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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 – Part Three   Leave a comment

Part Three: The Third Missionary Journey, Jerusalem & Rome.

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Chronology:

The chronology of Paul’s career cannot be fixed precisely, but fortunately, we have one precise date to start from. The proconsul before whom Paul was cited at Corinth on his first visit there was Junius Annaeus Gallio, who was known to have held the appointment from July AD 51 to June AD 52. Based on the reports of this visit in Acts, Paul was in Corinth from early in 50 to late 51. From this fixed point, we can then calculate backwards and forwards, using the indications of time supplied in Paul’s own letters or in Acts. If Paul reached Corinth early in 50, then his ‘Second Missionary Journey’ must have begun in 49, and the visit to Jerusalem which preceded it, when he came to an agreement with the leaders of the church there, would presumably have taken place in AD 48. Paul dates his earlier visit to Jerusalem fourteen years before, pointing to AD 35, three years after his conversion, which has therefore been tentatively dated to AD 33. When exactly Paul arrived at Ephesus is a matter of conjecture, but we know that he established himself there for a full three years. His stay there seems to fall between 54 and 57 AD, rather than any earlier, and it was between these years that he undertook his ‘Third Missionary Journey’.

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Ephesus & Corinth:

The ‘Third Missionary Journey’, through the interior of Asia Minor, is given the most cursory treatment in Luke’s diary which constitutes much of the Acts of the Apostles. He seems to be in a hurry, as Paul himself probably was, to reach Ephesus (Acts 18: 23; 19: 1). It is evident that he had formed definitive ideas about the most effective way of conducting his mission. He decided not to cover ground by moving rapidly from place to place, but to settle, as he had done at Corinth, in a suitable centre from which he could reach a whole province. Ephesus was to prove to be such a centre as one of the principal cities of the province of Asia, with excellent communications by land and sea. Settled by Greeks in antiquity, but always with something oriental about it, it had been a meeting place of East and West long before the conquests of Alexander had inaugurated the Hellenistic age. Its world-famous temple was dedicated to the native Anatolian fertility-goddess, Artemis, or Diana to the Romans (Acts 19: 27; 34 f.), though she had little in common with the virgin huntress of the classical pantheon. From ancient times a seat of Greek philosophical thought, Ephesus was also hospitable to all manners of superstitions, and in Paul’s time it was notorious as a centre of the ‘black arts’ of magic (Acts 19: 18 f.). This was the place which for the next three years or so was to be Paul’s headquarters (Acts 20: 31). There are evident signs that this was a planned strategy on his part. Ephesus was another meeting point of trade routes and cultures, and therefore an excellent place from which to disseminate the gospel.

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Paul arrived in Ephesus and began as always in the synagogue, this time for three months. Opposition grew, however, as the disturbing implications of Paul’s way of reading the familiar stories dawned upon the puzzled hearers. Resistance hardened, and this may have been one of the occasions when submitting to synagogue discipline, Paul received the official Jewish beating of forty lashes. He tells us that he had received this five times, which in itself indicates his steady commitment to working with the synagogue congregations as long as he could since he could easily have avoided the punishment by simply not turning up. Some of the Jewish community in Ephesus had begun to spread rumours about what this “Messiah cult” was doing. From later writings, we can guess at the sneering comments about what these ‘Jesus-worshippers’ were up to behind closed doors, with men and women meeting together and talking about a new kind of “love,” not to mention the disturbing gossip about eating someone’s body and drinking their blood. So Paul realised, as he had done in Corinth, that he could no longer treat the synagogue as his base. It was time to move elsewhere. He formally ‘withdrew his converts’ and established himself on neutral territory in a lecture hall in the city, which he rented. For the next two years, he divided his time between his tent-making business and the public exposition of the faith. He held daily conferences at the hall, open to all comers, which attracted numbers of residents to the city (Acts 19: 8-10). People came from far and wide, spent time in the city, and then went on their way. They chatted about anything strange or new that they had come across in their travels. The group of early Christians who met in the lecture hall was one of these.

By this time, Paul had built up an efficient ‘staff’, whose names keep recurring in his letters – Timothy (Rom. 16: 21; 1 Cor. 4: 17; 16: 10; Phil. 2: 19-23 etc.), Luke, Tychicus (Eph. 6: 21; Col. 4: 7; II Tim. 4: 12; Titus 3: 12) and several others, though Silas had, by this time, faded out of the narrative. They were available either to work by his side at the headquarters or to be sent where they could be useful in keeping in touch with churches already founded, or in breaking new ground. It was in this way that Paul’s mission in the province spread. We happen to learn from his letters the names of the three up-country towns where churches were founded without any visit from the apostle himself – Colossae, Laodicea and Hierapolis (Col. 1: 7; 2: 1; 4: 13-16) – and there were certainly others. The author of Acts says, perhaps with some exaggeration, that…

…the whole population of the province of Asia, both Jews and pagans, heard the word of the Lord.

(Acts 19: 10)

Meanwhile, however, trouble was brewing. There was furious opposition from the Jews (Acts 20:19), and some from pagan quarters (Acts 19: 23-27), though we hear also of some of the dignitaries of the province who were friendly towards him (Acts 19: 31). We have some record both in Acts and in the letters (I Cor. 15: 32; II Cor 1: 8). From the letters to the Corinthians we also learn something that the author of Acts does not tell us, that Paul was, at this time, driven almost to distraction by disorder in the church in Corinth. In a climactic passage of his letter to the Galatians, he had pointed out that the Messiah’s people had ‘died’; they had left behind their old identities as Jews or Gentiles and had come into a new identity (Galatians 2: 19-21). That was, in part, why the gospel was “a scandal to Jews,” but, at the same time, only makes sense within a deeply Jewish, messianic view of the world. Charged with his specific responsibility, Paul was able, without compromising that messianic identity, to live alongside people of all sorts, sharing their customs while he was with them. When he had dinner with Jewish friends, they would have eaten ‘kosher’ food together, and when he went to dinner with non-Jewish friends, he would have eaten whatever they put in front of him (I Cor. 10: 27). What would then have made the difference was ‘conscience’, not Paul’s, but that of anyone else who might have been offended or who might be led back into idolatry.

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This must have been a much harder path to tread than that sketched in the apostolic letter issued after the Jerusalem Conference in which simple abstinence from all relevant foods was enjoined. Paul not only thought that this was unnecessary, but that it violated the fundamental principles of Jewish belief itself. His own pragmatic solution must have seemed not just paradoxical, but also perverse to some. For instance, a Jewish family who had shared a meal with Paul and watched him keep all the Jewish customs must have found it strange that the same week he had dined with a Gentile family and eaten what they were eating, though a Gentile family would have seen little harm in it. But, once again, Paul is teaching in his letter to the Corinthians that they should think like the people of the Messiah, building on the foundation of Israel’s scriptures, interpreting them afresh in the light of the crucified and risen Messiah himself. So in Chapter eleven of his epistle, he deals with the problems of the family meal, the Lord’s Supper or ‘Eucharist’. Then in Chapter twelve, he addresses the question of unity in the fellowship and the way in which the Spirit gives to each member of ‘the Messiah’s body’ different gifts to be used for the benefit of all. In Chapter fourteen, Paul applies this to the corporate worship of the church, following his exquisite poem about divine love, agape, in chapter thirteen. In this, Paul is not just teaching them ‘ethics’, but also to think eschatologically:

We know, you see, in part;

We prophesy in part; but, with perfection,

The partial is abolished. As a child

I spoke, and thought, and reasoned like a child;

When I grew up, I threw off childish ways.

For at the moment all that we can see

Are puzzling reflections in a mirror;

But then I’ll know completely, through and through,

Even as I’m completely known. So, now,

Faith, hope and love remain, these three; and, of them

Love is the greatest.

(I Cor. 13: 9-13).

Love is not just a duty. Paul’s point is that love is the believer’s destiny. It is the reality that belongs to God’s future, glimpsed in the present like a puzzling reflection, but waiting there in full reality for the face-to-face future. And the point is that this future has come forward to the present time in the events involving Jesus and in the power of the spirit. That is why love matters for Paul even more than faith, which many have seen as his central theme. Love is the present virtue in which believers anticipate and practice the life of the ultimate life to come. That’s why the final theological chapter, fifteen, dealing with the resurrection of the body, is the centre of the gospel. It is also the beginning of a study I have made elsewhere on this website in a series of articles examining the role of eschatology in Christian thought from Paul onwards. Paul’s main point in relation to the fulfilment of Israel’s hope is about messianic eschatology. He is not saying, “We Jesus-followers have found a better sort of religion than the old Jewish one.” But if Israel’s Messiah has come and has been raised from the dead, then those who follow him are the true people of God. This is blunt but consistent and precisely what the followers of the other first-century Jewish leaders would have said. It was not disloyalty to Israel’s God, but the contested messianic loyalty that characterised Paul’s missionary thought and journeys throughout.

Jesus had described himself at his trial by the Sanhedrin as the ‘Son of Man’, which was the Hebrew and Aramaic way of saying ‘man’ and could even be used to describe the Jewish people themselves who believed themselves to be ‘God’s People’. Jesus used the words not just to describe his own ministry, but about himself and his friends, the new ‘People of God’. The word ‘Christ, the Greek translation of ‘Messiah’, meaning ‘the one who is anointed’, was a word Jesus seemed not to like and was more wary of using, including of himself. When Peter had used the word of him, he rebuked him for doing so. It was a word with a long history. Kings had been ‘anointed’ and prophets had been spoken of as ‘anointed’. The word was even used of a foreign emperor, Cyrus. In the years before Jesus began his ministry, the word had come to represent God’s ‘Chosen Leader’ whom the Jewish people expected God to send as their deliverer. But this ‘Chosen Leader’ was thought of in many different ways – sometimes as a supernatural figure, sometimes as a soldier. Yet although he did not like the word and did not use it of himself, Pilate had had him executed as a ‘messiah’, a claimant to the leadership of the Jewish people – ‘the Jewish King’, as he had put it on the official death-notice on the cross.

It seemed to Jewish Christians that no word described him better – he was ‘God’s Chosen Leader’. They began to talk about him as ‘Jesus the Messiah’, where ‘Messiah’ is a simple descriptive name. When ‘Messiah’, however, was translated into Greek as ‘Christ’, it began to change its meaning. Greek-speaking ‘foreigners’ didn’t understand it and simply used it as Jesus’ second name. Paul, of course, knew the Jewish world from the inside and used the word ‘Christ’ in his letters to describe the whole influence of Jesus – his life in Palestine and the new experience of God which he made possible, so that he could use the words ‘Spirit’, ‘Spirit of God’ and ‘Spirit of Christ’, as we have seen, to describe this new experience. Paul was struggling with an almost impossible task, and he was aware of how difficult it was. But to talk about Jesus as though he was not just a good man who had died was to be false to what he felt in his heart the new divine experience to be. His meeting with the Messiah on the Damascus Road fulfilled everything and thereby changed everything, as the following statement made clear:

Whatever I had written in on the profit side, I calculated it instead as a loss – because of the Messiah. Yes, I know that’s weird, but there’s more: I calculate everything as a loss, because knowing King Jesus as my Lord is worth far more than everything else put together! In fact, because of the Messiah I’ve suffered the loss of everything, and I now calculate it as trash, so that my profit may be the Messiah, and that I may be discovered in him, not having my own covenant status defined by the Torah, but the status which comes through the Messiah’s faithfulness: the covenant status from God which is given to faith. This means knowing him, knowing the power of his resurrection, and knowing the partnership of his sufferings. It means sharing the form and pattern of his death, so that somehow I may arrive at the final resurrection from the dead.

(Phil. 3: 7-11).

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The Messiah regarded his status, “equality with God”, not as something to exploit, but as committing him instead to the life of the ‘servant’ and the shameful death of the ‘slave’. That is why he was now exalted as Lord over all. ‘Lord’ was another word the early Christians used as a common way of identifying Jesus; he was ‘the Lord Jesus Christ’. The word ‘Lord’ had been used for God in the Old Testament; God was ‘Lord’. It was also used to describe the Roman Emperors and some of the pagan gods. As Paul once wrote, There are many gods and many lords. So it came to be used of Jesus; to say that “Jesus is Lord” became the simplest way for believers to proclaim their Christian faith. It carried a sense of his presence, his love and his forgiveness, of the power to live in his way, which He gave to all who accepted his love. This is what lay at the back of the struggle to find words that really described what Jesus meant to his followers. The passage above is focused not just on a belief or theory about the Messiah, but on personal knowledge. Paul wrote of knowing King Jesus as my Lord, of knowing him, knowing the power of his resurrection, and knowing the partnership of his sufferings. Paul knew the theory thoroughly, but it meant nothing without the awareness of the person and presence of Jesus himself. His personal ‘knowledge’ of the Messiah found intimate expression in suffering. He speaks of this as a ‘partnership’, which is a translation of the Greek word koinonia, giving us synonyms such as ‘fellowship’ or ‘sharing’. It expressed a mutual belonging for which modern English does not provide exact words.

Paul had come to the point where he was content to share the Messiah’s death in order that he might arrive with him at the ultimate hope of Israel, ‘the resurrection from the dead’.  The ancient story of Israel had been fulfilled in the Messiah, and all Paul’s previous zeal for God and the Torah had to be counted as “trash” by contrast. That’s why he ‘forgot’ about his past and, like an athlete with his eye on the finishing line, aims to strain every nerve to go after what’s ahead. Then comes the point of all this for the Philippians: they must learn to imitate him, as he is imitating the Messiah (Phil. 3: 13-19). But how could the Gentile Christians do this? They had not been zealous Jews, eager for the Torah, but they all had their own status, personal and civic pride. Even if they lacked status, because they were poor, or slaves, or women (though some women, like Lydia, were independent and free), they all had the standing temptation to lapse back into pagan lifestyles. So whether they were Romans reverting to proud colonial ways or simply people who found themselves lured back into sensual indulgence, they must instead resist and find instead the way of holiness and wholeness shaped by the Messiah himself, by his choice of the way of the cross, by his status as the truly human one, the true embodiment of the One God (Tom Wright).

Colossae & Corinth (again):

Paul’s later letters to both the Ephesians and Colossians are both deeply Jewish in their orientation, only making sense within that worldview. Nineteenth-century Protestantism didn’t favour Jewish thought, and didn’t want Paul to be too Jewish and, more recently, some scholars have tended to demote the two epistles as anathema to the more ‘liberal’ agenda they find in Galatians and Corinthians. Tom Wright claims that this is a mistake, resulting from contemporary ideology and moralising which seeks to ‘pigeon-hole’ Paul. Colossians was written, it appears, to a young church. Paul had been informed of its existence by Epaphus, himself from Colossae, who seems to have been converted by Paul in Ephesus and to have returned home to spread the word. Paul’s epistle to the Colossians was written at Rome, when he was in prison in Rome, shortly before his martyrdom, in about AD 63. Colossae had been a great city, but had very much declined, and was now the smallest of the three neighbouring cities in the valley of the Lycus. Laodicea and Hierapolis were still prosperous by comparison. Its church was the most insignificant of the churches which received a letter from Paul, and it was scarcely mentioned in later times. Neither in this epistle nor in the Acts is there any evidence that the apostle ever visited the Colossians. But he had “heard of their faith” (I: 4, 9) and states that they “had not seen his face in the flesh (2: 1). Nevertheless, Paul was praying for the church to grow in faith, wisdom, and understanding and to be able to draw on the “power” of Jesus in living and working to his glory (Col. 1: 9-11). In particular, Paul longed for them to develop and enrich the practice of giving thanks. To that end he supplies them with a poem, like that written to the Philippians (chapter two, above), celebrating the universal lordship of Jesus over all the powers of the world. Part of the meaning of this poem was that it was written by someone in prison. According to Tom Wright, it invites…

… those who read it or pray it to imagine a different world from the one they see around them – a world with a different ‘Lord’ in which the One God rules and rescues, a world in which a new sort of wisdom is unveiled, a world in which there is a different way to be human.   

‘Wisdom’ was the key theme of much of Colossians. As always, Paul wanted people to think, not simply to imbibe rules and principles to learn by heart, but to be able to grow up to full maturity as human beings, experiencing that “Christ is all and in all,” and coming to “the knowledge of God’s mystery.” (Col. 2: 2). All this will happen when they realise that it is Jesus himself who reveals that ‘mystery’ and the means of finding all the hidden treasures of wisdom and knowledge. Paul is here drawing deeply upon two important strands of Jewish thought. First, he knows very well the traditions of prayerful meditation through which devout Jews hoped for a vision of the heavenly realm. These traditions seemed to have been developed at a time when with pagans still ruling Palestine even after the end of the Babylonian exile had ended, there was a sense that the greatest prophetic promises, particularly those concerning the visible and powerful return of Israel’s God to the Temple of Zion had not been realised. Second, there was the belief that the whole creation was made by the One God through his wisdom (Proverbs 8). To speak of “Lady Wisdom” as God’s handmaid in creation was a poetic way of saying that when God made the world, his work was neither random nor muddled, but wise – coherent and well-ordered; it made sense. To reflect God’s image, mankind needed to be wise as well.

The “mystery” tradition and the “wisdom” tradition were both focused by some writers of the period on the Temple. That was where the One God had promised to dwell. If there was to be a display of the ultimate mystery, the writers expected that it would be in the Temple. This expectation got bound together in yet another strand of Jewish thinking: David’s son Solomon, the ultimate ‘wise man’ in the Bible, was also the king who built the Temple. When Solomon consecrated the newly built shrine, the divine glory came to fill the house in such blazing brilliance that the priests could not stand there to do their work (I Kings 8). For us, living in a radically different culture, all this feels like an odd combination of disparate ideas. In Paul’s world, and especially for a well-educated Jew, all these apparently separate notions belonged like a single well-oiled machine. Here is the secret of creation, of wisdom, of mystery, of the Temple. This is how it all fits together. N T Wright challenges us to imagine all the complex but coherent Jewish thought…

… pondered and prayed by Paul as he travels, as he works in his hot little shop, as he stays in a wayside inn, as he teaches young Timothy the vast world of scripture, which is his natural habitat. Imagine him praying all that in the Temple itself as he visits Jerusalem after watching the gospel at work in Turkey and Greece. Imagine, particularly, Paul finding here fresh insight into the way in which, as the focal point of creation, of wisdom and mystery, and of the deep meaning of humanness itself, Jesus is now enthroned as Lord over all possible powers. And now imagine Paul in his moment of crisis, of despair, feeling that the “powers” had overcome him after all, reaching down into the depths of this fathomless well of truth to find, in a fresh way, what it might mean to trust in the God who raises the dead. This is what he comes up with:

“He  is the image of God, the invisible one;

The firstborn of  all creation.

For in him all things were created,

In the heavens and the earth.

Things we can see and things we cannot –

Thrones and lordships and rulers and powers –

All things were created both through him and for him.

And he is ahead, prior to all else

And in him all things hold together;

And he himself is supreme, the head

Over the body, the church.

 

He is the start of it all,

Firstborn from realms of the dead;

So in all things he might be the chief,

For in him all the Fullness was glad to dwell

And through him to reconcile all to himself,

Making peace through the blood of his cross,

Through him – yes, things on the earth,

And also the things in the heavens.

(Col. 1: 15-20.).

If this poem were less elegant, one might suggest that Paul was shaking his fist at the powers on earth and in the dark realms beyond the earth, the powers which had put him in prison in Rome and crushed his spirit to the breaking point. But he was not doing so, but rather invoking and celebrating a world in which Jesus, the one through whom all things were made, is now the one through whom, by means of his crucifixion, all things are reconciled. This is not the world that he and his friends can see with the naked eye since that is one in which allegiance is given to Caesar and there are bullying magistrates and threatening officers, with prisons and torture in their weaponry of oppression. But they are invited to see the world with the eye of faith, the eye that has learned to look through the lens of scripture and see Jesus. The Messiah is living with the Colossians, just as Paul had written to the Galatians. The ancient Jewish hope that the glory of the One God would return and fill the world is thus starting to come true.  It may not look like it in Colossae, as ten or twenty oddly assorted people crowd int Philemon’s house to pray, to invoke Jesus as they worship the One God, to break bread together, and to intercede for one another and the world; but actually, the Messiah, there in their midst, is “the hope of glory.” (Col. 1:27).

From his base in Ephesus, Paul sent different members of his staff to deal with the quarrelling Corinthians (II Cor. 12: 17 f.), but he then found it necessary to interrupt his work and cross the Aegean himself (II Cor. 12: 14). There are two letters to the Corinthians in the New Testament, but these contain clear indications that the correspondence they represent was more extensive. They illustrate vividly the problems that arose when people of widely different ethnic origins, religious backgrounds, levels of education and positions in the social hierarchy were being welded into a community by the power of a common faith, while at the same time they had come to terms with the secular society to which they also owed allegiance. These problems were threatening to split the church into fragments. It may have been about the same time that the very serious trouble broke out which provoked Paul to write his fiercely controversial letter to the Galatians. If the Second Letter to the Corinthians was written at about this time, this would explain Paul’s cri de cour in it: There is the responsibility that weighs on me every day, my anxious concern for all our congregations (II Cor. 11: 28). The difficulties at Corinth were eventually resolved, and Paul, having wound up his work at Ephesus, was able to visit a church now fully reconciled.

Rome & Jerusalem:

It was at this point that he wrote his the longest and most weighty of all his surviving letters, that addressed to the Romans. In this letter, he looked back briefly on the work that lay behind him and sketched a plan for the future. He had covered the eastern provinces of the empire, from Jerusalem as far round as Illyricum. He added that he had no further scope in these parts and that it was now his ambition to bring the gospel places where the very name of Christ has not been heard. Accordingly, he was planning to open up work in the west, with Spain as his objective. On the way, he would visit Rome, and hoped to find support there for his enterprise (Rom. 15: 19-29). Paul had not yet visited Rome, but from the greetings, at the end of his letter he obviously had several friends there, and he knew quite a lot about the what was going on in both the church and the wider society. His intention to round off his work in the eastern end of the Mediterranean world and to move on to the West was a more focused ambition than simply finding more people to preach to, more “souls” to “save”. He wanted to plant the flag of the messianic gospel in key points where the “gospel” of Caesar and the ‘Pax Romana’ was being flaunted. Rome itself was, therefore, the obvious target; but beyond that, Spain, the western edge of the known world, was also a major centre of Roman culture and influence. Paul’s great contemporary Seneca had come from there. Galba, soon to be emperor, had been governor there, based in the port of Tarragona, which would presumably be Paul’s initial target. It boasted a large temple to Caesar. As in Ephesus and Corinth, Paul would have longed to announce that Jesus was the true Kyrios right under Caesar’s nose.

He knew he would have to tread somewhat warily in Rome, as the church there was not of his founding, nor was it within his ‘sphere of influence’ originally laid down by the church in Antioch. He also knew that there was some prejudice against him among the Roman Christians, who had all sorts of rumours about him. Some might distrust him, either because he was too Jewish or because he was not Jewish enough and had treated elements of Jewish practice too loosely. Some kind of outline of his teaching was a basic necessity. Before presenting himself there he sent his letter, a considered and comprehensive statement of his theological position, designed to establish his standing as a Christian teacher. There was also a more pressing need. Something had happened in the recent past in Rome that had put the Roman Christians in a new and complex position. Claudius, who had become emperor in AD 41, had banished the Jews from Rome after riots in the community sometime in the late forties. Despite the decimation of the community, not all the Jews had actually left, and those that remained had ‘gone to ground’ to hide their identity. Paul’s friends Priscilla and Aquila were among those who had left, which was why they were in Corinth when Paul first arrived there, probably in AD 49. But with Claudius’ death in 54 and Nero’s accession to the throne, Claudius’ edict was revoked. Jews could once again be permitted back in the imperial city, though they were not exactly welcomed back with open arms.

At this time, there was more than a streak of anti-Jewish sentiment in Rome. The term “anti-Jewish” is more appropriate than “anti-Semitic,” because the latter implies some kind of racial theory unknown until the second half of the nineteenth century. Also, in the first century, all Jews were identified by their Judaistic religious practises. There was no such thing as a ‘secular Jew’, as is evidenced by the fact that Jews were exempted from making sacrifices to Caesar and the Roman gods. The danger posed by Paul and Silas in Philippi was that, as Jews, they were teaching non-Jews things that it was illegal for Roman citizens and subjects to practice. In the amphitheatre at Ephesus, when Alexander, a Jew, stood up to preach, there were angry whispers. The same antagonism can be sensed on the edge of remarks by poets like Juvenal or sneering historians like Tacitus. Underneath the ethnic and cultural prejudice there was always a ‘theological’ belief that since the Jews did not worship the gods, they could, therefore, be blamed for disastrous events. This blame was subsequently transferred to the Christians in subsequent decades and centuries. Even in Corinth, Gallio’s refusal to make a judgment about Paul caused the mob to beat up the synagogue president, getting away with it. Going after the Jews was a default mode for many, right across the Roman Empire. Besides their exemption from religious observances that would compromise their beliefs, the Jews were allowed freedom of worship and the right to collect taxes for the Temple in Jerusalem, but that didn’t mean that they were integrated into wider society. For the most part, they were ostracised.

Paul’s message ran completely contrary to this social reality. Among the churches he had founded in Asia Minor and Greece this had not been so clear-cut, since he had always started in the synagogue first and made it clear that the gospel was “to the Jew first, but also, equally, to the Greek.” (Rom. 1: 16). He had given no opportunity for the creation of a Gentile-only Christian community. In most of the cities where he had preached, with the possible exception of the large metropolis of Ephesus, the probability is that the followers of Jesus were never large in number, perhaps only ever a few dozen, or in Corinth, conceivably, a few hundred. It would have been difficult for significantly different theological positions to have emerged once these communities had been established, at least not in the early decades of their communal life.

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But in Rome things were different. The message of Jesus had evidently arrived there sometime in the forties, perhaps with the apostle Peter, though this is only a tradition. This places Peter as having arrived in Rome in the year AD 44, whereas Paul did not arrive there until after AD 56, a date given by St. Jerome. There were followers of ‘The Way’ present in Rome perhaps even before Peter’s visit (if it took place), but the scriptural references to ‘the Church’ should not be taken too literally, as referring to a material institution. If it existed in any united form, it was a spiritual body in Christ. The more likely case is that the followers of Jesus at Rome were unorganised, treading in fear, meeting secretly in small groups at the homes of various converts in order to worship, often quite literally ‘underground’.

The imperial capital was, in any case, a city where different cultural and ethnic groups from all over the empire would cluster together for protection in their own districts. It is therefore highly likely that there were many scattered and disparate ‘house-churches’, as is shown by the greetings given in Romans 16, all worshipping Jesus but not really in direct contact with one another, and almost certainly with differing customs and practices based on their cultures of origin. The bands of converts met in grottoes, but mostly in the catacombs among the dead. The Roman law had recognised these underground cemeteries with the decree of sanctuary. However, when the persecution of the Jesus-followers was at its worst, the Roman soldiery would waylay the worshippers on entering or leaving the catacombs. To avoid capture they would make secret entrances and outlets, often through the houses of believers. The Tiberian and Claudian ban that promised to inflict death on all who openly professed the new faith was still in place when Paul was planning his sojourn in the Imperial City. When writing to the followers in Rome, he was aware that one of the ‘churches’ met at the home of Aquila and Priscilla (Rom. 16: 5) and that as well as this Jewish ‘church of circumcision’ there were also Gentile Christian meetings elsewhere in the city. Paul’s visit to Rome, however, was not pending immediately, and probably didn’t take place until AD 58 at the earliest. First, he had to go to Jerusalem, and he implored the Roman Christians to pray for him,

… that I may be served from unbelievers in Judaea and that my errand to Jerusalem may find acceptance with God’s people.

(Rom. 15: 31)

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Paul not only apprehended danger from Jewish opposition but also felt some doubt how far he would be welcome to his fellow Christians at Jerusalem. To understand this we need to look at the situation which had developed as a result of his startling success in the building, all over the eastern empire, of a close-knit network of Christian communities which was supra-national, multi-racial, and ‘egalitarian’. As he was to write to the Colossians, that there was to be no distinction between…

Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free man.

(Col. 3: 11).

This inevitably antagonised those who adhered to a stiff, nationally orientated type of Judaism – those, in fact, who stood where Paul himself had stood before his conversion. He had ‘ratted’ on them, and that could not be forgiven or forgotten. In his letter to the Romans, Paul argued, as he had done in Galatians, that the church could not be allowed to become a ‘purely’ Jewish institution with Gentile Christians tolerated as second-class citizens. “There is no distinction,” he repeated (Rom. 3: 22; 10: 12). If he had been finally defeated over this, the Christian church might have had as little impact on the great world as any other of the of the numerous Jewish sects. Although he was not defeated, neither could he be said to have gained a decisive victory in his lifetime. Advocates of the narrower view dogged his steps to the end and sought to win over his converts. No doubt they were honest and conscientious men, who stood obstinately by their principles, as did he. Quite simply, as far as he was concerned, they were in the wrong, and in his letter to the Galatians, he had written of these opponents in harsh terms and with passionate indignation. His tone in Romans was softer than that of Galatians, as he also set out his mission to Jerusalem as one of reconciliation. Nevertheless, the opening passages of his letter read like a ‘manifesto’ for a religious revolution, demonstrating how vital the issue was for him:

God has shown us clearly what he is like in a new way – how he stands for what is right, overthrows what is wrong and helps men to live in his Way.

This is not altogether a new Way, as we have seen – the Men of God of the Jewish people had begun to see how God puts wrongs right. But Jesus has made it quite plain. If we are to live in God’s Way, we must trust God; this means trusting in Jesus who has made God real to us.

This is true for everybody everywhere; for God … has no favourites. We have all done wrong; none of us has lived as splendidly as God intended him to live, though we were all created to live in his Way and be like him. But God treats us as if we had learned to live splendidly; his love is given to us freely. And it is Jesus who has won this freedom for us. 

There is nothing in all this to make us proud of ourselves. Keeping all the rules wouldn’t have stopped us being proud of ourselves. We have simply taken him at his word, and that leaves no room for boasting.

I am sure of this: everybody can really live as God wants him to live simply by trusting him, not by trying to keep all the rules. I mean everybody. Is God only the God of the Jewish people? Isn’t he God of all people everywhere? Of course he is, for there is only one God. So he puts Jewish people right – if they trust him; and he puts the people of other countries right if they trust him. 

When the original Jerusalem concordat was made, the leaders of the church had stipulated that the ‘Gentile’ churches should take some responsibility for the support of the poverty-stricken Jewish Christians of Jerusalem. But for Paul, it was an opportunity to demonstrate the true fraternal unity of Christians, bridging any divisions that arose among them. He set up a large-scale relief fund, to be raised by voluntary subscription from members of the churches he had founded; he recommended a system of regular weekly contributions (Rom. 15: 25-28; 1 Cor. 16: 1-4; II Cor. 8: 1-9, 15). The raising of the fund had gone on for some considerable time and there was now a substantial sum in hand to be conveyed to Jerusalem. He was to be accompanied by a deputation carefully composed, it appears, so as to represent the several provinces (I Cor. 16: 3 f.; Acts 20: 4).  The handing over of the relief fund was to be both an act of true Christian charity and also a formal embassy from the ‘Diaspora’ churches affirming their fellowship with the Judaean Christians in the one church. However, the goodwill mission miscarried. Paul’s reception by the leaders of the church at Jerusalem, if not unfriendly, was certainly not entirely welcoming. James was genuinely frightened of the effect of Paul’s presence in the city on both Christian and non-Christian Jews, in view of his reputation as a critic of Jewish ‘legalism’. James urged Paul to prove his personal loyalty to the Torah by carrying out certain ceremonies in the Temple (Acts 21: 20-24). Paul was quite willing to accept James’ guidance. As he had already written to the Corinthians,

To Jews, I became like a Jew, to win Jews; as they are subject to the law of Moses, I put myself under that law… 

(I Cor. 9:20).

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Unfortunately, however, he was recognised in the Temple by some of his arch-enemies, the Jews of Asia, who raised a cry that he was introducing Gentiles into the Holy Precincts  (Acts 21: 27-29). There ran across the temple court a barrier with an inscription threatening with death any ‘foreigner’ who trespassed beyond it. There was no truth in the charge against Paul, but it was enough to rouse the rabble, and Paul was in danger of being lynched. He was rescued by the Roman security forces and put under arrest. Having identified himself as a Roman citizen, he came under the protection of the imperial authorities (Acts 21: 30-39) and was ultimately transferred for safekeeping to the headquarters at Caesarea (Acts 23: 23-33). After wearisome wrangles between the Sanhedrin and two successive Roman governors, and fearing that he might be sent back into the hands of his accusers in Jerusalem, Paul decided to exercise his right of appeal to the emperor (Acts 25: 1-12). Accordingly, he was put on board a ship bound for Rome, leading to the famous ship-wreck off Malta (Acts 27: 1 – 28: 15).

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Paul in Rome:

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So Paul fulfilled his cherished plan of a visit to Rome in person but as a prisoner. He was placed under something like house-arrest, occupying his own private lodging, with liberty to receive visitors, but with a soldier constantly on guard (Acts 28: 16). He was awaiting trial there, a trial which was continually delayed.  It is probable, though not certain, that the Letters to the Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians, as well as to Philemon, all of which refer to their author(s) being in prison at the time of writing, belong to this period of confinement. This period of house-arrest lasted, we are informed, for two years (Acts 28: 30). Scholars presume that the case eventually came up before the imperial tribunal, but whether it resulted in acquittal and a further period of freedom to travel, or ended in condemnation and execution, we have no means of knowing. The Letters to Timothy and Titus have been thought to refer to a further period of imprisonment in Rome, but the evidence is at best ambiguous, and it is unlikely that these letters, in the form in which we have them, come from Paul’s own hand. We know that Paul’s original plan before he went to Jerusalem, was to travel on to Spain, but we have no evidence that this goal was fulfilled. He was associated with Rome for ten years in all, and some have suggested that in addition to visiting Spain, he also travelled to Gaul and Britain. However, there is little if any hard contemporary evidence to support these assertions, which are based mainly on tradition and fanciful conjecture.

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That he ultimately suffered martyrdom may be taken as certain, and there is no good reason to doubt the Roman tradition that he was beheaded at a spot on the road to Ostia known as ‘the Three Fountains’, and buried on the site now occupied by the noble church of St Paul-without-the-Walls. According to the chronology given at the beginning of this article, Paul could hardly have arrived in Jerusalem before AD 59. His period in prison in Caesarea could not, therefore, have ended until AD 61, therefore. At that point the governor Antonius Felix was succeeded by Porcius Festus, based on evidence from non-Biblical sources. Accordingly, Paul would have sailed to Rome in the autumn of 61, arriving there in early 62. His period of house arrest would have continued until AD 64 and Tom Wright dates Paul’s death to this year or later. Beyond that, we cannot go, but it may be significant that it was in the winter of 64/ 65 that the emperor Nero made his savage attack on the Christians of Rome, following the Fire which was blamed on them. The Roman-Jewish War followed in AD 66-70, during which Nero died in AD 68, and the War ended with the Fall of Jerusalem…

… (to be continued).

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

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

Battle on the Issus in the Alte Pinakothek in Munich.

‘The Rapture’ at the ‘End of Days’:

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

Chapter 14 v 1:

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

Chapter 21 v 2:

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

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

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

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

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

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The ‘Olivet Discourse’:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When you see the city besieged by armies,

be sure the last days of the city have come.

Let those inside her walls escape

and those in the villages stay in the villages.

These are the days of punishment,

the words of the Bible are coming true.

There will be great distress among men

and a terrible time for this people.

They will fall at the point of a sword

and be scattered as captives throughout the world.

Foreign soldiers will tramp the city’s streets

until the world really is God’s world.

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

What Revelation reveals…

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

(British Museum)

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

The Role of Jerusalem in the Early Church:

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

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

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

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

Jewish into Christian Apocalyptic Literature:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eschatology and the Fundamentalist Right in the USA Today:

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

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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

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

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

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

The Stony Road to Jerusalem – Palm Sunday into Holy Week.   2 comments

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There was a shout about my ears

And Palms before my feet.

G. K. Chesterton, The Donkey

The Gospel for the Fifth Sunday in Lent, the last before Palm Sunday and Holy Week, is taken from John 8 vv 58-9:

Jesus said, “before Abraham was born, I am”. They picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and left the Temple.’

These words come at the end of a long ‘dispute’ with the Jewish authorities in the Temple during the Festival of the Shelters, or Tents, in October. During this festival the people lived in temporary tents, or ‘booths’ along the sides of the rocky, hilly road into the city from Jericho. It was a time for giving thanks for the harvest, but also a celebration of their long march to freedom through the desert from Egypt with Moses, a time for thinking about leadership, and to look forward to the coming Messiah. Jesus spoke in the Temple Courts, as was the custom for Jewish teachers, and it seems to have been at this point that the Jewish leaders saw the threat he posed to all that they stood for and decided to get rid of him. “Who do you think you are?” they demanded of him angrily, in a battle to show who had the purest genealogy. Jesus refused to trace his ancestors for them, but simply said “I Am Who I Am”, words which could be interpreted as blasphemous, being close to the Hebrew name of God, ‘Yahweh’. He followed this up with the claim to be greater than Abraham, greater than Judaism itself, as Abraham was its founder. At the time, this would be like an Imam in Islam today claiming to be greater than their founding prophet.

Two events which happened when Jesus and his friends returned to the city at the Passover Festival were ‘acted parables’, intending to make clear in action, in addition to his words, just what he stood for. The first was his triumphal entry, intended to convey a message to his disciples and would-be followers. This took place outside the city, along the stony road, and was a very different declaration than that hoped for by many of those among the five thousand men he had broken bread with in Galilee. Jesus and his friends joined the pilgrims who had come up the steep road from Jericho and were singing hymns and psalms as they walked along. They began to recite the words of an ancient hymn:

 

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Jesus used the occasion to show his friends that, though they might share many of the nationalistic aims of the day, he came in peace and not in war, that his message was inclusive and not exclusive. In John’s gospel, some Greek pilgrims (many Jews were Hellenistic at this time, living around the Mediterranean or in northern Palestine) seek an audience with Jesus through his Galilean disciples, Philip and Andrew. Jesus affirms them as one of the many groups he has come to minister to, no doubt further annoying the orthodox Judeans present, who commented that the ‘whole world’ seemed to be following him.

Jesus’ choice of an ordinary farm animal, borrowed from a friend, as the means of his entry into Jerusalem was also an act of commemoration of the time when King David, his ancestor, rode into the city on a warhorse, after a great victory in battle over the enemies of Judah. It was an act aimed at his followers, demonstrating that, far from being a Zionist (in modern interpretations) he was seeking to be a servant of the whole of the people of Israel, as well as a prince of peace. A servant king. When evidence of his revolutionary views was sought for by the Sanhedrin, this very public action was not seen as significant, perhaps discarded even by them because they too acknowledged it as an inclusive, conciliatory gesture, rather than a divisive one. Only later, for the Christians, did it become imbued with revolutionary significance. This is how they told it:

001Jerusalem was at last in sight. Near the Olive Hill, Jesus sent his friends to a village. 

‘Go into  the village facing you,’ Jesus said, ‘and just as go in you’ll find a donkey. It’ll be tied up, and hasn’t been broken in yet. Untie it and bring it; and if anyone asks you why you are doing this, tell them: “The master needs it, and he’ll send it straight back”.’

They set off, and found the donkey tied at a door outside in the street. They untied it.

‘What are you untying the donkey for?’ asked some of the bystanders.

They said what Jesus had told them to say, and the men let them take it away.

They brought the donkey to Jesus and threw their clothes on its back. Jesus sat on it. People spread their clothes on the road, and others put leafy branches from the fields (down) and spread them out. All the crowd, those in front and those behind, shouted the words from the old Bible hymn:

Hurrah!

Happy is he who comes in God’s name!

Happy is the kingdom of King David, our father!

A thousand times – Hurrah!


The donkey became an important symbol in the early church, partly because the animal figured so much in the stories of Jesus. The mark of the cross is said to have originated from the that left on the back of the beast on the first Palm Sunday.   It had been a donkey that had taken Mary to Bethlehem Down just before Jesus’ birth and carried them through the town and into safety in Gaza, returning via the Temple in Jerusalem for the announcement of the birth en route to Nazareth. At one time, the association between the Christ and the beast was so strong that both Greek and Roman writers accused his followers of worshipping it as well as Him. Many church ceremonies in Britain are still led by donkeys on Palm Sunday, and there is  a traditional distribution of strips of palms, looped and folded into the form of a cross. The palms are then kept and returned to be burnt to make ashes for the ‘Ash Wednesday’ of the following Lent, being smeared on believers’ foreheads in the shape of the cross.


Throughout Holy Week, the Church re-enacts the incidents of  the last, memorable week in Jesus’ life, through selected, often dramatised, readings. Early in the week, the gospels tell us, Christ turned out the money-changers and merchants from the Temple. This second ‘acted parable’ was far more revolutionary in its immediate impact on Jerusalem, as the Holy City, than his entry into it had been. This was because it was it was not aimed at his own followers, but deliberately  targeted at the Temple authorities. It was a protest against their failure to keep the Foreigners’ Court clear for those from long distances coming to worship, from the Greek city states around the Mediterranean, to the hinterland of the Nile Valley.  It wasn’t simply an attack on the misuse of the Court of the Foreigners as a place for making gain from these pilgrims. To buy creatures for sacrifice, every Jew needed Temple money, and the money-changers were demanding high, unfair fees for every transaction. This was a further act of discrimination against non-Judean pilgrims which the authorities chose to ignore, as it suited their purpose of treating them as inferior.

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Jesus’  ‘personal’ clearing of the Court is usually presented as a spontaneous event, an expression of the righteous indignation which he felt at the moment he entered the Court, but the account in Mark’s gospel hints at it being premeditated, and there can have been no event more calculated as a direct challenge to the authority of the Temple administrators. It would also be seen as more of a threat to the order which the Romans struggled to maintain during the festival under the watchful eye of the Roman Governor himself, representative of the power of the Empire, as the final political authority in Palestine. It seems that, following his verbal challenges to the authorities at the October Festival, Jesus had made up his mind to appeal, over their heads, directly to the people at the Passover Festival, the following Spring, when the Temple Courts would be crowded with pilgrims from throughout Palestine and from all parts of the known world around the Mediterranean, Africa and Asia Minor. He would speak his final words and act out his message to his people, including those from Galilee who continued to support him, and who would be in and around the city in greater numbers in the Spring.

As a ‘tweeting vicar’ from Weston-super-Mare said recently on Sky News, Jesus used every means at his disposal to communicate his message, often using different means at the same time – pictures, parables, plays and poems as well as sayings, symbols, stories, songs and sermons. He planned carefully to use all these for serious purposes, as well as seizing every moment of opportunity as it occurred. In seeking ‘fresh expressions’ of discipleship, the Church needs to follow his lead, not just in the message, but in the media by which it is delivered.

Based on Alan T Dale’s ‘Portrait of Jesus’.

O Lord, who came to show God to men and was not afraid of their anger, take from us the wish to speak in inoffensive whispers in an unwelcoming world, and make us strong to speak of you boldly; in your name. AMEN.

O Lord of time, Lord from before our birth to beyond our death; help us to know you in each moment, so that, keeping your word, we may live now in the free and greater life of God. AMEN.

Susan Williams

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