The Genuine Jerusalem and ‘the trump of God’: part six – the ‘chosen people’ and ‘the true Israel’.   Leave a comment

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Jewish-Christian relations in the time of the first churches:

The penultimate chapter in the ancient history of Jerusalem has to do with the relations between Jews and Christians in the mid-first century. Despite the fact that many, if not most, of the early followers of Jesus of Nazareth, were, like him, Jews, and although the early church borrowed much from Judaism, Christians were also reacting against it. This resulted in a love-hate relationship. On the one hand, Christians claimed to be the true Israel; on the other, they made light of many of the distinctive features of the ‘chosen people’ – the law, circumcision, the temple and the Sabbath. Moreover, they took to meeting together in their own houses and adopting other attitudes which were considered anti-social by their Jewish neighbours throughout the Roman Empire. Since Jesus had been executed by a Roman governor under Roman law, local governors had little alternative but to take action when they received complaints. As the century progressed, relations seem to have got worse. One reason was undoubtedly the great pressure under which Judaism suffered as a result of the Jewish war, the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple. Christians were looked on as hybrid Jews and were therefore unpopular. Before AD 70, as far as we can tell from ‘listening to the silences’, the Jews showed remarkable restraint. Paul, as an active missionary, found many of them stirring up trouble for him wherever he went, but they were not alone in this, and we need to be wary of Luke’s stereotypes of them, which were written in Acts from an obvious Greek Gentile bias. Paul escaped with his life, and only three martyrdoms were recorded for this period; those of Stephen, James, son of Zebedee, and James, the brother of Jesus.

The first Christian communities which grew up between AD 29 and 65, were in Jerusalem, Samaria, Caesarea and other Palestinian cities and also, largely as a result of Paul’s missionary activities, in Asia Minor, Greece and Rome. At this time the leaders of these communities were mainly Jews and their understanding of the teachings of Jesus was partly coloured by their Jewish inheritance. These communities possessed no Gospels so that their knowledge came from oral traditions; from memories of what Jesus had said and done, passed on by word of mouth in public addresses, instruction classes for new converts and in private discourses and conversations. Some of the deeds and words of Jesus were probably written down quite early, including the parables, the aphorisms and the proclamations of the kingdom of God, almost as they were spoken for the first time. However, for the most part, Christians at this time relied for their knowledge upon the shared memories of those who had known Jesus at first hand.

The message of Jesus as it is presented in the four gospels was written for the newly established churches of the Roman empire, churches stretching from Antioch in Syria to Rome. This was the world of the Gospels as written in the form in which we possess them. They are church books, written in the second half of the first century AD to meet the needs of the early followers of Jesus gathered together out of a pagan environment in their Christian communities. These early churches were not, for the most part, Palestinian, and after AD 70 when the country had been laid waste and Jerusalem destroyed, Christians in Galilee and Judaea must have been few and disorganised. The growing churches were in the great cities of the Graeco-Roman world, Antioch in Syria, Ephesus in Asia Minor (now in south-west Turkey), Corinth, Philippi and Thessalonica in Greece and in Rome itself. The members of these churches were Greeks, Romans, Syrians, Egyptians and Asiatics, though a significant number of Jews also converted to the new religion. These centres of Christianity and these church members were far away in distance from the world Jesus knew and very different from him in culture and upbringing.

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Above: The Western or Wailing Wall, the only remnant of the Second Temple rebuilt by King Herod. It once stood on the adjacent Temple Mount and remains the most significant devotional site for Jews, who believe that they are in physical connection with the divine when they pray at it and kiss it.

Nazarene heretics:

By the end of the first century, however, there were growing signs of a clear break between church and synagogue. It may well have been the case that many Jews blamed the Christians for the destruction of Jerusalem, since Vespasian’s reconquest of first Galilee and then Judaea could have been seen as acts of vengeance for the burning of Rome, which Nero had alleged was the work of the Christians. Before AD 70, the Romans drew little distinction between the two alien, Judaistic faiths. To them, they were all the same, troublesome provincial people. It was after this period that the Birkat ham-minim, the ‘Heretic Benediction’ was added to the Eighteen Benedictions: 

May the Nazarenes (Christians) and the minim (heretics) perish as in a moment and be blotted out from the book of life. 

It is perhaps not surprising, therefore, that the gospels, especially that according to Matthew, contain many biased statements against the Jews in general, and that these statements were used to justify anti-Semitism among Christians in the Middle Ages and Early Modern times. All three Synoptic Gospels appear to have been written after Nero’s persecution (AD 64), and all three emphasise the message of a powerful Christ, breaking with Judaism. They were also clearly written after the fall of Jerusalem, to which they all refer (Mark 13. 1-2; Matthew 22. 7; Luke 21. 20). It is necessary, therefore, to disentangle the original message spoken by Jesus in Palestine from the meaning drawn out of it by Christian teachers and the four evangelists. The Christian communities in AD 29-65 had a real zeal for evangelism. They looked outward to a world which desperately needed the message of Jesus, so they were missionary churches. In these years, there was a particular reason why evangelism could not wait. The great decisive moment – the return of Jesus to earth in great power and glory – was, so they believed, imminent. While they waited for the Day of Judgement and Reward the Christians evangelised fervently among mostly pagan peoples. An evangelist needs a message, and therefore the task of separating the original message of Jesus from the later additions and interpretations is difficult and often uncertain.

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Above: Portraits of Jesus from Roman-era frescoes to modern forensic reconstruction.

Source: National Geographic, December 2017.

Apocalyptic Poetry:

Remembering that Jesus was a poet with an inward vision and a gift for handling words, using vivid images from everyday life, not abstract arguments helps us to get to the heart of his teaching. It is often a clue to those passages of the Gospels where someone has added an explanation of his words. Poets do not explain their poems. They offer us their vision and leave us to discover the meaning. Jesus is a visionary whose eyes are fixed upon a dramatic future in which the old order of the world will disappear and a new order will take its place:

And then they will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds with great power and glory. And then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven. (Mark 13. 26f.)

Poets are not usually interested in creating logical systems of thought in which every single part fits the whole. They speak or write about that which at a particular moment captures their imagination and stirs their soul. If we think, for example, of the poet and illustrator William Blake, writing about John Milton, the author of the great epic poems, Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained, we do not need to demythologise and strip away his powerful, apocalyptic imagery in order to understand his fundamental message in his Jerusalem:

And did the countenance divine,

Shine forth upon our clouded hills?

And was Jerusalem builded here

Among those dark satanic mills?

 

Bring me my bow of burning gold!

Bring me my arrows of desire!

Bring me my spear! O clouds, unfold!

Bring me my chariot of fire!

 

I will not cease from mental fight,

Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,

Till we have built Jerusalem

In England’s green a pleasant land.

The four verses which make up the now well-known hymn, set to music by Sir Hubert Parry in 1917, first appeared in the preface to one of Blake’s last poem’s, ‘Milton’, which was written in 1804. Underneath them he wrote, would to God that all the Lord’s people were prophets, quoting Numbers 11.29. In the rest of the poem, the seventeenth-century poet is depicted as returning from eternity and entering into Blake to preach the message of Christ crucified and the doctrines of self-sacrifice and forgiveness. Some of the complex imagery in the poem is borrowed from the Bible, such as the ‘chariots of fire’ which are taken from 2 Kings 2. 11, but much is of Blake’s own invention. In suggesting, in the first verse, that Jesus may have set foot in England, Blake is resurrecting the old legend, and myth, which tells of Jesus’ wanderings as a young man with Joseph of Arimathea, a tin merchant and member of the Sanhedrin whom Jesus accompanied on a visit to Cornwall. The tale was, at one time, popular with the British Israel movement, which claimed that the British were one of the lost tribes of Israel.

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There are two very different interpretations of the main message in ‘And did those feet’. One school of thought regards it as a plea for intuition and imagination in the face of scientific rationalism. From this interpretation, we get the idea that the ‘dark, satanic mills’ represent the cold logical approach of philosophers such as Locke and Bacon that Blake deplored, while Jerusalem represents the ideal life of freedom. The other, more common way of interpreting the poem is as a call for the rule of those social values of social justice and freedom which will build a new Jerusalem in Britain. This message, like that of Jesus himself, has no tidy outward shape but has an inner unity centred upon the proclamation of the kingdom of God. We recognise that inner unity, or message, through the allusions and imagery, without interpreting them as literal events either in the past or the future.

 

Image result for Jesus messianic secret

 

Much of Jesus’ teaching was directed to the immediate needs and problems of the men and women to whom he talked in small groups in the marketplace, or in large crowds gathered to listen to him. Yet, in all the Gospels there is teaching which seems, on the face of it, to refer to dramatic and even cataclysmic events in the future. Some of these are predictions; forecasts about the future. We have already noted some of these, in particular, his well-known lament over Jerusalem, the Holy City.  (Luke 19. 41-44). This is a terse and vivid prediction of the siege and destruction of the city which began in September AD 70. Since this event took place some forty years after the time of Jesus, it is often argued that such a description of the great catastrophe must have arisen within the early church. However, the prediction does not describe in detail the actual siege of Jerusalem as the Jewish historian Josephus recorded it after the event. The words of Jesus describe a typical siege; a city encircled, siege engines battering at the wall, and so on. Indeed, it took no special insight or vision to predict that if the revolutionary elements continued to resist the government of Judea by violent acts, the Romans would reinforce their troops around Jerusalem.

Did Jesus predict the rejection of Israel as the chosen instrument of God’s purpose? It is clear that this view was held in at least some quarters of the early church. The part played by the Jewish authorities in his arrest, trial and execution; the hostility displayed by some Jews towards the new Christian communities, both played their part in shaping the belief that the ‘Old Israel’ had been rejected and the ‘New Israel’ – the Christian church – had taken its place.This belief has certainly left its mark upon the form in which some of the sayings and parables of Jesus have come down to us. In Matthew 23 there is a sustained and bitter condemnation of the Pharisees and scribes. This was certainly put together in its present form by an editor, prefacing the parable of the vineyard as told by Mark (12. 1. 1-11.), and copied by Matthew and Luke. Matthew’s ‘preface’ contains seven accusations against the lawyers and Pharisees, each beginning, ‘Woe to you’ in a recognisable literary form. This is followed by the lament over Jerusalem, the centre of unfaithfulness, killing the prophets and stoning the those who are sent to you (Matthew 23. 13-37.). The evidence of the Gospels as a whole makes clear that Jesus did attack the religious authorities, declaring that they embodied the kind of religion which would soon be rejected.  Whether he predicted the rejection of Israel and Judah as God’s chosen people depends largely on the interpretation of two parables, that of the Vineyard, which I have already referred to, and that of the Marriage Feast, which tells a similar story (Matt. 22. 1-14.). The invited guests make various trivial excuses and refuse to attend the banquet, and their places are taken by people, both bad and good, collected at random by the king’s servants; the publicans and harlots go into the kingdom of heaven before you (Matt.  21. 31). It seems clear that it is not the nation as a whole which is rejected but the religious leaders, the scribes and the Pharisees.

Another controversial question is whether Jesus predicted that he would come again in glory; that there would be a final Day of Judgement and an end of the world. This was a belief strongly held by Christians during the early years of the first century (1 Thess. 5. 1-11; II Thess. 1. 5-12). The belief waned as the years went by, but in medieval times it gained great popularity. The belief finds expression in Mark 13 and is expanded in Matt. 24-25 and in Luke 21. 5-36. Here the predicted events are dramatic and terrifying  – wars, earthquakes, famine and persecution, the rise of bogus messiahs and false prophets precede the appearance of Christ as judge of the world. There is a different picture in Luke, who uses a third source. Men and women are going about their daily routine when, suddenly, like a flash of lightning, the Day of the Son of Man is upon them. This teaching from the Gospels and Epistles is known as eschatology and uses language which is largely alien to our ‘western’, scientific way of thinking. Many Christians ignore this element in the New Testament, and some biblical scholars deny that Jesus ever thought in these terms, or that he expected his own second coming. Eschatological thinking arises when there is a contradiction between the harsh realities of life and man’s faith in God’s power and justice. In this kind of situation, The words of Paul (depicted below) in Romans VIII were meant to comfort and console…

… the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us (Rom 8. 18).

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Eschatological teaching therefore brings hope to men, and when present sufferings are severe then the hope of a glorious future is often expressed in imaginative pictures. Sometimes the language is both poetic and pastoral, as in Isaiah’s prophecies about the coming of the Messiah (11.7). Sometimes it is dramatic, ‘technicoloured’ language to match the drama of the moment, like in the Book of Daniel:

Behold, with the clouds of heaven,

there came one like a son of man,

and he came to the Ancient of Days

 and was presented before him.

And to him was given dominion 

and glory and kingdom

that all Peoples, nations and languages

should serve him;

his dominion is an everlasting dominion,

which shall not pass away, 

and his kingdom one

that shall not be destroyed 

(Dan. 7. 13 f.)

It was natural that the first Christians, often isolated from the rest of their fellow citizens because of their faith, usually under suspicion, taunted for worshipping a crucified Saviour, and at times persecuted, should rest their hopes on Christ’s return to power and glory. They believed that this hope was founded upon the teaching of Jesus, and they made collections of sayings which supported their faith and included them in their church books – the Gospels.

In the final months and weeks of his life, Jesus knew that his enemies would turn the full force of their power against him, but he also he was alarmed and sorrowful at the political situation of his nation. He knew that armed rebellion could only end in national disaster. Yet his faith in the purposes of God and in the realities of God’s kingship did not waver. Whether or not he believed in his own ‘second coming’, he knew that he had been chosen by God to fulfil a particular role in history. The sayings and parables which he used when he thought about the future were his way of expressing his confident faith in God’s undefeated purpose. He expressed his hope for the future in vivid and dramatic language, that of a poet dreaming dreams and seeing visions.

 

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The Book of Revelation, to many the most enigmatic in the New Testament, was written in a similarly poetic and visionary form by a certain ‘John the Divine’ (depicted above) in exile on Patmos, possibly during the Domitian persecution. It is full of a bitter hatred of Rome, but although the author was in exile, he had not suffered a particularly harsh penalty, and his banishment did not even include the loss of property or other rights, as one might expect had Patmos been a penal colony. His one reference to past martyrdom, the mention of Antipas, gives no details of how he met his end. Recent persecution seems to have been more limited and local: John’s fears are for the future. Domitian was despotic, like Caligula before him, but his main anti-Christian actions, against prominent citizens, were taken on the grounds that ‘they had slipped into Jewish customs’. The main threat to Christianity in the New Testament period came from the hostility or malice of the people among whom they lived, whether Greeks, Romans or Jews. Tertullian commented that…

… if the Tiber rises too high or the Nile too low, the cry is: “The Christians to the lion”. 

(to be continued…)

 

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