Toward Understanding the New Testament
Obert C. Tanner, Lewis M. Rogers, Sterling M. McMurrin
The Calling and Discipleship
[p.106]In Luke’s Gospel the stories of the healing of the centurion’s slave, the raising of the widow’s son in Nain, the questioning about Jesus’s messianic credentials by John the Baptist, and the anointing of Jesus by the sinful woman follow chronologically the Sermon on the Plain (Lk 6:20-49).1 There is a question whether Luke attaches some special significance to the sequence of these seemingly random events. Are they simply early events in the Galilean ministry or is there a theme which joins the stories as a unit with the Sermon on the Plain? Some scholars assume that in Luke’s view no single event or combination of circumstances shaped the course of Jesus’s messianic program. They contend that following his sermon an inner power or necessity moved Jesus to visit the towns and villages of Galilee.2 According to this view, Jesus’s ministry was forecast by his statement in the synagogue in Nazareth: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me. …” Then, at the conclusion of his reading, he said to those assembled, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Lk 4:18, 21).
Jesus and the Gentiles
In Luke’s account, when Jesus finished his sermon he went to Capernaum, where he was approached by a Roman centurion whose slave was near death from sickness.
When he heard of Jesus, he sent to him elders of the Jews, asking him to come and heal his slave. And when they came to Jesus, they [p.107]besought him earnestly, saying, “He is worthy to have you do this for him, for he loves our nation, and he built us our synagogue.” (Lk 7:3-5)
The centurion was a Roman officer, the captain of a hundred men, who perhaps served under Herod Antipas. The Roman government provided military or police support for the Herods because the Jews, by agreement with Rome, were exempt from military service. The centurion may well have been one of the large number of gentiles who were called “godfearers,” those who were not full Jewish proselytes but were nevertheless attracted to Judaism as a religion, especially its monotheism and strong moral teachings.
Matthew also recounted the incident, but earlier in his chronology of events. In this account, the centurion spoke directly to Jesus regarding his servant (Mt 8:5-13). In Luke the centurion communicated through others, possibly to gain benefit from their intercession. Or perhaps the centurion had others plead his cause because of a sense of personal unworthiness. The centurion’s deference to Jesus and his conviction of Jesus’s power to heal demonstrated for Luke a supreme expression of faith. Jesus was impressed by this trust, saying to those present, “not even in Israel have I found such faith” (Lk 7:9).3
How is Jesus’s acceptance of the faith of a gentile, and particularly a Roman officer, to be understood? Does this account, as it stands, accurately represent Jesus’s intent to broaden the vision of the kingdom to include gentiles? Or does it express a liberal attitude attributed to Jesus by Luke, whose Gospel expressed the more ecumenical Christian interests of later years? Some of those who hold this latter view regard the account as an effort by the early church to improve Roman-Christian relations and present Christianity as a universal religion.
When John the Baptist’s disciples advised him of Jesus’s activities in Capernaum and Nain, John sent two of them to Jesus to [p.108]ask, “Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?” (Lk 7:19). John had been imprisoned by Herod Antipas in the fortress of Machaerus in the mountains east of the Dead Sea. Luke attributed the imprisonment of John chiefly to his reproving Herod Antipas for marrying Herodias, the divorced wife of his half-brother Philip (Lk 3:19f). Under Levitical law this marriage was not legal because Philip was still living. The Jewish historian Josephus held that Antipas feared John because of the political implications of his preaching, which could conceivably lead his followers to acts of rebellion against the state.4 Apparently, some liberty was granted to John in prison, for he seems to have been able to communicate with his followers. In response to the inquiry from John’s disciples, Jesus did not present a lengthy statement or make any explicit claim. He said simply, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them” (Lk 7:22). In Luke’s view these statements were a summary of the messianic program. Jesus’s reply was a reminder to John of Jesus’s fulfillment of the messianic predictions found in Isaiah.5 Clearly, Jesus is identified as the Messiah by his deeds; for Luke, nothing could have been more convincing.
The Scribes and Pharisees
Some Pharisees and scribes seem to have listened to the conversation between Jesus and John’s disciples. Some of these no doubt regarded John as a religious fanatic. Historically, the scribes (Soferim) were the spiritual successors of the biblical Ezra, who [p.109]lived in the fifth century BCE. Following Ezra’s time, as the accepted teachers and interpreters of the Law, they were of major importance in adapting the strict requirements of Torah-religion to the daily life of the people.6 In the Jewish view, all law—civic and criminal, social and economic—was founded upon Torah; hence, the scribes were engaged in an essentially religious task. Their activities were apparently often similar to those of the Pharisees, and some scribes were Pharisees (Mk 2:16; Acts 22:9). The interest of the Pharisees and scribes in John the Baptist and Jesus is entirely understandable when one considers their importance in the religion and life of the Jews.
When Jesus praised John, saying there was no greater prophet than John, those who heard him, even the tax collectors, praised God, for they had already accepted John’s baptism. But the Pharisees and scribes refused to accept the message of either John or Jesus. Jesus compared them to spoiled children whom nothing seemed to satisfy. For the Pharisees and scribes, John the Baptist was an overbearing fanatic and Jesus an overindulging socialite who associated with sinners. As one writer so aptly put it: they “found John too unsociable to be sane and Jesus too sociable to be moral.”7
It is now generally recognized that the Gospel writers often described the Pharisees and scribes in prejudicial terms that distorted the true character of Jewish religious leadership. Moreover, the positive relation of Jesus to these leaders is commonly ignored or at least minimized. The Gospel of Mark, especially, calls favorable attention to the Pharisees and Luke gives an account of Jesus receiving and accepting an invitation to dine at home with a Pharisee, Simon (Lk 7:36-50). There is convincing evidence that beyond participation in the synagogue service, Jesus seems to have [p.110]had friendly relationships with at least some Jewish religious leaders.
While Jesus was dining with the Pharisee at his table, an uninvited woman apparently well known in Capernaum as either a prostitute or an adulteress, joined the company. Jewish homes were opened on certain occasions to admit friends who wanted to talk as well as beggars who were in need. The host would ordinarily greet his guest with gestures of hospitality and furnish water to bathe his feet. Marked respect was shown to special guests by furnishing ointment for their heads. The uninvited woman provided these tokens for Jesus, signs of welcome which Simon the Pharisee had apparently neglected. She knelt before Jesus and as an act of respect and devotion anointed his feet with ointment. Sensing that Simon was disturbed that he would accept the ministrations of such a person, Jesus said to him, “I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much” (Lk 7:47).
Simon flinched at this contact with the woman, blinded by his own rigid attitude toward sinners: “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is” (Lk 7:39). According to Luke, Simon saw only a sinner; Jesus saw a person who, though judged to be a sinner, openly acknowledged her faithful devotion to his cause. She knew Jesus, and he perceived that although she had been a sinner her regeneration had already begun. “Your sins are forgiven.”8 That Jesus would presume to forgive the woman of her sins and announce that her sins were forgiven was unquestionably a shock to those present. Neither the prophets nor the rabbis had assumed the prerogative and authority for forgiving sins.
When Jesus completed his ministry in Capernaum, he made his way through Galilee proclaiming the coming of the Kingdom of God. According to Luke there were women among those who [p.111]accompanied him (Lk 8:2f). The Jewish women of that day were rarely allowed to participate in important affairs, yet Jesus not only included them in his company but apparently considered them essential to the establishment of the Kingdom.9 As her name indicates, Mary called Magdalene, was from Magdala, a place on the west shore of the Sea of Galilee.10 She was now giving her time and money in support of Jesus’s cause, for she had been sick, according to Luke, possessed of evil spirits, and Jesus had cured her. Two other women mentioned by Luke, Susanna and Joanna, probably had property of their own. Joanna was the wife of a steward of Herod Antipas who no doubt occupied an important post in relation to Herod’s estates (Lk 8:3). The expenses of Jesus’s expanding mission were no doubt being met by contributions.
Jesus’s popularity and fame and the consequent opposition to him by some religious leaders were addressed by each of the synoptic writers. But the failure of even his closest disciples to “see”—to grasp his true nature and to realize fully the meaning of his message—is most evident in Mark. A large and excited crowd had gathered about Jesus. Some members of his own family thought Jesus had lost his mind and had become mentally irresponsible; apparently they mistook his zeal for God as some form of madness. Scribes from Jerusalem who were in the crowd accused him of casting out demons by the power of Beelzebul.11 Jesus challenged this malicious charge, attempting to show by metaphoric parable how false it was. “How can Satan cast out Satan?” How can one who relieves the distressed, one who drives out the evil [p.112]spirits, be in league with Satan? (Mk 3:23). The doer cannot be separated from his works. “No one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man” (Mk 3:27). Satan cannot prevail because his kingdom is divided against itself. Mark’s picture of Jesus was of one who will bind and defeat Satan by rescuing those who are under his dominion.
Apparently Jesus’s family heard of the crowds and the disturbance which he seemed to create. It must have been difficult, particularly for those closest to him, to understand why he opposed with such vigor the established traditions and authorities. Perhaps they feared that he was too ambitious for his own good. In any event, he was told that his mother and brothers were seeking him.12 His response before the crowd, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” must have been both surprising and shocking to his listeners (Mk 3:33). If authentic, this reply seems harsh and insensitive, and many Christian historians and theologians have attempted to soften it with varying interpretations of its meaning. To those who were with him, Jesus answered his own question, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister, and mother” (Mk 3:34f). This was a strong and direct statement that expressed his concept of the Kingdom of God; it affirmed that relationships within the kingdom transcend familial ties.
Jesus’s proclamation of the kingdom dominated his entire ministry. The values associated with the kingdom superseded those of the established social institutions of his time, not excepting even the values of family and intimate social experience. His message at this point seems to be not only unduly stern but almost indifferent to much that is commonly held to be of worth. Certainly it did not express the sentimentality which nineteenth-century romantics commonly ascribed to Jesus and which is even now a typical image of him.
[p.113]Almost from the beginning Jesus’s efforts were opposed and often misunderstood by those closest to him as well as by those from various prestigious religious and political groups. Most evident in the Gospel accounts is the opposition of the Pharisees, a powerful religious party whose historical roots may go back as far as the Babylonian Exile (586-38 BCE) when many Israelites were totally isolated from the destroyed Temple and their native land. Most historians, however, date the beginnings of the Pharisees as a definable religious movement from a later era. Pharisaism was given impetus by the scribal movement begun by Ezra in the early period of the Second Temple (ca. 445 BCE) and was continued by the Pietists of the Maccabean period.13 The name “Pharisee” was probably derived from the Hebrew term parush, meaning “separated.” It was applied to this group, presumably, because they separated themselves from the masses for the sake of holiness or purity. These separatists became the sages of their day. They were men skilled in law and jurisprudence who, according to Josephus, had reputations as “exact exponents of the law.”14
All Jewish parties, religious or political, accepted Torah as the basis of belief and practice, but they differed in their interpretation of Torah. For the Sadducees, the scripture without further commentary or elaboration was considered the full basis of orthodoxy. The Pharisees, on the other hand, attempted to keep the Law effectively adapted to the changing circumstances of [p.114]Jewish life. They regarded the oral or unwritten tradition which interpreted the written Torah as a necessary and living supplement to the written Law. As a consequence, for them Torah-tradition, or the Oral Law, came to have equal status with the Written Law.15
The Pharisees did not oppose the temple cultus in principle, but for them it did not have the central importance in Jewish religion that it had for the Sadducees. And the Pharisees did not consider royal or priestly power or political struggle against Roman domination essential to the Jewish religion. For the Pharisees, establishing and preserving Torah as the foundation of Jewish life was primary. The Pharisees became the dominant religious influence among the Jews, especially after the Jewish-Roman war, 66-70 CE, and their tradition became the chief force in conserving and strengthening the Jewish religion until modern times.16 The Jewish rabbinate today is the inheritor of the Pharisaic religion and tradition.
The origin of the Sadducees is less certain than that of the Pharisees.17 The Sadducees considered themselves “old believers,” [p.115]probably referring to their rejection of doctrines which they assumed originated with the Persian Zoroastrians: resurrection of the body, angels, demons, and judgment after death. However, their political role was more important historically than their doctrine. Although relatively few in number, the Sadducees had served as counselors and supporters of the Hasmonean rulers and were on comparatively good terms with the Romans. As a result, at the time of Jesus they were the most influential and powerful men in the land, especially in Judea and Jerusalem. The Sadducees were the Temple and aristocratic party. They more or less controlled the Temple and its cult and were powerful in the Sanhedrin. Being of the priestly, wealthy, and politically influential group, their interests were best served by cordial relations with foreigners. They encouraged Greek culture and were more willing than the Pharisees to accept and cultivate association and dealings with Greeks, Romans, and other foreigners. However, the Pharisees were the chief protectors of the faith, and their influence dominated much of the intellectual and religious culture of the Jews at the time of Jesus. Their power was mainly through the synagogues and their commitment to education and scholarly pursuits as well as through the general esteem of the Jewish people which they enjoyed.
Essenes and Zealots
There were, of course, other important religious groups, communities, and movements within Judaism whose concerns, judged on the basis of the Gospel texts, were not entirely incompatible with those of Jesus. The Essenes, for example, were a separatist religious fellowship who believed that the Law, the sacred calendar, and the Temple rituals had been corrupted by the Jerusalem priesthood. This religious brotherhood regarded themselves as the “faithful remnant” of Isaiah who would eventually save Israel. It was their duty, they believed, to preserve the ancient covenant and thereby guarantee the continuation of God’s guidance and support for the nation. In accord with these beliefs, some of which were held in closest secrecy, many if not most of the Essenes literally separated themselves from other Jewish communities. As [p.116]Moses of old, they fled into the desert to prepare for the imminent end of the age. In their social life they were ascetic and communal; ritual baths, daily ritual communal meals, formal prayers, and recitation of their scriptures were features of their communal brotherhood.18
Another group, the Zealots, has often been regarded as radical and fanatic in its zeal. However, it would be a mistake to assume that the so-called Zealots were motivated only by nationalistic or political aims. Their patriotism was supported by a fervent devotion to Torah.19 They were intensely committed to resistance against Roman domination and defilement because they believed Israel’s integrity as a covenant people was at stake. In this respect the Zealots differed from Pharisees and Sadducees, both of whom in general favored maintaining peace with Rome. The Pharisees held that Israel’s future was guaranteed by God’s promise and not by violence or political power. The Sadducees feared that agitation would upset the practical compromises with Rome, on which their prosperity depended, and would eventually lead to the elimination of the Jewish state and religion altogether.
Some New Testament scholars hold the view that an uprising led by Judas against the census required by Sulpicius Quirinius, legate of Syria (ca. 6 CE), accounts for the origin of the Zealots as a distinct religious-political party.20 However, their spiritual [p.117]heritage is thought to date back to Phinehas and Elijah. Phinehas, grandson of Aaron, showed his zeal for his God by overthrowing Israelite worship of the Baal of Peor (Nm 25:1-13). Elijah likewise fought against Jezebel and Phoenician baalism (1 Kgs 18:17-46).21
These parties or sects constituted only a part of the total Jewish community. By far the most numerous were the common people, those referred to as “the people of the land,” Am-ha-aretz.22 They were spoken of by Jesus as the “sheep without a shepherd” (Mt 9:36; Mk 6:34). It was to these people that Jesus directed most of his attention. They in turn were the most responsive to his proclamation of the new age.
The Jewish scholar R. Seltzer has called attention to rabbinic traditions of the first century which mention Pharisaic brotherhoods constituting what scholars refer to as “table-fellowship groups.” These groups adhered to a uniform law concerning Jewish food and ate their meals in common, probably accompanied by prayers and learned discussions. In his description of the varieties of Judaism in the late Second Temple period, Seltzer includes the Essenes as an example of a table-fellowship.23 The table-fellowship may have an important bearing on the beginnings of the Christian community, which is identified as a brotherhood participating in a common meal with prayer and the reading and discussion of sacred texts.
Growing Opposition and the Calling of the Twelve
The term apostle means literally “one who is sent.” It appears only once in Matthew (10:2) and once in Mark (6:30), where [p.118]the meaning seems to be “missionary,” referring to the mission the Twelve had just completed. The term appears more often in Luke, where it probably carries the more generalized meaning of “messenger,” “witness,” or “delegate”—one who has a formal commission relating to the new church.
A succinct account of the calling of the Twelve Apostles appears in the Gospel of Luke.
In these days he went out to the mountain to pray; and all night he continued in prayer to God. And when it was day, he called his disciples, and chose from them twelve, whom he named apostles; Simon, whom he named Peter, and Andrew his brother, and James and John, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James the son of Alphaeus, and Simon who was called the Zealot, and Judas the son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor. (Lk 6:12-16)
Luke is the only gospel which claims that Jesus himself used the term “apostle.” This passage incidentally calls attention to a special feature of Luke’s Gospel—Jesus praying before making his most critical decisions. Although many had associated themselves with Jesus as his disciples, he now “appointed twelve, to be with him, and to be sent out to preach” (Mk 3:14).24 Jesus’s appointment of the Twelve is thought by some to have been a response to the growing hostility of the Pharisees. Mark’s account of the calling follows a series of confrontations with Pharisees on questions regarding fasting and the sabbath. Luke’s account of this opposition seems to mark the inauguration of the new Israel, the Twelve corresponding to the Twelve Tribes of Israel. For Luke they formed a nucleus in preparation for the coming Kingdom of God (Lk 22:28-30).25 Luke developed this theme further in the Acts of the Apostles.
[p.119]Whatever Luke’s explanations, however, it seems most likely that growing opposition from Jewish officials was a major factor in Jesus’s calling of the Twelve. According to Mark, “after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee preaching the gospel of God” (Mk 1:1-14). Under the pressure of John’s arrest and imprisonment, Jesus realized the need to share the responsibility for the future of the movement among his most loyal followers. His own personal future, like that of John the Baptist, was at risk.
As has already been noted, at the calling of Levi (or Matthew), the Scribes began to reproach Jesus for eating with sinners and tax collectors (Mk 2:13-17). Soon after, Jesus’s disciples were observed violating the fast. According to Matthew’s account, it was John’s disciples who registered the complaint, “your disciples do not fast.” Jesus’s declaration that “No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment,” “no one puts new wine into old wine-skins,” indicates that for him the old way was no longer adequate (Mk 2:18-22).
Further confrontations centered on Jesus’s comments about the institution of the sabbath. His disciples were seen plucking the heads of grain on the sabbath day. According to the Jewish tradition such behavior was unlawful. In response to the Pharisees’ complaint, Jesus pointed to the very notable example of David, who during an emergency entered the house of God and took bread which was not lawful for any but a priest to eat (1 Sm 21:4-6). With this precedent as his defense, Jesus declared, “The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath” (Mk 2:27f). The expression “the Son of man” in this context is to be understood as referring to “mortal man” or simply “man” and not to a supernatural agent of God as in later Christian interpretations. According to Mark Jesus’s teaching was that man himself is lord of the sabbath.
Matthew adds an interesting comment to the David story when he records that Jesus asked, “Have you not read in the law how on the sabbath the priests in the temple profane the sabbath, and are guiltless? I tell you, something greater than the temple [p.120]is here” (Mt 12:5-7). The expression “something greater is here” is based upon a quotation from the prophet Hosea, “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice” (Hos 6:6). In both accounts, Mark and Matthew, the point is clear that Jesus required virtue and mercy over the rules and regulations of institutional religion.
A similar point is made in the episode about Jesus attending the synagogue. The Pharisees asked him if he would heal a person on the sabbath. Jesus’ rejoinder, “Is it lawful on the sabbath to do good … to save life or to kill?” and his restoration of the man’s hand angered the Pharisees. According to Mark, they immediately went out and conspired with the Herodians to destroy Jesus (Mk 3:1-6).
There are considerable variations among the several lists of apostles: Bartholomew is included in the Synoptics but does not appear in the Gospel of John. Nathanael is an important member of the Twelve in John but is not included in the synoptic Gospels; the Gospel of Matthew adds the description “the tax collector” to the name of the disciple Matthew. Matthew and Mark read “Simon the Cananaean”; the parallel passage in Luke reads “Simon who was called the Zealot.” Other references to the disciples in the synoptic Gospels show some interesting differences: In Mark 2:14, Levi is presumed to be the tax collector. Also in Mark, Levi is referred to as “the son of Alphaeus.” “Judas the son of James” (Lk 6:16.) does not appear in the lists of Mark and Matthew. Apparently in Luke Thaddaeus has been replaced by this Judas. Some early texts of Matthew 10:3 read “Lebbaeus” or “Lebbaeus called Thaddaeus” or “Thaddaeus called Lebbaeus” instead of Thaddaeus.
Much of the traditional characterization of the twelve disciples depends upon the Gospel of John. According to John, Simon was surnamed “Cephas,” which means Rock; also, it is reported that his father’s name was John (Jn 1:42).26 When called to be a disciple, Simon Peter was a fisherman with his brother Andrew. In the Christian tradition Peter is pictured as rough and impetuous, with despondency sometimes following confidence. It was only later [p.121]that he achieved the firmness of character commonly ascribed to him. According to tradition Peter was martyred in Rome, probably about 64 CE during the reign of Nero.
Andrew was a brother of Peter and also a fisherman by trade. He and Peter were together when they were promised: “Follow me and I will make you become fishers of men” (Mk 1:17). Before this time Andrew had been a disciple of John the Baptist. The Fourth Gospel records that Andrew first met Jesus in Bethsaida, where, after hearing Jesus and being convinced that he was the Messiah, he told Peter of his great discovery.27 The tradition that Andrew suffered a martyr’s death is generally considered unreliable.
James and John are referred to as the sons of Zebedee. They were also fishermen on the Sea of Galilee, apparently in partnership with Peter and Andrew. These two brothers, says Mark, were “surnamed Boanerges, that is, sons of thunder” (Mk 3:17). This characterization suggests strength, impulsiveness, and ambition. The three, Peter, James, and John, were leading figures in many of the Gospel stories. This James was not Jesus’ brother, whom, according to Eusebius, the Jews referred to as James the Just, and who is generally regarded as having been the first leader of the infant church in Jerusalem.28
Philip was from Bethsaida (Jn 1:44). No doubt he was a fisherman like his fellow apostles from that place. He seems to have been an especially close friend of Andrew and, according to the Gospel of John, was one of those who had come to hear John the Baptist. Nathanael, according to the Gospel of John, came from “Cana in Galilee” (Jn 21:2). It was Nathanael who doubted whether anything good could come out of Nazareth. And it was of Nathanael that Jesus declared, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom is not guile!” (Jn 1:47). Thomas is remembered for his skepticism about Jesus’s resurrec-[p.122]tion. According to the Fourth Gospel, Thomas failed to grasp the meaning of Jesus’s mission (Jn 20:24-29).
The Gospels give little information about James, “the son of Alphaeus,” sometimes called James the Little, or about Simon, referred to in Luke as “the Zealot” (Lk 6:15).29 By process of elimination, it seems that Judas, “the son of James,” may be the person called Thaddaeus in Matthew and Mark. In any event, it is reported in John that at one time this Judas asked the question: “Lord, how is it that you will manifest yourself to us, and not to the world?” (Jn 14:22). The other Judas—Judas Iscariot—perhaps the only one of the Twelve who was a Judean, is remembered for his role in the arrest of Jesus. However, little else is known about him except for his suicide. Some scholars assume that the name “Iscariot” was used by Gospel writers to distinguish him from the other Judas, the son of James.
As Jesus went among the towns and villages in Galilee, he was moved to compassion by the condition of the people. Their lives, according to Matthew and Mark, were desperate. Their society was economically and politically unstable. Some were burdened with guilt, presumably because they were not living strictly by traditional ceremonial laws. Some violated the moral codes. Many, including the despised publicans, were ostracized by the people. Large numbers of people were plagued with anxieties that were the consequence of personal and social failure or with fears engendered by common superstitions regarding evil spirits. Like the Roman authorities in Judea, the Herodian princes in Galilee and the other districts apparently had little or no concern for the plight of the common people. Nor were the leaders of the synagogues able to provide the leadership necessary to establish general confidence and peace of mind. Conditions of deprivation, anxiety, and unrest were part of the social milieu in which Jesus gave his instructions to the Twelve. Moreover, the Jews did not [p.123]have a unified society, and Judaism was not a simple, unified religion but a conglomerate of parties and sects.
Instructions to the Twelve
When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. …
And he called to him his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every disease and every infirmity. …
These twelve Jesus sent out, charging them, “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. And preach as you go, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.'” (Mt 9:36; 10:1 5-7)30
Jesus’s instruction to the disciples not to go among the Gentiles or the Samaritans raises interesting and difficult questions for modern Christians. Christians today are accustomed to a strong ecumenical quality in their religion and commonly regard Jesus as one having an interest in the well-being and salvation of everyone, regardless of race or creed. Possibly the parochialism in Matthew’s account reflects the intense Judaic sentiment of the early Jerusalem church. This sentiment is found elsewhere in the Gospels, especially in Mark. In the last chapter of Matthew, there appears the final instruction of Jesus to his disciples following the resurrection, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Mt 28:19). This late indication of universalism may have expressed a new attitude entering the post-resurrection Christian community with the establishment of the gentile mission.31 When the Gospel of Matthew was written, the church had already been established among the gentiles. There may, of course, have been a practical motive in Jesus’s early instruction, as it may have been important to plan his activities step by step, moving from one objective to an-[p.124]other. Or Matthew may have interpreted the injunction to avoid the gentiles as referring to the interim period prior to the establishment of the church.
In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is represented as demanding an ascetic discipline in his disciples as they pursued their ministry. They were to “take no gold, nor silver, nor copper” in their belts. Here Matthew seems to understand that Jesus is setting the rule for the church’s later ministry. The disciples were not allowed to accept money for the services they rendered. Their clothing was to be plain, and only the necessities for survival were to be taken along (Mt 10:9f).
The disciples were instructed to proclaim the message of the kingdom in as many towns and villages as would receive them. They were to bless those who were receptive, but a harsh judgment was made against those who rejected the message. Jesus’s instruction to “shake off the dust” and his comparison of those who rejected the message to those in Sodom and Gomorrah should be understood as following his rigorous conception of the expected kingdom. There is a sense of urgency and finality in his proclamation—Now is the moment of decision; the kingdom is upon you! The judgment may be upon you if you disbelieve. Jesus’s exhortation to his disciples was not only an expression of critical urgency but a warning of the dangers of discipleship as well. “Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” (Mt 10:16.)
The Conditions of Discipleship
It is evident that to be a disciple of Jesus in proclaiming the message meant not only sharing the promises and blessings of the kingdom to come, but also a share in the hardships and the risks of preparing the way. The disciples must be ready to cope with violence, cruelty, and treachery, for everything possible would be done to oppose them. John the Baptist was even now confined within prison walls not knowing what to expect, and his disciples feared for their future.
[p.125]In Matthew’s view, Christian disciples in his own day should not expect less hardship than that endured by their leader, but “he who endures to the end will be saved” (Mt 10:22). That Jesus early anticipated serious troubles, quite possibly his own death, appears evident. But he exhorted the Twelve to follow his own fearless confession (Mt 10:32f). He trusted that God was in control and would bring in the Kingdom. According to Matthew, anyone who fails to “take his cross” and follow Jesus will be unworthy of him when the Kingdom comes (Mt 10:38).32 In a passage that has caused considerable consternation to the followers of the Prince of Peace, Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Mt 10:34).
The conditions of discipleship were rigorous. Commitment to Jesus and his purposes meant giving up everything, even one’s own life and family if necessary. “He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me” (Mt 10:37).33 The threat of persecution should not deter the disciples. They must expect resistance, since the Word would not bring peace but strife and contention, even within families. Such woes, Matthew implies, were predicted of the messianic age by the prophet Micah: “For the son treats the father with contempt, the daughter rises up against her mother, the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; a man’s enemies are the men of his own house” (Mi 7:6). If Matthew’s account reliably reports Jesus’s actual admonition regarding family relationships and acceptance of him and his message, his statement probably reflected Jesus’s experience with his own family, his mother and brothers. He had been misunderstood and rejected by some in his own family; those who followed him might well expect a similar rejection, according to Matthew.
“He who receives you receives me” (Mt 10:40). With this point, Matthew’s intention seems clear: to proclaim Jesus himself as the [p.126]model for Christian discipleship. Matthew extended the anticipation of strife and persecution experienced by Jesus to his own day and beyond. For Matthew it was not only the original Twelve who were commissioned, but all true Christian disciples.34
Perhaps no passage in religious literature has received more attention than Jesus’s statement to his disciples that “[h]e who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it” (Mt 10:39). It has, of course, been lifted from its context of instruction to the disciples and generalized as a principle expressing the highest ideal of moral selflessness. Perhaps more than any other saying attributed to Jesus, this statement has epitomized the heart of Christian ethics.
Journey to Phoenicia
Early in his ministry Jesus left Galilee and went to the gentile country of Tyre and Sidon, one of the few instances recorded in the Gospels of Jesus going entirely outside of what can be regarded as “Jewish” territory. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and John do not totally agree on this matter, and certain details are difficult to correlate. For example, in Mark Jesus repeatedly requests that his identity be kept hidden: “tell no one.” This attitude of secrecy seems to contradict his usual openness. Both Mark and Matthew refer to the journey to Tyre and Sidon as a “withdrawal.”
Was this an attempt to escape from real or imagined enemies in Galilee, or was it a desire to avoid the crowds and be alone with the Twelve? Or, as Luke seems to suggest, did the journey to Tyre beyond the borders of Palestine signal an intended ministry to the gentiles and indicate that the gospel was not exclusively for the Jews? Scholars do not agree on this question. The withdrawal was probably occasioned by the execution of John the Baptist and the growing hostility toward Jesus exhibited by Herod Antipas, his loyal supporters the Herodians, and by some Pharisees and other religious leaders. Also to be considered is the people’s misunder-[p.127]standing of Jesus’s messianic role reported in the Gospel of John that prompted them to attempt to proclaim him king.35
The two Phoenician cities of Tyre and Sidon were located outside the domain of the Herods in the Roman province of Syria, which accounts for the reference in Mark to a “Syro-Phoenician” woman. For many centuries Tyre and Sidon, today in modern Lebanon, had been important seaports and commercial centers. The strength of Tyre was dramatically demonstrated in 332 BCE by its impressive resistance to the invading forces of Alexander the Great. Phoenician ships had sailed as far north as England and completely around the continent of Africa. Hundreds of years earlier, the Hebrew prophet Isaiah had pronounced his oracle against Tyre and Sidon (Is 23:1-18).36
Despite his desire for secrecy, Jesus’s fame had apparently spread beyond the borders of Galilee. His presence could not be kept hidden. His answer to the Syro-Phoenician woman who sought his help for her daughter, whom she believed to be possessed by an “unclean spirit,” seems unduly severe and out of character for one who often demonstrated compassion. His response to her entreaty, “Let the children first be fed, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs” (Mk 7:27), will probably always be a matter of dispute. Did he really intend to exclude gentiles from his public ministry? Certainly he went among them, but whether or not he intended to include them in the kingdom or to extend to them his teachings and healing ministry is unclear.37
There is a close connection between Jesus’s earlier debate with the Pharisees concerning what defiles a person and the conclusion [p.128]of this account of the Syro-Phoenician woman—”‘O woman, great is your faith!’ … And her daughter was healed instantly” (Mt 15:28). Jesus’s position on what defiles and what is shown as righteousness in this account may perhaps be taken as a repudiation of the strict Pharisaic separatism and exclusivist practices.
For Matthew and Mark, such details clearly anticipate a more universal standard of righteousness. At any rate, universalist elements were present in the early church, which regarded its inclusiveness as consonant with the spirit of Jesus’s conception of the kingdom.
Journey to Decapolis
There was a road from Sidon across the Lebanon mountains to Damascus. Possibly Jesus followed this road on his journey to Decapolis. Turning southward from the Damascus way, they entered “the region of the Decapolis” (Mk 7:31). The country was Greek in name, in religion, culture, civil practice, and architecture. From the time of Alexander’s invasion over three hundred years earlier, Greek cities with their “Greek” colonists and hellenistic culture had increased in number throughout the eastern Mediterranean world. To resist invasion from the south and east, ten Greek cities east of Galilee and Samaria had formed a league known as Decapolis. The league included Gadara, Scythopolis, Pella, Gerasa, and Philadelphia. Into this land of Greek culture, learning, and practice, Jesus and his disciples came with their Jewish traditions and expectations.
Matthew describes in general terms what Jesus did in Decapolis. They brought to him “the lame, the maimed, the blind, the dumb, and many others, and they put them at his feet, and he healed them” (Mt 15:30). Mark tells of one incident in detail—of the deaf man with a speech impediment. Jesus put his fingers into the man’s ears, spat, perhaps on his finger, touched the man’s tongue, and he was healed, regaining his hearing and ability to speak plainly. Then, according to Mark, Jesus “charged them to tell no one. … And they were astonished beyond measure” (Mk 7:36f).
[p.129]This account of this miracle involves more than Jesus’s word or command and makes no mention of the role of faith in the healing. Here, as in most of Jesus’s miracles, there was actual contact, but of an unusual nature. Saliva was often regarded as having curative properties.38 The Jewish scholar Geza Vermes has called attention to the “simplicity” of Jesus’s cures, not only in matters involving exorcism, but also in healing the sick, lame, and blind. Was Jesus a professional exorcist of the type described by the ancient rabbis, asks Vermes. His reply:
He is said to have cast out many devils, but no rite is mentioned in connection with these achievements. In fact, compared with the esotericism of other methods, his own, as depicted in the Gospels, is simplicity itself. Even in regard to healing, the closest he came to the Noachic, Solomonic, and Essene type of cure was when he touched the sick with his own saliva, a substance generally thought to be medicinal.39
Following his return to Capernaum, Jesus was involved in controversy over the relation of the religious community to the state, always a serious problem for the Jews. Matthew’s account of the Temple tax collectors inquiring whether Jesus was willing to pay the tax may have resulted from the early church’s relation to Jewish Temple authorities or Roman bureaucracy (Mt 17:24-27). In accordance with Exodus, every male Jew above twenty years of age was taxed one-half shekel each year to support the Temple.40 Apparently after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, Roman authorities continued to collect this tax, but to support a temple to Jupiter, which the Romans had constructed on the Temple site. Matthew’s Gospel probably was produced at this time, when the early Palestinian Christians faced the difficult problem of their political loyalties. This gives meaning to Jesus’s statement to Peter that they were free of this obligation but should pay the tax rather than “give offense.” [p.130]Such sound counsel could avoid serious trouble. In several places in the Gospels, Jesus is represented as allowing no compromise with evil. On one occasion, for instance, he said, “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Mt 7:19). Yet in this instance he advises compromise to avoid offense.
Discipleship in the Kingdom
A dispute had arisen among the disciples of Jesus concerning who among them was the greatest. Apparently they still relished the view that Jesus would fulfill their expectations in a temporal way—that he would establish an earthly kingdom. Their dispute arose from the question of who should receive the highest positions of honor in the kingdom. The disciples apparently tried to conceal their dispute from Jesus and kept an embarrassed silence when he questioned them. His response to their controversy is well known, “If any one would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all” (Mk 9:35).
On this occasion Jesus tried to correct the disciples’ mistaken views about discipleship. He showed the folly of competing with one another for social status, implying that worldly credentials are not the standard for membership in the kingdom. In order to be clearly understood, he admonished them to receive the Kingdom of Heaven as a child (Mt 18:3). A child has no worldly status, owns no property, and can claim no prestigious title. The disciples should receive the kingdom with joy and gratitude as a gift from God.
In the same spirit of concern about priority, John complained to Jesus that a man who was not “following us” was casting out demons in Jesus’s name. Jesus replied that one who is “not against us is for us” (Mk 9:40). For Jesus there were no tests of authority, no established channels which confined God’s activity.41
It is clear that some of the sayings of Jesus, which were no doubt directed to his disciples, were employed by the writers of the [p.131]Gospels to instruct the members of the early Christian community in general on their proper relations with one another.42 A series of these instructions appears in Matthew. Of special interest are the warnings not to cause one of the “little ones” to perish, the discourse on reconciliation, and the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant on the virtue of forgiveness and mercy (Mt 18:1-35). The “little ones” referred to in Matthew are generally considered to be the members of the early church. Those who lead them astray, causing them “to stumble,” incur the wrath of judgment.
The question “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” introduces a theme which was of great concern to the church in Matthew’s day—namely, that the life one leads as a disciple determines whether or not he will be received in the future kingdom. A faithful disciple will care for his brother; those who sin are to be approached with tenderness, but if they are obstinate, even before witnesses, they are to be brought before the church.
Peter’s question, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him?” (Mt 18:21). raised the question of forgiveness by the individual person. If the church may reject its unrepentant members, shall individuals also refuse them forgiveness? Jesus’s response, “seventy times seven,” meant that forgiveness was a constant requirement, not to be measured by any formula.
In the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant, a servant whose master forgave him a debt of thousands refused to forgive a very small debt owed to him by another.43 The central meaning of the parable is clear—to refuse forgiveness to another is a moral wrong which may prevent God’s forgiveness of the unforgiving. [p.132]Jesus had taught this before—”If you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Mt 6:15), and “forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Mt 6:12). Jesus repeated this theme again at the end of Matthew 18 (Mt 18:35). God’s gift of forgiveness, which is beyond any measure of merit, will be rescinded if one does not sincerely and wholeheartedly forgive others.[p.133]
[p.106]1. These same stories, except for the widow’s son in Nain which appears only in Luke 7:11-17, are included in Matthew in a different context (Mt 8:5-13, 11:2-19, 26:6-13). Mark includes only the account of the woman anointing Jesus, which appears later in the context of his passion narrative (Mk 14:3-9).
4. Machaerus was located on the Perea side of the Dead Sea, inland from the eastern shore. Herod Antipas was tetrarch of Perea as well as Galilee. See Josephus, The Antiquities of the Jews, Book XVIII, Chap. V, Sec. 2.
5. Isaiah 29:18f, 35:5f, 61:lf. In the well-founded opinion of some scholars, the disciples of John regarded the Baptist himself as the Messiah. Cf., e.g., Michael Grant, Jesus: An Historian’s Review of the Gospels (New York, 1977), 97: “Particular veneration was centred upon the Baptist; and he was unequivocally credited with Messianic status by his disciples. After he died, they pronounced him to have been raised from the dead, and the tradition of his Messiahship persisted for centuries. Later on, John’s Gospel explicitly denied that the Baptist himself had ever claimed to be the Messiah.” On this point see Jn l:20f.
6. See Ellis Rivkin, The Shaping of Jewish History (New York, 1971), pp. 44-50, for a discussion of the history of the Soferim. Isidore Epstein has effectively described a major role of the Soferim or scribes as establishing rules called “fences,” intended to prevent any “violation of the sacred enclosure of the Torah itself.” Isidore Epstein, Judaism: A Historical Presentation (Baltimore, Maryland, 1959), 87.
8. Caird’s suggestion, at this point, seems to have merit—that the woman’s love was not the basis of the forgiveness she had come to seek, “but the proof of a pardon she had come to acknowledge” (Ibid., 114f). In his work Jesus, 83, Michael Grant says that Jesus and the woman “became the targets, of their host Simon’s reproaches, which Jesus sought to silence on the grounds that she was showing emphatic loyalty, as she should, to the inaugurator of the kingdom of God.”
9. Somewhat in contrast to Mark and Matthew, Luke featured women in his account of Jesus’ ministry. The women who received special attention by Luke seem to have had two things in common—each had been healed by Jesus and each brought resources and energy to support his ministry.
10. There is no conclusive evidence to support the idea, sometimes advanced in the past and often now popularly accepted, that Mary of Magdala (Migdal) was the woman whom Jesus encountered in the house of Simon the Pharisee. Mary, or Miriam, was a common Jewish name. According to the Fourth Gospel she was the first to arrive at the empty tomb and the first to see and hear the risen Lord (Jn 20:lf, 11-18). In Mark, with Jesus’s mother and other women, she brought the spices to anoint his body (Mk 16:lf). And in the longer ending in Mark (16:9-20), Jesus appeared first to her.
12. The New International Version of the Bible translates Mark 3:21 as, “When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, ‘He is out of his mind.'” The accusation of insanity comes from his own relatives.
13. The Pharisaic movement was apparently related to the Hasidim, the pious ones, who were primarily responsible for the Maccabean revolt in 168 BCE. Through dedicated determination, the Hasidim attempted to preserve the Jewish faith in its purity. See the accounts of the revolt in Epstein, Judaism, 92f; in Victor Tcherikover, Hellenistic Civilization and the Jews (New York, 1970), Part I; and in Martin Hengel, Judaism and Hellenism, trans. John Bowden (London, 1974).
14. For varying accounts of the origin, beliefs, and activities of the Pharisees and Sadducees, see R. Travers Herford, The Pharisees (Boston, 1962); Robert M. Seltzer, Jewish People, Jewish Thought: The Jewish Experience in History (New York, 1980); Rivkin, Shaping of Jewish History, Chaps. III, IV; Louis Finkelstein, The Pharisees, 3rd ed. (Philadelphia, 1962); and Leo Baeck, The Pharisees and Other Essays (New York, 1947). Baeck opposes the common practice of describing the Pharisees as a party, referring to them rather as a “movement.” The Pharisees figured prominently in political controversy during the Hasmonean dynasty, especially during the reigns of John Hyrcanus (135-105 BCE), Alexander Jannaeus (103-76 BCE), and Alexandra (76-67 BCE). See e.g., Josephus, Antiquities, Book XIII, Chaps. XI, XVI.
15. As Leo Baeck points out, the Oral Law “is a development of the presuppositions implicit in the Bible.” Torah was not regarded as final and finished, but, he says, it was “a force constantly renewing itself,” each age searching “in it for what is most relevant and peculiar to itself.” The direct outcome of this process was the Talmud, a large collection of written opinions by the rabbis directed to the practical application of the Law. Its beginning was largely the work and inspiration of Rabbi Judah, called the Prince (ca. 135-217 CE). Leo Baeck, The Essence of Judaism (New York, 1961), 23-25.
16. See Rivkin’s Shaping of Jewish History: A Decisive Mutation, Chap. III, “The Pharisaic Revolution,” for an analysis of the development of Pharisaism and its revolutionary contribution to Jewish and western history.
For details on the origins of the Sadducees and Pharisees, and their differences, see F. F. Bruce, New Testament History (New York, 1972), 69-81. Also, I. Epstein’s comments on the Second Hebrew Commonwealth, in Judaism, 95-110. Ancient sources on the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes are Josephus, Antiquities, Book XIII, Chap. V, Sec. 9, and Wars of the Jews, Book II, Chap. VIII, Sec. 2-14. The Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria (c. 20 BCE-54 CE) described the three “sects.”
18. Most Jewish and Christian scholars hold that the Qumran community associated with the Dead Sea Scrolls was one of several Essene colonies. See Frank Cross, Jr., The Ancient Library of Qumran and Modern Biblical Studies (New York, 1958); Theodor H. Gaster, The Dead Sea Scriptures, 3rd ed. (New York, 1976); and Millar Burrows, The Dead Sea Scrolls (New York, 1955), and More Light on the Dead Sea Scrolls (New York, 1958).
19. Josephus held a negative view of the Zealots. He regarded them as extremists or fanatics largely responsible for precipitating the disastrous Jewish-Roman war of 66-70 CE. The evidence from Masada, which was defended by Zealots for many months following the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, indicates that the defenders were pious Jews who, under the most difficult conditions, persisted in following the strict injunctions of Torah.
20. Quirinius’s census is probably the one alluded to by Gamaliel in Acts 5:37: “After him Judas the Galilean arose in the days of the census and drew away some of the people after him; he also perished, and all who followed him were scattered.” The census may have been taken in order to determine how much tribute the Romans could exact from the people. Paying such taxes was considered by Zealots as well as other devout Jews as treasonous, since, in their view, God alone [p.117]was Israel’s monarch. In his Antiquities, Book XVIII, Chap. I, Sec. 6, Josephus refers to a “Judas the Galilean” as “the author of the fourth sect of Jewish philosophy.”
22. Am-ha-aretz originally referred to the Israelite people, as differentiated from the special Jewish parties and priesthood. In time it was used to refer to the unlearned in contrast to the rabbis and students who received formal training in the Law.
24. Parallel lists of the Twelve are found in Mark 3:14-19; Luke 6:13-16 (Acts 1:13); and Matthew 10:1-4. Matthew’s list is similar to that of Mark; Luke’s departure from the Markan account is more pronounced, since he drops Thaddaeus and inserts Judas the son of James. B. G. Caird holds that at the time the Gospels were written, there was no certainty about the identity of the Twelve, that with one or two exceptions little attention was given them as individuals. In Caird’s opinion, in the early church (at least the Christian community which Luke represents) the number twelve was more important than the individual names (Caird, Luke, 100f).
25. According to Caird, “In the early Church there were more apostles than twelve (I Cor. 15:7; Gal. 1:1, 19; Acts 14:14; Rom. 16:7), and it was only towards [p.119]the end of the first century that the name was restricted to the twelve (Rev. 21:14).” Caird, Luke, 100.
27. The details about Andrew being a disciple of John the Baptist (Jn 1:40) and his report to Peter about Jesus are supplied by the Fourth Gospel (Jn 1:35-42) and are not found in the synoptic accounts.
28. Regarding Jesus’ brothers, see Mt 12:46, 13:55; Mk 6:3; Jn 7:3; Acts 1:14; and 1 Cor 9:5. James, the brother of Jesus, was probably converted after the resurrection. He is mentioned in Acts 12:17, 15:13, 21:18, and in Gal 1:19; 2:9, 12.
29. Professor O. Cullmann has suggested that several of Jesus’ disciples may have been Zealots: Peter, Judas, and possibly the brothers James and John, as well as Simon. (Oscar Cullmann, The State in the New Testament [New York, 1956], 15-18).
33. Perhaps the severity of the demands and expectations Jesus placed upon his disciples may be explained in part by his belief that the coming of the kingdom was imminent: “You will not have gone through all the towns of Israel, before the Son of man comes” (Mt 10:23).
41. Caird in Luke, 135f, held that here Jesus was consistent with his general statements on other occasions when he was questioned about credentials. His response seems to have been that conformity with formal tests or going through “proper channels” was not required. The word one speaks and the works one does for the Kingdom of God are self-authenticating; no other credentials are required.
42. Chapter 18 of Matthew contains the fourth of five teaching sections. In 19:1, the evangelist returns to the narrative with the formula, “Now when Jesus had finished these sayings.” J. C. Fenton holds the view that in this section, Matthew uses the Tradition (what Jesus said) in order to instruct Christians in his day about life within the church (J. C. Fenton, The Gospel of St. Matthew [Baltimore, 1963], 289f).
43. This parable is found only in Matthew, 18:23-35, presumably included at this point as a conclusion for his teaching collection. J. Jeremias contends that this is a parable about the last judgment which Matthew employs as an exhortation and a warning to the church (J. Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus, rev. ed. [New York, 1963], 210-13).