Holiness through the Jesus Prayer as Depicted in The Way of a Pilgrim (Early Draft)

For my latest class on "Ascent to Holiness" I was given the task to choose an essay on an aspect of holiness. I chose the following broad topic: "Examine in detail a work of art or of literature, a drama, film or musical etc. that seems to you an exposition of holiness and explain why."

Methodological approach. I decided to choose the text The Way of a Pilgrim. I read, re-read, and carefully listened to the audio version. Line by line I took "relevant quotations" from the book that pointed to holiness. Having listened to course lectures delivered by Rev. Dr. Nikolai Sakharov, Dr. George Bebawi, the late Archimandrite Ephrem Lash and numerous others, I looked for quotes that would 'fulfil' class definitions provided. What you read below is my first attempt at connecting notions of holiness with actual text from The Way of a Pilgrim. As I was analysing the "text", I also used Leximancer to identify the major thematic concepts of the book. The word "holy" appears 39 times and appears in the top 20 concepts of the book. I also analysed each of the "four tales" in like manner. Provided at the end of this paper are also pages of references I sought through to come to a clearer understanding of what holiness means. My next steps is to severely prune this essay back to explicit quotations that describe holiness and support them with direct references/sources on the advice of my tutor Fr. Alexander Tefft.

Note: What is holiness? Holiness is not doing "good works" or being "virtuous". Holiness is something that God possesses and we acquire from God as we are made in His image. How do we acquire this? By "abiding in Him", by calling on Him more and more to reside in our hearts. We love our enemies because we see God in them, we love His creations because He made them. 

Disclaimer: the below essay is an early draft of my first attempt. Note: all errors are my own. I am studying towards a Certificate.

 

Holiness through the Jesus Prayer as Depicted in The Way of a Pilgrim

Katina Michael

This paper uses the book titled The Way of a Pilgrim to describe the path to holiness through prayer. In this 19th-century work, first published in Kazan with the title “Candid Narratives of a Pilgrim to His Spiritual Father” found in an Athonite monastery, the narrator takes the reader on a pilgrim’s journey across Russia while practising the Jesus Prayer. It is not known whether the book is a literal or fictional account of one pilgrim’s journey but the book demonstrates the power of invoking the name of Jesus through the biblically-based prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ Son of God have mercy on me a sinner” (Luke 18:13). The authorship of The Way of a Pilgrim is unknown although the four tales seem to be based on the original work of Archimandrite Mikhail Kozlov (1826-1884), entitled The Seeker of Unceasing Prayer. The exhortation by Saint Paul the Apostle in 1 Thessalonians 5:17 to “pray constantly” is a call toward unceasing prayer. In effect, it is a call to God to reside within our heart at all times through the Holy Spirit in a synergistic manner. For it is said by Saint Paul the Apostle: “we are God’s fellow workers” [i.e., Gk <<συνεργοί>>]. And again the Apostle states in James 4:8, if we “draw near to God”, He will draw near to us. Such is the striving toward a state of holiness, where we can open the door to God to reside within us, given we are made in His image. The Way of a Pilgrim demonstrates the importance of interior silence through the recitation of the Jesus Prayer guided by a spiritual father with the aim of uniting one’s mind and heart. The more we pray, the more God is able to work through us to effect change in our own hearts and that of those around us. The ultimate aim of unceasing prayer, as demonstrated in The Way of a Pilgrim, whether living a celibate or married life, is union with God, that is, theosis.

The Path to Holiness is Prayer

Holiness is not a state in which we can reach on our own accord, no matter how hard we try, no matter how many good works we do. Holiness is a mystery and it cannot simply be attained by the “learning of the schools”. It has unspeakable depths. The pilgrim is clear in stating, that “we must pray more often to God to teach us to pray without ceasing”. When our mind and heart is “continually yearning” and we have an “unappeasable desire” toward God, then it cannot be in a state of sin. It is “the testing of the harmony of your own will with the voice of God”. The misconception of many Christians lies in the belief that “good actions and all sorts of preliminary measures render us capable of prayer” when in fact the reverse is true, “prayer [is that] which bears fruit in good works and all the virtues”. Furthermore, we are told in The Way of a Pilgrim that while the Christian is compelled to perform good works, that without prayer these cannot be accomplished. “Without prayer he cannot find the way to the Lord, he cannot understand the truth, he cannot crucify the flesh with its passions and lusts, his heart cannot be enlightened with the light of Christ, he cannot be savingly united to God. None of those things can be effected unless they are preceded by constant prayer.”

A wise staretz (spiritual elder), tells the pilgrim that "the continuous interior prayer of Jesus is a constant uninterrupted calling upon the divine name of Jesus with the lips, in the spirit, in the heart, while forming a mental picture of His constant presence, and imploring His grace, during every occupation, at all times, in all places, even during sleep.” The prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me” interlinks a person with God, and after some time, he/she “can no longer live without it”. The prayer takes root in the heart on its own accord, casting “all other thoughts aside”. The admonition is to “repeat the prayer of Jesus as often as possible”. Of course, at one level, The Way of a Pilgrim, sets conditions for the hesychast “to cut off from everything else” through the Jesus Prayer, and yet on another level the book also describes how all forms of prayer (e.g. the Lord’s Prayer) can also be recited within a family context. God calls all of His children to holiness, not just those predisposed to monasticism. And this of course is demonstrated in the sanctification of Saints who chose either the path of marriage or virginity. Our goal should be to be with God as often as possible, “to cleanse the soul from all sensuality”. But it is a constant striving, once the prayer has manifested in one’s heart, like a well-oiled machine it must be cared for and nurtured, if it will go on “working still longer”. The directive is to be awake in “prayer as often as you wish and as often as you can… without counting the number of times.” It is to “seek after God in the simplicity of a loving heart” and to allow Him to “lead you into the right path."

The effect of recollecting our Lord Jesus Christ so often is a feeling of unutterable peace within the soul. The pilgrim describes his feelings thus: “I felt absolute peace in my soul. During sleep I often dreamed that I was saying the prayer. And during the day if I happened to meet anyone, all men without exception were as dear to me as if they had been my nearest relations… All my ideas were quite calmed of their own accord… my heart began of itself to feel at times a certain warmth and pleasure. If I happened to go to church, the lengthy service of the monastery seemed short to me and no longer wearied me as it had in time past. My lonely hut seemed like a splendid palace…” The pilgrim emphasises the importance of the instruction of a staretz in the recitation of prayer. He describes his joyful prayer as a “slight pain” in his heart as he imagines himself in God’s merciful embrace: “I pictured myself, if only I could see Him, throwing myself at His feet and not letting them go from my embrace, kissing them tenderly, and thanking Him with tears for having of His love and grace allowed me to find so great a consolation in His Name, me, His unworthy and sinful creature!” The pilgrim, recognising his sinful nature as a fallen human, is given the grace by God to feel His presence within his heart. The pilgrim endures a transformative process uniting with God through the Holy Spirit while invoking the name of Jesus. We are reminded by Saint Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 6:19-20): “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God? You are not your own; you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.”

Union with God

The two books that the pilgrim carries with him throughout his journey are the Holy Bible and The Philokalia. The pilgrim is shocked by the amount of knowledge he gains from The Philokalia, supported also by the prayer of Jesus which the holy Fathers said was “a summary of the Gospels”. He noted, that his heart was kindled with a “desire for union with God by means of interior prayer”. In Psalm 82:6, we are told, “You are gods, sons of the Most High, all of you.” What greater glory could a human attain than this theosis? The pilgrim writes: “I began to see the meaning of such sayings as "the inner secret man of the heart," "true prayer worships in the spirit," "the kingdom is within us," "the intercession of the Holy Spirit with groanings that cannot be uttered," "abide in me," "give me thy heart," "to put on Christ," "the betrothal of the Spirit to our hearts," the cry from the depths of the heart, "Abba, Father," and so on”. It was in this way that the pilgrim observed all natural things around him as “delightful” and “marvellous” singing praise to God constantly: “[t]he trees, the grass, the birds, the earth, the air, the light”. And yet at the same time, all of these creations equally “witnessed to the love of God for man.” We see here deeply the mystery of God’s love which is revolving. God does not want us to do good works from the “fear of hell”, but from “love for Him and zeal for His service; He wants us to find our happiness in uniting ourselves with Him in a saving union of mind and heart.” In walking with name of Christ on our lips, in our thoughts, and our heart, ceaseless prayer helps maintain our path to holiness, bringing us closer to the meaning of the Cross and Resurrection, and the eschata (that is the last things).

Holiness

The pilgrim describes feeling “overwhelmed with bliss” on the calling upon the name of Jesus. As he recites the prayer day and night, month after month in solitude, he becomes acutely aware of the meaning of the passage "[t]he kingdom of God is within you" (Luke 17:21). The pilgrim states at this point, “[m]y soul was always giving thanks to God and my heart melted away with unceasing happiness.” Indeed, holiness is to allow the heart to “melt away”, doing away with negative recollections that weigh heavy on the heart. It is to love one’s enemy, to love all people as if members of the one family. The pilgrim writes that the rosary (i.e. prayer rope) can bring one to sanctity: “[w]hen the soul is made holy the body becomes holy also”. He explains, “[e]veryone has his own gift from God… [and that] [e]veryone does what he can, as he sees his own path, with the thought that God Himself shows him the way of his salvation”. The pilgrim cites St. Gregory of Thessalonika in conversation, in his love for others and his want to reveal to them to power of the invocation of the name of Jesus: “we are bound to reveal it and teach it to others, to everyone in general, religious and secular, learned and simple, men, women, and children, and to inspire them all with zeal for prayer without ceasing”. Over and over again, throughout The Way of a Pilgrim, the message is conveyed as to the sweetness of the boundless love for Jesus Christ one attains when they are praying constantly. The Jesus prayer we are told by the pilgrim is a “comfort”, makes his “heart bubble”, is “delightful”, is “consoling”, provides “tears of joy”, and such “gladness of heart” that he cannot find the words to express his feelings. To be united to God so closely through prayer must give such peace and innocence that is indescribable.

Some way through the Russian spiritual classic, we learn the reason why the pilgrim has chosen to live a wanderer’s life. The pilgrim recounts many a story that demonstrate his path to holiness. He is not mad at his brother for causing a malady in one of his arms so that he cannot work rendering him a “cripple”. He is not mad at his brother for burning down the home he and his wife shared. He is not mad at God for taking the “worthy and sensible” girl he had married prematurely. He is not mad with the townsfolk whom he helped so much but later accused him of wrongdoing with a young girl who was betrothed to another man. He is not mad with the men who robbed and struck him, even taking his knapsack, Holy Bible, copy of the Philokalia, and dry bread. In his interactions with others he showed great love, did not sin against them, and though he felt pained at times beyond what could be written for his treatment, he continued to love. To the men who had struck him “senseless” he gave 1 ruble and told them: “Repent and pray! Jesus Christ loves men; he will not forsake you.” In essence, the pilgrim becomes “Christ-like” and fulfils the highest aspects of love that lead one to holiness. He reflected in his narrative: “If thine enemy hunger, feed him," and Jesus Christ himself said, "Love your enemies," "And if any man will take away thy coat let him have thy cloak also." He not only believed in these New Testament commandments, but lived by them whole-heartedly.

While the narrator paints a picture of a solitary life (i.e., monastic life) that is underpinned by prayer and fasting for Jesus and complete preoccupation with Him and the Saints, the narrator by no means takes away from the propensity for holiness in a family setting. When he encounters two children on his way, they insist that the pilgrim must meet their mother, and later the mother insists the pilgrim must meet her husband who is a magistrate. She tells the pilgrim: “He [the magistrate] reverences every pilgrim as a messenger of God. If you go away he will be really grieved not to have seen you. Besides that, tomorrow is Sunday, and you will pray with us at the liturgy, and at the dinner table take your share with us in what God has sent.” The family lives by the Gospel and fulfils Matthew 25:34-39:

34 Then the King will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? 38 And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? 39 And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?’

The pilgrim writes "I was astonished as I listened to what she said, and I asked myself whether I was talking with a human being or with a ghost of some sort.” The reader, likewise, is left feeling deep love and hope that there are people who actually exist like this. Indeed, the whole scene is reminiscent of Paradise. The pilgrim continues: “The more I saw and heard of all this, the more surprised I was, and I thanked God for letting me see these devout people.” The mother is symbolic of the Virgin Mary as she proclaims to the pilgrim that she does not rest. Holiness in this case is defined as being “fond of beggars, and brothers in Christ, and pilgrims.” Rev. Dr. Nikolai Sakharov adds only “enemies” to this list under the instruction of Fr. Sophrony Sakharov who believed being Orthodox was plainly described as “loving your enemies”.

The mother in this scene recounts her mother’s blessing: “as her last will and testament she urged us to live as good Christians, to say our prayers fervently, and above all try to fulfill the greatest of God's commandments, that is, the love of one's neighbor, to feed and help our poor brothers in Christ in simplicity and humility, to bring up our children in the fear of the Lord, and to treat our serfs as our brothers. And that is how we have been living here by ourselves for the last ten years now, trying as best we could to carry out mother's last wishes. We have a guesthouse for beggars, and at the present moment there are living in it more than ten crippled and sick people.” Later, the pilgrim proclaims: “'You are in God's own paradise here… Here is the Lord Jesus Christ Himself, and His most holy mother, and the blessed saints! And there… are the divine, living, and everlasting words of their teaching.” It is reaffirmed by the pilgrim that God’s strength is made perfect in weakness, and that neither the monastic path or the married path is easy, but that God grants what is needed to each accordingly. He says to the family:

“Of course, for hermits they give special and higher methods, but for those who live in the world their writings show ways which truly lead to interior prayer.” And returning to the Jesus Prayer, he conveys to the family: “One must learn to call upon the name of God, more even than breathing—at all times, in all places, in every kind of occupation. The Apostle says, 'Pray without ceasing.' That is, he teaches men to have the remembrance of God in all times and places and circumstances. If you are making something, you must call to mind the Creator of all things; if you see the light, remember the Giver of it; if you see the heavens and the earth and the sea and all that is in them, wonder and praise the Maker of them. If you put on your clothes, recall Whose gift they are and thank Him Who provides for your life. In short, let every action be a cause of your remembering and praising God, and lo! you will be praying without ceasing and therein your soul will always rejoice." There, you see, this way of ceaseless prayer is simple and easy and within the reach of everybody so long as he has some amount of human feeling.'”

 

The pilgrim continues to say that interior prayer has shed more light on the mystery of God than anything else and that it can be “done by anyone”. That “[i]t costs nothing but the effort to sink down in silence into the depths of one's heart and call more and more upon the radiant name of Jesus.” In a critical passage, the pilgrim comes close to defining and explaining what holiness is- a deep relationship with God. It is worth quoting this passage in full:

“Everyone who does that [interior prayer] feels at once the inward light, everything becomes understandable to him, he even catches sight in this light of some of the mysteries of the kingdom of God. And what depth and light there is in the mystery of a man coming to know that he has this power to plumb the depths of his own being, to see himself from within, to find delight in self- knowledge, to take pity on himself and shed tears of gladness over his fall and his spoiled will! To show good sense in dealing with things and to talk with people is no hard matter and lies within anyone's power, for the mind and the heart were there before learning and human wisdom… The trouble is that we live far from ourselves and have but little wish to get any nearer to ourselves. Indeed we are running away all the time to avoid coming face to face with our real selves, and we barter the truth for trifles. We think, "I would very gladly take an interest in spiritual things, and in prayer, but I have no time, the fuss and cares of life give no chance for such a thing."

The pilgrim cites the saying of Saint Nicetas Stethatus in The Philokalia who wrote: “The nature of things is judged by the inward disposition of the soul,' that is, a man gets his ideas about his neighbors from what he himself is. And he goes on to say, 'He who has attained to true prayer and love has no sense of the differences between things: he does not distinguish the righteous man from the sinner, but loves them all equally and judges no man, as God causes His sun to shine and His rain to fall on the just and the unjust.'” In like manner, Metropolitan Kallistos of Diokleia in The Orthodox Way pointed to holiness as the “calling out of an individual from their sinfulness, into the true selves that God intends for them to be as they participate fully in their eschatological destination: God’s own self” (Kangas 2014). Dying to the world through the prayer of the heart, the pilgrim doubts that there would be a “happier person on earth” and whether there “could be greater and fuller happiness in the kingdom of heaven.” The state of holiness he has attained, not only provides light for his own soul but for “the whole outside world” as well. He felt, “[e]verything drew me to love and thank God: people, trees, plants, and animals. I saw them all as my kinsfolk; I found on all of them the magic of the name of Jesus… Sometimes I felt as joyful as if I had been made czar.”

The pilgrim places great emphasis on holy prayers aided by the Holy Spirit that are pleasing to God. The pilgrim recollects throughout his journey the words of Christ: “Abide in Me, and I in you” (John 15:4). He writes that:

“every intention, every impulse, even every thought which is directed to His glory and our own salvation is of value in His sight. For all these the boundless loving kindness of God gives bountiful rewards. The love of God gives grace a thousand fold more than human actions deserve. If you give Him the merest mite, He will pay you back with gold. If you but purpose to go to the Father, He will come out to meet you. You say but a word, short and unfeeling— 'Receive me, have mercy on me'—and He falls on your neck and kisses you. That is what the love of the heavenly Father is like toward us, unworthy as we are. And simply because of this love He rejoices in every gesture we make toward salvation, however small. It looks like this to you: What glory is there for God, what advantage for you, if you pray a little and then your thoughts wander again, or if you do some small good deed, such as reading a prayer, making five or ten acts of reverence, or giving a heartfelt sigh and calling upon the name of Jesus, or attending to some good thought, or setting yourself to some spiritual reading, or abstaining from some food, or bearing an affront in silence—all that seems to you not enough for your full salvation and a fruitless thing to do. No! None of these small acts is in vain; it will be taken into account by the all-seeing eye of God and receive a hundredfold reward, not only in eternity, but in this life.”

Furthermore the pilgrim continues:

"Truly boundless is the love of God for us sinners. Is it not marvelous that so small an action—yes, just taking his rosary out of his pocket and carrying it in his hand and calling once upon the name of God—should give a man his life, and that in the scales of judgment upon men one short moment of calling upon Jesus Christ should outweigh many hours of sloth? In truth, here is the repayment of the tiny mite with gold. Do you see, brother, how powerful prayer is and how mighty the name of Jesus when we call upon it?”

Conclusion

The Way of a Pilgrim urges the reader to be united to God through prayer. It is the calling especially to unceasing prayer that asks God to light up our hearts and to warm them toward a path to holiness which encompasses love not only for God Himself, but all of His creations. The more we pray, through the recitation of prayer, whether it be the Jesus Prayer or the Lord’s Prayer, under the instruction of our spiritual father, the more we will ignite the fulfilment of God’s commandments as delivered in the New Testament. God promises that if we “come” to Him and “follow Him”, we will receive “treasures in Heaven” (Luke 18:22). We can follow Him through our interior prayer, whether we are celibate or married, whether we recite the prayer of the heart with our lips or inwardly, whatever the means, we should seek to be with Him as often as possible. While it is paradoxical to ask the source of love and life, God, to grant in us a prayerful heart, because He becomes both the power and source of love and its preoccupation, it is He who gives life to all other actions: “I can do all things in him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:3). Indeed, I can pray more when I ask Christ to have mercy on me, and He will give me the strength to love my enemies, love my neighbour, and love myself. This revolving action becomes a constant pursuit of love- God toward His creation, a person toward God and his fellow neighbour. Prayer becomes self-actuating and self-propelling, it is co-working in synergy toward holiness. Holiness in man does not mean perfection, but attests to the constant striving toward the love of God through the Holy Spirit, the minimization of sin, toward transformation to living a divine life in Christ.

Leximancer

Thematic Concept Map 1. The Way of a Pilgrim (all four tales)

Thematic Concept Map 1. The Way of a Pilgrim (all four tales)

Thematic Concept Map Tale 1 of the Way of a Pilgrim

Thematic Concept Map Tale 1 of the Way of a Pilgrim

Thematic Concept Map Tale 2 of the Way of a Pilgrim

Thematic Concept Map Tale 2 of the Way of a Pilgrim

Thematic Concept Map Tale 3 of the Way of a Pilgrim

Thematic Concept Map Tale 3 of the Way of a Pilgrim

Thematic Concept Map Tale 4 of the Way of a Pilgrim

Thematic Concept Map Tale 4 of the Way of a Pilgrim

Ranked Concept List

Name-Like

GOD

Philokalia

Jesus

Bible

God’s

Word-Like

prayer

heart

read

time

man

day

down

mind

asked

saying

told

gave

book

things

long

soul

felt

whole

house

spiritual

take

holy

life

old

words

reading

night

answered

starets

love

heard

pray

thought

people

teaching

prayers

village

church

name

left

living

bread

Thankful for my tutor Rev. Dr. Alexander Tefft

About 3 weeks ago now, I received news that my tutor would be Rev. Dr. Alexander Tefft. I had never heard of Fr. Alexander, despite his online presence. I have assembled a small selection of his sermons here.

Fr. Alexander is the parish priest at St Botolph's Orthodox Church, located in Bishopsgate, London, UK.

Fr. Alexander comes from Toronto, Canada. He has lived in London for over ten years. He was ordained a deacon in the Orthodox Church in America (OCA) and then transferred from the OCA to Antioch, where he was ordained to the priesthood by Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware).

I encourage you to engage with his sermons online. They are uniquely delivered with great love for God, so well-researched and composed, they border on parabolic poetry. Fr Tefft has also taught for 25 years internationally, and has delivered many lectures for a variety of conferences and academic institutions. I include here a lecture published by Pemptousia on 'Angels and the Last Judgement'. Here he addresses some universal questions like: what happens to us when we die? 

When one engages with Fr. Tefft's work, they are learning continuously. Each week I look forward to the tutorial with Fr. as I discuss with him and my classmate Panayodis our learning and progress on course assessment. Forever grateful at this contact.

Topic 1: The Synoptic Gospels: Introduction

These notes are assembled after listening to the lecture delivered by Rev. Dr. Nikolai Sakharov. Disclaimer: Any errors are completely my own as I intertwine the lecture material with my own reflections and additional source material.

How should we study the Gospels?

Modern criticism suggests various approaches. For example could we compare the Gospels to a biography of Christ? Can we make comparisons between the Gospels and modern literature?

Yes indeed we can see biographical elements in the Gospels for instance in methods of composition with respect to biographies. We hear about the birth, the life, the death, of Christ. But we have to remember, that the death of Christ is only the beginning and cannot be an end in terms of a biographical notation. So therefore we cannot really say the Gospels are a biography of Christ's life.

Another approach is to compare the Gospels to ancient tragedies. For example the book in 1977 titled the Comparison of the Gospel of Mark and Greek Tragedy. There are common elements, Introduction, Exposition, Proposition, Build Up in Jerusalem - the Climax, Christ is Crucified and dies on the Cross, and then the Resurrection etc. So it may look like a very tragic story, but it is not a tragedy because Christ is triumphant. Thus it is far more than a tragedy, or even a drama. So there are a great many genres but we really cannot squash the Gospels into any of these pre-existing forms.

Marshall, attempted to place Luke's Gospel into a historiography of sorts. And he even compared Luke's Gospel to ancient historians. But many scholars have noted that it is very hard to place Luke into this framework of historiography given its complexity.

In another approach William Bacon in the 1930s compared Matthew's Gospel to the Torah, connected to Old Testament law. In fact he said Matthew's Gospel is composed in the same way as the Pentateuch. For instance we have discourses of teaching, we have Moses et cetera. 

Others still saw a liturgical element in the Gospels. For instance Bowman said that Mark's gospel was like a Haggadah.

As Orthodox, how should we treat Gospels, how should we study them? In our faith we don't have a similar biblical scholarship. For the Orthodox faithful it is very hard to fit the Gospels, that are a way of life, into an academic shelf, studied academically. For us the Gospel is a living book.

With this in mind the ancient church never had a problem with biblical scholarship, as it never examined the Gospels in such a stringent way. It was a way of life which survived for thousands of years without being studied under the microscope.

Authors of the Gospels

The Gospels were written by the four evangelists. That is, the Gospel of Matthew was written by a former tax collector, the Gospel of Mark was written by John Mark after his association with Paul as an assistant to Peter, the Gospel of Luke was written by a physician, and the Gospel of John was written by the youngest disciple.

The gospels were written later in time... "this saying was spread among the Jews until today." Are we dealing with direct historical evidence if the gospels were written some time after the Resurrection of Christ? After some time, could accuracy have been lost in the recording of Christ's teaching? There was a period of reflection certainly. But how do we reconcile this as Eastern Orthodox? How do we overcome this problem, that the gospels were not recorded straight away?

Canonisation of the Gospels

One of the very first problems is at the Christian Church was confronted with multiple Writings regarding Christ. 

The 4 gospels were accepted around 130 AD and were placed on par with the Old Testament. The letter from St Athansius in 367. Pope D. 382 where four gospels were included. But why were these four gospels chosen among so many other available writings at the time. Why were these texts canonised as authoritative? What was the main criteria used by the early church fathers? Why were these texts recognised? Why were these four gospels canonical?

Story: and author once said: "it doesn't matter if Jesus didn't actually walk on water" because these four gospels the canonised because of historicity. So canonicity equals historicity. The church always struggled with the fact that Jesus lived in a particular period of time, and was not some figure that lived in a Never Never land.

So, it was seen as divine action to some. Irenaeus of Lyons for example, said that our Gospels are superior, over heretical documents, because we know from where they came.

Once the canon was established, it had to be defended. One of the first people to pull the Gospels together was St Justin Martyr. It demonstrated Gospel harmony.

Similarity and differences in the Gospels was dealt at length by Origen, a synoptic scholar. Origin introduced a very clever idea, saying there will varying levels of truth in the Gospel. We have historical truth, and also spiritual truth. In fact origin was the 1st to reconcile all the aspects of the synoptic problem. Origins scholarship was a response to much of the pagan attacks. It has to be said that the problems of differences, from the very beginning was a source of attack. For example Celsius, challenges the differences in the Gospel, propelling origin to respond likewise.

Indeed till today this notion of inconsistency is used by non-Christians to target the faith. For example someone might say to you, how do you believe in the Gospels when the four each do not align to one another. It is a very powerful argument to reflect on.

Augustine, represents the apex of authoritarian discussion on the Gospels. This scholarship continued until the time of Enlightenment for about 1000 years. It was at this time of Enlightenment that many standards were revised. 

Spinoza would say: "the Bible must be studied historically." So these scholars paved the way for the critical approach used in the 19th century. E.g. The Life of Jesus by Strauss which marked the end of the ecclesiastical approach to Scripture. He was the 1st to use the word "myth" in relation to the New Testament. 

In the 20th century science ousted the field of biblical studies altogether. Science brought its own criteria, for instance, historical verifiability, logical probability, historical background and context. It was akin to a shift from theology to the field of science to historical research. And sadly, in this search for the historical Jesus, theology is preoccupied more with problems within the text than with faith.

Structure of the Gospels

In terms of modern method, scholars have examined the structure of the text. If we look at the Gospels closely we can see about seven little stories. These are straightforward to remember:  miracle stories, parables, stories of healings, we have teachings and so on.it has been suggested that the synoptic gospels are collections of these little stories brought together. And these stories were told by the so named storytellers. And we can see that the little stories in each of the Gospels is retold slightly differently. For example, the parable of the lost sheep are addressed to the disciples in the Gospel of Matthew, but in the Gospel of Luke is told against the Pharisees. It is therefore believed that the same parable had its own life. And this was a construction of the evangelists done for different reasons and different purposes. The evangelists provide some sort of the string, but the text is like pearls. And we can accounts of this to what is known as oral tradition. And when you look at oral tradition in any culture, it is always simple stories that are retold from generation to generation. This led one critic to claim that the Gospels were simply a collection of stories. And of course what do we know of stories that the storyteller, will always attempts to make their story more interesting so that's it will be remembered. And for this reason some of the details would be exaggerated or be told in a different way according to the audience. And so scholars believe that it was the community that shaped the particular retelling of the story in each of the Gospels. This is known broadly by the German term, Sitz im Leben, which means "setting in life".  Thus each story is told according to the needs of the community. Each story had been accumulating for the process of transmission. And so people were trying to discover what was the real story, what was behind the original story. And there was another type of criticism, known as source criticism. So here we have in the synoptic gospels the stories being told separately by different people, and the language being so accurately similar. Do you think a storyteller could remember with such exactitude a complete story? So how do we account of similarities between the three synoptic Gospels. The answer is, that the evangelists, must have known one another. In the Gospel of Matthew for example, we can find almost all of Mark's text. Matthew and Luke for example repeat Mark. For instance, about 52% of the Gospel of Matthew, actually appears in the Gospel of Mark. So then it follows, that they must've knew each other. And then of course, there was the theory that Matthew came first and that Mark copied Matthew, and that Luke copied both of them (attributed to be seen Butler in 1951). Farrar in 1954 considered that Matthew came first then Mark and then Luke.

Ashton at Oxford University, has written that approaches to biblical criticism change like fashion. So what was the intent of the authors? It is not pointless. Now there are different methods of criticism, for example, rhetorical criticism. Interest is not on the author, and not in the text, but on the reader. Critics realised, if there is a text, it needs to be read, and there needs to be a listener. And once you begin to read the text, you enter into a dialogue with the text you are reading. How does each text affect its reader? Reader-response criticism. It looks at techniques of the text, that help the reader construe the text.

Another method considered is structuralism. A lot of consideration today, about language, the meaning of words. When we look at language of science it is calculated. But if we look at language of literature it is so-called emotive language. Language has autonomous meaning, and is conveyed through a system of relations. And we can only define something by virtue of opposition. For example, we can know about life only if we know about darkness: " 25For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it." And perhaps a more advanced form of structuralism is the chiastic approach. Relation not of single words but of blocks of ideas.

But Fathers of the church never paid attention to the form but they were always interested in the content of what the text was trying to say. Of course language is important, this is a biblical idea of language as it corresponds to reality. E.g. Adam was naming objects in the presence of God. We are not aliens afterall, we live in this world, when we speak we assume we use common concepts that another might understand, because we are from the same world. The gospels have proved to be adaptive to any culture they are preached within. The ideas have been able to be culturally assimilated. 

Example: St Innocent who was doing outreach to the Aleuts. At times terms have not existed in certain cultures, tribes, clans. And St Innocent was trying to find how he would translate certain ideas like glad and joy. And the disciples came 'wagging their tails', given St Innocent observed how the dogs were very happy when they were being handed fish.

Derrida and the deconstruction method. Derrida says it is impossible to escape from the confines of the language. Meaning is inferred by language. E.g. he mentions the double meaning of the word "difference" in French, meaning to defer or difference. Thus, he claims, language can actually hide the true meaning.  Derrida seems to rebel against so much. 

Example: what do you rebel against son? Well what have you got?

Chrysostom writes that the gospels were written by simple and uneducated people so that no one could say that the gospels are beyond one's means to understand.

How useful are these modern methods in our Orthodox approach to the Bible?

The attitude of the Orthodox to the gospels, is one of treasure. We place the gospels on the holy altar. And this is not just a pious gesture but an attitude that the first Christians had towards the words of Christ. And this shows that tradition is strong, that we keep this attitude. And of course the way the Gospels were composed was through divine inspiration.

St Siloun said: if by any way the gospels were to be lost in the Church, they would be restored in the same way, through the Holy Spirit.

A criticism of modern criticism is that they generally don't pay attention to how the gospels themselves, say they should be studied. John's Gospel is especially critical about the historical approach. And we see that at the climax of the book when we have the raising of Lazarus and thereafter the Resurrection of Christ, and he closes the door to this approach. People witnessed the raising of Lazarus, but no one witnessed directly the resurrection of Jesus.

In the Gospels we are dealing with a completely new form of writing, the good news, euagelion. Even if you tried to find parallels in texts with the gospels you cannot find them throughout history. And this of course was shaped by the content.

Why did it take decades for the gospels to be written down?

We have no idea what these words meant to the first Christians. It was a sensation. And every single word was taken and remembered in their daily reality of life. That is why in St Paul you will not find the actual words of Christ's teaching because these words were taken for granted by the first Christians. Agape in the first Christians was when they gathered together for the Eucharist and they would relate these words about Christ, of Christ, and share them together. This is why St Clement of Alexandria uses this same word "kinono" to partake (for the holy sacraments), and the same word for the words of the gospel-- people would partake of the word, participate in Christ through the words about him. The human factor for the first Christians has been overlooked by modern academia.

Richard Swinburne - from a logical point of view should we or should we not trust the testimony of the apostles. 'We have no logical objections to the testimony of the apostles. We have no reason not to'. They had not reason to invent anything about Christ.

Why did Christ never write down anything; any of his message?  Because there were no definite set of rules and regulations. We were dealing with a completely new category in the history of humankind. 

Dr Zhivago: contribution of person; personal.

Christianity leaves to each sufferer a name and a place. It is a personal dimension. How do I as an individual connect to the gospel. The new idea of "commandment"; "Christ is our commandment". We don't have something known specifically as "his teachings" because there would be no end- he is our living commandment. He is the word. In OT the commandments were written in tablets of stone; and it took years for apostles to assimilate Christ's message.

Barton wrote, 'we are dealing not with the text but with a living person.' Gospel of Mark, the concept of euagelion is linked with Christ himself.

In the NT, it is all personal, and there is no knowledge without love. Knowledge is achieved through love alone. And if we see how modern biblical criticism wants us to study the Bible, what matters is disassociation, not communion. That is, you must distance yourself from the object of your study, and the more you distance yourself the more objective your knowledge is. For many biblical scholars, the very fact of faith is a 'non-starter'. It means that if you approach the bible from the point of view of a believer, then your approach is considered to be biased and not objective. 

There is a story of a Russian priest at the time of Krushchev who was invited to a Science Planetarium so he would be shown as simple and without knowledge. A lot of media also covered the event. They wanted to show the priest, impressive photos of the Universe, distant stars, and so forth, all the wonders. And then proudly they asked the priest: "so what does your Bible say about this?" And the priest replied: "it's all very impressive. but I want to ask you can you build a telescope which would see to the end of the Universe?" The scientists said: "no, this is not possible". And then the priest replied: "where your science stops, our science begins".

So we are dealing here with a different type of science, with a different type of knowledge. The gospel is not of this world. Yes, we can take on board modern methods, but our ultimate goal is different.

You must love your God with all your heart.... the heart came first. Fr Sophrony always reminded people of this. "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself."

Structure is important, no doubt, but there are so many things that biblical scholars should be studying- to do with content, not form. This is real theology. Modern biblical criticism is almost the opposite of the patristic approach.

Consider where you need to deliver your message, and formulate your approach depending on your audience. Especially with respect to modern biblical criticism.

For example, look at the work of St John Chrysostom in the way he critiques the gospels. Our tradition is key in expressing our approach to biblical criticism scholarship.

Modern biblical criticism techniques "limit" the way you can study the Bible. It is not the whole picture. Be wary of logical positivism. Because it cannot deal with such paradoxical concepts as antinomy. John writes: "23But the hour cometh, and now is..."

There are two or more layers of ideas coexisting in the same text. E.g. Christ says he is here to save the world, but he also says he is here for judgement. Antinomy is inherent in our Orthodox theology. It is essential to us, if you look at any Christian dogma. How can there be in ONE person, two natures, for instance? It is antinomy. How can there be ONE yet three in the Trinity? It is antinomy. And what happens when we introduce logical positivism to flee antinomy? Well, heresy. Truth itself is antinomic.

Bulgakov and Florensky, did away with logical algebra altogether. Florensky for example, writes about two types of philosophy. For Orthodox, he said, we should have personal philosophy. 

"Florensky also argued that this Western rationality was a logic of things, of entities understood as dead and closed off one from another. His epistemology is an epistemology not of separate things, but of persons, who are understood to be "consubstantial" (Gr. homoousios, "of the same nature")." See http://press.princeton.edu/chapters/i6223.html

Note, there is no branch of study known as Orthodox biblical studies. The Orthodox Church has a lot to offer this arena. It is time for us to express ourselves in order to contribute to the greater discussion. 

See also recommended reading by Metropolitan Kallistos Ware: https://oca.org/reflections/misc-authors/how-to-read-the-bible

Kallistos Ware: "Such exactly is our Orthodox attitude to the reading of Scripture. I am to see the Bible as God’s personal letter sent specifically to myself. The words are not intended merely for others, far away and long ago, but they are written particularly and directly to me, here and now. Whenever we open our Bible, we are engaging in a creative dialogue with the Savior. In listening, we also respond. “Speak, for Your servant hears,” we reply to God as we read (1 Sam. 3:10); “Here am I” (Is. 6:8)."

"The four key characteristics which mark the Orthodox “Scriptural mind” may be distinguished. First, our reading of Scripture is obedient. Second, it is ecclesial, in union with the Church. Third, it is Christ-centered. Fourth, it is personal."

"Bible is also humanly expressed. It is an entire library of distinct writings, composed at varying times, by different persons in widely diverse situations. We find God speaking here “at various times and in various ways” (Heb. 1:1). "

Each of the four Evangelists, for example, has his own particular stand point. Matthew is the most “ecclesiastical” and the most Jewish of the four, with his special interest in the relationship of the gospel to the Jewish Law, and his understanding of Christianity as the “New Law.” Mark writes in less polished Greek, closer to the language of daily life, and includes vivid narrative details not found in the other gospels. Luke emphasizes the universality of Christ’s love and His all-embracing compassion that extends equally to Jew and Gentile. The Fourth Gospel expresses a more inward and mystical approach, and was aptly styled by Saint Clement of Alexandria “a spiritual Gospel.” Let us explore and enjoy to the fullest this life-giving variety within the Bible.

More here

Why did Christ Speak in Parables? Notes from the Orthodox Study Bible

Mark 4:13

See "Why Parables?" Mark 4:10-13 New King James Version (NKJV)

The Purpose of Parables
10 But when He was alone, those around Him with the twelve asked Him about the parable. 11 And He said to them, “To you it has been given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God; but to those who are outside, all things come in parables, 12 so that
‘Seeing they may see and not perceive,
And hearing they may hear and not understand;
Lest they should turn,
And their sins be forgiven them.’”[a]
The Parable of the Sower Explained
13 And He said to them, “Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables?

Orthodox Study Bible: "4:11 The mystery is the reality of the presence of the Kingdom itself, revealed in Jesus and perceived by faith. 4:12 ...referring to the hardness of heart as the cause of lack of understanding. Jesus is not disclosing truth to some while hiding it from others. He proclaims the Good News of the Kingdom openly to all, but only those who repent and believe can perceive the power of the Kingdom in Him and in their lives. 4:13 Discipleship requires both that we have a personal relationship with Christ and that we understand what He teaches." p. 92f

Matthew 13:11

Orthodox Study Bible: "13:11 The mysteries of the kingdom are not mere esoteric concepts or a body of religious truth only for the elite. Nor is true understanding of the parables simply an intellectual apprehension. Even the disciples find His message hard to understand. Jesus preached and taught the same message to all; but it is the "babes," the simple and innocent, who are open to the gospel and have the faith to receive this mystery." p. 37

Luke 8:16

Orthodox Study Bible: "8:9,10: The mysteries of the kingdom are revealed to the faithful, but hidden from those with unresponsive hearts. 8:11: The explanations of the parable are easily grasped. But only with the eyes of faith does one see and know that Jesus Himself is truly the Savior. 8:18: Taking heed to hear Jesus, the Word of God, brings light (vv. 16, 17) within the soul. It must not be covered but allowed to shine forth. The more one permits Gods' light to shine, the more light is given." p. 158

Orthodox Study Bible Article (p. 38)

"Parables are stories in word-pictures, revealing spiritual truth. The Hebrew and Aramaic words for parable also mean "allegory", "riddle", or "proverb". The Scriptures, especially the Gospels, are filled with parables-- images drawn from daily life in the world to represent and communicate the deep things of God." Parables give us glimpses of Him whose thoughts are not our thoughts and whose ways are not our ways (Is. 55:8, 9).
The truth communicated by Jesus' parables, however, is not evident to all who hear them. One must have spiritual eyes to see and spiritual ears to hear, and even then there are degrees of understanding of the parables."
"... In Mark 4:11... [Jesus] does not mean He used parables to blind the people or to lead them to punishment. On the contrary, it demonstrates that the people are responsible for their own receptivity: having grown dull and insensitive, they are unwilling to accept the message of the parables."
"Parables challenge the hearer and call for faith to perceive the mysteries of the Kingdom. Insight into God's Kingdom does not come simply through an intellectual understanding of the parables. Spiritual enlightenment is communicated through faith in the Person, words, and deeds of the Lord Jesus Christ."
"In opening to us the door to the Kingdom of Heaven, the parables help us to love God and to know Him, to understand and believe His grace, mercy and forgiveness, and to order our lives according to His Holy Word."