and savor the significance of the event.

In this final voyage Paul will be accompanied by Aristarchus and Luke (verses 2-3), who had helped him bring the alms to Jerusalem over two years earlier (20:4,6), and who have been with him at Caesarea since that time (Colossians 4:10,14; Philemon 24).

They board a ship whose homeport is Adramyttium, just south of Troas, or Troy, from where Aeneas had set sail for Rome. Luke’s inclusion of this detail is thus significant. Leaving Phoenicia, they cruise along the east and north sides of Cyprus, against strong head winds (verse 4), and then go north to Asia Minor. The ship is obviously returning to its home port. At the city of Myra, on the south coast of Asia Minor, they change to an Alexandrian ship bound for Italy. It was perhaps a grain cargo ship, so many of which brought wheat to Rome at a fraction of the cost of transporting grain overland to Rome from elsewhere in Italy. Still fighting contrary winds, they make their way to Salmone on the northeastern tip of Crete, a port well known to ancient navigators (cf. Strabo, Geography 10.3.20; Pliny, Natural History 4.58.71).

The “Fair Havens” they reach on the south coast of Crete is still known by that name in Greek, Kali Limenes. In verse 9 Luke informs us that the Feast of the Atonement, or Yom Kippur, had already passed. If, as we are justified in suspecting, this was the year 59, then the Day of Atonement was October 5. That is to say, they were approaching the winter season when sailing on the Mediterranean was considered unsafe (November 11 to February 8 [Pliny] or March 10 [Josephus]). Phoenix, where they hope to winter, lies some forty miles further west on the south side of Crete (verse 12).

Tuesday, August 17

Acts 27:13-32: When a light wind begins to blow westward, the ship’s crew decides it is just what is needed to take the ship those forty miles west to Phoenix. They weigh anchor and continue the journey, hugging the south coast of Crete. Not long after commencing this maneuver, however, the ship was hit by a “typhoon wind” (anemos typhonikos), a nor’easter blowing down from over Crete and sending the ship out to sea in a southwesterly direction. There was nothing to do but let her ride the storm. With no way to see either stars or moon, navigation became impossible, and soon they had no idea where they were or even in which direction they were headed. With no sunlight, the most basic sense of direction was lost (27:20). That is to say, the journey was no longer under human control. God would take the ship where he wanted it to go.

Presently, some twenty-seven miles due south of Phoenix, the very port the crew had hoped to reach before the storm came, Paul’s ship ran under the lee of the island of Cauda (cf. Pliny, Natural History 4.12), the modern Gozzo. A brief relief from the storm, as the ship sat below Cauda (Acts 27:16), enabled the sailors to undergird the hull with cables, to make the vessel’s planking tighter against the waves. To impede the ship’s wild movement in the storm, a kedge anchor was dropped (the correct meaning, I believe, of chalasantes to skevos), because the craft had been drifting south so fast that the crew feared running onto the reef shoals of the Libyan coast at Syrtis.

The shoals of Syrtis, west of Cyrene, to which Luke refers, consisted of two shallow bays, now known as the Gulf of Sidra and the Gulf of Cabes. “Syrtis,” a name meaning “sandbank” and related to the Greek verb syro, “to drag,” was a place frightful to mariners, who tried their best to avoid those shallows, with their hidden rocks and their sands ever shifting in the tides and waves (Pliny, Natural History 5.4.27; Dio Chrysostom, Discourses 5.8–11). This was that “Syrtis, terrifying to whoever hears of it” (Flavius Josephus, The Jewish War 2.381).

This place was the same “unfriendly Syrtis” (inhospita Syrtis) that “confined” (cingunt) Carthage (Aeneid 4.41). It was at Syrtis that Aeneas’s ships ran aground (1.111,146; cf. 10.678), and, when he finally left Carthage, he carefully avoided sailing that way (5.51; 6.60; 7.302). (It did not bother Vergil’s purposes, obviously, that Syrtis lay much too far east to provide a landing for Carthage, nor should it, I suggest, bother us.)

Paul’s ship did not drift down to Syrtis, evidently because the wind shifted and drove it into what Luke identifies as the Adriatic Sea (Acts 27:27). This navigator’s calculation was surely made afterwards, however, because at the time no one on board had more than a guess where they might be. The ancients thought of the Adriatic as extending southward to include the waters between Crete and Sicily (Ptolemy, Geography 3.4.1; 17.1; Strabo, 2.123). Fierce storms were common there (Horace, Odes 1.33.15; 2.14.14; 3.3.5; 3.9.23).

Luke tells us that their ship drifted for 14 days before crashing onto the rocks (27:41). This chronological detail renders improbable, I think, the KJV’s translation of diapheromenon as “driven up and down” (27:27). Luke’s expression is better translated as “tossed around,” because several changes of wind and current, of the sort suggested by the KJV translation, would make it unlikely for the ship to have reached Malta in just two weeks.

It is more reasonable, surely, to think of a more or less steady drift westwards averaging maybe a knot or two each hour, or roughly 36 miles a day. This estimate would better account for the 480 or so miles between Cauda and Malta. Indeed, it works out to almost exactly thirteen and a half days, a calculation that brings us to the night before the shipwreck, when they “dropped four anchors from the stern and prayed for day to come” (27:29).

Wednesday, August 18

Acts 27:33-44: two years or so after St. Paul’s harrowing experience on the Adriatic, Flavius Josephus traveled to Rome on another ship that foundered in those very waters. His description is worth quoting at length:

I arrived at Rome, after much peril at sea. When our ship sank (baptisthentos) in the middle of the Adriatic, some of us, around six hundred in number, swam through the whole night, and about daybreak, by God’s providence, there appeared a ship of Cyrene. Myself and some others, about eighty all together, outstripped the others and were taken aboard (Vita 15).

Josephus went on to describe this ship’s landing at Puteoli, which the Italians, he noted, called Dicaearchia (Vita 16). This was the same port, on the Gulf of Naples, at which Paul had disembarked the previous year or so (Acts 28:13).

One is also struck, however, by a big difference between the descriptions that Josephus and Luke give us of their shipwrecks in the Adriatic. That of Josephus is very short and sparse in particulars, while Luke’s description is lengthy, dramatic, and very detailed. For Josephus, the shipwreck was an event; it happened and it was over. Luke’s shipwreck, however, was part of a larger epic, a historical saga of great significance. Therefore he takes particular care in his description of this experience that he shared with Paul.

As for Paul himself, he was no stranger to shipwreck. Indeed, prior to the incident so minutely described by Luke, Paul had already been shipwrecked on three different occasions, during one of which he had spent a night and a day clinging to some spar or other
piece of ship’s rigging to stay afloat (2 Corinthians 11:25). Luke recorded none of those earlier disasters, though we suspect he knew of them. If he takes such care in his description of Paul’s shipwreck at Malta, then, he must see in it a special significance: It was God’s providential way of bringing Paul to Rome.

That movement from Jerusalem to Rome, embodied especially in the travels of St. Paul, symbolized for Luke that internationalizing of the gospel inherent in his version of the Great Mandate that “repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem” (Luke 24:47).

Thursday, August 19

Acts 28:1-10: Arriving on Malta, perhaps in mid-November, Paul and his companions must winter there until sailing again becomes possible in the spring, three months later (28:11). The apostle’s run-in with the snake, though regarded by the Maltese as miraculous, need not be interpreted that way. The Greek word here translated as “viper” (echidna) normally refers to non-poisonous snakes and is different from the word used in Mark 16:18. Paul’s healing of Publius’s father, however, certainly is miraculous and leads to further healings on the island.

Second Kings 22: Josiah was six years old when his grandfather died in 642, to be succeeded by the boy’s unpopular father, Amon (2 Kings 21:19–26; 2 Chronicles 33:21–25). When the latter was assassinated two years later, little Josiah acceded to the throne at age eight.

We know almost nothing of his early regency period, but Josiah soon became his own man. In 632, near his sixteenth birthday, he experienced a religious conversion, pointing him in a new direction. Four years later, on assuming the full powers of the throne, Josiah began a large-scale reform of the religious life of Judah, an ambitious project now rendered possible by the growing disarray of the Assyrian Empire (2 Chronicles 34:1–17). It was also in that very year that the Lord sent Jerusalem one of the greatest prophets, a young man named Jeremiah.

From a religious point of view, then, things were starting to look better.
Nonetheless, the best was yet to come. Among the features of Josiah’s reform was a thorough purging of the Jerusalem temple to rid it of all vestiges of idolatry. In 622, during the course of this work, the renovators discovered an ancient manuscript, which historians identify as either the whole or central section of the Book of Deuteronomy. It had been lost for many years. After 622, therefore, Josiah had in hand a very specific text on which to base his continuing reform of Judah’s religious life. Point by point, he and his reformers began to implement the prescriptions of Deuteronomy (2 Chronicles 34:8–33), including the restoration of the Passover (35:1–19). For this reason, historians customarily refer to Josiah’s efforts as the Deuteronomic Reform.

Because several generations of “Deuteronomists” would continue to make that book the basis of Judah’s religious life, the ferment and effects of Josiah’s reform were to outlive the king himself. In the following century, those Deuteronomic scholars would serve as the backbone of Judah’s survival, even flourishing, during the Babylonian Captivity. During that time of exile, it was under the impulse of Deuteronomic theology that they would edit and unify much of the historical material contained in the Bible.

Friday August 20

Acts 28:11-16: When the time comes to depart, they once again sail an Alexandrian grain ship, which has wintered at Malta. Luke includes the detail that its prow is adorned with carved statues of Castor and Pollux, astral gods revered by the sailors who call upon them in times of storm. They sail to Syracuse, on the east coast of Sicily, where they remain three days while the crew unloads old cargo and takes on new. They then cross over to a port on the Calabrian coast, Rhegium (modern Reggio), on the very toe of the Italian boot. Taking advantage of a southerly wind, they then sail up to Puteoli (modern Pozzuoli) on the Bay of Naples, where they find a congregation of Christians.

Some of these Christians immediately rush north to Rome, 125 miles away, to inform the Christians in the capital that Paul is on the way. The apostle and his company, meanwhile, spend a whole week at Puteoli before continuing their journey overland. Eighty miles later they come to Appian Forum, and, ten miles further, to Three Taverns; in both places they are met by Christians who had been forewarned of Paul’s coming by the Christians from Puteoli. They are all glad to see him, of course. They may be thinking of the epistle that he wrote them three years earlier from Corinth.

Second Kings 23: The royal sponsorship of the Deuteronomic Reform came to an end in the year 609. It happened in this way:

As the Prophet Nahum had foretold, the Assyrian capital of Nineveh fell to the Babylonians in 612, but a good part of the defeated army survived. Moving north to Haran, at the top of the Fertile Crescent, this remnant continued to hold out for three years, waiting desperately for help expected from Egypt.

In 609 Egypt’s new Pharaoh, Neco II, to whom it was obvious that his country’s advantage lay in stopping the rise of the Neo-Babylonian Empire, determined to go to the aid of those Assyrians. With some Greek mercenaries, Neco moved up into Palestine, planning to join the Assyrians at Carchemish on the Euphrates.

King Josiah of Judah, however, had ideas of his own. Knowing firsthand the evils of Assyria, he determined to throw in his lot with the Babylonians, so he led the army of Judah to meet Neco’s forces at the Megiddo pass. In the ensuing battle, the great Josiah was killed at age thirty-nine.

For Judah his passing was an unmitigated tragedy. The strong, devout Josiah was followed on the throne by a series of quislings, who governed an ever-diminishing nation until Jerusalem’s destruction in 587 B.C.