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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…)

 

The Genuine Jerusalem and the ‘trump of God’, part four: North and South.   1 comment

 

Roman Occupation, the Pharisees and Zealot Resistance:

In relation to Rome, the Pharisees were advocates of ‘passive resistance’. By contrast, the chief characteristic of the Zealots, who otherwise had much in common with the Pharisees as fervent nationalists, was their advocacy and use of violence in defence of their faith. There are also probable connections between the Zealot movement and the Maccabees, but its beginning is usually taken to be a revolt against Quirinus’ census in AD 6. Judas, the leader of the revolt, was a Galilean, the son of Eleazar who was executed by Herod; his son led the last stand of the Zealots at Masada. The Zealots take their name from their zeal for the temple and the Law, as illustrated in the writings of Josephus, who writes very disapprovingly, labelling them Sicarii (‘assassins’). He could hardly do otherwise in his position, as they also refused to pay Roman taxes. Luke’s list of Jesus’ apostles includes Simon, called ‘the Zealot’ (Luke 6.15; Acts 1. 13); the parallel passages in Mark (3.18) and Matthew (10. 4) refer to him as ‘the Canaanaean’, an Aramaic form of the same word.

Simon had been a member of the Zealot resistance movement, and Jesus must have known others. The very name by which He became known, ‘Jesus of Nazareth, the Galilean’, meant, to the people of Judaea, something like ‘rebel’ or ‘anarchist’ from the home of the Zealots, or freedom fighters, and Galileans were renowned as ‘born fighters’. The presence of a Zealot among Jesus’ followers, coupled with recorded actions of Jesus like the cleansing of the temple and the fact that he was crucified by the Romans on a quasi-political charge has prompted elaborate theories about the connection between Jesus and the Zealots. There is not enough evidence to make out a case, one way or the other, but what evidence there is, is intriguing. The gospels record him meeting, early in his ministry, with several thousand of them hiding in the hills above the fishing port of Capernaum, on Lake Galilee. The ‘crowd’ of hill villagers and fishermen from the lakeside towns were also men of the Resistance Movement, ‘freedom fighters’ whenever the chance came. Jesus felt they were like sheep without a shepherd, a leaderless mob, an army without a general. Though some of them wanted to become that ‘shepherd’ or ‘general’, he refused the offer to join them. Instead, he got them to sit down, under command, in companies of fifty to a hundred, rank by rank and shared a common meal with them. Jesus had come to believe that violence was not God’s way, and he became their critic. Many of his stories were aimed at them as well as at the Pharisees. Many of them abandoned him, and whenever he returned to Galilee from Judaea, he travelled ‘incognito’.  He continued to be appalled by the suffering that even a just cause brought, and referred to the poems of the prophets which were ignored by the Zealots, poems which spoke of an alternative form of resistance:

If only today you knew how to live for peace instead of war!

You cannot see what you are doing.

The time will come when

your enemies will throw up a palisade round you,

besiege and attack you on all sides,

dash down your buildings and your people,

leave not a wall upstanding;

all because you did not see that God has already come to you

in love, not war.

Luke 19, 42-44.

For the Zealots, as well as for the Pharisees in Jerusalem and his own people in the synagogues, Jesus of Nazareth was no-one special. But neither public debate in the hills, or on street corners, nor sermons in the meeting houses, were how he got his message across. Years later, his friends reflected on the man they knew and remembered Isaiah’s poem (42. 3-4) about God’s ‘servant king’ which seemed to describe him precisely:

His is no trumpet call,

no demagogue he, 

holding forth at street corners!

He is too gentle to break a bruised stalk,

to snuff a flickering wick!

 

But his no flickering wick,

his no timid heart;

honest and plain-spoken

he makes the heart of religion clear. 

Yet, even at the time of his last visit to Jerusalem, Jesus’ friends still had great difficulty in getting out of their heads the widespread Jewish conviction that God’s chosen leader, when he came, would establish some kind of national kingdom, with its king and government. They had grown up with this idea and took it for granted. The Zealots thought of this leader as a military ruler, establishing his power by military conquest, as David and the Maccabees had done. Many others who were not zealots thought in much the same way, though some believed that God alone would defeat the Romans. Jesus would have nothing to do with such ideas. He had not come to be that kind of king or to establish that kind of kingdom. After his death, his followers, calling themselves Christians, came to accept this and abandoned the path of violent resistance. The Jews in general, and the Zealots, in particular, did not.

The Synagogues of First-century Palestine and the Middle East:

According to the Gospels, the synagogues of Galilee were important focal locations for Jesus’ ministry in the north, though some scholars have questioned whether they even existed at this time. The Greek word synagogue is used in the Greek Old Testament to translate the Hebrew word, Eda, meaning ‘congregation’. In such cases it does not, of course, refer to a building at all. So when did groups of people begin to meet together for prayer and the study of Scripture, and when did these meetings begin to take place in a building specially designed for the purpose? Jewish sources trace the institution of the synagogue, like everything else, to Moses; the earliest beginning, however, is likely to be the movement with which  Ezra was connected in the first century BC, and there will have been other contributory factors in different places.

 

In Alexandria, Jews encountered Greek religious associations which met regularly; in many places, Jews may well have had regular meetings as part of municipal life. It is even possible that there may be some connection between the local synagogues and the meetings of members of the course on duty at the temple in Jerusalem. Those who did not go to Jerusalem are thought to have met together in their homes for prayer when the sacrifice was being offered in the Temple. By the first century AD, there was certainly a strong tradition of regular meetings for prayer and study of the Scriptures held in specially appointed buildings. There is written evidence to suggest that throughout the first century, synagogues were widespread. In addition to the New Testament references to synagogues in Galilee and throughout the Mediterranean world, Josephus makes special mention of synagogues in Caesarea and Tiberius, and Rabbinic writings mention synagogues in Jerusalem itself. The archaeological evidence suggests no set pattern or sequence of architectural development. Those closer to Jerusalem were influenced by the external decorations of the Temple, whereas in Babylon more attention was paid to interiors.

 

The synagogue was more than a place of worship; it was also something of a village centre with secular uses, a place for judicial, political and religious gatherings. It was certainly a centre for education, where children received elementary instruction and where teaching was given to adults who wanted help in reading the Scriptures. Above all, in the Dispersion, the synagogue was an important factor in unifying the Jews who lived in a particular place. There was no permanent ‘minister’ of a synagogue; the principal officer was the ‘head of the synagogue’, who played a chief role in all the synagogue functions and was ultimately responsible for the conduct of services, and may have chosen the lessons. The synagogue also had its ‘council of elders’ who, in predominantly Jewish villages, would also have been civic officials. The central act of worship was the reading of the Scriptures, both from the Torah and the prophets. In Palestine, this would be in Hebrew, sometimes accompanied by a translation into Aramaic; in the Dispersion, Greek was used. The reading of the lessons was followed by a sermon, and there seems to have been a custom of inviting any visiting teacher to deliver this address (Acts 13. 14).

Recent archaeological evidence has shown that Galilee was not the rural backwater and isolated Jewish enclave in the hills that scholars once imagined. They have plumbed the political, economic. and social currents of first-century Palestine to discover the forces that gave rise to the man and his mission. He has been viewed variously as a religious reformer, a social revolutionary, an apocalyptic prophet and even as a Jewish ‘Jihadist’. By far the mightiest force at the time shaping life in Galilee was the Roman Empire, which had subjugated the whole of Palestine some sixty years before Jesus’ birth. Almost all Jews felt oppressed by Rome’s excessive taxation and idolatrous religion, and this seething undercurrent of social unrest set the stage for the ‘Jewish agitator’ to burst onto the scene denouncing the rich and powerful and pronouncing blessings on the poor and marginalised.

Others have imagined the onslaught of Greco-Roman culture moulding Jesus into a less Jewish, more cosmopolitan champion of social justice. In 1991, John Dominic Crossan published his seminal book, The Historical Jesus, in which he put forward the thesis that the real Jesus was a wandering sage whose countercultural lifestyle and subversive sayings bore a striking resemblance to those of the ‘Cynics’ of ancient Greece. Like Jesus, they had little time for social conventions and the pursuit of wealth and status. Crossan’s unorthodox thesis was inspired partly by archaeological discoveries in Galilee which showed that the whole region was becoming more urbanised and romanised during Jesus’ day than scholars once imagined. Jesus’ boyhood home of Nazareth was just three miles from Sepphoris, the Roman provincial capital. Although the city isn’t mentioned in the Gospels, an ambitious building campaign sponsored by Galilee’s ruler, Herod Antipas, would have attracted skilled workers from all the surrounding villages. It’s therefore not unreasonable to imagine Jesus, as a young craftsman, working at Sepphoris and testing the boundaries of his Judaistic upbringing.

In Capernaum, the fishing port on the northwest shore called the Sea of Galilee where Jesus met his first followers, Franciscan archaeologists were, in 1968, excavating an octagonal church built 1,500 years ago, when they discovered that it had been built over the remains of a first-century house. There was evidence that this private home had been transformed into a public meeting place over a short span of time. By the second half of the first century, just a few decades after the Crucifixion of Jesus – the home’s rough stone walls had been plastered over and household kitchen items replaced with oil lamps, characteristic of a community gathering place. Over the following centuries, entreaties to Christ were etched into the walls, and by the time Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in the fourth century, the dwelling had been expanded into an elaborately decorated house of worship. Since then the structure has commonly been known as Peter’s House, though it’s impossible to say whether the disciple actually inhabited the home. The Gospels record Jesus curing Peter’s mother-in-law at her home in Capernaum. Word of the miracle spread rapidly, we are told, and by evening a suffering crowd had gathered at her door.

 

Another dramatic discovery occurred at the site of ancient Magdala, the hometown of Mary Magdalene. Again, it was Franciscan archaeologists who began excavating part of the town during the 1970s, though the northern half lay under a defunct lakeside resort, who was building a pilgrims’ retreat in Galilee. As construction was about to begin in 2009, archaeologists from the Israel Antiquities Authority arrived to survey the site. They discovered a synagogue from the time of Jesus – the first such structure to be unearthed In Galilee. This find was especially significant because it put to rest an argument made by sceptics that no synagogues existed in Galilee until decades after Jesus’ death and that synagogues were few and far between in Israel and Judah in general in the first half of the first century. Had the sceptics been right, their claim would have shredded the Gospels’ portrait of Jesus as a devout Jew who often proclaimed his message and performed miracles in these meeting places.

As archaeologists excavated the ruins, they uncovered walls lined with benches and a mosaic floor. More importantly, at the centre of the room, they found a stone about the size of a foot rack that revealed carvings in relief which showed some of the most sacred elements of the Temple in Jerusalem. This has come to be known as the Magdala Stone, and its discovery struck a death-blow to the once-fashionable notion that Galileans were impious country ‘bumkins’ detached from Judaea’s centre of ‘civilised’ devotion. Moreover, as archaeologists continued to dig, they discovered an entire town buried less than a foot below the surface. The ruins were so well-preserved that some began calling Magdala the Israeli Pompeii. The remains include storerooms, ritual baths and an industrial area where fish may have been processed and sold on an open market, the stone stalls of which remain intact. Considering the fact that the synagogue was active during the ministry of Jesus and was only a brief sail from Capernaum, there is no reason to deny or doubt that Jesus was in Magdala, preaching in the synagogue and walking with his fishermen friends.

Jesus’ Journey to Jerusalem and his ‘Last Week’:

His journey south and his movements until the last week in Jerusalem are shrouded in obscurity. Mark summarises them in one sentence, short yet significant (10. 1):

On leaving those parts (in the north) he came into the regions of Judaea and Transjordan; and when a crowd gathered around him once again, he followed his usual practice and taught them. (NEB)

 

The quoted words seem to imply a wider ministry than the account which follows seems to allow for. They suggest that he may have moved down south in the late spring, passing down the eastern side of the Jordan River, finally arriving in Jerusalem at the beginning of the Passover festival week. The account as we now have it had been used in the worship of the church where all the events of the Passion week were celebrated together, from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday. The journey may, in reality, have taken much longer, and have involved longer sojourns east of the river before the visit to Jerusalem. Some scholars have suggested that the Gospel accounts comprise two visits to the city, the first in October for the Feast of the Tabernacles, when he dealt with the shopkeepers in the Foreigners’ Court of the temple and was involved in an open debate with the religious authorities.

Whatever the evidence for this, Jesus had made up his mind to make his final appeal to his people when they gathered for the feast of Passover the following spring. He did not intend to have his hand forced, so he spent the winter outside the jurisdiction of the Jerusalem authorities in Transjordan and returned to the city a few days before he was arrested. It is probable that the elaborate preparations that were made to secure his arrest away from potential popular intervention by ensnaring one of his friends would have taken more than a few days, and would have had to involve Pilate (depicted above), as governor, at an early stage.

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During the first part of The Last Week, Jesus lodged outside the city at the house of his friends, Mary, Martha and Lazarus, at Bethany, at the foot of the Mount of Olives. From Bethany to Bethpage is a steep walk of about half an hour up a stony path. It was here, at the top of the Mount of Olives that Jesus mounted the ass on which he rode towards Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. It was at this spot that he paused and wept over the coming fate of the city. When Jesus took his last journey from Bethany into Jerusalem, he went up the stark Jericho road whose loneliness had given such point to his parable of the Good Samaritan; he knew the way; his disciples followed apprehensively behind. At the highest point of the road, just behind the Mount of Olives, Jerusalem appears suddenly in all its beauty, dominated by the magnificence of the temple. With a facade 150 feet high, facing eastward, it was made of light marble with decorations of pure gold. Surrounding the main building were collonaded courts and vestibules; in the very centre crowning the whole edifice was the Tabernacle, which, according to the historian Josephus, sparkled like a snow-capped mountain. The massive walls of the city, rising 250 metres high above the surrounding valley, embraced other well-known buildings: the Roman fortress Antonia on the north-east side, Herod’s palace on the west with its three enormous towers, 130, 100 and 80 feet high, a little below that was the house of the high priest, also a strong-hold with its own prison. These four buildings were to play their part in the drama that followed. Today none of them remain, since the destruction of the city by the Romans in AD 70, but the sites are there and modern archaeology has revealed evidence of their authenticity; while the breathtaking beauty of the city remains, for the Muslims erected on the site of the Jewish temple two magnificent mosques, which scintillate, the one with golden and the other with silver decorations, even as the original temple must have done. The first is ‘The Dome of the Rock’, the second ‘The Mosque of Al-Aqsa’.  Christian pilgrims today are invited by their Arab guides to stop and praise God when they first set eyes on this most Holy City, even though it bears little resemblance to the place where Jesus walked and taught.

 

Further on, He would have passed the Garden of Gethsemane, and then down into the valley of the brook, Kedron, and on up the steep slope into the city itself. During this week he preached in the courtyards of the temple, where he challenged the authorities. It was during these final visits to the Temple in Jerusalem, whether they happened in the autumn or the following spring of his southern ministry, that Jesus carried out two ‘acted parables’ which showed that, while he followed a path of nonviolent resistance, he was also willing to challenge the temple authorities over, and at, the heart of their religion. The entry into the city made clear his whole approach to God’s work. He had made secret preparations for it, arranging for the hire of a donkey with a farmer in a village near to the city, possibly Bethany itself, or Bethpage. He rode in to claim his right as God’s chosen leader, perhaps recalling the days of a thousand years before when his ancestor David, following the southern rebellion, rode back on a warhorse to reclaim the city, along the same road (II Sam. 19. 15.-20.2). He was no such military leader, and the words of Zechariah’s poem were probably in his mind:

Lo, your King comes to you;

triumphant and victorious is he,

humble and riding on an ass,

on a colt, the foal of an ass (Zech. 9.9)

All he had said and done in the preceding ministry was symbolised in this act. It must have been intended for his friends, as was the symbolism of ‘the Last Supper’. If it happened in October, he would have joined pilgrims coming into the city for the feast of Tabernacles, using the occasion for his own purposes. Had it been a public claim to Messiahship, it is strange that the authorities, looking around for evidence to incriminate Jesus, did not seize upon this occasion as the kind of evidence they were looking for. The significance of the ‘acted parable’ was quite clear.

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Jesus’ ‘Cleansing of the Temple’ was the second acted parable and was also a very public one, this time inside the city and the Temple itself. In the Temple were several open courts, one of which was known as the Court of the Gentiles. This was a large area where sympathetic foreigners could share in Jewish worship. It was being used in Jesus’ time as a market, a bank and a shortcut through the Temple, anything but a place of worship for foreigners. It looked as if nobody bothered whether foreigners worshipped there or not. Jesus cleared the courts, his very righteous indignation took the stall-keepers and bankers by surprise; foreigners, Jesus was saying, had a place in God’s worship. The Temple was not exclusively for the use of Jews. He made a declaration of the universality of the Good News – My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations, but you have made it a robbers’ cave. The Jewish leaders confronted him afterwards:

As he was walking about the Temple, Jewish leaders came up to him. ‘Who told you to do this sort of thing?’ they asked. ‘Who gave you the right to act like this?’ 

‘I’ll ask you a question first,’ said Jesus. ‘You answer my question and I’ll answer yours. You remember John the Baptist; was he God’s messenger, or just another of these mob-leaders? You tell me.’

They didn’t know what to say… They were frightened of the crowd, for everybody thought that John was one of God’s messengers.

‘We don’t know,’ they said at last.

‘Well, I’m not telling you, then, who gave me power to do what I’m doing,’ said Jesus…

The Jewish leaders now made up their minds to get hold of Jesus,… but they were frightened of the crowd; so they left Jesus and went away. 

Mk. 11. 27-33, 12. 1-12.

Rather than answer their question, which he suspected was not really a genuine question, but one intended to trap him (he didn’t intend to be caught out as simply as that), Jesus had told them a parable about a landowner who let out his estate to farmers when he went abroad. At harvest-time, he sent a slave for his share of the market, but they beat the slave and sent him away empty-handed. So he sent another slave, but the farmers hit him on the head and shouted insults at him. So the landowner sent his only son, thinking that they would respect him. But the farmers saw this as an opportunity to claim the estates for themselves, so they killed him and threw his body outside the walls of the estate. Jesus then asked them what the landowner would do, answering his own question by telling them that the landowner would come himself and destroy the farmers and give the estate to others.

In challenging his critics, he adapted a story which Isaiah had once told to his people about a farm where only wild grapes would grow. The Jewish leaders would recognise immediately what he was doing and also see that the estate was a picture of the Jewish people and that he was criticising them directly by casting them as the farmers who had wanted to take over the estate and exploit it for themselves.; the Jewish leaders were now making the Temple their temple, not God’s. They weren’t asking what God really wanted them to do. No wonder that, then and there, they made up their minds that they weren’t having any more radical talk like this, and resolved to get rid of him somehow. If this took place in October, by the spring they were ready for him.

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They were frightened that the common people would take him seriously, as they had John the Baptist. If they did, the whole Jewish way of life and their leadership hopes would disappear, or be changed into something its current leadership could hardly recognise. The Jewish leaders saw his intentions more clearly than his own friends did. If this incident took place in October, by the spring they were ready for him. They caught him at night in the orchard on the side of the Mount of Olives. His trial and execution could happen swiftly afterwards.

 

The Genuine Jerusalem and ‘the trump of God’ – Part Two: Empires and Exiles…   Leave a comment

The Decline and Break-up of Israel:

Under the rule of David and Solomon, Israel was more than simply a united kingdom; the territories amounted to an empire. But, just as it would be a gross anachronistic error to equate an ancient empire, or kingdom, with a modern nation-state, it would also be wrong to confuse the multi-ethnic and multi-faith city of Jerusalem in the tenth century BC with a complex hub of government, administration and communications in the twenty-first century.  Modern capitals, and the ‘temples’ within them, are perhaps less ‘magical’ and ‘mystical’ than were ancient ‘capitals’, in an era in which the ideals of democracy are more important, and the exercise of power far less arbitrary. The idea of a city being ‘eternal’ in religious or cultural terms is not incompatible with it being a modern political capital, provided that both religious and political leaders of all traditions, identities and parties are able to demonstrate their mutual respect and shared loyalty to the city. The Old Testament prophets issued continual warnings to both kings and peoples not to persecute or exclude gentiles from the city and the temple courts. When they were ignored, they warned that what would result would be the destruction of Jerusalem, the desolation of its temple and the disintegration of its peoples.

The political history of Israel in the period 922-587 B.C. is characterised by increasingly rapid decline, punctuated by brief periods of partial recovery but ending in total annihilation. This fate befell not only Israel but all her neighbours as well. The rise of new centres of imperialism in Mesopotamia probably made this probable, but not inevitable. It was a process which was determined and accelerated by the foolish policies frequently pursued by the victims. Rehoboam (922-915), Solomon’s son and successor, chose to ignore the weakness of his position in the northern part of his kingdom, rejecting the demands for reform made by the northern tribes. All at once, the simmering resentment they felt at being ruled by Judaean, which had troubled both David and Solomon, boiled over into a full-scale insurrection. They declared their independence and selected Jeroboam, their former champion who had just returned from exile in Egypt, as their first king (I Kings 12. 1-20).

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The new kingdom took for itself the name of Israel, which had previously been used to designate the whole undivided kingdom. The remnant in the south, remaining loyal to the dynasty of David, became known as Judah. With this division, Jerusalem was no longer the capital of Israel, now divided into two independent kingdoms, bitterly hostile to each other, and so the era of the Israelite empire was over. Of the two kingdoms, Israel was both the larger and the more prosperous. It included most of the larger Canaanite cities, the main trade routes, and the best land on both sides of the Jordan. Judah, by comparison, was a small state in the hills, remote from the main roads and sources of wealth. This remoteness made it strategically and economically less important to the great empires which, in turn, enabled it to survive for more than a century longer than its northern neighbour.

Jeroboam made certain religious changes in an attempt to discourage the annual pilgrimages which his subjects continued to make, in spite of the political schism, to Jerusalem. He established two royal temples of his own at the ancient sanctuaries of Bethel and Dan, where the God of Israel had been worshipped for centuries. Here, as a kind of compensation for the ark, he set up golden bull images, not originally intended to represent pagan deities, but which later became centres of a debased, pagan worship (Hos. 8. 3 f.; 10.5; 13.2). At the beginning of the ninth century,  there were decades of open ‘civil’ war in the rump kingdoms of Palestine and Syria, with first Judah and then Israel allying with the Aramaean kingdom of Damascus to attack the other.

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Both countries were, however, to enjoy one final period of prosperity. Damascus, Israel’s traditional enemy, was destroyed by the Assyrian king in 802, and thereafter Assyria left Syria and Palestine in peace for half a century. During the long reigns of Jeroboam II (786-746) in Israel and Uzziah (783-742) in Judah, both countries made swift recoveries. Jeroboam recovered the whole of his northern and trans-Jordan territories at the expense of Damascus. Judah had already reconquered Edom in the early eighth century and went on to make further conquests (II Chronicles 26. 6-15). Taken together, the two kingdoms were almost as extensive as Solomon’s empire had been, but they remained as separate kingdoms. Later in the century, however, Hoshea, King of Israel, made the mistake of withholding tribute from the Assyrian throne of Shalmaneser (727-722), while at the same time making a treaty with a minor ‘king’ in Egypt. Shalmaneser attacked Israel in 724 and besieged its capital, Samaria. After two years, Samaria fell to Sargon II, succeeding Shalmaneser, and Sargon deported a large number of the inhabitants of Israel to other parts of his empire, replacing them with other ethnicities (II Kings 17. 5 f., 24). Judaean independence continued for more than a century until the defeat and death of Josiah by the Egyptians in 609. Judah again passed under foreign control, this time that of Egypt. With the defeat of the Egyptians by Nebuchadnezzar (605-562), at the battle of Carchemish in 605 B.C., Judah fell into the hands of the Babylonians, but continued intrigues with the Egyptians, so that in 597 Nebuchadnezzar arrived in Judah and besieged Jerusalem, which surrendered to him. The young king of Judah was deported to Babylon together with a great number of the upper classes of Judaean society. Fresh intrigues with Egypt led the Babylonians to invade once more in 588, devastating the entire country and destroying its cities. In 587 Jerusalem itself was captured and destroyed, together with the temple. King Zedekiah, a puppet king, was forced to witness the execution of his sons and was taken to Babylonia with many of his people (II Kings 25. 1-21).

So, like the people of Israel following the Assyrian deportations in the previous century, the Judaean people were now also torn in two. It is difficult to say which was in the worse plight; the exiles in Babylonia, deprived, it seemed, of the hope of ever returning to their homes, or the wretched lower classes, left mainly to their own devices in a land devastated, its crops ruined and its houses destroyed, a prey to hunger and disease and to the depredations of wild beasts and of the Edomite tribes from the south who raided their land, anxious to gain revenge on their former oppressors.

God’s ‘Chosen People’ and the Returning ‘Remnant’:

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What so sharply distinguished the Jews from the other peoples of the ancient world was their attitude towards history and in particular towards their own role in history. The Jews were alone in combining an uncompromising monotheism with an unshakable conviction that they themselves were the Chosen People of the one true God. At least since the exodus from Egypt, they had believed that the will of Yahweh was concentrated upon on Israel, that Israel alone was charged with the realisation of that will. At least since the days of the Prophets, they had been convinced that Yahweh was no mere national god, however powerful, but the one and only God, the omnipotent Lord of History who controlled the destinies of all nations. There were many who, like the ‘Second Isaiah’, felt that divine election imposed a special moral responsibility upon them, an obligation to show justice and mercy in their dealings with all men, including the poor of their own nation. In their view, the divinely appointed task of Israel was to enlighten the Gentiles and so carry God’s salvation to the ends of the earth. But alongside this ethical interpretation, there existed another which became ever more attractive as the fervour of an ancient nationalism was subjected to the shock and strain of repeated defeats, deportations and dispersals. Precisely because they were so sure of being the Chosen People, Jews tended to react to peril, oppression and hardship by fantasies of the total triumph and boundless prosperity which Yahweh, out of his omnipotence, would bestow upon his Elect in the fulness of time.

Already in the Prophetic Books of the Old Testament, some of them dating from the eighth century BC, there were passages that foretold how out of an immense cosmic catastrophe, there would arise a Palestine which would be nothing less than a new Eden, Paradise Regained, to borrow from John Milton. Due to their neglect of Yahweh the Chosen People would have to be punished by famine and pestilence, war and captivity, they must indeed be subjected to a shifting judgement so severe that it would effect a clean break with a guilty past. There must indeed be a Day of Wrath when sun and moon and stars would be darkened, the heavens would be rolled together and the earth would be shaken. There must be a Judgement when the disbelievers – those in Israel who have not trusted in the Lord and also Israel’s enemies, the heathen nations, would be judged and cast down, if not utterly destroyed. But this would not be the end, a remnant would return from exile, and through that remnant, the divine purpose would be accomplished.

When the nation would be regenerated and reformed, Yahweh would cease from vengeance and become the Deliverer. The righteous remnant would be assembled once more in Palestine and Yahweh would dwell among them as ruler and judge. He would reign from a rebuilt Jerusalem, a Zion which has become the spiritual capital of the world, where wild and dangerous beasts have become tame and harmless. The moon will rise as the sun and the sun’s light will be increased sevenfold.  Deserts and wastelands will become fertile and beautiful. There will be an abundance of water and provender for the flocks and herds, for men, there will be an abundance of water, corn, water, fish and fruit; men and flocks and herds will multiply exceedingly. Freed from the disease and sorrow of every kind, doing no more iniquity but living according to the law of Yahweh now written in their hearts, the Chosen People will live in joy and gladness.

The dream of a ‘homeland’ in Palestine:

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In the period 312 to 63 BC, the Jewish people were involved in a struggle for a united, independent homeland, a period when the Palestinian Jews attempted to establish their own state and live according to their own religious conscience, while the Jews abroad were forced to work out for themselves how they should live and express their faith in order to bear clear witness to their faith in the alien, dominant Greek, or Hellenic culture around them. In the apocalypses of this period, which were directed to the lower strata of the Jewish population as a form of nationalist propaganda, the tone is cruder and more boastful than in the earlier literature. This was already striking in the earliest apocalypse of the period, the vision or dream which occupies Chapter VII of the Book of Daniel and which was composed about the year 165 BC, at a particularly critical moment in Jewish history. For more than three centuries, since the end of the Babylonian exile, the Jews in exile had enjoyed a measure of peace and security, at first under Persian, later under Ptolemaic rule; but the situation changed when, in the second century BC, Palestine passed into the hands of the Syro-Greek dynasty of the Seleucids.  From 198 BC, Palestine belonged to the Seleucids, taking their name from Seleucus, one of Alexander the Great’s officers who had established himself as ruler over the eastern part of Alexander’s empire in 312 BC and by 301 had gained most of what is part of Turkey, as well as Antioch in Syria, which he named as his capital. Seleucus’ rival was Ptolemy, who had annexed Palestine following Alexander’s death, starting a struggle between ‘the kings in the north’ and ‘the kings in the south’, as described in chapter 11 of the Book of Daniel.

For nearly a century Palestine had been the battleground between these opposing forces and was frequently conquered and reconquered until the Seleucid Antiochus III took all Palestine, concluding a treaty with Ptolemy V. There had been Jews in Egypt since the time of Jeremiah (Jer. 43, 5ff.), and in 312 BC, Ptolemy I had settled captives in Alexandria, where they were greatly influenced by the Greek way of life. Ptolemy II had had the Hebrew scriptures translated into Greek for the benefit of the new Greek-speaking Jews of the city. Judea itself was also influenced by the Hellenistic way of life, founded on the Greek polis (city), with its urban civilisation and tradition of training young men in athletic prowess and literary skills. The Jews were bitterly divided, for while the worldly upper-classes eagerly adopted Greek manners and customs, the common people clung all the more resolutely to the faith of their forefathers.

In 169 BC, Antiochus IV campaigned in Egypt, aiming to extend and unify his kingdom by including Judaea.  When the Seleucid monarch tried to intervene on behalf of the pro-Greek party and went so far as to forbid all Jewish religious observances, the response was the Maccabean revolt. Antiochus proclaimed himself by title Epiphanes meaning ‘God made manifest’. The Jews could never subscribe to this for their God was Yahweh, who had been their shield and saviour from earliest times. Upon hearing that Judaea was in revolt, Antiochus raided and took control of Jerusalem, plundering houses, desecrating the Holy of Holies in the Temple, rededicating it to Zeus, as well as profaning the fortress by setting up his own citadel overlooking the Temple (Dan. 11. 30). He then instituted a campaign to unify his empire and rid the region of all evidence of the Jewish faith, slaughtering large numbers of Jews in the process, whom he then left under a governor who was more barbarous than the man who appointed him (II Macc. 5. 22).  He also decreed in Palestine (I Macc. 1. 4ff.) that all should be one people, and that each should give up his customs. He wrote to the Jews, directing them, on pain of death, …

… to follow customs strange to the land, to forbid burnt offerings and sacrifices and drink offerings in the sanctuary, to profane sabbaths and feasts, to defile the sanctuary and the priests, to build altars and sacred precincts and shrines for idols, to sacrifice swine and unclean animals, and to leave their sons uncircumcised.   

In the dream in the Book of Daniel, composed at the height of the revolt, four beasts symbolise four successive world-powers, the Babylonian, the (unhistorical) Median, the Persian and the Greek, the last of which shall be more diverse from all kingdoms, and shall devour the whole earth, and shall tread it down, and break it in pieces. When this empire, in turn, was overthrown Israel, personified as the ‘Son of Man’,

… came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of Days… And there was given him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations and languages should serve him: his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away… The greatness of the kingdom under the whole heaven was given to the people of the saints of the most High…

This goes much further than any of the Prophets beforehand: for the first time, the glorious future kingdom is imagined as embracing not simply Palestine but the whole world. Already here one can recognise the paradigm of what was to become and to remain the central ‘fantasy’ of revolutionary eschatology. The world is dominated by an evil, tyrannous power of boundless destructiveness, a power which is imagined not simply as human but as demonic. The tyranny of that power will become more and more outrageous, the sufferings of its victims more and more intolerable, until suddenly the hour will strike when the Saints of God are able to rise up and overthrow it. Then the saints themselves, the holy, chosen people who hitherto have groaned under the oppressor’s heel, will, in their turn, inherit dominion over the whole earth. This will be the culmination of history; the Kingdom of the Saints will not only surpass in glory all other previous kingdoms, it will have no successors.  It was thanks to this dream that Jewish apocalyptic, through its derivatives, held such a fascination for the discontented and frustrated of later ages, and continued to do so long after the Jews themselves had forgotten its very existence.

(to be continued…)

Fourth Sunday in Advent: Immanuel   1 comment

Prophet Isaiah, Russian icon from first quarte...

Prophet Isaiah, Russian icon from first quarter of 18th cen. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Isaiah, 7: 10-14:

‘And the Lord spake again unto Ahaz, saying, “Ask ye a sign of the Lord thy God; ask it either in the depth, or in the height above.” But Ahaz said, “I will not ask, neither will I tempt the Lord.”  And he said, “Hear ye now, O house of David; is it a small thing for you to weary men, that ye will weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign; behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel…” ‘

The Advent hymn, ‘O Come, O Come Emmanuel‘ is based on these verses, and was one of the Latin ‘antiphons’ which were sung in the Early Church during the week leading up to Christmas, dating from as early as the sixth century. There were seven of them, one sung on each of the days from the 17th to the 24th. However, some time in twelfth century five of them were put together into one hymn. Each described Christ in a different way, as Emmanuel, ‘God with us‘, ‘the Root of Jesse’ (Isaiah, 11:10), ‘the Dayspring’ (Malachi 4:2), ‘the Key of David’ (Isaiah 22:22) and ‘the Lord of Might’ (Exodus 3:15). In 1851-4, J M Neale translated these five verses into a hymn in English, which has always been accompanied by the tune ‘Veni Immanuel’, a French adaptation of a plainsong ‘Kyrie’, arranged by Thomas Helmore, an Anglican clergyman who led the revival of Gregorian chant in Britain. The five verses are still sung in Advent, and the hymn remains very popular. The third verse is very poignant at present, as at many other times in history:

‘O come thou Dayspring, come and cheer

Our spirits by thine advent here;

Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,

And death’s dark shadows put to flight:

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel

Shall come to thee, O Israel.

Posted December 21, 2014 by TeamBritanniaHu in Uncategorized

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The Ethiopian ‘Eunuch’   3 comments

According to the concordances, a eunuch was ‘a confidential court official, usually a castrate.’ After his discourse on marriage, carefully recorded by Matthew, Jesus uses the word to describe three types of men who cannot marry, marriage being about a woman and a man becoming one flesh and one family. Those who were eunuchs by birth (presumably those born homosexual), those who were made eunuchs by men (castrates) and those who choose not to marry in order to serve God more freely (celibates).  Marriage was arranged by the parents of the man and the woman, and there was an understanding that it should take place only between fellow Israelites, though many disregarded this, as is clear from the Old Testament. The engagement was binding and a ‘bride’s price’ (mohar) was payable to the bride’s father, who had to pay a dowry. These could be paid in servants, land, property or work, as well as in money.

Matthew 19 v 11:

Not everyone can accept this word, but only for those to whom it has been given. For some are eunuchs because they were born that way; others were made that way by men; and others have renounced marriage because of the kingdom of heaven.

(New International Version)

In this private, follow-up  discussion with disciples, away from the legalistic Pharisees, Jesus makes it clear that these groups of me are not expected to fulfil the duties of marriage. The fact that he tells them this in a private word, after the Pharisees have left, suggests that the subject was controversial, and that his disciples may well have contained men who were ‘born that way’, or who didn’t see how they could marry and follow him, or both. Marriage was not easy for those living an itinerant lifestyle, since it depended on heavily on the more settled pattern of village and town life which many Palestinians were living by this time. By the same token, a group of unmarried men who spent a lot of time in each others’ company would undoubtedly attract rumour and speculation, and in quizzing Jesus over the marriage laws, the Pharisees may have been hinting at this. Certainly, he had been often criticised for mixing too much with tax-collectors, prostitutes and publicans, and homosexuals would certainly have been included in this category of ‘sinners’. If this was the case, in not condemning homosexuality, but quietly accepting it, Jesus could have been accused of going against the teaching of the Torah. In his time, there was an argument raging over the grounds for divorce, and many women were exploited for their dowry and then ‘dumped’ by the husbands after a short time for very little reason. Jesus makes it clear to the Pharisees that he believes the only grounds for divorce are adultery. He shields the disciples from the pointing fingers of the hypocritical pharisees, who allowed men to divorce their wives with no just cause, but at the same time reassures them that they need not marry while following him. It is sometimes wrongly claimed in current debate, that homosexuality was relatively unknown in the ancient world, that it is a modern ‘lifestyle’ choice. Jesus’ words reveal this not to be the case, but we know little of how it was regarded. In the Old Testament, the struggle for the survival of the tribes against war, famine and plagues, was what motivated aggressive opposition to anything which got in the way of procreation and the ‘multiplication’ of families. Hence the reason for the references to the sinfulness of masturbation, ‘spilling one’s seed on the ground’, and the acceptance of polygamy, particularly among the nomadic tribes. The needs of ancient societies were very different to those of modern societies, and there are signs in the New Testament that times and attitudes were already changing in his day, hence Jesus’ determination to provide a new context in which to interpret the Torah.

Philip must have known that this mission to witness on the Gaza road was important, as it involved a journey of anything up to 80km, from the Samaritan city where he was staying, to Gaza, on the coast (see map of Palestine).

It’s entirely possible that this Treasurer of the Court of Candace, Queen of Ethiopia, or the Upper Nile Valley, or Nubia as it was then (‘Cush’ in Hebrew), was homosexual from birth, as important officials were often given charge over castrated servants. Either way, the actions of Philip in sharing his carriage, often depicted as a chariot, show that, at the outset, he did not regard this Ethiopian Jew as in any way ‘unclean’ compared to himself.

The Acts of the Apostles, 8 vv 26-39:

An angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get ready and go south to the road that goes from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This road is not used nowadays.) So Philip got ready and went.  Now an Ethiopian eunuch, who was an important official in charge of the Treasury of the Queen of Ethiopia, was on his way home. He had been to Jerusalem to worship God and was going back home in his carriage. As he rode along, he was reading from the book of the prophet Isaiah. 

The holy spirit said to Philip, “Go over to that carriage and stay close to it. ” Philip ran over and heard him reading from the book of the prophet Isaiah. He asked him, “Do you understand what you are reading?” The official replied, “How can I unless someone explains it to me? ” And he invited Philip to climb up and sit in the carriage with him. The passage of scripture he was reading was this:

“He was like a sheep that is taken to be slaughtered,

like a lamb that makes no sound when its wool is cut off.

He did not say a word.

He was humiliated, and justice was denied him.

No-one will be able to tell about his descendants,

because his life on earth has come to an end.”

The official asked Philip, “Tell me, of whom is the prophet saying this? Of himself or of someone else? ” Then Philip began to speak; starting from this passage of scripture, he told him the Good News about Jesus. 

As they travelled down the road, they came to a place where there was some water, and the official said, “Here is some water. What is to keep me from being baptised?” (Philip had said to him, “You may be baptised if you believe with all your heart.” “I do,” he answered; I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.” ) The official ordered the carriage to stop, and both Philip and the official went down into the water, and Philip baptised him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord took Philip away. The official did not see him again, but continued on his way, full of joy.

Queen Candace’s Treasurer, a very high-ranking Court official, was clearly an African Jew who had been to Jerusalem to worship in the Temple. He was from a region called Nubia. During the Egyptian settlement and enslavement, many Jews had spread a long way up the Nile Valley, and had inter-married. So, although he was rich, he may have been considered to be not a true member of the faith by some, but Philip does not adopt this attitude. The fact that he is reading the scriptures aloud is also an indication that he was devout, as well as educated in Hebrew, though perhaps not having the benefit of a rabbi to explain them. Philip comes to his aid. It must have been quite a long conversation if it began with Isaiah and led on to the fulfilment of the prophecies by Jesus. It would be good to know whether, after looking at this passage, in Isaiah 53 vv 7-8, Philip dwelt next on Isaiah 56: vv 3-5, which contains the following passage on ‘eunuchs’:

Let no foreigner who has bound himself to the Lord say,

“The Lord will surely exclude me from his people.”

And let not any eunuch complain,

“I am only a dry tree.”

For this is what the Lord says:

“To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths,

who choose what pleases me and hold fast to my covenant –

to them I will give within my temple ands its walls,

a memorial and a namethat will not be cut off.”

As both a ‘foreigner’ and a eunuch, this powerful and important man must have felt excluded from those among the exiles of Israel who would be ‘gathered’ together according to the prophecies. However, Isaiah’s prophecies are inclusive, and even refer directly to ‘the Cush’.  This passage makes it clear that all that is necessary is to hold fast to justice in order to receive salvation. It also contains the words used by Jesus to drive out the money-changers from the Court of the Foreigners:

My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.

The Ethiopian had been using this very same Temple Court in which his fellow-Africans had seen Jesus’ acted parable of inclusiveness at the Passover Festival. He may have been attending the Feast of Tabernacles the following autumn, since Philip had been in Samaria for six months, though this was a different Philip from the original apostle. As a ‘foreign’ Hebrew, the Nubian would have been restricted to the outer courts of the Temple and, if known to be a eunuch, would not be allowed in the Temple at all, though he would be unlikely to travel the distance involved without the likelihood of being able to worship in the precincts. This is further evidence of him being a ‘eunuch by birth’ since a castrated eunuch would have undergone more obvious hormonal changes.

Graciously, this African becomes the first from his continent to accept God’s invitation to faith in Jesus Christ, his Son, and asks to be baptised in the first pool of water they come too. This was not the ritual washing required of those who became Jews, nor was it the baptism of John, open as it was for Jew and Gentile alike, as a sign of repentance. Philip tells him that this is the baptism commanded of new converts by Jesus, including the gift of the Holy Spirit. Again, Philip is overjoyed to accompany him into the water, and is himself given the Spirit to go on to preach to the Romans and Greeks on the Great Sea Road through Azotus and the coastal towns to Caesarea, while his glad new convert turns south from Gaza to spread the word along the Nile on his way home, the beginning of a long history of Ethiopian Christianity. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ is truly inclusive of all, regardless of ethnicity, gender or sexuality! Not a hint of racism or homophobia here, not in Philip’s mission!

 

 


‘Just give me five minutes’ peace!’ – The Anxiety Scale.   Leave a comment

HOLY SPIRIT - FOIX

Fruit of the Spirit:  Peace:  Isaiah 43 vv 1-7: An Interactive Study

’Just give me five minutes peace and quiet!’ This is probably the most frequent, everyday use of the word peace that you’ll hear in English-speaking homes and schools! Even in the religious context, the word is usually used in a collocation, a group of words, like  ’grace, mercy and peace..’, in a way in which faith, hope and love are not. On the international ’stage’, peace is seen as the absence of war or, to be more cynical, ’the period of cheating between battles’, rarely as ’the presence of justice’. Similarly,  in our day-to-day lives, a period of ’peace’ is the antidote to stress and anxiety, which is nearly always seen as a temporary respite from ongoing conflicts at home, school, work or in the local church and community. It’s a state we are given by someone else, either by our family or, if we are religious, by God. It’s a passive state, not an active one, not one which we create for ourselves.

So, where are you on the Anxiety Scale? Where would you put your life? In general? At present?

0-2 Very peaceful

English: An anxious person

English: An anxious person (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

3-4 Quite peaceful

5-6 Relatively peaceful; a little worried

6-7 Anxious

8-9 Very Anxious

10 Tearing your hair out!

What are your deepest  fears? Can you put a name to them for yourself and in a private conversation with God?

In the Book of Isaiah, chapters 40-55 are concerned with the Jewish exiles in Babylon. The message is a comforting one: God is about to do something new and the punishment of the past is over. They are about to experience a period of peace, or ’reconciliation’.

 

English: A scroll of the Book of Isaiah

English: A scroll of the Book of Isaiah (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Reading: Isaiah 43 vv 1-7:

But now, this is what the LORD says –

He who created you, O Jacob,

He who formed you, O Israel:

Fear not, for I have redeemed you;

I have summoned you by name; you are mine.

When you pass through the waters,

I will be with you;

And when you pass through the rivers,

They will not sweep over you.

When you walk through the fire,

You will not be burned;

The flames will not set you ablaze.

For I am the LORD, your God,

The Holy One of Israel, your Saviour;

I give Egypt for your ransom,

Cush and Seba in your stead.

Since you are precious and honoured in my sight,

And because I love you,

I will give men in exchange for you,

And people in exchange for your life.

Do not be afraid, for I am with you;

I will bring your children from the east

And gather you from the west.

I will say to the north, ‘Give them up!’

And to the south, ‘Do not hold them back.’

Bring my sons from afar

And my daughters from the ends of the earth –

Everyone who is called by my name,

Whom I created for my glory,

Whom I formed and made.”

Reflections:

Franklin D. Roosevelt after giving one of his ...

Franklin D. Roosevelt after giving one of his fireside chats. The predecessor to the Weekly Address. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When President Roosevelt came into office during the Great Depression of the 1930s, he told the American people ’we have nothing to fear but fear itself’. He went on to speak about how fear can paralyse and debilitate us, but that it could also energise us into action. In his first hundred days in office, he energised the American people through a series of reforms known collectively as ’the New Deal’. In the passage above, this is what God is offering the people of Israel and, by extension, ourselves: A New Deal, both in our private lives and our public relationships.

How do you deal with fear and anxiety? Flight or fight?

What does God promise us? If not freedom from adversity and persecution, then what?

So, what is Peace? The Hebrew ’Shalom’ in the Old Testament implies health and well-being, welfare and ’wholeness’ .  It is externally given, which is why the word was used as a traditional greeting – ’peace be with you’, or, to paraphrase, ’may the Lord grant you safety and security’. Of course, an obsession with this ’state’ is what can give rise to an extreme ’Zionism’, the belief that God has given a timeless guarantee of the right of the Jewish people to security above all other Peoples.

However, Isaiah is also looking forward to a more inclusive, universal  definition, reconciling all who are called by his name from every part of the known world. In the New Testament, the word becomes transformed and redefined as ’peace of mind, spirit and heart’, an internal condition, or ’inner peace’. This is Paul’s meaning in Galatians 5:22, where he lists it as one of the fruits of the spirit, a ’divine’ quality which becomes intrinsic in the believer through the action of the Holy Spirit.In all,  there are eight references to ’peace’ in Isaiah, all referring to the ’external’ idea;  the passage above refers to testing by fire and water and to God being with us in this testing, protecting and providing us with security. Written after Babylonian exile, it is a promise of reconciliation.

However, in  vv 3-4, there is a ’foreshadowing’ of what Jesus would do; we are as precious as Seba or Cush, the fertile areas of the Upper Nile, but Christ’s ransom will be paid once and for all. The Red Cross says they don’t pay ransoms on the basis that ’once you give in to kidnappers, they always come back for more’. ’Appeasement’ is the same. We might gently give in to our children when they ask for sweets or toys, though we know the eventual cost may be far higher. However, we rely on their ’gacefulness’ to respond by not continually demanding more. Dictators are not graceful, however, and view ’generosity’ as a sign of weakness, which is why people are rightly suspicious of supporters of ’peace

at any price’. They are never satisfied.  The Price paid by God on Calvary was so high that no more could be asked. However, Christians continued to die by all manner of fearful methods, so God doesn’t promise safety, security, freedom from persecution or suffering. In fact, tells disciples that they must be prepared to ’take up their cross’. But he does promise that his peace will be with us, through the Spirit.

So, how can we accept God’s Peace in our lives?

  • we can’t understand it, we just have to accept it – it passes all our understanding in this life;
  • we can’t equate it with any kind of worldly peace, though it is offered and will be given in/ to this world – but ’not as the world gives…’;
  • Isaiah chapters 52-56 make it clear that Justice and Peace are two sides of the same coin. Peace not the absence of conflict, but presence of justice. If we treat others justly, we are ourselves put right with God; but we cannot be ’at peace’ with God if we ’at war’ with others;
  • God will ’gather in’ all areas of Earth, none of which are excluded from God’s grace, which is universal and available to all, regardless of nationality, ethnicity, gender or sexuality (56 vv 3-8);
  • The ’whole created order,’ the entire universe, is reconciled by the cross; the Greek word here is ’oikoumene’ which gives us our words for ’economy’ and ’ecology’. The gospel is also about ecological balance, about ’Green Peace’. We are called to respect God’s purpose for his creation, since we are only tenants.

How can your relationship with God produce a spirit of peace within you?

This state is not the same as ’being cool’, or ’keeping calm’ and ’carrying on’ regardless. It’s certainly not behaving passively or with total tranquility, as if we’re on valerian.  In ’turning the other cheek’ we are called to witness non-violently to the truth. Even in the eye of the storm, we need to hold firm to our anchor and God will calm the wind and the waves.  Peace begins when we stand still and face our fears, bringing our anxieties to God in prayer and it continuing as we seek God’s transformation of our conflicts through his reconciling love.

So, what is Reconciliation?

To reconcile: to cause a relationship to be harmonious, peaceful and righteous.

  1. Used of what the disciples must do for one another (Mt 5:24; Lk 12:58);
  2. Used of what God has achieved through the sacrificial death and resurrection of Jesus (Ro 5: 1-10; 2 Cor 5:18)
  3. Used of the duty of a sinner towards God – to accept forgiveness and be in a right relationship (2 Cor 5:20).

So how does this change our definition of peace?

Peace is the sound of children playing, and a father’s voice singing…(author unknown).

Psalms 27, 46, 49, 56 and 91 speak peace to our fears.

Prayers:

For Inner Peace:

Lord, I know that you have heard the prayers of my heart. I have described for you my deepest fears and concerns, and it is my desire to relinquish them to you. You have created my mind, Lord, with the amazing capacity to dream with you. In my silence I sense your powerful presence.

I picture your arms around me, assuring me that all is well. In my heart I hear you whisper. ’You are my precious child and I love you. When you pass through the waters I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. For I am the Lord, your God, the Holy One of Israel, your saviour.’

Lord, thank you for taking my fears and concerns. You are in control – your will be done.

 (Hazel Offner)

 

For Peace in the World:

O God of power and love, look in mercy upon our war-torn world, which is still your world;

You have made it; in it you delight to work; you have redeemed its people.

Grant reconciliation, we ask, between man and man, nation and nation, through the power of that great peace made by Jesus your Son;

May your servants not be troubled by wars and rumours of wars, but rather look up because their redemption draws near; and when our king returns, may he find many waiting for him, and fighting with his weapons alone;

We ask it in the King’s name, Jesus Christ your son our Lord. AMEN.

(Christopher Idle)

Song: Tom Paxton, Peace Will Come:

My own life is all I can hope to control,

Let my life be lived for the good of my soul,

And may it bring peace,

Sweet peace,

Peace will come,

Let it begin with me.

 

St Columba’s Prayer of Benediction:

Deep peace of the running wave to you,

Deep peace of the quiet earth to you,

Deep peace of the shining stars to you,

Deep peace of the son of peace to you.

 

AJC, 3/5/12, updated for reading, 10/6/12

 

 

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