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

Part One – From Tarsus to Antioch & Galatia:

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Introduction:

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

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

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

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

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

(II Cor. 11: 23-33, New World.)

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

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

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

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

Saul of Tarsus:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Zealous Student in Jerusalem:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Into Asia Minor – The First Missionary Journey:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(to be continued…)

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

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Question Time: The Ten Challenges of the Risen Christ to His Followers, II.   1 comment

Part Two: Appearances and Interactions – The Meaning of the Resurrection.

For many people today the word ‘resurrection’ is meaningless. They find the idea of resurrection not only difficult but incredible.  We need to remember that it never was easy or credible – that’s why Jesus’ friends were taken by surprise when it happened, although he had spoken about it a number of times. For both the Graeco-Roman and Jewish people of the first century, the whole idea of an executed criminal being raised to life by God was anathema, a stumbling block, an obstacle that prevented them from taking the story of Jesus seriously. For educated people throughout Palestine and beyond it was just ‘rubbish’. Even some who professed to be Christians couldn’t understand what it meant. Yet the evidence suggests that in the few weeks that followed the death of Jesus some of his friends had certain experiences of Jesus risen. These ‘appearances’ then ceased and the later experiences, beginning with the dramatic conversion of Saul on the road to Damascus, were real but different. The resurrection of Jesus was not in the same category as other reported ‘resurrections’ of men, even that of his friend Lazarus, in which Jesus himself had been instrumental. It was a unique event in which death had been defeated. The event was not only a historical event, but after the strictest possible scrutiny these reports do not strike us as fictitious accounts that owe their existence to the human imagination; they strike us as honest attempts to give some account of real experiences that defied all efforts to give a coherent account of them. The early friends of Jesus had no doubts as to their authenticity. Their new experience of God, their new fellowship with one another, their new understanding of human life and history were not something they had struggled to achieve; they were gifts. The Spirit of Jesus was present with them. The final evidence that these were not reports of queer hallucinations was the reality of their new life and fellowship.    

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Christians now accept without any reservations the Biblical version of the ‘disappearance’ of the body of Jesus, but until the end of the first century, there was no Biblical account to go by, no ‘New Testament’ until the fourth century. Different parts of it were written by AD 100, but not yet collected and defined as ‘Scripture’. Early Christian writers like Polycarp and Ignatius quote from the gospels and Paul’s letters, as well as from other Christian writings and oral sources. Paul’s letters were collected late in the first century, and the ‘Synoptic Gospels’ (Matthew, Mark and Luke were brought together by AD 150. One papyrus fragment of the Gospel of John dates from about AD 130, and more fragments of it, in the Bodmer Papyrus II, date from about AD 175-225, together with parts of Luke’s Gospel. For those for whom the Bible’s teaching is the starting point, exact theological thinking depends upon an accurate Greek New Testament. The history of the early church may also have affected the copying of the New Testament text. Clearly, the New Testament writings were considered important in the early church, since many copies were made for private reading as well as use in worship. However, this did not always guarantee scrupulous, exact copying of them. While no manuscript is free of either accidental or deliberate variations, some manuscripts seem to reflect a more careful tradition of copying, while others reveal a much freer attitude towards the actual words of the New Testament. The early Christians revered and used it greatly, but did not treat the exact wording with care.

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From the time they were first produced as collections of texts, or ‘books’, from about AD 200 onwards, the New Testament writings were always closely linked with the church and its worship, evangelism, beliefs and institutions. The information available concerning the New Testament in the early period shows how New Testament Scripture and the church interacted and affected each other at that time. The church was concerned to make Scripture widely available; some of the variations in early New Testament manuscripts reveal a concern over misunderstandings of Scripture or perhaps misinterpretations and misuse by heretics. So, can the texts be trusted? As F. F. Bruce, the Rylands Professor of Biblical Criticism and Exegesis in the University of Manchester wrote in the mid-1970s:

The variant readings about which any doubt remains among textual critics of the New Testament affect no material question of historical fact or of Christian faith and practice.

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The earliest account of the resurrection appearances we have is found in one of Paul’s letters written in Ephesus somewhere around AD 56, nearly thirty years after the events described later in the gospels. But it probably goes back to within a few years of those events, as Paul’s words suggest, to his own baptism in Damascus in about AD 36:

I handed on to you the facts which had been imparted to me: that Christ died for our sins, in accordance with the Scriptures; that he was buried; that he was raised to life on the third day, according to the Scriptures; and that he appeared to Cephas (Peter) and afterwards to the Twelve. Then he appeared to over five hundred of our brothers at once, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, and afterwards to all the apostles.

In the end he appeared even to me; though this birth of mine was monstrous, for I have persecuted the church of God and am therefore inferior to all the other apostles – indeed not fit to be called an apostle. However, by God’s grace I am what I am.

(I Cor. 15. 3-10 NEB)

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The verb ‘to appear’ can describe either a visible sighting or a spiritual experience. Here, Paul is writing to Christian friends who, even twenty years after the execution of Jesus, are finding it difficult to understand what the resurrection from the dead means. Whatever happened was always difficult to describe and explain. Moreover, Paul is not expressing his opinion about what happened or his own version of events. He tells us that he is reporting what was ‘handed on’ to him, probably at his baptism within a year or two of the events he is reporting. This was the authoritative account passed on to the first Christians as part of the baptismal liturgy from the very beginnings of the Christian community in Syria, if not also in Jerusalem and Palestine. Paul also says that his experience was like those of Peter and the others. We have no account in the gospels of Jesus’ appearance to Peter on the first Sunday, though we know (according to Luke) that it happened before the appearance to ‘the twelve’ (including Cleopas, but not – of course – Judas Iscariot). Paul’s own description of his experience is quite brief. He writes in another of his letters that God chose to reveal his Son to me.

In Luke’s ‘sequel’ to his gospel, The Acts of the Apostles, he describes Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, where he was going on a mission from the High Priest to arrest any followers of ‘the Way of the Lord’:

As Saul was coming near the city of Damascus, suddenly a light from the sky flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him,

“Saul, Saul! Why do you persecute me?”

“Who are you, Lord?” he asked.

“I am Jesus, whom you persecute,” the voice said. “But get up and go into the city, where you will be told what you must do.”

The men who were travelling with Saul had stopped, not saying a word; they heard the voice but could not see anyone. Saul got up from the ground and opened his eyes, but he was not able to see a thing. So they took him by the hand and led him into Damascus. For three days he was not able to see, and during that time he did not eat or drink anything.

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The experience of Saul/ Paul as it is written here differs in two ways from the five ‘gospel’ experiences I have written about below in two important respects. Firstly, this is not a physical appearance in the sense of Jesus appearing in physical form. Paul is instantly blinded, but neither do his Guards see anyone, though they too hear a voice. Secondly, this experience occurs long after the appearances in the gospels are reported to have taken place, during the forty days between the first Sunday and Jesus’ ascension. These two differences explain each other, however, and in Paul’s own long discourse on the resurrection of the body following his affirmation in I Corinthians 15 that the heart of the Good News is that Jesus is not dead but alive, he makes it clear that the resurrection is not a raising to life of the mortal remains of the dead, but a transformation of human ‘beings’ into an ‘immortal’ physical form:

Here the body is a ‘physical’ body; there it is raised a ‘spiritual’ body. Here everything grows old and decays; there it is raised in a form which neither grows old nor decays. Here the human body can suffer shame and shock; there it is raised in splendour. Here it is weak; there it is full of vigour.

There is meaning in the words of the Bible – ‘Death has been totally defeated’. For the fact is that Jesus was raised to life. God be thanked – we can now live victoriously because of what he has done.

(Dale’s New World paraphrase)

If we accept the whole story of Jesus, including the resurrection, we suddenly become aware of who we are and what our job is. We take our place in our families as parents and children, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, friends and neighbours, and in the world of work as engineers, teachers, builders, shopkeepers, technicians, farmers, doctors, nurses, and administrators. But we are also member’s of God’s family and God’s fellow workers. It is not just our vocations in this life that matter. Since death has been totally defeated, this world is just an exciting beginning.

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Above: An illustrated page from the Stavelot Bible. 

In the corners are symbols to represent each of the Gospel writers.

The very divergences in the gospel reports reveal their honesty. They give the stories that were current in the great centres of the early Christian community. We should not try to make them fit together as if they were pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. The original ending of Mark’s gospel was lost, and its current ending (16: 6-20) was added much later, so its accounts conflict in some important details with the other three gospels. The actual, ‘authentic’ appearances of Jesus given in the gospels can be listed as follows:

  • Matthew – to the women, to the eleven in Galilee;

  • Luke – to two disciples (not of the twelve) on their way to Emmaus;

    to the eleven (plus the two) in the upper room, followed by the Ascension from Bethany;

  • John – to Mary of Magdala, outside the tomb;

    to the ten, behind locked doors in Jerusalem (without Thomas); to the eleven a week later, behind locked doors (with Thomas);

    to the seven on the beach of the Sea of Galilee;

  • Mark (the added ending) – to Mary of Magdala;

  to two ‘as they were walking in the country’ (Emmaus?);

  to the eleven ‘at a meal’ before the Ascension (a summary of other    earlier accounts?)

Paul’s list is different still, as we have quoted above. He does not mention the empty tomb. Mark does (16: 1-5), and so do the other three evangelists, but this, by itself, was no proof of Jesus’ resurrection in itself, simply secondary evidence of how it might have taken place, which, without a physical body, would have been easy to ‘cover up’.  Matthew’s account of the Report of the Guard (28: 11-15) demonstrates how the chief priests were able to falsify evidence in order to claim that the disciples had stolen the body and to spread this false report among the Judean population. As the fictional Temple Guard, Maron, ‘narrates’ in David Kossoff’s 1971 Book of Witnesses, far from being severely punished for dereliction of duty, the guards were well-rewarded for their ‘discretion’ about what they had witnessed at the tomb:

No shame or dishonour; a reward. And that was the story. The only story. No other. Even if Governor Pilate himself were to ask us, that was the story. … the stealing of the body by a large gang of trained agitators. 

Then the elder gave us a bag of gold to share among the men … Before distributing the money to the men, the elder said, explain to them – the exact, and only, story.

And that’s it. You needn’t tell me any other stories, of the Carpenter rising from the dead and meeting his friends and so on, I’ve heard them. … if you don’t like one story, choose another, there are lots.

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The empty tomb was not, in itself, evidence of the resurrection. The dramatic story of the appearance of ‘the man in white’ which both Matthew and Mark relate (Luke and John report that there were two men) seemed like ‘nonsense’ to the disciples, Luke tells us, when they heard it from the women (24: 11). John’s account also confirms (John 20: 9 ff.) that he had looked in the tomb before Peter arrived, seeing the lengths of cloth which had been wound around the body lying in their original position as though they were still ‘moulded’ around it. There was nothing undone and trailing on the floor. He knew that the body could not have been removed without the lengths of cloth being unwound. When Peter arrived and they went in together, this mystified both of them. John tells us that he was prepared to believe that something miraculous might have happened, but he doesn’t seem to have shared this belief with Peter. If he did, Peter seems to have rejected it. It was only after they had seen the risen Jesus, that they began to understand the Scripture predicting that the Messiah would rise from the dead. If the disciples themselves were not deeply impressed by the discovery of the empty tomb, why would anyone be? They did not claim that Jesus was alive simply because they could not find his body.

In addition, a contemporary Jewish record informs us that Caiaphas ordered Joseph of Arimathea to appear before the Sanhedrin for questioning and openly accused him of being the prime instigator of a plot to remove the body, demanding to know where the body had been moved to. Joseph refused to say anything about the disappearance. Of course, there was very little he could say since he had not been to the tomb since before the Sabbath. He must also have known that, as a member of the Sanhedrin, he could not be prosecuted, even if, inadvertently, he said something which could be twisted and used against him. He would have been more wary of revealing the whereabouts of the disciples. Of course, the chief priests continued to insist on, and believe in, their false story that the body of Jesus had been stolen and secretly buried by Joseph and the disciples. Though they knew they had no evidence to support their story other than the lies of the bribed guards, they must have believed that this had indeed been what had happened. After all, they had taken every precaution not to arouse further anger among the population of Judea and cause further anxiety to Pilate.

We can well believe that the Sadducees had nothing to do with the disappearance of the body. If they had had the body removed they would never have left the linen in the tomb, neither would they have left the entrance open. The guard was theirs, and they would certainly have concealed their crime by having them replace the stone and giving them orders to forbid anyone entry. Since they themselves had not moved the body, who else, other than the disciples, would have done so? For their part, the disciples only had to believe the evidence of their own eyes, not that of angels or even of the women, that he had risen according to his word, on the third day, to be the first-fruits of all who slept. Therefore, the question of who moved the stone? soon became an irrelevance in the contest between truth and falsehood.    

If we read the reports of this ‘fresh evidence’ for the resurrection in chronological order, as below, we also note the increasing emphasis on the materiality of the appearances. We may notice that they differ in their locations for similar events, but this misses the fundamental point, that in each ‘appearance’ Jesus ‘challenges’ the disciples with questions, just as he had done in his ministry. These are not ghostly appearances, but ‘interactions’ with a walking, talking teacher. These ‘interactive’ appearances of the risen Lord to his friends take place as follows:

1. To Mary Magdalene (Sunday morning, alone outside the tomb).

Woman, why are you crying? 

Jn. 20: 14-15;

Mary has returned to the tomb, having been the first to find it empty earlier that morning, and is standing in the garden outside, crying. Peter and John have now gone back home, having found the empty grave-clothes in the tomb. She too looks into the tomb and sees two angels sitting at either end of the empty, moulded grave-clothes. They ask her the question first, Woman, why are you crying? and she answers that the body has been removed, but she doesn’t know by whom or to where. Jesus appears outside the tomb but is not, at first, recognised by Mary. He repeats the question put to her by the angels. The simple, heartfelt question reveals the initial, natural reaction of confusion, bewilderment and distress that Mary is experiencing. Her tears also show that her mixture of emotions is genuine; she obviously has no idea what has happened to Jesus’ body and could not have been part of some elaborate plot by the disciples to steal the body, the ‘smear’ that the chief priests bribed the guard to spread.

Let’s consider the interaction between Jesus and Mary Magdalene in the context of his relationships with his female disciples. Is it significant that the risen Jesus appeared first to the women, and in John’s account to Mary Magdalene? After all, as John also tells us, he and Peter had been in the empty tomb only seconds before and had seen no-one, not even the angels, who also appeared to Mary. There’s little doubt, by all accounts, that Jesus had an unorthodox perspective on the importance of women among his followers, although he chose twelve men as his apostles. What is significant, perhaps, is that Mary is the only follower to witness the risen Jesus as an individual. It is the testimony of the evangelists, especially Luke, that Jesus had a special regard and limitless compassion for the ‘outsiders’ of society, or ‘sinners’ as they were referred to by the religious authorities. Earlier in his gospel, Luke records that as Jesus travelled about the towns and villages of Galilee he was accompanied not only by the twelve disciples but also…

… by some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their means.

(Luke 8: 1-3)

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That a travelling Rabbi should be accompanied by women is surprising enough, but two of the women, Mary of Magdala and Joanna were outsiders in a particular sense. There is no evidence that Mary had been a prostitute, as she has sometimes been portrayed in films. The text says that Jesus had cast out from her seven demons, which means, in modern terms, that she had suffered a severe mental breakdown. In itself, this would make Mary an ‘outsider’; one under the judgement of God. Yet Jesus admitted both her and Joanna, who probably lived in the ‘defiled’ Roman city of Tiberius, to his group of friends. Mary may have continued to suffer from mental illness, and we have some evidence from Mark that Jesus was particularly concerned about people with such conditions. In the first century, like Mary, such people were stigmatised. Jesus himself seems to have suffered from such prejudice, even from members of his own family. For example, in Mark 3: 21 the original text seems to imply that they were concerned about his own sanity during the early part of his ministry in Galilee. This seems to have embarrassed some of the scribes copying the gospel, so that in some early manuscripts the wording has been changed in order to point to the ‘madness’ of the crowds around him, trying to seize him, rather than to any concern for his own mental health. In particular, Mark goes on to tell us (probably on the basis of what Peter told him), the religious leaders from Jerusalem were spreading false rumours that he was possessed by Beelzebub, the chief of demons, who was giving him the power to cast out lesser demons in others (3: 22-30). After dismissing this accusation, Jesus receives a message from his family to join him outside the house into which he has gone. He seems to dismiss their concerns, however, suggesting that he now has a new family of followers (31-35).

We should be careful not to speculate about Jesus’ mental state or inner emotional life, or to weave fantasies about his relationships with women. These reports reveal more about the customs and conventions of his contemporaries, some of which he had little time for. What we do know, from the gospels, is that Jesus was not afraid to show his emotions and that he wept over Jerusalem (Luke 19: 41–42). His fellow Jews, at that time, would have found it unusual for a man to weep in public, even in front of close friends. Women were only supposed to do so when in mourning for a close relative, or as a part of an official group of mourners, otherwise they were expected to remain indoors. We also know that Jesus responded to the emotions of those, including the sisters Mary and Martha, who were weeping at the death of their brother and his ‘dear friend’ Lazarus. As Jesus approached their home in Bethany, two miles from the city, Martha met him outside the house while her sister stayed weeping within, being comforted by friends. Jesus tells Martha that he is the resurrection and the life and he asks her if she believes that he has the power over death, foreshadowing his own resurrection. She then declares him to be the Messiah, the Son of God, who was to come into the world. When Mary arrived, she fell weeping at his feet. His heart was touched, and he was deeply moved, weeping himself (John 11: 17-36). He then raised Lazarus, a miracle which made him supremely popular among most Judeans and led the Jewish authorities, in their jealousy, to make plans to arrest him (38-53).

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John also tells us that, at the beginning of the week before Passover, Jesus visited the home of Mary and Martha again. John apparently identifies Mary ‘the sister’ as the ‘woman’ who anoints Jesus’ feet with an expensive perfume, possibly also ‘the other Mary’ who accompanies Mary Magdalene to the tomb, according to Matthew. Other traditions have associated Mary Magdalene with the act. When Judas (only identified by John) asks, Why wasn’t this perfume sold … and the money given to the poor?, Jesus berates his hypocrisy and tells him to stop ‘bothering’ her, seeing this act as a ‘sacred’ foreshadowing of his burial (John 12: 1-8). Whichever Mary does the anointing, there is an obvious symbolic connection between the spontaneous, emotive events which take place in Bethany and this event outside the empty tomb.

When Jesus asks Mary of Magdala, Woman, why are you crying? he is, at first, repeating the question put to her by the angels. We might think it obvious why a woman might be crying outside a tomb, but Mary’s sorrow is different from that of a ritual mourner. Of course, the implication of the question is that she has no reason to cry since her Lord has risen. Jesus is not criticising her, however, or asking her to stop, but is rather meeting her in her vulnerability and empathising with her emotional state. But realising that she doesn’t recognise him, he doesn’t wait for her to repeat the answer she has given him but offers his help…

The Challenge for Today: Jesus meets us where we are, in all our human weakness, and speaks to our condition. Our emotions are important, as an indication that we have a problem to solve, and we should not be ashamed of them. They must be recognised as an important initial stage in confronting our problems and we should not try to leave them behind when we seek to engage our minds to these problems. We should value them, not simply dismiss them as irrational responses. Neither should we allow ourselves to get waterlogged by our tears, unable to see through them to what is in front of us; unable to turn around, to face the reality of the risen Christ and move onwards in our faith. 

2. To Mary Magdalene (Sunday morning, outside the tomb):

Who are you looking for? 

Jn. 20: 15-16;

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Archaeologists have discovered that Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre

stands on the site of a Jewish cemetery dating to the time of Jesus.

The question is more of an offer of help to find the ‘missing’ person which makes Mary think that the man before her is the gardener, perhaps someone she has met before as an acquaintance or servant, perhaps the ‘caretaker’ of Joseph of Arimathea. Joseph was probably well-known to the friends of Jesus, although he kept his discipleship secret since he was afraid of the Jewish authorities. Luke’s account has the women carrying spices, which might suggest that they had some contact with Joseph. He and Nicodemus had had to act quickly on the Friday evening, as the Jewish Sabbath began at dusk. They may not have had time to apply all the spices (a hundred pounds in weight) that Nicodemus had provided. In Mary’s initial report of the missing body to Peter, she used the plural, we don’t know where they have put him! This would confirm Luke’s account of at least three and possibly several women going to the tomb early on Sunday morning. On finding the empty tomb, they may have thought that there had been some misunderstanding with Joseph and that his servant, the gardener, had helped him to remove the body for embalming elsewhere. Hence her words, at this point, to the man she thinks is the gardener. At this point, Jesus decides to abandon the role in which Mary has cast him…

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‘The Good Shepherd’  is one of the most common themes in early Christian art.

Jesus’ parable of the ‘Lost Sheep’ stresses his ‘pastoral’ concern for the ‘outcasts’.

When Jesus, ‘the Good Shepherd’, calls Mary, ‘the outcast’ by name, she turns towards him and recognises him, calling him “Rabboni!” in Hebrew, meaning “Teacher”. It is only when she turns to him that she is able to overcome her shame and see clearly through her tears. This is not some ghostly appearance: the verbal, eye-to-eye and then the physical contact between them is so real and overwhelming for Mary that Jesus has to tell her to let him go, as he still has his earthly body. Then he gently instructs her, as her “Teacher”, to go to her brothers and tell them that his body is returning to God. In Matthew’s gospel (28: 8-10), Jesus meets Mary Magdalene and ‘the other Mary’ (possibly, again, the sister of Martha, from Bethany), as they are running away from the tomb following a dramatic earthquake, the rolling away of the stone by ‘the angel of the Lord’ and his injunction to them to tell the disciples of the resurrection. Just as in John’s account, there is physical contact in the form of ‘worship’ between the women and him, and he instructs the women to tell their brothers to meet him in Galilee. In John’s story, the resurrection is not a stage on the way to Galilee, but on the way to the Father.

The Challenge for Today: While Jesus deals with us at an emotional level, he quickly moves us on to define the problem we are trying to solve. We need to turn and face the problem, and then acknowledge the reality of the resurrection, which provides us with the power to solve it.

3. To Cleopas (husband of Mary) and another ‘follower’ (later the same day, on the way to the village of Emmaus):

What are you talking about to each other, as you walk along? 

Luke 24: 17;

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This would appear to be the same story as that referred to by Mark (16: 12-13), but Luke uses his own sources to provide the all-important conversations. Jesus ‘catches up with’ his two ‘followers’ (not of ‘the eleven’) who do not recognise him. His question makes them sad and they suggest, in response, that he must be the only visitor in Jerusalem who doesn’t know the things that have been happening there in the last few days! He follows up his question by asking them to what things they are referring…

The Challenge for Today: The third stage in resolving the problem, or conflict, is to clarify the issues. Jesus challenges us to get our story straight and understand what is really happening in our lives. Otherwise, we are just indulging in meaningless chatter, unable to create a meaningful narrative.

4. To the two followers as they came near to the village, (following their ‘discourse’ on ‘Jesus of Nazareth’):

Was it not necessary for the Messiah to suffer these things and then enter his glory? 

Luke 24: 26-27;

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Jesus chides the two followers, who still do not recognise him, for being slow to believe everything the prophets said about ‘these things’. He then explains to them what was said about himself in ‘all the Scriptures’, beginning with the books of Moses and the writings of all the prophets. Only after he agrees to sojourn with them and breaks bread with them inside their place of rest do they recognise him. They reflect on their walk by asking each other, “Wasn’t it like a fire burning in us when he talked to us on the road and explained the Scriptures to us?”

The Challenge for Today: Jesus challenges us to understand and interpret what we have experienced, and when we do so we are able to connect our narrative to our experience. ‘These things’, these events then become real to us; we experience the resurrection for ourselves.

5. To ‘the eleven’ (with ‘the others’) plus Cleopas and the other ‘follower’ (who have returned to Jerusalem, later that same evening, to tell their news and to hear that Simon Peter has also seen the risen Christ):

Why are you alarmed? Why are these doubts coming up in your minds?

Luke 24: 38-40;

Jesus suddenly stands among ‘the thirteen’ and greets them with a ‘shalom’ (“Peace be with you.”) They think that they are seeing a ghost, but Jesus tells them to look at his hands and feet and to feel his body, since a ghost does not have flesh and bones. Those gathered still could not believe, they were so full of joy and wonder; so he asked them, “Do you have anything here to eat?” A polite request, rather than a question, but an important one, nonetheless, proving the continuing contact between the risen Jesus and the material world (Luke 24: 41-43).

They give him a piece of cooked fish, which he takes and eats in their presence. He goes on to remind them of what he taught them concerning everything that was written about himself in the Torah (Books of Moses), by the prophets and in the Psalms. He then ‘opens their minds’ to understand the Scriptures, telling them, “This is what is written: the Messiah must suffer and must rise from death three days later, and in his name the message about repentance and the forgiveness of sins must be preached to all nations, beginning in Jerusalem.” As witnesses to these things, they are to wait in the city until the ‘power from above comes down’ upon them, which he himself will send, as promised by his Father (44-49).

In John’s gospel, this is the second appearance and Jesus’ first appearance to his disciples. They have locked themselves in, afraid of the Jewish authorities and, again, Jesus is suddenly standing among them. After greeting them in the same way as in Luke, Jesus shows them his hands and his side. He then inaugurates ‘the second creation’ by breathing on the disciples as God had breathed on Adam, and he gives them the Spirit and power over sin for their universal mission. Thomas is not with them at this time, according to John.

In Luke’s account, Jesus then leads them out of the City as far as Bethany, where he raises his hands and blesses them. According to Luke’s gospel, he departs from them and is taken up to heaven while blessing them (50-51). Mark’s gospel agrees, in shorter accounts, with Luke’s order of events to this point, but in his second book, The Acts of the Apostles, Luke corrects himself by telling his patron that ‘the Ascension’ took place after forty days in which Jesus appeared to his apostles many times, in ways that proved beyond doubt that he was alive. Luke repeats the instruction given by Jesus that they are to remain in Jerusalem and await the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1: 1-5).

The Challenge for Today: It’s only natural to have doubts; we have to be sure of what we believe. We mustn’t pretend, or just go along with what everyone else believes. We need to be fully convinced as individual believers for faith to work in practice and provide us with our unique purpose in life.

6. To Thomas the Twin (a week later, behind locked doors, with some of the other eleven):

Do you believe because you see me? (how happy are those who believe without seeing me). Jn. 20: 29;

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This is the third appearance reported by John, the second to the disciples. Jesus again greets the disciples with a ‘shalom’ (“Peace be with you”), then tells Thomas to place his finger in the wounds on his hands and his (Thomas’) hand in the wound in his side. He tells Thomas to stop doubting and believe. In the presence of the reality of the risen Lord, Thomas utters the highest confession of faith, comparable with the opening words of the prologue, as the basis of the faith of future believers. The dramatic nature of this encounter is captured by Paul White and Clifford Warne in their Drama of Jesus (1979):

“Peace be unto you”. The voice startled them.

They looked up and saw Jesus. In a moment they were all on their feet, their faces glowing.  No one spoke. Instinctively they turned to towards Thomas who stood there like a statue unable to believe his eyes.

He stammered, “Lord, Lord, is it really you?”

Jesus came close to him and held out his hands. His tone was warm and strong,

“Thomas, my friend, put your finger here. See my hands. See the nail wounds. And my side; take your hand and put it where the spear entered. Stop doubting and believe!”

Thomas slowly went down on his knees, his hands touching the wounded feet. “My Lord … and my God.”

“Is it because you have seen me that you believe?” Jesus asked him. “How happy are those who believe without seeing.”

And as suddenly as He had appeared, He vanished. The disciples stood there amazed. Thomas looked up, overwhelmed. The room was full of excitement and laughter of a sort that comes from profound relief and deep joy.

John spoke with infectious enthusiasm.  “Jesus is no dead memory. He is our living Lord.”

At this point in his gospel (Jn 20: 30-31), John inserts an important parenthesis, affirming the miraculous nature of these events, but also making it clear that he is not concerned to record them purely as miracles performed by Jesus, perhaps in the way that other gospel writers have recorded the many other miracles not written down in this book. His purpose is to point posterity towards faith in Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God. Through that faith in the power of the resurrection, believers are to experience the resurrection life for themselves, without, unlike Thomas, being material witnesses to the resurrection body themselves. His purpose is to give testimony to the risen Christ, not to produce a chronicle of events, nor even a biography. It is natural that this passage should be inserted here, following Thomas’ confession of faith, though some scholars believe that this is the original ending of John’s gospel.

The Challenge for Today: Thomas’ predicament is a familiar one: Seeing is believing. We need to see the evidence for ourselves, and quite right too. But sometimes, like Thomas, we find it difficult to suspend our disbelief, especially because, unlike Thomas, we cannot experience the risen Christ at first hand. We need to keep faith with our first convictions and trust the testimony of others, even if we continue to doubt.

7. To the Seven ‘young men’ fishing (off the shores of Lake Galilee):

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Young men, haven’t you caught anything?

Jn. 21: 5;

Chapter 21 is probably an addition, and some scholars suggest that it was written by ‘another hand’, although the vivid nature of the eye-witness testimony would suggest that it must have been from a source involved in the intimate conversations which take place in this account. Also, the author is clearly aware that this is the third appearance of the risen Jesus to his male disciples reported in the gospel, though the fourth overall. It certainly reflects the Galilean traditions of Mark and Matthew. In it, disciples whose work has been fruitless until the Lord appears, make a perfect catch of fish under his direction, clearly symbolic of the apostolic mission to the world. Jesus stands on the water’s edge at sunrise, teasing his disciples by remaining ‘incognito’ and calling to them as ‘young men’, which many of them, doubtless no longer were after their three years of following him as “fishers of men”.

The challenge for today: Can you put an old head on young shoulders or a young head on old shoulders? Probably, the answer to both is negative, but we can all, young and old, try casting our nets on the other side of the boat, rather than just letting them drift, aimlessly. We must be careful not to miss opportunities to evangelise, to share the gospel, in whatever way works best. We have to cast our nets where the fish are, not where we expect them to be.

8. To Simon Peter, after the ‘barbecue’ on the shore:

Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these others do?

Jesus addresses Peter by his original name, and by the name of his fisherman father. He then begins a three-fold interrogation of him, corresponding to the threefold denial made on the night of his arrest and hearings before the Sanhedrin. The first question, like the last one in his denial, is more ‘barbed’ than the other two, however. It requires more than a Yes/No response and is perhaps calculated to disturb Peter on two levels because Jesus is really asking him ‘how deep’ his love really is, compared with that of the other disciples, especially John, the beloved disciple who is to some extent Peter’s rival right throughout the Passion Narrative. Jesus is really asking Peter whether he still loves him enough to die for him, as Peter had declared before. However, Peter only answers in the affirmative, perhaps more concerned to atone for his denials. Jesus responds, passing on the mantle of the Good Shepherd, by telling Peter to take care of the lambs in the flock of followers. In other words, he is charging him with a special responsibility for the younger apostles and disciples, perhaps including the ‘two others’ of the seven whose names are not given.

The Challenge for Today: How deep is our love? Are we prepared to sacrifice everything, even our lives, for our faith? There are still many Christians worldwide who suffer imprisonment, torture and death for what they believe in. We may not be called upon to make such sacrifices, but how can we prove our love for Jesus?

9. To Simon Peter, the same:

Simon, son of John, do you love me?

By asking him the ‘same’ question three times, Simon thinks that Jesus is trying to remind him of his denial of him, three times, before the cock crowed twice, on the night and early morning of his trial by the Sanhedrin. We can imagine Peter seeing flashbacks of his three failed challenges. In fact, the question he was asked on that night were not identical either. The first two, asked by the serving girl and the others (Jn. 18: 17, 25) were Aren’t you also one of the disciples of that man? The third was far more precise and thereby significant, asked by a relative of the injured steward of the High Priest, Didn’t I see you with him in the garden? His denial here was operating on two levels. If, as some accounts state, Peter was the assailant in this incident, any equivocation on his part could have led to his instant arrest and imprisonment for attempting to incite a riot against the Roman authorities, perhaps even his own execution, since the ‘steward’ might have been a far more significant man than a simple ‘slave’ in Roman terms. In his third denial, Peter is not simply denying Jesus but also betraying his promises to fight and die for him.

Following the second and third answers, Jesus commands Peter to ‘feed’ his ‘sheep’. Presumably, he is referring to the older disciples, revealing that he still regards Peter as their leader going forward. Jesus then reveals his reasons for ‘interrogating’ Peter. He does so, however, by lifting Peter’s mood by again joking about him not being a young man anymore, reminding him that life is now too short for him to go on being an ‘angry young man’, arguing about the future. He tells him that he must prepare himself, as the new leader and as his first follower, to sacrifice his life for the glory of God. He ends the conversation with the invitation that he first issued to Simon, follow me! By doing so, he indicates that Peter is forgiven, now that he has committed himself to becoming the new good shepherd, in charge of the flock.

The Challenge for Today: How many times do we have to forgive, or ask for forgiveness ourselves?: How often must we declare our love, when the one we declare it to already knows how our minds and hearts work? Are we prepared to face the costs of discipleship?

10. To Simon Peter, when they meet John:

If I want him to live until I come, what is that to you?

Peter turns around to see John, the beloved, standing nearby. This gives him a flashback to the Seder meal in the Upper Room, when John leaned close to Jesus and asked him, Lord, who is going to betray you? This was when everything started to go wrong for them as a group, and for him in particular, when he was replaced in Jesus’ affections by John. Later that night he had angered Jesus by drawing his sword and injuring the steward of the High Priest, which didn’t help, and when his Lord was in agony on the cross, it was John who stood nearby with Mary his mother and the other women, the two other Marys. Jesus asked him, not Peter, to be a son to his mother, and she went to live in his new home in Galilee. He, therefore, had already been given a special role as the ‘protector’ of the women in the group. It was natural for Peter to expect that Jesus would have chosen John to become the new leader of the group, even though he, Peter, was the more senior disciple. John was quicker of body and mind and he was the first to realise the significance of the empty tomb and to believe in the resurrection.

Now Jesus had chosen Peter once more, overheard by John, Peter asked him what was to happen to his ‘rival’.  Jesus’ question indicates that John is not to suffer martyrdom like Peter, using humorous hyperbole to chide Peter; What if I want John to live forever? That’s none of your business! Some of the early Christians still alive when John was writing his gospel, his other letters and his eschatological book, The Revelation, took this statement to be a promise to John that he would witness the second coming of Christ in person. This was preventing them from spreading the ‘good news’ more widely, so John re-edited the ending of his book to make it clear that Jesus did not say that he would not die, but simply told Peter to expect not just the persecution that they would all suffer,  but also a premature death. He should, therefore, focus on his own life and mission, and not concern himself with John’s role.

The Challenge for Today: Being ‘single-minded’ is not the same as being ‘self-centred’. Paul was single-minded when he wrote, this one thing I do. We all have to work out our own salvation, and our own mission statement. In doing so, Jesus reminds us not to be jealous of each other, or to compare ourselves with others, but to encourage each other in our divergent vocations. As Jesus’ followers, both as individual believers and fellowships, we are called upon to act now on our own consciences and to follow our unique missions and vocations, not to wait for God to act in some dramatic fashion, trying to predict where, when and how the Second Coming and the End of Days will take place.

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Luke’s second book, The Acts of the Apostles opens with a picture which is usually thought of as ‘the ascension’ of Jesus. It raises many problems, however, not just for modern minds, but for the whole of the New Testament. It is safer to approach his account indirectly and to try to understand Luke’s account against the background of the New Testament as a whole. Other writers describe what happened to Jesus after his death, leading to the birth of the church, in two different ways, as the resurrection and as an exaltation. These, together with the coming of the Paraclete (Holy Spirit) are seen as aspects of one complex event, reported in Paul’s letters as well as in Matthew (28: 16) and John (20: 22). Luke, however, splits the complex into three distinct parts and, following his practice of portraying divine action in the world in the form of vivid, objective pictures, has given each aspect a life of its own.

There is some doubt about the exact place of the ascension in Luke’s sequence. According to the majority of ancient manuscripts, one ascension, on the day of the resurrection, is recorded at Luke 24: 51, which clashes with the ascension after forty days in Acts 1: 9. It has been suggested that the passage between these two verses was supplied later when the New Testament was given its present order and what was originally a single book, Luke-Acts, was split. This removes some, but not all, of the difficulties. It would be wrong, however, to place too much emphasis on these problems, or to lay too much stress on the physical features of the ‘ascension in Acts. After all, the description of the two ascensions together occupies less than two verses. It is the message that accompanies them that is more important.

Luke tells us, in this passage, that Jesus continued to teach them about ‘the Kingdom of God’ (v 3). He goes on to describe them as questioning him as to whether he would give the Kingdom back to Israel. Jesus tells them that “the times and occasions” are set by his Father’s authority, and are not for them “to know when they will be.” They must wait for the Holy Spirit to come upon them before moving out from Jerusalem to be witnesses “in all of Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” This account, intriguingly, ends with a question asked by angels, just as they asked the first question in Luke’s account of the resurrection (to the women at the empty tomb), Why are you looking among the dead for the one who is alive? Now they ask the apostles, Galileans, why are you standing there looking up at the sky? They are told that Jesus will come back in the same way as they saw him go to heaven. The implication, for them and for us, is that they (and we) are not to wait around ‘star-gazing’, talking about what will happen in the ‘Last Times’. Having received the Spirit, true disciples must get on with living the resurrection life here and now, sharing it with all mankind.

For Luke, the ascension is a means to an end. It marks his recognition that the period of the church is not like the period of the earthly ministry of Jesus and that Jesus must take on a new status if he is to give the Spirit to the church. Luke depicts this transition in a way which was meaningful to the audience of his day and which had the stamp of ‘biblical’ authority. Thus, the way to understand the ascension is to concentrate on Luke’s use both of Old Testament and first-century imagery to express what he wanted to say.

So, in the three-storied universe, heaven, the home of God, was ‘above’. Luke then fills the interval between the ascension and Pentecost with an account of the election of Matthias to fill the vacant place in the twelve left by Judas’ death. Significantly, he is to be chosen as one of those who witnessed the entire ministry of Jesus, the resurrection and the ascension. The Spirit is not yet given, so the disciples pray before using the time-honoured tradition of drawing lots to determine God’s will. Matthias does not appear again, and the twelve as a group fade out of the subsequent narrative.

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The list of the disciples given in Acts differs from those given in the gospels, which suggests that some of them were soon forgotten. We only have legendary details about the later careers of most of them. They seem to have been chosen by Jesus not so much as leaders of a future church, but rather as partners and interlocutors in the proclamation of the coming kingdom. Except in prayer, there were no more questions to be asked or answered. They had a new job to do: they had been given good news, not just for their own people, but for the whole world, everybody everywhere, regardless of all frontiers of race, class or creed. But first, they needed the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete to come alongside them. Even then, some of them, it seems, tackled it rather unwillingly, since it went against the grain of their Judaistic belief. They were to be given a new vision of God and of themselves and of the world in which they lived. This new vision was to make them rethink everything in a way very different from the conventional, traditional ways of ‘doing religion’ they had been brought up in. They found themselves in a world where, for the first time, a world vision could mean something to ordinary men and women. The Roman Peace gave freedom of travel on land and sea across the known world, and the Greek language, the common language of that world, gave the small group of men and women whom Jesus had gathered around him the tools they needed to communicate with that world.

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In addition to their ten interactions with the risen Christ, we can add Jesus’ challenge to Saul on the road to Damascus, though that belongs to a later period in the growth of the Christian movement known then as The Way of the Lord. Paul himself refers to other ‘appearances’ but gives no details of the interactions or conversations involved, so that we know nothing of the purposes of the appearances. In a spiritual sense, all Christians are witnesses to the resurrection and have responded to a challenge of the risen Lord in their living and thinking. The act of believers’ baptism in itself is an act of remembrance of the resurrection and the individual’s experience of being raised to a transformed life within the wider Christian community. The debate among Christians as to what reportable events happened and what sort of events they were is as old as our earliest records. The rise of scientific inquiry in the twentieth century and the development of archaeological and historical methods of research have brought it acutely before the minds of Christians and non-Christians alike.

Of course, historical questions must be asked about the evidence for the resurrection. For us, as for the first friends of Jesus, it is a matter of the utmost importance in order to ensure that what we claim happened actually happened. Otherwise, we would all be living a gross lie. Just as he did in his earthly ministry, and with his disciples, Jesus invites our questions, including those prompted by disbelief, doubt and scepticism. We are expected to seek the answers in the most rigorous way. When all is said and done, however, we are dealing with an event which is not a purely historical event. It is closely involved in the reality of Christian experience, not just another incident in an unfolding story. It was not the reports of what had happened to a limited number of witnesses that changed men’s lives; it was the event itself. It was the revealing climax which made all the difference to the story. They could only say God raised him from death.

For some Christians, the customary ways of approaching the resurrection closely resemble the way they approach the miracles of Jesus in general. The traditional faith of the church in the physical resurrection of Jesus’ body is straightforward, and to be accepted. The tomb was empty; Jesus appeared to his disciples and later ascended to heaven. The New Testament says so; why complicate things further? Of course, there are discrepancies between these accounts, but that is only to be expected when the same event is described by several different people. For others of us, however, it is impossible to prove the question either way in definite scientific or historical terms. So we might settle for the way in which John Hick presented it:

We shall never know whether the resurrection of Jesus was a bodily event; or consisted instead in visions of Jesus; or in an intense sense of his unseen personal presence. But we do know the effects of the event and we know that whatever happened was such as to produce these effects. The main result was the transformation of a forlorn handful of former followers of an executed and discredited prophet into a coherent and dynamic fellowship with a faith which determined its life and enabled it to convince, to grow, to survive persecution and become the dominant religion of the Roman Empire.

This view follows the belief that something happened together with the conviction that human reaction to Jesus was a constituent part of the event. His resurrection is a complex event. New Testament writers report it in different ways, and they differ in perspective as well as in detail. But they agree in including in this ‘event’ the consequences of the death of Jesus, up to and including the conviction of the church that Jesus, who had died, was the Risen Lord. What is to be distilled out from all this as the essence of the resurrection is less easy to say. An examination of the gospel accounts of the resurrection reveals a wide divergence in the viewpoints and conclusions of the four evangelists. Rather than providing clear answers, they raise more questions, awkward questions that will not go away. But we are not merely asking historical questions. The central and essential truth, that those who doubted were transformed into a dynamic new movement, would still seem to be best explained by a recognition that this change had been produced by something that really happened, and which they knew to have happened, to Jesus of Nazareth. His followers had seen in him a love which was free from all self-concern. In his death, they recognised the perfect expression of that love. His cross became a symbol of a love which accepts the full consequence of self-centred human action. His resurrection symbolised the power of that love to renew human life and it held the promise of a life made perfect beyond death:

For you have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. (Col. 3: 3f)

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But the church around the corner rarely looks like a body of men and women whose ways of thinking and acting are controlled, even imperfectly, by their self-denying love for each other, let alone for their fellow men and women in wider society. Perfect love may be New Testament teaching, but it is seldom seen in popular Christian practice. It does not seem to cast out fear, prejudice and hatred. The only answer to this criticism is to acknowledge that a standard of perfection tends to produce hypocrisy and compromise in an imperfect world. At the same time, the church can point sceptics and doubters to contemporary examples of how that love evokes heroic responses and prophetic leadership in every generation. We must continue the dialogue begun by Jesus himself with every fresh generation.

Even in the early generations of the Christian community, the spirit of love was often defeated by the persistent power of self-interest, often stronger than love and concern for others. Paul constantly reminded the recipients of his letters that a new motivation should be at work among them (II Cor. 5: 14-17). He also found it necessary to urge them not to accept the grace of God in vain (II Cor. 6: 1). The new creation (II Cor. 5: 17) was not complete and perfect in the first century, so perhaps we should not expect it to be so in the twenty-first century, dominated by all-pervasive materialistic and hedonistic values. Those who seek fresh guidelines for action in our own day must turn back to ultimate Christian principles and must be conscious of true Christian motives. Only then can we inform the idealism of younger generations by New Testament teaching on love and law and guide it into fruitful channels of action.      

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The theology of the early church, as it was developed in the Epistles, arose out of the historical events of the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth, his victory over death and his continuing spiritual presence with his followers. The key to understanding the growth of the early Christian movement is the stimulus of the resurrection of Christ. It is hard to conceive that there would have been any Christianity without a firm belief by the early disciples in the bodily resurrection of Jesus. They were convinced that their master had conquered death and had appeared to many of them in person. Only this resurrection faith explains how the small, motley, demoralised group which Jesus left on earth after his reported ascension could have developed the enthusiasm to sweep all obstacles before them in their bold worldwide mission. A few disheartened followers were transformed into the most dynamic movement in the history of mankind. Without this firm belief in a risen Christ, the fledgling Christian faith would have faded into oblivion.

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Christian scholars today make different historical and theological judgements about the precise details and nature of the resurrection appearances, based on the differing first-hand reports. Our decisions on these matters are secondary to our decisions about the story of Jesus as a whole. How do we react to the witness of his remembered ministry, of his passion and of his resurrection? That same Jesus pushes our questions back to us as individual believers. There are three inescapable questions that we all face: Who am I? What is my place in society? What am I here for? The first is the one of identity, the second is the question of love and the third is the question of purpose. They are inescapable because though we may never formulate the answers in words, they will be answered by the way we live. Discussion of these questions always range far and wide and bring in many contemporary questions and issues, but the Christian’s starting-point and a constant source for reference-back must be the New Testament and the questions of Jesus within it. He continues to challenge us with these until we come to … You – who do you say I am? Any retelling of his story must bring us back to this question, and leave us to answer it as individual believers, according to our own consciences.

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Sources:

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

David Kossoff (1978), The Book of Witnesses. Glasgow. Collins.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They divide my clothes among themselves,

And gamble for my robe.

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

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

Neither hath he hid his face from him;

But when he cried unto him, he heard.

 

My praise shall be of thee in the great congregation;

I will pay my vows before them that fear him.

The meek shall eat and be satisfied;

They shall praise the Lord that seek him;

Your heart shall live forever.

 

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

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

 

For the kingdom is the LORD’S;

And he is the governor among the nations.

A seed shall serve him;

It shall be accounted to the Lord for a generation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course we can!” they said.

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

(Mk. 10: 35-45; Dale)

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

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

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

Will seven times be enough?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You tell me.”

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

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

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

What will the landowner do?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I will strike the shepherd,

And the sheep will run away.   

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

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

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

Are you really ready to die for me?

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

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

Jesus answers, again speaking figuratively:

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

So Philip asks:

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

Jesus answers him with questions:

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

Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.

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

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

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

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

Jesus answers him:

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

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

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

Simon, are you asleep?

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

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

Are you still sleeping and resting?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Jn. 18: 11) 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are you the king of the Jews?

In John’s gospel, Jesus answered:

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

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

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

Jesus mystified Pilate even more by his response:

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

So Pilate repeated his original question:

Are you a king, then?

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

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

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

And what is truth?

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

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

Where do you come from?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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

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

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

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

The Genuine Jerusalem and ‘the trump of God’ – part five: First-century Palestine.   Leave a comment

Jerusalem and its Temple in the time of Christ:

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Until it was destroyed by Romans in AD 70, the temple at Jerusalem was the official centre of Jewish worship, a great place of pilgrimage and an immensely powerful symbol. Although Jewish theology had increasingly stressed the transcendence and otherness of God, the temple was still regarded as being in a special way a divine dwelling place: the scenes reported by Josephus immediately before its fall suggest a confidence, even then, that God would not allow it to be harmed. The temple in the first century was, in fact, the third to be built, following Solomon’s temple destroyed in 587 BC and the one that replaced it after the return from Babylon. Herod the Great began work in 20/19 BC on the same site but according to a different ground plan, in the prevailing Roman-Hellenistic style of architecture. Construction went on for a long time, certainly until AD 64, and it may have been the case that the temple was still unfinished at its destruction. Nothing remains of the temple proper today, apart from the great platform now surmounted by the Dome of the Rock and the substructure of the massive surrounding walls. However, it can be reconstructed in the mind’s eye through the contemporary descriptions of Josephus and others.

The site of the temple was on a hill in the south-eastern part of the present Old City. A great paved court was laid on the temple platform, surrounded by magnificent collonades against the outside walls. This court was accessible to people of any race or faith, Gentiles included and was by no means reserved for purely religious activities. In common with other ancient temples, the Jerusalem temple was used as a safe-deposit for valuables and other quasi-commercial transactions were carried on there. Within the court was an enclosure surrounded by an embankment, with steps going up to a wall with nine gates. Inscriptions, the Greek text of one of which has been found, warned Gentiles against going further:

No foreigner may enter inside the barrier and embankment. Whoever is caught doing so will have himself to blame for his ensuing death.

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At the heart of the temple lay the Holy Place, elevated by twelve steps. Within was a vestibule which gave on to the main doorway of the sanctuary.  Here were the sacred objects in gold, the seven-branched lampstand, the menorah, the table for the shew-bread and the altar of incense.> a curtain screened the Holy of Holies, containing no furniture whatsoever, which only the high priest might enter, once a year, on the Day of Atonement. Thus the elevation of the temple and its holiness increased progressively towards the centre, as did the elaborateness of its ornamentation. Built of great blocks of gleaming white stone and decorated with all possible splendour, it must have been a breath-taking sight. Josephus’ praise is lavish; he remarks that the outside of the building was covered with so much gold that the onlooker could scarcely look directly at it in bright sunlight. He adds that after the sack of Jerusalem the market of gold for the whole province of Syria was completely flooded so that the standard of gold was depreciated to half its value.

The foundation of the worship offered at the temple was the daily sacrifice, offered morning and evening on behalf of the people. It was never interrupted once during the rebuilding of the temple. A positive understanding of the joy taken in the ritual sacrifice of animals and the significance attached to it is perhaps the hardest thing for modern western Christians to understand, but there is abundant evidence of that joy and of the belief that sacrifice could bring forgiveness. This system was at its height in the last days of the temple, when more care and money was lavished on it than at any other time. Public sacrifice was accompanied by lengthy ceremonial and was followed by private sacrifices, both sin-offerings and votive offerings. The whole of Palestine was divided into twenty-four divisions, each of which was ‘on duty’ in turn for one week (Luke 1. 8f.). Priests and Levites from the course on duty were responsible for offering the sacrifices, and lay representatives were deputised to be witnesses on behalf of the whole people. A yearling lamb was killed and then followed a service of prayer: incense was offered and the lamb solemnly burnt; the priests pronounced a benediction and the choir of Levites sang the appointed psalm, the ceremony being accompanied by the blowing of trumpets.

More numerous sacrifices were offered on the Sabbath and on major festivals. The more important of these were the Feast of Weeks (Pentecost), the Feast of Tabernacles (Succoth) following the Day of Atonement, and the Feast Of Passover. The feasts were of great antiquity, having accumulated many overtones of meaning. The Feast of Weeks was a thanksgiving for the grain harvest, but also commemorated the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai; the Feast of Tabernacles, or ‘booths’, recalled the time when the Israelites were wandering in the desert and lived in tents, but also contained an ancient prayer-ceremony for rain: the Passover, Pesach, while commemorating the deliverance from Egypt, was also associated with the Feast of Unleavened Bread, which originally also had an agricultural significance. Pilgrims came to all these festivals, often covering vast distances to be present. Passover was the annual peak; one estimate gives the total number of pilgrims likely at that time as about 125,000 compared with the approximately 55,000 permanent residents of Jerusalem. The Passover meal was eaten in domestic surroundings, in table-fellowships of between ten and twenty; pilgrims had by law to stay that night within the limits of Jerusalem itself, as they were ritually interpreted. Despite the flexibility of this interpretation, the crush must have been immense. The ritual was carried out by twenty-four courses of priests and the same number of Levites, who were not in permanent residence. It has been estimated that there were some 7,200 priests involved, and a rather larger number of Levites, who functioned as singers, musicians, servants and guards.

 

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The temple and its priesthood may have been the most striking symbol of Jerusalem, but had they been its exclusive centre, Judaism would never have survived their fall. The way in which it adjusted to the situation after AD 70 shows that there were other strengths; these had as their common basis the Law, and to a considerable degree the history of the different parties within Judaism is the history of different interpretations of the Law. Even while the temple still stood, even within Judaea itself, there seems to have been an increasing preoccupation with the scriptures and their implications, and this focus will have been even more characteristic of the Jews of the Diaspora. A movement like that found at Qumran would have been unthinkable without the scribal tradition of ‘the book’ in Rabbinic Judaism. The beginnings of this trend are to be found in the Babylonian exile and the post-exilic period. During this period the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament, took final form and was accorded its place of honour as the Torah, the Law; the Prophets had taken a place beside it by the beginning of the second century BC and the scriptures were recognised during the first century AD.

‘Law’ is an inadequate translation to give a clear idea of the written basis of Judaism; the Hebrew word Torah means rather ‘instruction’ or ‘doctrine’ rather than ‘law’, since the Pentateuch is far more than a ‘dry’ book of laws, of ‘do’s’ and ‘dont’s’. Nevertheless, that is what it became as it was subjected to more and more intensive study. It is essential to try to see the positive elements which such detailed methods of study were believed to bring out, despite Jesus’ criticisms of some of the more life-denying aspects of the process. The Sadducees’ interpretation of Scripture was literal in contrast to that of the Pharisees, whose oral tradition they rejected. From this basic position stemmed their well-known denials of resurrection, future rewards and punishments, angels and spirits, and Providence. The Sadducees were more interested in their control of land and material resources than in spirituality; they seem to have been more concerned with politics of the Sanhedrin than theology.

The supreme Jewish council was known as the Sanhedrin, a Graeco-Aramaic term for an assembly. It consisted of seventy-one members. The sources differ over its composition and nature: Josephus and the writers of the Gospels and Acts present it primarily as a political institution, whereas Rabbinic literature presents a more religious aspect. The latter sources were probably reading back into it features which it took on after the fall of the temple, but the very nature of Judaism meant that political and religious questions were inextricably intertwined. The Pharisees were a broader, lay movement, which set out to embrace the whole of the Jewish people and had developed out of the earlier movement of Hasidism. Many Pharisees were Scribes by occupation, but they were more preoccupied with ritual matters than with theological concerns. Being a ‘separated one’ meant striving to be separated from impurity of all kinds. At the same time, the Law and the understanding of it were the means of avoiding impurity, so that the basic work of the scribe was indispensable. The leaders among the Pharisees were, therefore ‘middle-class’ scribes, whereas the Sadducees, although having their own scribes, had a leadership which was dominated by noble families.  By 70 BC the Pharisees had gained access to the Sanhedrin and from then onwards they never altogether lost power, while the Sadducees declined in importance, especially following the fall of the temple.  It was the Pharisaic/ Rabbinic development which shaped the future of Judaism.; the heightened prominence of the Law after the fall of the temple was accompanied by an institution which had been increasing in importance for some time before AD 70, the synagogue and its worship.

The Jewish Dispersion of the First Century:

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During the first century, as ever since has been the case, there were more Jews living outside Palestine than within it. Estimates vary, but a rough guess would be that there were rather more than two million Jews in Judaea and about four million elsewhere. The diaspora had taken place in different stages and for a number of reasons; there were, of course, the forced deportations to Babylon, where about a million Jews lived, but trade had also taken Jews all around the Mediterranean well before that time. There were particularly close connections with Egypt, where there was a large Jewish community, but there were also Jews in North Africa, Syria, Asia Minor, Greece and Italy. These Jews had to preserve their identity in a culture which was predominantly Greek. They therefore organised themselves into communities, living in distinct quarters in cities, with considerable autonomy. Both the Greek states and the Roman government allowed a great deal of freedom to religious minorities, but the privileges of the Jews went far beyond this. In return for the favours of the state, however, they had to suffer the constant antagonism of their neighbours, which on occasion damaged official relations. Although the language of the Dispersion was Greek, these Jews still looked to the temple while it stood, and paid a great deal of money to support it. The synagogue, however, had become a far more regular influence in their day-to-day life. While Pharisaic Judaism culminated in the Rabbinic tradition, Hellenistic Judaism gave way to Christianity. It had no future in the context of Judaism, just as Jewish Christianity had no future in the context of the church. A modern Jewish comment is apt:

Jewish Christianity withered since it lacked survival power; Hellenistic Judaism withered since it lacked survival value.

The Destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans:

When Emperor Tiberius died in AD 37, the new emperor, Caligula, made his friend Herod Agrippa I, the grandson of Herod the Great, king of Philip’s former tetrarchy. He accused Herod Antipas of being in league with the Parthians. Antipas was duly banished, and his tetrarchy and revenues were given to Agrippa. Although Judaea had been a Roman province for thirty-three years, it was in a thoroughly unsettled condition. The Jews felt themselves to be a unique people, and though the basis of this claim was religious, under conditions of foreign occupation its manifestations were bound to be political. Each of the main religious sects thus had its own political ‘line’, most obviously expressed in the extreme nationalism of the Zealots. The disturbed situation of the province, with these insurgents active in the countryside and with continual sectarian conflict among the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem, resulting in frequent changes in the high priests now appointed by the governor, needs to be remembered as the background to the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth.

Agrippa had used his friendship with Caligula to persuade the latter to abandon his orders for the erection of a large statue of himself in the temple in Jerusalem in AD 41. In the same year, Caligula was assassinated, and Agrippa was largely instrumental in securing the succession of Claudius. The new emperor rewarded him by abolishing the province of Judaea and adding it to his territories, thus reconstituting the kingdom of Herod the Great. Agrippa reigned for only three years, but during that time he demonstrated considerable ability. He made Jerusalem his official residence once more, signifying that Judaea was once more Jewish, and he became popular with his subjects. He had James, son of Zebedee, executed, and arrested Peter, two of the leaders of the growing and widely unpopular Christian community (Acts 12. 1-18). On his death, Claudius wished to appoint his son, Herod Agrippa II, to the throne of Judaea, but the boy was only seventeen, and Claudius was persuaded to make the area a province once more, though this time it included the whole of his father’s kingdom. The first two Roman governors, according to Josephus, left native customs alone and kept the nation at peace, but with the third, Cumanus, troubles began again, his government being marked by disturbances and further disasters to the Jews. These continued under the fourth and fifth governors, and on the death of the fifth, the Sanhedrin again took the law into its own hands, executing James, the brother of Jesus, who was the leader of the Christian community in Jerusalem.

According to Tacitus, the endurance of the Jews lasted until Gessius Florus was governor, of whom Josephus claimed that it was he who compelled us to take up arms against the Romans, thinking that it was better to be destroyed at once than by degrees. Florus became governor in AD 64, and the Jewish War began in AD 66. Its short-term causes were a clash in Caesaria between Jews and Greeks, in which Florus supported the latter. Shortly afterwards, he provoked further antagonism in Jerusalem by demanding a large sum of money from the temple treasury on the grounds that it was required by the emperor. In the demonstrations which followed, Florus allowed his troops to loot, and many innocents were killed, including Jews with Roman citizenship. At this stage, Agrippa II sought to intervene, but his attempt to calm his citizens ended with them stoning him, forcing him to leave Jerusalem. Within a month the rebels had taken control of Jerusalem and the greater part of Judaea and had captured the fortress of Masada with its huge arsenal. The disturbances then spread to the predominantly Greek cities of the Decapolis and the coast, and even to Alexandria. In all of them, there were violent clashes between Greeks and Jews, until the governor of Syria, was compelled to intervene and marched south with an army of thirty thousand. Despite early successes, he failed to control the uprising.

Emperor Nero appointed Vespasian, an experienced general, to the command of Judaea. In AD 67 he reconquered Galilee, where the young Josephus was in command, and the next year pressed on into Samaria and Transjordan. Meanwhile, factional struggles in Jerusalem, amounting to a civil war, seriously weakened the ability of the inhabitants to resist the Roman advance. In AD 70, Titus, Vespasian’s son, who had been left in command of the army when his father returned to Rome to become emperor, laid siege to the city. The story is graphically told by Josephus. An attack was only possible from the north or north-west, where the assailants would have to breach three walls in turn. ; even then, there remained the temple itself and the upper city, both of which could serve as well-defended inner citadels. The siege began in May, with the Romans deploying all their resources in siege warfare, building huge ramps and towers, attempting to mine the walls or battering them with huge boulders thrown by their artillery. They eventually constructed a wall of five miles in length running right around the city.  Nevertheless, it was not until the end of September that the whole city was in Roman hands. City and temple were razed to the ground.

Mopping-up operations continued for a further three years, culminating in the long siege and heroic defence of Masada, the great fortress which towers over the western shore of the Dead Sea. When further resistance proved impossible, the surviving defenders of nearly a thousand set fire to the fortress and killed themselves, with only two women who hid in underground water cisterns living to tell the tale to Josephus. The result of the war brought to an end the Jewish state. The Sanhedrin and the high priesthood were abolished, and worship in the temple was forbidden. There were further Jewish rebellions and revolts in AD 115 and 132, but the final guerrilla war, led, with some initial success, by Simon bar Kochba, was finally defeated in AD 135, following which Emperor Hadrian built a new city for Gentiles, from which the Jews were excluded, and a pagan temple was built on the site of Herod’s temple. Zion was no more.

According to Josephus, it was chiefly the belief in the imminent advent of a Messianic king that launched the Jews upon their suicidal war in 66 AD. Even after the destruction of the temple, Simon bar-Kochba was still greeted as Messiah. But the bloody suppression of that rising and the annihilation of political nationality put an end both to the apocalyptic faith and to the militancy of the Jews.  Although in later centuries a number of self-styled messiahs arose among the dispersed communities, what they offered was merely a reconstitution of the national home, not an eschatological world-empire. Moreover, they very rarely inspired armed risings, and never amongst European Jews. It was no longer Jews but Christians who cherished and elaborated prophecies in the tradition of Daniel’s dream and who continued to be inspired by them.

The Samaritans:

Had it been prophesied around AD 30 that the only movements to survive the next two thousand years would be the successors of the Pharisees, the followers of Jesus and the Samaritans, such a forecast would have been worthy of ridicule by contemporaries. Yet this was precisely what happened.

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A group of the despised Samaritans still lives and worships near Mount Gerizim, despite the long-troubled history of Palestine. Their survival represents a thorn in the side for those Christians and Jews who view Jerusalem as the sole, exclusive and undivided capital of the Jewish people as represented by the modern state of Israel. The Samaritans were the inhabitants of what was once the northern kingdom of Israel. In New Testament times it is clear from both Jewish and Christian sources that there was hatred and hostility between them and the Jews in Judaea and Galilee, so much so that Galileans on pilgrimage to Jerusalem avoided Samaria by crossing the Jordan rather than using the Jericho Road which Jesus described in his parable of ‘the Good Samaritan’.

The Samaritans regard themselves as the true Israel, separated from the rest of the people when the latter were tainted by the sin of Eli, a priest at Shiloh in the time of Samuel. Though they were deported at the fall of the northern kingdom in 722 BC, they returned fifty-five years later. The Judaeans and Galileans, on the other hand, regard the Samaritans as descendants of gentile colonists who repopulated the northern kingdom after the Assyrian conquest. They therefore regarded Samaritan religious observances as totally tainted. The Samaritan view may not be historically accurate, but the ‘Jewish’ view is also exaggerated in the opposite direction. It is not possible, at the present time, to establish the truth of exactly what happened, but it seems that it was post-exilic concerns which led to the constant rivalry between the ethnic groups. It probably began with the extent of inter-marriage between Samaritan ‘Jews’ and gentiles during the period of the two exiles, accentuated by the different experience of exile encountered by the Judaeans in Babylonia. The conflict reached its climax when the Samaritans built their own temple to replace the earlier one at Bethel. This new temple was erected on Mount Gerizim. The exact date of its construction is unknown, but it was certainly there by the early second century and does not appear to have been totally new then.

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In 129 BC, John Hyrcanus destroyed the temple on Gerizim, adding to Samaritan hatred. Herod married a Samaritan woman, suggesting that relations might have been slightly easier during his reign, and it is even possible that the Samaritans had access to the Temple in Jerusalem. However, Josephus reports that a new act of defilement, the scattering by Samaritans of human bones in the temple grounds, once more stirred up tensions. The first century was a bad period for Galileans on pilgrimage when they were set upon and attacked. In the end, Galileans and Judaeans alike regarded the Samaritans as Gentiles. This may be one reason why Mark describes Jesus and his disciples as crossing into Transjordan to teach before his final week in Jerusalem. Earlier references to the Samaritans contain a number of vivid sayings about their impurity; John 4. 9. has an old comment about the practice of Jews and Samaritans not using the same water vessels for this reason. Yet the Samaritans shared the same Torah with the Judaeans, though not the same prophetic and other literature. These were the people whom Jesus chose to illustrate gratitude and love, deliberately choosing to identify the hero of his story by his ethnic origin and ‘label’.  They provide yet another example of how ancient and first century Palestine was a multi-cultural and multi-ethnic region comprising a patchwork of territories under Roman rule, far different in nature from a twenty-first-century nation-state.

(to be continued…) 

The Genuine Jerusalem and the ‘trump of God’: Part three – Struggles for Independence.   Leave a comment

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From the top: Caesarea, The Wilderness of Judaea, Miriam’s Gate, Jerusalem

The Resurgence of Jewish Nationalism: The Maccabees

It seems that, in the interests of peace and unity in his Syro-Hellenic empire, Antiochus was trying to eradicate Jewish nationalism, if not the Jewish nation itself, in what would have been an act of genocide of unprecedented proportions. He both underestimated the strength of Jewish national feeling, supposing that their attitude towards religion was much the same as that of the Greeks, and over-estimated Jewish support for his attempt to introduce Hellenistic culture. Not all among the upper classes opposed it, certainly, and there were even those among the priests who supported Antiochus’ general policy, though perhaps more from weak-mindedness than on principle. Opposed to them were the Hasidim, the ‘pious’, who in contrast to those who had abandoned the holy covenant for a covenant with the Gentiles. The Hasidim saw themselves as mighty warriors of Israel who chose to die rather than profane the holy covenant. They first took part in passive resistance, but many then joined the more militant Maccabees to help them to restore the Temple and to regain their right to the observance of their religion.  Mattathias, the leader of this rebel group, was the head of a priestly family who lived near Jerusalem. He had five sons, but it was Judas ‘Maccabeus’, a nickname deriving from a Hebrew word for ‘hammer’, who emerged as their military leader.

One of the first signs of revolt against Antiochus was an incident in the Temple itself. Mattathias saw one of his own people, a Jew, preparing to take part in a service of sacrifice to the heathen god. Mattathias struck him down and, turning to the Syrian guard, killed him. For their immediate safety, he and his sons fled to the hills where they gathered around them a strong resistance movement. From the hills, Judas laid raid after raid against the Syrians, making their occupation of Judaea more and more dangerous and hazardous. They organised themselves into guerilla army, destroying altars and forcibly circumcising babies. They campaigned both against Hellenising Jews and persecuting Gentiles (1 Macc. 2. 1-48). In the midst of all the fighting, Judas regularly assembled his followers to observe the Jewish religious ceremonies, to watch and pray, and to read the Divine Law, the Torah.

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It was therefore hardly surprising that the fiercest reaction to Antiochus’ policy came from the Maccabees under Judas’ leadership. Their first aim was the regaining of freedom to obey the Jewish law and the recovery and purification of the temple. This was achieved after two years of fighting in 166-165 (1 Macc. 3. 10-4, 35), In December of 164 BC, Judas and his followers recaptured the temple and the priests reconsecrated the Holy Place, erecting new altars to the true God. It was also now protected by external fortifications, which were complemented by a permanent guard provided by the Maccabees. The colourful Jewish festival of Hannuka, also known as the Feast of Lights, commemorates the re-dedication of the Second Temple of Jerusalem in 165 BC.  It is said that when the perpetual lamp of the Temple had to be re-lit, only one day’s supply of non-desecrated oil could be found but miraculously this oil lasted eight days until a fresh supply could be brought. This is why the festival lasts for eight days and is commonly known as The Feast of Lights. The day which sees the start of the festival is the twenty-fifth of Kislev, the ninth month, which can fall on any day in December. The central part of the ceremony is the lighting of a candle on the eight-branched candelabra on the first day, with an additional candle lit on each of the seven successive days recalling the eight days of light provided by the miraculous oil when the Temple was re-dedicated. In 163 BC Judas’ campaign of resistance was extended to the defence of Jews resident among the surrounding Gentiles (I Macc. 5). The Syrians counter-attacked successfully, but the death of Antiochus forced them into offering terms to the Jews, allowing to live by their laws as they did before (I Macc. 6. 59).

The Pharisees also began to develop in this post-exilic period, fostering a lay spirituality for the whole nation, thus ensuring Israel’s continuity after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in AD 70. The Essenes, a group referred to by Philo, Josephus and Pliny the Elder, and the related Qumran community broke away from the official orthodoxy of the temple and priesthood in the belief that the future lay with the ‘elect’, separated from the pollutions of the world. The movement of which the community at Qumran formed a part may be seen as an extreme form of Pharisaism, taking the principle of separation to new heights. It probably originated during the Maccabean period. Details of the community are provided by the site itself and two documents containing regulations, found in what came to be known as the Dead Sea scrolls. These documents are known as ‘the Community rule’, formerly called the Manual of Discipline, and ‘the Damascus Rule’, so-called because it describes a group which migrated to Damascus and entered into a new covenant. The latter document was found in the Cairo synagogue, but fragments have also turned up at Qumran; it probably represents a different stage in the development of the community. A third document, ‘The War Rule’, describes the final battle between the spirits of light and darkness, which would be paralleled on earth by a similar battle before a final victory was won.

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These future expectations helped to condition the day-to-day life of the sect and were an important reason for their continued purity. Their negative attitude to the rest of Judaism around them led to a rejection of the traditional calendar and of temple worship. Their own worship centred on the common meal, which probably represented the eschatological feast that would be celebrated in the last days. The discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls and their contents at first led to some exaggerated ideas about the significance of the Qumran sect in relation to Christianity. In fact, very few direct connections between the two can be demonstrated, and none on matters of central importance. A reading of the scrolls alone will make it quite clear that their main importance is in the light that they shed on the different forms of Judaism to be found at the beginning of the Christian era.

The death of Menelaus, one of the leading Hellenising Jews led to the victory of the Hasidim over the priesthood. The Maccabees, however, continued to resist the Hellenising high priest, Alcimus, who had begun his high priesthood by murdering sixty of the Hasidim. The Maccabees defeated the Syrian Army sent to support him at Adasa in 160 BC. II Maccabees ends with this victory, but two months later the Syrians killed Judas in battle and re-occupied Judaea. The Maccabees fled to the wilderness to regroup under Judas’ brother, Jonathan; Alcimus died and the Syrians departed. For two years there was peace in Jerusalem and in Judah. But now the Maccabees wanted nothing less than political freedom, and the Hellenists did not feel secure while they could be harried from the wilderness. They asked the Syrian general Bacchides to capture Jonathan (157 BC), but Bacchides was defeated and made a final peace with Jonathan, who settled at Michmash, a stronghold north-east of Jerusalem (I Macc. 9. 73; see map above). Like the judges of old, he began to judge the people, and he destroyed the ungodly out of Israel. The Maccabees had won, and until the arrival of the Romans in 63 BC, Judaea was virtually independent. The Seleucid empire was weakening as the Parthians became more powerful to the east. In 142 BC, the yoke of the Gentiles was removed from Israel, and the people began to write in their documents and contracts, “in the first year of Simon the great high priest and commander and leader of the Jews”  (I Macc. 13. 41f.).

However, in 134 BC Simon and two of his sons were killed by Ptolemy. A third son, John, in command of the army near Gezer, heard the news in time to reach Jerusalem before Ptolemy, and John was welcomed as high priest and ruler (I Macc. 16. 11-22). The Seleucid king made a further successful attack on Jerusalem, but in 128 BC was killed by the Parthians, and the internal struggles within the Seleucid empire prevented any further persecution of the Jews. There were a series of civil wars fought for control of the temple between the Sadducean party and the Pharisees. Salome ruled for the Pharisees, appointing Hyrcanus II as her high priest, while his brother Aristobulus led the Sadducees. When Salome died in 67 BC, Aristobulus defeated Hyrcanus, becoming both king and high priest. Then Hyrcanus made fresh alliances, defeated Aristobulus and besieged him in Jerusalem.

Roman Intervention and Imperialism: Herod the Great.

This was the point at which the Roman general Pompey arrived in Syria. Both Hyrcanus and Aristobulus appealed to him to come to their aid. When he reached Jerusalem, some Jews opened the city gates to him, while others barricaded themselves in the temple-fortress. Pompey built a ramp on the north side and brought up his great siege-engines. For three months the strong temple walls stood up to the battering rams before a great tower gave way, and the legionaries poured through the breach. The city surrendered, but no fewer than twelve thousand people were reported to have died in the massacre that followed. Pompey himself broke into the Holy of Holies, where only the High Priest was allowed to go, to find out what Jewish religion was all about, an act which the Jews could not forgive.

After his sacking and desecration of Jerusalem, Pompey removed Aristobulus to Rome, reinstating Hyrcanus as high priest. It was Hyrcanus’ ally Antipater who gained most, however, for the Romans relied on him to establish a stable government and later gave him the title of procurator of Judaea. His son was Herod the Great, and among his grandsons was Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee in the time of Jesus of Galilee. Once again, religious and political authority was separated and it is noteworthy that even in the independent Jewish state the combination of the two was not popular. The Jews seemed to prefer a secular state as, of course, was the case under Roman rule into the first century. Before we get to the Christian New Testament, these issues were reflected in the previous Hebrew literature, especially the book of Daniel, and in those books included in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible made at Alexandria, known to Christians as the Apocrypha. 

From the annexation of Palestine by Pompey in 63 BC down to the Roman-Jewish War of AD 66-72, the struggles of the Jews against their new masters, the Romans, were accompanied and stimulated by a stream of militant apocalyptic literature. As it was addressed to the common people this propaganda made great play with the fantasy of an eschatological saviour, the Messiah. This fantasy was already very ancient; if for the prophets, the saviour who was to reign at the end of time was usually Yahweh himself, in the popular religion of the post-exilic period, the future Messiah seems to have played a considerable part. Originally imagined as a particularly wise, just and powerful monarch of Davidic descent who would restore the national fortunes, the Messiah became more superhuman as the political situation became more hopeless. In Daniel’s dream, the Son of Man who appears riding on the clouds seems to personify Israel as a whole. Already Daniel may have imagined him as a superhuman hero, and in the Apocalypses of Baruch and Ezra, which belong in the main to the first century AD, the superhuman being is incontestably a man, a warrior-king endowed with unique, miraculous powers.

In the Book of Ezra the Messiah is depicted as the Lion of Judah at whose roar the last and worst beast – now the Roman eagle – bursts into flame and is consumed; and again as the Son of Man who first annihilates the multitudes of the heathen with the fire and storm of his breath and then, gathering together the lost ten tribes out of alien lands, establishes in Palestine a kingdom in which a reunited Israel can flourish in peace and glory. According to Baruch, there must come a time of terrible hardship and injustice, which is the time of the last and worst empire, the Roman. Then, just when evil has reached its greatest pitch, the Messiah will appear. A mighty warrior, he will rout and destroy the armies of the enemy; he will take captive the leader of the Romans and bring him to chains to Mount Zion, where he will put him to death; he will establish a kingdom which shall last to the end of the world. All the nations which have ever ruled over Israel will be put to the sword, and some members of the remaining nations will be subjected to the Chosen People. An age of bliss will begin in which pain, disease, untimely death, violence and strife, want and hunger will be unknown and in which the earth will yield its fruits ten-thousand-fold. Such a Kingdom was worth fighting for, and these apocalypses had at least established that in the course of bringing the Saints into their Kingdom the Messiah would show himself invincible in war.

Under the procurators, the conflict with Rome became more and more bitter. In 40 BC, the Parthians invaded Syria with the son of Aristobulus and pretender to the throne of Judah. He attracted strong support from the Judaeans, and within a short time, Judaea was in revolt. High priest Hyrcanus was captured and Herod was forced to leave Jerusalem secretly. He and his brother Phasael, who committed suicide, had been made tetrarchs of Judaea by Mark Antony following the murder of Caesar and defeat of Brutus and Cassius at Philippi in 42 BC.  Herod was now forced to leave his family in the strong fortress of Masada and then fled to Petra, eventually making his way via Egypt and Rhodes to Rome, where he appealed for Antony’s support. The latter, …

… recalling Antipater’s hospitality and filled with admiration for the heroic character before him, decided on the spot that the man he had once made tetrarch should now be king of the Jews.

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However, it was not until 37 BC that Herod was able to enter Jerusalem, escorted to his capital by a force of Roman legionaries. He continued to be popular with the Roman rulers, including the Emperor Octavian (now Augustus) and Agrippa, Augustus’ junior partner in ruling the Empire. He was able to secure the latter’s support for the Jews of the Dispersion in Asia Minor, who were being persecuted in the Greek cities where they now lived. Herod never enjoyed the same success in his relations with the Jews in Judaea. He was an Edomite and therefore could not combine the offices of king and high priest. The separation of the two offices served as a permanent reminder to his subjects that he was a usurper and the nominee of a foreign power. It was also a lasting contradiction of what the historian Josephus called the theocratic tradition of the Jews. Nevertheless, his achievements on the material level were far from negligible. He developed the economic resources of his kingdom, rebuilt the temple in Jerusalem, and founded two new cities – the port of Caesarea, which took twelve years to complete, and a city in Samaria which he also named after Augustus. When severe famine struck Judaea in 25 BC, he acted promptly and vigorously, selling the gold and silver furnishings from his palace to buy corn from the Roman governor of Egypt. Notable among the concessions made by the Romans towards the Jews of the Dispersion was the right to contribute to the temple in Jerusalem. Herod’s reign seemed to characterise the desire for ‘good government’ which the Jews had longed for since the days of Saul, David and Solomon.

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It is difficult to reconcile this vital and capable ruler with the tyrannical monster who, in the story told in Matt. 2. 16f. ordered the massacre of the innocents. This appears to have been a local incident, which the gospel-writer seems to have used to demonstrate the fulfilment of a prophecy and to emphasise the significance of the infant king Jesus as a very different ‘King of the Jews’ to Herod. The story is not recorded anywhere apart from the gospel, and a more historical view of Herod derives from the way in which he had to deal, on his death-bed, with a feud within his extended family. In 5-4 BC he was seriously ill when his son Antipater began plotting against him and his half-brothers, Archelaus and Philip, over the succession. Among the symptoms of Herod’s terminal illness were rapid swings in mood and delusions of persecution. In 4 BC, amid mounting pressures from the Pharisees and only a few days before his death, Herod had Antipater executed, and ordered the execution of a number of other leading nobles, either in order to prevent civil war after his death and/or so that the Romans would mistake the mourning of their families for mourning for him, demonstrating his popularity among his own people. He then issued his fourth and final will, under the terms of which the kingdom was to be divided between three of his remaining sons. Archelaus, only eighteen, was to be king of Judaea, Edom and Samaria; his brother Antipas became tetrarch of Galilee and Transjordan; their half-brother, Philip, tetrarch of the north-eastern territories of the kingdom. The kingdom remained divided into these tetrarchies, with a succession of Roman governors as ‘procurators’ of Judaea (see below), the fifth and most infamous of which was, of course, Pontius Pilate, responsible, together with the Judaean Sanhedrin, for the trial and execution of Jesus of Nazareth.

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(to be continued)

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