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Paul of Tarsus: Jew, Roman & Christian Missionary to the Gentiles – Part Two.   Leave a comment

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Antioch & Jerusalem:

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We know about the conflict between Antioch and Jerusalem through the detailed colourful accounts of Josephus, a younger contemporary of Paul’s. He was anything but a neutral observer, however, but a wealthy Jewish aristocrat who claimed to have tried out the various Jewish ‘schools of thought’ and who had served as a general in the army at the start of the war against Rome (AD 66-70) before switching sides and ending his days on an imperial pension in Rome. In the middle of the first century, Jerusalem was a highly complex world of different parties, groups, messianic and prophetic movements, preachers and teachers. When the Romans closed in on Jerusalem in the last months of the war, crucifying so many Jews that they ran out of timber for crosses, Josephus recorded sorrowfully that more Jews were in fact killed by other Jews than by the Romans. Matters were not helped by the sequence of inept Roman governors sent to keep the peace during the period. There were times under the two kings named Herod Agrippa, both of whom were friendly with the Roman imperial family when many hoped for a live-and-let-live settlement. That would never have been sufficient for the young Saul of Tarsus, however, who longed for the ultimate kingdom of God. The Jerusalem of the middle decades of the first century was home to an entire generation who took a hard-line view, hating the thought of compromise and looking for something more like Hezekiah’s heaven-sent victory over Sennacherib or the overthrow of the Egyptians in the ‘Red Sea’.

The scriptures were quite clear that utter loyalty to the One God meant refusing all compromise with the pagan world. The social and cultural pressure to affirm that ancient loyalty and to be seen to abide by it was intense. To be a follower of Jesus in that world would have been a very different challenge from those faced by Jesus-followers in Syria or Turkey. Although the Jerusalem church had by this time established itself as something of a counter-cultural movement to the Temple authorities, this did not mean that its members were being ‘anti-Jewish.’ If anything, they were putting themselves on a par with other groups who regarded the Temple hierarchy (the wealthy, aristocratic Sadducees, including the high-priests’ families) as a corrupt and compromised class, out for their own ends and too eager to do deals with the Romans. The early Jerusalem church seems to have lived like other groups who believed that God was ushering in the ‘last days’. In the excitement of the early stages, they had shared their property communally, an eager social experiment which may have led to their later poverty. They lived a life of prayer, fasting, community, and care for the poor and widows.  So far as we can tell they conformed faithfully to the Jewish Law. They must have seemed to many like a strange messianic variation on the Pharisees’ movement, coupling a fierce loyalty to Israel’s One God with their own belief that the One God had revealed himself in the crucified and risen bringer of the kingdom, Jesus of Nazareth.

According to Acts, it was Peter who first broke the taboo of sharing table-fellowship with non-Jews; he received strong divine validation for this radical move and persuaded his sceptical colleagues in Jerusalem that this was the right thing to do. But this move seems not to have been thought through with regard to what they believed about Jesus himself. It was a pragmatic decision on their part, led by the spirit, which meant that it must be what God wanted. It remained easy, therefore, for most of the Jerusalem-based Jesus followers to see their movement as a variation on the Jewish loyalist groupings. God might bring in some non-Jews, as had always happened in Israel’s history, as the book of Ruth and various other pages had made clear. But it could hardly be imagined that the God whose scriptures warned constantly against disloyalty to the covenant would suddenly declare the Torah redundant. But that was what many in Jerusalem, including many Jesus-followers, believed that Paul had been teaching. The word got out that Paul and Barnabas, not content with belonging to a hybrid community in Syrian Antioch, had been going around the Graeco-Roman world telling Jews that they no longer needed to obey the Law of Moses! If the Torah itself could now be set aside, who could tell what results might then follow?

All this focused on the covenant sign of circumcision, and while it is true that the prophets and Moses himself had spoken of the circumcision of the heart as the deep reality to which physical circumcision was meant to point, that reality was associated with the promise of ultimate covenant renewal. Nobody in the first century imagined that, if the One God really did renew the covenant, physical circumcision might be dispensed with for the non-Jews who would be included. On the contrary, circumcision became a symbol of ‘loyalty’. Many of the Jesus-followers had dispersed following the early persecution, but there was still a tight core, focused particularly on James himself. From the time of Stephen’s stoning, they had been regarded as potentially subversive, disloyal to the Temple and its traditions. Now, this disloyalty was showing itself in a new way: they were allied with a supposedly Jesus-related movement, out in the Diaspora, teaching Jews that they didn’t have to obey the Torah! That would introduce one compromise after another until Jews would Find themselves indistinguishable from pagans. In Jerusalem, all Jews believed that pagans were the enemy that God would one day overthrow, but out there in the Diaspora this new movement was, it seemed, treating pagans as equal partners. The Temple hierarchy was concerned that this Jesus movement in the wider world, led by ‘that wild man Paul’ would not land them in any deeper trouble, guilt by association. From all that they had heard, the signs were not encouraging.

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Four things happened in quick succession. First, Peter came to Antioch and shared in the life of the church there for a while. This and the following incidents, including the writing of Paul’s first letter to the Galatians, are dated around AD 48. Second, some other followers of ‘The Way’ came to Antioch from Jerusalem, claiming to have been sent by James. This precipitated a small earthquake in the Antiochene church and a controversy denounced by Paul himself in devastating terms. Third, perhaps some weeks or months later, Paul received bad news from the little communities of non-Jewish believers in southern Anatolia, recently ‘planted’ by Barnabas and himself. The fourth event was the writing of the letter to the churches in Galatia, as mentioned above. He then set off for Jerusalem in the hopes of sorting all this out with those who seemed to be causing the trouble who naturally thought that it was he who was causing all the trouble. As Tom Wright remarks,

Controversies are always like that. Generations of Christians who have read Galatians as part of holy scripture have to remind themselves that, if Galatians is part of the Bible, it is Galatians as we have it that is part of the Bible – warts and all, sharp edges and sarcastic remarks included. Perhaps, indeed, that is what “holy scripture” really is – not a calm, serene list of truths to be learned or commands to be obeyed, but a jagged book that forces you to grow up in your thinking as you grapple with it.

Paul believed that Jesus’ own spirit was at work through him as his chosen apostle to the Gentiles to establish and maintain the life-changing communities of people whose lives had themselves been changed by the power of the gospel. And now he believed that he had a responsibility to state clearly what was at stake in the controversy in Antioch, in Jerusalem, in Galatia itself. His own obvious vulnerability was part of this process too, as he later stressed in another letter. His ‘epistles’, just like the gospel itself, were part of a radical redefinition of what ‘authority’ might look like in the new world that the One God had launched through Jesus. So Peter came to Antioch, it seems, in early 48. His arrival is unexplained, like all his movements after his remarkable escape from prison in Acts 12:17; all we know is that he had initially been happy go along with the practice of the local Jesus-followers in Antioch, having Jewish and non-Jewish believers living together as “family,” sharing the same table. This was the practice that Peter himself had embraced in Acts 10-11 when he visited Cornelius, justifying his actions to critics in Jerusalem on the basis of what he had been told in a divine commandment:

What God made clean, you must not regard as common.

Peter had acted on that principle, believing that the power of the gospel had ‘cleansed’ the Gentiles of the ritual or moral defilement that they possessed in Jewish eyes, defilement that would normally be seen as a barrier to the intimacy of table fellowship. What the new experience of God had made clear to most of the friends of Jesus, but not to all of them, was that God’s love, which Jesus made real to them, was for the whole world – everybody, everywhere. But many came slowly to these great convictions, and there was much heart-searching debate among the early Christians in Antioch: did Jesus come, essentially, to reform the Jewish religion, or did he come to call everybody everywhere to become God’s family, each in his own way? Peter now hesitated to go the whole way; when he arrived in the city of Antioch Paul confronted him on this issue. He described this confrontation in his letter to the Galatians:

Barnabas and I … were back in Antioch, and Peter Joined us there. But I had to stand up to him and tell him that he was plainly in the wrong – on this same question.

When he first came there, he ate his meals with all of us; foreigner and Jew sat down together at the same table. Then some men came from Jerusalem (they said that James had sent them), and everything changed. He started to stay away from our common meals. He was frightened of these Jewish Christians who said that you couldn’t become a Christian if you hadn’t first become a proper Jew. Other friends of Jesus in Antioch started to do the same – even Barnabas was deceived.

(Galatians 2: 11-13)

Clearly, as Paul reports these events, what changed the terms of the discourse was the arrival in Antioch of the ‘envoys’ from Jerusalem who insisted that if the Gentiles wanted to be part of the true family, sharing in the great rescue operation which God had now set in motion, they would have to be circumcised. Paul, in Galatians, wrote that this was what made Peter change his mind. Up to that point, he had been content to eat with the Jesus-believing Gentiles, but now he drew back in line with the newcomers, and, given the status that Peter had within the wider movement, it is perhaps not surprising that the other Jewish Jesus believers followed him in this. Paul tells us that even Barnabas was carried along by their sham (Galatians, 2: 13). This was not simply a disagreement about theological principles, but about an original practice of the church in Antioch which reflected the belief that all believers in Jesus, whether circumcised or not, belonged at the same table. The Judaean guests were clearly saying that this was wrong and that the loyal Jews among the believers should withdraw. Barnabas had been with Paul through all the joys and trials of the mission to Galatia and together they had welcomed many non-Jews into fellowship. They had shared everything; they had prayed and worked and celebrated and suffered side by side. Now they were on opposite sides of this debate, and that hurt Paul.

Paul was careful not to claim that the visitors from Jerusalem were sent by James personally, though it is difficult to see how they could have been there except on his authority. Certainly, the focus of their concern was the maintenance of covenant loyalty. Circumcision was, as far as they were concerned, non-negotiable, since the purity of God’s chosen people was essential. If God was indeed bringing in his kingdom, then a clean break with the Gentiles’ pagan past was vital. If they were to be allowed into the covenant, the former pagans would have to demonstrate their loyalty as well, and that meant circumcision. From the point of view of the zealous kingdom-minded Jews of Jerusalem, this made perfect sense, but from Paul’s perspective, it made no sense at all. He had already thought through what it meant that God was bringing in his kingdom through the crucified Messiah, the shocking and unexpected events of Jesus’ death and resurrection, coupled with the dramatic sense of personal redemption for which the only explanation was the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, meant that everything had changed. A new world had begun and those trying to live in it while clinging to the old one had not yet realised just how radical the transformation was. They were simply “putting on a face,” or “playacting,” for which the Greek word was hypokrisis, giving us the English word ‘hypocrisy’. Paul was similarly direct in his narrative to the Galatians, as this modern paraphrase reveals:

This was cheating – and cheating about the very thing that makes the Good News really good news. It was as plain as plain could be to me.

(Galatians 2: 14, New World)

The problem was both personal and theological for Paul. As one of the recognised ‘pillars’ of the whole movement, Peter had been followed from the common table by many of the Jewish followers of Jesus. That made it even more difficult for Paul to confront Peter, but that is exactly what he did:

When I saw that they weren’t walking straight down the line of gospel truth, I said to Cephas in front of them all: “Look here: you’re a Jew, but you’ve been living like a Gentile. How can you force Gentiles to become Jews?” 

(Galatians 2: 14).

Peter had already been “living like a Gentile” – not in the sense that he had been worshipping idols or indulging in sexual immorality, but in the sense that he had been in the habit of eating with people without any regard for the distinction between Jews and Gentiles. He was therefore “in the wrong.” Either his present behaviour meant that his previous stance had been wrong, or his previous stance, being right, proved that his present behaviour was wrong. Paul himself was in no doubt which of these was the correct analysis and he went on to put the Good News plainly. He himself was a Jew by ‘race’ and not a foreigner. But he knew that a man did not become a Christian by carrying out all the details of the Jewish religion, but simply by trusting Jesus himself. That was the heart of the matter:

We are Jews by birth, not “Gentile sinners.” But we know that a person is not declared “righteous” by works of the Jewish law, but through the faithfulness of Jesus the Messiah.

(Galatians 2: 15-16).

Paul knew what the secret of his own life was. True, he went on living his ordinary life in exactly the same way as before, but he didn’t feel that he was living it – Jesus had taken charge of him so that he lived by trusting God’s son, who loved him and gave his life for him. In Western theological discourse, this has been traditionally interpreted as Paul developing his doctrine of ‘justification’, of how someone who was previously a ‘sinner’ comes to be ‘righteous’ in the eyes of God. Paul clearly believed in the importance of ‘sin’ and of being rescued from it. But that was not what was at stake at the time in Jerusalem, Antioch or Galatia. What mattered then was the individual believer’s status within the covenant family. The word ‘righteous’, like the Greek and Hebrew words from which it is often translated, refers to someone being in a right relationship with God, the ‘relationship’ in question being the collective relationship of the covenant that God made with Abraham. The question that Paul was addressing was: How can you tell who are the true children of Abraham? His answer was focused firmly on Jesus. So Paul’s point to Peter was a simple one, that what mattered to Jesus was being part of the covenant family, and that is not defined by Jewish law, but through the faithfulness of Jesus the Messiah. The word for ‘faithfulness’ is pistis in Greek, also means simply ‘faith’, ‘loyalty’ or ‘reliability’. In a world where the key value for a zealous Jew was ‘loyalty’ to God and his law, Paul believed, according to Wright:

(1) that Jesus the Messiah had been utterly faithful to the divine purpose, “obedient even to the death of the cross”… ;

(2) that following Jesus, whatever it took, had to be seen as itself a central expression of loyalty to Israel’s God;

(3) that the followers of Jesus were themselves marked out by their belief in him, confessing him as ‘Lord’ and believing that he was raised from the dead; …

(4) if this Jesus-shaped loyalty was the vital thing, “then nothing that the law could say was to come between one Jesus-follower and another.”

In other words, continuing Paul’s description of what he said to Peter:

That is why we too believed in the Messiah, Jesus: so that we might be declared ‘righteous’ on the basis of the Messiah’s faithfulness, and not on the basis of works of the Jewish law. On that basis, you see, no creature will be declared ‘righteous’.

(Galatians 2: 16).

Paul urges Peter and all the others who hear his letter when it is read out loud, to think out the new position they find themselves in:

Well then: if in seeking to be declared ‘righteous’ in the Messiah, we ourselves are found to be ‘sinners’, does that make the Messiah an agent of ‘sin’? Certainly not! If I build up once more the things which I tore down, I demonstrate that I am a law-breaker.

(Galatians 2: 17-18).

Following Paul’s definition of himself and others as Jews by birth, not ‘Gentile sinners’ in which Gentiles are automatically ‘sinners’ because they do not have the law. Therefore, if Peter found himself called to live on equal terms with ‘Gentile sinners’ did that mean that the Messiah was colluding with ‘sin’? That was exactly what the Jerusalem church and the Judaeans, in general, were concerned about, seeing it, potentially, as fraternising with the enemy. They might see, in Paul’s claim to be following the Messiah, a false Messiah who was leading the people astray. Paul countered by arguing that since Peter had started by pulling down the wall between Jews and Gentiles if he now wished to re-erect it, he was admitting that he had been wrong to ‘live like a Gentile’. Paul believed that there was only one way forward, and that is to go where the Messiah had led, through death to new life, a journey which was the same for all the Messiah’s followers, Jew and Gentile alike. Paul describes this journey in individual terms by using the first person singular because, as a zealous Jew, he was making it clear that even he had to tread his own path:

Let me explain it like this. Through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with the Messiah. I am, however, alive – but it isn’t me any longer, it’s the Messiah who lives in me. And the life I do still live in the flesh, I live within the faithfulness of the son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

(Galatians 2: 17-18)

In making this statement, Paul shows us that he regarded himself as a loyal Jew, loyal to God and the law but that he had come to see the law itself as pointing forward to a kind of ‘death’, something beyond itself that could only be attained by coming out of the law’s own sphere and emerging into a new world. The law itself had envisaged a moment when it would be transcended by a messianic reality. Though Paul does not mention baptism in this passage, this is exactly what, in his view, baptism is all about (as in Romans 6), which is leaving the old life behind and coming through ‘death’ into a new life entirely. The believer then finds his own identity not in his human genealogy or status, but in the Messiah’s faithfulness and loyalty, defined and demonstrated for all time in His death and resurrection. When the believer becomes part of that messianic reality, it is this, rather than his previous standing as a ‘Jew’ or ‘Gentile’, which really matters. The idea of ‘love’ coming from the God of Israel goes all the way back to the covenant with Israel and the act of rescue of Exodus. Paul’s conclusion to this summary of what he said to Peter and James’ ‘envoys’ follows on from this theme:

I don’t set aside God’s grace. If ‘righteousness’ comes through the law, then the Messiah died for nothing.

In other words, if Peter and the envoys from Jerusalem to try to reestablish a two-tier church, with Jews at one table and Gentiles at another, all they were doing was declaring that God’s sovereign love, reaching out to the utterly undeserving – ‘grace’ – was an irrelevance. God need not have bothered with sending his son. If the Torah, the Five Books of Moses, or ‘Pentateuch’ was sufficient for all time to define the people of God, then there was no need for a crucified Messiah. On the other hand, if God had declared in the resurrection that the crucified Jesus really was the Messiah, then He was also declaring that Moses could only take the people so far. He had pointed to a promised land, an ‘inheritance’ which he himself could not enter. Paul insisted that the ‘heirs’ to this ‘inheritance’ could not be defined by the Torah, but only by the Messiah himself, the ultimate ‘heir’. It has been commonplace among New Testament scholars to give the interpretation that Paul lost this disputation and so had to set off on his later missionary journeys without the support of the church in Antioch. But the distance between Syria and Galatia was not that great and people could and did travel quickly between the two regions. The fact that he referred to the dispute at such length in his letter to the Galatians, and that he later returned to Antioch without any hint of trouble, does not suggest that he lost the argument and was ‘run out of town’.

The Galatian Background:

It was out in the world beyond Palestine, and even Syria, that what Jesus meant, why he lived as he did, how he died, and how he was ‘raised to life’ became clearer. It meant nothing less than the vision of a new world, God’s world, and a call to be God’s ‘fellow-workers’ in its making. Nothing could have made this vision sharper than the sight of men and women, of different ‘races’, classes and nations becoming Christians. Their old fears vanished; a new joy marked their lives. When Paul tried to describe what a difference Jesus had made to him personally he went back to the opening words of the book of Genesis and the story of the making of the world as the only kind of language he could use:

God, who made this bright world, filled my heart with light, the light which shines when we know him as he is, the light shining from the face of Jesus.

(II Corinthians 4: 6, New World).

This is Paul’s later account of his own experience; but it was, as he was constantly repeating, a simple experience which everyone everywhere could share. However, the background to Paul’s earlier letter to the Galatians was undoubtedly complex. Around the same time that James’ envoys arrived in Syrian Antioch, it appears that similar persons from the Jerusalem church arrived in Galatia. Their message seems to have been similar, that all fraternising with Gentiles was to stop and that any Gentiles who wanted to be identified with the true people of Israel would have to be circumcised. God’s kingdom would come, rescuing His people from the wicked ways of the world, but only those circumcised would inherit that kingdom. This sharp message also involved a personal attack on Paul himself who was only, they claimed, in Tom Wright’s phrase, a second-order representative of the Jesus message. He had picked up his ‘gospel’ in Jerusalem but had failed to grasp one of the central elements, or perhaps was unwilling to pass it on. Moreover, Jerusalem was, at that time, awash with zealous speculation about the coming kingdom, in which the Gentiles were usually portrayed as the wicked villains who would, at last, receive their punishment. People disagreed about what it meant to keep the Torah, but everyone agreed that the Torah mattered. Any Jews who were willing to treat uncircumcised Gentiles as ‘family’ were compromising the integrity of God’s people and were placing the promised inheritance itself in jeopardy.

Just as Saul of Tarsus had set off a decade earlier to round up the blaspheming followers of ‘The Way’, someone else – a shadowy, unnamed figure – set off with a few friends to bring the new movement into line. At the same time, the pressure was mounting on the Jewish communities in South Galatia. As long as everyone in the thoroughly Romanised province knew who all the Jews were within a particular town or city, they would also know that they had permission to forego participation in the local cults, as well as the exciting new cults of Caesar and Rome. One of the first and most important things that happened whenever non-Jews were grasped by the gospel of Jesus was that, once they had heard that there was a true and living God and that He loved them personally, they would turn away from the idols they had previously worshipped. Suddenly, therefore, new groups of Jesus-followers were emerging, which were obviously not Jewish, but which were staying away from pagan rituals, celebrations and ceremonies. So while the nascent Christian groups in Jerusalem were suspected of disloyalty due to their attitude towards the Torah and the Temple, those in the Diaspora were suspected of disloyalty toward their own communities and towards Rome itself because of their attitude toward the local and imperial cults.

The Jewish communities in cities like Pisidian Antioch, Iconium and Lystra – all Roman colonies – would then find themselves caught in the middle. Local synagogue congregations might well be divided in their response, but the social pressure would grow on them. In turn, local Jewish leaders would put pressure on local Jewish Jesus-followers to persuade their new ‘friends’, the Gentile believers, to come into line and get themselves circumcised. Paul, therefore, had a complex and challenging task, and he was shocked that the communities he had founded had not grasped the full meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection and the fact that through him a new world, a new creation, had already come into being. They were in serious danger of stepping back into the old world, as though the cross and the empty tomb had never happened, as though the true and living God had not revealed his covenant love once and for all not only to Israel but through the Messiah, to the world. In his letter, he interrupts his opening greeting to insist that his ‘apostleship’ was a direct divine gift, not a secondhand or second-rate appointment from “human sources.” It derives from God himself, and from Jesus the Messiah, our Kyrios,

… who gave himself for our sins, to rescue us from the present evil age, according to the will of God our father, to whom be glory to the ages of ages. Amen.

(Galatians 1: 4-5).

The gospel Paul announced may have seemed to Jews in Jerusalem or Galatia as though it was a strange, peculiar eccentricity. But, in truth, it was the harbinger of the long-awaited new creation. This would remain central to Paul’s mission, delineating “the present evil age” from the new day which had dawned. Here, Paul affirms the widespread Jewish belief that world history was divided into two ‘ages’, the “present age” of sorrow, shame, exile, and death and the “age to come,” when all things will be put right. This was a common belief for centuries before Paul, and it remained the norm all the way through the much later rabbinic period. For Paul, the living God had acted in the person of Jesus to rescue people from the ‘present age’ and to launch ‘the age to come’. The new age had burst upon the scene while the ‘present age’ was still rumbling on. This was the divine plan by which Jesus “gave himself for our sins”; the power of the ‘present age’ was thereby broken, and the new world could begin.

Paul would later characterise his vocation as a “ministry of reconciliation,” God’s reconciliation of Jews and Gentiles into a single messianic family, as he set out clearly in his writing to those who had become Christians during and after his first visit to the highlands of Anatolia:

Your trust in God your Father has made you members of his Family; Jesus has made this possible. For when you were baptised and became Christians, you began, with his help, to live in his way, as he lived in his Father’s Way. 

Living in God’s Way means that you can’t talk about one another as being ‘white’ or ‘coloured’, ‘working-class’ or ‘upper-class’, ‘men’ or ‘women’, as though that was the only thing about them that matters. The most important thing is that as Christians you are one company of friends. And if you are friends of Jesus, you are members of God’s Family as God meant you to be and promised to make you. 

That is why, when the time was ripe, God sent his Son to live among us as one of us, to help us live as his sons and daughters, grown-up members of his Family. Because this is what we now are, he has given us the Spirit of his Son in our hearts. When we pray to him, we pray as Jesus did; we say ‘Father!’

You aren’t God’s slaves; God has made you, as I have said, his sons and daughters. And, as sons and daughters inherit their father’s wealth, so all the wealth of God, your Father, is yours.

(Galatians 3: 26-29; 4: 4-7, New World).

When describing this new experience, it is noticeable how Paul goes back to the story of Jesus, recalling how he lived and how he died. For him, it was the way Jesus died which made real what God’s love was like; a love which, in his own words, was broad and long and high and deep; and it was the way God had raised him from the dead that showed us how great the power of God’s love is. The very word ‘cross’ sounded differently in the Graeco-Roman ‘age’. To any Roman citizen, it could only have sounded like a savage word, like our ‘gibbet’ or ‘gallows’. It was the way Romans executed foreign criminals or rebels or slaves. But now it was transformed for Paul into the symbol of God’s ‘amazing love’ – he even wrote once to some friends that he could ‘boast’ about it. What Jesus had made plain for Paul was that God was someone we could trust and to whom we could pray as ‘Father’ (here Paul used the word ‘Abba’, the very same child-like word that Jesus used in his own prayers). There is nothing we need to fear, he tells us, not even death itself, for death ‘has been totally defeated’. The whole world and whatever may lie beyond it is God our Father’s world.

But Paul must also have carried a deep sense of shame and personal failure in his mission of reconciliation, due to his falling-out with Barnabas. This was probably the long-term result of that shocking moment in Antioch when Peter had separated himself from the non-Jewish believers and “even Barnabas” had been led astray by their “hypocrisy”. Although they had, initially, reconciled, and had gone together to Jerusalem, arguing side-by-side the case for Gentile inclusion. But Paul’s trust in his colleague had received a heavy blow and he questioned how reliable might be on further missions to the Gentiles. The specific flashpoint concerned John Mark, the probable Gospel-writer who, as a young man, had been present at the Last Supper and in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night when Jesus was betrayed. It was natural that Paul would suggest revisiting the churches of southern Anatolia, eager to see how they had turned out and able to use a different tone of voice (Galatians 4: 20). It was equally natural that Barnabas would want to take Mark and predictable that Paul would refuse. But Mark had abandoned them on the earlier journey as soon as they had on the south ‘Turkish’ mainland. Added to the question over his reliability for another mission, Mark was not only related to Barnabas but also to Peter. Although Peter had supported Paul’s mission at the Jerusalem Conference, Paul was concerned that Mark might be inclined to take the same line that Peter and Barnabas had taken in Antioch in favour of a two-table meal-time.

For Barnabas, it would have been intolerable that Paul would question his judgement, having himself stood up for Paul a decade earlier when others had doubted him. Now he wanted to do the same for his nephew and give him a second chance to prove himself. The solution that emerged was that Barnabas and John Mark would go back to Cyprus, while Paul would go to Galatia and beyond, but only after a blazing row, what Luke refers to by the Greek word, a paroxysm. It left a bitter taste in everyone’s mouth, and a sorrowful memory in their souls. So Barnabas and Mark sailed away, not only to Cyprus but right out of the narrative of Acts, though Mark later re-emerges as a trusted and valued colleague of Paul’s (Col. 4: 10; Philemon 23; 2 Tim. 4: 11). Paul chose Silas (or ‘Silvanus’) as his new travel companion, like Paul a Roman citizen and a member of the church in Jerusalem who had been entrusted with the epistle that the elders had sent to the wider churches. The church in Antioch sent them on their way, commending them to God’s grace.

The Second Missionary Journey:

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The ‘Second Missionary Journey’ was to be marked by a momentous new departure, but it was not premeditated as such. It began, unadventurously, as a return visit to the young churches founded on the previous tour. Following this, the missionaries pursued a curiously devious and uncertain course, without finding any opening for fresh work, until they reached the shore of the Aegean at Troas, not far south of the Dardanelles (Acts 16: 6-8). It is at this point that we come upon the first extract from the ‘travel diary’ incorporated in Acts:

We at once set about getting a passage to Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to bring them the good news.

(Acts 16: 10).

The decision to cross from Asia into Europe proved a turning point, opening a new period in Paul’s missionary career, during which he really found himself. It is also a period which is richly illuminated for us by the letters he wrote during it. A comparatively short sea passage brought the party to the nearest port on the European side, and they made their way through Macedonia towards the province of Achaia or ‘Greece’. Several churches were founded, though the tour was chequered by the usual opposition. At Philippi, it came from pagans, not without tones of anti-Semitism (Acts 16: 19-24). One of the big differences between Philippi and the earlier cities of Paul’s mission was that there was no synagogue. That became significant when the locals identified Paul as a Jew; it looks as though the city knew just enough about Jews to be prejudiced against them. Paul had grown familiar with the usual Gentile jibes and sneers against his people, and now he heard them again. There was, however, a proseuche, a ‘place of prayer’ where a small number of Jews and ‘God-fearers’ (non-Jews who wanted to join in synagogue worship) would meet regularly. This was where, after a few days settling in, Paul and the others made a start. Their first convert was a businesswoman from Thyatira, Lydia by name, described as “a seller of purple.” Her story of response to the gospel appears the most straightforward of any in Acts: The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what Paul was saying. She was the head of her household, suggesting that she may have been widowed, and was baptised with all her household, inviting the whole Christian party; Paul, Silas, Timothy and Luke to stay at her home. The announcement of Jesus as Israel’s Messiah seems to have caused little difficulty in the small Jewish meeting place, but pagans grabbed hold of Paul and Silas, dragged them into the public square and presented them to the magistrates, declaring:

“These men are throwing our city into an uproar! They are Jews, and they are teaching customs which it is illegal for us Romans to accept or practice!”

(I Cor. 4: 3-4).

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The irony cannot have been lost on Paul. The anger and violence he had faced in Galatia and the opposition to his missionary strategy in Jerusalem and Antioch had been instigated by ethnic Jewish groups furious at his ‘disloyalty’ to the ancestral traditions. Now he was accused of being a subversive Jew, in common with those who had rebelled against Rome before, teaching people to be disloyal to Rome! It all ended with a public apology and with the magistrates, clearly at a loss to know what to do next, imploring Paul and Silas to go away. They took their time in complying, visiting Lydia’s house and conversing with the group of believers there, and Timothy caught up with the two of them in Berea, but not Luke. Philippi was an important city in its own right, but Thessalonica, Paul’s next ‘port of call’ was even more so. It was on the main crossroads and its role as a port at the head of the Thermaic Gulf to the west of the Chalcidice Peninsula guaranteed its prosperity. It was the capital of the Roman province of Macedonia, and the Roman general Pompey had used it as his base in the civil war. In Paul’s day, it was not an official Roman colony, however: that was to come two centuries later, but it was already a major centre of Roman influence.

Unlike Philippi, Thessalonica had a sufficiently large Jewish population to sustain a synagogue. Luke’s summary of what Paul said on the three Sabbaths he spoke there conforms both to the earlier summaries and to Paul’s own repeated statements in his letters. The message was accepted by some of the Jews, several of the God-fearing Greeks, and quite a number of the leading women. It also appears from Paul’s letter to Thessalonica, written not long after this initial visit, that many in the young church there had been polytheistic pagans and had turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God (I Thess. 1: 9). Clearly, this was a significant group of both Jews and Gentiles. One member in particular, Jason, gave hospitality to Paul and Silas, facing the brunt of the anger aroused for doing so. Some of the synagogue community turned against the missionaries and stirred up a mob, bent on violence, but they could not find them. What mattered, however, was the political nature of the charges that were thrown around as all this was going on:

“These are the people who are turning the world upside down!” they yelled. “Now they’ve come here! Jason has them in his house! They are all acting against the decrees of Caesar – and they’re saying that there is another king, Jesus!”

(Acts 17: 6-7).

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It was true, of course, that if non-Jews were abandoning idols and worshipping the God of Israel, without formally becoming Jews, then they were indeed disobeying Caesar’s decrees. Only genuine Jews had that permission. So this meant that broadly speaking, Paul and his group were turning the world upside down. Paul and his friends were announcing and modelling in their own lives a different way of being human, a different kind of community, and all because there was a different kind of ‘king’. In any case, Jason and his friends were bound over to keep the peace, while Paul and Silas were smuggled out-of-town by night and sent on to Berea, about fifty miles to the west, but off the main route. They leave in a hurry, with a sense that the little body of believers is under threat. At Thessalonica and Beroea the old pattern reasserted itself: the Jewish opposition made mischief with the civil authorities, and Paul was obliged to move on, leaving his companions behind (Acts 17: 1-14). He arrived at Athens by boat alone (Acts 17: 15), in great disquiet (as he tells us in letters to Thessalonica written about this time) about the new converts whom he had been compelled by the local authorities to leave prematurely (I Thess. 2: 13-35; II Thess. 3: 6-16). Nevertheless, he bravely continued his ministry while waiting there for Silas and Timothy:

He wandered through the streets; everywhere there were temples and images of Greek gods. This made Paul very unhappy. He had to talk to somebody about it. He went to the Jewish Meeting House and argued there; he went to the market place and argued with anybody who happened to be there. There were many lecturers in the city, for its university was very famous; some of them met Paul, and he argued with them.

“What’s this chatterer talking about?” sneered some.

“It’s some foreign fellow talking about his gods, it seems,” said others.

The City Council was called ‘Mars Hill’, after the name of the hill where it used to meet in earlier times. This Council was specially interested in all new speakers who came to teach in Athens. The citizens of Athens and their foreign visitors always had time to talk about or listen to anything strange and new; they seemed to do nothing else.

The lecturers got hold of Paul and took him before the Council.

“Tell us, if you please, something more about this ‘news’ of yours,” they said. “What you’ve been talking about seems very strange to us. We’d like to know what it’s all about.”

Paul stood before the Council.

“Citizens of Athens,” he said, “by just wandering around your streets, I can see that religion matters very much to you. I had a good look at your temples and the images of your gods. And I noticed one altar that had these words on it: “To an Unknown God”. You do not know him; I will tell you about him.

“The God who made the world and all that’s in it by that very fact is the Master of the whole world. His home can’t be a in a street that you can build with your own hands. … We may belong to different nations now, but at the beginning God made us all one people and gave us the whole world for our home. All things are in his hands – the rise and fall of nations and the boundaries of their territories. He did all this for one purpose only – the men and women might look for him and find him.

“Yet he is very near every one of us. Your own poets have said this very thing –

‘In God we live and move and exist’,

“and…

‘We, too, belong to his family.’

“If, therefore, we belong to God, we can’t possibly think that gold and silver and stone are good enough to show us what he is like. No artist can paint God’s picture, however clever or thoughtful he may be.

“What then, has God done? He takes no notice of the past, when we didn’t know what he was like. But today, in our own time, he calls all people to change their ways. We can no longer say we do not know; Jesus has made him plain. The day is fixed when everybody everywhere will be judged by this man he has chosen – and truly judged. The proof of this he has given to all men – he has raised him from the dead.”

Some of them laughed out loud at Paul when they heard him talk like this – about God ‘raising Jesus from the dead’. But there were others.

“We will hear you again about all this,” they said.   

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For this, and for other reasons, he was in low spirits (as he tells us in retrospect in I Cor. 2: 3) as he left Athens for Corinth which became, as it turned out, the scene of his greatest success to date. Corinth had been one of the most important of the old Greek city-states. After its destruction by the Romans, it had been re-founded by Julius Caesar and had become capital of the province of Achaia. Situated on the isthmus which separates the Aegean from the Adriatic, and the eastern part of the empire from the western, it had become an immensely busy and prosperous centre of trade, with a multi-cultural population. It also had the unsavoury reputation which cosmopolitan seaport towns seem to attract.

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It was in Corinth that Paul, reunited with his companions, spent nearly two years, maintaining himself by working at his trade of tent-making (Acts 18: 3, 11, 18). It was his longest sojourn anywhere since he had started on his journeys. His breach with the orthodox Jews set him free for independent action. He left the synagogue, taking with him one of its office-holders, and (perhaps in an act of deliberate defiance) set up his headquarters in a nearby house belonging to a Gentile believer (Acts 18: 5-8). The opposition once more tried to embroil him with the civil authorities, but the proconsul refused to enter the charges they brought, as being no more than some bickering about words and names and your Jewish law. The case was dismissed, which must have considerably strengthened Paul’s position (Acts 18: 12-17). He succeeded in building up a numerous and active if somewhat turbulent, Christian community, predominantly Gentile in membership before he left to return to Jerusalem and Antioch via Ephesus (Acts 18: 18-22), which he had already marked out as his next centre of work. It was in Ephesus that he was to meet a darker level of opposition which helps us to understand why he wrote as he did in II Corinthians of reaching the point where he was giving up on life itself.

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(to be continued…)

Paul of Tarsus: Jew, Roman & Christian Missionary to the Gentiles.   Leave a comment

Part One – From Tarsus to Antioch & Galatia:

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Introduction:

For Christmas 2018, my eldest son gave me a copy of Tom Wright’s Biography of the Apostle Paul, ‘hot off the press’. It reminded me of the time, as a child, when I found a picture book of Paul’s life on my Coventry grandmother’s bookstand and read it in one sitting, cover to cover. It also reminded me of watching the television film shown above (from which I have included stills throughout the text). Both as Saul of Tarsus and Paul the Apostle, his was an eventful and exciting life story, as he himself recognised in his later letter to the church at Corinth:

Let me tell you what I’ve had to face. I know it’s silly for me to talk like this, but here’s the list. I know what it is to work hard and live dangerously.

I’ve been beaten up more times than I can remember, been in more than one prison, and faced death more than once. Five times I’ve been thrashed by a Jewish court to within an inch of my life; three times I’ve been beaten with (Roman) rods by city magistrates; and once I was nearly stoned to death. 

I’ve been shipwrecked three times; and once, I was adrift, out of sight of land, for twenty-four hours.

I don’t know how many roads I’ve tramped. I’ve faced bandits; I’ve been attacked by fellow-countrymen and by foreigners. I’ve met danger in city streets and on lonely country roads and out in the open sea.

(II Cor. 11: 23-33, New World.)

The writings of Paul have had an incalculable influence on Western culture and beyond, and his words continue to guide the lives of two billion Christians throughout the world today. In his biography, Tom Wright traces Paul’s career from the Sanhedrin’s zealous persecutor of the fledgling Church, through his journeys as the world’s greatest missionary and theologian, to his likely death as a Christian martyr under Nero in the mid-sixties of the first century.

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To understand Paul, Wright insists, we must understand the Jewish world in which the young Saul grew up, a world itself firmly earthed in the soil of wider Graeco-Roman culture. This is what I want to concentrate on here, especially in the context in which Wright is writing, a twenty-first century which seems just as filled with religious and ethnic hatred and in which anti-Jewish thought, feelings and actions are once more on the rise, despite the atrocities of the previous century. The ‘Breaking News’ as I write is that incidents of anti-Semitism in Britain have risen for the third year running: 1,652 incidents were recorded by Community Security Trust (CST) in 2018, including more than 100 Assaults. Growing up in a Baptist manse in Birmingham in the 1960s and ’70s, I became conscious of anti-Semitism at the age of eleven when I asked one of the older boys I regularly walked to school with if he was a ‘Jewboy’. I had heard my father use the term, but didn’t think, at that time, that it meant anything other than a ‘Jewish’ boy and didn’t realise that it was used as a term of abuse. After they were called to the school, my parents informed me of this, I apologised to the boy and never used the term again. Later, I understood that my father’s view of the Jews was based on ‘replacement’ theology, the idea that the Christian Church had been chosen to replace the people of Judea and Israel, who had proved themselves unworthy by their rejection of Jesus and their ‘role’ in his crucifixion. One of my seventh-generation Baptist grandmother’s books, George F Jowett’s The Drama of the Lost Disciples (1961) expressed this (then) popular view:

Jesus Himself… denounces the Sadducean Jews, telling them that the glory shall be taken away from them and given to another (Matt. 21: 43). Again, when He says He came not to the Jews, but to the lost sheep of the House of Israel (Matt. 15: 24). He knew He would not convert the Sanhedrin and its following, so it had to be others – the lost sheep. Who were they? The answer lies in his answer to Paul, the converted Saul, whom he commands to go the Gentiles.

C. H. Dodd wrote (1970) that Paul was the pioneer leader in the Christian approach to the Graeco-Roman public. The fortunate preservation of a number of his letters has put us in a position to know him better than we know most individuals of the ancient world. The information they give can be supplemented from the account of his career given in the Acts of the Apostles. Whilst there are points where it is not easy to bring the two sources of our knowledge into complete harmony, there is a good reason to believe that the author of ‘Acts’, thought to be Luke (the gospel-writer and Greek doctor), was well-informed, and may have travelled with Paul himself. This made him an eye-witness, and his account may be used as a historical frame in which to set Paul’s own accounts, contained in his letters.

Saul of Tarsus:

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According to Acts 21: 39, Paul was born at Tarsus in Cilicia, an ancient Greek city, and then a strong centre of Hellenistic culture, his parents belonging to the Jewish colony there. Tarsus was ten miles inland on the river Cydnus in the south-east corner of what is Turkey today, in ‘Asia Minor’, on the major east-west routes. It was a ‘noble city’ which could trace its history back two thousand years. Generals like Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar had recognised its strategic importance; the emperor Augustus had given it extra privileges. It was a city of culture and politics, of philosophy and industry. It had a thriving textile business, producing materials from goats’ hair, used to make shelters, which may well have been the basis of the family business of tent-making, in which Saul had been apprenticed and which he continued to practice.

The cosmopolitan world of the eastern Mediterranean flowed through the city, which rivalled Athens as a centre of philosophy, not least because half the philosophers of Athens had gone there a century earlier when Athens had incurred the wrath of Rome in a struggle for power. The Jews had struck a deal with Augustus Caesar by which he accepted that they were exempted from adopting the ‘divinity’ cult of his father, Julius Caesar. In return, they agreed to pray to their One God for Rome and its emperor.

We don’t know how long his family had lived in Tarsus. Later legends suggest various options, one of which is that his father or grandfather had lived in Palestine but had moved during one of the periodic social and political upheavals which always carried ‘religious’ overtones as well. They were orthodox Jews and brought their son up in the Pharisaic tradition (23:6; 26:5). The word ‘Pharisee’ has had a bad press over the centuries since. Modern research, operating at the academic rather than the popular level, has done little to dispel that impression, partly because the research in question has made things far more complicated, as research in question in question has made things far more complicated, as research often does. Most of the sources for understanding the Pharisees of Saul’s day come from a much later period. The rabbis of the third and fourth centuries AD looked back to the Pharisees as their spiritual ancestors and so tended to project onto them their own questions and ways of seeing things. But besides Paul’s writings, the other first-century source on the Pharisees, the Jewish historian Josephus, also requires caution. Having been a general at the start of the Roman-Jewish war of AD 66-70, he had gone over to the Romans and claimed that Israel’s One God had done the same thing, an alarmingly clear case of remaking the Almighty in one’s own image.

In Tarsus, as throughout the ‘Diaspora’, there were all sorts of cultural pressures which would draw devout Jews into compromise. Families and individuals faced questions such as what to eat, whom to eat with, whom to do business with, whom to marry, what attitude to take toward local officials, taxes, customs and rituals. The decisions individuals made on all of these questions would mark them out in the eyes of some as too compromised and in the eyes of others as too strict. There was seldom if ever in the ancient world a simple divide, with Jews on one side and gentiles on the other. We should envisage, rather, a complex subculture in which Jews as a whole saw themselves as broadly different from their gentile neighbours. Within that, the entire subgroups of Jews saw themselves as different from other subgroups. The parties and sects we know from Palestinian Jewish life of the time – Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes, and a nascent militantly ‘zealous’ faction – may not have existed exactly as we describe them, not least because the Sadducees were a small Jerusalem-based aristocracy, but intra-Jewish political and social divisions would have persisted.

We can’t be sure how many Jews lived in Tarsus in Saul’s day. There were, quite possibly, a few thousand at least in a city of roughly a hundred thousand. But we can get a clear sense of how things were for the young Saul. In the ancient world, there was no such thing as ‘private life’ for individuals and families. A tiny number of the aristocracy or the very rich were able to afford a measure of privacy but for the great majority, life was lived publicly and visibly. The streets were mostly narrow, the houses and tenements were mostly cramped, there were noises and smells everywhere, and everyone knew everybody else’s business. We can assume that this was true for the Jews of Tarsus who would have lived close to each other partly for their own safety and partly for the ease of obtaining ‘kosher’ food. The questions of where one stood on the spectrum between strict adherence to the ancestral code, the Torah, and ‘compromise’ were not theoretical. They were about what one did and what one didn’t do in full view of neighbours, and about how those neighbours might react.

The Torah loomed all the larger if one lived, as did the young Saul, outside the promised land and hence away from the Temple. The Torah, in fact, functioned as a movable Temple for the many Jews who were scattered around the wider world. Wherever they were, in Rome or in Babylon, Greece or Egypt, if they prayerfully studied it, then it might be as if they were in the Temple itself. They would be in the divine presence, not in its most dramatic form, but there nonetheless. But the Temple in Jerusalem remained central, geographically and symbolically. It was the place where heaven and earth met, thus forming the signpost to the ultimate promise, the renewal and unity of heaven and earth, the new creation in which the One God would be personally present forever. We don’t know how often Saul travelled with his parents to the homeland with his parents for the great festivals. It is quite probable that, at an early age, the young Saul acquired the sense that all roads, spiritually as well as geographically, to Jerusalem. The Temple was like a cultural and theological magnet, drawing together not only heaven and earth but also the great scriptural stories and promises. In addition, therefore, it was the focal point of Israel’s hope, The One God, so the prophets had said, abandoned his house in Jerusalem because of the people’s idolatry and sin. Tom Wright argues that we will never understand how the young Saul of Tarsus thought and prayed until we grasp…

… the strange fact that, though the Temple still held powerful memories of divine presence … there was a strong sense that the promise of ultimate divine return had not yet been fulfilled. …

… The God of Israel had said he would return, but had not yet done so.

Saul of Tarsus was brought up to believe that it would happen, perhaps very soon. Israel’s God would indeed return in glory to establish his kingdom in visible global power. He was also taught that there were things Jews could be doing to keep this promise and hope on track. It was vital for Jews to keep the Torah with rigorous attention to detail and to defend the Torah, and the Temple itself, against possible attacks and threats. … That is why Saul of Tarsus persecuted Jesus’s early followers.

The young Saul was not ‘learning religion’ in the accepted modern sense of general religious education, and the mature apostle was not a teacher of it. Today, ‘religion’ for most people in the West designates a detached area of life or even a private hobby, separated by definition from politics and public life, and especially from science and technology. In Paul’s day, ‘religion’ meant almost the exact opposite. The Latin word religio has to do with binding things together. Worship, prayer, sacrifice, and other public rituals were designed to hold the unseen inhabitants (gods and ancestors) together with the visible ones, the living humans, thus providing a vital framework for ordinary life, for business, marriage, travel, home life and work. The public nature of individual life was apparent in the workplace. We know from Paul’s later letters that he engaged in manual work, both as a young apprentice and later to support himself as a missionary. ‘Tent-making’ probably included the crafting of other goods made of leather or animal hair in addition to the core product of tents themselves. Many people migrated from place to place for work, those who worked outside needed awnings and pilgrims required ‘tabernacles’ for their sojourns.

The market for tents and similar products was widespread. We might guess those likely purchasers would include regiments of soldiers, but travel was a way of life for many others in the Roman Empire. It seems unlikely that a Jewish tent-maker would be selling only to fellow Jews. We can assume, therefore, that Saul grew up in a cheerfully and strictly observant Jewish home, on the one hand, and in a polyglot, multicultural, multi-ethnic working environment on the other. Strict adherence to the ancestral tradition did not preclude know-how of the wider world of work, and how it spoke, behaved and thought. The tent-maker was unlikely to have had a ‘sheltered’ upbringing. The place where the invisible world (‘heaven’) and the visible world (‘earth’) were joined together was the Temple in Jerusalem. If, as in his case, you couldn’t get to the Temple, you could and should study and practice the Torah, and it would have the same effect. Temple and Torah, the two great symbols of Jewish life, pointed to the story in which devout Jews like Saul and his family believed themselves to be living:

… the great story of Israel and the world, which, they hoped, was at last to set up his kingdom, to make the whole world one vast glory-filled Temple, and to enable all people – or at least his chosen people – to keep the Torah perfectly. Any who prayed or sang the Psalms regularly would find themselves thinking this, hoping this, praying this, day after day, month after month.

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As an apprentice in the bustling pagan city of Tarsus, the young Saul knew perfectly well what it meant to be a loyal Jew. It meant keeping oneself pure from idolatry and immorality. There were pagan temples and shrines on every corner, and Saul would have had a fair idea of what went on there. Loyalty meant keeping the Jewish community pure from all those things as well. Saul’s family seem to have lived with a fierce, joyful strictness in obedience to the ancient traditions and did their best to urge other Jews to do the same. At the same time, his father possessed the coveted status of a Roman citizen, which meant that the family had a superior standing in the local community and his son also had Roman citizenship as his birthright (Acts 22: 25-29). He grew up bilingual (fluent in both in Aramaic and Greek) and bi-cultural: at home, he was Saul, named after the first king of Israel; outside he was Paulus, a citizen of Tarsus and of Rome. He was also literate in Hebrew, able to read the scriptures in the original. His mind had the freedom of two worlds of thought: He had more than the average educated man’s understanding of Greek literature and philosophy. His language quite often carries echoes of ‘Stoicism’.

A Zealous Student in Jerusalem:

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On the other hand, Saul’s formal education seems to have been entirely within the native Jewish tradition, and he was sent to Jerusalem as a young man to study under Gamaliel (Acts 22: 3), the most distinguished rabbi of his time. Paul was not only, evidently, well versed in the Scriptures, but also in the Rabbinic methods of interpreting them, which sometimes present difficulties for modern readers.

He was therefore well-equipped for his later mission to take the message of a religion rooted in Judaism to a generally non-Jewish Hellenistic public.

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At every stage of Israel’s history, the people of the One God had been tempted to compromise with the wider world and forget the covenant. Resisting this pressure for Saul meant becoming zealous. In his letter to the Galatians (1: 14), Paul wrote I was extremely zealous for my ancestral traditions. Nevertheless, Saul the Pharisee and Paul the Roman, it seems, did not live in complete harmony within the same skin. There are signs of psychological tension; in early life, the Pharisee was uppermost. He recites with pride the privileges of the chosen people:

They are Israelites; they were made God’s sons; theirs is the splendour of the divine presence, theirs the covenants, the law, the temple worship, and the promises. (Rom. 9: 4, NEB)

Not only was he proud of the Hebrew people, but he was also proud beyond measure of his own standing as a Jew:

Israelite by race, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born and bred: in my attitude to the law a Pharisee, in pious zeal a persecutor of the church, in legal rectitude faultless (Phil. 3: 5-6).

In another retrospect on his early life he added a significant claim:

In the practice of our national religion I was outstripping many of my Jewish contemporaries in my boundless devotion to the traditions of my ancestors (Gal. 1: 14).

That tells us something powerful about the man; from a young age, he had possessed an irresistible drive to excel, to be distinguished. It was necessary to his self-respect that he should himself as the perfect Pharisee: in legal rectitude faultless. This has led to some Judaistic readers to suggest that there was something extravagant or abnormal in Paul’s account of his pre-Damascene phase. The time came when he himself was forced to confess to himself that this was fantasy, not reality. He was not faultless, and his efforts in pursuit of perfection had been self-defeating:

When I want to do the right, only the wrong is within my reach. In my inmost self I delight in the law of God, but I perceive that there is in my bodily members a different law, fighting against the law that my reason approves. (Rom. 7: 21 f.).

Yet by the time Paul was studying in Jerusalem, it was clear that the Abrahamic ‘project’, Israel’s ancestral vocation, was at the point where it needed rescuing. Some Jews had returned to Palestine from Babylon, while others were scattered all over the known world. But the cry went up from one generation to the next over the four centuries to the time of the Roman occupation: We are still in exile! Exile was not just a geographical reality; it was a state of mind and heart, of politics and practicalities, of spirit and flesh. As long as pagans were ruling over Jews, and demanding taxes from them, and profaning their Holy Place, the Jews were again in exile. Since the exile was the result of Israel’s idolatry, according to the prophets, what they needed was not just a new Passover, a new rescue from slavery to pagan tyrants: they needed forgiveness. As Tom Wright has put it, …

That was the good news the prophets had spoken of, the word of comfort at every level from the spiritual to the physical. … When the One God finally puts away the idolatry and wickedness that caused his people to be exiled in the first place, then his people will be ‘free at last’, Passover people with a difference.

That was the ancient hope which Saul of Tarsus cherished along with thousands of his fellow Jews, by no means all of whom were as ‘zealous’ as he was. Few had his intellectual gifts, but they were, like him, very well aware, through scripture and liturgy, of the tensions between those promises and their present predicament. Theirs was a religious culture suffused with hope, albeit long deferred. That was the great narrative in which they lived out their daily lives in their heads and their hearts, giving shape and energy to their aspirations and motivations. Paul sought a means of working out his inner conflict in action, and it was this that made him, at first, a persecutor. His first contact with the new sect of the ‘Nazarenes’, it appears, was one of the most radical and aggressive representatives, a Hellenistic Jew (like Paul himself) named Stephen, who was reported to be…

… forever saying things against the holy place and the law … saying that Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place (the Temple) and alter the customs handed down to us by Moses (Acts 6: 13 f.)

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This was an act which impugned the most sacred pledges of Israel’s status as God’s chosen people. And when it appeared that these sectaries hailed Jesus of Nazareth as God’s Messiah, this was sheer blasphemy. Did not the Law say, cursed is everyone who is hanged on a gibbet (Gal. 3: 13)? These people were dragging the glory of Israel into the mire: they were enemies of the Temple and the Torah, enemies of Israel, enemies of Israel’s God. Jerusalem’s Temple, like the wilderness Tabernacle before it, was designed as a small working model of the entire cosmos. This was where the One God of creation would live, dwelling in the midst of his people. When the Temple was destroyed, this vision was shattered, but the prophets had declared that God would one day return and that the people should prepare for that day. Yet the Jews of Saul’s day found themselves in the long, puzzling interval between the time when the One God had abandoned the Temple and the time when he would return in glory, bringing heaven and earth together at last. Seers, mystics and poets wrote of dreams and visions whose subject matter was the rescue of Israel and the final saving ‘revelation’ (apokalypsis in Greek) of the One God. This was the world in which Saul of Tarsus, heir to these traditions, practised his fierce and loyal devotion to Israel’s God. This was how he could keep hope alive and perhaps even to glimpse its fulfilment in advance.

Locating him within this world is not a matter of psychoanalysis, but of history. We are trying to think our way into the mind of a zealous young Jew determined to do God’s will whatever its cost, eager to purge Israel from idolatry and sin, keen to hasten the time when God would come back to rule his world with justice and righteousness. All the fear and hatred that Saul felt for that in himself which was ‘fighting against the Law’ could now be directed upon overt enemies. Stephen was stoned to death, with Saul as an accessory. This was only a beginning. With characteristic determination to outstrip everyone else in his zeal for the Law, Saul obtained from the high priest a commission to hunt the heretics down wherever they might be found (Acts 9: 1 f.).

The Followers of ‘The Way’ & The Road to Damascus:

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According to Acts, the Sanhedrin’s persecution of the first followers of ‘The Way’ (not yet calling themselves Christians) collapsed when Saul had his dramatic encounter with the risen Christ on the way to Damascus, and became Paul, on a permanent basis. The incredible happened, apparently. Paul was struck blind and heard the voice of Christ speaking to him and was suddenly converted to the faith of ‘The Way’. Going into hiding with those he had planned to persecute, he had his sight restored. Wright suggests that this ‘apocalyptic’ event needs to be set in the context of Saul’s seeking, through prayer and meditation, to inhabit for himself the strange old traditions of heaven-and-earth commerce, to become in mind, soul and body, a visionary whose inner eye, and perhaps whose outer eye, might glimpse the ultimate mystery. The practice of this kind of meditation was something one might well do on the long, hot journey from Jerusalem to Damascus.

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When this news got back to Jerusalem, it stunned the Sanhedrin, infuriating them beyond measure. They ordered an all-out drive to seize him and kill him on sight. In a complete reversal of circumstances, the hunter became the hunted. Paul went into hiding himself, appealing for aid from Christ’s disciples. Not unnaturally, they feared this might be a ploy by a man they knew to be clever, cruel and unscrupulous to uncover their secret network of survivors of his own terror, but they finally complied, lowering him over the wall of the city with a rope (Acts 9: 25). The effects of his conversion experience on both his career and the passage of history in which he played his part are open to observation. It is evident that it brought a resolution to his personal predicament. His attempt to resolve it by externalising his inner conflict had proved to be no solution at all. He now found real reconciliation of the contending forces in his soul through his reconciliation with the ‘enemies’ he had been pursuing with such pious hatred. He threw in his lot with them and with ‘Jesus whom he was persecuting’. But to do so meant standing with one who was under the curse of the ‘Law’: it was to become an ‘outlaw’. He wrote that he had been crucified with Christ (Gal. 2: 20).

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It was the most complete break possible with his past self. It took all meaning out of the desperate struggle to see himself in legal rectitude faultless. He could now accept himself as he was, aware of his weaknesses yet willing to stand at the disposal of his new Master. He wrote of how we make it our ambition to be acceptable to him (II Cor. 5: 9). This was a different type of ‘ambition’ from that which had spurred him on to outstrip his Jewish contemporaries. It was the displacement of self from the centre, which proved to be the removal of a heavy burden. But above all it was a liberating experience: ‘Christ set us free, to be free men’ (Gal. 5: 1). It shows itself in an expansion of the range of his interests and energies, no longer restricted by Jewish nationalism and orthodoxy. For an Orthodox Jew who lived the life of a great Greek city, relations with Gentiles were always problematic. Paul was repressing his natural instincts in maintaining the degree of separation from his Gentile fellow-citizens which ‘legal rectitude’ seemed to require. Now he could give those instincts free rein. From the moment of his encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus, he knew that the ‘dividing wall’ was broken down and that he must ‘go to the Gentiles’. Thus the main direction of his new mission was decided from the outset, though it may have been some years before the required strategy was worked out. The rest of what happened to him after this escape with the disciples, as St. Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles, is well-known, not just from the narratives in Acts, but also from his own letters. But we are scantily informed about his early years as a Christian, and the skeleton outline of the Acts tells us little. All that we have from the man himself are his recollections and reflections on the situations into which his missionary career had brought him.

Similarly, the drama of Saul’s Damascene conversion fits too neatly with the need for an early Christian account of a new departure, schism or breakaway in what, in reality, was a gradual evolution of Christianity from Judaism. At first, Christians were regarded as a Jewish sect by both Jews and Gentiles. This led to opposition and persecution of the church by the Jewish authorities, who objected to its doctrines and the admission of Gentiles without their accepting the Law. Yet since Jews were also already scattered in communities throughout the Empire and beyond, they provided Christian missionaries with an entry into the Gentile world. It was not until three years after his conversion that Paul returned to Jerusalem (Gal. 1: 17-19). At that time he stayed for a fortnight with Peter (or ‘Cephas’, as he calls him, using the Aramaic name given to him by Jesus) and also met James, ‘the Lord’s brother’. These would be able to tell him much at first-hand about Jesus. His stay in Jerusalem seems to have been cut short. however, and he then spent a period of about a dozen years in ‘the regions of Cilicia and Syria’ (Gal. 1: 21). Perhaps some of the adventures he recalls later in life belong to that period, but Acts records only his return to Tarsus, in Cilicia (9: 30) and his removal to Antioch, in Syria (Acts 11: 25 f.). It was with his arrival in the Syrian capital, where Jesus’ followers were first given the nickname ‘Christian’, that the story of his missionary journeys really begins.

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The Synagogues; The Judaeo-Palestinian Converts & The Antiochene Church:

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Above: Paul regularly used the local synagogue as his starting-point when bringing the gospel to a new place. Later, the bridges between Jews and Christians were broken. This reconstructed second-century synagogue is at Sardis, in modern-day Turkey.

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Since these first missionaries, such as Paul and other apostles were Jews, they used the synagogues, both inside and outside Judea and Palestine as ready-made centres for evangelism. Paul regularly used the local synagogue as the starting point for bringing the gospel to a new place. Recent archaeological evidence at Capernaum and elsewhere in Palestine supports the view that early Christians were allowed to use the synagogues for their own meetings for worship. Although most of their fellow Jews remained unconverted, many God-fearing Gentiles, who were attracted to Judaism but had not gone through the ritual of total integration into the Jewish community, became Christian converts. In fact, in spite of the growing divergence between the church and the synagogue, the Christian communities worshipped and operated essentially as Jewish synagogues for more than a generation. Apart from the period of the Jewish wars, the Roman Empire enjoyed three hundred years of peace and general prosperity. This was known as the Pax Romana, the Roman peace. It allowed both Christians and Jews great freedom to travel throughout the Mediterranean world along superbly engineered roads and under the protection of the Roman government. Paul was able to do this until the final years of his life, but he was only the first of many missionaries. Equally, pilgrims to Jerusalem were able to travel in the opposite direction. This was part of the reason why Paul emphasised the importance of good government.

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The ‘Christian’ community at Antioch included a substantial proportion of non-Jewish converts from paganism. The division between Jew and Gentile, from the Jewish point of view, was greater than any other social or cultural division, more important even than the other two distinctions that run through the whole ancient world, those between slave and free, on the one hand, and male and female on the other. Different Jewish community leaders would draw the lines between Jew and non-Jew at different places. Business dealings might be fine, but business partnerships might be frowned upon. Friendships were tolerated, but not intermarriage. The lines might be blurred, broken or redrawn, but they were still there. Underneath it all, there was still a sense of difference, of “them and us.” Social and cultural indicators would provide visible markers. What you ate, and who you ate with were the most obvious of these, but there were others too. From a Gentile perspective, non-Jewish writers of the day sneered at the Jews for their ‘Sabbath’, claiming that they just wanted a “lazy day” once a week. The fact that Jews didn’t eat pork, the meat most ordinarily available, looked like a ploy to appear socially superior. Jewish males were circumcised, so if they participated in the gymnasium, which normally meant going naked, they might expect taunts.

Beneath these social indicators was the more deeply seated non-Jewish suspicion that the Jews were, in reality, atheists. They didn’t worship the gods, didn’t turn out for the great festivals, didn’t go to parties at the pagan temples and didn’t offer animal sacrifices at local shrines. They claimed that there was only one true Temple, the one in Jerusalem, but rumours abounded, going back to the time when the Roman general Pompey had marched into the Holy of Holies, that the Jews had no image, no statue of their god. Hence the charge of atheism, which was not so much one of theological belief (since the authorities tolerated a whole range of beliefs) but a practical one. The gods mattered for the life and health of the community as a whole. If bad things happened, it was because the gods were angry, probably because people hadn’t been taking them seriously and offering the required worship. People who didn’t believe in the gods were, therefore, placing the entire city, the whole culture or the whole known world at risk. The Jews had their answers for all this, and Saul would have grown up knowing these debates well. After his move to Antioch, he must have heard them repeated with wearying familiarity. “Our God,” the Jews would have said, …

“… is the One God who made the whole world. He cannot be represented by a human-made image. We will demonstrate who he is by the way we live. If we join the world around in worshipping the local divinities – let alone in worshipping the Roman emperor (as people were starting to do when Saul was growing up) – we will be making the mistake our ancestors made.”

In fact, a significant minority of Gentiles admired the Jews for their integrity in this respect, preferring their clear lines of belief and behaviour to the dark muddles of paganism. Many of them attached themselves to the synagogue communities as “God-fearers.” Some went all the way to full conversion as “proselytes.” But the Jews were clear about the fact that, if they compromised with the pagan world around them, however ‘compromise’ might have been defined in any particular city or household, they would be giving up their heritage, and with it their hope for a new world, for the One God to become king at last. So what would the diaspora Jewish communities in Tarsus or Antioch think of the suggestion that the One God had already done what he had promised by sending a Messiah to be crucified? What would this mean for Jewish identity? Was this ‘good news’ simply for the Jewish people, or might it be for everyone?

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Syrian Antioch, even more than Tarsus, was exactly the kind of place where these questions would rise quickly to the surface. It boasted a busy, bustling mixture of cultures, ethnic groups and religious traditions, including a substantial Jewish population. The Roman General Pompey had made it the capital of the new province of Syria, and Julius Caesar had raised it to the level of an autonomous city. With a population of around a quarter of a million, it was widely regarded in antiquity as the third or fourth city of the East, after Alexandria, Seleucia and later Constantinople. It was a classic ‘melting-pot’ in which every kind of social and cultural group was represented.

It isn’t difficult to imagine the crowded streets, the markets selling exotic fruit as well as local produce, the traders and travellers, foreigners in strange costumes and the temples on every street corner. It wasn’t surprising that some of the early followers of Jesus had found their way there, considering that everyone else had. Nor was it surprising that they were eager to share the ‘good news’ of Jesus with non-Jews as well as Jews. If the Jewish scriptures had seen the coming king as Lord of the whole world, how could membership in this kingdom be for Jews only?

Some of the believers who had come to Antioch from Cyprus and Cyrene saw no reason for any such limitation. They went about telling the non-Jews about Jesus as well. A large number of such people believed the message, abandoned their pagan ways and switched their allegiance to the Christ as Lord. Many Jews would have naturally supposed that these Gentiles would then have to become full Jews. If they were sharing in the ancient promises, ought they not to share in its ancient customs as well? What sort of common life ought this new community to develop? The introduction of this Gentile element in Antioch had no doubt acted as a stimulant, and it is not surprising that they soon found themselves impelled to reach out to a still wider public in the Graeco-Roman world. For this task, they selected a Cypriot Jew of the tribe of Levi, Joseph, known as Barnabas (Acts 4:36 f.; 11: 22-24; 13: 2.), a nickname given to him by the church in Jerusalem which means “son of encouragement.” He was one of those early followers of Jesus who had the gift of enabling others to flourish. The Jerusalem church had sent him to Antioch to see what was going on there.

002 (4)Good-hearted Barnabas (pictured in a recent film portrayal by Franco Nero, right) was not the sort to jump instinctively to a negative response, to reach for familiar prejudices just because something was new. He could see the transformed lives and transparent faith of the Gentile believers which were the work of divine grace, reaching out in generous love to people of every background and origin.

Barnabas shared Paul’s belief that the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ had broken down the barriers to Gentile inclusion in God’s kingdom. The evidence of a new dynamic in worship and of the love which meant shared obligations of mutual support told its own story to Barnabas. Others from Jerusalem, faced with the same evidence, might have reached a different conclusion. They would have urged the believers in Antioch to restrict themselves to their own ethnic groups, at least for mealtimes and perhaps even for the Lord’s meal, the “breaking of bread.” Many Jews would have assumed that Gentiles still carried contagious pollution from their culture of idolatry and immorality. But as far as Barnabas was concerned, what mattered was the depth of their belief and allegiance to the Lord. This new community was not defined by genealogy, but by the Lord himself, and what counted as a sure sign of their belonging to Him was loyalty and ‘faithfulness’.

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Paul was an obvious choice to join him as a companion since Barnabas had first introduced him to the Antiochene church (Acts 11: 25 f.). They were therefore at the centre of the controversies there and became firm friends. The vibrant and excited group of Jesus-followers in Antioch was doing something radically counter-cultural, experimenting with a whole new way of being human, and Barnabas and Paul would have to help them think through what that really meant. In this way, the friendship between the two ‘brothers in Christ’ helped to shape Paul’s mind and teaching, leading to what, with long hindsight, we might call Christian theology. It had been a decade since Saul had gone to Tarsus, after his brief time in Damascus and Jerusalem. We don’t know whether anyone in either Jerusalem had seen or heard of him during that time, but Barnabas had a strong sense that he was the right man for the job. This was the beginning of a partnership that would launch the first recorded official ‘mission’ of the new movement. He worked with Barnabas and the local leaders in Antioch for a whole year, teaching and guiding the growing community.

002 (6)The pair was then sent to Jerusalem with a gift of money for the Jerusalem believers, who were suffering from their decade-long persecution by the authorities and struggling to stay alive at a time of widespread famine in AD 46-47. Paul’s own retrospective account of the visit (Gal. 2: 1-10) ends with the Jerusalem leaders admonishing him to go on “remembering the poor.”

While there, Paul argued his case for inclusion of the Gentiles in the koinonia (international fellowship). The three central ‘pillars’ of the Jerusalem church; James (brother of Jesus), Peter and John, all agreed that they would continue to restrict their mission to the Jewish people in ancient Israel, while Paul, Barnabas and their friends in Antioch could continue their work among the Gentiles of the Mediterranean world.

Into Asia Minor – The First Missionary Journey:

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The junior colleague soon slipped into the leading role for which his vigour and discernment marked him out. Thus began what is commonly referred to as his ‘First Missionary Journey’ which first took the two to Cyprus (Acts 13: 4-12) and then on as far as the interior of Asia Minor, and in particular to a group of towns in the southern corner of the province of Galatia (Acts 13: 14,51; 14: 6 f.). We can date this journey roughly to AD 47-48.

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Above: It was through country such as this (in modern Turkey) that Paul and his companions, Barnabas and John Mark, travelled into central Asia Minor on their first arduous mission. They founded a number of churches in Galatia.

In the first of these towns, Antioch-towards-Pisidia (Acts 13: 15-50) the apostles began with an address in the synagogue to a congregation which included both Jews and ‘Gentile worshippers’. The latter was a group of people, now fairly numerous in many Hellenistic cities, as in Antioch, who were attracted to by Judaism to attend the synagogue services, without becoming regular ‘proselytes’ and members of the ‘commonwealth of Israel’. They showed a lively interest which spread to circles without previous association with the synagogue. From his letters, we can gather that Paul suggested that these people could become full members of the people of God without submitting to the Jewish Law, by joining the Christian church. This provoked a violent reaction from stricter Jews, however, who could only see this new preaching as a threat to their way of life. They denounced Paul and Barnabas as false teachers leading Israel astray.

002 (5)Paul’s response was to quote Isaiah 49: I have set you for a light to the nations so that you can be salvation-bringers to the end of the earth. This delighted the non-Jews who had heard his message: they were free to belong to God’s ancient people. But this, in turn, strengthened Jewish reaction, producing an altogether more serious turn of events.

Both the leading Jews and the leading citizens of the town saw the threat of real civic disorder. When opposition turned to violence, this was sufficient to cause the missionaries to leave the town in a hurry, symbolically shaking the dust off their feet as they did so, but also leaving behind them the beginnings of a new community filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit. After that experience, however, the missionaries put out a statement of policy, making it clear to the Jewish communities in the cities they were to visit that:

It was necessary that the word of God should be declared to you first, but since you reject it … we now turn to the Gentiles (Acts 13: 46).

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002 (2)This principle, to the Jew first, and also to the Greek (Rom. 1: 16; 2: 9 f.) was the principle that guided Paul’s ministry and expressed many times in his letters. In his letter to the Romans, he provided a theological justification for it (Rom. 11: 1-27). The outcome of this tour was the foundation of several communities, largely Gentile in membership, and the unleashing of Jewish hostility to Paul’s mission which was to follow him wherever he went, and to finally bring his active career to an end. When Paul and Barnabas found themselves facing people in remote highlands of ancient Anatolia with a strange language and religion, they became overnight heroes when Paul healed a man who had been crippled since birth (depicted above). As the pagan crowd began to worship them, they remonstrated with it that this was not the purpose of their mission. At that point, Jews from the towns where they had already been who had followed them there, told the pagan crowd in the town of Lystra what they thought about the missionaries:

That turned the crowd against them, and they started to throw stones at Paul. They thought they had killed him, and dragged him outside the town. Paul’s friends stood round him; they, too, thought he was dead. But he got up and went back into the town. (Acts 14: 8-20)

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Illustration by Trevor Stubley of the stoning of Paul at Lystra,

for Alan T Dale’s Portrait of Jesus (OUP, 1979).

Paul explained to his friends that this kind of suffering was precisely the sign of the two world’s colliding; they are on the cusp of a new world, and if this is what it costs, so be it. Despite these trials and tribulations, what they had witnessed before in Syrian Antioch – the creation of a new community in which Jews and Gentiles were able to live together because all that previously separated them had been dealt with on the cross – had come true in city after city. At the heart of Paul’s message was radical messianic eschatology. ‘Eschatology’ because God’s long-awaited new day had dawned; ‘Messianic’, since Jesus was the true son of David, announced as such in his resurrection and bringing to completion the purposes announced to Abraham and extended by the psalmists and the prophets to embrace the whole world; ‘Radical’ in the sense that nothing in the backgrounds of either Paul or Barnabas had prepared them for the new state of affairs they were facing. The fact that they believed it was what the One God had always planned did not reduce their own sense of awe and astonishment.

What they could not have foreseen, as they travelled back through the southern part of the province of Galatia and then sailed home to Syria, was that the new reality they had witnessed would become the focus of sharp controversy even among Jesus’s followers and that the two of them would find themselves on opposite sides of that controversy as it boiled over. The missionaries returned to the church which had commissioned them at Antioch-on-the-Orontes (Acts 14: 25-28). Barnabas chose to return to Cyprus (Acts 15: 39). Paul took on Silas as his new travelling companion and colleague. He was a member of the church at Jerusalem (Acts 15: 22 f.), but a Hellenistic Jew and possibly, like Paul himself, a Roman citizen.

(to be continued…)

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The Genuine Jerusalem and ‘the trump of God’: part seven – Apocalyptic Literature and Millenarianism.   Leave a comment

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Above: The cover of Norman Cohn’s 1957 ground-breaking, iconic and scholarly work on Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages (subtitle), the first chapter of which deals with The Tradition of Apocalyptic Prophecy in Jewish and early Christian literature. The picture shows a detail of Albrecht Altdorfer’s

Battle on the Issus in the Alte Pinakothek in Munich.

‘The Rapture’ at the ‘End of Days’:

The Book of Revelation is Christian apocalyptic literature, but despite many resemblances to Jewish apocalyptic, it has distinct characteristics of its own. It is not attributed to a figure in the distant past, such as Daniel, nor does it survey past ages in the guise of prediction. It is prophetic in the best sense of the word and is Jewish apocalyptic transfigured by the influence of Christianity. Imminent persecution by Rome is expected in the text, and Revelation was written to strengthen those who would face it. The message is given symbolically, however. Pages are filled with symbols and numbers: swords, eyes, trumpets, horns, seals, crowns, white robes; 7,12, 144,000 people, 1260 days, 42 months, 666: the number of the beast. As a result, it has been searched down the centuries for hidden knowledge of the future. There are two verses in the book which refer to Zion, or Jerusalem, often taken out of context by a variety of Christian eschatological churches and traditions, most of which are found today in the USA, having their origins in the mid-nineteenth century. Appropriately, I hope, the following texts are from The Revised Version of the Bible, published in London, New York and Toronto by the Oxford University Press, in 1880:

Chapter 14 v 1:

And I saw, and behold, “the Lamb sitting on the mount Zion, and with him a hundred and forty-four thousand, having his name and the name of his Father, written on their foreheads.

Chapter 21 v 2:

And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride adorned for her husband.

These passages are commonly, though perhaps erroneously, linked with the following passages from elsewhere in the New Testament, concerning what has come to be known as ‘the rapture’ at the ‘End of Days’. The earliest of these to be recorded is in Paul’s first letter to the Church in Thessalonica:

1 Thessalonians 4 v 16 – 5 v 5, Revised Version:

For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven, with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God; and the dead in Christ shall rise first: Then we that are alive, that are left, shall together with them be caught up in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord. Wherefore comfort one another with these words. But concerning the times and the seasons, brethren, ye have no need that aught be written unto you. For yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night. When they are saying ‘Peace and safety’, then sudden destruction cometh upon them, as travail upon a woman with child; and they shall in no wise escape. But ye, brethren, are not in darkness, that that day should overtake you as a thief; for ye are all sons of light, and sons of the day; we are not of the night, nor darkness.

Some first-century Christians believed Jesus would return during their lifetime. When the converts of Paul in Thessalonica were persecuted by the Roman Empire, they believed the end of days to be imminent.

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The ‘Olivet Discourse’:

The ‘Second Coming’ of Christ, the Messiah, is also related in the minds of some eschatological evangelicals to Jesus’ references to a time of great tribulation in what has become known as ‘The Olivet Discourse’, which appears in all three of the Synoptic Gospels, almost verbatim (Mark 13. 1-13; Matthew 24. 1-14; Luke 21. 5-19). According to the narrative of the synoptic Gospels, an anonymous disciple remarks on the greatness of Herod’s Temple, a building thought to have been some 10 stories high and likely to have been adorned with gold, silver, and other precious items. Jesus responds that not one of those stones would remain intact in the building, and the whole thing would be reduced to rubble. This quotation is taken from a twentieth-century translation:

As Jesus was leaving the Temple, one of his disciples said, “Look teacher! What wonderful stones and buildings!” Jesus answered, “You see these great buildings? Not a single stone here will be left in its place; every one of them will be thrown down…

Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, across from the Temple, when Peter, James, John, and Andrew came to him in private. “Tell us when this will be,” they said, “and tell us what will happen to show that the time has come for all these things to take place. “

Jesus said to them, “Watch out, and don’t let anyone fool you. Many men, claiming to speak for me, will come and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will fool many people. And don’t be troubled when you hear the noise of battles close by and news of battles far away. Such things must happen, but they do not mean that the end has come. Countries will fight each other; kingdoms will attack one another. There will be earthquakes everywhere, and there will be famines. These things are like the first pains of childbirth.

You yourselves must watch out. You will be arrested and taken to court. You will be beaten in the synagogues; you will stand before rulers and kings for my sake to tell them the Good News. But before the end comes, the gospel must be preached to all Peoples. And when you are arrested and taken to court, do not worry ahead of time what you are going to say; when the time comes, say whatever is given then to you. For the words you speak will come from the Holy Spirit. Men will hand over their own brothers to be put to death, and fathers will do the same to their children. Children will turn against their parents and have them put to death. Everyone will hate you because of me. But whoever hold out to the end will be saved. (New English Bible).

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The disciples, being Jewish, believed that the Messiah would come and that his arrival would mean the fulfilment of all the prophecies they hoped in. They believed that the Temple played a large role in this, hence the disciple in the first part boasting to Jesus about the Temple’s construction. Jesus’ prophecy concerning the Temple’s destruction was contrary to their belief system. Jesus sought to correct that impression, first, by discussing the Roman invasion, and then by commenting on his final coming to render universal judgement. It is unclear whether the tribulation Jesus describes in the rest of this passage is a past, present or future event, in the terms of the gospel authors, but it seems to refer to events surrounding the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and as such is used to dates of authorship to around the year AD 70.

Nevertheless, many evangelical Christian interpreters say the passages refer to what they call the ‘Last Days’ or ‘the End of Time’. They disagree as to whether Jesus describes the signs that accompany his return. The discourse is widely believed by scholars to contain material delivered by him on a variety of occasions. The setting on the Mount of Olives echoes a passage in the Book of Zechariah which refers to the location as the place where a final battle would occur between the Jewish Messiah and his opponents.

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Jesus then warned the disciples about the Abomination of Desolation standing where it does not belong. Later Christians regarded this as a reference to Hadrian’s Temple (see below), built in 135 AD over the site of Jesus’ tomb, but other scholars dispute this. By some accounts, a statue of Venus was placed on the site of Golgotha, or Calvary. Archaeologists have found evidence of an abandoned quarry just outside the original city walls, which was used as a Jewish cemetery. Hadrian’s workers paved it over with stone, including the supposed tomb provided by Joseph of Arimathea for Jesus’ burial.

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The Gospels of Matthew and Mark add, let the reader understand, revealing how these passages may have been edited later in order to strengthen this assertion. Matthew makes clear that this is a reference to two passages from the Book of Daniel from the post-exilic eschatological Old Testament literature. Alan T Dale gives a modern rendering of these passages in poetic form, emphasising that this is a quotation by Jesus from the prophets inspired by his ‘view’ of Jerusalem at the time, a great city continually suffering at the hands of evil and violence throughout its history (Luke 21. 20-28), rather than his own prophetic ‘vision’ of its future:

When you see the city besieged by armies,

be sure the last days of the city have come.

Let those inside her walls escape

and those in the villages stay in the villages.

These are the days of punishment,

the words of the Bible are coming true.

There will be great distress among men

and a terrible time for this people.

They will fall at the point of a sword

and be scattered as captives throughout the world.

Foreign soldiers will tramp the city’s streets

until the world really is God’s world.

This was probably not the first time Jesus had remembered these lines during his visits to Jerusalem, as he came to and from the Mount of Olives to the temple and caught sight of the city walls. He was reported by Matthew to have lamented its seemingly eternal fate on at least one other occasion (Mt. 23. 37-39). Jesus then states that immediately after the time of tribulation people would see a sign, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken (Matt. 24:29–30) (Joel. 3:15). Once again, he is quoting from the Old Testament prophets, so that it is difficult to know whether he is describing a contemporary event or predicting one in a distant future. Joel had already prefaced his description of this event by predicting that this would be a sign before the great and dreadful Day of the Lord (Joel 2. 30-31). While the statements about the sun and moon turning dark sound quite apocalyptic, they are also borrowings from the Book of Isaiah. (Isa. 13. 10).

What Revelation reveals…

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Above: Albrecht Dürer, The Day of Wrath, from the Apocalypse series, 1498.

(British Museum)

The Book of Revelation also mentions the sun and moon turning dark during the sixth seal of the seven seals, but the passage adds more detail than the previous verses mentioned. (Rev. 6. 12-17). However, the Book of Revelation should not be read as a kind of secret manual to the End Times, containing a series of cryptic clues which need to be deciphered in order to produce a chronology of eschatological events. It is both pure poetry, and a continuous meditation and commentary on the prophecy of Old Testament, with reading and vision inextricably combined. In fact, it gives a clear demonstration of the need to understand the New Testament in the context of the Old. It may seem strange to those without an understanding of the latter since it seems savage and barbarous to those coming to it without that understanding. It should be viewed as a picture of the situation of the Christian Church in the hostile world of the end of the first century in which the power of Christ’s presence was still at work. It tells us what it was like to be a Christian at that time, and is not about what the world would look like at the end of times. Originally all these prophecies were devices by which religious groups, at first Jewish and later Christian, consoled, fortified and asserted themselves when confronted by the threat or the reality of oppression. It is natural that the earliest of these prophecies should have been produced by the Jews.

The Role of Jerusalem in the Early Church:

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It was also natural that Jerusalem should remain the focal point of the church’s unity well into the first century. Jerusalem was not only the Holy City of Judaism, but also the place of the resurrection, ascension and Pentecost, and the headquarters of the early church. In Acts, everything seems to revolve around Jerusalem and the Jerusalem church exercises careful supervision of what goes on elsewhere. It is Jerusalem that sends down envoys to Samaria to approve the actions of Philip (8.14), Jerusalem that sets the seal on the conversion of Cornelius (11.18), Jerusalem that is the scene of the Apostolic Council (15.4) and Jerusalem to which Paul has to return, to his peril, to give account of his missionary journeys. (20.16; 21. 11, 15 ff.). And yet the journey which he was planning when he was planning when he wrote to the Romans was essentially a peace-making mission. When the Jerusalem concordat was made, which dispensed with the need for Gentile converts to undergo circumcision, and released them from most of the demands of the Law, the leaders of the church there had stipulated that the Gentile churches should take some responsibility for the support of the poverty-stricken Jewish Christians of Jerusalem.

Paul responded eagerly to this request (Gal. 2. 10). The leaders in Jerusalem may have had in mind something like an equivalent for the contributions which Jews in the Diaspora made to the temple in Jerusalem. As we know from his letters, Paul saw it as a chance to demonstrate the true fraternal unity of Christians, bridging any divisions among them. He set on foot a large-scale relief fund, to be raised by voluntary subscription from members of the churches he had founded. He recommended a system of weekly contributions (Rom. 15. 25-28; 1. Cor. 16. 1-4; II Cor. 8. 1-9, 15.). The raising of the fund went on for a considerable time and there was now a substantial sum in hand to be conveyed to Jerusalem. He was to be accompanied by a deputation carefully composed, it appears, to represent the several provinces.  (I Cor. 16. 3 f; Acts 20. 4). The handing over of the relief fund was to be an act of true Christian charity and also a formal embassy from the Gentile churches affirming their fellowship with Jewish Christians in the one church (Rom. 15. 27).

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The goodwill mission, thought to have taken place in AD 59, dramatically miscarried. Paul’s reception by the leaders of the church at Jerusalem, if not unfriendly, was cool. James was thoroughly frightened of the effect his presence in the city might have on both Christian and non-Christian Jews, in view of his reputation as a critic of Jewish ‘legalism’. He urged Paul to prove his personal loyalty to the Law by carrying out certain ceremonies in the temple (Acts 21. 20-24). Paul was quite willing, but unfortunately, he was recognised in the temple by some of his enemies, the Jews of Asia, who raised a cry that he was introducing Gentiles into the sacred precinct (Acts 21. 37-29). There was no truth in the charge, which could have resulted in the death penalty, but it was enough to raise rabble, and Paul was in danger of being lynched. He was rescued by the roman security forces and put under arrest. Having identified himself as a Roman citizen, he came under the protection of the imperial authorities (Acts 21. 30-39) and was ultimately transferred for safe custody to the governor’s headquarters at Caesarea (Acts 23. 23-33). Following lengthy wrangles over jurisdiction between the Jewish Council and two successive Roman governors during which Paul remained in solitary confinement, he exercised his citizen’s right and appealed to the emperor, fearing that he might otherwise be delivered back into the hands of his enemies in Jerusalem (Acts 25. 1-12). Accordingly, he was put on board a ship sailing for Rome, then famously and dramatically shipwrecked off Malta.

After these events, Jerusalem began to lose its position as the centre of the church. According to a report by the fourth-century historian Eusebius, Jewish Christians withdrew from Jerusalem in AD 66, before its fall, and settled at Pella, a city in Decapolis. Jerusalem did not regain its importance for Christians until the fourth century when it became a place of pilgrimage. Indigenous Jewish Christianity lived on but became increasingly a backwater, of little more than historical significance.

Jewish into Christian Apocalyptic Literature:

The ideas of a messiah who suffered and died, and a kingdom which was purely spiritual, were later to be regarded as the very core of Christian doctrine, but were far from being accepted by all the early Christians. Ever since the problem was formulated by Johannes Weiss and Albert Schweitzer at the end of the nineteenth century, experts have been debating about how far Christ’s own teaching was influenced by Jewish apocalyptic literature. The celebrated prophecy recorded by Matthew remains significant whether Christ really uttered it or was merely believed to have done so:

For the Son of Man shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels; and then he shall reward every man according to his works. Verily I say unto you, there be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.

It is not surprising that many of the early Christians interpreted these things in terms of the apocalyptic eschatology with which they were already familiar. Like so many generations of Jews before them, they saw history as divided into two eras, one preceding and the other following the triumphant advent of the Messiah. That they often referred to the second era as ‘the Last Days’ or ‘the world to come’ does not mean that they anticipated a swift and cataclysmic end of all things. On the contrary, for a long time great numbers of Christians were convinced not only that Christ would soon return in power and majesty but also that when he did return it would be to establish a messianic kingdom on earth, and that they confidently expected that kingdom to last, whether for a thousand years or for an indefinite period.

Like the Jews, the Christians suffered oppression and responded to it by affirming ever more rigorously, to the world and to themselves, their faith in the imminence of the messianic age in which their wrongs would be righted and their enemies cast down. Not surprisingly, the way in which they imagined the great transformation also owed much to the Jewish apocalypses, some of which had indeed a wider circulation amongst Christians than amongst Jews. In the Book of Revelation, Jewish and Christian elements are blended in an eschatological prophecy of great power. Here, as in the Book of Daniel, a terrible ten-horned beast symbolises the last world-power, the persecuting Roman state, while a second beast symbolises the Roman provincial priesthood which demanded divine honours for the Emperor:

And I stood upon the sand of the sea and saw a beast rise up out of the sea, having… ten horns… And it was given to him to make war with the saints, and to overcome them: and power was given to him over all kindreds, and tongues, and nations. And all that dwell upon the earth shall worship him, whose names are not written in the book of life… And I beheld another beast coming up out of the earth… And he doeth great wonders… and deceiveth them that dwell on the earth by means of those miracles which he had power to do…

And I saw heaven opened, and behold a white horse; and he that sat upon him was called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he doth judge and make war… And the armies which were in heaven followed him upon white horses, clothed in fine linen, white and clean. And out of his mouth goeth a sharp sword, that with it he should smite the nations… And I saw the beast, and the kings of the earth, and their armies gathered to make war against him that sat on the horse, and against his army. And the beast was taken, and with him the false prophet that wrought miracles before him, with which he deceived them that had received the mark of the beast, and them that worshipped his image. These both were cast alive into a lake of fire burning with brimstone. And the remnant were slain with the sword of him that sat upon the horse…

And I saw the souls of them that were beheaded for the witness of Jesus and for the word of God, and who had not worshipped the beast… and they lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years…

At the end of this period – the millennium in the strict sense of the word – there follow the general resurrection of the dead and the Last Judgement, when those who are not found written in the book of life are cast out into a lake of fire and the New Jerusalem is let down from heaven to be a dwelling-place for the Saints forever:

And he carried me away in the spirit to a great and high mountain, and showed me the great city, the holy Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God, having the glory of God: and her light was like unto a stone most precious, even like a jasper stone, clear as crystal…

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From the Liber cronicarum of Hartmann Schedel, with woodcuts by Michel Wohlgemuth and Wilhelm Pleydenwurff. Nuremberg, 1493. (British Museum)

Religious movements which expect that the second coming of Christ as a cataclysmic event, or series of events, as shown above, are generally called Adventist. These have arisen throughout the Christian era but were particularly common after the Protestant Reformation, as described in Norman Cohn’s seminal work of 1957, The Pursuit of the millennium.  One of the most popular of these views is that the rapture of the church, as described in 1 Thessalonians 4-5 occurs just prior to the seven-year tribulation when Christ returns for his saints to meet them in the air. This is followed by the tribulation, the rise of the Antichrist to world-rule, the return of Christ to the Mount of Olives, and Armageddon, resulting in a literal thousand-year millennial reign of the Messiah, centred in restored Jerusalem. The original meaning of millenarianism was therefore narrow and precise. Christianity has always had its own eschatology, in the sense of a doctrine concerning the last times, or the last days, or the final state of the world, so that Christian millenarianism was simply one variant of Christian eschatology. But the early Christians already interpreted the prophecies in a liberal rather than a literal sense, in that they equated the martyrs with the suffering faithful, i.e. themselves, and expected the second coming in their lifetime. There have always been countless ways of interpreting the millennium and the route to it. Millenarian sects and movements have varied in attitude from the most violent aggressiveness to the mildest pacifism and from the most ethereal spirituality to the most earthbound materialism.

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Above: Melchior Lorch: the Pope as Satan-Antichrist, 1545 (Courtauld Institute of Art).

‘Mainstream’ Protestants reject this literal interpretation. For example, instead of expecting a single Antichrist to rule the earth during a future Tribulation period, Martin Luther, John Calvin and the other Protestant Reformers saw the Antichrist as a present feature in the world of their time, fulfilled in the papacy. In theological terms, this mainstream branch of Christian eschatology is referred to as Historicist. Its adherents, whilst holding to a belief in a literal second coming of Christ, as given in the Apostles’ Creed, would regard the signs referred to in scripture as symbolic, and the events as relating to past, present and future events in the history of the church.

Eschatology and the Fundamentalist Right in the USA Today:

By comparison, in the Dispensationalist view, History is divided into (typically seven) dispensations where God tests man’s obedience differently. The present Church dispensation concerns Christians (mainly Gentiles) and represents a parenthesis to God’s main plan of dealing with and blessing his chosen people the Jews. Because of the Jews’ rejection of Jesus, Jewish sovereignty over the promised earthly kingdom of Jerusalem and Palestine has been postponed from the time of Christ’s first coming until prior to or just after his Second Coming when most Jews will embrace him. Those who do not will suffer eternal damnation, together with the non-believing Gentiles. There will then be a rapture of the Gentile church followed by a great tribulation of seven (or three-and-a-half) years’ duration during which Antichrist will arise and Armageddon will occur. Then Jesus will return visibly to earth and re-establish the nation of Israel; the Jewish temple will be rebuilt at Jerusalem and the Temple Mount. Christ and the people of Israel will reign in Jerusalem for a thousand years, followed by the last judgment and a new heaven and a new earth.

This view is also held by most groups that are labelled Fundamentalist, believing in the literal and inerrant truth of the scriptures. The more politically active sections within this eschatological view often strongly support the misnamed Christian Zionist movement and the associated political, military and economic support for Israel which comes from certain groups within American politics and parts of the Christian right. They have recently given strong support to the election campaign of Donald Trump, and it is widely believed that they have been influential in his decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of the modern-day state of Israel as a prelude to moving the USA’s Embassy from the current political capital, Tel Aviv, to Jerusalem.

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Above: Maps of Jerusalem and its environs from a pre-1948 Bible concordance.

Below: A Map of Palestine and Transjordan from the same concordance

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This decision has, of course, confirmed the Fundamentalist-Dispensationalists of the United States in their belief in an End of Time eschatology, which is, at best, at variance with ‘mainstream’ Judao-Christian beliefs. Moreover, the idea of basing the ‘business of good government’ and international diplomacy in the twenty-first century on a literal interpretation of the apocalyptic texts of the first century is, I would argue, completely antithetical to a genuine understanding of the true history of Israel, Judah, Jerusalem and Palestine throughout the ages. More seriously, it is also at least as likely to ‘trigger’ nuclear Armageddon as any of the near-apocalyptic events of the Cold War, whether they were ideological or accidental in cause and catalyst. Already, Trump’s decision has alienated moderate opinion not just in Palestine and the Middle East, but throughout the world. Having survived an ‘accidental’ nuclear catastrophe over the second half of the last century, we now face Armageddon by the ideological design of the White House in Washington. Is this really what the people of Israel and Jerusalem want? I don’t think so because I don’t hear so. In the meantime, all we can do is to honour the age-old commandment, Pray for the Peace of Jerusalem. Amen to that!

Sources:

Robert C Walton (ed.)(1982), A Source Book of the Bible for Teachers. London: SCM Press.

Norman Cohn (1970), The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary millenarians and mystical anarchists of the Middle Ages. Chapter 1. St Alban’s: Granada Publishing.

Kristin Romey (2017), The Search for the Real Jesus in National Geographic, December 1917, vol. 232, No. 6.

Alan T Dale (1979), Portrait of Jesus. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gone Fishing! The Tale of Simon Peter.   1 comment

 

Unmistakable Identity:

English: Jesus, followed by Simon Peter and Andrew

English: Jesus, followed by Simon Peter and Andrew (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Unlike with Thomas the Twin and Judas Iscariot, we know exactly who Simon Peter is, even though Jesus changes his name. His character and personality never changes. He is practical, loyal and humble. He’s a son of Jonas, a native of Bethsaida, a fisherman and Andrew’s brother, working out of the port of Capernaum, where they had their home, according to Mark (1: 29-31). He was married, as Jesus healed his mother-in-law of her fever.  He becomes the third of Jesus’ disciples, introduced to the Galilean rabbi by his brother. Unlike his brother and Nathaniel, however, he makes no early declaration of Jesus’ identity as Messiah, despite being himself identified as ‘a rock’ (‘Cephas‘) by the teacher. Jonas’ sons were in a fishing partnership with James and John, the sons of Zebedee, who also joined Jesus’ growing band of disciples soon after (Mt 4: 18-22). The Gospel of  John tells us below that eight of the twelve went fishing, though they may not all have done it for a living. Peter, James and John become, and remain, the closest of the Twelve to Jesus, a sort of ‘inner triangle’, or trinity.

Jesus and Saint Peter, Gospel of Matthew 4.18-...
Jesus and Saint Peter, Gospel of Matthew

According to Luke (5: 1-11), Jesus began his ministry by using their boats as a pulpit, perhaps because he thought he and the disciples might need to make a quick getaway if a Roman patrol came along, or the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem sent out its men to apprehend him. Or perhaps it was just a way of controlling the crowds who came to hear him and be healed by him.

By this time, he had done the rounds of the synagogues in the area and news of his words and deeds was spreading far beyond Galilee. On one occasion, Peter and his crew had been out fishing all the previous night, catching nothing, so he was naturally somewhat sceptical when Jesus told him to go out into deep water again and put down his nets for a catch. However, he reluctantly agreed, leaving Zebedee’s boat anchored inshore, however. The catch was so great that they had to call the other boat out to help them, or they would certainly have sunk under its weight. Peter fell to his knees, partly in awe of his ‘Lord’ and partly in shame that he doubted Jesus’ word even for a minute. Of course, never missing an opportunity for an acted parable, Jesus promises them an even greater catch, of souls.

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Sworn to Secrecy:


Despite Peter’s humility, or perhaps because of it, he is one of only three disciples, the others being the more ambitious Zebedee brothers, to witness two major incidents. The first incident is when they accompany Jesus to the house of one of the leaders of a local synagogue, Jairus, after he learns of the death of his daughter as he is on his way to heal her. When they arrived at the house, the women mourners had already gathered outside, making their traditional wailing sounds. This shows that the girl had been dead for some time, and Jesus knew too well that, in bringing her back to life, he would be crossing a line which could only lead him into direct confrontation with the Sanhedrin. So, he orders Peter, James and John not to tell anyone what they have seen. His selection of these three reveals the trust he placed in them both to believe what they had seen, and to keep it to themselves. His words to the mourners outside, which at first they ridicule, were probably intended to conceal the miracle further, leaving it open for people to believe what they wanted to believe, rather than bringing the wrath of the religious authorities down on him at this stage. By keeping the number of witnesses to an absolute minimum, he seeks to protect his other disciples from such wrath. He chooses the strongest among his fishermen friends, including Peter.

The Transfiguration Lodovico Carracci 1594
The Transfiguration Lodovico Carracci 1594 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The second incident involves a mountain climb. Here is Mark’s account of what happened:

Jesus took his three friends, Peter, James and John, and led them up into a high mountain. They were alone.

High up in the mountains, Jesus was changed. 

His friends were still with him. His clothes were gleaming white; no bleacher on earth could make them whiter. His friends saw two other men talking with Jesus: Moses, who had led the people out of slavery, and Elijah, who had stood up to a king in God‘s name. 

Peter didn’t know what to say, so he began to talk like this:

‘Sir’, he said. ‘It’s grand for us to be up here. Do you want us to make three shelters, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah?’

Peter and James and John were terrified.

A cloud rolled around them. God’s words came into their minds.

‘This is my only son. You must do as he says.’

 The three men looked around. There was nobody there but Jesus.

As the went down the mountainside, Jesus told them not to talk about what they had seen to anybody, ‘until I have risen from the dead.’

It was this saying they could not forget. They talked again and again among themselves about what ‘rising from the dead’ could mean.

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We don’t know  exactly what happened on the mountain, but the three friends shared a tremendous experience, one which transcended even that of the raising of Jairus’ daughter. Perhaps it helped them to understand that first incident. Since then, Peter had argued with Jesus, only a week before his transfiguration, and it had been clear how little he, and they, had understood him or listened to his words. Peter had declared Jesus to be the Messiah, but failed to grasp the need for him to be the suffering servant prophesied by Isaiah, let alone what he meant by being ‘raised to life’.

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On the road to Jerusalem from Caesaria Philippi, he had taken Jesus aside and rebuked him, because he couldn’t get out of his head the widespread Jewish conviction that God’s chosen leader would establish a national kingdom, with a king and government. James and John were already applying to become his chief ministers. How could the Messiah suffer in any way or die in the hands of foreigners? Until now, it hadn’t made sense. Now their understanding had been transformed by this mountain top experience, but they were still puzzled by the idea of  ‘rising from the dead’. That’s why Jesus told them not to speak about his Resurrection until after it had happened.

The Armed Man in the Garden:

In an echo of the incident at Caesaria Philippi, Mark tells of how, after their Passover Supper, the disciples went outside, singing a hymn. They walked through the olive groves towards Bethany, where they were staying:

‘You will all let me down,’ said Jesus, as they walked along. ‘The Bible says:

‘I will strike the shepherd and the sheep will run away.

‘But after I am raised I will go to Galilee before you.’

‘Everybody else may let you down, said Peter, ‘but I won’t.’

‘I tell you, Peter,’ said Jesus, ‘that this very night, before dawn, you will say more than once that you’re no friend of mine.’

‘Say I’m no friend of yours?’ said Peter hotly. ‘I’d die with you first!’

Andrea Mantegna's Agony in the Garden, circa 1...
Andrea Mantegna’s Agony in the Garden, circa 1460, depicts Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The big man could hardly speak any more, but now he resolved on letting his sword do the talking, if he needed it to. No one had noticed when Peter had picked up the sword in the upper room, pushed it through his belt and arranged his cloak so it couldn’t be seen. As they climbed the Mount of Olives into the Garden of Gethsemane, they felt a chill wind that whispered cheerlessly through the olive branches as they fell silent. They had all echoed Peter’s words, but the master said nothing more until he told them to sit down and wait for him while he went to pray. Again, he called his inner circle of friends, Peter, James and John to go with him. He told them to wait, still at some distance from where he would pray alone, but within sight of him. They were to keep watch for him. He told them, his voice breaking with deep distress, that his heart was nearly breaking as well. They watched him go on a short distance and then fall to his knees. In the moonlight, they could tell from his posture in prayer that his mind was in anguish and, as he had said, his soul was overcome with grief to the point of death. Peter put his head into his hands, knowing that there was nothing he could do to help. Exhausted, in the darkness, he drifted into sleep.

He awoke with a start to a gentle touch on his shoulder. It was Jesus, and as the other two sat up rubbing their eyes, he said in a voice tinged with disappointment, “Couldn’t you three keep awake with me for a single hour?” Choking back his emotion, he added, quietly, “Watch, and pray that you may not have to face temptation; your spirit is willing, but human nature is weak.” He sat silently with them for a while and then returned to his solitary prayers. A second time Peter awoke to find Jesus standing over him, this time more composed. Peter tried to rouse himself as Jesus went back to pray alone. After a short time, Peter felt a firmer hand shaking his shoulder. “Wake up,” said Jesus, “the hour has come. In a moment you will see the Son of Man betrayed.”

Dazed, Peter jumped to his feet. Flaring torches dazzled him. In what seemed like another dream, he saw Judas step forward and kiss Jesus, and heard Jesus say, “Judas, is it with a kiss that you betray the Son of Man?” On the word, ‘betray’, Peter gripped his sword.

The capture of Christ (detail)
The capture of Christ (detail) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Who are you looking for?” Jesus asked the Temple Guards. “Jesus of Nazareth,” they replied. “I am he” said Jesus calmly, turning around to point at the disciples, ” so, since you have found me, let these others go.” Peter shouted, “Don’t worry, Lord, we can take care of ourselves.” In the glare of the torches came the flash of a blade and the cry, “watch out, the big fellow has a sword!” Peter struck out wildly at Malchus, the Temple Servant, as he moved forwards to oversee the arrest of Jesus. “My head!” Malchus shouted, “he’s hacked my ear off!” He was covered with blood and dazed from the blow. The Guard rushed forwards and there was a lot of shouting and scuffling, then calm returned as the Galilean spoke quietly, telling Peter to put his sword away, that “those that lived by the sword, died by it.” Someone put a bandage around Malchus’ head, holding the almost severed ear back in place. Then Jesus put his hands over Malchus’ head and healed the ear instantly. The Captain of the Guard inspected it, but, despite the blood, found no wound. Then he carried out the arrest, and the other disciples slipped away into the night, throwing away anything that might incriminate them, including the short-swords that one or two others, besides Peter, had been carrying. The Sanhedrin wasn’t interested in the Twelve. Having captured the shepherd of the flock, they knew the sheep would scatter, just as Jesus himself had predicted.

Treachery in the Courtyard:

As Peter crouched in the darkness of an olive grove, he was stunned by a mix of feelings: Fatigue, fear, uncertainty and, above all, a sense of guilt. He was acutely aware of failing his master, of having fallen asleep three times and failed to keep watch. How many times, on Galilee, had he been fishing at night and returned to the shore to accompany Jesus in his ministry the next day? The arrest had all happened so quickly, and yet he had seen the lights in the distance and fallen back asleep. In that moment, if he had managed to rouse himself and stand guard, as Jesus had asked, he could have woken ‘Thunder and Lightning’, the sons of Zebedee, they would have had time to draw the swords Jesus had told them to bring with them, and the three of them, surrounding Jesus,  might at least have put up a better fight and even shepherded Jesus away to Bethany, to the safety of locked doors. Now his solitary, futile sword-play had landed him and his master in even more trouble. Now, in the distance, he could see the torches of the Temple Guard and Roman soldiery taking an unresisting Jesus to trial. Why had Jesus told them to bring swords in the first place, if he didn’t intend them to use them? Where was the Legion of Angels Jesus had said he could call out of Heaven to protect him? Why hadn’t he done this?

003John and James joined him in the olive grove next to the Bethany Road and they decided to split up. James would take the other, remaining disciples to Bethany and hide out in Lazarus’ house with the women. They would bar all the doors. Peter and John would run down through the olive groves, overtake the arrest party, and try to find out what was happening to Jesus. Nicodemus was near the gate to the High Priest’s House, having been summoned in the middle of the night to attend ‘a hearing’, just as Jesus was led through. John spotted him, and Nicodemus passed him off as his servant to get him through the gate and into the judgement hall. Peter stayed in the Temple courtyard outside the gate and watched the members of the Sanhedrin arriving. There were quite a few people in the centre of the courtyard, but Peter hung back in the shadows, conscious of the blood staining his fisherman’s tunic. However, someone had lit a fire, so he removed it. hid it behind an olive stump and moved closer to the fire. As he did so, he suddenly saw Judas emerging from the High Priest’s House by torchlight. He found himself muttering and cursing “that traitor” out loud, unintentionally drawing attention to himself.

Peter's Denial by Rembrandt, 1660. Jesus is sh...
Peter’s Denial by Rembrandt, 1660. Jesus is shown in the upper right hand corner, his hands bound behind him, turning to look at Peter. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the serving girls sitting by the fire heard his thick Galilean accent and asked him if he was one of the followers of Jesus. She had heard the man from Nazareth preach many times and the Twelve were always with him, and he recognised him as the big man, a sort of bodyguard, who was always at his side. Peter denied even knowing Jesus. A member of the Temple Guard who had been in the arrest party also came over. He looked carefully at Peter, thinking he might be the big man who hit Malchus with his sword. “You are one of that man’s followers, aren’t you?” he said, pointing to the house where Jesus was being interrogated by Sanhedrin. Peter denied it with such a protest that the officer of the Guard grew even more suspicious.  However, there was no blood on his clothes and it had been dark in the garden. There had been a lot of confusion.

The officer went inside the House for a short time, and about an hour later Malchus himself came out to where Peter was sitting and asked him to stand. More than a head taller than Malchus, Peter was able to look down at the bloody bandages on the Temple servants’ head. Malchus asked him officiously for his name, trade and address. Peter answered that he was Simon-bar-Jonas, a fisherman from Capernaum. “I thought so,” said Malchus, “you’re a Galilean, the prisoner’s armed bodyguard who did this to me earlier when we went to arrest him in Gethsemane, on the Mount of Olives. Come on, speak up! I’m in no pain, no thanks to you, but I can’t hear so well, just now,” Peter answered that he rarely went to the other side of Galilee, let alone to Nazareth. He had heard of Jesus of Nazareth, but had never seen him and the man meant nothing to him. He had come on his own to the City for the Passover, together with his friend John, who was in the Temple, praying. He was waiting for him.

Brooklyn Museum - The Third Denial of Peter. J...At that moment, Jesus was brought out of the High Priest’s House. He stood on the steps and looked straight over at Peter: a sad look, but nothing to prove he knew him. John was with Nicodemus, not far behind. Near at hand, a rooster crowed as the sky grew lighter. In the half-light Malchus could see tears rolling down the big man’s face. He tried to speak, twice, then turned and broke into a run across the courtyard and out of the gate, weeping bitterly. John left Nicodemus and ran after Peter.

Behind them, the Temple Guards had blindfolded Jesus and began playing games with him by the fire, beating him and asking him to guess who had hit him, and hurling worse insults at him. Nicodemus tried to stop them, but was ushered away, and Malchus turned away and went back inside. The guards were far too preoccupied with their prisoner, whom they had been told to hold until the full Sanhedrin could be assembled in daylight, to bother about chasing after his Galilean fishermen friends. They could run all the way back to Capernaum, as far as they were concerned, and the Romans or Herod’s men could deal with them there, like they dealt with all the other troublesome northerners. Not their problem. They had their man.

From Bethany to Galilee: 

004But John and Peter did not return to Galilee. They ran to Bethany and joined the other disciples, who had decided to stay together, close to Jerusalem, at least until the worst was over. They kept the door locked, except for the women coming and going with other relatives, escorted by John and Joseph of Arimathea. Two days later, when Mary Magdalene brought news of the empty tomb. Fearing that the body had been stolen, Peter and John set off on one of their runs again, to Joseph’s garden cave, where Jesus had been placed after his crucifixion.

John got their first and waited for Peter, and when they saw the linen clothes lying there, they began to believe, John better than Peter, that the scriptures really had come true. But they didn’t really understand was resurrection was until Peter met the risen Jesus in person on the road near Jerusalem later that same afternoon. Two other disciples also met him on the road to Emmaus in the evening and when they returned to Bethany to tell the others, Jesus suddenly appeared to all of them, except Thomas.  A week after that, he had appeared to all of them again, this time including Thomas. After this, they followed the instructions of the angel and Jesus himself, who had first appeared to Mary Magdalene and Mary of Bethany outside the tomb, to return to Galilee to meet him there.

However, nothing had happened for weeks now, so Peter decided to go back to doing what he knew best….

John 21, 1-19:

After this, Jesus appeared once more to his disciples at Lake Tiberias. This is how it happened. Simon Peter, Thomas (called the twin), Nathanael (the one from Cana in Galilee), the sons of Zebedee, and the two other disciples of Jesus were all together. Simon Peter said to the others, “I am going fishing.” “We will come with you,” they told him. So they went out in a boat, but all that night they did not catch a thing.

As the sun was rising, Jesus stood at the water’s edge, but the disciples did not know it was Jesus….

….A third time Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter became sad because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” and so he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you!” Jesus said to him, “Take care of my sheep…..”….Then Jesus said to him, “Follow me!” 

The Drama of Jesus, by Paul White & Clifford Warne:

The late afternoon breeze was rippling the water of the Lake of Galilee. John and six of the disciples were walking along the shore. “Where’s Peter?” asked John.

“Whenever he wanted to think something over,” said Andrew, “he’d go down to the boats and mend the nets.”

“But we agreed we’d stay together while we waited for the Lord to arrive.”

Andrew shrugged. “An impatient man is our Peter.”

“Come on. Let’s find him,” said John….They found Peter sitting morosely on a pile of nets, looking over the lake. Gruffly he greeted them and said, “I’m going fishing”.

“Jesus told us to wait on the hillside,” answered John. Peter pulled irritably at his beard. “You can wait there. I’m going to the boats and nets and the lake, to work.”

“But what about His work?” asked John. “I’m sure the Lord has plans for our future.”

Without looking up, Peter muttered, “You can also be sure that He wants reliable men to carry it out. Not weaklings; not those who panic and are afraid. He called me the Rock and I turned out to be this….” He picked up a piece of rotten driftwood and broke it over his knee.

“You told me that He forgave you.”

“Forgave, yes,” Peter sighed. “But trust me – depend on me in the future – that’s different. Would you put your work in the hands of a person who openly denied he even knew you?”

“Is that all you remember of that terrible night? A night when we were all bewildered and afraid. We all failed him.”

“That may be,” said Peter, “but I gave him my word that I would never let him down.” He thumped his palm with his fist. “I said I’d die for him.”

“True,” agreed John, “we all said we’d die for him.”

“You didn’t swear you’d never seen him before and that anyhow he meant nothing to you.”

“So you feel ashamed and guilty,” said John gently. “It shocked you to catch a glimpse of the real Simon – weak, scared and unreliable. The truth took you by surprise, shook you and bruised your pride.” He put his hands on Peter’s shoulders. “Tell me, you miserable, short-memoried fisherman, did it take Him by surprise?” John spoke slowly and forcibly. “Did the truth about you shock him?” He turned to the others. “Andrew, do you remember what the Lord said to this bag-of-self-pity you call a brother, when he told us that Satan would sift us all like wheat?”

Andrew nodded. “He said, ‘Simon, Simon, I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you come to yourself you must lend strength to your brothers.’ “

Peter turned away. What John said was true. Jesus had known the worst even before it happened. He knew Peter better than Peter knew himself and he still loved him, cared about him and prayed for him.

Peter kept looking towards the lake. He didn’t want them to see his tears. He strode down towards the water, muttering, “I’m still going fishing.”

They sat in silence and watched him check the fishing gear. Then he put his shoulder to the boat and slowly pushed it into the water. Once aboard, he set about hoisting the sails. The disciples jumped to their feet and ran after him, shouting, “wait for us.”

They cast their nets all night and caught nothing. Slowly, they rowed back in the dawn mist…

A voice called from the shore, “Fellows, have you caught anything?”

Peter shouted back, “No.”

“Shoot the net to starboard and you will make a catch.”…

…They cast the net. In a second their tiredness turned into excited action. The boat jerked to starboard, the water had sudden turbulence. Peter took immediate control. He shouted orders. “Pull – watch it – carefully now – don’t tear the net…John, what are you doing?”

John had no thought for fish. He was staring through the mist. “The man on the shore He….”

“Never mind him, help with the catch!” But John was still looking shoreward. “Peter,” he breathed, “it’s the Lord!”

“Remember how he told us to cast the net on the other side of the boat?” Peter wasn’t listening. The moment he realised who it was, he grabbed his tunic, hauled it on, dived overboard and swam to the shore.

Andrew’s face was a study. “Oh-um-then what do we do with all these fish?”

“He helped us to catch them,” said John decisively. “We bring them in.” He grasped the net calling, “Keep rowing!”

The boat was soon in the shallows. The six disciples landed and started dragging the net up the beach.  They were at once aware of the smell of fish cooking and the warmth of a fire in the chill dawn. As John dragged in the net his mind was a whirl. What could he say to Jesus?  “I’m sorry, Lord. We waited and waited on the hillside. We had to do something so we went back to the nets.” But his dilemma disappeared when Jesus said, “Bring some of the fish you caught.”…

“Come and have breakfast,” said Jesus, and began serving them.

Apart from murmurs of thanks no one spoke during the meal. John looked at Jesus but looked away again. He was unwilling to meet his Lord’s eyes. He asked himself, …”What has He said to Peter? What are his plans for the future?” Peter sat there moodily looking at the fish. Then Jesus spoke using Peter’s old name. “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?”

“Yes, Lord,” came the husky reply. “You know I’m your friend.”

Jesus looked directly at him. “Take care of my lambs.”

Then realisation gripped him. “He still wants me,” Peter thought, “that’s the end of the fishing business.”

There was a long silence. The disciples barely stirred.  Jesus spoke again.  “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” 

Peter still sat there, his hands cupping his chin. Again he said, “Yes, Lord. You know I’m your friend.”

Jesus looked at him. Peter’s eyes met his. There was love and confidence in the order. “Then tend my sheep.”

The wind stirred the water. Small waves splashed on the sand. Peter was barely aware of the familiar smells of fish and nets.

Insistently Jesus’ voice came again. “Simon, son of John, are you my friend?”

Peter flinched. There were tears in his eyes. The words wounded him deeply. He blurted out, “Lord, you know everything. You know everything. You know I’m your friend”. His wet clothing stuck to his body. He shivered.

Again came the order, “Feed my sheep.” Jesus paused and then went on, “Peter, I’m telling you the truth. When you were young you used to get ready and go where you wanted, but when you are old you will stretch out your hands and someone else will take you where you don’t want to go.”

Peter’s gaze was focused on the Lord’s wounded feet. Slowly the words he had heard took shape in his mind. He looked at his own feet and realised that one day, when Jesus’ words came true, he too would have similar wounds…Jesus looked into his troubled face and said, “Follow me.” Then he stood up and walked away. At once Peter followed him…..

 

…..The guards grasped Peter and John and pushed them down the steps from the judgement hall. “Clear out,” said the captain. “And mind you do what you’re told.”…Hurrying towards them came Matthew. “Thank God you’re free. I have splendid news. Yesterday that big crowd heard you tell that Jesus is alive, Peter. …They believed, hundreds of them.”

“So things have been happening while we were in prison and in court,” said John.

“We’ve been busy telling people about Him and what He said. Scores of us were at it till late last night, and we started again early this morning.”

“Hundreds you say?” questioned Peter.

Matthew nodded. “You know how I like figures. Since he gave us his Holy Spirit and told us to go tell the good news, five thousand have believed.”

Peter whistled softly. “Fishers of men, that’s what he promised. Shoals of them!”

 

Follow Me!

Alan T Dale has pointed out that no story can simply be a record resulting from a historical enquiry. Whilst it must be subject to the proper analysis of the sources, texts and contexts it is set in, we are not merely asking historical questions. The whole story faces us with three questions which stem from Jesus’ thrice-asked question to Peter about brotherly love:

  • Isn’t love the real human adventure? The Story of Jesus puts a question mark against all our chosen ideals and ambitions…challenges us to look for the real source of fulfilment…
  • Isn’t love the clue? Jesus was never dogmatic, but crafted his convictions the hard way, struggling, as mankind always has, with the business of making sense of the tangled human experience…all he said and did was a product of this process…
  • Isn’t love the end? Men and women have always dreamed dreams and seen visions of a future common society in a common world. In Economics, in Science, and in Education, we seek the clue to this world. The Story of Jesus and his Disciples forces us to ask what kind of world we really want and how we expect to make it. He continues to make us scrutinise our common assumptions and encourages us to make a bolder enquiry. Isn’t love the clue to history, its meaning and its end?

Jesus’ ‘craft’ is summed up by those final words to Peter, ‘Follow Me!’ – the answers are to be found not only by thinking critically but by living boldly, experimentally and adventurously.  What if Peter, instead of breaking the driftwood and casting it away, had cut away the rotten wood and shaped the remaining soft wood into something useful or ornamental? The fishermen moved their nets to starboard even before they knew who was directing them, and that it would be as successful a catch as it had been before. ‘Tough Love’ isn’t a blueprint, it’s a ‘Rough Guide’! It’s true meaning can only be found experimentally. God’s world is a world in the making – to be explored, lived in, shared and enjoyed together. How this can be done can only be found in the doing, in following Jesus. Love is the greatest human experience, and friendship is the way we improve it. It is the attitude and emotion which forms the precondition to finding real answers to human questions. Jesus was the pioneer, and we often fall a long way behind, but He never lets us fall so far behind that we cannot see or hear him. We are his friends because we do what he commands; we love him and one another. We follow him to the ends of the earth, and from this world to the next where Love, his Love, is perfect. Easter is not just for one Sunday, or a week or two after, it’s for ever!

005

John’s ‘Epilogue’ is not the only Galilean appearance of the risen Jesus recorded in the gospels. In Matthew’s gospel, the eleven disciples meet him on a hill. Matthew tells us that even now, some of them doubted what they were seeing, but Jesus drew near and told them to go out and make disciples of  ‘all peoples, everywhere’. He left them in no doubt that they were no longer fishing in a small inland sea in northern Palestine, but in the wide open seas beyond, and for a catch which none of them could number.

Prayers:

Simon

What have we done to deserve your appearing? Like Simon, we have denied you in the inmost secrets of our hearts. We have denied you with our lips, and yet you have marked our tears and read our thoughts. We thank you for that love which always comes to us. Help us never to forget your mercy and keep us, like Simon, faithful to the end. Amen.

(Ian D Bunting)

Make a Catch

Sometimes, Lord, you seem to us as a stranger on the shore. Then you remind us of our calling. You challenge us with hard commandments. You draw out our trust. And then, when we obey you, you reveal yourself – not as a stranger but as a friend! Help us to discover you again today, as we do what you tell us. For your name’s sake. Amen

(Ian D Bunting)

Alan T Dale, Portrait of Jesus. Oxford University Press, 1979.

Paul White & Clifford Warne, The Drama of Jesus. Sydney: Hodder and Stoughton, 1980.

David Kossoff, The Book of Witnesses. Glasgow: Collins, 1971.

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