On reading the New Testament in Lent

As part of my Lenten discipline this year, I decided to read the New Testament again. Lots of reasons: it was reading the New Testament, in 1970, that first made the innate faith of my childhood and teenage really come alive for me; it’s a long time since I read it from cover to cover in a short space of time; I feel put to shame by the common practice of our Muslim neighbours, who read their holy book during Ramadan…

259 chapters in the New Testament. 40 days of Lent. That means you can do it by reading 7 chapters a day, with a day or two to spare in case you’ve fallen behind. (And likewise Sundays, as a ‘day off’ to either catch up, or because you want to spend more time in church…)

It’s proving interesting. So far I’m still working through Gospels, and the familiar tales are so familiar that I sometimes feel I’ve been reading on auto-pilot, hardly even taking them in. Then sometimes you stumble over something and stop: something you’ve never noticed before, or maybe knew a long time ago and have forgotten, or that speaks to you as if for the first time.

Today I was reading Mark chapter 10 and suddenly asked myself, Why were the religious teachers asking Jesus about divorce? Was it a theological and ethical hot potato of the time, like same-sex marriage is for us today1? Did they genuinely want to know where he stood on a current divisive issue? Had they heard his teaching – such as Matthew records in the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ – forbidding divorce? Whatever the reason, they would be asking the question to try and hear something they could use against Jesus.

Then, in the story of blind Bartimaeus receiving his sight. When Jesus asks him, What do you want me to do for you? he answers Rabbouni, let me see again. Only, the NRSV2 says My teacher, let me see again; and relegates to the margin the little note Aramaic: Rabbouni. It’s so unusual for Aramaic words to be preserved in the original Koine Greek of the New Testament, that you’d think it would be worth leaving it in the text, rather than the margin. The only other time this Aramaic word appears in the NT is in John 20, when Mary Magdalene, grieving and weeping at the empty tomb, sees the risen Jesus, fails to recognise him, mistakes him for the gardener, and he calls her by name: Mary. She answers Rabbouni, which (John explains) means My teacher. It’s extraordinary to me that this blind beggar, sitting by the roadside, who for all we know has never encountered Jesus before, uses the same form of address to Jesus as one of Jesus’ closest friends, who has spent a lot of time around Jesus, listening to him, learning from him. What does it mean, that Bartimaeus calls Jesus Rabbouni, my teacher? I don’t know. But isn’t it a great question!

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  1. It seems it was. There were some rabbis who taught that divorce was definitely a last-resort strategy; while others were saying a man (of course) was within his rights to divorce his wife for quite trivial misdemeanours that displeased him. ↩︎

  2. New Revised Standard Version ↩︎