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Paul of Tarsus: Endnotes & Evaluations on his Legacy to the Early Church.   Leave a comment

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Archaeological Insights:

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The first missions to the Gentiles, as presented in the Acts of the Apostles offers a fruitful field for archaeological study. Different kinds of detail interlock. For example, Paul met the Christian couple Priscilla and Aquila in Corinth, after Emperor Claudius had expelled the Jews from Rome (Acts 18: 2). This expulsion is mentioned in pagan literature and dated to AD 49 by a later writer. During Paul’s long stay in Corinth, Gallio became governor (Acts 18: 12); he is known elsewhere from the writings of his more famous brother Seneca, and his governorship can be dated to AD 51-2 by an inscription found in Delphi. This evidence helps build a consistent and fairly precise outline for this part of Paul’s life and helps relate Acts to Paul’s letters.

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Many details of the names of people and officials, places and customs in the book can be exactly illustrated from inscriptions. This does not prove its account to be historically accurate, but it does rule out any view which holds that the writer, probably Luke (Paul’s early travelling companion and author of the synoptic gospel which bears his name), was careless about such details. It also makes it hard to believe that the book was written long after the events it describes. A test case of the relationship between Acts, the Epistles and the archaeology is Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Sir William Ramsay used the evidence of inscriptions to clearly establish clearly the extent of Galatia and then argued that the letter was sent to the southern cities such as Pisidian Antioch, in Phrygia (above), which Paul had visited on his first journey (Acts 13-14). This, in turn, fits the very early dating of the letter. Thus the details of Paul’s life contained in the letter may be linked directly to those in Acts.

The Greek Writer and Theologian:

Paul’s surviving letters are found in the New Testament. Galatians was probably written before the Council of Jerusalem in about AD 50. The two letters to the Thessalonians date from his first journey to into Greece; Romans and I & II Corinthians come from his last spell in Greece before his arrest at Jerusalem. Philippians, Colossians, and Ephesians were probably written from Rome during Paul’s first imprisonment there, and Philemon may have been written during his earlier house arrest in Ephesus. The two letters to Timothy and the letter to Titus were probably written after Paul’s first stay in Rome. In them, Paul showed his mastery of Greek, and these two ‘pastoral’ letters can be counted among the classics of Greek literature. The letters were highly valued during Paul’s lifetime and were collected together soon after his death. By AD 95 they were accepted on an equal basis with other Scripture and were in their present form by AD 140. Paul’s theology was not well understood in the period immediately after his death. This was partly because the heretic Marcion rejected the Old Testament and much that was Jewish in the emerging canon of the New Testament. He considered that Matthew, Mark, Acts and Hebrews favoured Jewish readers exclusively. He also cut out the pastoral letters to Timothy and Titus, which left him with only a mutilated version of Luke’s Gospel and ten of Paul’s letters. He believed that Paul was the only apostle who did not corrupt the gospel of Jesus. As long as Marcion’s heresy was a threat, mainstream Christian teachers did not stress many of Paul’s more distinctive doctrines, such as that regarding the law of Christ and God’s grace. It was not until the time of Augustine that full weight was given to Paul’s theology.

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The Missionary’s Achievements:

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Paul’s achievements as a missionary were immense. The years between his Damascene conversion in AD 35 and his Antiochene preparations and initial discussions with the church in Jerusalem from AD 45 remain somewhat obscure, but during the next ten or twelve years, his activity was astounding. Between AD 47/48, when he set sail with Barnabas on his first missionary journey, and AD 57, when he returned to Jerusalem for the last time, he established flourishing churches in the major cities of the Roman provinces of Galatia, Asia, Macedonia and Achaia. His decisive role in the early Christian mission to the Gentiles was due principally to his championing of it to the first churches in Jerusalem and Antioch in Syria.

He then developed the theological defence of the Gentile mission which is clearly set out in Romans 1-11, while working hard to hold together and reconcile Jewish and Gentile Christians in the Diaspora. With this purpose in view, he kept in constant touch with the ‘mother church’ in Jerusalem, collecting a considerable sum of money among the Gentile converts for the needs of the Christians in Judea, and regularly underlined the importance of Christian unity in his letters. Finally, Paul’s principle of being ‘all things to all people’ helped him to move with relative ease between the synagogues, halls and house-churches of Graeco-Roman society, where ultimately the gospel received its greatest response. Moreover, his personal example as a self-supporting travelling missionary and his ‘settlements’ in significant cities provided a pattern of ministry for others to follow. His preference for the single life was based not on the kind of celibacy which Jesus advocated for some in Matthew 19, but on his initial sense that Christ’s return might come very soon. He certainly recognised the practical advantages for missionaries of remaining unmarried. However, like Jesus, he did not advocate a life of asceticism and self-denial as the norm for ministry and attacked the teaching that it was wrong to marry.

The origin and meaning of the word ‘apostle’ are hard to establish, and it obviously means very different things to different New Testament writers. For Luke, an apostle is one who accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us (Acts 1: 21), thus excluding Paul. But for Paul himself, apostleship was something to be proud of, and he is very anxious to defend his own (I Cor. 9: 1). For him, the apostles are those who have been commissioned by an appearance of the risen Lord, as he had been on the road to Damascus. Later, in his Pastoral letters, Paul is the Apostle, the guardian of the faith. The one point of agreement is that apostleship is not something that can be passed on. A famous passage, I Cor. 12: 28, mentions in succession apostles, prophets and teachers, and Eph. 4: 11 has a similar list. It is doubtful, however, whether these can be regarded as different classes of ministry. Rather, they are different activities, more than one of which might be practised by a single individual:

  • Deacon is usually a general term, describing any form of ministry or service. In two passages, the deacon seems to be a particular minister, subordinate to the bishop (Phil. 1: 1; I Tim. 3: 8-13). If the two terms are used technically in Phil 1: 1, this is the only evidence we have of such a formal ministry from the Pauline letters so the terms may be general even there.

  • Elders are not mentioned at all by Paul but are to be found as ministers throughout Acts, appointed by Paul and Barnabas in every church (Acts 14: 23; cf. 15: 12 ff.; 16: 4; 20: 17; 21: 18). Here Jewish practice is followed. Villages and towns had their groups of Jewish elders, seven in each village, twenty-three in each town and seventy in Jerusalem. When a place fell vacant, it was filled by the laying on of hands, the pattern found in Acts.

  • Bishop is a term which occurs in a technical sense in Acts 20: 28., but as in Phil 1: 1 the word may be used generally as ‘overseer’. Bishop is a definite office in I Tim. 3: 1-7; Titus 1: 7-9. The relationship between elders and bishops is a classic problem, as at times the two terms could be synonyms. At the end of the second century, each bishop was in charge of a particular area. All bishops were elders, but not all elders were bishops.

We have even less evidence about the ministry at this time than about other important matters, and what is said in the ‘Apostolic Fathers’ does little to help. Clearly, the pattern varied from place to place, and development was by no means uniform.

How would Paul have assessed the significance of his work?

From differing angles, more can be said about the reasons for the surprising long-term success of Paul’s work. Tom Wright tells us that Paul’s particular vocation was to found and maintain Jew-plus-Gentile churches on Gentile soil. He realised early on that it was his job not just to teach people what to think and believe, but to teach them how; how to think clearly, scripturally, prayerfully. The One God had already built his new Temple, his new microcosmos; the Jew-plus-Gentile church was the place where the divine spirit already revealed his glory as a sign of what would happen one day throughout the whole world. Of course, Paul would not have expected all this to happen smoothly or easily. He was a realist and would never have assumed that the transformation of small and often confused communities into a much larger body, forming a majority in the Roman world, would come about without terrible suffering and horrible pitfalls. He would also have been saddened by the mistakes and heresies of the following centuries and the battles that would have to be fought. But he would also have pointed out that something had happened in Jesus which was of cosmic significance. The success of the ‘Jesus Movement’ wasn’t simply the accidental product of energetic work meeting historical opportunity. God was at work in the midst of his people to produce both the will and the energy for it to succeed. This divine design and Spirit-led motivation were bound to have their larger effect, sooner or later, and by whatever means they could find.

Paul was also very much alive to all the factors that the historian, as opposed to the theologian, might want to study. He would have been very much aware of the need for historians to demythologise scriptural narratives. In his own day, Greek scholars were doing the same kind of thing with the stories of Homer. Paul would not, himself, have wanted to ascribe the whole happening of Jesus to divine or angelic power operating without human agency, since he believed that when grace was at work, human agents were themselves were regularly called upon to work hard as a result, not least in prayer. He said this of himself (I Cor. 15: 10; Col. 1: 29). The Creator may work in a thousand ways, but one central way is, for Paul, through people who think freely, pray, make difficult decisions and work hard, especially in prayer. Since heaven and earth had come together in the persons of Jesus and his Spirit, we should expect different layers of explanation to reside together and reinforce each other. Paul was one of the most successful public intellectuals of all time precisely because he was able to take advantage of the human circumstances of his time – a common language, freedom of travel and citizenship of the Roman Empire – to establish an international movement not only for the course of his own lifetime but for an indeterminate historical future.

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Paul’s Personal Attributes:

Tom Wright highlights a number of personal attributes which enabled Paul to develop the early Christian church throughout the Empire of the Eastern Mediterranean and in Rome itself. First of all, he points to the sheer energy of the missionary, which can be found not only in the narratives of Acts but also pulsing through his letters. He responds to violence in one city by going straight on to the next, saying and doing the same things there. He worked all hours, making tents when not preaching, teaching or dictating letters to a scribe. He was also ready every moment for the visitor with a question or local official worried about his status. He was ready to put down his tools and leave his workbench for an hour or two in order to go from house to house making pastoral visits to encourage the faithful, to comfort the bereaved, downhearted and distressed, to warn and pray. In between his house calls, he was thinking about what he would say in his afternoon address in the house of Titus Justus in Corinth or the hall of Tyrannus in Ephesus. In the evening, he would pause to say prayers with his close friends and travelling companions, before working long into the night, praying for those he had met that day, for the city officials and for the Christians in other cities, for the next day’s work and the next phase of his mission.

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His second attribute was his direct, up-front habit of telling it as he saw it, no matter who was confronting him. From his early days in Damascus, getting into trouble, to his arguments with the apostles in Jerusalem and his confrontation with Peter in Antioch, he didn’t hold back from controversy or seek to avoid conflict if he thought it would advance the church’s mission by confronting and seeking to resolve it. Wright suggests that the only reason he didn’t say more at the Jerusalem Conference was that Barnabas was there to act as a moderating influence. His debating style might have proved effective, but it might also have alienated many more sensitive souls. He also confronted the magistrates at Philippi and relished speaking truth to the vast crowd in Ephesus; he is fearless in trying to explain himself to the lynching mob in Jerusalem and is not afraid to rebuke the High Priest.  He was an astute politician who knew how to turn the various factions of the Sanhedrin against each other. He also lectured the Roman governor himself about justice, self-control, and the coming judgement. As a travelling companion, he must have been exhilarating and exasperating in equal measure, depending on whether things were going well or badly. He must have been a formidable an opponent since he seems to have driven some people to contemplate murder as their only means of ridding themselves of this troublesome missionary.

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Yet there must have been something quite disarming about Paul’s vulnerable side, which helps to explain why people wanted to work alongside. He was the sort of person for whom there were no limitations in affection for his fellow Christians. His honesty shines through in the pages of his letters. He would do anything he could for the churches since God had done everything for him through the Messiah. Neither would he have asked anyone to face anything he himself had not faced, including terrible suffering and hardship. The Corinthians would have immediately recognised a self-portrait in his poem about divine love, and when he told the Philippians to rejoice and celebrate, they knew that, given half a chance, Paul would have been at the party in spirit, the life and soul of it. He modelled what he taught, and what he taught was the utter, exuberant, self-giving love of the Messiah and the joy that accompanied it. His associates were fiercely loyal to him, and there was mutual love between them. He was the sort of person who enabled others to change and grow so that they themselves would take forward the same missionary work with as much of the same energy as they themselves could muster.

Paul’s Writing:

But within two or three generations the memory of this personal relationship had faded so that it was his letters which kept his influence alive. The flow of words from his daily teaching, arguing, praying and pastoral work was captured for future generations in these short, challenging epistles. It isn’t just their content, strikingly original and authentic as it is. He wasn’t synthesising the worlds of Israel, Greece and Rome; his was a firmly Jewish picture, rooted in Israel’s ancient narrative, with its Messiah occupying centre stage and the nations of the world and their best ideas brought into new coherence around him. Nor was he simply teaching a ‘religion’ or ‘theology’, but drawing together wisdom learnt from many different ancient disciplines, which we would class under economics, history and philosophy. Yet within a generation people were grumbling that Paul was sometimes too difficult to understand and that some were misinterpreting him. But it is no accident that many of the great moments of church history and Christian thought, involving  Augustine, Luther and Barth, have come about through fresh engagement with Paul’s work. Paul had insisted that what mattered was not just what you thought but how you thought. He modelled what he advocated, and generation after generation has since learned to think in this new way. In this way, his legacy has continued to generate fresh dividends.

Culture, Politics & Society:

Paul himself would claim that all this was the doing of the One God and his Messiah, whereas ‘sceptics’ might retort that the movement owed much to the spread of the Greek language and culture combined with the increasing ease of travel throughout the Roman Empire. This meant that conditions were ripe for the spread of new ideas and movements throughout the known world and even into South Asia. Paul would perhaps have rejoindered that if the Messiah was sent when the fullness of time arrived (Gal. 4: 4), then perhaps Greece and Rome were part of the plan and the preparation, as well as part of the problem. Tom Wright does not agree, however, with those who have claimed that people were getting tired of the old philosophies and pagan religions and were ready for something new. The problem in Ephesus, for example, was not that people had stopped worshipping Artemis, and so were ready for Paul’s message, but that Paul’s message about the One God had burst on the scene and stopped the worship of Artemis. Social and cultural conditions can help to explain the way things worked out, but they cannot explain it away. Paul emphasised, in letter after letter, the family life of believers; what he begins to call ‘the church’, the ekklesia. He continually emphasises the unity and the holiness of the church, as well as highlighting and ‘celebrating’ the suffering that he and others would and did endure as a result of their loyalty to Jesus. This was not about pagans experimenting with new ideas, but about a new kind of spiritual community and even a new kind of ‘politics’.

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Politics is concerned with the polis – the city, the community – and how it works and runs. Sophisticated theories had been advanced in Paul’s day, often by theoreticians like Cicero and Seneca, who were also members of the ruling élite. The main feature of Paul’s political landscape was Rome, which had united the world, or so it claimed. But that top-down uniformity in which diversity was tolerated as long as it didn’t threaten the absolute sovereignty of Caesar, was often ugly. ‘Diversity’ was still seen in strictly hierarchical terms: men over women, free over slaves, Romans over everyone else. Rebels were ruthlessly suppressed. They make a wilderness, sighed the Briton Calgacus, and they call it ‘peace’ (Tacitus, Agricola 30.6). What Paul had been doing was undoubtedly building a different kind of community offering a different vision of unity, hosting a different kind of diversity based on churches of Gentiles and Jews. He was founding and maintaining an interrelated network of communities for which the only analogies were synagogue communities, on the one hand, and the Roman army and civil service on the other. But Paul’s communities were very different from either. They had the deepest roots and were not simply a freestanding innovation. Rome traced its story back nearly a thousand years, while the synagogue told the still longer story which went back to Abraham. Paul told that story too and regularly explained to his communities that they had been grafted into that great tradition. In Paul’s work, this was as much a social and communal strength as it was a theological one.

Morality & Marriage:

When the new communities spoke of a different kind of kyrios, one whose sovereignty was gained through humility and suffering, rather than wealth and conquest, many must have found that attractive, not simply for what we would call ‘religious’ reasons, but precisely because for what they might call ‘political’ ones. Paul did not, of course, have time to develop his picture of the differentiated unity of the body of Christ into a larger exposition of the church as a whole. He had not articulated a political authority to match that of Aristotle or his successors. But it was that kind of social experiment, of developing a new way of living together, that the churches of the second and third centuries sought to develop. Their inspiration for this went back to Paul’s theological vision and was not pure pragmatism. It had the power to generate an alternative social and cultural reality, to announce to the world that Jesus was Lord and Caesar wasn’t. What Paul had articulated in his letters, often in haste and to meet particular crises, was reused to encourage Christians to develop a refreshingly new kind of human society. In particular, the Christian message provided a much better prospect for women than the pagan religions, which routinely practised infanticide for unwanted children in general and girls in particular. The Christians followed the Jews in renouncing such behaviour. The consequent shortage of marriageable girls among pagans and the surplus among Christians led to an increase in inter-cultural marriages, with many of the offspring being brought up as Christians. The fresh evaluation of the role of women, begun by Jesus himself, was developed by Paul, who listed several women among his colleagues and fellow workers. For example, Phoebe was entrusted with the responsibility of delivering and expounding his letter to the Romans.

With sexual excesses all around them, it is likely that some Christians reacted against sexual indulgence from a fairly early period. However, this was not formally set out or made a matter of special praise. In fact, special vows by younger women to abstain from marriage were discouraged by Paul. During the period which followed, abstinence from marriage was left as a matter of personal choice, although in most ‘Gnostic’ sects marriage was actively discouraged on the grounds that it entangled the spiritual soul with the evil physical world. Some Jewish and Christian traditions blamed sexual differences on ‘the fall’ and believed that salvation included a return to a ‘unisex’ or asexual life. In the mainstream churches, leaders such as Melito of Sardis became known for their austere personal lives; abstinence from marriage was part of this. In many churches, too, Christian women had difficulty in finding suitable husbands. Those who remained unmarried had more time for prayer and devotion. In the same way, men who were free from family ties had more time to devote to church affairs and were often obvious choices as leaders. By the third century, celibacy was beginning to be valued as a mark of holiness. Even so, extremes were frowned upon, and Origen earned considerable disapproval because he made himself a eunuch, believing that this was commended in the Gospels. As martyrdom declined, asceticism began to become the measure of spirituality; the leaders regarded as more spiritual in the churches tended to be those who practised an ascetic way of life, though the clergy was not generally obliged to be celibate.

Poverty & Social Action:

Within a few generations, the early Christian communities set up hospitals, caring for all those within reach, and they were also enthusiastic about education, teaching their converts to read the scriptures of ancient Israel, and thereby giving them the literacy skills that previously only a maximum of thirty per cent of the populations had acquired, almost exclusively male. Some of the older Greek cities and islands had a tradition of elementary education for citizens, but for many people, this would have been minimal, and women and slaves were excluded. Converts to Christianity, therefore, gained basic reading skills that they had hitherto lacked. Christians were also technological pioneers in making books, abandoning scrolls with their natural limitations and developing the ‘codex’, the ancestor of the modern bound book. The earliest Christian congregations quickly appreciated the value of the letters written by the apostles. Some of them were obviously intended for public reading, perhaps in place of, or alongside, a sermon on the Old Testament, and for circulating among the churches. But they clearly wanted more and more people to be able to read the books the community was producing. This insistence on education and especially reading can be traced back directly to Paul, who told his churches to be ‘grown-up’ in their thinking, to be transformed by the renewal of their minds as well as their hearts. He wanted the early Christians not only to think the right things but also to think in the right way. Though he did not himself found what we would today call ‘schools’ when such things did come about, they had him to thank for the underlying impetus.

Paul’s collection for the poor of Jerusalem was followed up in each local Jesus community in its work among the poor around it. Paul congratulated the Thessalonians on their practical ‘loving-kindness’ or agape and urged them to work at it more and more. “Do good to everyone,” he wrote to the Galatians, “and particularly to the household of the faith.” He encouraged them to… Celebrate with those who are celebrating, mourn with the mourners… Shine like lights in the world. The gospel itself was designed to generate a new kind of people, a people who would be eager for good works; in fact, the new kind of humanity that was brought to birth through the gospel was created for the specific purpose of ‘good works’ (Gal. 2: 10; I Thess. 4: 9-10; Gal. 6: 10; Rom. 12: 15; Phil. 2: 15; Titus 2: 14; Eph. 2: 10). This phrase means more than ‘the performance of moral rules’, especially when played off against Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith alone. Morals matter, faith matters, but that isn’t the point here. Paul’s emphasis is all about communities through whose regular practice the surrounding world is made a better place. Through Christ’s faithfulness and their own loving-kindness, these communities would find the right way to live. Good morals and good works would follow. In Corinth, there was a tendency to divide into factions centred on the personalities of human leaders, rather than just over doctrines. A prominent member of the community was living in immorality and individual Christians were taking each other to the law-courts over minor disputes. There were also misunderstandings about the meaning of Christian liberty. Paul’s letters, as well as those of John, reveal controversies and power-struggles in the midst of encouragement and growth.

The Spread of Christian Communities:

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But the church history of the second and third centuries is enough to confirm that all these things, taken together, offer good explanations for the spread of the Christian communities. These early Christians, strange though their views and lives might have seemed to those around, antisocial though some might have supposed them to be, were doing things that really do transform the wider society. By the end of the second century, Roman officials were not particularly aware of the nuances of Christian teaching, but they did know what the term ‘bishop’ meant – someone who agitated about the needs of the poor. This too was the result of a seed that Paul had planted, and when all of these began to sprout, a community came into being that challenged the ancient world with a fresh vision of a society in which each worked for all and all for each. This enabled that world to escape from the older paganism and its social, cultural and political practices and to find refuge in the new kind of community, the koinonia, the ‘fellowship’, the extended family of the One God. On the cross, Jesus had won the victory over all the other powers, or gods. This was the basic belief of these communities, which existed because all the old gods had been overthrown. Mammon, Mars and Aphrodite had been shown to be imposters, and Caesar was no longer the ultimate Lord. This was a theological, historical and political reality which the followers of Jesus demonstrated on the streets and in the market places, as well as in their homes.

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The breaking through of Paul’s thinking in Graeco-Roman society was not because the other philosophies of the ancient world had ‘run out of steam’. The Stoics, Epicureans, and Platonists had serious, articulate and even ‘charismatic’ spokespeople. They were all, in the final analysis, ways of understanding the world and of finding a coherent path for humanity within it. When later generations of Christians wanted to articulate the gospel version of the same thing, they turned to Paul for help, though other sources remained vital. The prologue to the Gospel of John is an obvious example of these, but it was Paul’s engagement with the triple traditions of Israel, Greece and Rome and his transformation of them by the person and Spirit of Jesus that offered a platform for the great Christian thinkers of subsequent generations and centuries. Without this firm theological foundation, the church would not have survived the persecutions it was forced to endure in these centuries. Paul knew only too well what learning how to think would cost those who were ‘to follow’, but he believed that this new way was the only way for them to follow, a way that would win out over the other ways because of its genuine humanity.

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The Wright Verdict:

Tom Wright completes his answer to his own question by summarising the several paths of explanation which converged on Paul himself in his mapping out of this ‘new Way’:

His was the vision of the united, holy, and outward-facing church. He pioneered the idea of a suffering apostleship through which the message of the crucified Jesus would not only be displayed, but be effective in the world. He could not have foreseen the ways in which these communities would develop. He might well not have approved of all that was done. But the historian and biographer can look back and discern, in Paul’s hasty and often contested work, the deep roots of a movement that changed the world…

… Paul’s vision of a united and holy community, prayerful, rooted in the scriptural story of ancient Israel, facing social and political hostility but insisting on doing good to all people, especially the poor, would always be central. His relentless personal energy, his clarity and vulnerability, and his way with words provided the motor to drive this vision, and each generation will need a few who can imitate him. His towering intellectual achievement, a theological vision of the One God reshaped around Jesus and the spirit and taking on the wider world of philosophy, would provide the robust, necessary framework for it all. When the church abandons the theological task… we should not be surprised if unity, holiness, and the care for the poor are sidelined as well.  

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Paul’s contribution to the Nature & Worship of the Early Church:

The church brought together ideas and people from many backgrounds. It had to cope with people who had become Christians in such disreputable seaports as Corinth, notorious for its immorality. It had to resolve the pressures to revert to pagan or Judaic practices, to sort out its attitudes towards contemporary customs and cultures, and to thrash out beliefs and opinions about issues on which there were no precedents to guide its thinking. Many Christians in the third century were willing to suffer as martyrs rather than betray their Lord by acknowledging false gods. Some, however, renounced their faith under torture or the pressure of imprisonment. Others got pagan neighbours to make the required sacrifice on their behalf, or obtained false certificates from sympathetic officials. At the opposite extreme, some Christians eagerly sought out martyrdom, even when it was not forced upon them, though this was strongly discouraged by Christian leaders. Following each wave of persecution, the church was faced with the problem of what to do with those who repented after lapsing under pressure. Some Christian leaders claimed that offences such as idolatry after baptism were unpardonable on earth, but others allowed one such occasion of forgiveness subsequent to baptism. Callistus, bishop of Rome (217-22), was among the more moderate and appealed to Paul’s letters and the parables of the lost sheep and the prodigal son for proof that no sin is unforgivable if the sinner truly turns from their sins. His referral back to Paul reveals the continuing influence of the apostle.

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In Paul’s time, and for at least a century afterwards, Christianity was largely an urban movement; Paul tended to preach in big cities, and small Christian groups could more easily spring up in the anonymity of large towns. Deep penetration of the countryside only began in the third century, though the methods used in that ‘outreach’ are unclear. Nearly every known Christian congregation started by meeting in someone’s house. One example of this was Philemon’s house-church, perhaps at Laodicea. The home formed an important starting-point, although by the mid-third century congregations were beginning to have their own special buildings because congregations were too large to meet even in the courtyard of a large Roman house. Most Christian writers were increasingly rationalistic, and Eusebius mentions only a very few miracles in his history of the church during this period. They also tried to discredit contemporary pagan superstition, focusing on ‘good living’ rather than supernatural ‘signs’. In the late third centre came the first deliberate attempts to follow Paul’s earlier examples of absorbing features of pagan religions into Christianity. Churches took over from temples, martyrs replaced the old gods in popular devotion, and the festivals of the Christian year took the place of high-days and holy days of paganism.

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When Irenaeus succeeded as a third-generation ‘bishop’ of the church in Rome, he described it as the very great, very ancient and universally known church, founded and organised at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul. Because Christians from all parts were found there, it was a microcosm of the whole Christian world. His statement hints at some of the reasons why Rome acquired a leading position among the churches. All roads led to Rome, the capital of the Empire, not least the well-engineered roads on which the Christian missionaries travelled. A remarkable number of prominent Christians made their way to the Imperial City: Ignatius, Polycarp, Marcion, Valentinus, Tatian, Justin, Hegesippus, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Praxeas, and Origen, all followed Peter and Paul’s journeys in the sixties. Rome was the only Western church to receive a letter from an apostle, and Luke’s long account of Paul’s miraculous journey to the city reflects the importance attached to his reaching the capital. Nothing boosted the prestige of Christian Rome so much as the fact that the two chief apostles were martyred there under Nero. By the mid-second century, memorial shrines to Paul and Peter had been erected in Rome, on the Appian Way and the Vatican Hill respectively. Remains of the latter have been uncovered in modern excavations.

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The Fall of Jerusalem in AD 70 enhanced the standing of the Roman church in the long-term since it became almost impossible to evangelise the Jewish settlements on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean. Christianity’s centre of gravity shifted west, where Rome was well-placed to play a central role. However, the letter to the Corinthian church known as I Clement did not imply any claim to superiority by the church of Rome. Second-century Christianity there appears to have been very varied. It included independent schools like Justin’s and immigrant groups such as the Asians who followed their traditional observance of the Pascha (Passover). Not until the last decade of the century did a strong bishop emerge – Victor, an African and the first Latin speaker. Meanwhile, the shrines of Peter and Paul bolstered a growing self-confidence.

The first bishop to claim a special authority derived from Peter by appealing to Matthew 16: 18-19, was Stephen, in his dispute with Cyprian. Paul’s position alongside Peter in the earliest church now began to be lost sight of. Cyprian regarded every bishop’s seat as ‘the see of Peter’, although he agreed that the Roman church had special importance because it had been founded so early. The Roman church already possessed considerable wealth, including the underground burial-chambers (catacombs) outside the city and several large houses whose upper floors were adapted for use as churches (tituli).

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Centuries later, the Roman church criticised the British for their great lack of martyrs as compared with their own record. The leaders of the British church informed them that the leaders of the British church lived to preach and teach the Gospel and not die for it unnecessarily. As noted already, there were many in the Roman church who viewed martyrdom as a noble, worthwhile gesture to such an extent that some became fanatics. They sought martyrdom before they had achieved anything else worthwhile. The most popular claimant to the honour of being the first Christian martyr in Britain, identified with the church of St. Alban’s, was the Christianised Roman soldier, named Alban. During the Diocletian persecution in Britain, he aided a hunted British priest to escape by wearing his robe, drawing pursuit to himself. On being recognised, the Roman officer ordered a soldier standing nearby to execute the culprit. The soldier refused, admitting that he too was a Christian, with the result that both soldiers were immediately beheaded. Tradition claims they were buried together on the spot where they were killed and a church erected on the site was named St. Alban’s. However, the early British historian, Bishop Alford wrote of an earlier martyr who was apparently known to both Peter, Barnabas and Paul, Aristobulus, who was absent in Britain before Paul arrived in Rome. In the Martyrologies of the Greek church, we read:

Aristobulus was one of the seventy disciples and a follower of St. Paul the Apostle, along with whom he preached the Gospel to the whole world, and ministered to them. He was chosen by St. Paul to be the missionary bishop to the land of Britain.  He was chosen by St. Paul to be the missionary to the land of Britain. He was there martyred after he had built churches and ordained deacons and priests on the island.

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Dorotheus, Bishop of Tyre, recorded in AD 303 that Aristobulus who is mentioned by the Apostle in his Epistle to the Romans, was made Bishop in Britain. Haleca, Bishop of Augusta, confirms that he was one of many martyrs whose memory was celebrated by the Britons and the Adonis Martyrologia also contains a record which confirms his mission to Britain, where he founded a church before his martyrdom in circa AD 59 or 60, on 15 March. There is a legend suggesting that Paul himself may have paid a brief visit to Britain during his time in Rome, but though we know that he intended to travel to Spain, there is little evidence to suggest that he did so, or that he went further north. Apparently, in Merton College, Oxford, there is an ancient manuscript known as the ‘Paulian MS’ which purports to contain a series of letters between Paul and Seneca, which make allusions to the former’s residence in Siluria. Clement of Rome, who died in about AD 100 wrote of the martyrdoms of both Peter and Paul, whom he probably knew personally. He sums up the magnitude of Paul’s achievement in the following terms:

Paul, also, having seven times worn chains, and been hunted and stoned, received the prize of such endurance. For he was the herald of the Gospel in the West as well as in the East, and enjoyed the illustrious reputation of the faith in teaching the whole world to be righteous. And after he had been in the extremity of the West, he suffered martyrdom before the sovereigns of mankind; and thus delivered from this world, he went to his holy place, the most brilliant example of steadfastness that we possess. 

In referring to ‘the extremity of the West’, Clement could be referring to Gaul or Britain, but he is more likely to be referring, in this context, to the western Mediterranean. I Clement is an open letter from one of the early bishops or presbyters of the Rome to the church at Corinth, probably written at the very end of the first century, shortly after the persecution of Emperor Domitian. It is probably the earliest surviving Christian writing outside of the New Testament. It was written to counter the disruption and disturbance of in the church at Corinth, where some of the older leaders had been deposed by a younger clique. It sheds interesting light on the nature and conduct of church life soon after the age of the apostles. It puts great stress on good order, and on Christian faith being accompanied by good works, claiming that Abraham was saved by faith and hospitality. The book quotes extensively from the Old Testament, Jewish books outside the canon and writings of the apostles. Like Paul’s own letter to the Corinthians, written earlier, Clement exhorts his readers to Christian humility and love, and it was probably read out in Corinth and other churches.

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In I Corinthians, which gives the earliest description of worship in the Christian church, Paul constantly draws on the Old Testament. This letter, written in about AD 55 pictures the church as the new Israel, living a pattern of the Christian life that is based on the new exodus. Paul uses ideas drawn from the Jewish Passover, which celebrated God’s saving favour and strength in calling Israel to be his people, and rescuing them from tyranny in Egypt. According to Paul, the church succeeded the old Jewish community and combined both Jews and Greeks within God’s one family of converted men and women. This fellowship of believers in Jesus stood at the dawn of a new age of grace and power. Al this was possible through the gift of the Holy Spirit, which followed the resurrection and ascension of Jesus. This one fact of experience stamps New Testament worship as unique, however much the church owed to its Jewish inheritance. Paul used the framework of the Passover meal to interpret the Lord’s Supper. But other elements were intertwined, such as the fellowship meal, called the agape or love-feast which had its counterpart in Jewish table-customs. This had become an occasion for an ‘orgy’ of gluttony and drunkenness in Corinth, and Paul pointed out that this was a breakdown in the fellowship which both the Lord’s Supper and the agape were designed to promote. Paul believed that the Lord’s Supper served both to unite Christians with the Lord in his death and risen life, and to join believers in a bond of union as ‘one body’ in Christ, receiving him by faith and in love.

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The setting for worship was ‘the first day of the week’, referring to the day of Christ’s resurrection, as in the Gospels, and is distinct from the Jewish Sabbath. The Christian Sunday was not made a ‘day of rest’ until Constantine decreed it in AD 321. Paul also wrote about baptism, a rite of initiation with its roots in the Jewish washings for ceremonial purposes, and especially in the service of tebilah, the ‘bath’ necessary for all converts to Judaism. The practice of baptism was also being misused at Corinth, and Paul objected to their misunderstanding or abuse. Baptism, he told them, should be in the name of Jesus, not in the name of leaders in the fellowship, as if these were apostolic cult figures. ‘In the name of Jesus’ meant that new converts passed under his authority, and confessed him as Lord. The enthusiasm of the Corinthian Christians also led them to misuse ‘ecstatic tongues’ and other gifts of the Spirit. Paul tried to curb this by insisting that worship must promote the healthy growth of the entire community of Christians. Personal indulgence in the gifts of the Spirit was to be brought firmly under control. Not all the features of early Christian worship at Corinth are clear. It is not known what ‘baptism for the dead’ implied. Paul did not attach great importance to it but used it simply to illustrate another matter. He also mentioned the ‘kiss of peace’ without explanation.

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Prayers also played an important part in worship at Corinth. At public prayer, the response of amen (a Hebrew word of confirmation) was the natural way to show agreement. Problems arose over women who attempted to pray with uncovered heads. Paul resisted this practice, though he freely granted the right of women believers to act as prophets and leaders of prayer in the assembled church. Both prophesying and praying were seen as gifts of the Spirit. The freedom that the Corinthians were exercising to the full was to be held in check. Paul crisply summed up: Let all things be done decently and in order. ‘Singing’ with the mind and the Spirit indicates a musical side to the meeting, but references to musical instruments do not make it clear whether they were used in worship. Exactly what these hymns were, and whether snatches of them have survived, is unclear. Passages in Philippians 2: 6-11; Colossians 1: 15-20 and 1 Timothy 3: 16 contain what may be early hymns, offered, as later among Christians in Bithynia about AD 112, to Christ as God. Ephesians 5: 14 is the most likely example of a hymn from the churches instructed by Paul. The setting of that three-line invocation is clearly a service of baptism.

Evidence about Christian worship from writers who lived between the time of Paul and the middle of the second is scarce and difficult to piece together. In his letters, Pliny gives an outsider’s view of Christian worship from this time:

They were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang an anthem to Christ as God, and bound themselves by a solemn oath (‘sacramentum’) not to commit any wicked deed, but to abstain from all fraud, theft and adultery, never to break their word, or deny a trust when called upon to honour it; after which it was their custom to separate, and then meet again to partake of food, but food of the ordinary and innocent kind.

(Pliny, Letters x. 96; AD 112).

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Pliny’s correspondence with Emperor Trajan reveals that the early Christians shared ‘holy meals’ and that by this time the agape had been separated from the Lord’s Supper. In fact, continuing abuse of the ‘love-feast’ led to its gradual disappearance in its original form. The solemn meal of ‘holy communion’ was given more and more prominence as a sacrament. Ignatius describes it as a medicine of immortality, the antidote that we should not die, but live forever in Jesus Christ. Worship gradually became more standardised, formal and stereotyped in the period following Paul’s death, with the ‘Lord’s Supper’ becoming the focal point of the liturgy. Bishops and deacons possibly helped in this trend. New converts (catechumens) were given instruction in preparation for baptism. Worship forms connected with this are referred to in the letters of I Peter and I John. Short snatches of an elementary creed are found in such verses as Jesus is Lord (Romans 10: 9), lengthened and developed in I Timothy 3: 16 and I Peter 3: 18-22.

At first, when a person was baptised they affirmed a creed which was concerned mainly with statements about Christ’s person, as in the addition to the text in Acts 8: 37. Examples of more formal creeds, stating the belief in the three persons of the Godhead, the Trinity, occur in descriptions of baptismal services reported by Irenaeus and Hippolytus of Rome. The Apostles’ Creed, shown below, derives from the late second-century baptismal creed used in Rome, which in turn derives from Paul’s theology. Perhaps the most lasting and visible legacy of the self-proclaimed apostle is, therefore, to be found in the liturgy of the sacraments, which is still shared in most Christian churches, more than nineteen hundred and fifty years after his death.

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Sources:

Tom Wright (2018), Paul: A Biography. London: SPCK.

Robert C Walton (ed.) (1970), A Source Book of the Bible for Teachers. London: SCM Press.

Tim Dowley (ed.) (1977), The History of Christianity. Berkhamsted: Lion Publishing.

George F Jowett (1961), The Drama of the Lost Disciples. London: Covenant Publishing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted March 18, 2019 by TeamBritanniaHu in Archaeology, Asia Minor, Assimilation, baptism, Bible, Britain, British history, Britons, Celtic, Celts, Christian Faith, Christianity, Church, Civilization, Colonisation, Commemoration, Compromise, Conquest, Crucifixion, Education, eschatology, Ethnicity, Europe, Family, Fertility, Gentiles, Graeco-Roman, History, Imperialism, India, Israel, Jerusalem, Jesus Christ, Jesus of Nazareth, Jews, John's Gospel, Josephus, Literature, Marriage, Mediterranean, Memorial, Messiah, Middle East, Midlands, morality, multiculturalism, Music, Narrative, Nationality, New Testament, Old Testament, Palestine, Paul (Saint), Poverty, Reconciliation, Remembrance, Romans, Sacraments, Simon Peter, Synoptic Gospels, Syria, The Law, theology, tyranny, Women in the Bible

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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…)

Posted February 11, 2019 by TeamBritanniaHu in anti-Semitism, Apocalypse, Baptists, Bible, Christian Faith, Christianity, Church, Civil Rights, Civilization, clannishness, cleanliness, Colonisation, Commemoration, Commonwealth, Coventry, Crucifixion, Education, Egalitarianism, Empire, Ethnic cleansing, Galilee, Gentiles, Gospel of Luke, Gospel of Mark, History, hygeine, Immigration, Integration, Israel, Jerusalem, Jesus Christ, Jesus of Nazareth, Jews, Josephus, manufacturing, Mediterranean, Memorial, Middle East, Migration, Militancy, multiculturalism, multilingualism, Mysticism, Narrative, nationalism, New Testament, Palestine, Population, Poverty, Remembrance, Respectability, Resurrection, Romans, Security, Simon Peter, Statehood, Syria, terror, theology, Turkey, tyranny, Zionism

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Question Time: The Ten Challenges of the Risen Christ to His Followers, I.   Leave a comment

Part One: The Prelude and the Passion – The Questioning Messiah.

I never get tired of re-reading the gospel narratives of the Passion and Resurrection. As a teacher, I have always been interested in Jesus’ method of asking questions, teaching in a deductive manner which I have sought to use in my own teaching of the Humanities (mainly History and Religious Education) and, in the second half of my career, as a teacher and trainer of students and teachers of English as a Foreign Language. Deductive methods encourage diversity and critical thinking, as opposed to inductive approaches which encourage convergent thinking and focus on the transmission of knowledge, whether in terms of predetermined narratives or structural approaches to language teaching and learning. For Jesus, the books of the Torah, the Hebrew Law, and the eschatological narratives of the prophets were not set in stone but were organic, evolving in interaction with the hearts and minds of the people. That is how the gospels were formed, through a process of enquiry and interpretation.

Jesus did not tell his stories simply to answer questions (or, sometimes, to avoid answering them directly), but to provoke questions, to stab people wide awake, to make them think again, as Alan T Dale (1979) suggested. Dale pointed out that he chose his disciples from those who came up to him to ask him questions about what he was driving at. He didn’t want Yes-men, Dale went on, or people who didn’t want to do any hard thinking. I would add that such people only asked closed questions, requiring a ‘Yes/No’  answer, whereas Jesus preferred open questions; Who is my neighbour? rather than the ‘trick question’ of the religious leaders, Should we pay taxes to Caesar?

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Dale argued that this approach has implications for us in reading the stories Jesus told. We mustn’t ask too quickly, What does this story mean? Instead, we must live with all the stories, not just a few familiar ones, and let them capture our imagination as real stories. We need to read and listen to each story as it was first told, as a whole story, and not to focus only on its moral or its message. The same is true of our need to read the stories about Jesus told by the gospel-writers. We need to suspend our disbelief when we read the accounts of his miracles, rather than approaching them with our own pseudo-scientific or sceptical, historicist, twenty-first-century constructs. This applies especially when we consider the resurrection narratives. Too often we make artificial divisions between the Ministry of Jesus and the Drama of his ‘Last Week’ and the following forty days. In fact, Jesus never stopped teaching, asking and provoking questions among his followers right up until his Ascension. He remained ready to talk about the great issues continuing to confront those who were his witnesses and missionaries, and to deal with, if not always answering, the questions which they raised.

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On the cross, he quoted, as a poet himself, the psalmist’s desperate question, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? (Psalm 22: 1) Matthew (27: 46) translates this from the Aramaic, Eli, Eli, lama sebachthani? Even then, he was teaching his Galilean witnesses in their own native language, perhaps also leading them in a protest against the authorities, both Roman and Jewish, whose representatives stood nearby, rather than railing against ‘divine providence’. The Judeans mistakenly thought he was calling for Elijah to come and rescue him. Jesus dies before he can continue reciting the Psalm, which goes on to refer to how they part my garments among them by throwing dice (v 18), just as Matthew describes the Roman guards doing after putting Jesus on the cross (v 35). John adds further significant detail to this event, describing how they divided his own clothes into four parts, one part for each soldier, and then took the purple robe, given in jest (in Luke’s account) by Herod Antipas to Jesus. It was made of one piece of woven cloth, without any seams in it. They decide not to tear it, but to throw dice to see who would get it. This happened, John tells us, in order to make the psalmist’s ‘prophecy’ come true:

They divide my clothes among themselves,

And gamble for my robe.

But in addition to this prophecy, the psalmist had answered his own cry when ending his poem on a triumphant note: 

For he hath not despised nor abhorred the affliction of the afflicted;

Neither hath he hid his face from him;

But when he cried unto him, he heard.

 

My praise shall be of thee in the great congregation;

I will pay my vows before them that fear him.

The meek shall eat and be satisfied;

They shall praise the Lord that seek him;

Your heart shall live forever.

 

All the ends of the world shall remember and turn to unto the LORD;

And all the kindred of the nations shall worship before thee.

 

For the kingdom is the LORD’S;

And he is the governor among the nations.

A seed shall serve him;

It shall be accounted to the Lord for a generation.

They shall come and shall declare his righteousness unto a people that shall be born, that he hath done this.

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Jesus must have been aware of the continuing content of the poem when he shouted out its first lines. He was interrupted by the mocking response of those who shouted abuse of the ignorant crowd who stood close-by and who, not understanding Aramaic, thought he was calling upon Elijah to come to his aid. The prophet had an important role in the Passover celebration since the last act of the Seder, the meal celebrating the unleavened bread, was the symbolic pouring of wine for him, when the door to the home was left open for him to enter and drink. We don’t know whether Jesus intended to recite the whole poem, but that he should choose to do so in his native tongue is hardly surprising, given his upbringing among the Galilean men and women who now stood in a group at a ‘safe’ distance from the Roman executioners, the chief priests and their Judean mob. The four soldiers, no doubt, had their orders to keep the revolutionary northern rabble at a safe distance in case there should be any attempt to remove their ‘Messiah’ from the cross, alive or dead. Only a few of Jesus’ close female relatives, together with John, were allowed to stand close enough to hold a brief conversation with him. Of those present, the gospels only refer to John and Mary, his mother, his aunt, Mary the wife of Cleopas and Mary Magdalene as witnessing the tragedy from the foot of the cross. Other women, including Salome, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the wife of Zebedee, were looking on from a distance, together with the rest of the male disciples.

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The world Jesus had grown up in was full of burning questions which the people of Galilee were continually debating in a dialect that few outsiders, whether Graeco-Roman or Judean would understand. Why indeed, they asked, had their God abandoned them to these foreigners? The psalmist’s poetic hymn of protest would be written in their hearts and memorised, like any well-known folk song. Jesus was one of these simple folk, a Jew and a first century Palestinian, who thought as they did. But they were not fools and were capable of asking very shrewd questions. There were many among them who would not take what was reported, or even inherited, at face value. Reports, assumptions and traditional beliefs could be debated and challenged, or rejected and re-interpreted, as prophets like Nehemiah and Amos, and poets like the author of Job, as well as the psalmist, had shown.

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The arguments had gone on, no less heated, between him and his disciples, walking along the dusty roads or in after-dinner conversations and discussions. Just as he chose these close friends from those who came back to him with open questions, so he encouraged them to keep asking genuine questions. He had no use for the common assumptions and assertions of social and religious orthodoxy. There were plenty of orthodox people around who wanted to stop questions being asked. Jesus would have agreed with Socrates in asking them – if you can’t ask questions, what is the point in living? That’s why his discourses, or conversations, with his disciples, remain so vivid in the memories of witnesses, even in the forty days between his resurrection and his ascension. It was as if the later conversations connected with the earlier ones in a way which now gave them full meaning: 

“People are talking about me,” said Jesus to his friends, as they were walking along the road. “Who do they say I am?”

“Some say John,” they told him. “Others say Elijah, and others say one of the great men of God.”

“But you,” said Jesus, “who do you say I am?”

“You’re God’s Chosen Leader!” said Peter. …

He went on to tell them that he himself – and his friends as well – would have to go through hard times. He would be treated as an enemy of the Jewish Leaders and would have to face death; but his death would not be the end. He was quite open about it. Peter took Jesus on one side and talked seriously to him. Jesus turned round and saw his other friends. He spoke seriously to Peter:

“Out of my sight, tempter!” he said, “You”re not thinking of what God wants. You’re talking like everybody else.”

(Mk. 8: 27-31, Dale’s New World paraphrase)

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Peter and the other disciples had grown up with the idea that God’s chosen leader would establish some kind of national kingdom, with a warrior king like David and a new government. Jesus would have nothing to do with such ideas. He had not come to be that kind of king. There must indeed have been some serious words exchanged in his ‘private’ conversation with Peter. In his account, Mark uses a strong word for ‘rebuke’ or ‘talk straight’ three times, once by Peter and twice by Jesus. Peter could consider himself to have been given a serious ‘ticking off’, but the other disciples must also have thought Jesus’ discourse about suffering utterly impossible to believe. How, they would have asked, could God’s Chosen Leader suffer in any way or die at the hands of the foreigners? In a second difficult conversation, James and John, Jesus’ other fishermen friends, brothers and ‘sons of Zebedee’, came up to Jesus with a question which revealed their own prejudice, based on a general misconception about the ‘Messiah-ship’:

“Sir,” they said, “we’re going to ask you for something and we want you to do it for us.”

“What do you want me to do for you?” asked Jesus.

“When you are a real king,” they said, “make us the chief members of your government.”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Jesus. “Can you go through what I must go through?”

“Of course we can!” they said.

“You’ll go through what I must go through all right,” said Jesus. “But I can’t make anybody ‘a chief member of my government’. God has marked out my leaders.”

(Mk. 10: 35-45; Dale)

In his following discourse, Jesus goes on to turn upside down all accepted patterns of ‘greatness’ and what it means to be ‘Number One’. He describes himself as being a ‘slave’ or indentured ‘servant’. He was ‘the servant king’. How, on earth, his followers must have thought, could Jesus compare himself to a farm-labourer on one of the great estates owned by the foreign landlords?

The disciples sometimes recalled some very simple statements, or sayings, which Jesus gave in response to their questions. One of them was given in response to a complicated question by Simon Peter:

“Sir,” he said, ” how often can somebody treat me badly, and I forgive him and be friends with him again?

Will seven times be enough?”

“This isn’t something you can add up like sums,” said Jesus, “the answer is – every time.”  

Peter, being a fisherman, was probably good at sums, but he had a lesson or two to learn about forgiveness, not least his own. Jesus also warned people against taking disputes to court before trying to resolve them among themselves. He suggested that they should first ask themselves the question as to why they couldn’t make up their own minds about what was right and wrong and seek their own resolution to the conflict. All that courts could do was to impose fines and imprisonments, making matters worse, in many cases for both parties. In his controversial ministry, Jesus quickly provoked questions and debates. The fundamental question at stake was what does religion really mean? Is it a matter of rules and regulations? Are these at the heart of religion? Do they come first? Can we have too many of them? Can we begin to think more of them than we should? Are there not more important matters? Many of the questions which were asked by the Jewish Leaders of Jesus may seem petty and trivial to modern minds, but arose from this fundamental question about the nature of religion:

Why don’t these friends of yours keep the old customs? Why do they eat food with “dirty” hands?

Why do John’s friends fast, but your friends don’t?

Jesus’ answer was that the religious ‘Leaders’ were making the people do what they wanted them to do, rather than what God wanted them to do. God had said, Respect your father and mother, but they said that a man must give his money to the Temple first, and needn’t then give anything to his parents. So their “old custom” had taken the place of God’s original commandment. They were simply ‘hypocrites’, playing at being good. For Jesus, real religion was something much greater than keeping rules, however useful they may be in helping the people live in an orderly way. A man can live in such a way, yet still be very irreligious, as Jesus’ own questions to the ‘Leaders’ were designed to demonstrate:

Today is the Holy Day; is making a sick man better today right or wrong?

Is there any of you who wouldn’t pull his son out of the well he’d fallen into, even if it was the Holy Day?

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As far as the question about the friends of John the Baptist fasting was concerned, Jesus recognised that they wanted to trap him into criticising John, who was more old-fashioned in his observance of basic religious rites, as his use of baptism in itself revealed. People recognised that John’s view of religion was different from that of Jesus, but the Galilean was careful not to answer the question in a way which would antagonise ordinary Judeans, and enable ‘the Leaders’ to drive a wedge between the two movements. Therefore, he responded with rhetorical questions which nevertheless confirmed his nonconformity:

Can guests at a wedding leave the wedding breakfast uneaten? What would the bridegroom think?

By his rhetorical response, Jesus showed that for him religion was not about ‘austerity’, especially one which was unequally imposed on impoverished people by those who had plenty, unlike John and his disciples, but about the celebration of life. To follow John was to follow a path of repentance, to follow Jesus was to rejoice. The true legacy of John the Baptist was turned against the Jewish leaders when they challenged him directly in the Temple about the way in which he had cleared the courts of store-keepers and bankers in what he intended as an ‘acted parable’, a public act of protest designed to demonstrate that God’s care was for all people:

“Who told you to do this sort of thing?” they asked.

“Who gave you the right to act like this?”

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

You tell me.”

They didn’t know what to say. “If we say, ‘He was God’s messenger’, he’ll say … ‘Why didn’t you join him, then?’

If we say, ‘Oh, just one of these mob-leaders…’.” 

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In asking them a closed question, Jesus was choosing to play them at their own game of entrapment in what was daily becoming a more intense stand-off. They hardly dared finish their sentence among themselves. They were frightened of the crowd of bystanders, for many of the ordinary pilgrims in the Temple regarded John as one of the prophets. They answered that they didn’t know, an option that the question did not allow, as every experienced teacher would point out to a recalcitrant student. So Jesus felt free to opt out of answering their original question. Instead, he told them a story, a parable about a landowner who sent servants to collect his rent, payment in kind, from his tenant-farmers. When they beat up the servants and sent them away empty-handed, he sent his only son, thinking that they would show him greater respect. But they killed him and threw his body outside the farm. This time, he ended his story with a question which he answered himself so that the Jewish Leaders would be in no doubt that the story was aimed at them:

What will the landowner do?

He will come himself, of course, and destroy those farmers and give the farm to others.

These questions and answers show how Jesus dealt with critics. He sometimes responded to a question with another question, trying to make people do their own thinking or to force them, as here, to confront their own hypocrisy and come out into the open. He was also quick to recognise when the question he was being asked was not a genuine one. The Jewish Leaders were like the tenant-farmers who were determined to make the Temple their temple rather than a house of prayer for all nations, as God had intended.  But then, they weren’t interested in asking what God really wanted them to do with it. It was no wonder that they made up their minds that they would not tolerate such radical challenges as these. Not only did they disagree with him fundamentally, but they were frightened that the common people, whose dislike for them was a thinly disguised reality, would take him seriously. That’s why they wanted him to answer their question by declaring that he was acting on God’s authority. Then they could use the Temple Guard to arrest him on a charge of blasphemy. But Jesus didn’t intend to be caught out as easily as that, making a direct statement which could be used against him in court.

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The ‘Leaders’ may have made up their minds to put Jesus on trial in the Sanhedrin after this ‘interaction’, but they knew that a formal interrogation could only succeed against him if they had clearly witnessed statements of his that the chief priests would consider as evidence of blasphemy. Reports of rhetorical questions, figures of speech and parabolic discourse, no matter how radical, would not be enough to convict Jesus of Nazareth of a capital crime. They laid plans to have him arrested, but he kept out of reach, spending the winter in the countryside east of the River Jordan where their writ did not run. But when he came back to the city just before the Passover Festival in the spring, the authorities were ready to act. Two days before the Great Feast, Mark tells us, the Jewish Leaders met to find some way of getting hold of Jesus in order to kill him secretly. They wanted to do this before the main Pesach festival because they feared the people would riot. The eve of the festival, during the Feast of Unleavened Bread would present them with a better opportunity since each family would be celebrating their Seder meal in their own home. They planned, with the help of Judas Iscariot, to arrest him in the darkness of the night in the hillside olive groves outside Jerusalem.

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Mark copied down the earliest account of what happened on that last night of Jesus’ life, but in many ways, John’s account is the fullest and most insightful. It begins with an acted parable, through which Jesus hopes to teach the disciples an important lesson about the new roles they are about to ‘inherit’ from him. By the door of every Palestinian home was kept a bowl of water, so that every visitor, removing their sandals, could have any residual sand from the dusty streets and roads removed. Very often one of the household servants would help them with this. It was not a major task since any self-respecting guest would have washed properly before leaving their own home. Perhaps there was no servant available to perform this task in the hired room since nearly all of them would have been allowed to go home to be with their own families. So, as the disciples came through the door, Jesus rose from the table, tied a towel around his waist, then poured some water into a washbasin and began to wash the disciples’ feet in turn. When he came to Simon Peter, the fisherman objected:

“Are you going to wash my feet, Lord?”

Jesus answered him, “You do not understand now what I am doing, but you will understand later.”

Peter declared, “Never at any time will you wash my feet!” 

“If I do not wash your feet,” Jesus answered, “You will no longer be my disciple.” …

After Jesus had washed their feet, he put his outer garment back on and returned to his place at the table.

“Do you understand what I have just done to you?” he asked.

“You call me Teacher and ‘Sir’, and it is right that you do so, because that is what I am. I, your Lord and Teacher, have just washed your feet. I have set an example for you, so that you will do just what I have done for you. I am telling you the truth: no slave is greater than his master, and no messenger is greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know this truth, how happy you will be if you put it into practice!”

This is Jesus, as Teacher, was using a method of deduction and example to demonstrate to his disciples how leaders must serve those they lead. In this case, he links the acted parable to a clear explanation, joined by a question, rather than leaving their understanding simply to permeate through their imaginations. They were devout and intelligent men, with a good understanding of the Scriptures, but when all was said and done they were still fishermen, used to hooking fish themselves rather than being hooked by intellectual discourse and inductive teaching. But how were they to be trained to teach themselves, to replace the master-teacher? He demonstrates how to use a physical ‘hook’ when seeking to ‘catch’ the imaginations of men. His non-traditional view of hierarchies of greatness and servitude was not easy for even the most erudite among them to grasp only with their minds, as some of the other intellectual interactions between Jesus and his disciples, already noted, suggest. At one and the same time, he is teaching them a lesson about greatness and keeping his promise to make them into fully trained, fully qualified fishers of men for when he is no longer with them. He has shown them how ‘to fish’ for themselves.

This is the heart of the story of Jesus, the point which John is making when, at the very beginning of his Book of the Passion (Jn. 13: 1-9), the great conclusion of his dramatic presentation of the ministry of Jesus, he places this story as the supremely characteristic story about Jesus. Jesus is teaching them to become both servants and masters; to become message-makers as well as messengers. They have reached the turning point in their training and personal development where they themselves must do what they have just been shown to him.

As he sat down with his twelve companions to share the Seder together, Jesus again ‘put the cat among the pigeons’ by telling them that one of their numbers would betray him. How could he be so hurtful? This time he was teaching them a lesson using an emotional hook. What upset them was that this meal was supposed to be the happiest time in the Jewish calendar, with the entire family sitting around the table. They would each have strong feelings, recollecting with great warmth the exchange of greetings, their childhood homes filled with light, and the meal itself with the four cups of wine, the ‘matzoh’, the cakes of bread, bitter herbs and sweet paste of almonds, apple and wine. The various parts of the meal reminded Jews of their deliverance from the cruelty and enslavement in Egypt. At the commencement of the meal, the youngest son in the family asked four traditional questions which his father would answer in full, showing the way in which the younger generation should be taught.

Jesus was now using an emotional ‘hook’ to teach them a hard, hurtful, experiential lesson about the real costs of family life and what we might call today, ‘tough love’. He wanted them to look forward to the pain and suffering to come, rather than simply looking back to past pleasures. Of course, as C. S. Lewis would remark, the one informs the other; it is not exclusive, but inclusive of the other. But family life is not one long party, as they themselves were soon to discover. Mark and all the other gospel writers tell us that the disciples began to react to Jesus’ interruption of these traditions by asking him, one after the other, Surely you don’t mean me, do you? Jesus answered:

It’s one of the “Twelve” … He is sharing this very meal with me. … What is going to happen is just what the Bible said would happen. But it will be a terrible thing for the man who betrays me; it would be better for him if he had never lived.

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One of them is about to become the ‘black sheep of the family’ since every family must have one. In Matthew’s account, Judas is identified as ‘the traitor’ by Jesus. Luke also inserts a discourse about the continuing dispute among the disciples about ‘greatness’, similar in content to Jesus’ earlier conversation with James and John, and a recapitulation of the theme of the acted parable of feet-washing recorded by John. Jesus, perhaps referring to the Seder tradition of having the youngest son ask the four questions of his father, tells them:

… the greatest one among you must be like the youngest, and the leader must be like the servant.

Who is greater, the one who sits down to eat or the one who serves him?

The one who sits down, of course. But I am among you as the one who serves.

When the ‘supper’ was over, they sang a traditional hymn and walked out to the Mount of Olives on the way towards the village of Bethany, where Jesus was staying. On the way, he told them more directly, but still using metaphors from Scripture (Zechariah 13: 7), that their ‘family’ was about to be broken up:

I will strike the shepherd,

And the sheep will run away.   

Peter protested that though everyone else might let him down, he never would. But Jesus told him that before dawn that night, he, Peter, would say three times that he was no friend of his. Peter answered, even more hotly:

Say I’m no friend of yours? I’d die with you first.

Everybody else said the same. In John’s gospel, Peter wants to know what Jesus meant when he said, in conversation over supper, that they could not go where he was going. Jesus replies that he would follow him later, but Peter wants to know why he can’t follow him then and there since he is ready to die for him. Jesus asks him:

Are you really ready to die for me?

Jesus tells them not to be worried or upset, that there are many rooms in my Father’s house, and that he was going to prepare places for them there. Then Thomas asks him, ever the sceptic, his understanding frustrated by Jesus’ continual use of figures of speech:

Lord, we do not know where you are going; so how can we know the way to get there?

Jesus answers, again speaking figuratively:

I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one goes to the Father except by me. Now that you have known me … you will know my Father also, and from now on you do know him and you have seen him.

So Philip asks:

Lord, show us the Father; that is all we need.

Jesus answers him with questions:

For a long time I have been with you all; yet you do not know me, Philip? 

Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.

Why, then, do you say, “Show us the Father?”

Do you not believe, Philip, that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? 

More figures of speech, the disciples think. The other Judas, not Iscariot, asks him:

Lord, how can it be that you will reveal yourself to us and not to the world?

Jesus answers him:

Whoever loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and my Father and I will come to him and live with him. Whoever does not love me does not obey my teaching. And the teaching you have heard is not mine, but comes from the Father, who sent me.

Peace is what I leave you with; it is my own peace I give you. I do not give it as the world does. 

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When they got to the olive groves, Jesus took Peter, James and John with him to the Garden of Gethsemane, across the Kidron Brook, asking them to keep watch while he prayed a little further on. When he returned to them, he found them asleep. He spoke to Peter:

Simon, are you asleep?

Weren’t you able to stay awake for even one hour?

So much, then, for Peter’s promises of providing protection for Jesus. Twice more he returned to them, finding them unable to keep their eyes open, and on the third occasion he remarked:

Are you still sleeping and resting?

Enough! The hour has come! Look, the Son of Man is now being handed over to the power of sinful men…

Judas Iscariot knew exactly where Jesus would be because Jesus had met his disciples there many times before. At that moment, Judas arrived with a gang armed with swords and clubs, sent there by the Jewish Leaders, some of whom are present, together with Temple Guards and a small group of Roman soldiers. The High Priests and the Sanhedrin did not have the power to arrest a citizen. That power belonged exclusively to the Roman procurator and court, which exercised direct rule over the whole of Judea. An arrest could only be carried out by a Roman guard on the orders of the Roman authorities in response to a complaint recognised under the Roman law. The Temple Guard, as their name suggests, were only responsible for keeping order within the Temple precincts. Besides their arms, they carried lanterns and torches. Luke has the most graphic portrayal of Judas’ betrayal, using the secret signal of a kiss:

He came up to Jesus to kiss him. But Jesus said, “Judas, is it with a kiss that you betray the Son of Man?”

Luke tells us that the disciples had two swords with them when they left the ‘upper room’. They make Jesus aware of this and he tells them, that is enough! Rather than meaning ‘that is sufficient’, he may well have meant ‘that is enough fighting talk’ in the light of what takes place subsequently, but this may have been a crucial misunderstanding of Jesus’ discourse in the previous passage. Now, as Jesus is about to be arrested, they spring into action…  

When the disciples who were with Jesus saw what was going to happen, they asked, “Shall we use our swords, Lord?”

They arrested Jesus, despite the attempts of Peter to prevent this by attacking the High Priest’s steward, Malchus. He drew his sword but succeeded only in cutting off the steward’s ear. In Matthew’s account, Jesus chided the assailant and challenges him with two questions:

Put your sword back in its place … All who live by the sword, will die by the sword …

Don’t you know that I could call on my Father for help, and at once he would send me more than twelve armies of angels?

But in that case, how would the Scriptures come true which say that this is what must happen? 

Do you think that I will not drink the cup of suffering which my Father has given me?

(Jn. 18: 11) 

In Luke’s gospel, Jesus remarks, Enough of this! By this, as in the ‘Upper Room’ before, he seems to have meant ‘enough of this fighting!’ He then heals the injured man before addressing the crowd of men, questioning their jurisdiction and the legality of them making an arrest not just outside the Temple precincts, but also outside the walls of Jerusalem:

Did you have to come with swords and clubs to capture me, as though I were an outlaw?

Day after day, I was with you in the Temple, and you did not arrest me.

But this is your hour to act, when the power of darkness rules.

Jesus himself offered no resistance. Then, just as he had predicted earlier that night, all the disciples ran away, including a certain young man, possibly Mark himself, some scholars suggest, dressed only in his linen night ‘shift’, whom the gang caught and tried to arrest. He managed to struggle free and ran away naked, leaving the ‘shift’ behind. This suggests that the young man may have been asleep in the house with the upper room, perhaps being sent to bed gone to bed after having asked the four questions at the commencement of the Seder. He would have been woken up by the sound of the disciples leaving, singing their hymn, and followed them through the olive groves. This somewhat ‘vivid’ account only appears in Mark’s gospel, hence the reason that some scholars regard it as a personal note which the other gospel-writers chose not to copy into their accounts, though they copied so much else of his basic narrative.

Jesus was taken to the High Priests’ house, where he is first interviewed by Annas, to whom he repeats the challenge about the legality of his arrest and the proceedings against him. He also suggests that a wide range of witnesses who heard him speak in the Temple should be called to testify, anticipating the kind of evidence which will be presented against him. For talking like this to the High Priest, he is struck by one of the guards. The Sanhedrin is beginning to assemble, called to an emergency session at midnight for the sole purpose of trying Jesus of Nazareth as a priestly court, although they were only supposed to act as a religious legislature. The timing of the hearing was also a breach of the accepted judicial process since the Roman law did not permit court hearings to be held after sunset, even as an emergency measure. Moreover, a trial for life was exclusively the prerogative of the Roman court, to be held only before the Roman Procurator. The ultra-vires practices of Annas and Caiaphas reveal the desperate position in which the Sanhedrin viewed the insecurity of their own situation as being undermined by the popularity of the Galilean’s teachings. Jesus challenges the irregularity of the proceedings by asking Annas to refer the matter to the Council, so Annas decides to let his son-in-law take charge of them.

Peter had followed Jesus at a distance from the olive groves, stopping in the courtyard of the house, where he sat down with the guards, warming himself by the fire. To begin with, Jesus remained silent in response to the accusations made against him, which were clearly based on false statements by the ‘witnesses’ called. However, the little-known Gospel of Nicodemus also reveals that there was a concerted attempt made to provide a defence of Jesus by men who knew that the very act of their challenge had signed and sealed their own death warrant. Caiaphas soon tired of this, however, and decided to prosecute the Galilean directly, placing him under oath (according to Matthew). In the confusion created by the confused testimony of the bribed ‘witnesses’, who contradicted each other, he saw the danger that the trial might collapse, thwarting his plans that one man should die for all the people. His decision to take the prosecution into his own hands was a legal travesty that went against all Jewish jurisprudence. He conducted a vindictive cross-examination of the Prisoner. Jesus seemed to remain unperturbed, offering no reply until Caiaphas asked him a closed question to which he had to respond under oath:

Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed God?

To this, Jesus could only affirm his status, knowing that he was destined to die. This enabled Caiaphas to enter the charge of Blasphemy, asking the Council to decide on his guilt. Mark tells us that they all voted that he was guilty and agreed that he should be executed, although other sources suggest that some may have voted for the dismissal of the case and for Jesus to be released. In Luke’s narrative, Jesus initially answers this question by commenting on their method of interrogation, also making reference to their previous reluctance, in the Temple Courtyard, to answer his question about John the Baptist’s legacy:

“If I tell you, you will not believe me; and if I ask you a question, you will not answer … But from now on the Son of Man will be seated at the right side of Almighty God”.

They all said, “Are you, then, the Son of God?”

He answered them, “You say that I am”.

And they said, “We don’t need any witnesses! We ourselves have heard what he said.

Jesus’ answer is not as categorical in Luke’s account as in that of Mark, but his use of ‘I am’ seems to have been taken by the Sanhedrin to refer to the sacred word for God, ‘Yahweh’ in Hebrew, which only the chief priests were supposed to use, and only in worship. Its use by Jesus, even with ambivalence, would be considered blasphemous at the time. The next step was for him to be taken before the Roman Governor, Pontius Pilate since the Sanhedrin could not carry out the death sentence by itself under the dictated terms of the Roman occupation. Only the Roman Procurator could try such a case and only he could legally impose the death penalty. This Caiaphas demanded, but Pilate was only interested in executing those who threatened Roman law and order, on a charge of treason, and did not wish to be troubled with all the charges brought against Jesus by the chief priests, especially those of blasphemy. The Romans were disparaging rather than respectful of the Jews’ religion and regarded all Jews, including their leadership, with contempt and scorn as vassal subjects of the Roman Empire. The rather weak claims that Jesus had been heard misleading our people, and telling them not to pay taxes to the Emperor were worthy of a whipping, nothing more. Their third accusation, that he was claiming that he himself is the Messiah, a king, was rather more interesting for the Governor, so his question to Jesus was simple:

Are you the king of the Jews?

In John’s gospel, Jesus answered:

Does this question come from you or have others told you about me? 

Pilate replied, frustrated by what he took to be an avoidance strategy:

Do you think that I am a Jew? It was your own people and the high priests who handed you over to me. What have you done?

Jesus mystified Pilate even more by his response:

My kingdom does not belong to this world; if my kingdom belonged to this world, my followers would fight to keep me from being handed over to the Jewish authorities. No, my kingdom does not belong here! 

So Pilate repeated his original question:

Are you a king, then?

Jesus spoke of truth to challenge Pilate’s view of power:

You say that I am a king. I was born and came into the world for this one purpose, to speak about the truth. Whoever belongs to the truth listens to me.

By replying “so you say” to Pilate’s core question, Jesus was pointing out that this was something that he could neither affirm or deny, but only Pilate to decide, not something that he himself had claimed. Jesus had claimed to be the ‘Messiah’ but he had been consistent that this did not mean that he was an earthly ‘king’ like Herod the Great or the other Jewish rulers tolerated by the Romans. Nevertheless, this was the charge which Pilate entered. Pilate responds to Jesus’ attempt to explain his real purpose, infamously, with the question:

And what is truth?

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The writer of the score of Jesus Christ Superstar, Tim Rice, added the words, “We both have truths, are mine the same as yours?” This follow-up question emphasises the essential clash between Graeco-Roman and Jewish thought. For the former, ‘truth’ could be relative and plural, whereas, for Jews, there was only one eternal truth, that given by God through the Law. The question as to who best represented this truth, the Jewish Leaders or Jesus, was what the trial in the Sanhedrin had been about. Jesus had also claimed that his purpose was not to change the Law, but to fulfil it and to make it universal. Temporal powers could not determine this real truth, or change it. But, as one modern poet has put it, Pilate would not stay for an answer. Instead, according to John, he went back outside and asked the crowd outside his palace, the chief priests’ Judean ‘rent-a-mob’, if, according to the custom, they wanted him to set Jesus, ‘the king of the Jews’ free, or to release Jesus Barabbas the bandit. The chief priests incited the crowd to shout for Barabbas, who had been charged with murder, committed during the recent riot which he had fermented. Barabbas was released, though two lesser-known bandits were later executed with Jesus.

During his ‘interview’ with Pilate, the governor, finding no reason to condemn this man, discovered that Jesus is a Galilean. Luke inserts a section describing a further hearing before Herod Antipas, who was in charge of the northern territories or ‘tetrarchy’ of Palestine, including Galilee. We are told that Herod was interested in Jesus as a miracle-worker, and had been wanting to meet him for a long time. Besides wanting Jesus to perform a miracle for him, he asked Jesus many questions, but Jesus made no answer. So his soldiers made fun of him, putting a kingly purple robe on him, in which they sent him back to Pilate. The Governor was still not convinced that this prisoner deserved death, according to Luke. He tried to appease the crowd outside his palace, but they answered back that, according to Jewish law, his death was required on the charge of blasphemy, because he claimed to be the Son of God. Pilate understood the ‘claim’ of Jesus to be ‘a king’, but not this claim to be divine. His multi-theistic views made him nervous about killing someone claiming divine powers. What if Jesus did, indeed, possess such powers. So he went back into the palace and asked Jesus:

Where do you come from?

But Jesus did not answer, though, as Pilate himself pointed out, the governor had the authority to set him free, or to have him crucified. This confirms that, ultimately, the decision to have Jesus crucified was a Roman one. Jesus told him that the authority he had over him as governor was given to him by God and that the man who had handed him over for sentence, the High Priest, was guilty of a worse sin. Even if his ‘sin’ were seen as a lesser one, he might still incur the displeasure of the gods. Pilate tried to have Jesus released, but the chief priests threatened to have reports sent to the Emperor showing how Pilate was a friend of a rebel, and therefore disloyal. They claimed to be more loyal to the Emperor than him, getting the crowd to shout, the only king we have is the Emperor. With that, the fate of Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews, was sealed. Pilate decided on the answer to his own question to Jesus, even if Jesus himself had only really answered the question put to him by Caiaphas.

Matthew’s gospel records (27: 19) that Pilate’s wife had a dream on the night of the trial of Jesus before the Sanhedrin, which led her to plead with him to have nothing to do with the trial of ‘that just man’. Pilate usually deferred to his wife, since he owed his exalted position to he social eminence his marriage had brought. His wife was Claudia Procula, the illegitimate daughter of Claudia, the third wife of Tiberius Caesar, and grand-daughter of Augustus Caesar. Pilate knew that the Emperor, against whom he had plotted, was very fond of his step-daughter and, being an astute politician, he granted her every wish and whim. For him to deny Claudia’s urgent request demonstrates how seriously Pilate considered the possibility that news of his ‘weakness’ in this case might get back to the Emperor. Either way, he couldn’t win, but he had much more to lose from failing to appease Caiaphas, who may have known of his previous plotting against Tiberius Caesar. At heart, Pilate was not in sympathy with the demands of Caiaphas and the Sadducees, finding no basis in their charges against Jesus of Nazareth, but he dared not risk his public position because of private forebodings. So he acceded to the murderous demands of the chief priests. The dream that tortured Pilate’s wife on the previous night had foretold disaster if he judged Jesus. It came true when later, according to Eusebius, Pilate committed suicide. 

The accounts of the crucifixion in the synoptic gospels were written down later in the first century at a time when there was much bitterness between the Jewish and Christian communities. The gospel-writers, therefore, emphasise the Jewish role in Jesus’ death, that is the role of the Temple authorities. Matthew’s account goes further than this, in attributing responsibility to the crowd and having Pilate wash his hands in front of them, but even Matthew agrees that the chief priests acted as ‘cheerleaders’ among the crowd. Those who cried ‘crucify!’ outside Pilate’s palace were not likely to have included the pilgrims from Galilee and elsewhere who were entering the city that morning and who would have been directed to the Temple, neither were they Judeans from outside the city, of whom the authorities were afraid. They were more probably the same ‘gang’ or ‘mob’ whom the chief priests had sent to the Mount of Olives to arrest Jesus the previous night, mixed together with the ‘bandits’ who shouted for Barabbas’ release. If the Temple authorities were unscrupulous and desperate enough to pay Judas for handing Jesus over to them, dismissing him out-of-hand when he tried to stop the execution, there can be little doubt that they would pay the same crowd who had accompanied him to make sure that Pilate couldn’t release Jesus of Nazareth.

Can there be any doubt that Pilate made the irrevocable decision to have Jesus crucified? After all, any suggestion of a threat to the Roman ‘Pax’, especially at the height of the festival, would have forced the Governor to act quickly. The fact that some of Jesus’ followers were known to have been armed the previous night during his arrest would have left him no room for manoeuvre unless the crowd had demanded his clemency for the Galilean radical rather than the Judean Zealot. Both, as far as Pilate was concerned, posed a physical threat to Rome’s rule. Jesus was executed by the Roman governor on political grounds, as ‘The King of the Jews’. The charge of high treason against Caesar stood and was fastened to the cross. John tells us that the notice was written in Hebrew, Latin and Greek. He also tells us that the chief priests tried to persuade Pilate to change the wording to This man said, I am the King of the Jews, but that the Governor refused either to remove it or to change the words. He told them What I have written stays written.

From the beginning to the end the arrest and dual trial was a vicious frame-up, a betrayal and a travesty of justice. From the dark hour in the garden to the crucifixion, the plot was hurried to its conclusion by the High Priests and the Sadducee Party. The murmurings among the people had been growing louder and, following the fatal verdict, the whole of Jerusalem seethed with fear and unrest. Caiaphas and his fanatical collaborators had triumphed but the Romans still held the lash and would not hesitate to use it unmercifully on the slightest provocation or interference. So greatly did terror prevail throughout Jerusalem that everyone known to have associated with Jesus in even the slightest way fled into hiding. As mentioned above, most of the disciples had fled from the Mount of Olives. Of the twelve, only John is recorded by name as being present at the crucifixion. He stood at the foot of the cross with Mary, the mother of Jesus, her sister and Mary Magdalene.

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The Bethany sisters, Martha and Mary, are not mentioned by name in the account of the crucifixion, but they may well have been in the crowd of women who had followed Jesus out of Jerusalem, weeping. It was only natural for them since the account of the raising of Lazarus suggests that they already knew many Judeans, including supporters of the Pharisees, who had reported on the event to the chief priests. The raising of Lazarus had attracted a great deal of attention, making the sisters vulnerable as well. The miracle had added greatly to Jesus’ popularity among Judeans, and the chief priests were jealous, so Caiaphas and his father-in-law Annas, the reigning High Priests, hatched a plot in the Sanhedrin to have both Jesus and Lazarus killed. The threat had been so severe that Jesus had gone into hiding in the Judean desert town Ephraim, with his disciples, probably tipped off by his supporters in the Sanhedrin.

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The chief priests had succeeded in having Jesus executed, so it was only a matter of time before they would come for Lazarus. The two sisters were probably safer in public among their many Judean friends, rather than being seen with their Galilean guests. Luke implies that when the ‘women of Salem’ returned to their homes following his death, those ‘who knew Jesus personally’ joined the Galileans watching from a distance as Joseph of Arimathea wrapped the body in a linen cloth. Luke records the group of women following Joseph to his nearby unused tomb, carved out of the solid rock in the Skull-shaped quarry which had been transformed into a garden. They watched carefully how Joseph placed the body in the tomb so that they would know exactly how to locate both the tomb and the body within it when they came back after the Sabbath to complete the embalming process which Joseph and Nicodemus were to begin before dusk. They went ‘home’, probably to where they were staying in Bethany, and prepared the spices and perfumes for the body.

The death of Jesus, we know now, was not the end, but the beginning. The stories of his life and ministry are not cold historical accounts. They were all written in the blaze of light created by the amazing new experiences which followed his death. We need to consider the reports of these decisive experiences not as though they were something that just happened in the past, but which have an enduring contemporary quality for all who have subsequently accepted Jesus as Lord. Without them, there would have been no contemporary Christian community; only, possibly, a dwindling Jewish sect, one among many, which would most likely have been scattered and destroyed in the war of AD 66-70. Neither, of course, would there have been two millennia of Christianity, European Christendom, and a world-wide Christian faith, with its many churches. That is why, fundamentally, we cannot separate Jesus as the master-teacher from Jesus as Lord, and why we cannot suspend our belief in what is reported to have happened after his crucifixion if we seek to own the title ‘Christian’.

Sources:

Robert C. Walton (ed.) (1970), A Source Book of the Bible for Teachers. London: SCM

George F. Jowett (1961), The Drama of the Lost Disciples. London. Covenant Publishing.

Briggs, Linder & Wright (eds.)(1977), The History of Christianity: A Lion Handbook. Berkhamsted: Lion Publishing.

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

Hearts on Fire: The Lost Disciples   2 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sixth Day of Christmas: 30th December: The Refugees’ Return from Gaza   1 comment

Matthew 2 vv19-23 (Good News):

‘After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go back to the land of Israel, because those who tried to kill the child are dead.” So Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went back to Israel.

‘But when Joseph heard that Archelaus had succeeded his father Herod as king of Judea, he was afraid to go there. He was given more instructions in a dream, so he went to the province of Galilee and made his home in a town named Nazareth. And so what the prophet had said came true: “He will be called a Nazarene” ‘

English: Herod Archelaus was the ethnarch of S...
English: Herod Archelaus was the ethnarch of Samaria, Judea, and Edom from 4 BC to 6 AD. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As an historian, I find this piece both fascinating and puzzling, because it underlines the differences between the nativity stories in Matthew and Luke’s gospels. Up until the end of Matthew’s account, the accounts can interlace. However, Luke ends his account with the passage above, whereas Luke concludes with Jesus’ naming and presentation in Jerusalem, which he dates, according to ‘the Law of Moses’ as a week after the child’s birth and the visit of the shepherds. Also, this is the first mention Matthew makes of Nazareth. All his ‘reports’ come from Bethlehem, and here he feels the need to explain why the family settled in Nazareth and not in Bethlehem. Of course, he doesn’t say they were a Judean family either, but whereas Luke makes clear the reason they were ‘only visiting’ Bethlehem at the time of the birth, Matthew seems to suggest that they had to settle in Galilee because Judea was far too dangerous, despite the death of ‘Herod the Great‘. This also seems to suggest that, at the very least, Joseph had strong family ties to Bethlehem, which would have made an ‘undercover’ return to Judea possible. Indeed, the fact that Matthew does not refer to the birth taking place in the ’emergency accommodation’ of Luke’s ‘manger’ suggests that they had a family home in ‘the little town’ where they could stay, and that perhaps they had been on their way there when the baby arrived ‘prematurely’.

This view finds support from the apocryphal Gospel of James, which focuses in detail on the birth narratives, recording the birth as taking place in a cave used for keeping livestock, by the road to Bethlehem. For me, that makes the story even more human, having been through the ‘will we make it to the hospital before baby arrives’ scenario, like many other ‘expectant’ fathers!

English: This is a map of first century Iudaea...
English: This is a map of first century Iudaea Province that I created using Illustrator CS2. I traced this image for the general geographic features. I then manually input data from maps found in a couple of sources. Robert W. Funk and the Jesus Seminar. The Acts of Jesus. HarperSanFrancisco: 1998. p. xxiv. Michael Grant. Jesus: An Historian’s Review of the Gospels. Charles Scribner’s Sons: 1977. p. 65-67. John P. Meier. A Marginal Jew. Doubleday: 1991. p. 1:434. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

However, the more important difference, since the basis of the Christian faith is the historical Jesus, the incarnation in Earth’s space and time, is that, for the flight to Egypt, Herod’s death, the return and the presentation in the Temple to have all taken place within a week, would have been meant an action-packed week for a young mother and child, even if they had not gone much further along the road to Egypt than Gaza, as first century Palestinian refugees. Certainly, right up until the time of his death, which has been accurately dated to the end of March/ beginning of April 4 B.C., Herod was committing terrible atrocities on his own people. The following comes from the biblical scholar, Daniel B Wallace from www.bible.org, on the record of these provided by the Jewish historian:

‘Josephus tells us much about Herod. The best word to describe his reign is ‘overkill.’ He murdered his favourite wife’s father, drowned her brother–and even killed her! He executed one of his most trusted friends, his barber, and 300 military leaders–all in a day’s work! Then he slew three of his sons, allegedly suspecting them of treason. Josephus tells us that “Herod inflicted such outrages upon (the Jews) as not even a beast could have done if it possessed the power to rule over men” (Antiquities of the Jews 17:310). Killing babies was not out of character for this cruel king. And killing them up to two years old–to make sure he got the baby Jesus lines up with his insane jealousy for power.

‘Josephus might have omitted the slaying of the babies for one of two reasons: first, he was no friend of Christianity and he left it out intentionally; or second, just before Herod died he locked up 3000 of the nation’s leading citizens and gave orders that they were to be executed at the hour of his death. He wanted to make sure that there would be mourning when he died. . . Israel was so preoccupied with this that the clandestine murder of a few babies might have gone unnoticed. . .’

Watching again the scenes from North Korea at this time of year, three years ago, it was easy to see how, even in a world of mass and instantaneous communication, how it’s possible for dictators to hide the real truth of their tyranny behind a thin veneer of carefully choreographed, if seemingly spontaneous, devotion to a leader. When Jesus was born in the late winter or early spring of 4 B.C. he came into a country, Judea, which was a state living under terror, likely to continue under Herod’s successor. So, he became a refugee on the road through Gaza to Egypt, and grew up ‘in exile’ from his father’s ancestral home, in northern Palestine, or the kingdom of Israel, outside the jurisdiction of Archalaus, Herod’s son. There’s both a contemporary and timeless message in all that history somewhere, isn’t there? That’s what makes Christianity so unique as a faith. Emmanuel. God with us in every human experience.

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