The Joyce Hill Column
Imagining the Magi
What did the magi look like on your Christmas cards? Riding camels over distant dunes? Humbly approaching the Christ-child in the manger? Richly dressed? Exotically foreign? Decidedly ‘eastern’? Were they differentiated in any way, for example by one of them being black, or by varying in age? Bearing gifts, often in elaborate caskets? Always three, though, and occasionally even named: Caspar, Balthasar and Melchior. Where does all this come from?
The story of their coming is told only in Matthew’s gospel, where they are called magoi. It’s a word that occurs elsewhere in the bible, and is usually translated as ‘magician’. Here, though, this rather disparaging term is avoided and it is instead rendered as ‘wise men’. These are clearly ‘good magoi’! The gospel specifies their costly gifts which, in light of the Christian belief about the nature of the child who has been born, bear symbolic and prophetic meaning: gold signifying kingship, frankincense signifying priesthood, and myrrh signifying death. But we are not actually told that there were three of them. That’s an assumption based on the reference to three categories of gift. As for their names, these first appear in texts from the sixth century, although Caspar, Balthasar and Melchior are special to Western Christendom. Other traditions have different names and even different numbers of ‘wise men’, sometimes as many as twelve.
It’s clear that the story is told in Matthew to demonstrate that Jesus’ birth fulfilled a biblical prophecy. This is found in Micah chapter 5, v. 2 and is quoted in Matthew chapter 2, v. 6. Matthew’s narrative embodiment of the prophecy, directed at his Jewish audience, will doubtless have generated the assumption that, coming from east of Judaea and being interested in interpreting heavenly bodies, the magoi were Zoroastrians from Persia — a religion and a region and where the study of the stars flourished. Of course, getting to Judaea from there would involve crossing deserts, so the camels which we see in art are a logical elaboration. But there is nothing in the gospel to suggest that they were imagined as kings. That’s a much later creative development, as is their portrayal which distinguishes them by age and ethnicity.
What has happened over the centuries is that this powerfully symbolic story, which makes a point about the nature of the Christ-child, has had its symbolism imaginatively heightened, so that the initial ‘epiphany’ or ‘manifestation’ of the Christ-child is represented visually in Christian art as being to gentiles from around the world (the magi) as well as to Jews (the shepherds), to rich (the magi) as well as to poor (the shepherds), and to young and old (often shown in the portrayal of the shepherds as well as the magi). So the Christmas cards work well, if you know the symbolism, despite the fact that the details are mostly non-biblical.
What is ‘wrong’ with the standard depictions is that the visit is shown as taking place in a stable very soon after the birth. In Matthew the magoi enter a house; and if Herod ordered all children under two in Bethlehem to be killed, that implies a considerable time-delay before the magi arrived at Herod’s court to ask about the new child-king. But we should not worry too much about these discrepancies since the story functions not as a piece of historical rapportage but rather as a narrative intended to convey symbolic meaning. It is this important symbolic dimension that has been strengthened, very effectively, by the artistic imagination.
The Year of Cathedrals
You may already have noticed that 2020 has been declared The Year of Cathedrals: The Year of Pilgrimage. Each cathedral will have its own celebratory programme of services and events, but one of the things that they are all aiming to do is to offer pilgrimage-routes, for individuals or groups, with the cathedral as a focus: walks that can be enjoyed for their spirituality, their heritage and, in many cases, their natural beauty and historic resonance.
Although well over 10 million people already visit our cathedrals each year, it is hoped that that many more will discover them— great and small, medieval and modern, famous and not so famous — during the year, and will enjoy collecting stamps for each cathedral visited on the special 2020 Year of Cathedrals ‘passport’.
The word ‘cathedral’, which we have been using in English since the thirteenth century, comes from the Greek καθέδρα (kathédra), meaning ‘seat’, in this case the seat, or cathedra, of the bishop. Not that we borrowed it directly from Greek: Latin borrowed it first, and it then passed into Old French, from where it came into English in the time of the Plantagenets. There had been cathedrals in Anglo-Saxon England, of course, but then the chief church of the diocese, which held the bishop’s cathedra, was called, quite literally, the ‘head-church’,
Christianity started to develop a public presence in the fourth century, following Constantine’s declaration of religious freedom in 313, and from then on the western church adopted details of architecture and ritual practice that were well-established in the secular world. One such detail was a special seat with arms and a curved back, often made of rich materials, which was used in the secular world as the seat from which imperial authority was dispensed by high-ranking officials. It now also became the seat, the cathedra, for the bishop,
symbolising his authority within the church. At first bishops delivered their teaching from the cathedra, although this often meant that it had to be moved forward from its original position in the apse behind the altar. However, as congregations and cathedrals became bigger, sermons were delivered standing, initially from a lectern and later from a pulpit, allowing the cathedra itself to remain fixed. In Anglican cathedrals this fixed position is usually on one side of the Choir.
Originally — and this continued to be the case in Anglo-Saxon times — the cathedral was run by the bishop himself together with his ecclesiastical household or familia. But as the bishop’s pastoral and administrative duties grew, and as the worship in cathedrals became more elaborate, the responsibility for administering the cathedral itself was gradually delegated to a separate body of clergy led by the Dean. This meant that a bishop, once consecrated and installed in his cathedra, would only come to the building that housed this cathedra — the cathedral — for official worship on special occasions and the greater liturgical feasts. As a result, the clergy responsible for the life of the cathedral, in all its various spiritual and practical dimensions, came to be, in law, a separate ecclesiastical corporation or Chapter, with its own rights and privileges. There have been many subsequent changes, of course, not least the acceptance of women priests and bishops and the appointment of laypeople to serve alongside the clergy as members of Cathedral Chapters. But the essential features of this distinctive legal structure continue in the Church of England today, even in the many new cathedrals that have been created since the Reformation.
‘The disciples were first called Christians at Antioch’
The keeping of Lent, which this year runs through the whole of March, has always been associated with penitence and penance, often these days in the form of giving up some enjoyable luxury. But from the early centuries it has also been a time for learning about the faith: those who were already Christians would often attend the instruction provided during Lent for catechumens, the converts who were being prepared for baptism on Holy Saturday. These days, as part of our spiritual sprucing up in preparation for Easter, we often echo this practice, for example by some form of study, such as a lent-course, directed reading, or themed sermons. In some years to tie in with this means of observing Lent, I have looked at the origin of one or other of the Creeds. This year, I’ve decided to explore something even more basic: the very name by which we are known, ‘Christians’.
We read in Acts 11 v. 26 that ‘The disciples were first called Christians at Antioch’. Clearly, this was a word coined by others to describe a newly identifiable group: it was not the disciples themselves who thought up the name. Later, in Acts 26 v. 28, we see it used by King Herod Agrippa II. Faced with St Paul eloquently repudiating the charges against him, Herod Agrippa rather scornfully remarks, ‘You think it will not take much to win me over and make a Christian of me’. This event took place in c. AD 59, by which time ‘Christian’ had evidently become established as a pejorative term. But almost immediately the so-called ‘Christians’, followers of Christ, adopted the term for themselves. We see evidence of this in Acts 16, vv. 1 and 2, where we are told that Timothy was the son of a ‘Jewish Christian’ mother and was well thought of by the ‘Christians’ at Lystra and Iconium; and the term is used also in I Peter 4 verse 16.
It’s worth digging a bit deeper to see if we can learn more from the word itself. As it appears in Acts, it is, of course, in Greek: Χριστιανὸν (Christianos). The first element of the word, Χριστ, Christ, means ‘the anointed one’. In terms of its meaning it is the Greek equivalent of Messiah in Hebrew. So the first half of the word accurately acknowledges that the new sect believed they were following the Christ, the Messiah, ‘the anointed one’, for whom the Jews had long been hoping. However, the last part of the word, -ιανὸν, -ianos, which conveys the meaning ‘adherent of a group’, ‘a follower’, is not a Greek construction at all. It is, rather, a common Latin one (-ianus), which was quite freely added to names to form a collective term. What we see in the New Testament is its direct transliteration into Greek script, so forming a linguistic hybrid: Greek for the first half of the word, and Latin-origin for the second half. Latin was, of course, the official language of the occupying power, even though the lingua franca in the eastern Mediterranean was Greek. So perhaps the term Christianos grew up among those complaining about the sect to the Roman authorities, for whom the meaning of this made-up word would have been transparent, economical and effective. Maybe that’s how Herod Agrippa, an agent of the Roman imperial power, had come to know it. It was, though, a very good one-word description and it is no wonder that the community of believers quite quickly adopted it.
Pontius Pilate in Jerusalem
All four gospels place Jesus’ trial before Pontius Pilate in Jerusalem. After questioning Jesus themselves, the Chief Priest and other Jewish leaders were easily able to go to him and demand that he pass the sentence of death. And of course the sense that Jerusalem was the great city of Judaea is strongly present throughout the gospels. So naturally, we might think, that’s where Pontius Pilate would be, as the Roman governor of Judaea. Not so. He was there only because it was the Passover, and his purpose in being present was to enforce order. It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that he comes across as rather suspicious of what the Jewish religious leaders might be up to, and anxious not to take the risk of refusing outright what they and the clamouring crowd were demanding. Passover was the major Jewish festival and pilgrims travelled to Jerusalem for it from all over Judaea.
From the point of view of the occupying power, this was threatening enough in itself: crowds are difficult to manage, particularly when assembling to celebrate a defining aspect of their religious and national identity. But more especially, from the Roman perspective, Passover — originally a festival of thanksgiving for the spring’s ‘first fruits’ — was supremely a celebration of the Israelites’ divine release from slavery in Egypt. It was this historical association that made the annual Passover a really serious threat from the Roman point of view: crowds, yes, always potentially dangerous, but on this occasion crowds religiously inflamed by the story of release from oppression. What if this crystallised into an uprising against the oppression of the Romans who, furthermore, held religious views that were anathema to the Jews? Mostly, the Romans kept the Jews somewhat at arms-length. They put in a non-Jewish puppet dynasty (the Herodians); and they controlled the appointment of the Chief Priest (Pontius Pilate retained Caiaphas as the High Priest for the whole of his approximately ten years as governor, suggesting that this was another puppet figure). But otherwise, as long as they did not cause trouble, the Jews were allowed to get on with their own religious business, and the governor, by and large, left Jerusalem to them.
Jerusalem was not the capital of the Roman province. From the time of the conquest of Judaea their capital had been established at the port of Caesarea Maritima, about 60 miles north-west of Jerusalem. This was where the governor usually carried out his judicial and financial duties and had the headquarters of his detachment of soldiers, who could be deployed as a kind of armed police. It was only at times of high risk that the governor would be present in Jerusalem, probably accompanied by a small force to provide personal protection and to augment the garrison normally held there in the Fortress of Antonia, beside the Temple Mount. Probably this is the location of the ‘common hall’ (Matthew 27 v. 27, Mark 15 v. 16), ‘called the Praetorium’ (Mark 15 v. 16). But Roman records indicate that governors visiting Jerusalem normally stayed in Herod’s palace, the site of which has been confirmed by recent excavation as lying beneath a corner of the Tower of David on the opposite side of the city from the Temple, although this was no distance in absolute terms: the old city was not large. Undoubtedly, though, wherever he stayed in Jerusalem at this sensitive time, Pilate would have felt vulnerable, and that fed into the dynamics of his encounter with the Jews and his consequent decisions.
In the Calendar of Common Worship there is an entry for 20 May which may well leave you somewhat mystified. It’s the entry for ‘Alcuin, Deacon, Abbot of Tours, 804’. Why is someone who was a deacon (not even a priest) and an abbot of a French monastery included in the Church of England Calendar? And what did he do that was special enough to qualify him for inclusion?
Despite ending his life in Tours, Alcuin was actually a Northumbrian of noble birth, raised and educated from an early age in the religious community in York. This was at the time when York, having been a bishopric since the seventh century, had only just been elevated to being the second archbishopric in England. Under the first Archbishop, Ecberht, and Ælberht, Master of the School, York quickly became one of the leading centres of learning in Western Europe. Alcuin was a star pupil, accompanying Ælberht on scholarly visits to the continent and succeeding him as Master when, in 767, Ecberht died and Ælberht became Archbishop. When, Ælberht died in 778, Alcuin was despatched to Rome to collect for Ælberht’s successor the special vestment — the pallium — that was given by the Pope to every newly appointed archbishop. On his way back, he met with Charlemagne (later to become the first Holy Roman Emperor), who was beginning to build up his court as an international centre of learning. The meeting took place in 781 (such was the time-frame for choosing a new Archbishop of York, and then for Alcuin to travel to Rome and to get as far as Charlemagne’s court on his return journey). Alcuin had not yet written the many books for which he would be known, but Charlemagne recognised his talents and invited him to join the body of outstanding scholars and intellectual leaders that he was drawing together. By 781 or 782 Alcuin had joined the court, where he remained until 794, when he was granted the abbacy of the major monastery of Tours. There, even though he was in semi-retirement and was increasingly infirm, he remained in close touch with Charlemagne by letter. From these and from some of the affectionate poems he wrote we get a lively picture of intimacy with the royal family and of friendship and intellectual exchange with fellow scholars.
Alcuin’s contribution to the hugely influential renaissance of learning fostered by Charlemagne cannot be overstated. He wrote books, drafted statements of royal policy which promoted the intellectual reforms, took part in contemporary theological controversy, had a huge influence on raising the standards of accuracy in manuscript production, left his mark on the development of the liturgy (including the introduction of votive masses, the singing of the Creed during Mass, and the encouragement of the observance of All Saints’ Day), compiled a lectionary and a collection of sermons aimed at raising standards across the church as a whole, and at Charlemagne’s request produced an accurately amended text of the bible. During and after his abbacy, Tours became an important centre for the production of beautiful manuscript bibles. It was also thanks to Alcuin that the standard of ecclesiastical Latin was raised, both in how it was written and how it was spoken within the liturgy and as a shared language amongst scholars. Charlemagne’s reforms give the lie to the idea that the early medieval period was ‘The Dark Ages’ (a term historians rightly no longer use). Alcuin, Charlemagne’s right-hand man and described by a contemporary as ‘a man most learned in every field’, well deserves being celebrated.
The Archbishop of York
Archbishop Sentamu’s period of office as Archbishop of York comes to an end this month, and he is succeeded by Stephen Cottrell, Bishop of Chelmsford. Archbishop Stephen will be Primate of England. The Archbishop of Canterbury, as the more senior of the two, is Primate of All England. These two titles – Primate of England and Primate of All England —which seem to make a rather odd distinction, were adopted in the fourteenth century as part of a solution to a long-running dispute about seniority.
The problem originated with Pope Gregory the Great. When he sent Augustine to England as a missionary, he intended that there should be an archbishop in London and another in York. Both had been prominent ‘headquarter cities’ in Roman times, and no doubt Gregory’s choice reflected some continuing memory of this in Rome at the end of the sixth century. However, times had changed, and England was by now divided into competing small kingdoms. For various reasons, Augustine actually established his mission in the kingdom of Kent (which did not include London), and set up his cathedral within the walls of the old Roman city that served as the capital. We know it as Canterbury; and it is for these historic reasons that in the south we have an Archbishop of Canterbury. England became a unified country in the mid-tenth century, but this was under the Kings of Wessex, whose capital was Winchester. So it remained until London took over the role after the Norman Conquest. At that point, it became expedient for the Archbishops of Canterbury to have a palace near the king: hence Lambeth Palace, where Archbishops of Canterbury still live, diagonally across the Thames from Westminster. In the north, conversion to Christianity took a rather different course and it was not until the early 730s that one of the bishoprics of the kingdom of Northumbria was raised to the status of an archbishopric — the Archbishopric of York.
But who was senior? Gregory had intended that this would be whoever had been in post the longest, so it would vary between Canterbury and York depending on patterns of succession. With York not becoming an archbishopric until the eighth century, that was not put into effect, but the Archbishops of York never forgot Gregory’s intention and they periodically rebelled against being subordinated to Canterbury: older, much closer to the seat of power, and in a richer and more densely populated part of the country. Matters rumbled on until the fourteenth century when Pope Innocent VI decreed that the Archbishop of Canterbury should have precedence with the title of Primate of All England, and that York should be styled as Primate of England. There’s nothing odd about ‘Primate’ (‘First’) for an archbishop since he is the ‘first’ within his own province. So the Archbishop of York is a Primate of England (that is, a Primate within England, being the Primate of the Northern Province). ‘All England’, by contrast, signals the supremacy of Canterbury.
Gregory also intended that the northern and southern provinces should be approximately equal in size. They are not, and never have been. The Northern Province has eleven dioceses (plus the diocese of Sodor and Man) and the Southern Province has twenty-nine (plus the diocese of Europe). Both archbishops serve as presidents of General Synod, but when General Synod meets in York in July, it is the Archbishop of York who takes the chair, while the Archbishop of Canterbury does so when it meets in London each February.
In February, before we were hit by the Covid-19 pandemic, I wrote about 2020 being the Year of Cathedrals: The Year of Pilgrimage. That celebration has now been extended to 2021. But what initially generated the idea of having a special year was that in 2020 several cathedrals have major anniversaries. The greatest of these is the 850th anniversary of the martyrdom of Thomas Becket on 29 December 1170. His feast-day is of course the date of his death. But Common Worship gives 7 July as an alternative, which is why I am writing about him now. This was the date when, in 1220, Becket’s body was translated from his original tomb to that wonderful space at the east end of Canterbury Cathedral where his amazingly rich shrine remained until it was destroyed under Henry VIII in 1538. Throughout these centuries Canterbury was one of the principal pilgrimage centres of western Christendom.
Thomas was born in Cheapside in c. 1118 of parents who were of Norman descent, although not of particularly high rank. However, thanks to patronage, in his early twenties he joined the household of Theobald, Archbishop of Canterbury, and was sent abroad by the Archbishop to study law. On his return Theobald ordained him deacon and appointed him Archdeacon of Canterbury in 1154. By the next year, Henry II had made him his Chancellor. In this role Becket, who greatly appreciated courtly living, was generally a loyal supporter of the king, even when some of the king’s policies were against the church. So it’s perhaps not too surprising that in 1162, when Theobald died, the king pushed hard for Thomas to become Archbishop of Canterbury. First, however, he had to be ordained priest! This took place on 2 June 1162, the day before his consecration as Archbishop.
No doubt Henry hoped that Becket would continue to support him, even if this sometimes meant taking a stand against the church. But that was not to be. Thomas immediately adopted a notably ascetic life-style and became the church’s staunch defender. Matters quickly came to a head when Henry wanted to transfer to the jurisdiction of the secular courts cases concerning criminous clerics, which had until then been a matter for the ecclesiastical courts. This new set-up was enshrined in the Constitutions of Clarendon (1164), but Thomas resolutely refused to sign them. Reprisals followed, including a demand for a large sum of money supposedly in settlement of accounts when he was Chancellor. He still refused to sign, and although a council called by the king passed sentence on Thomas, he escaped to France. Eventually, after Thomas had excommunicated two bishops who had sided with the king and had threated England with an interdict, the Pope brought about a reconciliation (of sorts), and Thomas returned to England on 30 November 1170. However, he remained as obdurate as ever, refusing to absolve the bishops he had excommunicated, and he was martyred in his own cathedral less than a month later.
The confrontation between archbishop and king was part of a power struggle that was played out for centuries throughout Western Christendom. It is this context that explains the extreme speed with which the church stepped in to capitalise on Thomas’s murder by canonising him in 1173. The pilgrimage associated with his cult inspired Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, while the personal tensions between king and archbishop, together with Thomas’s dramatic change of life, have led to works in modern times by T. S. Eliot in England and by
Jean Anouilh in France.
A Village in Quarantine
It would be odd to write a series of articles for 2020 without some reflection of the extraordinary circumstances we have been faced with in recent months. Lockdowns and other measures have been used to check the number of infections and deaths from Covid-19 but we will be dealing for some time with the huge costs of all this at a national and personal level. Fortunately in the twenty-first century we can hope that medical science will come to our aid in the form of an effective vaccine and/or new ways of treating those who are ill. We no longer expect centuries of recurrent waves of infection, with high mortality rates, which was what happened world-wide between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries, when plague was an ever-present risk.
There was a First Pandemic that lasted from the late sixth century to around 750, but in our history it is the Second Pandemic that had the greatest impact. It began in or near China and travelled along the Silk Road or by ship. We know it as the Black Death. By 1400 it had probably reduced the world population from an estimated 450 million to around 350-375 million, and it had an enormous effect on the economies and social structures of the medieval world. It recurred in waves, with varying geographical distribution until, in the British Isles at least, it died out in the mid-seventeenth century. The last occurrence in England was The Great Plague of London in 1665-66; it killed 70,000-100,00 Londoners out of a population of about 220,000-250,000, a really terrifying death-rate. The rich fled to the country, as they had always done when there was a new wave. Otherwise, families with infected members were boarded up in their houses.
Eyam, in Derbyshire, provides us with a striking example of social responsibility in times such as these because, when the plague arrived in 1665, the whole village decided to quarantine itself in order to stop the disease spreading to the countryside round about. The church in Eyam has a record of 273 individuals who fell victim. This represents a huge proportion of the total population. But they did not waver and the villages surrounding them were spared.
Fleas are the transmitters of this form of plague. The story goes that in 1665 a flea-infested bundle of cloth arrived from plague-ridden London for Alexander Hadfield, the local tailor. A few days later, his assistant, George Viccars, noted that it was damp and opened it up, so releasing the fleas. He very quickly died, and so did more members of his household. As the plague began to spread, the villages turned for leadership to their rector, William Mompesson and also to their recently ejected Puritan minister, Thomas Stanley, who between them, from May 1666, introduced stringent measures to control the spread. This included special measures for disposing of the bodies, the relocation of church services to an open-air natural amphitheatre so that villagers could observe social distancing, and the quarantining of the entire village, which no one could enter or leave. Whether or not you caught the disease seemed unpredictable. Elizabeth Hancock remained uninfected despite burying six children and her husband within eight days; and Marshall Howe, the village gravedigger, survived despite handling many infected bodies. But at last it died out. It is an inspiring example of social responsibility, and the village to this day honours the memory of their sacrificial decision. A visit to Eyam is a moving experience.
The Authorship of the Gospels (1)
We so easily take it for granted that the Gospels were written by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John that we probably don’t spend much time wondering whether these were the actual authors, or whether their names were given to these texts in order to confirm their status and authority in the early church. If the latter, we need to bear in mind that this was a very common thing to do in a pre-print culture: there was no notion of copyright, and no established practice of an author naming himself or indicating the year of composition. So a tradition could easily grow up that a text, recognised as special, was written by a famous person, even if in reality it was not. The Gospels bear the name of two apostles — Matthew and John — and two others whose names we know from the New Testament: Mark named in the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles, and Luke, named in the Epistles. But since no original manuscript survives for any of the Gospels, we don’t know what information, if any, accompanied them when they first went into circulation. The most we can say, based on surviving evidence, is that the names of Matthew Mark, Luke and John were associated with the four Gospels fairly early on in the history of the church.
You might think that none of this matters — and in a way, of course, it doesn’t, because what is important is what the texts say, not who wrote them. But the question of authorship isn’t entirely irrelevant, just as the question of date is not. Are they, for example, based on first-hand witness? Or maybe not? And how we answer might affect the way we read them.
The difficulty of dating the gospels is something I wrote about some time ago, and I won’t repeat the arguments here. But as an entry-point to the issue of authorship we need to remember that a common view of modern scholars is that Mark was written probably in the late 60s, Matthew and Luke possibly in the 80s, and John maybe around 90-110. So it is immediately obvious that the dates raise questions about the traditional assumptions regarding authorship: one could imagine that someone writing in the late 60s might have known Jesus in their adulthood, but it gets to be less imaginable for later decades.
Mark’s gospel was written first because we can tell that it was used by Matthew and Luke. It’s not too difficult to believe that he was the Mark/John Mark in the New Testament. Tradition has it that he was one of the Seventy (Luke 10) and maybe the follower who ran away from Gethsemane (Mark 14: 51-52). But the person we encounter by name was a close associate of Peter, Paul and Barnabas, from whom he could have got much of his information. Perhaps, too, the mere fact that he is not a major figure is another reason for accepting his authorship: it’s unlikely that popular tradition would have fastened on his name as one to lend authority to the text when there were bigger names available. Additionally, he is named as the author very early on by Bishop Iranaeus (c.130-200), who claims to be quoting Bishop Papias (c. 60-130). All this adds up to a reasonable though not provable case for Mark being the author of the gospel bearing his name. The picture is more mixed for Matthew, Luke and John, however. I will deal with these next month,
The Authorship of the Gospels (2)
Last month I looked at some of the general issues surrounding the authorship of the Gospels and ended with an outline of the evidence for Mark being a conceivable (though unprovable) author of the Gospel bearing his name. This month it’s the turn of the other three, beginning with the Gospel of Luke which, like that of Mark, is attributed to a figure who is not an apostle. There is, however, a Luke mentioned in the Epistles (Colossians 4: 11, 14): a gentile and a physician. If he is the author of the Gospel, this would account for the quality of the Greek, more idiomatic and polished than that of Mark. Additionally, Acts 1 v. 1 is generally interpreted as meaning that the author of the Acts and the Gospel were the same person; and in Acts parts of the narrative use ‘we’, indicating that the writer accompanied Paul on some of his travels. If, then, we think of Luke as an active participant in the establishment of the early church in the generation after Christ’s ministry, the hypothesis that the Gospel was written in the 80s is entirely reasonable. As with Mark, why would early tradition claim Luke as a name to lend authority to the Gospel when bigger names were available?
By contrast, Matthew and John are names of apostles and so would be perfect for lending authority to anonymous texts. But the dates are problematic. Matthew was a tax-collector and so, when called by Jesus to be an apostle, must have been an adult of some standing. If modern scholarship is right in dating the text to sometime in the last quarter of the first century, perhaps around the 80s, that raises questions, given normal life-spans and the fact that those who lived longer than average were usually rather ‘older’ in their 70s and 80s than people are these days. And if chronology is a problem for Matthew’s Gospel, how much more is it for John’s, written, it is thought, around the turn of the first century. If c. 90-110 is indeed the correct date, it would be extraordinary if John the Apostle were the author.
Matthew used Mark’s Gospel as a written source, just as Luke did. We can confidently deduce that the author of this Gospel was a Jew, probably writing for a Greek-speaking Jewish community of the kind that existed in various places in Syria. But beyond that, and the fact that he was writing in the context of the second-generation of Christians, we can’t draw any further conclusions.
The Gospel ascribed to John is altogether different. Firstly, it is thought to be significantly later than the other three. Secondly, it is very different in its approach. Whereas the other three (known as the Synoptic Gospels) focus on Jesus’ life and ministry, John’s Gospel teaches what has been called ‘a high Christological doctrine’, taking an altogether more reflective approach to the divinity of Christ and the sublimity of his teaching. It both draws on and appeals to a rather different theological world, and one that best makes sense in terms of the rather later date.
As I’ve explained before, date and authorship are matters of conjecture for all four Gospels. It is at least possible to argue (though by no means agreed and certainly not provable) that the Gospels of Mark and Luke were written by the figures named in the New Testament. But for the Gospels of Matthew and John authorship remains a ‘known unknown’.
The church’s new year begins on the first Sunday of Advent, which in 2020 falls on 29 November. The previous Sunday, the last in the old year, is consequently 22 November, and it is on this day that we say the most famous of our collects: ‘Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may of thee be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen’. Common Worship uses modernised language, but here I’ve chosen its original sixteenth century form as it was created for use in what was then the Church of England’s new Book of Common Prayer. Even in its more modern form, however, it begins with ‘Stir up…’ and it is this which in recent centuries has made it part of our common culture: the day became known as Stir Up Sunday, when the Christmas pudding mixture was stirred up and wishes were made. So it has prompted me to write about Collects this month.
The liturgical term ‘collect’ for a short prayer has the same etymology as the verb ‘to collect’, although we pronounce them differently. Both come from Latin ‘a gathering together’, and ‘to gather together’. The collect, known for centuries in the Latin liturgy as a collecta, is a short prayer which brings together an invocation, a petition, and a conclusion which calls upon Christ or ascribes glory to God. I always think of it as a rather efficient form of prayer! You can see the elements of it in the ‘Stir up’ collect above. However, as is often the case in the Church of England’s traditional collects, the invocation (the address to God) only comes after the no-nonsense opening words of the petition, ‘Stir up’. Another well-known example of doing things this way is the Evensong collect, ‘Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee O Lord; and by thy great mercy defend us from the perils and dangers of this night; for the love of thy only Son, our Saviour, Jesus Christ, Amen.’
In the medieval liturgy there were elaborate rules about which collects were said when in the church’s year, and since the number of days between Epiphany and Easter and between Pentecost and Advent varies from year to year according to the date of Easter, it was convenient to have the collects in a separate book so that they could be drawn upon as and when required. This special book of collects was known as a Collectar (Latin Collectarium). So, when Archbishop Cranmer was putting together the prayer book for the newly created Church of England, he was able to draw upon a rich tradition. Latin texts lie behind most of the BCP’s collects, but some are original compositions, as far as we can tell, and each one, whether following the sense of its Latin source, or being completely independent, is sharpened and shaped very skilfully for the rhythms of English speech. In total, Cranmer’s 1549 service book has eighty-four collects which cater for the cycle of the church’s year, including fixed feast-days for those saints that the new church continued to honour, and a dozen or so collects embedded within services, which remained fixed — for example, ‘Lighten our darkness…’, said at every Evensong. They have been called ‘jewelled miniatures’, ‘one of the chief glories of the Anglican liturgical tradition’. But it will be a task for another occasion to take a closer look at Cranmer’s skill in creating them.
You can’t imagine Christmas without Christmas trees. But why this association? In historical terms the answer to ‘why’ in this country is Prince Albert. It wasn’t, as people often think, that he introduced the Christmas tree into England. In fact, the first instance that we know of in this country when someone decorated an entire small tree for Christmas was in 1800, when George III’s wife, Charlotte of Mecklenberg-Strelitz, had a Christmas tree at a children’s party. Queen Victoria, as a child, was familiar with the custom, although it did not at first spread much beyond the royal family. In 1840, however, Victoria married Albert. He, like Queen Charlotte, knew the custom in his native Germany, and the decorated tree became the centre-piece of their family celebrations. The idea quickly caught on amongst the upper classes. But the trigger for its wider popularity was an engraving made for Christmas 1848, which showed a decorated tree, surrounded by Victoria, Albert and all of their children (six of them by that date). This was published in the Illustrated London News along with a detailed description. There was no looking back: better-off people wanted to emulate the royal family, and Christmas trees soon featured at public entertainments, charity events and in hospitals. There was even a charity set up in 1906 to make sure that poor children in the London slums, who had never seen a Christmas tree, would be able to enjoy one.
Answering the question this way, though, is too limited: we need to go farther back to understand why the tradition grew up at all. Christmas, which was celebrated from the fourth century onwards, is a mid-winter festival, close to the winter solstice, celebrated by many cultures. Such festivities marked the point when, although the sun was now at its lowest, the year was on the turn, bringing with it hopeful anticipation that the hardships of winter would not last much longer, and that spring and the new growing season would indeed come round again. And so, along with the feasting and partying, evergreen plants, such as holly, ivy and mistletoe were used for decoration to symbolise the hope of new life. When the date of Christmas was fixed in the Christian calendar, close to — although not on — the dates of the great pagan festivals, many of the popular customs continued, with the Christian celebrations eventually supplanting the older festivals. By the fifteenth century we have evidence of decorated evergreen trees being set up for Christmas in the region of modern Estonia and Latvia, from which the custom spread to northern Germany.
After the Reformation, trees such as this were to be seen in the houses of upper-class Protestant families as an alternative to Christmas cribs, which were then firmly associated with Roman Catholicism. The popularity of decorated Christmas trees was boosted by German emigration to North America and in Britain and throughout the Empire by the example of Victoria and Albert. Only at the start of the twentieth century, though, do we begin to see Christmas trees appearing inside churches — sometimes meeting considerable resistance on the grounds that they were pagan symbols. However, being evergreens, they serve well as symbols of continuing life in a dark time and of hope for the coming of new life. Looked at in this way, they are fitting symbols of the message of Christmas – evergreen life, the promise of hope, and, in the way they are customarily decorated, bearers of lights which illuminate the darkness.