St. Luke

Yes, this is a hard news story to cover: More talk about The Atlantic and modern exorcists

Yes, this is a hard news story to cover: More talk about The Atlantic and modern exorcists

The Bible doesn’t come up, all that often, here at GetReligion, unless we are talking about news stories that mangle a crucial piece of scripture. Remember this M.Z. Hemingway classic about the Ascension of Jesus? Or how about this M.Z. post, about The New York Times and Easter?

Anyway, to understand this week’s “Crossroads” podcast (click here to tune that in), I need you to pause and read the Gospel According to St. Luke, chapter 8: 26-36.

The key: Try to look at this through the eyes of a journalist who was going to mention this New Testament passage in a news report. We are doing part of a discussion of that interesting feature that ran the other day in The Atlantic, focusing on the sharp rise in requests for the ministry of exorcists in today’s Catholic church. So, here is our Bible story for today:

Then they arrived at the country of the Ger′asenes, [a] which is opposite Galilee. And as he stepped out on land, there met him a man from the city who had demons; for a long time he had worn no clothes, and he lived not in a house but among the tombs. When he saw Jesus, he cried out and fell down before him, and said with a loud voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beseech you, do not torment me.” For he had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many a time it had seized him; he was kept under guard, and bound with chains and fetters, but he broke the bonds and was driven by the demon into the desert.)

Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. And they begged him not to command them to depart into the abyss. Now a large herd of swine was feeding there on the hillside; and they begged him to let them enter these. So he gave them leave. Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and were drowned.

When the herdsmen saw what had happened, they fled, and told it in the city and in the country. Then people went out to see what had happened, and they came to Jesus, and found the man from whom the demons had gone, sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind; and they were afraid. And those who had seen it told them how he who had been possessed with demons was healed.

Now, my goal here is not to ask readers — as skeptical journalists — whether they believe this story or not. I am not asking whether readers think this is a mere folk story, as opposed to being inspired scripture handed down by the early church. I am not asking for a scientific evaluation of this text.

I am simple noting that it is hard to read this passage and not grasp that the reality of evil and the demonic is part of the Christian tradition. What we also see her is an archetypal image of the work of the exorcist, especially that of a priest acting in the name of Jesus of Nazareth.

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Why does it matter when the Bible's Book of Acts was written?

Why does it matter when the Bible's Book of Acts was written?

THE QUESTION:

When was the New Testament’s Book of Acts written and why does it matter?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

This topic cropped up recently when The Guy visited the adult Bible class at a prominent Presbyterian Church (USA) congregation. Participants are taught that the Book of Acts, which depicts the three decades directly following Jesus Christ’s earthly life, was written between 110 and 120 A.D., a generation later than scholars’ consensus.

Does that seem a trivial technicality?

“A good deal rides on decisions about the date of Acts,” says Joseph Tyson of Southern Methodist University.

Christian tradition holds that Acts reliably records what Jesus’ original followers believed and how the earliest churches spread that message. But if it was written long after the events, that opens up radical theories. Bible experts left and right agree that Acts and the Gospel of Luke are in fact two volumes of a unified work by the same writer, although separated by John’s Gospel in Bibles. (Both books are anonymous but Paul’s colleague Luke is identified as the author in 2nd Century texts so The Guy follows that custom.)

Luke’s Gospel begins: “Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us,  just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word,  I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first,  to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus,  so that you may know the truth. ...(New Revised Standard Version)

Acts then begins with a specific link back to Luke: “In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning. ...”  Because of those opening words, the credibility of the New Testament as history is at stake here.  (If interested in who that Theophilus was, see “Religion Q & A” for December 22, 2015, in the archive.)

The Acts discussion is a very revealing example of how various types of Bible scholarship go about their business.

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Holy Week question: What do we know about the Jewish leader who buried Jesus?

Holy Week question: What do we know about the Jewish leader who buried Jesus?

JACK’S QUESTION:

What do we know about Joseph of Arimathea? Have scholars learned anything more about him than what is said in the Gospels?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

The man who buried Jesus is a timely topic for Christians’ Holy Week. The quick response is that lots of stuff about Joseph of Arimathea is floating around out there. But much of it was written long centuries after the fact and is best regarded as folklore that tells us about British national pride rather than the actual man and his history.

The four New Testament Gospels are by far the best available sources and, scholars tells us, the earliest ones, produced in their current form some three to six decades after Jesus’ crucifixion. All four Gospels have information about Joseph, a rare distinction for a minor figure, albeit one who participated in a history-changing event. (References: Matthew 27:57-60, Mark 15:43-46, Luke 23:50-53, John 19:38-42.)

The Gospels’ narratives are broadly similar, but with intriguing differences of the sort that keep exegetes up at night. We’re told Joseph was “rich” and “respected,” asked Rome’s colonial ruler Pilate for custody of Jesus’ corpse, provided his own unused tomb hewn out of rock, personally conducted the burial procedures, and rolled the famous stone across the entrance to seal the gravesite. The burial was witnessed by two women, so the Gospels teach they were not mistaken that it was Jesus’ tomb  later found empty.

Mark calls Joseph a member of the “council,” which could refer to Jerusalem’s municipal government. But Luke clarifies that he belonged to the Sanhedrin that asked Pilate to execute Jesus, and says Joseph “had not consented to their purpose and deed.” Thus Mark’s statement that “all” of the Sanhedrin wanted execution can be seen as hyperbole to indicate lopsided rather than 100 percent support. John alone adds that fellow Sanhedrin member Nicodemus, who had defended Jesus during a prior dispute (John 7:50-52), joined Joseph in the burial.

Side comment: This important detail that the Sanhedrin was split helps counter anti-Semitic distortions. And divided opinion did not characterize only the Jewish rulers.

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Who was 'Theophilus,' that New Testament man of mystery?

Who was 'Theophilus,' that New Testament man of mystery?

RACHAEL’S  QUESTION:

Luke addressed the books of Luke and Acts to Theophilus, but who is he?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

Theophilus is a very important person in the New Testament, yet we know next to nothing about him.  If, that is, he was an actual person at all rather than some sort of symbol.  The only information 1st Century history has to offer comes in the introductions to two biblical books:

* “It seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may know the truth concerning the things of which you have been informed . . .” (Luke 1:3-4)

This is the only one of the four Gospels with this sort of dedication.

* “In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach . . . ” (Acts 1:1).

These two mentions of Theophilus are a major reason for experts’ consensus that Luke and Acts are linked as volumes 1 and 2 and almost certainly the work of the same author, a view supported by similarities of style and thought.  

Who was that writer?

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