The Joyce Hill Column
The Afterlife of the Magi
The ‘big story’ of the season of Epiphany, starting on 6 January, is the Coming of the Magi. Epiphany continues for several weeks, with the lections focussing on the manifestations of the divinity of Jesus — the Greek word ἐπιφάνεια (epiphaneia), which gives us ‘Epiphany’, means just that: ‘manifestation’. So we have the veneration by the Magi, symbolising recognition by the world beyond Judaea of Christ’s kingship, priesthood, and death as represented by the gold, frankincense and myrrh; his recognition as the Messiah by Simeon and Anna in the Temple; the demonstration of his understanding of the Scriptures at the age of twelve, when he disputed with the scholars it the Temple; John the Baptist’s acclaim and God’s proclamation, together with the descent of the Holy Spirit, at the baptism; and the first miracle when, at the wedding feast of Cana, Jesus turns water into wine, prefiguring the Eucharist. These were all subjects of preaching in Epiphany from the earliest centuries. But it is the Coming of the Magi which is tied to the feast-day itself.
As John Barton has said in his recent History of the Bible (thoroughly to be recommended if you enjoy a scholarly read), this is a story ‘for which it is hard to imagine any historical source’. But it has undoubted power as a symbolic narrative and it has always seized the imagination, so much so that stories have grown up around these intriguing figures. On the basis of the three gifts, the Western church has always assumed that there were three Magi, although other Christian traditions have different numbers: there are twelve, for instance, in the Syriac tradition. But whatever the tradition, it wasn’t long before they were given names. Later, in a further imaginative elaboration, they were represented in art in ways that distinguish them one from another, for example in age and ethnicity, in order to draw out the essential symbolic meaning: that this story’s purpose was to ‘manifest’ the divine and prophecy-fulfilling nature of the young child and to foreshadow his recognition by people of all ages and races.
The names we are familiar with in the traditions of Western Christendom — Caspar Melchior and Balthazar — differ from those in in the east. It’s impossible say where they come from. We first find them in a Latin text of the sixth century, known as the Excerpta Latina Barbari, which is a translation of a Greek text probably composed in Alexandria round about 500 AD. However, there’s no indication here that the names were a new creation at that point, so the tradition doubtless goes back quite a bit farther. It’s generally thought that the name Caspar may be traceable to Gondophares (subsequently reduced to Gaspar/Caspar), who appears as a king of India in the apocryphal Acts of Thomas, which seems to have been written before the middle of the third century. There aren’t any comparable candidates for the names of Melchior and Balthazar, but not surprisingly, in view of their exotic associations in Matthew’s narrative, later legends have them coming from distant lands: Melchior from Persia and Balthazar from Babylonia or Arabia.
It was soon assumed that, because of their encounter with the Christ-child, they were converted and were martyred for their beliefs. Constantinople (founded in 330) claimed to have their relics, but these moved to Milan later in the fourth century and to Cologne in the twelfth, where the present gold shrine of the Three Kings dates from c. 1200.
The Origins of Ash Wednesday
Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, falls this year on 17 February. What marks it out is the imposition of ashes, which gives the day its name: dies cinerarium, ‘day of ashes’, in the Latin of the pre-Reformation church. These days the priest usually marks a cross on the forehead of each person, using ashes created by burning the palm crosses from the Palm Sunday of the previous year. It feels like an ancient ritual, but when and how did it begin?
The early church quickly established a period of strict fasting as a form of purification in preparation for Easter, but it lasted only from Good Friday to Easter Eve and it was not until the fourth century that there is evidence for a fast extending over six weeks. There was still no such thing as Ash Wednesday, though, because the fast began on the sixth Sunday before Easter. In these early centuries, this penitential period was when new believers were prepared for baptism on Easter Eve and when those who had been excluded from the church for their sins were prepared for readmission, also on Easter Eve. Increasingly, others in the community were encouraged to join in the sessions of teaching and the acts of penitence as a means of giving focus to their own preparation for Easter. The element of penitence and self-denial, as a shared community experience, soon began to look like a kind of spiritual re-living of Christ’s forty day fast in the wilderness, when he resisted the temptations of the devil. This sense of symbolic reliving gave a new dimension to how the six week period was understood. But it made sense because it was in the fourth century, driven by various theological disputes and developments, that there was an increasing interest in the historical life of Christ, which led to its being reflected in the still-evolving shape of the liturgy.
However, having gone this far, it was logical to go a little further, because with Lent now seen primarily as a spiritual reflection of the forty days in the wilderness, it was clear that, with Sundays never being fasting days, there were not forty fasting days in the six weeks of Lent. So four more days were added to the beginning in order to provide forty fasting days up to and including Holy Saturday. This extension of Lent, so that it begins on a Wednesday, probably started in Gaul in the sixth century, where it is thought that the solemn ceremony of the imposition of the ashes also began, accompanied with the words, ‘Remember, man, that you are dust and to dust you shall return’. These words, familiar from the burial service and from the story of Adam’s expulsion from Eden, accompanied by the symbolism of the ashes, powerfully drew attention to our subjection to sin and death. At first the ceremony was used only for those doing public penance for grave sins, who would hope to be readmitted to the body of the church after the prolonged penance of Lent. But as the tradition spread across the western church, it became customary for the whole congregation to take part.
The Book of Common Prayer predictably turned its back on Ash Wednesday as a ‘Roman’ practice and in its place devised a Service of Commination (recital of divine threats against sinners). But the solemnity of the Ash Wednesday ritual has since been regained in many Anglican churches. In the Roman Catholic tradition, of course, it was never lost.
March 2 is the Feast of St Chad, who died in 672 at Lichfield, where he was buried and honoured as a saint. In 2003, when excavations were being undertaken for the construction of a nave-altar platform, a beautiful piece of carving was found, stylistically datable to c. 800, which is thought to have been part of St Chad’s shrine-chest. It is an angel, still bearing traces of the paint that once covered it. Chad was fifth Bishop of the Kingdom of Mercia (the midlands kingdom before England was united) but he was the first to have his seat Lichfield. How this came about is an interesting story.
Chad came from Northumbria, the kingdom lying to the north of Mercia. We don’t know when he was born, but we do know that he was a pupil of the great Celtic missionary St Aidan (died 651), who founded the monastery of Lindisfarne as the power-house of his mission. Chad had three brothers, likewise nurtured in the Celtic tradition. Cedd went to the midlands as a missionary and then to the East Saxons, where he became their bishop: Cynebil and Cælin remained in Northumbria as priests. All were associated with the royal family, who were strong supporters of Aidan’s mission. It was on land donated by the king’s son that Cedd founded a monastery at Lastingham, on the edge of the North York Moors, which was modelled on Lindisfarne. Sadly, it was here that Cedd died of the plague in 664, when on a return visit from the south. He was buried beside the altar. Chad briefly took over the development of the monastery, but very soon King Oswig appointed him Bishop of the Northumbrians, and so Cynebil took over the work at Lastingham, while Cælin continued with his royal priestly duties.
Oswig, like Chad and his brothers, had been brought up in the Celtic traditions of Christianity. In 664, at the Synod of Whitby, he nevertheless agreed that the kingdom should instead adopt Roman traditions. The powerful spokesperson for Rome at the Synod was Wilfrid, then Abbot of the monastery of Ripon, and later that same year he was appointed as the first (Roman-tradition) Bishop of the Northumbrians. But he needed to go to France for his consecration, and in his absence Oswig quickly appointed Chad in Wilfrid’s place. This looks very much like a counter-move by a king personally rather uneasy about the pro-Roman decision at Whitby. It meant, of course, that when Wilfrid returned he was a bishop without a diocese. He had no animosity towards Chad, however, who was universally regarded (for all his Celtic allegiance) as an exceptionally holy man, so Chad remained in office and Wilfrid ‘retired’ to Ripon. Eventually, in 669, Theodore of Tarsus, the then newly appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, restored Wilfrid to his see (it had, after all, been uncanonical for Oswig to appoint Chad in his place) and he searched around for ways of making the best use of Chad’s great piety in the still quite new Christian world of England. A bishop was needed for Mercia, and Wilfrid suggested Chad. To ease the situation Wilfrid donated land at Lichfield to be used as the seat of the bishopric — land which the King of Mercia had earlier given to Wilfrid as a potential site for a monastery. So that is how St Chad came to end his days there, and why Lichfield cathedral, originally dedicated to St Mary, is now dedicated to St Mary and St Chad.
Why do we call it Easter?
Why do English speakers use the word ‘Easter’ for the feast-day of the Resurrection and the celebratory season that follows? In French, for example it’s Pȃques, Pasqua in Italian, Pascua in Spanish, Pask in Dutch and Påsk in Swedish, each derived from Latin Pascha, the official term throughout Western Christendom before the Reformation, when Latin was the universal language of the church. Pascha comes from Hebrew Pesach (Passover) the Jewish festival celebrating the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. The Christian festival of Easter had the same name as Passover from earliest times because the Crucifixion and Resurrection took place, as the gospels relate, at the time of the Passover. It’s a festival whose date is determined by the lunar calendar, and so, within certain limits, the date varies from year to year when mapped onto the familiar solar calendar with its fixed dates. This is why the Christian festival likewise has varying dates within certain limits, being similarly bound by the lunar calendar, although the Christian way of making the calculation came to differ from the Jewish method, and so their dates soon diverged. So where does our ‘Easter’ come from?
The church always used Pascha for feast of the Resurrection in official liturgical contexts, just as they used the Latin terms for all other feast-days. But the ordinary people in Anglo-Saxon England often created their own names for festivals that played an important part in their lives. For example, what made a big impression on the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary (as it was officially called, though in Latin, of course) was the extraordinary illumination of the church when all the village held lit candles, and so they gave this feast the name of Candelmæsse, giving us ‘Candlemas’. Similarly, the Nativity of the Lord (in Latin) was called Cristes mæsse, ‘ Christ’s mass’, giving us ‘Christmas’. And because, on Rogation Days, people ceased their labours in the fields and went in procession around the parish carrying local relics and interceding for a good harvest, they called these days ‘Going About Days’, or ‘Procession Days’ (Gangdagas), rather than the official Letaniae (Latin, from the Greek for ‘supplication’, or ‘petition’). Another popular way of ‘owning’ a striking element in the liturgical year was simply to apply to it a name taken from daily or even pre-Christian life: a reapplication of a term that was deeply embedded in the collective psyche. So, for example, instead of calling the forty-day fast by its Latin name of Quadregesima or something derived from it (as in French Carême, or Italian Quaresima), the Anglo-Saxons simply called it by their name for Spring: Lencten, i.e. the season of lengthening (of the days), hence modern ‘Lent’.
The naming of Easter is the most extreme instance of this popular naming habit. According to Bede in his Latin treatise on the ordering of time, the ordinary people used Easter instead of Pascha, and he explained that in doing so they were re-applying to this central Christian feast the name of a goddess whose festival had always been celebrated in the springtime. Yet it will quickly have lost any sense of its pagan origin: within a few generations people will have been no more conscious of where the term came from than we are. And although ecclesiastics of course continued to use the Latin term in official contexts, we see from surviving manuscripts that they freely used ‘Easter’ in English contexts in a perfectly natural way.
My computer tells me that the title of this month’s article is misspelled. That’s because I’ve put it in the plural. But there are two Pentecosts — Jewish and Christian — and both are the subject of this month’s article.
For Christians Pentecost is the feast-day when we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit to the Apostles as they were gathered together soon after the Ascension. This year Ascension Day (always a Thursday) is on 13 May, with the Feast of Pentecost (always a Sunday) being on 23 May. The two feasts are always ten days apart, but not always on these dates because they stand in a fixed relationship to Easter, which has a variable date. Pentecost comes ‘fifty’ days after Easter. The clue is in the name: Pentecost comes from the Greek for ‘fifty’, Πεντηκοστή (Pentēkostē) I put ‘fifty’ in inverted commas, though, because you will immediately realise that, with Easter and Pentecost always being celebrated on Sundays, Pentecost cannot possibly be exactly fifty days after Easter by our normal counting conventions. Actually, it is always the 49th day after Easter, if we begin counting on Easter Day itself.
However, the name of ‘Pentecost’ doesn’t start with Christianity: it’s a name we’ve taken from Jewish tradition — hence the plural ‘Pentecosts’ of my title. The Acts of the Apostles, chapter 2, verse 1, tells us that the coming of the Holy Spirit occurred when the Apostles were gathered together ‘on the day of Pentecost’ – that is, the Jewish feast-day of Pentecost. It’s more commonly known as Shavuot, or the Festival of Weeks, but Acts was written in Greek and describes the spread of Christianity beyond the world of Judaism, so rather than using a Jewish name for the feast-day on which the apostles were gathered, the author uses the Greek name for it: ‘Pentecost’, which captures the fact that it is a festival occurring fifty days (seven weeks) after the Passover. Within the Jewish tradition ‘fifty’ makes sense because Passover began at sunset of the previous evening, so if you start counting then, it follows that the day-time of Pentecost (Shavuot) is the fiftieth day. The parallel in the Christian tradition would be to count from Easter Eve (the evening of Holy Saturday), which is the vigil of Easter Day.
The Gospels record the Crucifixion and Resurrection at the time of the Jewish Passover (Hebrew Pesach, which became Pascha in ecclesiastical Latin when used for the Christian Easter) and in Acts describes the coming of the Holy Spirit at the time of the Jewish Pentecost or Shavuot fifty days later. That fixed time-relationship, between Easter (Pascha) and Pentecost, persists in the Christian liturgical year. In both Jewish and Christian traditions the feasts are moveable because the date of Pesach/Pascha/Easter depends each year on the lunar calendar rather than on the solar calendar that shapes our diaries and daily lives. However, Christianity soon started to use a method for calculating the date of Pascha that was slightly different from the one by used by Jews for calculating Pesach, so the actual dates of the Jewish Pesach and the Christian Pascha diverged. Consequently so did the dates of the two Pentecosts.
What the Jewish Pesach celebrates is the freeing of the Jews from enslavement in Egypt. What the Jewish Pentecost (Shavuot or Festival of Weeks) celebrates is the first wheat harvest in the Land of Israel (Exodus 34) and, as determined by a later tradition, also the anniversary of the giving of the law to Moses on Mount Sinai.
St Columba, whose feast-day we celebrate on 9 June, was one of the great Irish saints of the early middle ages, famed above all for his founding of the monastery of Iona. Columba, or Columcille as he is commonly known in Ireland, died in 597, the year that St Augustine landed in Kent on a mission from Pope Gregory the Great. The monastery flourished and when, in the early 630s, King Oswald of Northumbria wanted a missionary to convert his people, it was to Iona that he turned. In his eyes this was a major centre of the Celtic tradition of Christianity into which he himself had been converted when in exile in the kingdom of Dal Riata, in what is now southwest Scotland. The Northumbrian mission was headed by St Aidan, to whom Oswald granted Lindisfarne, which soon became another beacon of Christianity. Although, in 664 at the Synod of Whitby, the Northumbrian church decided to follow the traditions of the Roman church rather than the Celtic, close contacts continued between the monasteries of both traditions. This fostered learning and manuscript production, giving us, for example, the Lindisfarne Gospels, whose illuminations draw upon Roman and Celtic art. Iona seems remote to us now, but in Columba’s lifetime and for centuries after it was in the middle of the highway of the sea, which offered easier travel than was then possible across land.
The earliest account of Columba’s life was written by Adomnán, ninth abbot of Iona, who died in 704. It’s very much a saint’s life, Book 1 being devoted to his prophetic revelations, Book 2 to his miraculous powers, and Book 3 to various apparitions which were seen by Columba and those seen by other regarding Columba himself. But if we piece together the details that emerge from this and take account also of references in other texts, such as Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, we can work out that Columba was born round about 521 into a family that was the ruling dynasty of Donegal. He became a priest, studied under several teachers, and reputedly founded a number of churches and monasteries. But his life began to change in 561 when he took sides in a political dispute. This led to his censure at a synod convened by his family’s political opponents, and in 563 Columba left Ireland, heading for the Scottish mainland. There Conall, king of Dal Riata — who was probably also his kinsman — gave him the island of Iona, where he established his monastery. For the rest of his life he was the leading religious leader in Dal Riata, but he also maintained close links with northern Ireland and played a part, as religious leaders often did, in political affairs. He is also said to have consecrated Conall’s successor as king, and to have travelled to the land of the Picts in eastern Scotland, converting the people and founding churches.
Last year was declared ‘The Year of Cathedrals: The Year of Pilgrimage’, in part prompted by the anniversary celebrations of saints associated with a number of cathedrals, most notably Canterbury, where St Thomas was martyred on 29 December 1170. English Cathedrals planned various celebrations and a national ‘passport’ was launched, allowing visitors to collect a stamp from each cathedral visited, akin to medieval pilgrims collecting pilgrim badges from the holy sites to which they journeyed. To mark this, I wrote about cathedrals in February 2020, intending to write about pilgrimage later in the year. But then covid-19 changed all our plans. The Year of Cathedrals: the Year of Pilgrimage has now been extended to 2021, and the British Museum’s major exhibition on Thomas of Canterbury, planned for 2020, has been moved to 2021 and continues to 22 August. It brings together wonderful objects and manuscripts from the time of his death through to the sixteenth century, and is strongly recommended for a staycation visit to London.
Because of Thomas’s martyrdom, Canterbury very quickly became one of the greatest national and international centres of pilgrimage. At first pilgrims came to visit the place of his martyrdom and burial. But in 1220 his body was moved (‘translated’) to a shrine, breathtakingly decorated with gold and jewels, which was placed in a chapel especially built for it at the extreme east end of the cathedral, behind the high altar. Not only were there jewels on the shrine, but the space was bejewelled by light falling through the many stained glass windows which told of his life and miracles. The shrine was destroyed at the Reformation, as were the windows telling of Thomas’s life. But enough of the miracle windows survive to give us some sense of the glory of his shrine and its setting. One window is on display in the exhibition, allowing for a privileged close-up look.
People made pilgrimage to shrines in hope of healing for mind and body, to seek forgiveness, to draw upon the power of the saint as an intercessor with God, as a generous act of thanksgiving, or as act of penance. We must never forget the sacrifice involved in making pilgrimage in the middle ages, even if it was within one’s own country, nor how much more difficult it was if the travel involved other languages, other customs, and the problem of making one’s way through challenging terrain and across the sea. It’s hardly surprising that recognised routes grew up to the major international shrines such as Canterbury, Rome and Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain. These routes provided reliable sources of hospitality, the protection of companions travelling for the same purpose, and the simple fact that a defined route provided the guidance you needed in a world without maps, where social and political circumstances were a constant challenge.
But this pattern of pilgrimage, familiar to us from the Camino de Santiago, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and the well-known route to Rome through the Great St Bernard Pass, only begins to develop in the ninth century. Before that, pilgrimage was much more local — and for the majority remained so throughout the Middle Ages. Most pilgrim sites were relatively small, and most pilgrims did not travel far, certainly not between northern Europe and Santiago, Rome or Jerusalem. But there were always intrepid spirits, my favourite being an Icelandic monk who travelled to the Jordan and back in the mid-1140s . Perhaps it’s not surprising that he was elected abbot on his return.
At the end of June I had the great pleasure of visiting the British Museum’s exhibition about Thomas of Canterbury. He was killed on 29 December 1170 and was canonised by Pope Alexander III in 1173. The extraordinary speed with which he was sanctified as a martyr and the equally extraordinary speed with which his cult spread were of course a result of the high profile of the murder and the sensational sequence of events: King versus Archbishop, the knights killing Thomas within the very walls of his own cathedral, and then Henry II’s spectacular public penance. But the cult’s energetic promotion, nationally and internationally, was because the archbishop’s death was instantly weaponised by the church in a European-wide struggle between the religious and secular powers in these centuries.
Politics and martyrdom have often been intertwined, never more so than in the ‘Age of Martyrs’ in the first three centuries of Christianity. The great waves of Roman persecution coincided with times of political difficulty, either because the emperor himself needed to find scapegoats (as in the case of Nero in the first century) or, more usually, because the empire itself was under stress (as in the time of Diocletian at the end of the third). The Romans generally didn’t bother much about what people actually believed. But what they were concerned about was adherence to social norms in support of social order; and it was when they tightened up on these, as a way of exerting authority at a time of threat, that Christians fell foul of law and custom and were then killed as b convenient public examples of what happens to those who refused to comply. The actual beliefs of the victims were not closely enquired into; the issues, rather, were their refusal to conform, their tendency cohere as a group apart, holding to a loyalty above the emperor, and their practice of meeting in secret, which created huge suspicion in an empire always paranoid about secret societies. Religious toleration was pronounced by Constantine in 313, and in the late fourth century Christianity became the official religion of the empire. This radical change marked the end of the ‘Age of Martyrs’, but not, of course, the end of martyrdoms. The difference was that there were fewer mass martyrdoms; and circumstances were usually more particular and individualised, although not necessarily separated from politics, just as Thomas’s was not, nor the killings of Latimer, Ridley and Cranmer, commemorated by the Martyrs’ Memorial in Oxford. They were burnt at the stake for their protestant beliefs when Mary Tudor led England back to Rome for the short duration of her reign. Martyrs have often been victims of conflicts within Christianity itself.
In the light of history, we define a ‘martyr’ as someone who suffers persecution and death for resolutely upholding and so ‘witnessing to’ their religious belief. When, in Acts 1 v.8, Jesus tells the disciples that they will receive the Holy Spirit and so be empowered to become ‘witnesses’ to Christ throughout the world, the word used is μάρτυρες [martyres]. This is nothing to do with how they will die; it is all about how they will spread the gospel, how they will be ‘witnesses’ to what they have seen and learnt. Witnessing to the power of faith to the point of death is the most extreme form of public witness. These repeated examples across the centuries, inspiring believers and sometimes even converting non-believers, are why the word ‘martyr’ has come to have the specialised meaning that it does today.
Simon and Jude, Apostles
There are two red-letter days this month in the Common Worship calendar: Luke on 18 October (about whom I’ve written before), and Simon and Jude on 28 Oct. All three are apostles, which is why their commemorations are marked as principal feasts. But in fact we know very little about Simon and Jude from the gospels and, although there are some legends associated with them, this is sparse compared with some other apostolic saints. As a result, they don’t figure prominently in Christian art either. It’s odd that one feels the need to begin by making clear who they are not. Simon is not Simon Peter; and Jude is not Judas Iscariot. The gospels are careful about this too.
In the lists of apostles in Matthew 10, Mark 3, and Luke 6, the two Simons are distinguished by the name of Peter being attached to the first, and the second being identified as Simon the Zealot. In Luke this identifying term is ζηλωτης (zelotes) from the Greek ζηλος (zelos), meaning ‘hotness’, the corresponding verb meaning ‘to seethe’, or ‘to boil’. This is also the way this Simon is identified in the list of apostles in Acts 1 — unsurprisingly, given that Acts and Luke are considered to have the same author. In Matthew and Mark, on the other hand, the identifying term is (in transliteration) kananaoios or kananites, depending on the manuscript. This was misinterpreted early on (including by Jerome, no less!) as indicating that Simon was from the town of Cana, or from the region of Canaan. This is what we have in the King James Bible: Simon the Canaanite. But kananaoios or kananites is actually an attempt to record in Greek the Hebrew word for ‘zealous’, qanai when written in our alphabet. So modern English bibles take account of this and distinguish Simon as ‘zealot’ in all three synoptic gospels and in Acts; they are all saying the same thing about him, but using different words, one pure Greek and the other representing Hebrew. ‘Zealots’ was a name given to a Jewish party of revolt against the Romans round about 70 AD, but this is unlikely to be relevant for Simon the Apostle. For him ‘zealot’ is probably a personal description, ‘the zealous’, perhaps originally in keeping the Law of Moses, and then in following Christ.
Jude is even more elusive. In the list of apostles in Luke 6 he is referred to as ‘Judas of James’, most naturally taken to mean — and usually translated as — son of James, though we don’t know who that James was. In John 14 he is ‘Judas, not Iscariot’, which points to why we generally modify his name from Judas to Jude: it makes the distinction clearer. But the lists of apostles in Matthew and Mark don’t include a Jude/Judas in addition to Judas Iscariot. Instead, they include a Thaddeus or Lebbaeus (depending on the manuscript). The general supposition is that this is an alternative name for Jude. In some church traditions Thaddeus is the name standardly used, as we see from dedications and shrines, neatly eliminating any risk of confusion.
Beyond this there is not much that can be said, except that there is no firm evidence for Jude being the author of the Epistle bearing his name. According to legend Simon and Jude were martyred together in the town we know as Beirut (then in the Roman province of Syria), and so that is why we commemorate them on the same day.
The Book of Revelation
This year the season of Advent, ‘the Coming’, begins on Sunday 28 November. We tend to think of it chiefly as a period of preparation for the Feast of the Nativity, which celebrates the historical ‘coming’ of Jesus But Advent is, and always has been, a time when the church also meditates upon and penitentially renews its preparation for the Second Coming. And it is this strand in the observance of Advent that prompts me to write about the Book of Revelation, since it is this book, the last in the New Testament, that provides us with much of the imagery associated with the end-times.
Revelation is the only New Testament book which is an ‘apocalypse’, that is to say, a prophecy, which ‘uncovers’ the future. Apocalypsis, from a Greek work meaning ‘uncovering’, is in fact the title of this book in Jerome’s Latin version, the Vulgate, widely used in the western church in the Middle Ages. ‘Revelation’ is simply a translation of the term, originating with the publication of the bible in English at the Reformation. Our modern use of ‘apocalypse’ and ‘apocalyptic’ to mean extraordinarily grand and violent events has come about through association: the book known as the Apocalypsis is full of destructive scenes on a cosmic scale, and by degrees the title of the book came to be associated with the violence that the book describes, with the nature and scale of the violence inhabiting and so changing the meaning of the word.
The opening of the book identifies the author as John the Divine. A few verses farther on, he claims that the visions he has had, which he will go on to record, came to him on the island of Patmos. This in the Aegean, now part of Greece. But none of this tells us anything very useful about how or when the book came into being. Traditionally ‘John the Divine’ has been equated with the author of John’s Gospel. This would have given it authority, since it was believed that John’s Gospel was indeed by John the Apostle. However, as I’ve explained before, this gospel is now regarded as having been written c. 90-110, which is too late for genuine apostolic authorship. And indeed it is highly unlikely that the gospel and the prophecy were written by the same person. For one thing the two texts are radically different in outlook; and for another there is a huge difference in the quality and style of their Greek. Of course there is no problem about the author of Revelation being known as John the Divine; it’s simply that we cannot make the equation with the apostle John, nor indeed with the author of John’s gospel, whoever that was. The link between the author of Revelation and John the Apostle was made as early as the second century, but even then this was not universally accepted, nor was the book itself readily recognised as part of the authorised collection of writings which gradually came together to form the New Testament. Between the second and fourth centuries it floated on the edge of the evolving collection (unlike the gospels and the Pauline epistles, which were a stable part of the collection from the second century onwards). But it is included in a number of fourth century lists of biblical books, by which time it was evidently pretty generally accepted as part of the bible – rather a late-comer, in fact, in achieving a permanent place in the canon.
The Nativity Stories
In the popular imagination there is one Christmas nativity story, involving the journey of Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem because of a Roman census, an over-full inn, a stable where Jesus is born and laid in a manger, a visit to the Christ-child by shepherds from nearby fields, a subsequent visit by three exotic magi, whose enquiries unleash the wrath of Herod the Great, and a flight into Egypt before the holy family settle in Nazareth, where Jesus spends his childhood — the whole preceded by the account of the Annunciation to Mary by the Angel Gabriel, Joseph’s uncertainty about what to do, his divine reassurance, and the companion narrative of the birth of John to Elizabeth and Zacharias, itself characterised by a sequence of events which mark it out as special.
But this single narrative, as we carry it in our heads, does not exist: it is a conflation of versions of the story occurring in only two of the gospels. Mark, the earliest of the four, starts with the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, while John’s, the last of the four to be written, opens in a completely different way, which sets the tone for an approach to the good news of the gospel that makes it quite distinct from the other three. Only Matthew and Luke, written after Mark and before John, narrate the Nativity, but with different details and emphases one from the other. It prompts us to ask where these stories came from. They are clearly not from the authors’ first-hand observation; and, if they came from stories passed down orally, how factually accurate is any of their detail? How had these stories been shaped and developed? How much had they been gradually re-framed to harmonise with the prophecies of the Old Testament, to which they refer? What details had been re-fashioned or even introduced to draw out the essential meaning: that this child (looking back from the perspective of at least a generation after the Crucifixion and Resurrection) was known to be — and needed to be narratively presented as — someone who was more than ‘just’ human because he was God incarnate, the ‘Messiah’, the ‘Anointed One’, or ‘Christos’ as it is in Greek.
Oral traditions invariably shape narratives as they are passed on, in ways pointed to by these questions. It is a progression in narrative formation that is found in all ages and cultures, all the more so when there is a compelling need for the narrative to convey a Big Idea, as in this case. At the simplest level, Matthew and Luke were probably drawing upon stories already developed to satisfy curious interest about the earlier stages of Jesus’ life, which generated yet more detailed accounts of his birth and childhood in the apocryphal gospels of later centuries. But such infancy narratives would also have satisfied a powerful expectation, found in all traditional cultures, that special figures (gods, heroes, and so on) are marked out by the exceptional nature of their birth and the circumstances surrounding it. A birth-narrative defining the nature of that exception is looked for, and Matthew and Luke met the need by including versions of the stories that had grown up around Jesus. Part of the reason for how they differ from each other is that they were writing for different kinds of reader — gentiles in the case of Luke, and believers from the Jewish tradition in the case of Matthew. But exploration of their differences is for another occasion, perhaps next Christmas.