Hearts on Fire: The Lost Disciples   2 comments

Just as the disciples hearts were now on fire, ready to spread the gospel to the ends of the earth, so too the ruling priesthood of the Sanhedrin were possessed by an evil, brooding passion for vengeance. Their plan to blame the disappearance on the disciples, sneaking into the tomb while the soldiers slept had not worked. Who would believe that trained guards could sleep through the massive rumbling which the rolling and removal of such a huge stone would have caused? The disciples would have had to murder them as they slept in order to get away with the body. And, if the Sanhedrin themselves had removed the body and dumped it in the pit reserved for common criminals, why not reveal this now, and even produce the body now that the festival was over. The consequences of not doing so were too great for them to try to cover a plan which had backfired, as rumours were now spreading like wildfire throughout Judea about the Galilean carpenter’s disappearance and appearances.

In secret conclave, they therefore plotted and planned a campaign of unremitting persecution against the followers of ‘The Way’. They determined to exterminate all those who could not, or would not, escape their bloody hands. The chief ‘persecutor’ was Saul who wasted no time in striking down the followers of ‘The Way’ he found in Jerusalem, be they Greek, Roman or Judean. No mercy was shown and the records of that time show that the prisons were overcrowded with his victims. His first notable victim was Stephen, who had courageously led the brilliant defence of Jesus on the night of his appearance in the court of the Sanhedrin. Stephen had taken up the preaching of the Word throughout the holy city, together with Peter, John and the other disciples. Thousands were being converted every day and later, according to Luke’s account in The Acts of the Apostles, the numbers reached between three to five thousand daily. This goes against the age-old lie that the ordinary Jews were unresponsive to the gospel. The citizens of Jerusalem were the first converts, further infuriating the Sadducean Priesthood. The Sanhedrin’s ‘shock troops’ caught up with Stephen as he preached at the gate still bearing his name, and stoned him to death with Saul looking on.

So fierce was Saul’s vindictive purge that he wrought havoc within the Church at Jerusalem and throughout Judea. Neither was it contained within the boundaries of the semi-autonomous province. Illegally, he hounded out the devotees of ‘The Way’ in the other Jewish territories under direct Roman rule. Coming from Tarsus, Saul had Roman citizenship and, as Pilate had done, the Romans continued to wash their hands of the Sanhedrin’s hatred, no doubt because they felt Saul was doing them a service too, ridding them of an undesirable virulent new religion which was spreading throughout the Jewish enclaves and communities within their Empire. Throughout this reign of terror Joseph of Arimathea remained a fearless protector of the disciples, both men and women. His position on the Sanhedrin and his status as a Roman official meant that Saul’s fury, which otherwise knew no bounds, could not touch him personally or those whom he defended with his person. However, within four years of Jesus’ death and resurrection, the first Christians were scattered out of Jerusalem and Judea. There is little doubt that Joseph’s ships carried numerous of them, as refugees, to safety in other lands. Joseph used his wealth to create an underground network which could evade Saul’s men. He was probably helped in this by converts in the Roman Army in Palestine, like Cornelius, an officer in the Italian Regiment stationed in Caesarea in the North, the first recorded foreigner, or ‘gentile’ to become a Christian. Peter was at Joppa, the port to the south of Caesarea, where there was a strong Christian community, possibly helped by Joseph, who had ships there, and the port from which many of the Judean Christians could make their escape on one of them. It was in Caesarea that Peter began his mission to the gentiles, converting and baptising Captain Cornelius, his relatives and friends, to the amazement of the Judean Christians accompanying him from Joppa (Acts 10 vv 1-48).

Even the hardened Roman soldiers in Palestine were shocked by the atrocities carried out in the name of the Sanhedrin. The Romans later followed the example set by these ‘state’ terrorists, not only persecuting Christians, but also turning their attention to the Jews themselves. Saul himself, after he was converted on the road to Damascus, eventually met a cruel death at the hands of his Roman captors, despite the protection he had enjoyed as a citizen of Rome, and which had allowed him to continue to lead the scattered Christian communities from his prison cell with the power of his pen. From his imprisonment, Paul reflected on what the love of Jesus had driven him to do:

‘Let me tell you what I’ve had to face. I know it’s silly for me to talk like this, but here’s the list. I’ve been beaten up more times than I can remember, been in more than one prison, and faced death more than once. Five times I’ve been thrashed by a Jewish court to within an inch of my life; three times I’ve been beaten with rods by city magistrates; and I once was nearly stoned to death. I’ve been shipwrecked three times; and once, I was adrift, out of sight of land, for twenty-four hours. I don’t know how many roads I’ve tramped. I’ve faced bandits; I’ve been attacked by fellow-countrymen and by foreigners. I’ve met danger in city streets and on lonely country roads and out in the open sea.’ (2 Corinthians 11 vv 23-26)

We know something of what happened to Peter, Paul, Andrew, and the gospel-writers, but very little about the other apostles. They are ‘the lost disciples’, including two of the most outstanding characters, Joseph of Arimathea and Mary, the mother of Jesus. The pages close on them in 36 A.D., the year when many of the Palestinian Christians were driven into permanent exile. Thirty-five years later the iron-clad fist of the Roman Empire destroyed the holy city and dispersed the remaining Christians in Judea, together with the Judeans as a whole. The temple was reduced to rubble, so that while Christianity had its birth in the Holy Land, it did not continue to grow to convert the world from that root, but, as Jesus had promised the Greeks on Palm Sunday, from the scattered seeds around their world. It flourished in far-flung lands to which the apostles were sent as missionaries by Paul, Barnabas and Timothy, and not just in the centre of the Empire which it took another three centuries to convert. In the meantime, the Roman rulers remained the greatest persecutors of the Christian Gospel. How did the Church continue to grow in the face of such oppression? This question deepens the mystery that revolves around ‘the Lost Disciples’, though they were not, of course, lost to their leader.

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2 responses to “Hearts on Fire: The Lost Disciples

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  1. Pingback: The New Job: To the Ends of the Earth « hungarywolf

  2. Pingback: The Grand Sanhedrin « Rabbi Hotzenvotz

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