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

Part One – From Tarsus to Antioch & Galatia:

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Introduction:

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

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

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

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

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

(II Cor. 11: 23-33, New World.)

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

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

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

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

Saul of Tarsus:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Zealous Student in Jerusalem:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Into Asia Minor – The First Missionary Journey:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(to be continued…)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nazarene heretics:

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

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

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

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

Source: National Geographic, December 2017.

Apocalyptic Poetry:

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

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

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

And did the countenance divine,

Shine forth upon our clouded hills?

And was Jerusalem builded here

Among those dark satanic mills?

 

Bring me my bow of burning gold!

Bring me my arrows of desire!

Bring me my spear! O clouds, unfold!

Bring me my chariot of fire!

 

I will not cease from mental fight,

Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,

Till we have built Jerusalem

In England’s green a pleasant land.

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

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

 

Image result for Jesus messianic secret

 

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

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

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

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

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

Behold, with the clouds of heaven,

there came one like a son of man,

and he came to the Ancient of Days

 and was presented before him.

And to him was given dominion 

and glory and kingdom

that all Peoples, nations and languages

should serve him;

his dominion is an everlasting dominion,

which shall not pass away, 

and his kingdom one

that shall not be destroyed 

(Dan. 7. 13 f.)

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

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

 

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

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

(to be continued…)

 

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