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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.

Egalitarian millenarianism, Reformation and Reaction in Europe, 1452-1535: Part Two.   Leave a comment

Below: Conflict in the sixteenth century, a woodcut by Albrecht Dürer

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Part Two – Martin Luther, Humanism and Nationalism:

The late fifteenth century saw a consolidation of many European states and a coalescence of Europe into the political contours which were to shape it for almost four hundred years, until the crisis of nationalism in the nineteenth century. In the southwest, the Spanish state emerged with the final conquest of Granada from the Muslim Moors in 1492 and the Union of the crowns of Aragon and Castille. The French kings continued the process of expanding the royal domain, until by 1483 only the Duchy of Brittany remained more or less independent, and even this was absorbed in the early sixteenth century. England had lost all its lands in France, except for Calais, and was racked by a bitter civil war from 1453 to 1487, from which it began to emerge under the Welsh Tudor dynasty from 1485 onwards as a maritime power, whose interests in terms of territorial expansion lay outside Europe.

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Above: King Matthias Hunting at Vajdahunyád. This most impressive Transylvanian castle was the residence of the Hunyádi dynasty and seat of their immense estates.

In the East, Hungary’s power and influence grew in the reign of Matthias Corvinus from 1458 until 1490. Corvinus was a renaissance ruler who promoted learning, but he also had to resist the Turkish advance. He maintained a largely defensive attitude, seeking to preserve his kingdom without trying to push back the Ottomans to any great extent. His main attention was directed westwards. With the standing army he had developed, he hoped to become the crown of Bohemia and become Holy Roman Emperor. Bohemia remained divided as a result of the Hussite Wars and in 1468 Corvinus obtained Papal support to conduct a crusade against its Hussite ruler, George Podebrady. This led to the partition of the Bohemian kingdom. Corvinus gained Moravia, Silesia and Lusatia as well as the title ‘King of Bohemia’, though not Bohemia itself. Corvinus was opposed by the Emperor Frederick III (1440-93) who had been elected ruler of Hungary in 1439 by a group of nobles. Nevertheless, Corvinus was successful, in gaining Lower Austria and Styria from Austria, and transferring his capital to Vienna. The Hungarian state developed considerably under Matthias Corvinus, although he continued to face opposition from nobles concerned about their privileges.

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Portrait of Matthias Corvinus from the Philostratus Codex, c. 1487-1490

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The beginnings of the primacy of the nation-state are conventionally traced to the early sixteenth century. A new type of king arose across, like Matthias Corvinus, called the Renaissance Prince. These monarchs attacked the powers of the nobles and tried to unite their countries. In England, this process was accelerated by the eventual victory of the Lancastrians in the Wars of the Roses, but on the continent, it was much slower. The mercantile classes were generally hostile to the warlike feudal nobles, who interfered with and interrupted their trade, so they tended to support the king against the nobles. A new sense of unity arose, where local languages and dialects merged into national languages and, through the advent of the printing press, national literatures developed.

For a while, however, the most successful states appeared to be multi-national ones, such as the Ottoman Empire in the east, or the universal monarchy built up by Charles V, encompassing Spain, the Netherlands and the Austrian dominions of the Habsburgs. The small states of the Holy Roman Empire, the patchwork of cities and territories, also contained some of the most affluent parts of Europe. Charles of Habsburg inherited, by quirks of marriage and early deaths, the Burgundian Netherlands (1506), the united Spanish crowns (1516), and the lands of his grandfather Maximilian of Austria (1519), after which he succeeded him as Holy Roman Emperor. The Imperial title, the secular equivalent of the Papacy, still carried immense prestige, giving its holder pre-eminence over lesser monarchs.

The Empire was a waning but still imposing legacy of the Middle Ages. Since the office of emperor was elective, any European prince was eligible, but the electors were predominantly German and therefore preferred a German. Yet they were realistic enough to recognise that no German had sufficient strength in his own right to sustain the office. They were, therefore, ready to accept the head of one of the great powers, and the choice lay between Francis of France and Charles of Spain. Francis I tried in vain to secure election, seeing the danger of his country being encircled by a ring of hostile territories. The Pope objected to either, however, because an accretion of power on one side or the other would destroy that balance of power on which papal security depended. When the Germans despaired of a German, the pope threw his support to Frederick the Wise, but Frederick himself, sensible of his inadequacies, defeated himself by voting for the Habsburg.

For centuries the seven Electors had chosen the Habsburg heir, but previously he had been German, or at least German-speaking; At the age of just twenty, Charles I of Spain became Emperor Charles V on 28 June 1519. Francis pursued his legacy of French claims to Milan and Naples, and sought to extend his eastern frontier towards the Rhine. He was an ambitious man, but also frivolous, whereas Charles was regarded as harder-working. The rivalry between the two men was to dominate European politics from 1519 to 1547. While Charles emerged as the more powerful of the two, he had many more problems to distract him. Winning the election was only the beginning of his trials, as Charles now faced an immense task of keeping his domains united.  The main source of his power and wealth continued to lie in the Netherlands, in the seventeen separate provinces that he had inherited from his father, Philip the Handsome, in 1506. The great commercial wealth of these provinces made their taxes particularly valuable, even if their independent-mindedness meant that Charles had to treat them with extreme caution. Besides the territories he had inherited, Charles added several more Dutch provinces, Milan, Mexico and Peru to his empire at home and overseas.

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Europe in the time of Henry VIII, Charles I of Spain and Francis I of France

The Map above shows the extent of Charles’ scattered empire; it included many peoples, each proud of their own traditions, language, and separate government. Even in Spain, only the royal will bound together Castile with Granada and Aragon, which, in turn, was made up of the four distinct states of Aragon, Valencia, Catalonia and Navarre. There was a serious revolt in Aragon itself in 1520. Besides Spain, he had to assert his nominal authority over the independent princes, bishops, knights and city-states that formed the Holy Roman Empire.  If all this wasn’t enough to contend with, he was opposed by successive popes, who resented his power in Italy despite his championship of the Roman Church. Within the Church, from 1517, reformers like Martin Luther had begun to challenge the authority of both the ecclesiastical and secular leaders of the Empire, leading to further disunity both within and between the German states.

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Above: The Central European Habsburg Empire of Charles V

The rise of Protestantism in Germany in the first half of the sixteenth century placed an additional strain on his European empire. Charles failed to suppress it by force, but held firm to Catholicism even though, in Germany at least, it might have been politically expedient to convert to Lutheranism. In 1517-19, Martin Luther had challenged the authority of the Pope in tolerating the abuses of the Church, and a considerable movement for reform had grown around his protest at Wittenberg. His work and that of subsequent reformers was greatly stimulated by the translation of the Bible into ‘high’ German, which Luther himself completed in 1534, and by its printing and widespread publication. This religious movement coincided with the rise of national feeling. Renaissance princes, eager to gain complete domination over their territories, were supported in a breach with the Pope by their subjects, who regarded Papal authority as foreign interference. The wealth and lands of the Church, combined by the heavy exactions it made on its adherents, had provoked great dissatisfaction among princes, merchants and peasants.

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In 1517, the impulsive and headstrong Augustinian friar and Professor of Theology at Wittenberg had denounced the sale of indulgences by unprincipled agents of the Papal envoy, Tetzel, and had won enthusiastic support. The Pope sent Cardinal Cajetan to interview Luther at Augsburg (I have written about these early disputations over indulgences in more detail elsewhere on this site). When he got word that Cajetan had been empowered by the Pope to arrest him, Luther escaped the city gates by night, fleeing in such haste that he had to ride to Nürnberg in his cowl, without breeches, spurs, stirrups or a sword. He arrived back in Wittenberg on 30 October, exactly a year after he had first posted his 95 Theses to the Castle church door. Cajetan then demanded that Frederick the Wise should either send  Luther bound to Rome or else banish him from his territories. Luther made matters even more difficult for his prince by publishing his own version of his interview with the Cardinal. There was no longer any attempt to explain the papal decree against him in any favourable sense. Instead, he declared that it was emphatically false, and contrasted the ambiguous decretal of a mortal pope with the clear testimonies of Holy Scripture:

The Apostolic Legate opposed me with the thunder of his majesty and told me to recant. I told him the pope abused Scripture. I will honour the sanctity of the pope, but I will adore the sanctity of Christ and the truth. I do not deny this new monarchy of the Roman Church which has arisen in our generation, but I deny that you cannot be a Christian without being subject to the decrees of the Roman pontiff… I resist those who in the name of the Roman Church wish to institute Babylon.

His accusation that the Roman pontiff and curia were instituting Babylon introduced an apocalyptic tone into the dispute. On 28 November, Luther lodged with a notary an appeal to the pope for a general council, declaring that such a council, legitimately called in the Holy Spirit, could better represent the Catholic Church than the pope, who, being a man, was able to err, sin and lie. Not even St Peter, he pointed out, was above this infirmity.  Luther had the appeal printed, requesting that all the copies should be withheld from publication unless and until he was actually banned. The printer, however, disregarded the embargo and gave them out immediately to the public. Pope Julius II had ruled that a direct appeal to a council, without papal consent, constituted in itself an act of heresy. Luther had placed himself in an exposed situation and had also embarrassed his prince. Frederick the Wise considered himself to be a most Catholic prince. He was addicted to the cult of relics, devoted to indulgences and quite sincere in his claim that he was not in a position to judge Luther’s teaching. That was why he had founded the University of Wittenberg and why he so often turned to it for advice on matters juristic and theological. Luther was one of the doctors of that university, commissioned to instruct his prince in matters of faith.

As far as Frederick was concerned, if the pope declared Luther a heretic, that would settle the matter, but the pontiff had not yet pontificated. Neither had the theological faculty at Wittenberg repudiated their colleague. Many scholars throughout Germany believed Luther to be right. Frederick differed from many other princes in that he never asked how to extend his territories nor even how to preserve his dignities. His only question was, what is my duty as a Christian prince? He wrote to the Emperor beseeching him either to drop the case or to grant a hearing before unimpeachable judges in Germany. He also sent to Cajetan the only document ever sent to the Roman curia on Luther’s behalf:

We are sure that you acted paternally towards Luther, but we understand that he was not shown sufficient cause to revoke. There are learned men in the universities who hold that his teaching has not been shown to be unjust, unchristian, or heretical. The few who think so are jealous of his attainments. If we understand his doctrine to be impious or untenable, we would not defend it. Our whole purpose is to fulfill the office of a Christian prince. Therefore we hope that Rome will pronounce on the question. As for sending him to Rome or banishing him, that we will do only after he has been convicted of heresy. … He should be shown in what respect he is a heretic and not condemned in advance. We will not lightly allow ourselves to be drawn into error nor to be made disobedient to the Holy See. 

Prince Frederick also appended a copy of a letter from the University of Wittenberg in Luther’s defence. Luther himself wrote to his mentor and confidant, George Spalatin, to express his joy at reading the prince’s letter to the Papal Legate. Cajetan knew that, although Luther was a vexation, he was not yet a heretic, since heresy involved a rejection of the established dogma of the Church, and the doctrine of indulgences had not yet received an official papal definition. On 9 November 1518, the bull Cum Postquam definitely clarified many of the disputed points. Indulgences were declared only to apply to penalty and not to guilt, which must first have been remitted through the sacrament of penance. In the case of the penalties of purgatory, the pope could do no more than present to God the treasury of the superfluous merits of Christ and the saints by way of petition. This decretal terminated some of the worst abuses Luther had complained about in his Ninety-Five Theses.

Had it appeared earlier, the controversy might conceivably have been terminated, but in the interim Luther had attacked not only papal power but also the infallibility of the Pope. He had also questioned the biblical basis for the sacrament of penance and had rejected part of canon law as being inconsistent with Scripture. For his part, the Pope had called him ‘a son of iniquity’ and the loyal Dominicans had already declared him to be ‘a notorious heretic’. The conciliatory policy commenced in December 1518 was prompted by political considerations which now became more marked due to the death of Emperor Maximilian and the need to elect a successor as Holy Roman Emperor. The election of Charles V at the end of June 1519 made no great difference to the situation with Luther, because for over a year Charles was too occupied in Spain to concern himself with Germany, where Frederick remained the pivotal figure. The pope still could not afford to alienate him unduly over Luther and so his conciliatory policy continued.

Tetzel was made the scapegoat for the controversy over indulgences. Cajetan’s new German assistant, Milititz summoned him to a hearing and charged that he was extravagant in travelling with two horses and a carriage, and that he had two illegitimate children. Tetzel retired to a convent where he died of chagrin. Luther wrote sympathetically to him; you didn’t start this racket: The child had another father. 

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Meanwhile, the University of Wittenberg was becoming known as a Lutheran institution. Prominent among the faculty were Carlstadt and Melanchthon. Carlstadt, a senior colleague to Luther, was erudite but sometimes recklessly outspoken and more radical. Melanchthon was gentler, younger (at twenty-one) a prodigy of learning, already enjoying a pan-European reputation. These two reformers ‘in their own right’ soon became the leaders of the Reformation in Wittenberg. Against them, the papacy found a worthy academic in John Eck, a professor from the University of Ingolstadt, who had already published a refutation of Luther’s theses. He had been Luther’s friend, a humanist and a German. Eck also succeeded in persuading the University of Leipzig to sponsor him against Wittenberg, which added the internal political rivalry of ducal and electoral Saxony to the mix. Duke George, the patron of Leipzig, agreed that Eck should debate with Carlstadt at Leipzig. Carlstadt had already launched a determined defence of Luther and a virulent attack on Eck, but the latter was in no mood to accept ‘second best’. He openly baited Luther by challenging his assertions that the Roman Church in the days of Constantine had not been seen as superior to the other churches and that the popes had not always been seen as in apostolic succession to Peter, and that therefore the papacy was a relatively recent human institution, not a divine one.

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Above: Philip Melanchthon’s study in his home in Wittenberg

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Clearly, this debate was between Eck and Luther, but the bishop of the diocese interposed a prohibition. Duke George said that all he wanted to know was whether as soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs. He reminded the bishop that…

Disputations have been allowed from ancient times, even concerning the Holy Trinity. What good is a soldier if he is not allowed to fight, a sheep dog if he may not bark, and a theologian if he may not debate? Better spend money to support old women who can knit than theologians who cannot discuss.

Luther set himself to prepare for the debate. Since he had asserted that only in the decretals of the previous four hundred years could the claims of papal primacy be established, he must devote himself to a study of the decretals. As he worked, his conclusions grew even more radical. He wrote to a friend in January that…

Eck is fomenting new wars against me. He may yet drive me to a serious attack upon the Romanists. So far I have been merely trifling.

In March, Luther confided to Spalatin:

I am studying the papal decretals for my debate. I whisper this in your ear, “I do not know whether the pope is Antichrist or his apostle, so does he in his decretals corrupt and crucify Christ, that is, the truth.”

The reference to Antichrist was ominous. Luther was to find it easier to convince people that the pope was Antichrist than that ‘the just shall live by faith’. The suspicion which Luther did not yet dare to breathe in the open linked him with the medieval millenarian sectaries who had revived and transformed the theme of Antichrist, the figure invented by the Jews and developed in early Christian eschatology in times of captivity and persecution to derive comfort from their calamities on the grounds that the Advent or Second Coming of the Messiah would be retarded by the machinations of an Anti-Messiah, whose predominant evil would reach a peak before the Saviour would come. The gloomiest picture of the present thus became the most encouraging vision for the future. The Book of Revelation had added the details that before ‘the End of Time’ two witnesses would testify and suffer martyrdom. Then the Archangel Michael would appear, together with a figure with flaming eyes upon a white horse, to cast the beast into the abyss. How the theme was dealt with in Luther’s day is graphically illustrated in a woodcut from the Nürnberg Chronicle (below):

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In previous posts on this site, I have examined how the theme became very popular in the late Middle Ages among Flagellants, Wyclifites and Hussites, especially the more radical Táborites in Bohemia, who increasingly identified the popes with the Antichrist soon to be overthrown.  Luther was, therefore, aligning himself with these sectaries, with one significant difference. Whereas they had identified particular popes with Antichrist, due to their apparently evil lives as well as other contemporary events, Luther held that every pope was Antichrist even if personally exemplary in their conduct, because Antichrist was for him a collective symbol of penultimate evil, the institution of the papacy and the Roman curia, a system which corrupts the the truth of Christ and the true Church. This explains how Luther could repeatedly address Leo X in terms of personal respect only a few days after blasting him as Antichrist. Nevertheless, to one who had been, and remained, so devoted to the Holy Father as the chief vicar of Christ, the thought that he, in person, might be Christ’s great opponent was difficult to reconcile. At the same time, it was also a comforting thought, for the doom of Antichrist was ensured by Scripture. If Luther should be martyred like the two witnesses, his executioner would soon be demolished by the hand of God. It was no longer merely a fight between men, but against the principalities and powers and the ruler over this darkness on earth.

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Meanwhile, between 4-14 July Luther engaged in the Leipzig debate with Eck. The Wittenbergers arrived a few days after Eck; Luther, Carlstadt and Melanchthon with other doctors and two hundred students armed with battle-axes. Eck was provided with a bodyguard of seventy-six men by the town council, to protect him from the Wittenbergers and the Bohemians who were believed to be amongst them. The concourse was so great that Duke George placed the auditorium of the Castle at their disposal. After a week of theological debate between Eck and Carlstadt, Luther answered a rhetorical question from Duke George; what does it all matter whether the pope is by divine right or by human right? He remains the pope just the same. Luther used the intervention to insist that by denying the divine origin of the papacy he was not counselling a withdrawal of obedience from the Pontiff. For Eck, however, the claim of the Pope to unquestioning obedience rested on the belief that his office was divinely instituted. Eck then attacked Luther’s teaching in its similarities with that of Wyclif and Hus, both of whom had been condemned as heretics in the early fifteenth century:

“I see” said Eck “that you are following the damned and pestiferous errors of John Wyclif, who said ‘It is not necessary for salvation to believe that the Roman Church is above all others.’ And you are espousing the pestilent errors of John Hus, who claimed that Peter neither was nor is the head of the Holy Catholic Church.”

“I repulse the charge of Bohemianism,” roared Luther. “I have never approved of their schism. Even though they had divine right on their side, they ought not to have withdrawn from the Church, because the highest divine right is unity and charity.”

Eck was driving Luther onto dangerous territory, especially at Leipzig, because Bohemia was close by and, within living memory, the Hussites had invaded and ravaged the Saxon lands thereabouts. Luther used an interlude in proceedings to go to the university library and read the acts of the Council of Constance, at which Hus had been condemned to be burnt. To his amazement, he found among the reproved articles the following statements of Hus:

The one holy universal Church is the company of the predestined… The universal Holy Church is one, as the number of the elect is one. 

He recognised the theology of these statements as deriving directly from St Augustine. When the assembly reconvened, Luther declared:

 Among the articles of John Hus, I find many which are plainly Christian and evangelical, which the universal church cannot condemn… As for the article of Hus that ‘it is not necessary for salvation to believe the Roman Church is superior to all others’, I do not care whether this comes from Wyclif or Hus. I know that innumerable Greeks have been saved though they never heard this article. It is not in the power of the Roman pontiff or of the Inquisition to construct new articles of faith. No believing Christian can be coerced beyond holy writ. By divine law we are forbidden to believe anything which is not established by divine Scripture or manifest revelation. One of the canon lawyers has said that the opinion of a single private man has more weight than that of a Roman pontiff or an ecclesiastical council if grounded on a better authority or reason. I cannot believe that the Council of Constance would condemn these propositions of Hus… The Council did not say that all the articles of Hus were heretical. It said that ‘some were heretical, some erroneous, some blasphemous, some presumptuous, some sedtious and some offensive to pious respectively… 

Luther went on, now in German, to reiterate that a council cannot make divine right out of that which by nature is not divine right and make new articles of faith, and that a simple layman armed with Scripture is… above a pope or a council without it. Articles of faith must come from Scripture, for the sake of which we should reject pope and councils. Eck retorted, in a manner which conjured up memories of the Hussite hordes ravaging Saxon lands, that this is the Bohemian virus, in that the Reverend Father, against the holy Council of the Constance and the consensus of all Christians does not fear to call certain articles of Wyclif and Hus most Christian and evangelical. 

After the Leipzig debate, Eck came upon a new fagot for Luther’s pyre. “At any rate,” he crowed, “no one is hailing me as the Saxon Hus.” Two letters to Luther had been intercepted, from Hussites of Prague, in which they said, “What Hus was once in Bohemia you, Martin, are in Saxony. Stand firm.” When they did eventually reach Luther, they were accompanied by a copy of Hus’s work On the Church. “I agree now with more articles of Hus than I did at Leipzig,” Luther commented. In February of the following year, he had come to the conclusion that “we are all Hussites without knowing it.” For Eck and the Roman Pontiff and curia, however, ‘Hussite’ remained a byword for ‘heretic’, and Luther was indeed known amongst them as ‘the Saxon Hus’. Luther was still in mortal danger, and no doubt remembered how his predecessor had been given an imperial pass to Constance and never returned.

By February 1520, Luther had also become a national figure in Germany, as a result of the Leipzig debate. His endorsement of Hus was not likely to have brought him acclaim among Germans more widely, except that it cast him in the role of an insurgent heretic who had held his argument against one of the most renowned theologians of his time. But it may well have been the dissemination of his writings which proved more influential in making him not only a national but also an international figure. In addition to reaching Spain and England, the Swiss reformer Zwingli had also been distributing his printed sermons around Zurich and the Swiss cantons. Such acclaim rapidly made Luther the head of a movement which has come to be known as the Reformation. As it took on shape, it was bound to come into contact with those two great philosophical movements of his day, the Renaissance and nationalism.

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The Renaissance was a many-sided phenomenon in which a central place was occupied by the ideal commonly labelled ‘Humanism’. Although a synthesis between the classical and the Christian had already been achieved by St Augustine, a menace to Christianity was still implicit in the movement because it was centred on mankind, because the search for truth in any quarter might lead to ‘relativism’ and because the philosophies of antiquity had no place for the distinctive tenets of Christianity: the Incarnation and the Cross. Yet, at several points, Humanism and the Reformation could form an alliance. Both demanded the right of free investigation. The Humanists included the Bible and the biblical languages in the curriculum of reviving antiquity, and Luther’s battle for the right understanding of Paul’s teaching on the Hebrews appeared to them, as to Luther himself, as a continuation of the campaign of the great German Hebraist, Reuchlin, over the freedom of scholarship (see the cartoon below).

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The deepest affinity appeared at that point where the Renaissance man was not so sure of himself, when he began to wonder whether his valour might not be thwarted by the goddess Fortuna or whether his destiny had not already been determined by the stars. Here was Luther’s problem of God the capricious and God the adverse. Renaissance man, confronted by this enigma and having no deep religion of his own, was commonly disposed to find solace less in Luther’s stupefying irrationalities than in the venerable authority of the Church. Erasmus was closer to Luther than any other figure of the Renaissance because he was so Christian. His ideal, like that of Luther, was to revive the Christian consciousness of Europe through the dissemination of the sacred writings, and to that end, it was Erasmus who first made available the New Testament in its Greek original. The volume reached Wittenberg just as Luther was working on the ninth chapter of Romans, and thereafter it became his working tool. It was from this tool that he learned of the inaccuracy of the Vulgate rendering of ‘do penance’ rather than ‘be penitent’. Luther and Erasmus had much in common. Both insisted that the Church of their day had relapsed into the Judaistic legalism castigated by St Paul. Christianity, said Erasmus, has been made to consist not in loving one’s neighbour, but in abstaining from butter and cheese during Lent.

 

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Nevertheless, Erasmus was wary of giving his unreserved support to Luther. He was nostalgic for the old unities of Europe, the multi-cultural states and empires. His dream was that Christian Humanism might serve as a check upon the growth of nationalism. The threat of war and division implicit in the Reformation frightened him, and he had good cause for this, as German nationalism was the second great movement to attach itself to the Reformation, just as Bohemian nationalism had previously attached itself to the cause of the Hussites. Germany was retarded in the process of national unification as compared with Spain, France, England and even Bohemia. Germany had no centralised government and no obvious capital city. The Holy Roman Empire no more than approximated a German national state because it was at once too large, since any European prince was eligible for the highest office, and too small, because of the dominance of the Habsburg dynasty and, by 1519, their huge European and overseas empire.

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Germany was segmented into small and overlapping jurisdictions of princes and bishops. The free cities became entangled in shifting alliances with the territories as well as, for trading purposes, with the Hanseatic League. The knights were a restive class seeking to arrest the waning of their power, and the peasants were likewise restive because they wanted to have a political role commensurate with their economic importance. No government and no class was able to weld Germany into one. Dismembered and retarded, she was derided by the Italians and treated by the papacy as a private cow. Resentment against Rome was more intense than in countries where national governments curbed papal exploitation. The representatives of German nationalism who for several years in some measure affected Luther’s career were Ulrich von Hutten and Franz von Sickingen. Hutten was himself both a knight and a Humanist. He illustrates the diversity of Humanism, which could at once be internationalist in Erasmus, and nationalist in him.

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Hutten did much to create the concept of German nationalism and to construct the picture of the ideal German, who should repel the enemies of the fatherland and erect a culture able to vie with the Italian culture. In the opening stages of Luther’s skirmishes with Eck at Leipzig, Hutten looked on the controversy as a squabble between monks, but he soon realised that Luther’s words had a ring of his own about them. Luther, too, resented the fleecing of Germany, Italian chicanery and duplicity. Luther wished that St Peter’s might lie in ashes rather than that Germany should be despoiled. Hutten’s picture of the Romantic German could be enriched by Luther’s concept of a mystical depth in the German soul exceeding that of other peoples.

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In August 1520 Luther intimated that, due to the promises of support he had received from Hutten and Sickingen, including an offer to ride to his aid with a hundred knights, he would attack the papacy as Antichrist. He also wanted the curia to know that, if by their fulminations he was exiled from Saxony, he would not go to Bohemia, but would find asylum in Germany itself, where he might be more obnoxious than he would be under the surveillance of the prince and fully occupied with his teaching duties. While the assurance of protection from the German knights undoubtedly emboldened him, the source of his courage was not to be found in a sense of immunity. As Roland Bainton has pointed out, the most intrepid revolutionary is the one who has a fear greater than anything his opponents can inflict upon him. Luther, who had trembled before the face of God, had no fear before the face of man. It was at this point, in August 1520, that Luther penned his tract, The Address to the German Nobility, one of several that he wrote during the summer months of that year.

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Franz von Sickengen’s castle, where Hutten also established himself during

the ‘warless winter’ of 1519-20.

The poet laureate read to the illiterate knights from Luther’s German works.

(to be continued…)

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The Christian Church and the Jews: a postscript.   1 comment

A Brief History of the Relationship between Judaism and Christianity over Two Millennia.

In addition to researching the relationship between Christians and Jews in the time when the New Testament was written, and in the millenarian movements of medieval Europe, I found an article summarising the relationship since the first century, by H L Ellison. It helps to fill some of the gaps between the apocalyptic literature of the first century and the twentieth century.

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. Since the first of these, like Paul and other apostles, were Jews, they used the synagogues, both inside and outside Judaea 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, but once Christianity began to diverge, Christians lost the special privileges given to Jews. Jews were specially exempted from taking part in the cult of emperor-worship. Christians also sought this exemption, since they recognised only one God and served one Lord, Jesus Christ. But when the Church became largely composed of Gentiles, it was no longer possible to shelter under the wing of Judaism. Christians refused to offer a pinch of incense on the altar to the divine Emperor, and this was interpreted as being unpatriotic since most people saw it as purely symbolic of loyalty to the Empire. As a result, the Roman attitude to the Christians became less favourable, as they became known for their ‘anti-social’ practices in worship gatherings held now in homes, rather than synagogues. Emperor Nero (54-68) used this developing prejudice against them in order to carry out massacres against them in July 64, scapegoating them for the burning of Rome.

After the Jewish revolts against Rome (AD 66-73) most Christians dissociated themselves from the Jews. The Jewish Christians’ refusal to support the revolts caused them to be regarded as national enemies, at least within Judaea. From this time onwards few Jews were converted to Christianity, as a result. After the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in AD 70, Jews took strong action against Christians in their midst, and anti-Christian additions were made to the synagogue prayers. Although there were Jewish Christians throughout the second century, few of these remained in Jerusalem or Judaea. They had already moved to more northern parts of Palestine by the end of the first century. Increasingly, and especially when the church was recognised by Constantine following his conversion in 312, becoming the accepted state religion by the end of the fourth century, Christians saw in the refusal of the Jews to convert a deliberate hatred of the ‘gospel’ of Jesus Christ. Legal discrimination against them gradually increased, until they were deprived of all rights. Until the time of the French Revolution, there was no distinction between the attitude of the Church and the State towards the Jews.

In the Dark Ages and the Middle Ages, the Jews were exposed to constant harassment, frequent expulsions and periodic massacres. One of the worst examples of the latter occurred, as I have written about elsewhere, during the First Crusade (1096-99) and again in 1320 when Christian millenarianism was at its most vocal and violent. The Jews were banished from England in 1290, from France in 1306, 1322 and finally in 1394. They were given the choice between converting to Christianity or banishment or a violent death. In Spain, the massacres of 1391 led to many ‘Marranos’ to accept Christianity, though often only in name. The Inquisition investigated, with all its horrors, the genuineness of their faith. Only in the Moorish Kingdom of Granada were they treated with tolerance and respect, until they were finally expelled even from there, together with their Muslim defenders, in 1492. Throughout the medieval period, contacts between Christians and Jews were minimal, except when the latter were being massacred. Those who survived these massacres were forced to wear distinctive dress and to live in special streets or districts known as ghettos.

 

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The Renaissance and Reformation enabled a few more learned Christians to revise their opinions and to adopt a more enlightened view of Judaism. But even a theologian like Martin Luther (pictured above) made bitter and despicable attacks on them. In one particularly vulgar tract, he recommended that all the Jews be deported to Palestine. Failing that, they should be forbidden to practise usury, compelled to earn their living on the land, their synagogues should be burned and their books, including the Torah, should be taken away from them. Eventually, Jews were allowed to settle in the more liberal and tolerant Netherlands in 1598, in Hamburg in 1612 and in England in 1656 during Oliver Cromwell’s ‘Commonwealth’.

From 1354, Poland was the chief centre of European Jewry. As the country grew weaker, the Jews were increasingly subjected to the hatred of the Roman Catholic Church and the hostility of the people. When, after 1772, Poland was partitioned, most Polish Jews found themselves under either Roman Catholic Austria or Orthodox Russia. Economic pressure and the Russian massacres (the ‘pogroms’ of 1881-1914) led to the exodus of nearly two million Jews from eastern Europe, mainly to the United States. Meanwhile, the ‘Enlightenment’ of the eighteenth century brought a new attitude towards the Jews throughout most of Europe. In opposing traditional Christian doctrine, many thinkers also attacked long-held prejudices against the Jews. This led to the complete emancipation of French Jews during the French Revolution (1790). By 1914, emancipation had occurred throughout Europe up to the frontiers of the Russian Empire and the Balkan States. In every nation-state, the Jews became fully integrated into mainstream society. Nevertheless, Theodor Herzl, a Hungarian Jew who came to prominence at the end of the nineteenth century, could foresee that this ‘happy’ situation was only a temporary respite from persecution, and therefore began the Zionist movement, demanding a national homeland for the Jewish people.

The first real missionary concern for Jews since the days of the early church was shown by the Moravians and the German Pietists in the first half of the eighteenth century. But there was no major advance until Jewish missions were started in the Church of England in 1809, among Presbyterians in Scotland in 1840, and in the Free Churches in 1842 throughout Britain and Ireland. This general missionary movement spread to other Protestant countries such as Norway. The mass exodus of Jews from eastern Europe to America resulted in further missionary work there. Some Roman Catholics also sought to evangelise among Jews. Most of the converts, however, belonged to the secular fringes of Jewry. This was partly due to the bitter individual, familial and collective memories of the past which meant that the majority of Jews had a deep-seated suspicion of both the motivations of the missionaries and that, even where trust existed, they remained sceptical that attitudes among the general Christian population had really changed.

Of course, Jewish people were proved to be justified in their scepticism. Political acceptance of Jews did not remove the deep-seated popular prejudice with which they were still confronted as a people. This had reasserted itself as early as 1878 when a movement of Antisemitism soon spread throughout the ‘civilised world’. Even in the United States, where the Jews had never been discriminated against, antisemitic feeling took root, often accompanying anti-German feeling in the First World War. In Germany and central Europe, it was given expression by the growth of popular nationalism and anti-communist feeling, and in the rise of National Socialism in Germany in the 1920s and ’30s, which led on to Hitler’s ‘Final Solution’, a ‘Holocaust’ (‘Shoah’ in Hebrew) in which six million Jews, a third of world Jewry, perished. Among those who tried to save Jews from persecution and deportation were many devout and sincere Christians, and their commitment has since been recognised throughout the world, and especially in Israel. Since 1939-45 and the Holocaust, Christians have tended to stress mutual understanding, the removal of prejudices and inter-faith dialogue rather than attempting a direct missionary approach, although some extreme evangelical churches in the United States have recently developed a ‘Christian Zionist’ movement, based on literal interpretations of the apocalyptic literature of the Bible and those ‘prophecies’ which point to the mass conversion of the Jews, and their return to Israel as a pre-requisite for the Second Coming of Jesus as Messiah at the ‘End of Times’. Most ‘mainstream’ churches reject these extreme interpretations, though politicians have been keen to take advantage of them, both in the USA and Israel. At the same time, especially throughout Europe, there has been a further rise in antisemitism, particularly in relation to the ongoing Arab-Israeli Conflict although Arabs, like Jews, are themselves Semitic in ethnic origin. The rise of ‘militant’ Islam has been a major factor in this.

Source:

John H Y Briggs, et. al. (eds.) (1977),  The History of Christianity. Berkhamsted: Lion Publishing.  

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

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

Battle on the Issus in the Alte Pinakothek in Munich.

‘The Rapture’ at the ‘End of Days’:

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

Chapter 14 v 1:

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

Chapter 21 v 2:

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

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

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

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

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

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The ‘Olivet Discourse’:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When you see the city besieged by armies,

be sure the last days of the city have come.

Let those inside her walls escape

and those in the villages stay in the villages.

These are the days of punishment,

the words of the Bible are coming true.

There will be great distress among men

and a terrible time for this people.

They will fall at the point of a sword

and be scattered as captives throughout the world.

Foreign soldiers will tramp the city’s streets

until the world really is God’s world.

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

What Revelation reveals…

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

(British Museum)

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

The Role of Jerusalem in the Early Church:

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

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

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

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

Jewish into Christian Apocalyptic Literature:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eschatology and the Fundamentalist Right in the USA Today:

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

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nazarene heretics:

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

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

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

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

Source: National Geographic, December 2017.

Apocalyptic Poetry:

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

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

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

And did the countenance divine,

Shine forth upon our clouded hills?

And was Jerusalem builded here

Among those dark satanic mills?

 

Bring me my bow of burning gold!

Bring me my arrows of desire!

Bring me my spear! O clouds, unfold!

Bring me my chariot of fire!

 

I will not cease from mental fight,

Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,

Till we have built Jerusalem

In England’s green a pleasant land.

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

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

 

Image result for Jesus messianic secret

 

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

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

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

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

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

Behold, with the clouds of heaven,

there came one like a son of man,

and he came to the Ancient of Days

 and was presented before him.

And to him was given dominion 

and glory and kingdom

that all Peoples, nations and languages

should serve him;

his dominion is an everlasting dominion,

which shall not pass away, 

and his kingdom one

that shall not be destroyed 

(Dan. 7. 13 f.)

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

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

 

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

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

(to be continued…)

 

Who was Martin Luther and why did he ‘rebel’ against the Pope in 1517-18?   Leave a comment

The Eve of the Reformation:

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Traditionally, the Protestant Reformation began on the eve of All Souls’ Day, 31 October 1517. On that day Martin Luther (1483-1536), professor of biblical studies at the newly founded University of Wittenberg in Germany, announced a disputation on indulgences. He stated his argument in Ninety-Five Theses. Though they were heavily academic in both form and content, and were moderate in tone, news of them spread rapidly throughout Germany as soon as they were translated into German and printed. But the 95 Theses were not by any means intended as a call to radical reformation. They were not even a proposal for reform of an abuse of the Church’s power, but were propositions put forward by an earnest university professor for a discussion of the theology of indulgences, the selling of ‘pardons’ by clergy and bankers’ agents in order to collect money for the upkeep and building of churches.

The dealings in indulgences (‘the holy trade’ as it was openly known), had grown into a scandal. To begin with, reformers did not oppose indulgences in their true and original sense – as the merciful release of a penitent sinner from a penance previously imposed by a priest. What they opposed were the additions and perversions which they saw as harmful to the salvation of men, and which infected the everyday practice of the Church. Medieval people had a real dread of the period of punishment in purgatory which was portrayed in great detail in the decorations within their churches. They had no great fear of hell, believing that, if they died forgiven and blessed by their priest, they were guaranteed access through heaven’s gates, the keys to which were held by the pope, as St Peter’s successor. But they feared purgatory’s pains; for the church taught that before they reached heaven they had to be cleansed of every son committed in mortal life. Once penance was made a sacrament, the ordinary person believed that an indulgence assured the shortening of the punishments to be endured after death in purgatory. The relics of the Castle Church in Wittenberg were reckoned to earn a remission of 1,902,202 years and 270 days!

Luther’s Early Life:

More books have been written about Luther, the great German Reformer, than about any other figure in history, except for Jesus Christ. Like the latter, not much is known about the first thirty years or so of his life. He was born at Eisleben and studied law at the University of Leipzig. In 1505 he joined the Augustinian Hermits in Erfurt, after taking a dramatic vow in a thunderstorm, and was ordained in 1507. After studying theology he was sent by his order to the University of Wittenberg to teach moral theology and the Bible. In 1511 he visited Rome on business for his order, and in the same year became a doctor of theology and professor of biblical studies at Wittenberg.

When. as a monk, Luther diagnosed the disease of Christian Europe to be the same as his own spiritual disease, he broke through to the gospel. In his monastery Luther had been searching for God’s pardon and peace. He faithfully obeyed his order, and observed punctiliously the spiritual techniques. Yet he found himself no nearer to God. He began to see that the way of the monk was merely a long discipline of religious duty and effort. Mysticism was an attempt to climb up to heaven. Academic theology was little more than speculation about God, his nature and his character.

Luther found one basic error in all these techniques of finding God. Ultimately they trusted in man’s own ability to get him to God, or at least take him near enough for God to accept him. Luther realised that it was not a matter of God being far from man, and man having to strive to reach him. The reverse was true. Man, created and sinful, was distant from God; God in Christ had come all the way to find him. This was no new truth, but simply the old gospel of grace, which had been overlaid. Luther’s discovery did not represent a break with traditional doctrines. The reformers held, within the Roman Church at first, all the orthodox doctrines stated in the general creeds of the early church, but they also understood these doctrines in the particular context of salvation in Christ alone. From Luther’s rediscovery of the direct and personal relationship between Christ and the believer came the three great principles of the Reformation; the primacy of the Bible as God’s word of authority, justification of the sinner by grace alone, and the belief in the ‘priesthood of all believers’.

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Luther’s views became widely known when he posted the Ninety-Five Theses on the church door at Wittenberg. He attacked the teaching behind the sale of indulgences and the church’s material preoccupations. But he also contrasted the treasures the treasures of the church with its true wealth, the gospel. Indulgences served not merely to dispense the merits of the saints but also to raise revenues. Roland Bainton, in his seminal work, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (1950), referred to them as the bingo of the sixteenth century. The practice had grown out of the crusades, as they were first conferred on those who sacrificed or risked their lives in fighting against the Ottoman Turks and were then extended to those who, unable to go to the Holy Land, made contributions to the enterprise. The device proved so lucrative that it was speedily extended to cover the construction of churches, monasteries, and hospitals. The gothic cathedrals were funded by these means, and even secular projects were financed in this way, including a bridge across the Elbe built by Frederick the Wise. However, indulgences had not degenerated into sheer mercenariness by Luther’s time. Conscientious preachers sought to evoke a sense of sin in the purchaser, and only those genuinely convicted would buy. Nevertheless, for many others, as for Luther, the indulgence traffic was a scandal, with one preacher characterising the requisites of the church as three-fold: contrition, confession and contribution.

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The Indulgence Sale of 1516-17

The cartoon above, by Holbein, makes the point that the handing over of the indulgence letter was so timed as to anticipate the dropping of the money into the coffer. This can be seen in the chamber on the right in which the Pope, Leo X, is enthroned. He is handing a letter of indulgence to a kneeling Dominican friar. In the church stalls on either side are seated a number of church dignitaries. On the right one of them lays his hand upon the head of a kneeling youth and with a stick points to a large iron-bound chest for the contributions, into which a woman is dropping her ‘mite’.  At the table on the left various Dominicans are preparing and dispensing indulgences. One of them repulses a beggar who has nothing to give in exchange, while another is carefully checking the money and withholding the indulgences until the full amount has been received. In contrast, Holbein depicts, on the left, the true repentance of David, Manasseh, and a notorious sinner, who address themselves only to God.

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The indulgences dispensed at Wittenberg served to support the Castle Church and the university. Luther’s attack therefore struck at the revenue of his own institution. The first blow was certainly not the rebellion of an exploited German against the expropriating greed of the Italian papacy. He was simply a simple priest responsible for the souls of his parishioners and therefore felt a keen sense of duty to warn them against the spiritual pitfalls of buying indulgences. As he put it, good works do not make a man good, but a good man does good works. He was determined to preach this, whatever the consequences for the Castle Church and the university. 

In 1517 Luther!s attention was drawn to another instance of the indulgence traffic, this time arising out of the pretensions of the house of Hohenzollern to control both the ecclesiastical and civil life of Germany. Every bishop controlled vast revenues, and some bishops were also princes. Albert of Brandenburg, a Hohenzollern, held the sees of Halberstadt and Magdeburg, and aspired to the archbishopric of Mainz, which would make him the primate of Germany. Albert was confident that money would speak, because the Pope needed it so badly. The pontiff was Leo X, of the House of Medici, whose chief pre-eminence lay in his ability to squander the resources of the Holy See on carnivals, war, gambling and hunting. The Catholic historian Ludwig von Pastor declared that the ascent of this man in an hour of crisis to the chair of St. Peter, a man who scarcely so much as understood the obligations of his high office, was one of the most severe trials to which God ever subjected his Church. Leo was particularly in need of funds to complete a project commenced by his predecessor, the building of the new St. Peter’s. Pope Julius II had begun the work, but though the piers were laid, work had stopped before Julius died and Leo took over.

The negotiations between Albert and the Pope were conducted through the mediation of the German banking-house of Fugger, which exercised monopoly on papal finances in Germany. When the Church needed funds in advance of revenues, she borrowed at usurious rates from the Fuggers, and indulgences were then sold in order to repay the debts, the bankers themselves supervising their collection. They informed Albert that the Pope demanded twelve thousand ducats for the twelve apostles. Albert offered seven for the seven deadly sins, and they compromised on ten, presumably for the Ten Commandments! Albert had to pay the money first, in order to secure his appointment as Archbishop of Mainz, and he borrowed the amount from the Fuggers. To enable Albert to reimburse himself, the Pope granted him the privilege of dispensing an indulgence in his territories for a period of eight years. One half of the returns was to go to the repayment of the Fuggers, and the other half to the Pope.

The indulgences were not offered in Luther’s parish, since the Church could not introduce one without the approval of the civil authorities, and Frederick the Wise would not grant permission in his lands because Wittenberg already had it own indulgences, for All Saints, so the vendors could not enter electoral Saxony, although Luther’s parishioners could go over the border and return with ‘concessions’ which would tempt others to do the same. Subscribers would enjoy a plenary and perfect remission of all sins, as well as restitution to the state of innocence they had enjoyed in baptism and relief from all the pains of purgatory. For those securing indulgences on behalf of the dead, the stages of contrition and confession could be by-passed. Preaching stations, marked by the Cross (see below) were set up so that all might contribute according to their capacity to pay. There was a set fee for each level in the feudal hierarchy, and soon so much money was going into the coffer of the vendor that new coins had to be minted on the spot.

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Those without even a single florin to give were allowed to contribute through prayer and fasting, so it is incorrect to suggest that the very poor were stripped of all coinage. The proclamation of the indulgence was entrusted to the Dominican Tetzel, an experienced vendor. When he approached a town, he was met by the civic dignitaries, who then entered with him in solemn procession. A cross bearing the papal arms preceded him, and the pope’s bull of indulgence was borne aloft on a gold-embroidered velvet cushion. The cross was solemnly planted in the market place, and a lengthy sermon began, in which the children of departed were implored to open their ears to their parent’s pleading from purgatory:

We bore you, nourished you, brought you up, left you our fortunes, and you are so cruel that now you are not willing for so little to set us free. Will you let us lie here in flames? Will you delay our promised glory.

The assembled were then reminded that for just a quarter of a florin they could secure the instant release of their beloved dead from the ‘flames’ and the transition of their souls into the ‘fatherland of paradise’. Tetzel used a familiar rhyming couplet to bring this home to even the most uneducated among them:

As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, 

The soul from purgatory springs.

Luther’s returning parishioners even reported Tetzel to have said that the papal indulgences could absolve a man who had violated the Mother of God, and that the cross emblazoned with the papal arms set up by the vendors was equal to the cross of Christ. The cartoon (below), published by one of Luther’s followers sometime later, shows the cross in the centre empty of all save the nail holes and the crown of thorns. More prominent beside it stood the papal arms above the preacher, and the Medici balls above the vendor, hawking his wares in the foreground.

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The Ninety-Five Theses:

So, on the eve of All Souls, 1517, when Frederick the Wise would offer his indulgences, Luther decided to speak out by posting, in accordance with the current practice, a printed placard in Latin on the door of the Castle Church. It consisted of ninety-five theses, or propositions, intended for academic dispute and debate. He directed his attack solely against Tetzel’s reputed sermon, not against Albert of Brandenburg’s transaction. Pope Sixtus IV had set a precedent on promising the immediate release of souls from purgatory, so Tetzel’s jingle did not represent a departure from accepted teaching within the Church, resting on papal authority.  However, Luther’s Theses differed from the normal use of propositions for debate in tone rather than content, crafted as they were in anger. The ninety-five ‘affirmations’ are crisp, bold and unqualified. In the discussions which followed, he explained his meaning more fully. There were three main points: an objection to the avowed object of the expenditure, the basilica of St Peter’s in Rome; a denial of the pope’s powers over purgatory, and a pastoral concern for the welfare of the individual sinner.

The attack focused first on the ostensible intent to spend the money in order to shelter the bones of St Peter and St Paul beneath a universal shrine for all Christendom. We Germans cannot attend St Peters, he wrote, suggesting that the pope would do better to appoint one good pastor and give the money to the poor folk who are being fleeced by the hawkers of indulgences. Certainly, he argued, it should never be built our parochial churches be despoiled. This went down well with the Germans, who had been suffering a sense of grievance for some time against what they saw as the corrupt practices of the Italian curia, whilst overlooking those of the German confederates. Luther himself accepted this distortion by ignoring the fact that much of the money collected by Albert was going into the coffers of the Fuggers, rather than to Rome. However, Luther was not concerned so much with the details of the financial transaction as with undermining the whole practice, even if not a single gulden was to leave Wittenberg.

His second point denied the power of the pope over purgatory for the remission of either sin or penalty for sin. The absolution of sin, in his view, was something that could only be given to the contrite sinner in the sacrament of penance:

Papal indulgences do not remove guilt. Beware of those who say that indulgences effect reconciliation with God. The power of the keys cannot make attrition into contrition. He who is contrite has plenary remission of guilt and penalty without indulgences. The pope can remove only those penalties which he himself has imposed on earth, for Christ did not say, “whatsoever I have bound in heaven you may loose on earth.”

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Luther argued that the penalties of purgatory could not be reduced by the pope because they had been imposed by God, and the pope did not have at his disposal a treasury of credits available for transfer. Thus far, Luther’s attack could in no sense be regarded as heretical or original. Even though Albert’s actions rested on papal bulls, there had as yet been no definitive pronouncement, and many contemporary theologians would have endorsed Luther’s claims. It was his doctrine on salvation which represented a departure from traditional Catholic teaching:

Indulgences are positively harmful to the recipient because they impede salvation by diverting charity and inducing a false sense of security. Christians should be taught that he who gives to the poor is better than he who receives a pardon. He who spends his money for indulgences instead of relieving want receives not the indulgences of the pope but the indignation of God… Love covers a multitude of sins and is better than all the pardons of Jerusalem and Rome… Christians should be encouraged to bear the cross. He who is baptised into Christ must be as a sheep to the slaughter. The merits of Christ are vastly more potent when they bring crosses than when they bring remissions.

The Road to Augsburg and back:

Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses ranged in scope all the way from the complaints of aggrieved Germans to the cries of a wrestler in the night watches. One portion demanded financial relief, the other called for the crucifixion of the self. The masses could grasp the first. Only a few elect spirits would ever comprehend fully the importance of the second. Yet it was in the second that the power lay to create a popular revolution. Complaints of financial extortion had been voiced for more than a century to no great effect. Men were stirred to deeds only by one who regarded indulgences not only as corrupt, but as blasphemy against the holiness and mercy of God.

Neither did Luther intend to start a popular revolution. He took no steps to spread his theses among the people. He was merely inviting scholars to dispute with him, but others surreptitiously translated the theses into German and gave them to the printing presses. They soon became the talk of Germany. Luther had meant them for those most concerned with the indulgence controversy in his part of the country, divided as it was into many ‘independent’ territories and cities within the Empire.  He had sent a copy to Albert of Mainz, along with the following letter:

Father in Christ and Most Illustrious Prince, forgive me that I, the scum of the earth, should dare to approach Your Sublimity.  The Lord Jesus is my witness that I am well aware of my insignificance and my unworthiness. I make so bold because of the office and fidelity which I owe to Your Paternity. May Your Highness look upon this speck of dust and hear my plea for clemency from you and from the pope.

These words, so many of them beginning with obsequious capitals, were hardly those of a revolutionary. Luther then reported what he had heard about Tetzel’s preaching that through indulgences men are promised remission not only of penalty but also of guilt. Nevertheless, rather than simply reading the theses and replying, as Luther requested, Albert chose to forward them to Rome. Pope Leo is credited with making two comments, neither of which can be claimed as authentic, but both of which can be claimed to be revealing in what they tell us as legends. The first was, Luther is a drunken German. He will feel different when he is sober, and the second was, Friar Martin is a brilliant chap. The whole row is due to the envy of the monks. If Luther was not a drunken German, he was certainly an irate one, who might be amenable if mollified. If the pope had issued his bull of a year later, clearly defining the doctrine of indulgences and correcting the most glaring abuses, Luther might have given way. During the four years in which his case was pending, his letters reveal no great preoccupation with the dispute. Instead, he continued to be fully engrossed in his duties in the university and his parish.

Yet the pope preferred to snuff out the opposition by appointing a new general of the Augustinians who would quench a monk of his order, Martin Luther by name, and thus smother the fire before it should become a conflagration. In December 1517 the Archbishop of Mainz complained to Rome about Luther. Luther felt constrained to declare himself more fully to the general public, since his Ninety-Five Theses had, by the spring of 1518, been published throughout the German states and read in German, though he had intended them only for fellow scholars. The many bald assertions called for further explanation and clarification. However, his summaries of sermons, The Resolutions Concerning the Ninety-Five Theses also contained some new points. In particular, he had made the discovery that the biblical text from the Latin Vulgate, used to support the sacrament of penance, was a mis-translation.  The Latin for Matthew 4:17 read as “do penance”, but from the Greek New Testament of Erasmus, Luther had learned that the original phrase meant simply “be penitent”. The literal sense of the verb “to repent” was “to change one’s mind”. That was all that was necessary for the sinner to be granted forgiveness by God.

In his dedication of the Resolutions, written to his mentor Staupitz, Luther described how, fortified with this passage, I venture to say that they are wrong who make more of the act in Latin than of the change of heart in Greek. This became what he called his glowing discovery. What he had discovered was something far more radical than his objections to indulgences, though arising from them and from his doctrine of salvation. He had discovered that one of the chief sacraments of the Church did not have any basis in scripture. From this point on, it was on the scriptures that he based his challenges to the Church’s practices.  He also questioned whether the Roman Church was above the Greek Church in authority. This was to claim that the primacy of the Roman Church was simply a historical development, or even an accident of history, rather than a result of divine ordination reaching back to the founding of the universal Church. The pope responded by banning Luther who, in turn, preached on the ban declaring that excommunication and reconciliation affect only the fellowship of the earth and not the grace of God. These alleged statements were printed by opponents and shown at the imperial diet to the papal legates, who were rumoured to have sent them to Rome. Luther was informed that, this time, the damage was inestimable. He wrote out and printed what he could remember of his sermon, but this only served to underline his rejection of the pope’s authority to sever spiritual communion. Quoting Paul’s epistle to the Romans, he stated that no creature can separate the believer from the love of Christ.

The printed sermon was not off the press until the end of August. In the meantime, the pope turned away from Luther’s own order, the Augustinians, and towards the Dominicans, to produce a reply to Luther’s reported statements. They asserted that the Roman Church was one and the same with the universal Church in terms of its authority.  The leadership of Church might consist of cardinals, but ultimate authority lay in the pope. Just as the universal Church could not err on matters of faith and morals, nor could the Roman Church, either in its true councils nor in the pope when he was speaking in his official capacity. Whoever did not accept the doctrine of the Roman Church and its pontiff as the infallible rule of faith from which sacred Scripture derived its strength and authority was a heretic, so that anyone who declared that, in matters of indulgences, the Roman Church could not do what it decided to do, was also a heretic. The Dominicans proceeded to refute Luther’s errors, describing him in the colourful colloquialisms of the time, as a leper with a brain of brass and a nose of iron. Luther retorted in kind:

I am sorry now that I despised Tetzel. Ridiculous as he was, he was more acute than you. You cite no Scripture. You give no reasons. Like an insidious devil you pervert the Scriptures. You say that the Church consists virtually in the pope. What abominations will you not have to regard as the deeds of the Church?… You call me a leper because I mingle truth with error. I am glad you admit there is some truth. You make the pope into an emperor in power and violence. The Emperor Maximilian and the Germans will not tolerate this.

The radicalism of this tract lay not in its invective, however, but in its affirmation that the pope and a council of cardinals might err, and that final authority lay in Scripture. Yet again, prior to the appearance of his declaration, the pope had already taken precipitate action. On the seventh of August, Luther received a citation to appear at Rome to answer charges of heresy and ‘contumacy’ (insubordination). He was given sixty in which to make his appearance. The following day Luther wrote to the elector to remind him of the previous assurance that the case would not be taken to Rome. This began a tortuous series of negotiations culminating in Luther’s hearing before the Diet of Worms in April 1521. The main significance of that event was that an assembly of the German nation came to function as a court of the Catholic Church. The four years leading up to this were merely a prelude to the main act of the Protestant Reformation.

Luther’s plea to the elector was transmitted via Frederick’s court chaplain, George Spalatin. Frederick opened negotiations with Cardinal Cajetan, the papal legate, to give Luther a personal hearing in connection with the forthcoming meeting of the imperial diet at Augsburg. The hearing was to be private, and not before the diet, but would at least be on German soil. Cajetan was a high papalist of integrity and erudition. He could scarcely tolerate Luther’s recent tracts, and was less inclined to moderation because the Emperor had been incensed by the excerpts from the reputed Sermon on the Ban and had himself taken the initiative on the fifth of August in writing to the pope to set a stop to the most perilous attack of Martin Luther on indulgences lest not only the people but even the princes be seduced. With the emperor, the pope and the cardinal against him Luther had only a slender hope of escaping the fate of Jan Hus, being burnt at the stake.

He began his physical journey to Augsburg with grave misgiving. He was in grave danger, far greater than three years later when he went to Worms as the champion of the German nation. In 1518 he was only an Augustinian eremite accused of heresy. He saw the stake ahead and told himself, Now I must die; What a disgrace I shall be to my parents! On the road he contracted an intestinal infection and almost fainted. Even more disconcerting was the recurring doubt as to whether the taunt of his critics might after all be right, Are you alone wise and all the ages in error? Luther’s friends had advised him not to enter Augsburg without a guarantee of safe-conduct, and Frederick eventually obtained one from Emperor Maximillian. Cajetan, on being told of this, was incensed, declaring If you don’t trust me, why do you ask my opinion, and if you do why is a safe-conduct necessary? But there was indeed a severe threat to Luther’s life, as the correspondence between cardinals, the pope and the elector Frederick show. The two letters, both written on the seventh of October 1518, reveal that the papal authorities were determined that Luther should be placed in the hands and under the jurisdiction of the Holy See. Cajetan’s instructions were also quite clear in this regard. He was limited to inquiry into Luther’s teaching, and was not permitted to enter into discussion with him.

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Three interviews took place – on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday the twelfth to the fourteenth of October. Staupitz was among those present. On the first day Cajetan informed him that he must recant. Luther answered that he had not made the arduous journey to Augsburg to do what he could have done in Wittenberg. Instead, he asked to be instructed as to his errors. When the cardinal answered that the chief of these was his denial of the Church’s treasury of merit, the doctrine of 1343 that Christ’s sacrifice acquired a treasure which, through the power of the keys, had been placed at the disposal of Peter and his successors in order to release the faithful from temporal penalties. Luther’s reply was both rude and irrelevant, but Cajetan realised that he was in danger of going beyond his instructions in debating the whole concept of the treasury of the surplus merits of Christ and the saints. Luther was trapped because he must either recant or give an acceptable interpretation to the bull of 1343. Since he had already refused to recant, he requested to be able to submit a statement in writing, adding that they had wrangled quite enough. Cajetan retorted, My son, I did not wrangle with you. I am ready to reconcile you with the Roman Church. But since reconciliation was only possible through recantation, Luther protested that he ought not to be condemned unheard and unrefuted:

I am not conscious of going against Scripture, the fathers, the decretals, or right reason. I may be in error. I will submit to the judgement of the universities of Basel, Freiburg, Louvain and, if need be, of Paris.

Again, these were undiplomatic words, aimed at challenging the cardinal’s jurisdiction. Luther then shifted ground on the content of the ‘charge’ by rejecting the authority of the pope who had formulated the decretal, or bull:

I am not so audacious that for the sake of a single obscure and ambiguous decretal of a human pope I would recede from so many and such clear testimonies of divine Scripture. For, as one of the canon lawyers has said, ‘in a matter of faith not only is a council above a pope but any one of the faithful, if armed with better authority and reason’.

The cardinal reminded Luther that Scripture itself had to be interpreted, and that the pope had to act as interpreter. In so doing, he was above a council and everything else in the Church. Luther retorted that his Holiness abuses Scripture and that he denied that the pope was above Scripture. At this, Cajetan flared up and bellowed at Luther that he should leave and never return unless he was willing to recant. Luther wrote home that the cardinal was no more fitted to handle the case than an ass was suited to play on a harp. Before long, the cartoonists took up this theme (see below), picturing the pope himself in this pose. Cajetan soon cooled off and had dinner with Staupitz, over which he urged him to induce Luther to recant. Staupitz answered that he had often tried to moderate Luther, but that he was not equal to him in ability and command of Scripture. As the pope’s representative, it was up to the cardinal to press the case. Staupitz then released Luther from his vow of obedience to the order. He may have wished to relieve the Augustinians of the responsibility for their friar, or he may have wished to release the restraints on him, but Luther himself felt that he had been disowned. He later joked that he was excommunicated three times, first by Staupitz, secondly by the pope and thirdly by the emperor.

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Luther fled the town when summoned to Rome. He complained that the citation to Rome  would submit him to the Dominicans and that Rome would not be a safe place even with a safe-conduct. Even Pope Leo had recently been the object of a poisonous conspiracy. In any case, as a mendicant, Luther had no funds for the journey. He wrote:

I feel that I have not justice because I teach nothing save what is in the Scripture. Therefore I appeal from Leo badly informed to Leo better informed.

Rumour then reached Luther that the cardinal was empowered to arrest him. The gates of the city were being guarded. With the help of friendly citizens, Luther escaped by night, fleeing in such haste that he had to ride horseback in his cowl without breeches, spurs, stirrups or a sword. He arrived in Nürnberg where he was shown the pope’s instructions to Cajetan. On the thirtieth of October, almost a full year after posting the Ninety-Five Theses, Luther was back in the sanctuary of Wittenberg.

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What was the significance of Luther’s Protest?

Luther saw that the trade in indulgences was wholly unwarranted by Scripture, reason or tradition. It encouraged a man in his sin, and tended to turn his mind away from Christ and from God’s forgiveness. It was on this point that Luther’s theology contrasted sharply with that of the church. The pope claimed authority ‘to shut the gates of hell and open the door to paradise’. An obscure monk challenged that authority. His contemporaries knew at once that Luther had touched the exposed nerve of both the hierarchy of the church and the everyday practice of Christianity. Christian Europe was never the same again, but in 1518 there was nothing to indicate that it was about to undergo a revolutionary change in both its religious and secular institutions and life. The only prediction that many were making on All Souls’ Eve in 1518 was that Martin Luther would soon be burnt at the stake. This was also the friar’s own prediction.

Luther’s discovery about the meaning of penitence led him to the belief that the believer came into a direct relationship and union with Christ, as the one, only and all-sufficient source of grace. His grace is available to the penitent believer by the power of the Holy Spirit, through the preaching of the Word of God. This eventually did away with the need for the Virgin as mediator, the clergy as priests and the departed saints as intercessors. In fact, the reformers were never innovators, as the papacy was so often to allege, but renovators. What they removed were the medieval innovations of Rome, in favour of the teachings of the Bible and the doctrines of the early Christian theologians.

 

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