Thursday, March 26, 2015

What is My Heart Truly Saying?

I was reading Psalm 78; and, when I read, "They said, 'Is it possible for God to prepare a table in the desert'," it caused me to pause: Did they say that? No, not with their mouths nor even in their thoughts. This is what their hearts said, what they were saying subconsciously by their thoughts, words, and actions. They were just complaining, complaining about Moses--or so they thought. They did not realize they were speaking against God. They did not realize that, by their thoughts, words, and actions, they were saying: "Is it possible for God to prepare a table in the desert? It was he who struck the rock, water flowed and swept down in torrents. But can he also give us bread? Can he provide meat for his people?" What are our hearts saying? Are we better than the Israelites?

The psalm begins with these words: "Give ear, O my people, to my law; incline your ears to the words of my mouth." We know this is God speaking, because of the phrase "to my law." God's law is not just a bunch of rules He desires us to obey; His law is Himself, His essence. All the commandments have to do with love if one looks at them closely. His law is describing who He is and how He is. He is not a murderer; He is not a thief; He is not an adulterer, etc. His commandments are telling us to be like Him. God tells us to incline our ears to His words. Hear St. Augustine: "For that man does godly hearken to the law of God, and the words of His mouth, whose ear humility does incline: not he whose neck pride does lift up. For whatever is poured in is received on the concave surface of humility, is shaken off from the convexity of swelling."

If we believe God is telling us, individually, that our hearts are speaking against Him, this humbles us, leading us to repentance and imploring His grace to aid us. If we do not believe this speaks to us, these words are "shaken off from the convexity of swelling"--pride. The prophet, Jeremiah, tells that the heart is most deceptive. We do not know our own hearts, but do we get angry? complain? We can know our hearts a little because "out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks." Is everything out of our mouths--and resulting in our actions--for the love of God and neighbor? Is it generosity? May God have mercy on me!

God gave the Israelites the desire of their heart, and that desire of their heart killed many of them. What is really the desire of our hearts? What is my heart really saying?
--Tommy Turner

The Blessed Mother in the New Testament Scriptures

How earlier Marian Writing Evolved From Oral Traditions 
Through Paul to the Four Gospels 

The four written Gospels are the only New Testament books with passages either naming Mary as the mother of Jesus, or referring to her as his mother without adding the name “Mary.” The source for the Gospels' references to Mary the mother of Jesus are the early Church's oral spreading of the gospel, which began about 34 A.D. These oral accounts of Mary preceded the first of the four written Gospels -- the Gospel of Mark -- by about thirty-six years. Thus the writing of the four Gospels started about 70 A.D. Paul's writings began in 51 A.D. and ended with his death in 62-63 A.D. The overall writing of the New Testament, including the four Gospels and various Letters by St. Paul and other writers ended about 100 A.D.

However, Paul, trained as a rabbi and mainly focused on Jesus – who had appeared to Paul in person (Acts 9:3-6) – would not have considered preaching and writing his evangelizing Letters directly referring to Mary by name. His efforts were completely fixated on spreading knowledge of the Lord's salvation to those whom he evangelized in his travels founding churches. At that beginning phase of Paul's missionary endeavors oral circulation of the gospel was minimal. It was thanks to Paul that the converts he made to Chrsitianity learned the message of Christ and circulated among themselves sharing that message: Hence the oral gospel developed. Our consideration of Paul's writing in relation to the Church's spreading the knowledge of Mary are to be read in the light of Paul's Christocentrism, which is the central theme of all Pauline writings.

His Christocentrism is so strong that the expression “in Christ” appears 154 times in Paul's New Testament writings. Paul never referred by name to “Mary,” the mother of Jesus (although Paul does cryptically refer to another “Mary” whom he encourages the readers of the Epistle to the Romans to treat courteously because of her hard work for them (Rom. 16:6)). Likewise, Paul never used the word “mother” in his writings to refer to Jesus' mother. Yet, we we will take an unusual direction in this article, by considering Paul as the first New Testament writer to have a seminal, if esoteric Marian theme in his writings that indirectly influenced the four Gospel writers.

Thus, even though Paul does not give us the same explicit, direct reference to Mary, as do the Gospels, we will consider below how Paul's thoughts may have moved him in a direction as someone who reasoned at least indistinctly on the role that Mary played in salvation history. If we connect with Paul's thinking we must see him as the first writer of Marian themes, before the Gospels. If we accept Paul's priority in this preliminary, circumstantial and indirect Marian interest, then we should take the position that the Gospels borrowed something from Paul's writings of a Marian nature

During the thirty-six years before the Gospel of Mark appears, the four evangelists received information about Mary the Mother of Jesus from the earliest oral communications about her among the earliest Christians. Thus Mary was known to the four Gospel writers from the orally spread gospel that was developed and spread throughout the growing early Church. The Gospel writers in turn transcribed this, the earliest, genuine Marian theology and spirituality that was developing in oral form, in order to write about Mary in their respective Gospel accounts.

The Gospel writers' access to this oral gospel would have depended on Paul's writings to the extent that Paul created the first churches, from whom the early Christians orally circulated their belief in the gospel left to them by Paul. Paul's missionary evangelization efforts in founding new churches throughout the Roman Empire naturally created groups of Christians who discussed and transmitted their beliefs among one another. And since Paul died in 62-63 A.D., before the authors of the Gospels started to write, we could characterize Paul's writings as a probable input of the oral communications upon which the Gospel writers relied.

This span of recording the oral gospel sources that made their way into the New Testament extends from approximately 51 A.D. To approximately 95 A.D. - 100 A.D., that is, from the date of the first book written in the New Testament to the last of the four Gospels. The first book to appear in writing in the New Testament was Paul's First Letter to the Thessalonians, written probably in the year 51. The final editions of the written Gospels appeared no sooner than 95 A.D. (Actually, the publication date of the Gospel of John may have occurred closer to the year 100, or maybe even a year or two later. )

Our initial point is that the Gospel texts about Mary were based by the Gospel authors on their learning the early Church's oral beliefs concerning Mary, and thus their Scriptural references to Mary were by no means completely original. The writers of New Testament texts, first heard the information about Jesus and Mary circulating widely in the oral statements and teachings among Christians who flourished in organizing the new Church. Then, having found this information, the Gospel writers proclaimed it in their writings.

However, we will explore references to Mary, whether direct or circumstantial, but not by starting our discussion with the four Gospels, roughly in the year 70. Instead we will first consider if Paul (writing before the Gospel writers, that is, from roughly 51-62 A.D.) may have referred to Mary in some fashion before the explicit references made to her by the Gospel writers that began and ended after Paul's writing ceased.

Although St. Paul makes no direct reference to Mary, Paul did make indirect allusions to her in his writings about Jesus. These circumstantial references are relevant to Mary if we dig into Paul's deeper, growing awareness relating Jesus to Mary over the course of Paul's writing of Letters to the churches he founded.

The discussion below is technical and critical. Straightening out what Paul actually said is important to the issue of his probable belief in something like the Immaculate Conception, although that phrase and the words therein did not gain absolute, final and doctrinal usage among theologians until Pope Pius IX formally declared the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception as a doctrine that Catholics must accept. In a summary of his much longer Constitutional expression of the doctrine, Pope Pius IX said:

" The most Blessed Virgin Mary, was from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God and by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, Savior of the human race, preserved immune from all stain of original sin." Bull, Ineffabilis Deus, 1854.

The earliest expression of something like the much later doctrine called the Immaculate Conception, regardless of its actual title or awareness of it in St. Paul's day, varied from place to place and from time to time. Well before the future Pius IX's 1854 virtual reproduction of and summary of the ancient belief, it was rejected by many medieval luminaries, including: (1) St. Bernard of Clairvaux (d. 1153), an abbot who reformed many abuses existing in some 900 monasteries of the day. He was virtually the leading and most respected spokesman for numerous doctrines in the Middle Ages, as well as the major advocate of the First Crusade. (2) St. Albert the Great (d. 1280) and (3) his student, St. Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274), and (4) the Franciscan scholar St. Bonaventure (d. 1274). The Franciscans were proponents of the doctrine, while the Dominicans, following their brothers in that Order (Albert and Thomas) rejected it.

Because of the variation of thought about the doctrine, Mary, when praised by St. Luke in her Magnificat (Lk. 1: 46-55), said “Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed.” “Blessed,” but not Immaculate, was the general regard for Mary in the earliest centuries of the Church, until St. Paul's elementary and nebulous writings got a better analysis. Somehow, no one closely investigated his writings to determine what this the earliest New Testament author might have said on a belief later called the Immaculate Conception. For this reason, we will analyze Paul's thoughts closely here before reviewing the four Gospels. As the earliest writer in the New Testament, St. Paul is worthy of more study on any belief he might have had on the Blessed Mother.

The seminal verse is Galatians 4:4-5, (written about 54 A.D.). All but two English Scripture versions of Galatians don't say in English what Paul says here in Greek. The quotation below displays in brackets Paul's actual translated words. Yet, almost universally, English translations of the Bible simply translated Paul's Greek (bracketed in the translation next below), by using “born” where Paul states:

“But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, [then Paul writes literally in Greek]: ['coming into existence,'] or ['becoming,'] under the law, to ransom those under the law, so that we might receive adoption. (Gal. 4:4-5) "

The key Greek word Paul uses, placed in the quotation above within the bracketed portions of this passage, is genoumenon (the present participle of the verb, genoumai, which is the infinitive of the English verb, to become, or to come into existence). Genoumai foregoes the respective majority translations rendered in various versions of Scripture, where the bracketed English translation appears as “born.” Thus Galatians 4:4-5 is usually made to read in principle English versions of the Bible, as [...God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, etc...]. But the Greek verb for “born,” or “to be born,” is gennao, not genoumai, the latter of which Paul actually uses in Galatians 4:4, instead of gennao.

Genoumai, as shown in the present participle genoumenon, in the bold-faced quotation from Galatians 4:4 above, literally means either ['coming into existence,'] or ['becoming,']. It is used again, for example, in Philippians, 2:8, where Paul writes, roughly in 62 A.D, that Jesus “emptied himself and took the form of a slave, becoming (genoumenos) obedient until death.” To translate genoumai as “born” is to do Paul an injustice, particularly when Paul had something unprecedented to say pertaining to Jesus' miraculous virgin birth by his mother Mary.

While Paul was by no means a Marian scholar, as were the four Gospel writers, he nonetheless had an idea percolating in his mind that spills over into his writings, such as Galatians 4:4 and Philippians 2:8. This idea sparked the belief in his Greek-speaking readers (namely, all of his early readers) that there is something mysteriously different about the birth of Jesus that is not applicable to the birth of anyone else about whom Paul writes in his Letters, whether of the child or the mother.

Here is the mystery deciphered: Paul speaks of the birth of people other than Jesus (we could say, “ordinary people”) thirty-three times in his Letters, always using the expected Greek verb, gennao, which means “born,” “to be born,” “was born,” etc.” In Gal. 4:23, 24, and 29, where Paul refers to the births of Ishmael and Jacob instead of the birth of Jesus, he uses the verb “to be born,” accurately translating gennao three times, once in each verse.

Yet, in Gal. 4:4-5, quoted in boldface above, where the text refers explicitly to the Father sending his Son into the world, Paul uses the verb genoumai to refer to Jesus' birth, intending to mean something much more significant, even something radical, namely, “to come into existence,” or “to become.” This usage by Paul of genoumai, indicates, as we will discuss below, that Paul came to consider Jesus' mother, Mary, as an important component of the message of Christ that Paul preached in his evangelistic travels.

Without using the word “Mary,” Paul somehow knew fully and completely that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit in Mary's womb, yet born “under the law,” that is, like any other birth by a woman of her infant. Paul's reference to “born under the law” means “born in the usual, natural way.” However, Paul, knowing who and what Jesus was -- the divine Son of God -- found it somehow disparaging that this God-man had to be born after nine months gestation in a bodily-ordinary woman's womb from which Jesus would enter into his earthly existence, i.e., “under the law” like any other human being.

Paul wants to emphasize that Jesus could have picked some other means of coming to earth. Yet, Jesus, like any other person, was born from the womb of his mother. Here the miracle of Mary's Immaculate Conception (without that name, but with something like the same meaning) starts to impinge on Paul's mind. Mary said “yes” to the angel Gabriel's proclamation that Mary would “bear a son...[whose] kingdom will have no end.” Lk. 1:31, 33. Jesus, the divine Son, was conceived by the Holy Spirit, Lk.1:35, i.e., underscoring his divine nature.

But Jesus, through his human nature, because of his ordinary human birth through a woman's body, could then, as the God-man, save the world from its sin. To be truly human, Jesus had to be born naturally, or as Paul puts it, “under the law,” by which Paul means Jesus had to be born of a woman like any other human being. Jesus thus preserved his divinity through his conception by the Holy Spirit and preserved his humanity through a natural birth by means of a natural woman.

Here is the key concept that all of this raises. The varying use by Paul of the verbs gennao and genoumai, which we discussed above, raises the issue of whether St. Paul had some primitive, undeveloped, belief that Mary herself had been born in the sense of genoumai rather than in the sense of gennao. Paul lived and died too early in the history of the Church to know that the later-proclaimed Christian thinking about Mary came to be known as “The Immaculate Conception.” Yet, without saying so, the cryptic evidence underlying Paul's theology seems to suggest that he may have been the first Christian writer to believe that Mary was, like her Son, Jesus, herself free of sin.

We can only conclude that Paul was coming to a position on Jesus' birth through Mary that was approaching that of the Gospel writers. He did not have the theological insights and training, let alone the words, "Immaculate Conception," or anything remotely synonymous, to view Mary as sinless through her giving birth to Jesus and sinless onward throughout the remainder of her life. That is, Paul had no awareness of the doctrines of the virgin birth and Mary's perpetual virginity.

Concluding Paul's efforts, he should be seen as the first writer in the New Testament to approach, although not reach, the fuller Marian doctrines the Church later adopted. Yet, in any study of the New Testament's position on the Blessed Mother, Paul and his writings should be included as a creative and seminal expression of the same Marian doctrine expressed by the Gospel writers. They began writing on Mary about 70 A.D., several years after Paul died, probably in 62-63 A.D.

Paul's place in Marian theology calls for the promotion of a deeper study of his writings as the starting point by Scripture scholars of the overall meaning of the doctrine of the Blessed Mother.


The account of of the Gospel conception of Jesus clearly affirms that Jesus was not conceived of a human father. (Mt. 1:18-25): "[T]he virgin shall be with child and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means 'God is with us.'" The same belief is affirmed in the account of the annunciation. (Lk. 1:35): "[T]he angel said to her, 'The holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God.'"

Mary appears in the story of the birth of Jesus (Lk.2:1-20), her purification after childbirth (Lk. 2:22-39), in the flight to Egypt (Mt. 2) and the story of the finding of Jesus in the temple (Lk. 2:41-52). Luke in particular emphasizes the fact that Mary thought about the things she heard concerning the infant (Lk 2:19, 51). Outside of the infancy narratives, Mary appears in the Synoptic Gospels only in Mt. 13:55; Mk 6:3 (cf. also Jn 6:42), where she is well known to the people of Nazareth, and in Mt. 12:46-50; Mk. 3:31-35; Lk. 8:19-21, where a visit of Mary and the kinsman of Jesus is the occasion of the saying by Jesus that one who does the will of the Father is as close to Him as His nearest relations.

In Jn. 2:1-5 Mary suggests the failure of wine which is the occasion of the miracle; in Jn. 2:12 she goes to Capernaum with Jesus, which suggests that she no longer resided at Nazareth. Only Jn. 19:25-27 mentions her presence at the death of Jesus and the commission of her care to John. This clearly suggests that there were no relations with whom she could live. Mary was present with the disciples during the days which preceded the giving of the Spirit. (Acts 1:14). Neither the New Testament nor any other sources gives reliable information of the further course of her life and her death.

The two basic Christian beliefs concerning Mary, the divine maternity and the virginal conception of Jesus, are clearly stated in the Gospels. Other beliefs are developed from these basic beliefs or are found in the traditional belief and cult of the Church. The relatively minor role which Mary plays in the Gospels is entirely in accord with Jewish life and with biblical history in general, in which women play a minor role, most frequently limited to their feminine functions as wife and mother. The words of Mary are few, and often they contain or are the occasion of an exegetical difficulty

Thus the matrimonial status of Joseph and Mary in Mt. 1:18ff is difficult to define; it seems to be betrothal rather than marriage. The messianic texts of Lk. 1-2, which are frequent, are difficult to combine with the "wonder" which Lk. attributes to Mary (Lk. 2:33, 48) and lack of understanding (Lk. 2:50). Lk.'s sources apparently had two variant conceptions of Mary; in one she was aware to some extent of the messianic character of her son, and in the other she was unaware of it. The messianic texts come very probably from the expansion of the infancy narratives by early Christian teachers, While Luke in his prologue asserts that he has made diligent investigations, there is no direct evidence in the infancy narratives that Mary was the source of his information.

The words which Jesus addresses to Mary in the Gospels cause some difficulty. In general the relationship of Jesus and Mary is not presented as different from the relationship of any son to his mother. But it is undeniable that in Mt. 12:49ff; Mk. 3:34ff; Lk. 2:49; 8:21; and Jn 2:4, the words of Jesus addressed to Mary or mentioning her imply a detachment which is greater than usual between an adult son and his mother. The title of "woman" by which Jesus addresses Mary (Jn. 2:4; 19:25) is unparalleled in Greek literature as an address of a son to his mother. It is important to observe that in none of these passages is a genuine rebuke implied, since no fault is charged to Mary.

One may suggest the hypothesis that these sayings are a part of the primitive teaching of the Church, which removed the implication that any carnal connection with Jesus was a substitute for faith in Him. Jesus, who was a Jew of Galilee and related to the "brethren of the Lord," mentioned in the New Testament (Mt. 12:46; 13:55ff; Mk. 3:31; 6:3; Lk. 8:19; Jn. 2:12; 7:3ff; 20:17; Acts1:14; 1 Co. 9:5; Gal 1:19), was no more of a Messiah-savior to the Jews or to His relatives than He is to anyone who believes in Him.

It is altogether probable that others of His kinsmen than James were members of the early Christian community, and it is not unlikely that some of them considered that this entitled them to a peculiar position. Paul speaks of "a party of Christ" at Corinth (1 Co. 1:12), and in a difficult line denies that any importance should be attached to knowing Christ "according to the flesh" (2 Co. 5:16): ("[E]ven if we once knew Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know him so no longer.")

The positive reticence of the primitive preaching not only about Mary, but also about the entire life of Jesus and His family and village connections before the baptism, seems to suggest a movement against any such attempt to make kinship the basis of special claims. A by-product of this reticence is our almost total lack of genuine information concerning the life and person of Mary

--Tony Gilles

This theological reflection courtesy of the parishioners of St Paul Catholic Church in Pensacola, Florida:

Friday, March 20, 2015

I Just Came By To Tell You Lord How Happy I've Been

A Minister passing through his church In the middle of the day, Decided to pause by the altar To see who came to pray.

Just then the back door opened, And a man came down the aisle, The minister frowned as he saw the man Hadn't shaved in a while.

His shirt was torn and shabby, And his coat was worn and frayed, The man knelt down and bowed his head, Then rose and walked away.

In the days that followed at precisely noon, The preacher saw this chap, Each time he knelt just for a moment, A lunch pail in his lap.

Well, the minister's suspicions grew, With robbery a main fear, He decided to stop and ask the man, 'What are you doing here?'

The old man said he was a factory worker And lunch was half an hour Lunchtime was his prayer time, For finding strength and power. I stay only a moment Because the factory's far away; As I kneel here talking to the Lord,

This is kinda what I say: 'I Just Came By To Tell You, Lord,

How Happy I Have Been, Since We Found Each Other’s Friendship And You Took Away My Sin. Don't Know Much Of How To Pray,

But I Think About You Every day. So, Jesus, This Is Ben, Just Checking In Today.'

The minister feeling foolish, Told Ben that it was fine. He told the man that he was welcome To pray there anytime.

'It's time to go, and thanks,' Ben said As he hurried to the door.

Then the minister knelt there at the altar, Which he'd never done before. His cold heart melted, warmed with love, As he met with Jesus there.

As the tears flowed down his cheeks, He repeated old Ben's prayer:

'I Just Came By To Tell You, Lord, How Happy I've Been, Since We Found Each Other’s Friendship And You Took Away My Sin. I Don't Know Much Of How To Pray, But I Think About You Every day. So, Jesus, This Is Me, Just Checking In Today.'

Past noon one day, the minister noticed That old Ben hadn't come. As more days passed and still no Ben, He began to worry some.

At the factory, he asked about him, Learning he was ill. The hospital staff was worried, But he'd given them a thrill.

The week that Ben was with them, Brought changes in the ward. His smiles and joy contagious. Changed people were his reward.

The head nurse couldn't understand Why Ben could be so glad, When no flowers, calls or cards came, Not a visitor he had.

The minister stayed by his bed, He voiced the nurse's concern: No friends had come to show they cared. He had nowhere to turn.

Looking surprised, old Ben spoke up And with a winsome smile; 'The nurse is wrong, she couldn't know, He's been here all the while.'

Every day at noon He comes here, A dear friend of mine, you see, He sits right down and takes my hand, Leans over and says to me:

'I Just Came By To Tell You, Ben, How Happy I Have Been, Since We Found This Friendship, And I Took Away Your Sin. I Think About You Always And I Love To Hear You Pray, And So Ben, This Is Jesus,

Just Checking In Today.'

Monday, March 9, 2015


 It's Not Revelation   
            No, it's not Revelation.  But it will be helpful for us to consider Revelation, the "most unusual book in the New Testament" before movimg on to the "most difficult book" below, which is Hebrews (it's not "the letter to the Hebrews," because it's not a letter). We first briefly consider Revelation before Hebrews because of the striking difference between the two different states of mind needed to understand first, Revelation, and second, Hebrews.   Revelation, to the extent it was meant to be understood on a rational, cognitive level requires a vivid imagination.  If you have a vivid imagination, then you can make it through Revelation and understand it correctly as long as your imagination does not run away with you.  If, for example, you can rationally conceive of "four living creatures, each of them with six wings" (Rv 4:8), or seven angels blowing their trumpets with all sorts of natural disasters following upon the sound (Rv 8 - 11), or a beast with ten horns and seven heads (Rv 13) and so on and so forth through the end of the book, your conception of Revelation is as good as the next imaginative person's.
            Actually, imaginative thinking is no less valid in understanding the reality of Revelation than the mathematical certitude, as you will see below, that is required to understand Hebrews. Think of the great inventors, whose creations started in their imaginations and then were developed into rational and concrete by-products. Thomas Edison, for example, imagined some technical means of helping people light their homes, other than with a fireplace, candles and torches  One night, at 3:00 a.m, he jumped up from a sleepless bed after his imagination led him to conceive of the idea of a glass bulb containing filaments that glowed when electricity was applied to the bulb. He drew his imagined light bulb on a poster and from there light took over darkness in American homes. Revelation requires a bit of Edisonian imagination to understand it. The genre of Revelation that is responsible for calling forth imagination to understand it, is known as "apocalyptic" literature. This genre was popular from 200 B.C. to 200 A.D. Most such writings took the Book of Daniel in the Old Testament, the apocalyptic work par excellance, as their model. In fact, the earlier original title of the book of Revelation in the Bible was "Apocalypse."
            The point about Revelation is that there is no one, perfect meaning intended by the author, John of Patmos, who may or may not have been the Apostle John. Perhaps he was a disciple or close associate of the Apostle, that is, maybe he was writing from within "the school" of John the Apostle. This shared style of writing by someone under the name of his teacher and spiritual leader -- who was named the author of a book -- was popular in several New Testament books. That includes some of the epistles written under the name of Paul, and likewise the letters written under Peter's name and the Letter of James.  In fact, even the  Gospels were anonymously written.  They were not written by the men whose names appear in the title of the individual books, although the authors may well have been students or otherwise associated with Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Whoever John of Patmos actually was -- whether John the Apostle or someone else -- the author nonetheless intended to be understood as presenting John the Apostle's ideas in the writing of Revelation.
            After a rather straightforward, rational warning to the congregations of the seven churches named in Rv 1-3, urging them not to lose their original zeal in living out the gospel, the author writes the remainder of the book as if in a vison. And as visons are not precise and methodical occurrences, we cannot expect a logical, rational or academic presentation from the author.  He has his own unique apocalyptic symbols in stating his underlying theme. He presents these symbols to show the reader how tumultuous the end times will be. He does this to prepare his readers for a grand upheaval. For example, he wants to assure his readers that even if there actually won't be "a huge red dragon with seven heads and ten horns" (Rv 12:3) menacing the world in the last days, Jesus -- called both "the Lamb " thirty times, and the "King of Kings" twice (Rev 19:11), will bring final defeat to Satan and his horribly monstrous cohorts. 
            But in keeping with our title to this article, Revelation is not actually difficult to understand.  It may strike one as uniquely strange and perhaps even shocking, but none of the words and phrases are beyond the reader's imaginative (not "imaginary") understanding. People reading Revelation may be thinking back to their childhood years when they used a vigorous imagination for reading folk tales and fables. Yet, Hebrews, the most difficult book to understand in the New Testament (discussed below) can not be understood by the same frame of mind to which you will have brought your imaginative mind to the reading of Revelation.  Instead, the frame of mind that you must bring to Hebrews may be likened to that of a university student scratching his head to come to an understanding of his mathematics professor in teaching the student advanced calculus and differential equations.
            What, then, is the winner of the search for that book which is most difficult book to understand?  Here are some clues: We said above that imaginative thinking can lead to mathematical certitude.  But what if our most difficult book was written with mathematical certitude, absent all of the symbolic phrasing of Revelation, so that imagination will not help us to understand it?  And what if the words and phrases of the book seem to be intended for people who are well trained in academic discourse? And what if a a virtually perfect knowledge of the entire rabbinical understanding of the Old Testament is applied by the author to the New Testament? These difficulties would have made for the early Jewish-Christians, for whom Hebrews was intended, trudging along with difficulty, just as we Christians today sometimes do, to understand the book. So, without further beating around the bush, let's move on to the New Testament book of Hebrews.
The Learned and Enigmatic Book of Hebrews
            Background to & Summary of Hebrews' Teaching and Argumentation.
            Let's first list some facts about the background to Hebrews (in the paragraphs below), which in themselves show that even before reading the book you are starting out in the arcane world of an intellectual author well advanced in an understanding of Old Testament theology.  In order to understand Hebrews, it's helpful to learn all you can about the author, where he wrote Hebrews, the style of the book, and who his audience was and what the author urged his readers to do after reading the book.
            1.         In the early years of the Church scripture scholars attributed the work to St. Paul, but even as early as the third century -- and continuing into the 19th and early 20th centuries -- St. Paul's authorship was denied by the Church.  This was especially the case after the publication of three papal encyclicals transforming and modernizing the Catholic approach to biblical research: (1) Pope Leo XIII's Providentissimus Deus (1893); (2) Pope Benedict XV's Spiritus Paraclitus (1920); and Pope Pius XII's Divino Afflante Spiritu (1943).  This papal revamping of Catholic biblical,scholarship led to a final scholarly pronouncement dropping St. Paul as the author in favor of a person unknown to this day in the eyes of all modern Scripture scholars (see paragraphs 2 & 3 below).
            2.         Hebrews was written originally in Greek, and not as a translation from Hebrew to Greek. The author is anonymous, but he undoubtedly was thoroughly schooled in rabbinical Jewish theology. And since his Greek is perhaps the best and most polished in the New Testament, it is probable that he lived and wrote in the Diaspora ("Dispersion of the Jews" from Israel to Greek-speaking, non-Jewish nations). Since St. Pope Clement I in 96 A.D. seems to be referring to Hebrews in his First Letter to the Corinthians, it was surmised that Hebrews must have been written shortly before 96 A.D.  However, Hebrews itself is addressed to an earlier audience than one existing in the papacy of Clement. The book is intended for Jewish-Christians suffering from the chaos and persecution gripping Judea from 65 A.D. through 69 A.D., stemming from the Romans' extinguishing of the last days of the Jewish-Maccabean revolt that had sought freedom from the yoke of the Romans starting in 175 B.C. and ending with the Romans crushing the Jewish uprising in 70 A.D. The underlying exhortation in Hebrews is to move its readers from their loss of faith because of these hardships, and instead bolstering the readers' faith in Jesus to the point of holding firm against oppression. This would mean it was written before 70 A.D., because in that year the Romans burned down the Jerusalem Temple with a large Jewish congregation inside (probably including Jewish-Christians who still attended synagogue).
            3.         While the readers of Hebrews vacillated in their Christian faith because of persecution, they certainly had not yet suffered from or complained about the Roman destruction of their Temple. Hence the date of the book's writing must be before 70 A.D., that is, a little later than the last letters of St. Paul, who was put to death in 62 A.D. (But see the quotation from Colosians and explanatory point in paragrph 12, below.) Hebrews emanated from the Egyptian city of Alexandria in the first century. That city  had a significant Jewish population, second only to Jerusalem. Alexandria's Jewish population was probably about 4 - 5%, a large number in a city with nearly two million inhabitants, and Alexandrian Jews were raised as Greek speakers, using Hebrew speech only in synagogue worship. The author of Hebrews is regarded by scholars as Greek-Jewish, most likely born and living in Alexandria during the period when Hebrews was written. The book was first known and read in Alexandria before it was carried by Jewish-Christian preachers to Israel for dissemination there. This has led many scholars to consider Apollos of Alexandria, who was "an authority on the scriptures" (Acts 18:24, cf. 1 Cor. 3:4), as the author. Centuries later, even the heretic, Martin Luther (1531 A.D.), the translator of the Greek Septuagint into German, considered Apollos as the author of Hebrews.  But there is no direct evidence linking Apollos to the writing of Hebrews. Catholic synods and councils, beginning in 1215 A.D., had ruled against the naming not only of of St. Paul, but also  of Apollos as author.
            4.         Its title at first was, in Greek, Pros Ebraious, or "To the Hebrews." underscoring  early belief that the document was intended as a letter. Yet, as further and more erudite scholarship progressed, the opinion that it was a letter was dropped in favor of the viewpoint that it was a homily, and the Pros ("To") was also dropped. Hence the title became simply "Hebrews." This one-letter title might be seen as a relinquishment by scholars of the belief that whatever this document was it certainly was not an epistle like those of St. Paul or other New Testament letter-writers.
            5.         If in fact it was a homily, it seems unlikely that any audience of believers could possibly have sat listening to the the author's delivery of this abstruse and esoteric document  with any but the slightest bit of understanding. It seems more correct after centuries of study of this somewhat mystifying instrument to call it not a homily (as if delivered orally), but a treatise (i.e., as something needing intricate and careful study by reading rather than by listening). Hebrews does not really belong in the New Testament section on Letters, even though it is stuck between Paul's letter to Philemon and the Letter of James. 
            6.         Hebrews is so intensely intellectual, historical and academic that it might easily have been placed by Catholic biblical scholars of the Second Century -- when they were arranging books of the New Testament -- immediately after the Gospel of John, or else after Acts of the Apostles. Then it would have been followed by St. Paul's Letter to the Romans and further New Testament Letters. Placement of Hebrews earlier in position among the New Testament books would have avoided the implicit instruction given to readers of the New Testament to approach Hebrews as a letter. As it is, Hebrews sits among New Testament letters lonely and forlorn.  Readers hoping for another Pauline-style letter before they begin to read Hebrews for the first time are startled to come upon this document that is scarcely understandable as a letter, and certainly not a cordial letter with personal details by the author to a church which the author had founded, as was characteristic of several of Paul's Letters.
           7.      The author of Hebrews, in writing this penetrating but shrouded teaching, does not follow the development of the Letters of the New Testament by discussing doctrinal themes and moral exhortations separately.  Rather, his in-depth development of  theoretical ideas merging Old and New Testament theologies, and his urgings to his readers to exert greater discpline in times of harassment and persecution are intertwined throughout Hebrews.  The author emphasized to his readers the need to return to their earlier hope as the basic virtue for keeping their original faith intact.  It is this hope which his readers had displayed with great enthusiasm when they first accepted the gospel. In this sense Hebrews, as much as it is a major and concentrated doctrinal teaching, is merged with an emphatic exhortation by the author for his readers to renew and solidify their baptismal vows. 
            8.         In the doctrinal passages of Hebrews, the author develops his essential, innovative teaching of Jesus as the "great high priest" (Heb. 4:14). The title of "priest" for Jesus is used twenty-seven times in Hebrews, but not once in the Gospels, Acts of the Apostles or Paul's letters. In those books, the use of "priest" is applied solely to the Jewish priesthood of Jesus' day. What is meant in Hebrews by use of the title "priest" for Jesus?  Let's first look at the role of the Jewish priests as recorded in the Old Testament. Moses' brother Aaron was a priest because God ordered Moses to make Aaron and his sons priests -- thus the origin of the Levites. The Levites were one of the twelve tribes of Israel, but unlike the other eleven, all of whom respectively were given large tracts of land by Joshua when they entered Canaan, the Levites received no land because they were the tribe of priests.  Their role was to oversee Temple and synagogue worship throughout Israel, and especially to offer sacrifices as sin offerings in order to persuade God to forgive the people's sins (as well as the sins of the priests).
            Jewish priests offered both cereal offerings and animal sacrifices (the latter depicted in the most revolting and gory detail) as sacrifices.  When an animal was sacrificed the priests were to "splash its blood on the sides of the altar." [Further,] the priests were commanded to "offer as an oblation to the Lord the fatty membranes over the inner organs, and all the fat that adheres to them, as well as the two kidneys, with the fat on them near the loins, and the lobe of the liver, which he [i.e., the priest] shall sever above the kidneys. All this Aaron's sons shall then burn with the holcaust, on the wood over the fire, as a sweet-smelling oblation to the Lord." (Lv. 3: 2-5). It is difficult to imagine that this bloody mess would be "sweet-smelling" tothe Lord.
            9.         The author takes into account in naming Jesus a priest, the nature of the Old Testament Levitical priesthood, concerning which his Jewish-Christian readers would undoubtedly have understood in detail. Likewise they would have believed that the only way to have their sins removed was by a priestly sacrifice. Instead of debunking his readers' belief in the Levitical priesthood's sacrifice for sin, the author reaches out for a pivotal, even "stunning" doctrine. He does away with the Levitical priesthood altogether and replaces it with the priesthood of the Son of God, which is also a priesthood based on sacrifice for sin. The author considered that he had to give his readers some major principle from the Old Testament to rely on as he developed for them the mystery of Jesus as "Great High Priest."  He accomplishes this with his concentrated emphasis on Jesus as faithful and compassionate high priest, whose eternal priesthood was "according to the order of  Melchizedek." (Heb. 7:17) To support this doctrine, the author relies on Psalm 110:4 to support his doctrine of Jesus' high priesthood. This eternal priesthood surpasses the Levitical priesthood and abolishes it. The author says: "The Lord [God the Father] has sworn and will not waver: 'Like Melchizedek,' you [the Messiah and Son of God] are a priest forever."  (Ps. 110:4). Jesus, unlike the Levitical priests of the Old Testament, does not exercise a priesthood through family lineage, but through his immortal existence.  This is why Jesus' priesthood is "according to the order of Melchizedek," that is, like Melchizedek's priesthood, so, too, Jesus' priesthood is based on "the power of a life that cannot be destroyed."  (Heb. 7:16). The difference between the Levitical priests and Jesus as priest in Hebrews, is that Jesus does use sacrifice as a means to expiate the people's sins, but he does this as offering himself as the sacrifice.
            10.       Since Melchizedek is such an essential figure upon which to base Jesus' priesthood, we should finish the discussion of Jesus' priesthood by saying more about Melchizedek. Why is Jesus' eternal priesthood  "according to the order of  Melchizedek," and who was  Melchizedek anyway?  He is a shadowy figure mentioned eight times in Hebrews, but only twice elsewhere in the Bible, namely, in Genesis 14:18-20, and Psalm 110:4.  In Genesis 14:18-20, Abram (in the later decades following 1650 B.C. when the Genesis passage is written, had not yet been named "Abraham") was returning from battle as a victor over the king of Elam (whose kingdom was somewhere in the eastern part of today's Iraq in the valley between the Tigris and Euphrates). Abram, apparently camping after his victory somewhere north of Damascus in today's Syria, was unexpectedly met by a stranger named Melchizedek, identifed in Gn. 14:18 as "king of Salem [i.e., Jerusalem]...and priest of God Most High," showing up unexplained to commend Abram on his victory.  He entertained Abram with bread and wine and, as a priest, blessed Abram in the name of "God Most High, who delivered [Abram's] foes into [Abram's] hands. Then Aram gave him a tenth of everything." (Gn. 14:18-20). 
            Melchizedek is spoken of again in Psalm 110, where God the Father ("The Lord") speaks to (the "lord," who is the Messiah) and tells him, "Take your throne at my right hand while I make your enemies your footstool...Like Melchizedek you are a priest forever." (Ps. 110:1,4).  Hebrews Chapter Seven points out the mysterious identity of Melchizedek in these words: "Without father, mother, or ancestry, without beginning of days or end of life, [he is] thus made to resemble the Son of God, [and] he remains a priest forever." (Heb. 7:3) So Hebrews advances the theological doctrine of Melchizedek as a type of Christ. The rabbis maintained that anyone in the Old Testament whose ancestry, birth or death are not mentioned, thereby "remains...forever."  Melchizedek's priesthood was acknowledged with superiority in the rabbis' eyes, because there is no mention of  his death and thus Genesis implies that Melchizedek's personal priesthood is permanent. It is this eternal nature of Melchizedek's life that led the author of Hebrews to declare: "Jesus has entered on our behalf as forerunner, becoming high priest forever according to the order of  Melchizedek." (Heb. 6:20). Hebrews is that book of the New Testament which alone brings together in a masterful, though complex theological discussion and argument, the meaning of Jesus' priestly sacrifice for the people.
            11.       The other writings of the New Testament focus on the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus by largely connecting those events to the coming of the Holy Spirit to guide the Church further, after Jesus has returned to the right hand of the Father in heaven.  This is made clear in John's Gospel, where Jesus says to his apostles:
When the Advocate comes whom I will send you from the Father, the Spirit of truth that proceeds from the Father, he will testify to me. I tell  you the truth, it is better for you that I go.  For if I do not go, the Advocate will not come to you,  But if I go, I will send him to you.[I] am going to the Father and you will no longer see me.  But when he comes, the Spirit of truth, he will guide you to all truth.
            Jn. 15:26-16:12.    
            The question naturally arises as to whether the author of Hebrews was ill-informed about the role and purpose of the Holy Spirit, basing so much of Hebrews as he did on Jesus.  This is not a likely judgement, as Hebrews places the Holy Spirit in a crucial role in everything that is said in Hebrews about Jesus' eternal priesthood and eternal sacrifice. The author points to the will of God the Father verifying Jesus' sacrificial death and resurrection beyond the words of witnesses and other believers in Jesus' resurrection, and also through the granting of "signs, wonders, various acts of power, and distribution of the gifts of the holy Spirit according to his will." (Heb. 2:4).Thus the Spirit participated in Jesus' entire high priestly ministry, including bringing Jesus to his priesthood and his sacrifice of suffering and death for sinful humanity as a faithful, compassionate and eternal high priest. Jesus' role as a priest, namely, sacrifice, which defined the Levitical priesthood of Judaism, was based on Jesus' suffering unto death, which "for a little while made him lower than the angels, that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone." (Heb. 2:9).   
            Paul, in his Letter to the Romans, names the Holy Spirit thirty-three times, and in First Corinthians, thirty-nine times.  Hebrews refers to the Spirit eight times. In the Gospels, together with Acts of the Apostles, the title "high priest" or "priest(s)" is used  forty-nine times but is never used as a name, title or attribute of Jesus, or of Jesus' service or sacrifice for believers.  In Hebrews, "high priest" or "priesthood" is used  twenty-seven times, always as a name, title and attribute of  Jesus' service to and sacrifice for the Church. In addition, in the Gospels the word "angel(s)" is used infrequently, and when so used, it is never spoken of Jesus as higher than the angels.  Rather, "angels" in the Gospel is used by Jesus as applying it to certain people or circumstances, as in Luke 20:36, where Jesus speaks of those who are deemed worthy of the resurrection of the dead as those who "no longer die, for they are like angels."  In Hebrews, "angels" is used eleven times, always of Jesus, as a great "high priest" in relation to Jesus' priestly sacrifice of himself for sinful humanity. It is his high priesthood and his sacrifice that make Jesus a superior being to the angels.
            12.       In Hebrews 1:1-14 the author expresses his conclusive statement about Jesus' superiority to the angels because of his sonship to the Father. Through this conclusion, the author emphasizes Jesus' divinity, which is irresistibly proclaimed: "[I]n these last days [God the Father] spoke to us through a son, whom he made heir of all things and through whom he created the universe." (Heb 1:2).  This point -- naming the son as the agent of creation -- is equally expressed in Paul's teaching:
 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.  For in him were created all things in heaven and on earth, the visible and  the invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers (i.e., the heavenly choirs of angels); all things were created through him and for him.
                        Colossians 1:15-16.              
            This similarity between Hebrews and Colossians on this powerful truth about Jesus' divine role and participation with the Father in carrying out the creation of the universe has suggested to some scholars that the author of Hebrews had Paul's letters available to him.  Paul would have written Colossians sometime between 48 and 60 A.D.  His writing ended in 60 A.D. because he was living in Rome at that time, and the Roman police prohibited his activity amomg the people on behalf of his ministry of forming churches. Paul was then put to death in 62 A.D.  As we have stated, Hebrews was written  at some point from 65 A.D. through 69 A.D.  The point made by the author concerning Jesus' role in creation of the universe is very likely separate and distinct from Paul's words on that subject in Colossians.
            13.       We have discussed the major doctrinal points above.  All that remains is to say something about the author's closing remarks to his readers, whuch are not more about doctrine as we have discussed in Paragraphs 1-12 above.  Instead, the central themes of Hebrews 11 - 12 sum up the author's urging his readers to be disciplined in the face of hardship and persecution, or, in other words urging his readers not to disobey him when urging them to be strong in their faith.  Faith is the core virtue here, and is defined as "the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen." (Heb. 11:1).
            The author gives the most extensive description of faith provided in the New Testament.  Yet, his interest in faith does not lie in a technical, theological defintion -- "technicality and theology" having already thoroughly summed up Hebrews in the preceding chapters.  In view of the needs of his audience the author describes what authentic faith does, not what it is in itself.  Through faith God guarantees the blessings to be hoped for from him, providing evidence in the gift of faith that what he promises will eventually come to pass.  He summarizes the heroes in faith from the Old Testament and how firmly they maintained their faith -- giving examples of Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Rahab, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David and Samuel.  He emphasizes in these stalwarts their lifestyles of faith:  "All these died in faith. They did not receive what had been promised but saw it and greeted it from afar and acknowledged themselves to be strangers and aliens on earth." (Heb. 11:13).
            The author tells his readers that they must not entertain the notion that Judaism and Christianity can be intermingled.  As Jesus died separated from his own people, so must the Christian community remain apart from the religious doctrines of Judaism.  Christ must be the heart and center of the community. He concludes his exhortation to faith and obedience by saying, "[W]e who are receiving the unshakable kingdom should have gratitude, with which we should offer worship pleasing to God in reverence and awe. For our God is a consuming fire."
--Tony Gilles