Enduring Mysteries of the Bible
Posted by foryourfaith on December 9, 2009
The Bible is concerned with the mystery of the human quest for God. Written by scores of people across centuries, it bears witness to the depth and variety of mankind’s longing for God. It peers into the mystery of human existence and proclaims its beauties, its tragedies, and its hopes.
The Scriptures vividly capture a perception of the divine which some in our century consider central to all religious experience. But what do we find when we examine the mysteries? Although in antiquity the word “mysteries” might have referred to secret rites and teachings, today it refers to the deepest, most difficult questions with which human beings grapple.
The Bible is indeed mysterious. Mysteries arise from the chasm of time that separates the language, culture, and history of these ancient writings from modern life. Indeed, the languages from which the Bible was translated have presented readers with textual difficulties since ancient times. And biblical texts raise many historical questions as well.
For example, all four Gospels tell the story of Jesus, so one might expect that the chronology of his life would be known. However, the opposite is true. No date in Jesus’ life is known with precision. The Gospels do not provide us with an answer to one of the most basic questions: When was Jesus born?
In western culture, historical time has traditionally been reckoned using the birth of Christ as the key date. “BC” refers to events before the birth of Christ; “AD” meaning anno domini or “Year of the Lord,” refers to years after the birth of Christ. In the sixth century, when this reckoning began, the monk who made the calculations may have been wrong by at least four years and possibly more.
The “Star of Bethlehem,” which Matthew says the Magi followed, is another mystery. Some have sought to establish the date by identifying it astronomically. An exploding supernova or a brilliant comet has been proposed as an explanation for the star. However, no astronomical data have been found to support such theories. Several scholars have suggested that the star was actually a brilliant conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn that occurred in 7 BC. But this explanation is not compatible with Matthew’s description of a miraculous moving star that “came to rest over the place where the child was.”
The Gospels of Matthew and Luke indicate that Jesus was born before the death of King Herod the Great, in 4 BC. And Matthew’s narrative suggests that Jesus may have been two or three years old when Herod died. Thus Jesus may well have had his sixth or seventh birthday in the year that we would count as AD 1.
How long was Jesus’ ministry? Though it changed the course of history, none of the Gospels spells out when the ministry began or how long it lasted. Luke gives the start of John the Baptist’s ministry as about AD 28. Jesus was baptized by John some time later. Luke says that Jesus was “about” 30 years old when his ministry began, but when that number is correlated with the information that the gospels give concerning his birth, it appears that Jesus was perhaps 33 to 35 years of age when he began his public ministry.
The Gospels provide diverse hints concerning the length of his ministry. The Gospel of John mentions that Jesus went to Jerusalem for the Passover three times – at the beginning, the middle, and end of his ministry. That would indicate a period of just over two years. In the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, however, it was quite clearly implied that the ministry in Galilee was brought to a climax by a single journey to Jerusalem for the Passover. Thus, these Gospels suggest a one-year ministry.
Such historical puzzles and problems are very real, but it is important to notice that the Gospels – like much of the rest of Scripture – are relatively unconcerned with these difficulties. Their attention is on mysteries deeper that the intricacies of chronology or consistent reporting. The meaning of a single word can often affect the image conjured up in a reader’s mind.
The very attempts to explain or soften the mystery of Jesus’ words reflect the continuing force of his paradoxical statements. Scholars now recognize that Jesus’ words must not be softened, but allowed their full force if one is to understand his meaning.. As he himself explained it, “With men it is impossible, but not with God; for all things are possible with God.”
Tantalizing questions arise on practically every page of the Gospels. Jesus was baptized by John. Where did this rite, which was to be so important for Christianity, come from? Was it unique to John? Purification rituals had a long history in Israel; the priests had to perform ritual washing in preparation for sacrifice. John perhaps knew of the elaborate ablutions performed by the Essenes at Qumran. But he seems to have been the first to call for a single ritual of immersion as a sign of repentance and preparation for coming judgment. Jesus and his disciples continued John’s distinctive practice, but gave it new meaning.
Few elements of the Gospels are stranger to modern readers than Jesus’ encounters with people possessed by unclean spirits. Though the Hebrew Scriptures say hardly anything about the existence of demons, belief in the malevolent work was widespread by the time of Christ. In the Gospels, the presence of supernatural spirits gave the possessed the ability to recognize Jesus’ divine identity when others could not. But Jesus commanded the demons to be silent as a sign of control and conquest over these evil powers. Jesus’ exorcisms appear as part of the conflict between God and Satan.
One question revolves around the Gospel references to Jesus’ brothers and sisters. Did Jesus have siblings? Some suggest that these relatives were step-siblings or cousins, but most scholars think they were, in fact, brothers and sisters.
Sometimes a reference to prophecy can seem quite mysterious. Matthew tells that when people demanded a miraculous sign from Jesus, he responded that he would only give them “the sign of the prophet Jonah.” He interpreted this sign in two different ways: linking it to Jonah’s sojourn in the belly of the fish, and to Jonah’s marvelously successful preaching. Did Jesus understand the story of Jonah as literal fact? What is clear is that the story was a well-known part of Scripture an could be readily used as a point of reference.
Passage after passage – not only in the Gospels but throughout the Bible – tantalize, fascinate, puzzle. Ultimately, all of the smaller enigmas of the text point back to the enduring mystery of God. The Bible is not a quiet narrative, it stirs the mind. Perhaps these mysteries are present for just this purpose – to cause us to ponder.