Archive for the ‘Roman Empire’ Tag

Hearts on Fire: The Lost Disciples   2 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

Easter Saturday: The Secret Arimathean Apostle   10 comments

English: Joseph asked for the body of Christ f...

English: Joseph asked for the body of Christ from Pilate Русский: Иосиф Аримифейский просит у Пилата тело Иисуса Христа для погребения (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

 

Deuteronomy 21. v 23

‘If a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain all night upon the tree. but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is accursed by God; you shall not defile your land which the Lord your God gives you for an inheritance.’

Hanging on a cross was the ultimate penalty for murderers, robbers, mischief-makers, and it was a typical punishment for slaves. Crucifixion was a horrible and cruel death, including flogging beforehand and the victim being made to carry the beam of his own cross to the place of execution, where he was nailed to it with outstretched arms, raised up and seated on a wooden peg. Slaves and foreigners in the Roman Empire knew that this punishment, whether carried out by the government authorities or even landlords, might one day be their fate. When Jesus talked about being ready ‘to take up your cross’, this was the destiny and destination he had in mind for his followers. He meant it quite literally, and in many cases, it became an ultimate ‘acted parable’, as for our Lord himself. But this was, like the entry into Jerusalem and the clearing of the Temple Courts, a real historical event. A death like this could not be other than the final event in Christ’s life. This is John’s account of the aftermath of Jesus’ death upon the cross:

 

 

 

English: Burial of Christ, Nicodemus depicted ...

English: Burial of Christ, Nicodemus depicted on the left, Joseph of Arimathea depicted on the right (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Then the Jewish authorities asked Pilate to allow them to break the legs of the men who had been crucified, and to take down their bodies from the crosses. They requested this because it was Friday, and they did not want the bodies to stay on the crosses on the sabbath, since the coming sabbath was especially holy.

So the soldiers went and broke the legs of the first man and then the other man who had been crucified with Jesus. But when they came to Jesus, they saw that he was already dead, so they did not break his legs. One of the soldiers, however, plunged his spear into Jesus’ side, and at once blood and water poured out. (The one who saw this happen has spoken of it, so that you also may believe. What he said is true, and he knows that he speaks the truth.) This was done to make the scripture come true: “Not one of his bones will be broken.” And another that says, “People will look at him whom they pierced.”

‘After this, Joseph, who was from the town of Arimathea, asked Pilate if he could take Jesus’ body. (Joseph was a follower of Jesus, but in secret, because he was afraid of the Jewish authorities.) Pilate told him he could have the body, so Joseph took it away. Nicodemus, who at first had gone to see Jesus at night, went with Joseph, taking with him one hundred pounds of spices, a mixture of myrrh and aloes. The two men took Jesus’ body and wrapped it in linen cloths with the spices according to the Jewish custom of preparing a body for burial.’

‘There was a garden in the place where Jesus had been put to death, and in it was a new tomb where no one had ever been buried. Since it was the day before the Sabbath and because the tomb was close by, they placed Jesus’ body there.’

John 19 vv 31-42 

(see also Mt. 27, vv 51-61; Mk. 15, vv 38-47 and Luke 23, vv 47-56)

Joseph of Arimathea

Joseph of Arimathea (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The only man in the Sanhedrin who we know supported Jesus, though not openly, was Joseph of Arimathea, whom Matthew tells us owned the nearby tomb, just recently dug out of solid rock. He could even have been a close relative of Jesus, perhaps his uncle, which would have permitted him to prepare the body for burial, in the tomb, with the crowd of women outside. In the gospel accounts, he appears as a transitory figure at the trial and crucifixion. However, other writers have pointed to his significance in preserving ‘The Word’, proclaiming ‘The Way’ and protecting both Jesus’ mother and the small band of disciples during the perilous years after the crucifixion. The legends surrounding his role as ‘the Apostle of Britain’ have had a profound influence on British history and culture, not least in William Blake’s great poem, Jerusalem, which has become the unofficial anthem of England. But, for now, the scriptural record tells us that it was him who laid the body of Jesus to rest, properly anointed, in his own tomb, and that it was this tomb which Pilate had sealed and guarded, the only events of Saturday, the Sabbath.

Joseph of Arimathea was a man of refinement, well-educated, possessing many talents. He had extraordinary political and business ability and was reputed to be one of the wealthiest men in the world of that time, a metal magnate controlling the tin and lead industries across much of the Roman Empire. Tin was the chief metal for making alloys and was in great demand by the Romans. Many authorities claim that his control of tin was due to his holdings in the ancient tin mines of Britain, in particular in Cornwall, where it was smelted into ingots and exported throughout the Mediterranean by Joseph’s ships. The tin trade between Cornwall and Phoenicia is frequently referred to by classical writers, especially by Dioderus Siculus as well as by Julius Caesar himself. In the Latin Vulgate of the gospels of Mark (15: 43) and Luke (23: 50), both refer to Joseph as ‘Decurio’, the common term employed by Romans to designate an official in charge of metal mines. In St Jerome‘s translation, Joseph’s official title is ‘Noblis Decurio’, indicating a prominent position as a ‘minister of mines’ for the Romans. It was quite remarkable for a Jew to hold such a high rank in the Roman State. We know he was an influential member of the Sanhedrin and a legislative member of a provincial Roman senate. He owned a palatial home in Jerusalem and a fine country residence just outside the city. In addition, he possessed another spacious estate at Arimathea, several miles to the north of the city, at Arimathea, known as Ramelleh today. Everything points to him being as a person of affluence and influence in both the Jewish and Roman hierarchies.

According to the Talmud, Joseph was the youngest brother of the Virgin Mary’s father, making him Jesus’ great uncle. Joseph the Carpenter seems to have died while Jesus was still quite young. Under these circumstances, the Law appointed the next male kin of the husband, in this case Joseph of Arimathea, as  legal guardian. We now that Joseph never abandoned his great-nephew. He defended him at the trial, defied the Sanhedrin by going to Pilate and claiming the body, when all others feared to do so. His arms were the first to cradle the broken corpse, taking it from the cross to the tomb. He continued to protect the    body from the conspiratorial Sanhedrin members, risking his wealth, power and position in doing so, The disciples spoke of him as ‘just’, ‘good’, ‘honourable’ and ‘a disciple of Jesus’. The Gospel of Nicodemus shows that Joseph believed in the validity of Jesus’ teaching.

The speed with which Joseph called on Pilate after Jesus’ death indicates that he had been present at the crucifixion, together with John the Divine and a number of the women following Jesus. Pilate appears to have been surprised at the news of Jesus’ death, asking those near him to verify it. According to both Jewish and Roman law, unless the body of an executed criminal was immediately claimed by the next of kin, it would be cast into a common grave with others and all physical record of them was completely obliterated. Why then, didn’t Mary the Mother, as the immediate next of kin, claim the body of her beloved son? Perhaps John, fearing for her safety, suggested leaving this duty to Joseph of Arimathea, as family guardian, to make the request. Also, Joseph had a nearby tomb ready, a private sepulchre, within the garden of his estate. Meanwhile, a reign of terror continued to prevail within the city walls. No follower of Christ was safe from the Sanhedrin, who were not just enjoying the Passover, but also a Roman holiday in the persecution of the followers of ‘The Way’.

All but two of the disciples had fled the city and gone into seclusion for fear of their lives. Nicodemus and Joseph remained, but only the latter dared walk openly in the streets without fear of physical attack. Yet he knew he was dealing with dynamite. Why then did he go to Pilate? Why didn’t he simply claim the body, according to the custom, on the hill of crucifixion itself? Under normal circumstances, there would have been no reason for him to go further than the Sanhedrin, but he knew that its fanatical Sadducean Priesthood sought the total extinction of Jesus, even in death. Annas and Caiaphas, the High Priests, would have preferred Jesus’ body to be cast into the common pit so that all memory of him would be steeped in shame. To have him decently interred within a family sepulchre would run the risk of allowing a shrine to be set up, a martyr’s tomb, to which multitudes of pilgrims might flock for generations to come. The Sanhedrin might therefore have intervened to prevent her taking the body, but they could not interfere with Joseph. Nevertheless, he went before Pilate and boldly asserted kinship rights on behalf of his niece, thus securing the procurator’s support, just in case…

Following the entombment, the Sadducees, suspicious of the disciples, and determined to prevent any possible tampering with the body, requested a guard from Pilate, reminding him that Jesus had claimed he would rise again on the third day. Whether Pilate gave them a Roman guard, or whether he simply allowed them to arrange a guard from the Temple’s own men is unclear from the gospel accounts. The fact that they met with him on the Sabbath of the Festival shows just how determined they were to take every possibly precaution. They accompanied the guard to the tomb and saw to it that the tomb was sealed.

Joseph of Arimathea plants the Glastonbury Thorn

Joseph of Arimathea plants the Glastonbury Thorn (Photo credit: Lawrence OP)

So, on the Sabbath, the Saturday, the tomb was sealed and guarded, and the disciples, except for Joseph, were in hiding outside the city. The next day, Joseph of Arimathea was no longer guardian over his nephew’s body, but over Christ’s mission on earth.He was also to become the guardian of all the beloved against their arch-enemy, the Sanhedrin, and the Chief Priests. He made the work of Peter and Paul possible, and planted the roots of Christianity in fertile soil a long way from his homeland.

Prayer: Joseph of Arimathea

Bless all, O Lord, who worship you in secret; all whose hearts are growing round an undeclared allegiance; all whose life is laden with a treasure they would pour out at your feet; all who know with greater certainty each day that they have found the pearl of greatest price: then by the power of the Cross, O Christ, claim your victory in their heart, and lead them to the liberty of being seen by all men to be yours, for your dear name’s sake. Amen.

 Dick Williams

Eighth Day of Christmas: Christ’s Name Day: Jesus presented in the Temple, Luke 2 vv21-40   1 comment

New Year Carol:

‘The name-day now of Christ we keep,

English: Icon of Jesus Christ
English: Icon of Jesus Christ (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Who for our sins did often weep;

His hands and feet were wounded deep,

And his blesséd side with a spear;

His head they crowned with thorn,

And at him they did laugh and scorn,

Who for our good was born:

God send us a happy New Year!

From the ‘Greensleeves’ Waits’ carol in New Christmas Carols, 1642.

This carol shows us that until at least the seventeenth century in Britain, today was celebrated as the ‘name day’ of Christ. The reason is contained in the fact that, possibly until about this time, New Year’s Day was April 1st, so this carol, sung in alehouses, was perhaps designed to get the English population used to the coincidence of the two events, following the change in the calendar.  Most holidays were eight days in all, so it’s possible that most people returned to work after the eighth day of Christmas as well, so it served as a reminder of the true significance of the day in the Christian year. In keeping with this, the third verse is a reminder of the more sober duties of the New Year festivities, and may well have been viewed as useful ‘propoganda’ by the increasingly powerful Presbyterians in Parliament and elsewhere who were, at the very least, lukewarm in their attitude to what they perceived to be excessive merriment at this season:

‘And now with New Year’s gift each friend

Unto each other they do send:

God grant we may all our lives amend,

And that the truth may appear.

Now, like the snake, your skin

Cast off, of evil thoughts and sin,

And so the year begin:

God send us a happy New Year!

Jesus
Jesus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The following passage from Luke’s gospel (NIV) reveals the original importance of this day among the twelve in the Christmas Festival:

‘On the eighth day, when it was time to circumcise him, he was named Jesus, the name the angel had given him before he had been conceived.’

‘When the time of their purification according to the Law of Moses had been completed, Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord”), and to offer a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord: “a pair of doves or two young pigeons”.

Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying:

Rembrandt - Simeon and Anna Recognize the Lord...
Rembrandt – Simeon and Anna Recognize the Lord in Jesus – WGA19102 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,

you now dismiss your servant in peace.

For mine eyes have seen your salvation,

which you have prepared in the sight of

all people,

a light for revelation to the Gentiles

and for glory to your people Israel.”

‘The child’s father and mother marvelled at what was said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother:

“This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

‘There was also a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old: she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, and then was a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshipped night and day, fasting and praying. Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.

‘When Joseph and Mary had done everything that was required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth. And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was upon him.’

Thus concludes the nativity stories of the two gospels. These texts are powerful. In one sense, Simeon and Anna are the first ‘Christians’, testifying not only to little ‘Yeshua‘, or ‘Joshua’, not just as the long-awaited Jewish Messiah, but also to his mission as the saviour of the ‘gentile’ world. As a Greek doctor, Luke must have fully understood the significance of what he was recording to its context. Jesus was not just a child challenging the dictatorship of the Judean tyrant, Herod and his family, but also the might of the Roman Empire, which by then was controlling most of the Greek-speaking world. Being born just before Herod’s death into a territory which was bathed in the blood of innocent children and the citizens the tyrant also had murdered, even on his death-bed, Jesus was also born into a very precarious political atmosphere. It took an old man with vision and an old woman of great dedication, to utter the truly revolutionary words which would eventually bring down both the evil dynasty and imperial rule, through the Christ’s sacrifice. Even his mother is not spared the pain contained in the prophecy, and, far from keeping the identity of the baby a secret, Anna told the good news about his birth to all who were waiting for the Messiah to set Jerusalem free from tyranny, to her fellow ‘revolutionaries’. This was a risky strategy indeed, as there must have been many spies posted, not just the unwitting wise men, by Herod, to bring him news of the child’s whereabouts, and the child’s significance and threat to his power was being confirmed under his very nose, in the very heart of Jerusalem, not from their temporary refuge in Gaza. Herod’s death shortly afterwards, before the Passover Feast, did not relieve the pressure on his people from the continuing dynasty, and the child was taken to the relative safety of Mary’s home town, when they would perhaps have preferred to remain in Bethlehem, with Joseph’s family. Jesus’ birth had taken place in a hard winter, and this was no ‘Arab Spring’. This was occupied Jerusalem, controlled by a tyrannical dynasty who knew that if they did not control their people by means of terror, the Romans would.

So, the real message of the Incarnation is that it broke the wall between time and eternity, temple and city, sacred and secular. It allows no division of the Gospel into personal and social, permits no surrender to evil, lets no injustice escape judgement. The God who assumed flesh sought the redemption not just of one nation, but the whole world; not just of ‘the spiritual realm’, but of the whole of human and earthly life in all its circumstances and conditions. Forgetting this, and refusing to take the risks in proclaiming the Gospel in the uncompromising terms and means of Simeon and Anna, the Church ceases to be the Church of the Incarnated Christ. Perhaps New Year ‘resolutions’ are not just the preserve of individuals. As Canon Burgess Carr, the Secretary General of the All Africa Conference of Churches, wrote forty years ago, ‘God’s intervention in human history is not to endorse man’s powerlessness: He came to take his position with them in order to free them.’ Amen to that!

Related articles

%d bloggers like this: