Friday, July 26

Mark 11:1-11: We should begin our consideration of this story by recalling that the coming Messiah was expected to purge the Temple. Earlier suggestions of this idea include Isaiah 56:7, which is quoted by the Gospels as a prophecy fulfilled on this occasion: “Even them I will bring to My holy mountain, / And make them joyful in My house of prayer. / Their burnt offerings and their sacrifices / Will be accepted on My altar; / For My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations.” In this text the Temple is “purged” in the sense of being rebuilt after its destruction by the defiling Babylonians. Our Lord also indicates His fulfillment of prophecy on this occasion by justifying His action with a reference to Jeremiah 7:11: “‘Has this house, which is called by My name, become a den of thieves in your eyes? Behold, I, even I, have seen it,’ says the Lord.”

Perhaps even more to the purpose, however, are the words of Malachi, referring to the Messiah’s coming to the Temple in order to purge it:

”Behold, I send My messenger, / And he will prepare the way before Me. / And the Lord, whom you seek, / Will suddenly come to His temple, / Even the Messenger of the covenant, / In whom you delight. / Behold, He is coming,” / Says the Lord of hosts. / “But who can endure the day of His coming? / And who can stand when He appears? / For He is like a refiner’s fire / And like launderers’ soap. / He will sit as a refiner and a purifier of silver; / He will purify the sons of Levi, / And purge them as gold and silver, / That they may offer to the Lord / An offering in righteousness. / Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem / Will be pleasant to the Lord, / As in the days of old, / As in former years” (Malachi 3:1-4).

The context of this purging foreseen by Malachi was the sad state of Israel’s post-Exilic worship, to which the prophet was witness (1:6-10,12-14).

The Temple’s expected “purging” by the Messiah had mainly to do with ritual and moral defilements, much as Judas Maccabaeus had cleansed from the Lord’s house after its defilement by Antiochus Epiphanes IV. This purging was completed with the Temple’s rededication on December 14, 164 B. C. (1 Maccabees 4:52).

As described in the New Testament, however, the “defilement” does not appear to have been so severe. It apparently consisted of the noise and distractions occasioned by the buying and selling of sacrificial animals necessary for the Temple’s ritual sacrifice. John describes the scene in greater detail: “And He found in the temple those who sold oxen and sheep and doves, and the money changers doing business. When He had made a whip of cords, He drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and the oxen, and poured out the changers’ money and overturned the tables” (John 2:14-15).

To grasp this context we should bear in mind that the greater part of the people in the Temple during the major feasts (and all the Evangelists place this incident near Passover) came from great distances. Naturally they brought no sacrificial animals with them, reasonable expecting that local vendors on the scene would meet their needs. These vendors brought the necessary herds and kept them in the immediate vicinity of the Temple. Indeed, without their mercantile provision, the ritual sacrifices of the Temple would have been rendered impossible, and the activity associated with this arrangement was considered part of the normal business of the Temple, rather much as the sale of Bibles, prayer books, icons, and rosaries in the shops near St. Peter’s in Rome. The action of Jesus, then, was not directed against ritual and moral pollutions but against the normal business of the Temple.

Hence, what the Lord did in this respect was more symbolic than practical. There is no evidence that this action of Jesus amounted to more than a slight disturbance to the daily activity of the Temple, nor does Jesus seem to have persisted in it. He intended, rather, to enact a prophecy, much in line with sundry similar actions by the Old Testament prophets. Those who were witnesses to the event discerned this significance, recognizing it as a “Messianic sign.” This recognition explains the menacing reaction of the Lord’s enemies (Mark 11:18; Luke 19:47).

Saturday, July 27

Joshua 8: Although the Lord had delivered Jericho to Israel’s armies in a miraculous fashion, this seems not to have been the case with the city of Ai. The present chapter describes the fall of Ai, rather, in terms of regular military tactics. That is to say, it is sometimes the case that the Lord—to demonstrate the sovereignty of His grace—uses extraordinary and unexpected means to accomplish His purposes. At other times, He acts through means that are more obviously human. The present chapter illustrates such an instance.

Acts 17:12-19: Standing not very many yards from the spot where Socrates defended his philosophy to the citizens of Athens, the apostle Paul now delivers his own defense of the Gospel to the philosophers. Luke notes two philosophical schools in particular, the Stoics and the Epicureans (verse 18).

These two philosophical schools interpret the world in radically different ways. The Epicureans believe themselves to be living in an entirely meaningless world, a world completely subject to chance, a world of—to use Spengler’s helpful distinction—“incident” but not “destiny.” While the Epicurean world is devoid of either purpose or direction, it does give man a great deal of room for freedom, not only in the sense of his being able, by his choices, to escape the constraints of external forces, but also in the sense of his not being answerable to an eternal moral law backed up by divine sanctions. The Epicurean’s happiness depends on how he uses this vast freedom, and he chooses to do so by living for pleasure. Not the base pleasures of the flesh, but the higher enjoyments of the mind and the refined senses. Epicureanism, then, is the philosophy of cultivated, refined pleasure. The ethics of the Epicurean is thus an ethics of self-discipline and restraint.

The Stoic world, on the other hand, is far from meaningless. Indeed, it is utterly suffused with meaning (logos). Existence, for the Stoic, has so much intrinsic meaning that man is really quite unable to add to it. So what dimensions of existence are left to man’s freedom? If human existence is already determined by a profound meaning that man does not put there—and to which man is unable to make a personal contribution—how is man to live? The Stoics answer: by inwardly accepting the way things are, by purging of heart and mind from those passions and desires that would cause a person to depart from the meaning at the heart of existence. The world is already under control; man must learn to control himself. The ethics of the Stoic, then, is also an ethics of self-discipline and restraint.

To these two groups Paul preaches a theology of history, in which the deeds of men will be judged, not by themselves in accord with their varying moral theories, but by God who “has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained” (verse 31). In this earliest encounter of the Gospel with pagan philosophy, we observe especially the difficulty experienced by the latter in dealing with the material world (the Resurrection!) and the moral structure of history. Paul can barely begin this discussion, so great is the opposition (verses 32-33). His converts in Athens appear to be few, but they include a woman philosopher named Damaris (verse 34).

Sunday, July 28

Acts 18:1-17: When he arrives in Corinth, coming from Athens, Paul is supremely depressed (1 Corinthians 2:3), perhaps from his relative failure at Athens, and probably also because he has not yet heard back from the delegation to Macedonia. It is now near or at the beginning of the year 50, and Paul will remain in Corinth until the summer of 51.

The congregation he founds at Corinth will be among the most contentious Christian churches of antiquity. There will be so many problems within that congregation that Paul himself will be obliged to write them at least four epistles, of which two are preserved in the New Testament (or three, if 2 Corinthians is a composite of two epistles). In addition, before the end of the century the church at Corinth will receive yet another letter from Clement, the third Bishop of Rome, reprimanding them yet again for the same sorts of dissension, rebellion, and contentiousness that had so grieved Paul at the earlier period. A modern scholar, K. Stendhal, remarked about the church at Corinth that it “had almost all the problems that churches have had through the ages, except the chief problem of our churches today: it was never boring.” Under the guidance of divine providence, of course, those Corinthian troubles have worked unto our own spiritual profit, for without them we would not have some of the most important pages of the New Testament (1 Corinthians 13, for instance).

The city of Corinth joins two major seaways separated only by a half-mile of isthmus, which bears the same name as the city. Thus, the latter has major ports on both sides and was a very bustling commercial center. (In modern times a canal across the isthmus joins those two waterways more directly.) Although Cicero called it “the light of all Greece,” the philosopher Diogenes, who certainly knew the place better (and would eventually die in it), said that he went there only because a wise man should go where the most fools are to be found.

The first people to meet Paul in Corinth, however, were not fools. They were a couple, Aquila and his wife, newly arrived from Rome. The wife’s name is Prisca (1 Corinthians 16:19; Romans 16:3; 2 Timothy 4:19), though Luke always calls her by the affectionate diminutive name, Priscilla (“little Prisca”) (verse 2). It is also curious that Luke twice names the wife before the husband (18:18,26), which may hint which of the two impresses him as the stronger and more striking personality. Like Paul they are leather-workers (skenopoioi), a profession involved in making tents, saddles, and such things.

Meanwhile, Silas and Timothy arrive from Macedonia (verse 5), bringing reports from the congregations at Philippi, Thessaloniki, and Beroea. In response to one of these reports, Paul writes the First Epistle to the Thessalonians early in the year 50, including the names of Silas and Timothy as joint-authors (1 Thessalonians 1:1). Here in Corinth Paul also has his usual troubles with the Jews (verse 6), so he simply moves his teaching next door to the synagogue (verse 7), and he takes the leader of the synagogue with him. This was Crispus (“curly”), who will appear later in 1 Corinthians 1:14-16.

We know, from an inscription found at Delphi, that L. Junius Gallio Annaeus, older brother to the philosopher Seneca, was the proconsul of Greece (Achaia) from the early summer of A.D. 51 to the early summer of the year 52. Along with Claudius’s expulsion of the Jews from Rome in 49, this inscription is one of our most important controls on the dating of the events narrated in the Acts of the Apostles. It enables us to “fix” the time of Paul’s appearance in the presence of Gallio, the story told in these verses, in May or, more probably, June of the year 51. The judgment place (bema) of Gallio, where Paul appeared, may be visited even now in the excavations at Corinth.

Concerned solely with the preservation of the civic order, Gallio is not impressed by the vague accusations brought against Paul by his Jewish detractors (verses 13-15). They, frustrated by the governor’s insouciance, begin to beat one of their own leaders, who had recently become a Christian (verse 17). This is Sosthenes, who will later serve at Paul’s secretary in the composition of 1 Corinthians (1:1).

Monday, July 29

Joshua 10: This chapter, in which attention is directed to the southern campaign of Joshua’s invasion, begins with an alliance formed to resist that invasion. This alliance, alarmed at the capitulation of the Gibeonites (recorded in the previous chapter) determines to attack Gibeon itself rather than Joshua’s invading force (verse 4). This procedure made military sense. If the alliance could punish the Gibeonites for their treaty with Joshua, it was reasoned, other Canaanite cities would think twice about following suit. If the attack on Gibeon proved successful, other cities would be disposed, rather, to join the coalition against Joshua.

This alliance of five Canaanite city-states, under the leadership of Jerusalem, had another reason for conquering Gibeon as a way of resisting Joshua’s advance. In fact, this second reason rendered the control of Gibeon imperative to the resistance—namely, Gibeon’s strategic position guarding the route through the Ajalon Valley, a route that would enable Joshua to divide and isolate the southern cities. After Joshua’s defeat of the alliance, his campaign pursued its remnant forces southward through that valley (verses 10-13).

Understanding the political situation throughout Canaan, Joshua resolves to make an example of the five kings involved in the alliance (verses 16-27). His ruthless tactics were extended to the citizens of Makkedah (verse 28), Libnah (verse 30), Lachish (verse 32), and elsewhere (verse 39). We may want to bear in mind that these descriptions are common in the language of battle, where they bear what we may call a “poetic sense.” That is to say, if ALL the citizens of all of these cities really did perish under Joshua’s sword, we readers of Holy Scripture will be hard pressed to explain why they continued to pose problems for Israel in the very near future.

Acts 18:18-28: Some time after the incident with Gallio, Paul goes to the nearby coastal city of Cenchrea (home town of the deaconess Phoebe, who several years later will carry the Epistle to the Romans to its intended destination—cf. Romans 16:1).

We may surmise that Silas (Silvanus) was left at Corinth, because at this point he disappears entirely from Luke’s narrative. He certainly leaves Corinth within the next five years, because he does not appear in the Corinthian epistles, a thing unthinkable if he were still in the city. We do not hear of Silas again until the early 60s, when we find him at Rome (cf. 1 Peter 5:12).

At Cenchrea Paul has his head shaved, part of the ritual in a thirty-days’ period of special fasting and devotion (cf. also 21:26; Numbers 6:1-21; Flavius Josephus, The Jewish War 2.15.1). Paul then boards a ship, along with Aquila and Priscilla, to journey to Ephesus, where after some days he leaves these two companions. He boards another ship that takes him south to the coastal city of Caesarea. There he pays his respects to the local church, the original nucleus of which consists in the family and friends of Cornelius. From there Paul goes overland to Antioch, the church that had commissioned his second missionary journey, which is thus brought to an end. Paul will remain at Antioch for the winter, until the spring of 52. Meanwhile, as we shall see, Aquila and Priscilla will be very busy with the ministry at Ephesus.

Tuesday, July 30

Joshua 11: This is the sort of story that causes many modern people to wince and squirm—so much violence!

Well, this is true, but let me mention why such texts do not bother me. I liken these darker parts of the Hebrew Scriptures to shadows cast on the earth by the earliest appearance of the light. The Latin Psalter says to the Lord, “Thou hast crafted the dawning and the sun”—Tu fabricatus es auroram et solem (Psalm 73:16). We observe the order: Dawn-then-sun. Strictly speaking there could be no dawn unless the sun already existed. The Psalmist’s sequence of dawn-then-sun describes how things appear, not how they exist. The early light comes to us on a curve and then an angle. The daylight is presented to us in stages, the full sun itself being the final stage.

The angularity of the early morning light seems to hurl long lines of darkness on the earth. This is only an impression, nonetheless. What sort of logic would blame the light for the shadows? Who among us does not recognize that the shadows were already there, long before the light appeared? Indeed, it is the gradually emerging light that reveals the dark places. These shadows, they shorten, bit-by-bit, and they will vanish in the fullness of time, when the sun increases to full strength.

I am no more offended, then, by the darker parts of the Bible than by the shades thrown forward by the slanting daylight. To me, the dark shadows of the Book of Joshua resemble the somber drama of the Grand Canyon, as myriad silhouettes take shape down its walls, just before the sunrise.

Mark 12:1-12: The parable of the vine-growers—listed prominently in Jesus’ teaching during the last week of his earthly life—provides a sharp, defining outline of how he came to understand, not only his ministry to his contemporaries, but also his larger significance in the history of Israel. It illustrates how Jesus thought about his mission and destiny. No other of his parables, I believe, contains such an obviously “autobiographical” perspective.

Jesus’ parable narrates the history of Israel in terms of God’s expectations: “Now when vintage-time drew near, he sent his servants to the vinedressers, that they might receive its fruit” (Matthew 21:34). This feature of the vineyard, too, Jesus took from Isaiah, who declared that God “expected it to bring forth grapes (Isaiah 5:2).

Jesus expands the story by summarizing a sequence, in which God at various times dispatches the prophets to receive an accounting from Israel.

In Mark, as in Luke, the son in the parable is described as “my beloved,” agapetos mou, the same expression the Father used to address Jesus at both his Baptism and his Transfiguration.

Wednesday, July 31

Mark 12:18-27: Readers of Genesis 22—from Sirach to Kierkegaard—have pondered long what thoughts may have intruded themselves into the struggling mind of Abraham when the Lord required him to offer his son Isaac in sacrifice.

Perhaps the most insuperable problem was one of logic: How did Abraham reconcile in his thought the imminent loss of his son with the Lord’s earlier promise that this same son would be the father of many people? Just how could he resolve the contradiction between God’s promise, which he completely believed, and God’s command, which he was completely resolved to obey?

In fact, the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews, in the earliest Christian commentary on this story, explicitly cited God’s earlier promise—“in Isaac your seed shall be called”—in the context of the command that Isaac was to be sacrificed (Hebrews 11:18). How was it possible to reconcile God’s promise with God’s command? Abraham had three days to think about it.

The author of Hebrews reflected that Abraham, in order to resolve that contradiction, must have introduced into his reasoning process one further consideration—to wit, God’s power: “He reasoned that God . . . is able”—logisamenos hoti . . . dynatos ho Theos.

The wording of this argument is quite precise. In speaking of God, the author of Hebrews uses the adjective dynatos instead of the verb dynatai (“is able” instead of “can”). He thereby indicated he was thinking of an abiding quality of God—His power.

Abraham had already experienced God’s power in the conception of Isaac, when he and Sarah, for all practical purposes, were as good as dead: “And not being weak in faith, he did not consider his own body, already dead (since he was about a hundred years old), and the deadness of Sarah’s womb” (Romans 4:19).

In other words, Abraham reasoned that God’s power had already overcome the forces of death in the very circumstances of Isaac’s conception. And if God had overcome death once, He was always able to do so. Thus, says Hebrews, Abraham “considered that God is able [dynatos] to raise from the dead.” (Contrary to most English translations, there is no direct object to the verb “raise” in this verse. The sense is general, not specific. The text does not mean simply that God can raise Isaac; it means He can raise anybody.)

When the Sadducees challenged Jesus about the resurrection from the dead, He likewise appealed to the power of God. “Are you not therefore mistaken,” He asked, “because you do not know the Scriptures nor the power [dynamis] of God?” (Mark 12:24) And it is passing curious that Jesus spoke of both Abraham and Isaac in that context of the Resurrection: “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” By way of explaining the reference, Jesus concluded, “He is not the God of the dead, but the God of the living” (12:26-27).

For the author of Hebrews, the mind of ancient Abraham raced ahead in prophecy to the doctrine of the resurrection—it was an experienced inference from what he already knew of God. From the very temptation he endured, Abraham arrived at a new understanding of the living God—namely, that He is powerful to raise the dead to life. This was a true prophetic revelation granted to the struggling mind of His servant.

St. Augustine was much impressed by this story. “The pious father,” he wrote, “faithfully clinging to this promise—because it had to be fulfilled by the one whom God commanded him to kill—did not doubt that this son, whom he had had no hope of being given to him, could be restored to him after his immolation [sibi reddi poterat immolatus].”

For the author of Hebrews, the restoration of Isaac was enacted “in parable” (en paraboleHebrews 11:19). St. Augustine, translating “parable” as similitude, correctly understood it to refer to the Resurrection of Christ, when God’s Son was restored to Him after His immolation on the Cross. There was a “likeness”—similitude—between God and Abraham, revealed in the mystery of the Resurrection (The City of God 16.32).

Why, then, did God test Abraham? He did so in order to reveal an essential aspect of Himself: His power over death. Abraham arrived at this truth about God through the furnace of his mind, as he struggled to reconcile the divine promise with the divine command. God’s power over death was not an abstract truth, available to abstract thought; it was a truth learned on the pounding pulse of an ancient Mesopotamian, as he assumed a personal likeness to the very God who put him to the trial.

Thursday, August 1

Acts 19:21-30: While in Ephesus Paul conceives the idea of going to Rome, an idea that Luke ascribes to divine inspiration. How Paul finally makes that journey to Rome will be, of course, one of the great ironies of the book! Meanwhile, he begins to make more immediate plans to visit Greece, in order to set things right in the Corinthian church (1 Corinthians 16:5-7; 2 Corinthians 1:15—3:3), and to Jerusalem, in order to convey much needed funds for the relief of the poor (1 Corinthians 16:1-3; 2 Corinthians 8—9; Romans 15:25-29; Acts 24:17). Luke makes a point of dating these plans before the Ephesian riot that he will now go on to describe.

The excavations at Ephesus, which is the world’s largest excavation site, show it to have been a tightly populated city, the sort of place where a riot could be easily incited and quickly spread. In addition, as we know from informal inscriptions carved into the flagstones of the streets, the silversmiths of the city had their shops concentrated in a area very near the amphitheater of Ephesus. This latter, which easily seats up to 25,000 people, is still in an excellent state of preservation.

The “Artemis” worshipped at Ephesus, in spite of her name, was not the virgin huntress of the Greeks but a fertility goddess, roughly the equivalent of the Phoenician Astarte and the Phrygian Cybele, portrayed with twenty-eight breasts, one for each day of the lunar menstrual cycle. She was often represented in figurines of silver and terra cotta, and, according to the present text, so was her famous shrine at Ephesus, recognized in antiquity as one of the seven wonders of the world (cf. Strabo, Geography 14.1.20).

Because Paul and his team have been so successful in their preaching (supported, as we have seen, by miraculous healings), the silversmiths understandably feel that their idol-making business is under threat. Moreover, because the shrine at Ephesus has for a long time drawn pilgrims from far and wide, a loss of interest in that city’s famous shrine would have an even more devastating effect on the municipal economy (verse 27).

Such a fear, of course, is identical to that expressed at Philippi in Acts 16:19, and the impact of the Christian Gospel on pagan religion was readily obvious to thoughtful pagans (cf. Pliny the Younger, Letters 10.96.10).

So, two of Paul’s companions, who happen to be nearby, are abducted and dragged into the amphitheater, where the riot becomes concentrated. The situation grows tense and dangerous. Both of the apprehended Christians come from out of town, Aristarchus being a Thessalonian (Acts 20:4; 27:2; Philemon 24) and Gaius a Lycaonian from Derbe (Acts 20:4). Paul’s various friends and the other Christians prudently restrain him from entering the amphitheater, which has meanwhile become a scene of utter confusion, many of the rioters unsure why are rioting.

Friday, August 2

Joshua 14: This chapter begins the section in which the land of Canaan is divided by allotment, in accordance with the command that Joshua received in the previous chapter (13:1,7).

We already know from Numbers 36:16-29 that Eleazar, Aaron’s son and heir in the priesthood (Numbers 3:32; Deuteronomy 10:6), is to assist Joshua in this allotment.

Prior to this allotment, however, the reader is again reminded that territory has already been set aside, east of the Jordan, for two and a half of these tribes (verse 3). The writer likewise mentions once again that special provision is to be made for the tribe of Levi (verse 4).

In addition, before any allotment to the remaining tribes can be made, provision must be made for Caleb, the other of the only two spies who had remained loyal, decades earlier, when Moses had dispatched them for an initial inventory of the Promised Land (Numbers 13—14; Deuteronomy 1:35-36). Caleb officially belonged to the tribe of Judah (Numbers 13:6; 34:19), and his inheritance will fall within that tribe.

Forty-five years have elapsed since Caleb, a mere lad of forty at the time, had received Moses’ promise that he would inherit property in the land of Canaan (verses 6-10). Except for Joshua, he was the only surviving adult of the multitude that had marched out of Egypt, so it was entirely fitting he should be the first to inherit real estate in the land that he had inspected nearly half a century earlier. Caleb stands forever in the Bible as the model of such perseverance as leads to a great reward.

Acts 19:31-41: Fearing that the situation in the amphitheater might pose some special threat for the Jews—never popular at Ephesus (cf. Josephus, Antiquities 16.6.1)—a Jew named Alexander endeavors to disassociate the Jews from the Christians (verse 33), but mobs do not readily recognize distinctions so subtle. Besides, one of the abducted Christians is a Jew (cf. Colossians 4:10-11)! The riot could have ended very badly, but the Roman insistence on common sense and good order saves the day (verses 35-41). (If, as I have earlier suggested, Paul spent some time in jail at Ephesus, this was surely the occasion.)

A single man’s ability to restore order amidst such confusion should be credited, in no small measure, to the extraordinary acoustics of that amphitheater. Some decades ago I began to read this entire account in the Ephesian amphitheater in a slightly elevated stage voice and saw, spread all throughout the place, a hundred or more tourists, only a handful of them known to me, suddenly grow quiet, sit down, and listen to the story.