We welcome to the pages of Catholica today Dr Brian Gleeson with the first of a series of commentaries looking at the Jewish world in which the historical Jesus lived. Dr Gleeson submitted this series not so much as a direct rebutal of the ideas Vynette Holliday presented in her lead commentary yesterday but as a set of ideas to be considered in parallel with the very similar territory Vynette has indicated she is intending to explore in her series.
The first thing that needs to be said about Jesus is that he is not a twenty-first century person like us but a first-century one. So for us his story will be full of strange people and parties, unfamiliar places and customs, and conflicts and debates which may strike us as rather odd and pointless. But the more we want to know about him, the more we need to know about his world of persons, places and concerns, the world in which he lived his entire life. Thomas Yoder Neufeld makes the wise observation:
While scholars disagree on exactly how to understand the Judaism of Jesus's day, they have no doubt that our understanding of Jesus, what he said, why he acted as he did, and how others would have viewed him and spoken about him, is greatly enhanced by knowing something about his world.
The Jewish world of Jesus, then, is the subject of this presentation.
SETTING THE SCENE...
Donald Senior sets the scene for the public life and work of Jesus with this sparkling word-picture:
Jesus, as the gospels tell it, seems to conduct his ministry in a mobile arena constantly ringing with debate: Pharisees, Scribes, Sadducees, Herodians, high priests, elders. There is talk of ritual washing of hands and of numerous subtleties of Sabbath law. Around the circle of the arena swirl the crowds — some curious, some grateful, some pleading, publicans, sinners, tax collectors, prostitutes, fishermen, lawyers, the sick and disabled. Ominous rumblings break through the din in the arena to suggest a backdrop of imminent political crisis: a Roman prefect sits in judgment in the Jewish capital city; a Jewish vassal king rules the northern region of Galilee. We hear of rebels and riots, of executions and punishment. We sense the tension of a land occupied by a foreign power. Well-worn prejudices flash frequently into speech and gesture: Galileans are mocked for their accent; Nazareth is called a city with no expectations; Samaritans are feared, hated, and avoided.
Then there are the places connected with the life and activities of Jesus, places we know merely by name for the most part, but which were very real for Jesus and his associates: Capernaum, Jericho, Bethany, Jerusalem, Emmaus, Tiberias, Caesarea, the Decapolis or the "Ten Cities”, Tyre and Sidon. Then there is the face of the land of Jesus: the mountains and hills to which he retreated, the desert, the River Jordan, the ever-present Lake of Galilee and its surrounding rich farmland. These references may have been as unfamiliar to the evangelists as they are to us, but they illustrate the truth that the story of Jesus is neither fable nor legend, but of a man alive and active in time and place. A good deal of what Jesus thought, said and did was influenced by the culture and situation that surrounded him. Getting to know and appreciate his world is to take seriously our belief in his incarnation.
THE ORIGIN OF JESUS...
In distinct ways, each gospel reflects on the origin of Jesus. Mark begins his version at the edge of the Judean desert at the point where the River Jordan flows into the Dead Sea (Mk 1:1-11). Here one day the adult Jesus, aged about thirty, comes to join the crowds who have come out to listen to the fiery prophet John the Baptist preaching his threatening message about the approaching end of the world and the need to repent. Jesus himself goes into the water with them for baptism, and when he emerges he begins his own powerful ministry.
By contrast John the Evangelist reaches back into the life of God before creation and time began. There he locates the ultimate origin of Jesus (Jn 1:1-18). One day in time, the eternal "word" of love that God speaks comes down to earth. His "word" is spoken into the flesh and blood of Jesus of Nazareth. So, in John's view, the life and ministry of Jesus has begun in the timeless love of God for the world and its peoples.
Matthew and Luke
Matthew and Luke, each in his own way, trace the human origins of Jesus to the history and life of Israel. In his genealogy, Matthew tracks the origins of Jesus from Abraham the patriarch through David the king to Mary and Joseph of Nazareth. The story of the homage by the Gentile Magi from the East coupled with hostility and rejection from Jewish leaders, already suggests the fate of the adult Jesus.
Luke's presentation of the family ties of Jesus is somewhat different. For Luke, his family connections are with the good and devout Jews such as the humble priest Zachary and his wife Elizabeth, the parents of John the Baptist, and with his faith-filled human mother Mary and foster-father and legal-father Joseph. Luke also places him in the company of the poor shepherds of the Christmas story and of the elderly prophets Simeon and Anna. Luke also anticipates his future destiny with his story of the visit of the child Jesus to the temple in Jerusalem where he astonishes the teachers with his own wisdom.
Both Matthew and Luke are emphasising that Jesus is no disembodied spirit; they situate him in the history of a real people — their pain, their joy, their fidelity and their infidelity. For all their differences, one important feature that Matthew and Luke have in common is their stress on his conception and birth from the Virgin Mary. Biblical scholar, Daniel Harrington, makes some interesting observations about the family of Jesus:
According to Mark 6:3 and Matthew 13:55-56, Jesus had four "brothers” named James, Joses (or Joseph), Judas and Simon, as well as several "sisters.” Since the second and third centuries these "brothers” and "sisters” have been explained in various ways – as full siblings of Jesus, as Joseph's children from an earlier marriage or as relatives (possibly cousins) who lived in the same area. The first explanation conflicts with the Church's tradition about Mary's perpetual virginity, while the other two do not.
Land shapes people and their history. Israel or Palestine (as the Romans called it after its original inhabitants, the Philistines) was a small territory on the world map at the time of Jesus. In his time it was part of the Roman Empire. It was a narrow rectangular strip along the Mediterranean Sea in the East, hardly one hundred and fifty miles long and only fifty to sixty miles wide at its broadest point. Its strategic importance for powerful empire builders was out of proportion to its size. It was a corridor for the expansion of Syria and Persia towards the west and of Egypt towards the east. It was later the scene of the expansion eastward of Greece and then Rome. Donald Senior remarks: "Israel was a land tattooed with the invader's boot." But because of the presence of Jesus and that of many other biblical figures it is often referred to as the "Holy Land". It is "held sacred by the three religions that trace their roots to Abraham: Judaism, Christianity and Islam".
Much of the land is rough and craggy. Its backbone is one of mountain humps rising to 9000 feet in the north. On each side of the central ridge the surface gradually tapers into flat land, an arable coastal strip on the west and barren desert to the east. It's ironic that the Bible should call it "the land of milk and honey". The River Jordan begins in the high mountains of the north, widens suddenly into the Sea of Galilee, narrows again along the border of the desert until it spills into the brackish salt waste of the Dead Sea, the lowest point on earth. Galilee, the northern region around the lake, the home of Jesus for most of his life, is a lush land of rolling hills. The plain of Gennesareth on the lake's western side is rich and fertile. The lake, well-stocked with fish, has supported a thriving fish industry across centuries, including the time of Jesus, when pickled and dried fish were exported throughout the Roman Empire. Nazareth, the home town of Jesus, was a small village perched on hillsides and overlooking a vast fertile plain through which commerce flowed constantly from both east and west. In his day Galilee had a mixed population of Jews and Gentiles.
Judea is the craggy and dry southern region that spreads westward from the Dead Sea through the mountains. At its heart is Jerusalem. Perched on a cluster of high hills it has been the capital city of Israel ever since David, about a thousand years before Jesus, captured it from the Jebusites and made it the centre and capital of his united kingdom. It became the seat of religious and political power and the trading centre of Israel. Yoder Neufeld says of David:
In popular Israelite and later Jewish thinking, David remained the ideal king. He played a large role in the expectations many Jews had during the time of Jesus: when God finally liberates his people he will send someone in David's lineage — a messiah. In fact, Jesus is sometimes called "son of David" (e.g. Matt. 1:1; 9:27; 22:42; Luke 1:32)
His famous son, Solomon, built the Temple. Between Galilee of the north and Judea of the south was Samaria, a region of rough and often barren land that divided Israel both geographically and ideologically.
The Synoptics (Mark, Matthew and Luke) describe Jesus as making one journey only to Jerusalem, an epic and fateful one from Galilee to the capital, where, like the prophets before him, he was to suffer and die. They present it as a theological odyssey, in which Jesus instructs his disciples along the way on the meaning of discipleship and suffering. John, on the other hand, has Jesus visiting Jerusalem at least three times during his public life. The drama of a single, fateful journey is blunted. But all evangelists agree that Galilee was the main scene for his ministry. It is Galilee's scenery that provides the beautiful imagery for his teachings on the sower, the birds of the air, the lilies of the field, the well-stocked barns, and the fishing nets filled to breaking-point.
What are your thoughts on this commentary?
©2010Dr Brian Gleeson CP