Here at the beginning of Advent are a few thoughts for you to consider.
Like a lot of people I tried reading the Bible through one year. I was in my teens and was working my way through the King James Bible. When I came to Matthew 1, often called “the Begat” chapter, I remember my eyes glazing over and skipping ahead. You see the first part of Matthew 1 is a carefully-crafted geneaology of Jesus. Here is how the beginning reads in the KJV:
1 The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.
2 Abraham begat Isaac; and Isaac begat Jacob; and Jacob begat Judas and his brethren;
3 And Judas begat Phares and Zara of Thamar; and Phares begat Esrom; and Esrom begat Aram;
4 And Aram begat Aminadab; and Aminadab begat Naasson; and Naasson begat Salmon;
The “begats” continue through three ranks of fourteen generations. I found the list of names terribly uninteresting and irrelevant so I scooted ahead. I knew little to nothing about these people and the whole thing seemed to be TMI–too much information.
Well, now I have a different perspective. I find the Begat chapter one of the most interesting and provocative chapters in Matthew’s Gospel. Let me give you a few reasons why. First, in a day when geneaologies did not include the names of women–despite their obvious importance in “begetting” children–Matthew includes the names of several key women to signal that in the Kingdom of God women will have a new and important role. Second, Matthew also included allusions to people with scandalous pasts. Tamar, for example, played the harlot and was impregnanted by her father-in-law. David fathered Solomon through the wife of another man, Uriah. Remember Bathsheba? Matthew could have ignored those embarrassing moments, instead he highlighted them and brought them front and center in order to show that Jesus would be a friend of sinners: an important theme in several of the Gospels. Third, Matthew underscores how Jesus’ family line includes non-Jews like Ruth the Moabite, grandmother to King David. She had converted to Judaism (see Ruth 1) and ultimately married into what would be a royal line. If the blood of the nations is already flowing in the family of Jesus, then it makes perfect sense that magi from the east would hurry to greet and worship the new born king and Matthew would end his account with the Great Commission. Go and make disciples of the nations.
There is more to the geneaology than this, but these are a few of the highlights. These may be just a list of names to us, but to Matthew and his first hearers they were their spiritual and physical ancestors. For him it was like opening up a family photo album and telling a few stories. And the best story was yet to come.
Recently, Professor Richard Bauckham gave a lecture at Houston Baptist University which considered the descriptions of geographic locations around the sea of Galilee as part of a “mental map” of a Galilean fisherman. It was an interesting lecture that was well attended. The substance of the lecture will be included in a new book written as a sequel to Richard’s book, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses.
I don’t normally do this but I read a blog post from Larry Hurtado (larryhurtado.wordpress.com) in which Richard Bauckham clarifies what he means by “eyewitnesses.” It is to the point and offers a helpful handle on some of Richard’s ideas. I include a link to Larry’s blog here:
There are many words found in most Bible translations that aren’t translations at all. They are transliterations. Let’s consider some key words in the New Testament. Words like “Christ,” “baptism,” “angel,” and “apostle” are not translations from Greek to English but transliterations, that is, replicating the sounds made by the words.
When scholars began to translate the Old and New Testaments into the English language, they faced enormous challenges. Not only were powerful people opposed to rendering the sublime texts of Scriptures in a common language such as English, but the English language itself did not have all the words needed to reproduce meaningfully what the original languages were saying. The solution was to invent words which did not exist in English. One example is the word passover .
In the fourteenth century when Wycliffe translated the New Testament into English, the word “Passover” did not exist in the English language. So when he came to those New Testament passages that referred to the Jewish Passover, Wycliffe transliterated the Latin word pascha—which is itself a transliteration of the Greek word pascha—into English as “pask” or “paske.” As you see, transliteration involves representing the characters of one alphabet in another alphabet; it has nothing to do with translating the meaning of the word, only the sound of it. How readers and hearers may have reacted to this new word we do not know. Did they understand what it meant, or was some further explanation needed?
In 1535 when Tyndale translated the Old Testament into English, he decided to invent a new word in English to communicate the meaning behind the Hebrew root pesach:
When your children ask you, “What does this ritual mean to you?” you will answer them, “It is the Passover sacrifice to the Eternal, for He passed over the houses of the Israelites when we were slaves in Egypt. And although He struck the Egyptians, He spared our lives and our houses” (Exodus 12:26–27).
The Hebrew root of the name of the Jewish festival alludes to the fact that God “passed over” the houses of the Israelites on his way to judging the cruelty of the Egyptian slave owners. Tyndale combined the two English words—“pass” with “over”—to create a single, new word which carefully and accurately reproduced the meaning of the Hebrew word. Transliteration, at its best, can only reproduce the sounds made in another language not their meaning. What Tyndale did by creating the word passover. The Voice translation has done for other key words which, until now, have not been accessible to a modern audience.
I have the privilege of teaching with Dr. Peter Davids at HBU. Peter is a world class scholar who has devoted much of his writing and research to the Catholic or General Letters. Peter assisted with us in the theological review of many NT books for The Voice project. I asked him recently about the portrait of Jesus in the letter of James.
According to James, Jesus is the exalted and glorious Lord who now reigns and will come again to judge the living and the dead. James is not a Gospel, so there is no narrative of Jesus’ life and death. Yet James draws heavily on the example and teaching of Jesus.
While modern Christians may be focused on the afterlife, James is fixed on this life and what faith in Jesus means now. His readers claim to be following Jesus; well, are they really? James is a teaching letter and his ethics appear close to what we find in Matthew, particularly the Sermon on the Mount.
There are no direct quotations of Jesus’ teaching in James, the closest we come to that is James 5:12 (similar to Matthew 5:35-37):
12 It is even more important, my brothers and sisters, that you remember not to make a vow by the heavens or the earth or by anything. When you say “yes,” it should always mean “yes,” and “no” should always mean “no.” If you can keep your word, you will avoid judgment.
John Kloppenberg has made the case that James makes use of aemulatio, a rhetorical form where James takes a teaching of Jesus and conforms it to his setting. In other words, James reworks Jesus’ teaching to fit the current situation of the diaspora churches he is addressing.
So James is not all that different than what we find in the rest of the NT. Jesus is coming again as judge. Are you obeying him now? James’ emphasis on Jesus’ future coming implies that their present sufferings are not without meaning; so, be patient and don’t take matters into your own hands. Trust the judge to settle all scores.
But if James were the only account we had of Jesus’ life, we wouldn’t know much about his past. The Church would celebrate his coming and his ascension to the right hand of the Father. With no account of his birth, however, we would probably not celebrate Christmas. There would be more emphasis on calling people to obedience to Jesus now. The Church’s mission could be summed up this way: calling people to Jesus as Lord and living in the hope of his coming.
With James as our guide, the church probably would not have developed the kind of hierarchy we see in some churches. Yet James does speak as a patriarch of sorts, a central authority writing from the mother church in Jerusalem and instructing scattered Christian communities in the tense times they found themselves in.
According to tradition, James was a member of Jesus’ family, but the letter never makes the explicit claim. Still it must have meant something in the early Jewish-Christian communities to have been part of the family of Jesus. Later generations may de-emphasize that fact and privilege Paul and Peter over members of Jesus family. Still it must have been “a big deal” to have had been related to Jesus.
Dr. Davids said that Paul is often misread over against James. But if pressed, James would have agreed with Romans 10:9-10:
So if you believe deep in your heart that God raised Jesus from the pit of death and if you voice your allegiance by confessing the truth that “Jesus is Lord,” then you will be saved! 10 Belief begins in the heart and leads to a life that’s right with God; confession departs from our lips and brings eternal salvation.
For James, however, saving faith is faith that goes to work for the poor, faith that obeys the risen Lord, and faith that seeks wisdom from above. So for James—as a follower of Jesus—salvation results not only a secure future with God but ethical behavior before God.