“Real Presence, Real Absence?”

Sermon given by Rev. Neil Elliott for Good Friday in 2018 to St. John’s Episcopal Church, St. Paul, Minnesota. Reproduced here by permission of Rev. Elliott.

We Christians can be so vain, we probably think the prophets are about us.

That’s what it sounds like, at least, in First Peter: Whatever Israel’s prophets said, they were speaking not to their own time, but to ours. The early church was eager to prove that Christ had “died according to the scriptures” that they mined Israel’s scriptures for any reference to suffering—Isaiah 52 and 53; Psalm 22; even the book of Lamentations—and turned those into predictions of Jesus.

It continues today: think of Mel Gibson’s gory Passion of the Christ. Jesus’ agony was supreme, surpassing all other suffering; no other suffering counts.

We might instead understand that Jesus took part in the immiseration of the powerless in our world: that he suffered the injustice, cruelty, violence that so many others have known as well, for countless generations.

It might change the way we experience Good Friday. Instead of that constant effort to screw up our imaginations to travel back in time—“Were you there . . .?” We might ask instead, “Are we here?”

There are young people massing in the streets to demand an end to our national worship of gun rights, to which they have been made an endless and unwilling sacrifice. There are African Americans massing in the streets and city squares demanding an end to our hypervigilant, militarized, and yes, racist police culture. There are men, women, and children from El Salvador and Syria and Somalia and Yemen, fleeing famine, terror, warfare, risking their lives for what they pray will be safety and a future with us, even as a majority party poses them as our enemy. Are we here, are we present to them?

This year, Good Friday occurs almost exactly between two other auspicious dates. Thirty-eight years ago last week, Oscar Romero, the archbishop of El Salvador, was shot to death as he celebrated the Eucharist. He had openly challenged the U.S.-funded military to “stop the repression” of the Salvadoran people. As thousands gathered in the capital for his funeral, men in plainclothes fired automatic rifles and threw hand grenades and killed dozens more. The Salvadoran government and the U.S. government both said the culprits were probably Communist subversives; we now know those were lies. Some people knew it then; after all, some eighty thousand Salvadorans, many of them church leaders, were killed by national security forces in a decade-long war of repression.

Fifty years ago next week, Martin Luther King Jr. was shot to death on a hotel balcony. He and his colleagues in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference were in Memphis to support a labor strike, but they were also mobilizing a gathering of thousands of people for a Poor People’s March on Washington that would have riveted the nation’s attention not just to racial prejudice but to the profound inequalities and injustices that we still live with. When we say in the Creed that we believe in the Spirit, who has spoken through the prophets, I don’t think we mean “the prophets long ago who predicted the death of Jesus, then fell silent”; we mean, God’s word is spoken against injustice and cruelty in every generation.

One of our themes this year is “sharing our stories”: with your indulgence, I would like to share one of mine. The fall of 2001 was a somber, anxious time nationally, and a peculiar time for me to go back to seminary at Seabury, in Evanston, for a year of Anglican studies. I took classes on Anglican liturgy and sacramental theology and kept the routines of Morning and Evening Prayer and Compline, in a chapel pretty much like our chancel. On this particular Wednesday in November, some of us gathered for the Eucharist. The prayer ended, and we began that hymn taken from the ancient Didache:

As grain, once scattered on the hillsides,
was in this broken bread made one, —

—and then it was time to go up to the railing. I looked down to watch my step from the choir stall down to the floor of the chancel.

But I couldn’t see the floor. I was standing on a rocky surface—-there were rocks all around me, nothing but a steep hillside of rocks that stretched down into a valley below me, with some kind of settlement at the bottom. The sky was a heavy, ominous gray, and a chilling wind was blowing sleet into my face.

I saw two children coming up the hillside toward me, a boy and a girl. He moved like he was eight or nine, but he was scrawny, almost hidden in a dirty ragged sweater many times too big for him. The girl was six inches taller and was giving him direction, like an older sister.

But they weren’t coming to me; they hadn’t seen me. They were moving deliberately, poking at the rocks, obviously searching intently for something.

I knew in an instant where I was and what they were looking for—it had been in the news. The United States had begun intensive bombing of this mountainous region of Afghanistan in pursuit of the Taliban. The United Nations and aid organizations protested that after a terrible drought, perhaps as many as seven million Afghans, stranded in refugee camps, would die without aid convoys traveling on the very highways being bombed. The U.S. responded by sending planes to drop 200,000 MREs—meals ready to eat—onto the hillsides; a ridiculous, cynical gesture, given such desperate need.

These children, I knew, were looking for those little yellow packets of food.

But I also knew that Oxfam and Bread for the World had raised a protest. Little yellow plastic objects were more likely to be explosive components from U.S. cluster bombs; they had already killed or maimed dozens of children.

I knew I had to warn the children but—how? I didn’t speak—what was their language? I felt helpless.

And then, suddenly, I was back in the chapel in Evanston. I sat down heavily in another choir stall to let others go up to the rail.

I knew, somehow, that the helplessness I’d just felt was somehow connected to the words of Jesus we had just heard from the Gospel of John:

“The bread I give is my flesh for the life of the world.”

I felt convinced I’d been transported to a place where bread and life were sorely needed.

And I have been convinced ever since that the “real presence” of Christ isn’t something we concoct or manage with our liturgy: that Christ is most present where the need, the hunger, the fear, the desperation in our world is most profound. —That doesn’t mean Christ is absent or distant from us—unless we distance ourselves from the suffering of others.

Oscar Romero—and after him, Salvadoran theologian Ignácio Ellacuría, who was shot to death by another U.S.-sponsored death squad almost a decade later—spoke often of the pueblo crucificado: of Christ being “crucified” anew in the suffering people in our world us today. The question of this day perhaps is not so much how we can imagine ourselves back to Calvary, not so much how Christ is present to us as we gather here in prayer, as it is, how we are present, truly present to the ongoing suffering of Christ in our day.

May God give us grace not to draw back from him out of fear.

Theodicy and Spirituality in the Fourth Gospel: A Girardian Perspective

The Rev. Daniel DeForest London, PhD

Every Fourth Sunday of Easter, Episcopalians and Anglicans read a portion of the Good Shepherd discourse in John 10. In Theodicy and Spirituality in the Fourth Gospel, I argue that this discourse functions as part of Jesus’s response to the question of suffering as asked by the disciples in the previous chapter: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (9:2). Sandra Schneiders explains that “the disciples are Christians of any time who agonize over the meaning of life’s mysteries, e.g. innocent suffering, and turn to Jesus for enlightenment” (Schneiders, Written That You May Believe, 157). The disciples’ question invites readers to bring their own questions of suffering to the Johannine Jesus, whose multi-layered response I attempt to unpack in my book.

In John 9 – 10, Jesus does not offer a theodicy, a philosophical defense of God in the face of suffering. Rather, the Gospel of John offers what I call a theodical spirituality, which is the experience of praying the question of suffering and receiving a divine response. In the response, Jesus reveals our dangerous attachment to blaming the victim and scapegoating the innocent (John 9:3-4). He then presents three sets of dichotomous symbols (day/night, vision/blindness, sheep/wolf), which each include metaphors (Light, Judge, Shepherd) that subvert the dichotomy and reveal Jesus’s commitment to liberating both the victim and victimizer. This reading ends up challenging all the dichotomies and dualisms that seem to dominate the Fourth Gospel.

I highlight cues within the narrative that invite the reader to identify not only with the disciples but also with the Pharisees, the Ioudaioi, as well as the oft-overlooked “wolf,” which is featured on the book’s cover. By identifying with the interrogators in the narrative, the reader can begin to see his or her own complicity in systems of scapegoating violence and Jesus’s commitment to dismantling them. Building on the insights and categories of Johannine scholar Adele Reinhartz and philosopher René Girard, I use what I call the “anthropological tale” of the Gospel as a key to interpreting the Johannine symbols and metaphors within the pericope and to demonstrate how anti-Jewish readings of John prove antithetical to the Gospel message.

When the Ioudaioi ask Jesus, “How long will you keep us in suspense?” (John 10:24) their words hearken back to the disciples’ initial question of suffering, especially since their first two words echo the classic question of biblical lament: “How long?” (Psalm 13:1-2; 94:3; Habakkuk 1:2; Revelation 6:10). In fact, a more literal translation of their question is “How long will you steal away our breath?”, which is an especially poignant question today as COVID-19 continues to steal away people’s breath and claim millions of lives. 

Like the disciples in John 9, the Jews in John 10 represent all those who boldly bring their questions of suffering before God, from Job to Julian of Norwich to C. S. Lewis to Elie Wiesel. John’s Gospel not only invites readers to bring their own questions of suffering to God, but the Gospel also invites readers to be transformed by the divine response of the Good Shepherd, who instead of offering an explanation, offers himself. As Anglican theologian Austin Farrer put it, “God does not give us explanations; God gives up a Son” (Farrer, The Essential Sermons, 204).

Ultimately, the beloved discourse read on Good Shepherd Sunday takes on new levels of meaning when we understand it as Christ’s self-giving response to our own personal questions of suffering, questions that can sometimes be laced with our own wolfish rage. 

Daniel DeForest London (Ph.D., Graduate Theological Union) is the rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Eureka CA. He teaches at Church Divinity School of the Pacific and is the author of Theodicy and Spirituality in the Fourth Gospel (Fortress Academic), which was recently released in paperback. He and his wife live with two Yorkshire Terriers, one of which is named Gubbio, after the violent wolf whom St. Francis tamed.

The Gospel of Mark is back June 6!

by Elizabeth Struthers Malbon
Professor Emerita of Religion and Culture, Virginia Tech
Christ Episcopal Church, Blacksburg, Virginia

This is liturgical Year B, the year of Mark’s Gospel in the three-year cycle of lectionary readings. But, in churches who follow the Revised Common Lectionary, we have not yet read much of Mark’s Gospel since the church year began in Advent late last November. During the Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany seasons, we read from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke on a number of Sundays and occasionally from John. During the end of the season of Lent and the season of Easter, the Gospel of John, which does not have its own year in the three-year lectionary cycle, takes center stage. But on the Second Sunday after Pentecost, this year June 6, we finally return to the short and powerful Gospel of Mark for some sustained reading.

The Gospel of Mark has been my research focus as a New Testament scholar. Thus, I have had opportunities to provide introductions to or overviews of Mark’s Gospel on a number of occasions, some of which are available electronically. Here are some links:

And here are two links to dramatic storytelling of Mark, word-for-word by memory, by a Lutheran pastor, theologian, and national colleague and friend of mine, Rev. Philip Ruge-Jones:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JhqMmDhc0UU  (Mark 1:1-8: 9)

https://www.facebook.com/ANKOSfilms/videos/i-tell-you-this-is-the-way-it-is-the-passion-according-to-mark/1882968051735717/ (Mark’s Passion Narrative, Mark 14:1-16:8)

Most scholars recognize the Gospel of Mark as our oldest Gospel and an important source for at least Matthew and Luke’s Gospels, and possibly John’s Gospel as well.  Mark is also the shortest Gospel and has long been overshadowed by the other three canonical Gospels, as even the number of Sundays when Mark is not read in Mark’s lectionary year, Year B, suggests. But in

the 20th and 21st centuries, the Gospel of Mark has received renewed scholarly appreciation for its carefully structured storytelling, giving evidence of its birth as a story to hear and retell and witness to its staying power as a well-told tale of good news.

Legacy or Lineage?

Rev. Dr. Jane Lancaster Patterson, Seminary of the Southwest and AABS President

Recently, the cartoonist and philosopher of creativity, Austin Kleon, recounted an exchange with a person who asked him what he hoped his legacy would be. Kleon answered that he didn’t think in terms of legacy, but rather in terms of lineage, the whole stream of people in history who have inspired him, and those who will in turn be influenced by his work. As scholars, we are clearly not self-made, always standing in the midst of work that began long before us and that will continue long after us. And while we are working, we are also never alone, the beneficiaries of so many scholars who are pursuing questions related to the ones that inspire us.

Finding a Lineage
In the hopes of stimulating an ongoing conversation about our personal lineages as biblical scholars, I offer a glimpse of the scholarly lineage without which I would literally not be teaching New Testament now. The first is Phyllis Trible, whose Texts of Terror saved me in Bible 100. You would never have seen in my first exam the makings of a biblical scholar. I had no idea what was going on in the lectures. I couldn’t find the starting point, much less gain a sense of where any of the discussion was going. When the first paper was assigned, one of the professors mentioned off-handedly that Trible’s work might be helpful. Desperate, I followed through on the suggestion. I went down to the stacks, found Texts of Terror, and started reading it right there. I devoured it, sitting on the floor in that cramped space, practically glowing with a sense of connection. I was gripped by her ideas, and also the clarity of her method. I was both rescued and hooked in the space of a couple of hours.

Being claimed by a lineage
Thinking about lineages helps to make sense of the stream of influences that come together in my work: reading Wayne Meeks’ article, “The Polyphonic Ethics of the Apostle Paul” for the first time, when I was beginning to focus on Paul; the dedicated scholarship and steady support of my dissertation advisor, Victor Furnish. It seems obvious to say that this is a chosen lineage, but actually the feeling is more like that of being claimed. When I was wandering around in the my early twenties, drawn to the church but really mainly drawn to contemplative prayer, Teresa of Avila came and claimed me, with her blend of forthrightness, wry humor, and mystical intensity. In my role as a theological educator, Phoebe has stepped out of Romans 16 to inspire and encourage me in the task of explaining Paul to people who are quite sure they don’t want to hear him.

Lineages in the New Testament
In teaching my students about the wide variety of ways to follow Jesus in the first two centuries, I speak to them about lineages. The New Testament contains a very narrow stream of the potential lineages that we are coming to know better through, for example, the Nag Hammadi documents. What does it mean to stand in the lineage of Peter (the synoptics), the beloved disciple, Paul, and John the apocalyptist? What are the emphases of this particular stream of practice and thought? What are we missing?

Like the genealogy of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke, our hermeneutical lineages stretch back potentially to our origins in God. But what are our creative responsibilities to those who will follow us? Much of my effort in teaching these days is to introduce my students to as wide a variety of interpretive voices in biblical studies as I can possibly gather in a semester. For some, this din of voices is challenging, but for so many it means hearing voices like their own for the first time in an academic setting. My hope is that at least some of them feel that electric moment of being claimed by an elder, and set on a path of discovery.

What lineage do you stand in? What do you hope to pass on?

From Horror to Prevention

Jason M. Silverman, University of Helsinki

Recently the field of Hebrew Bible has been rocked by another scandal, following closely on the heels of allegations of theft and smuggling of ancient manuscripts. Yet I was still shocked by the recent revelation that Jan Joosten, the now suspended professor of Hebrew at Christ Church, Oxford, was convicted of possessing tens of thousands of images of the sexual abuse of children. A flurry of activity on social media and the websites of related academic societies ensued; the most eloquent response I have seen so far was posted on the Shiloh Project (by Johanna Stiebert). To date I have largely remained in stunned silence, for what words suffice in the face of such abuse? And this is merely the tip of a depraved iceberg: there is an entire list of biblical scholars convicted of similar sexual offenses. Even worse, as noted by M. Adryael Tong in the “Annual Meeting Hotel Lobby,” the number of victims of child abuse is staggering: 10% of children. The victimization of children—particularly those of color—is a daily occurrence at the behest of the US government, to little censure by faith leaders. Networks for trafficking children such as those run by Epstein remain un-dismantled, while those supposed to prosecute them are implicated in perpetuating them. We need to mobilize our horror at these things towards stopping them.

How can we, as Biblical scholars, respond in a meaningful way, to change structures that allow such abuse to exist and persist, to protect potential victims, and help heal surviving victims? Biblical scholars might be inclined to turn to their specialty and offer commentary on distressing passages such as the rape of Dinah in Gen 34 or on broader themes of sexual violence in the text.

However, another question is how to treat the publications of scholars convicted of such crimes. From the perspective of the sociology of research, citations are the currency by which reputations and careers are made, funding granted, and positions of power offered. This means that a citation has an effect beyond just the ideas in the work towards the author’s place in academia. Should one continue to cite them as if normal? Erase their memory by never citing them again? Cite them with a footnote noting their crimes? Christianity has long had this debate over art and artists, theology and theologians as well. Should we reject Tillich or Barth because they couldn’t stay zipped up?

Even more, how can we support marginalized communities in and around the guild? Such groups include children, adult survivors of abuse, and transgender students and scholars to only name a few. One response is to donate to organizations that work with and for victims, as Ron Hendel has announced he will do with the proceeds from his co-authored book. There are a number of organizations that work towards child welfare which one could support.

As worthy as all of the above responses are, they are unlikely to accomplish enough structural change in the field of biblical studies (or in the academy at large). In this they are somewhat ‘prophetic’[i] in addressing specific problematic behaviors while leaving intact the social structures that enable them. We need to think more broadly—either with regular ethical and meta-disciplinary seminars on best practices in the field, and/or by fostering more open and democratic structures that reduce the ability of perpetrators to hide behind power and influence. Maybe faculties or professional associations need to make access to confidential spiritual, psychological, and addiction support services easier for victims as well as potential perpetrators. We need better structures for dealing with abuses that neither ignore the voices of victims nor degrade the rights of the innocent. Such changes take time, but they would help address other abuses of power as well (e.g., sexual harassment).

Whatever decisions one comes to in relation to these specific ethical questions or ones I have not mentioned, one thing is clear: neither professional nor lay readers of the Bible can remain content with the status quo. Our responsibility includes changing the structures that enable abuses to occur and their perpetrators to repeat their abuses, not just in their repudiation. This may require some radical rethinking of the way we work.

[i] I.e., like the prophetic books of the Hebrew Bible, which call for social justice, but do not call for any changes in the social structures that create oppression.

Their Eyes Swell Out With Fatness: Metaphor and Emotion in Psalm 73

Their eyes swell out with fatness;
their hearts overflow with follies.

Psalm 73:7 (NRSV)

Richard Liantonio, University of Manchester

Gorged-out eyes, fat bulging between eye and socket, a horrifying gaze, an evil scheme. The picture is stark and perhaps shocking, but a reasonable first impression from the line their eyes swell out with fatness. This expression only occurs once in the Bible, prompting debate over its meaning and even proposals to correct the Hebrew text. Some commentators call the expression “absurd,” or “incomprehensible.” Others refer to it as an “ancient” or “archaic” metaphor.  The 1979 American Book of Common Prayer (BCP) translates “Their iniquity comes from gross minds.” This seems to follow the path of changing one consonant in the Hebrew text of “their eyes” (Heb. עֵינֵמוֹ) to “their iniquity” (Heb. עֲוֹנָמוֹ), while interpreting the Hebrew “from fat” (מֵחֵלֶב) metaphorically as a “gross mind.”

My PhD research focuses on the use of metaphor and metonym to express emotion in the Psalms, particularly happiness. Metaphorical language can be notoriously difficult to interpret. Part of the joy of my research is discovering new ways to view texts in light of their ancient linguistic contexts. Psalm 73:7a is often interpreted as a negative metaphor (BCP “gross mind”), as a caricature depicting the disgusting, bulging eyes of an abhorrently evil person. I would like to suggest the possibility that instead of referring to being “gross,” “callous/unfeeling,” “gluttonous,” “lustful,” “proud,” “lazy,” or “unreceptive,” (as other scholars have suggested) this line is a metaphorical figure of speech[1] for the excitement, pleasure, and even happiness of the albeit wicked person. The reasons are as follows:

  • Though at times fat, when occurring with heart (לֵב), has negative connotations related to callousness or lack of feeling (cf. Ps. 17:10; 119:70; Isa. 6:10), we see earlier in Psalm 73:4 בָּרִיא fat, a word semantically related to חֵלֶב (cf. their use together in Judg. 3:17, 22; Ezek. 34:3), where the reference is clearly positive: For they have no pain, their bodies are perfect and fat. The use of fatness to refer to health and well-being is common in the ANE.[2] The larger conceptual domain of fat (דשׁן, חלב, שׁמן, etc.)  is commonly associated with prosperity, abundance (Gen. 45:18; Num 18:12; Deut. 32:14; Psa. 81:17; 147:14), fertility (Num. 13:20; Neh. 9:25, 35), well-being, and happiness (cf. Psa. 23:5; Prov. 15:30; Sir. 26:13, 43:22).
  • While translations like “swell out” (NRSV) and “bulge” (NASB, NKJV, HCSB, CEV) can suggest an abnormal anatomical phenomenon, these are interpretive translations of the Hebrew יָצָא, which simply means to go out. Obviously eyes protruding can seem prima facie abnormal, but not necessarily when contrasted to the opposite – a sunken eye which can indicate (or be a metonym for) unhappiness: my eye becomes weak from grief (Psa. 6:8, also 31:10); my eye melts away (sinks?) from sorrow (Psa. 88:10); my eyes are finished from weeping (Lam. 2:11; cf. Ps. 69:4). In this light, the eye that “goes out” rather than sinks reflects the normal, healthy, and happy condition.
  • Swelling is a common metaphor for happiness in Akkadian and Ugaritic (two ancient languages closely related to Hebrew), though this swelling routinely occurs in the heart or liver/innards, rather than in the eyes. As a representative example from the Ugaritic Baal epic:[3]

Her innards/liver swelled with laughter

Her heart filled with joy

Anat’s innards/liver with victory.

The Hebrew Bible does not seem to contain this particular metaphor, but is replete with broader metaphorical frameworks that happiness is swelling participates in: happiness is expansion/unhappiness is constriction (Psa. 4:2; 18:20; 25:17; 31:9; 66:12)[4] and happiness is an object/fluid in a container (a flexible container will “swell” as it is filled; Psa. 4:8; 16:11; 19:3; 45:2; 119:171; 145:7). 

  • The parallel phrase: their hearts overflow with follies (NRSV) also contains a metaphor for happiness. As noted above, a number of biblical passages depict happiness as a fluid inside the container of the heart, which enthusiastically overflows, often in the form of speech. For example, Psalm 45:2: my heart overflows with a pleasing theme (cf. Psa. 19:3; 119:171; 145:7).

Taken together, it seems less likely that the line in question is a caricature, an intentionally exaggerated and disgusting physical depiction of the wicked. This especially so, considering none of the surrounding verses attempt to do likewise, and the physical descriptions in verse four are overwhelmingly positive (their bodies are perfect!). Rather, in this line, the protruding rather than sunken eyes seem to depict the emotions of a person experiencing happiness and prosperity, similar to phrases describing the shining eyes/face of a person (cf. Num. 6:25; Psa. 34:6; 104:15; Eccl. 8:1; Isa. 60:1). Perhaps this line is automatically taken as negative because it is describing otherwise evil persons. But central to this Psalm is that the wicked are prosperous and well off, while the righteous suffer, creating a crisis of faith for the psalmist. I hope this brief exercise shows the significance of metaphor and emotion in our reading and interpretation of biblical texts.

[1] Technically an instance of metaphtonymy, an interaction between metaphor and metonymy.

[2] cf. Dan 1:15; Gen. 42:2ff.

[3] CAT 1.3 ii 25-27. Cf. also CAD E: 88; CAD : 8-9; 138 for more examples.

[4] Philip D. King, Surrounded by Bitterness: Image Schemas and Metaphors for Conceptualizing Distress in Classical Hebrew (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock, 2012), 140–209.

Take My Unicorns But Leave the Hyssop

by Steven Bishop, PhD, Seminary of the Southwest, Austin, TX

Students gaze at me in wide wonder when I tell them that unicorns are in the Bible, at least in certain translations of the Bible.  To add to their wonder, I tell them that the 1928 Book of Common Prayer has unicorns in three Psalms (Ps. 22:21; 29:6; 92:9). 

Psalm 92:9 But my horn shall be exalted like the horn of an unicorn; * for I am anointed with fresh oil.

Putting unicorns out to pasture was at least one of the goals of the 1979 revision of the Psalter and it succeeded. The unicorns have been replaced by ‘wild bulls’, which is a more fitting translation.

However, not all the excisions made to the Psalter of the 1979 Prayer Book are to be commended.  This Ash Wednesday we recited Psalm 51 together as a penitential prayer. One of the most evocative lines is verse 7:

Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;

wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.


Hyssop, also known as marjoram, is a central element of this imagery.  Hyssop is a plant used in the sprinkling of blood on the eve of the Exodus (Ex. 12) and in rituals of cleansing for leprosy and certain ritual purifications performed within the sacrifice of the Red Heifer (Num. 19).[1]  The poem has already mentioned washing, and this verse adds the imagery of sprinkling in a purification rite without using the word ‘sprinkle’.

In addition, the poem adds the evocative metaphor of snow. What does it mean to the psalmist to be washed so thoroughly, so completely that not one stain remains?  Is it not the prayer of one deeply penitent individual who realizes that without God’s cleansing they are powerless to attain forgiveness?  It seems to me it is.

It was therefore quite surprising to read this Ash Wednesday the same verse revised this way:

Purge me from my sin, and I shall be pure; wash me, and I shall be clean indeed.

Where did the hyssop go? Has it been sent off to grow in the pasture of the unicorns?  Without hyssop or snow the verse is pedestrian. It lacks the richness of the imagery present in the psalm and instrumental to appreciating the deep need of the psalmist who desires, no needs, this purification rite to be restored to God.

In a 1960 letter to a Mr. Beamer of Cleveland, Ohio, Rev. Charles Guilbert, the chair of the Drafting Committee at that time, agreed that ‘hyssop’ was obscure. He had offered the translating committee this revision:

Purge me, and I shall be cleaner than a gushing stream.

The committee did not accept that suggestion, to our great relief.  But it did offer something less gushing, less poetic, and without imagination.  This aspect of the revision is a failure.

Though talk of a revision of the Prayer Book seems to live perennially, talk of revising the Psalter is less prominent.  The Psalter of the Prayer Book has its problems but it doesn’t need a complete revision.  We only need to leave the unicorns out to pasture and allow the hyssop to bloom once again in Psalm 51.

[1]Irene Jacob, s.v. “FLORA,” 2:812. Ed. David Noel Freedman, The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, Copyright © 1992 by Yale University as assignee from Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. Electronic text hypertexted and prepared by OakTree Software, Inc. Version 4.1


Exploring the Markan Jesus’ “Sea” Crossings

Elizabeth Struthers Malbon, for the Anglican Association of Biblical Scholars

Like most AABS members, I relate to the Bible in a number of ways: as a New Testament scholar; as a retired professor from a state university (unusual among AABS members); as a lay member of a local Episcopal church (AABS also includes many priests within the Anglican communion). I’d like to share an example of my approach to the New Testament by means of an exploration of the Markan stories of Jesus’ voyages on and around the Sea of Galilee.

The Gospel of Mark is a story, a narrative, a narrative about “the beginning of the good news of Jesus (the) Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1). Thus, the questions we ask of narratives are appropriate to ask of Mark’s Gospel: What is the narrator trying to communicate to the audience (in the first century, the audience would have been listeners more than readers)? How do the actions of the characters in the settings depicted help the author and narrator communicate with the audience?

Monika Liu Ho-Peh, The Stilling of the Tempest (1950s)

As a scholar, it became clear to me (and not to me alone) that Jesus’ two feedings of multitudes with their settings on the west and east sides of the Sea of Galilee function as a “Jewish” feeding (6:31-44) and a “Gentile” (non-Jewish) feeding (8:1-9). Telling these two parallel stories in these two settings portrays Jesus acting in an inclusive way. In fact, chapters 4-8 make a point of showing Jesus’ outreach not only to Jews, his own people, but to Gentiles—in teaching, healing, and feeding. These chapters also show the difficulty Jesus’ disciples experience in following his lead. When the Markan Jesus sends his disciples “to the other [east] side, to Bethsaida” at 6:45, they do not go as sent. The storm on the sea, Jesus’ walking to them on the water, and Jesus’ leading them from Galilee to Gentile territories to the north while continuing his teaching and healing—what I have called the “Markan detour”—eventually bring them “to Bethsaida” at 8:22, where one who is blind is made to see. Are those in Mark’s audience who are blind to the inclusive outreach of Jesus also made to see?

The author of Mark seems to be the first one to apply the term “Sea of Galilee” to the inland, fresh-water body of water that Luke calls by its more usual name the “lake of Gennesaret” (5:1). But Mark’s use of the term “sea” is likely not accidental. By calling the lake Jesus crosses so meaningfully—with or without a boat—the “sea,” Mark taps into the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament echoes of the chaotic sea as the place where God’s people must rely on God’s protection and direction (e.g., Psalm 107). In addition, Mark alludes to the story of the prophet Jonah, who was sent by God to bring a message to the Ninevites, a Gentile nation, but, reluctant to do so, booked passage on a ship in the opposite direction, falling asleep in the boat during a storm on the “sea” (like Jesus). The sailors, like Jesus’s disciples, “feared with a great fear,” and Jonah ended up at the bottom of the sea (not walking on it like Jesus) before eventually reaching the Gentile territory and proclaiming his God-given message. Although the Markan Jesus does not need such a nudge to proclaim God’s message to Gentiles, the disciples in Mark seem to. But Jesus, like the God he follows, gives his followers a second chance. Does the Markan author also give his first-century audience a second chance to see God’s surprising message of inclusivity?

While Mark’s geographical knowledge has been questioned in 21st-century terms, I am convinced that he expected the audience to understand, in 1st-century terms, the ethnography indicated by the geographical references: this is a story about Jesus interacting with Jews and Gentiles. My latter-day audiences have needed some help with this, and I have used a variety of strategies in my multiple contexts. In a university classroom with a large table, we constructed a map of Galilee on the table, with a roll of blue crepe paper for water and signs for the place names, and traced the movement of the Markan Jesus through the narrative. Without the table, we constructed the map on the floor and had students take turns walking across the map to the next destination. Without a large table or room on the floor, I projected a map of Galilee on the white board and students took turns marking the journeys with colored markers. In a good-size church, I once envisioned the main aisle as the River Jordan and the chancel area as the Sea of Galilee and marked the journeys with my own movement in those spaces. In a fourth- and fifth-grade Sunday school classroom, I once used a child’s wading pool for the Sea of Galilee, and we made paper boats to blow across the sea. Have my audiences been enabled to see this expansive good news? That is the goal of AABS members.