Toward Understanding the New Testament
Obert C. Tanner, Lewis M. Rogers, Sterling M. McMurrin
The Proclamation of the Kingdom
[p.53]Except in the Gospel of Luke, John the Baptist first appears in the biblical narrative already in the full tide of his public ministry. The infancy stories in Luke are followed by the simple statement, “And the child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness till the day of his manifestation to Israel” (Lk 1:80). There is no record of Jesus’s youth and young manhood. According to Luke’s account, John was six months older than Jesus, and their mothers, Elizabeth and Mary, were related. Some writers have assumed, therefore, that Jesus and John knew each other as children, but on the matter of their relationship there is no reliable corroboration of Luke’s account.1
The Message of the Baptist
The Baptist’s warning, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Mt 3:2), undoubtedly caused great excitement, for many would have known of the prophecy of Malachi, “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes” (Mal 4:5).2 Was this Elijah now returned as the prophets of old had promised? Or, could John be the Messiah himself? Throngs of people traveled to the Jordan to see John and listen to his prophetic warning. The time of judgment, he cried, is now at hand. Those who believed in John’s message were baptized by [p.54]him in the Jordan. His message demanded Israel’s repentance as preparation for the new age (Mt 3:11; Mk 1:4; Lk 3:3).
With unyielding determination, the Baptist declared: “Bear fruit that befits repentance, and do not presume to say to yourselves,’ We have Abraham as our father'” (Mt 3:8f). John leveled his charge particularly against the Pharisees and Sadducees for presuming a privileged position because of their claim that they were descendants of Abraham. He warned them that a repentant attitude, not “good” ancestry, was the chief requirement for God’s kingdom.
Mark presents the briefest of the four Gospel “accounts” of the Baptist’s ministry. In one verse he describes John’s work, the substance of his message, and the meaning of his baptism (Mk 1:4).3 But an important factor in all of the Gospels was the declaration that John was preparing the way for one who was “mightier” than he. “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me … will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (Mt 3:11).4 This ascetic, desert preacher with his camel hair garment seems to have had the charisma of the Prophet Elijah, for crowds came to see and hear him and even the Sadducees and Pharisees paid attention to him.
The real importance of John was probably underestimated by both early Christian and Jewish writers. He is remembered in the Gospels primarily for baptizing Jesus and for setting the stage as the forerunner of the Messiah. But John deserves consideration in his own right as a religious figure of power and influence quite independent of Jesus, for he launched a messianic movement in Israel of considerable importance.5 There is reason to believe that [p.55] the followers of Jesus may have played down the full importance of John in that movement.
In some respects John resembled the Essenes of the Qumran community. Like them he rejected the ecclesiastical establishment in Jerusalem and lived a more or less ascetic life in the desert. And like the Essenes he lived in hope and anticipation of the End of the Age and the coming of God’s Kingdom. These parallels between John and the Essenes have led some scholars to the conclusion that John was a member of the Essene sect.6 However, expectation of the last or final judgment and even of the return to Moses and the Sinai covenant before the End, was not peculiar to the Essenes. Such beliefs were strong among the masses in Judea as well as Galilee, where a tradition about prophecy and prophets relating to the coming of the kingdom persisted from an early period.
John commanded a substantial following in the time of Jesus, and his revival apparently continued for some time after his death. John’s disciples may have been rivals of the early Jewish Christians in Galilee before the writing of the Gospels. The earliest Christian writers knew of Jesus’s baptism by John and were faced with the task of accounting for that fact and accommodating it to the traditions about Jesus. In the Gospel accounts this was done by subordinating John to Jesus, even though Jesus had gone to hear John’s message and had submitted to his baptism.
[p.56]As a young man, Jesus was no doubt acquainted with stories about the failures, frustrations, and hopes of his nation. Like every practicing Jew, he was concerned for his people and revered the Hebrew-Jewish tradition. But like John, he clearly saw that the Mosaic tradition was being violated. When he heard of John’s proclamation, he knew that the nation must unite under its ancient covenant and prepare for the coming of God’s Kingdom. John’s proclamation must have sounded to Jesus “like a bell striking the decisive hour.” It is not known where in the Jordan Jesus was baptized, but today it is popularly believed to have been within a mile or two north of where the river flows into the Dead Sea. Another tradition places the baptism not far south of the Sea of Galilee.
Presumably, baptism7 was connected with the ancient Hebrew rites of purification, which had their basis in Old Testament religious law. For most ancient people there was a close relationship between desecration, ritual purity, and the holiness of deity. For the early Hebrews, the ritual of sacrifice was the primary means of purification and consecration. However, washing or cleansing was an essential element of the sacrificial ceremonies.8 Ritual cleansing was required for admission to the holy precinct of the Temple. Priests were required to wash before beginning the sacrifice and after leaving the Holy of Holies. Similar acts for purifying the body in preparation for one’s participation in worship were, and are today, a standard procedure in many religions. There are numerous instances in the Old and New Testaments of lepers and other persons stricken with diseases and infirmities cleansing themselves in accordance with ritual law. At a later time proselytes to Judaism, after being circumcised, were baptized, apparently to wash away the defilements of idolatry. Such baptisms [p.57]were usually self-administered. The candidate immersed himself in the presence of two persons standing nearby who recited portions of the Law.9
It seems evident from excavations in Israel at Qumran and Masada that the ritual bath had become a feature of Jewish practice in the first century BCE and was connected with the synagogue. The discovery of several pools for ritual baths (mikve) among the ruins at Qumran indicates the significance of ablutions for the Essene sect. References in the scroll texts support this conclusion. From the Essene point of view, Jewish society generally had been desecrated by a corrupt and impure priesthood. Therefore, all initiates to the Essene community were required to undergo two years of probation and ceremonial cleansing for purification.10
The Baptism of Jesus
The synoptic Gospels vary somewhat in their accounts of Jesus’s baptism. Mark, who views the work of John the Baptist as the beginning of the Christian movement, assumes a close connection between John and Jesus. Matthew records that when Jesus was baptized, he “went up immediately from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and alighting on him; and lo, a voice from heaven, saying, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased'” (Mt 3:16f) The heavens opening is a metaphor sometimes employed by New Testament writers to indicate a spiritual vision. [p.58]In Acts 7:56, for example, the vision of Stephen is introduced with this same metaphor.11
According to Matthew, the Baptist would have prevented Jesus from accepting baptism. Why should Jesus submit to baptism of repentance? John said, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” (Mt 3:14-16). In Matthew’s view, the sinlessness and superiority of Jesus were at once apparent to John. Jesus’s answer to John’s question was, “Let it be so now; for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.”12 Matthew’s interpretation of this matter was adopted by many early Christians and eventually became the generally accepted view of the Christian church.
The content of the Baptist’s preaching as reported in Luke is probably from Luke’s special source, “L.” It has a focus different from that of the other synoptists. Luke’s primary concern was not the baptism by water at John’s hands but rather the descent of the Holy Spirit upon Jesus. This occurred after the baptism had taken place as Jesus was praying. Luke says, “The heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form, as a dove…” (Lk 3:21f).13 This is in accord with his account of John’s earlier promise that one mightier than he would come to baptize “with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (Lk 3:16). In this account, Luke apparently [p.59]intended to establish the superiority of Jesus and his baptism of the Spirit over John’s water baptism.
In the Fourth Gospel, as in Luke, John’s baptism merely provided the occasion for Jesus’s baptism of the Spirit. Here the Baptist’s role is clearly delineated. He is not the Christ. He is not Elijah. And he is not the prophet to come (Jn 1:20f). His single function in the Fourth Gospel was to bear witness that God’s Spirit had descended upon and remained with Jesus, that Jesus was the Son of God.
John’s converts were not gentile proselytes being initiated into Judaism. They were already Jews, as were the disciples of Jesus and those who were converted by Jesus’s disciples. What, then, did baptism mean for John and those whom he baptized? Perhaps the baptism of John was a variation from the more traditional Jewish practice of washing or cleansing for purification. Although the Baptist was preaching repentance, it was not repentance from individual, personal sins. John’s baptism probably did not mean redemption from personal sin nor was it for the forgiveness of sins; it was for ablution not absolution. While repentance for the forgiveness of personal sin was in all likelihood a belief of the Christian churches at an early date, in John’s time repentance was a “return” of Israel to its covenants with God. Undoubtedly, eschatology is the key to an understanding of this matter. For many Jews, as for the Jewish Essenes at Qumran, the new age of the Kingdom of God was about to begin.
One of the most prominent features of the Qumran community was its eschatology, its doctrine of the End of the Age. The abundance of apocalyptic expressions from texts found in the caves attests to this fact.14 Apocalyptic literature expressing a strong sense of group destiny and explaining the historical crises in Jewish life gave the Essenes both inspiration and direction. According to their scripture, “The War of the Sons of Light and [p.60]the Sons of Darkness,” they believed that the End was imminent, that during the final stage of history a mighty battle would be fought between the forces of good and evil, and that ultimately this world and Satan’s domain would be destroyed. But, on the positive side, as recorded in the Essene Book of Hymns, this would also be a time of renewal. The world labors at a new birth and all things will be renewed.15
In the Essene communities, baptism symbolized the candidates’ intentions to surrender themselves completely to the belief of the coming end of the era and to totally commit themselves to preparing for and bringing in the kingdom. There can be little doubt that Jesus’s decision to submit to John’s baptism had a similarly profound meaning for both the Baptist and Jesus.
Jesus’s convictions regarding himself may have been greatly affected by the preaching of John. Perhaps in his baptism by John, intimations of his own role and destiny began to emerge. If this was the case, his baptism was surely a decisive turning point in his life. Although it is doubtful that Jesus had a clear conception of mission at an earlier age, at his baptism he seems to have reached a climax in his commitment. He may even have identified his own mission with that of John. He identified himself with the hopes and expectations of the Jewish people, and his baptism seems to have been a consecration of his life to their cause.
The Temptation in the Wilderness
According to the synoptic accounts, after his baptism Jesus went alone into the wilderness of Judea. Mark says, “The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness” (Mk 1:12).16 Between Jerusalem and the low Jordan Valley stretches a strip of arid, barren country about thirty-five miles long and fifteen miles wide. [p.61]This is an area of steep, mountainous cliffs and rocky gorges—the Judean desert. Little vegetation grows on the stony surface of this rough country and few trails cross it. In the Old Testament it is called “Jeshimon,” meaning devastation or waste.
Following his baptism Jesus quite naturally would have sought solitude to reflect on the meaning of his experience and its import for his life and labors. In a sense the temptation was a sequel to the baptism. Jesus must have been deeply concerned with the alternatives before him. Many centuries earlier, when confronted with crises of their destiny, the prophets of Israel had retired to this same desolate mountainous area, the wilderness of Judea. And it was there that David sought refuge from the wrath of King Saul. Now, according to Matthew, as Jesus pondered his task, he experienced an intense inward spiritual struggle.
There are various interpretations of the temptation story. It was commonly believed by the New Testament writers that demons or evil spirits were real entities whose power could be observed in the natural world. The devil, a powerful demon, was the chief tempter. The earth was a place of supernatural activity as well as of natural, everyday events. Whether the account of the temptation was intended to be taken literally or as a parable-like representation of the inner world of moral and spiritual struggle is difficult to determine.17 Whether accepted literally or not, the story of Jesus’s temptation is designed to exhibit the demonic power that forces profound moral choices, decisions that must be made whatever the risks. “And he fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterward he was hungry. And the tempter came and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread'” (Mt 4:2f).
Various scholars of the New Testament have suggested that for the synoptists the focus of the temptation was on three strategies:18 (1) Meet the immediate and material needs of the people [p.62]first, (2) employ miracles and public display as a strategy for winning popular support, and (3) generate public enthusiasm through a nationalistic interpretation of the proclamation of the kingdom. Any one or any combination of these might have meant almost immediate success for Jesus in enlisting widespread and enthusiastic support.
Why not administer to the basic material needs of the people? Did not God provide food for Israel in the Exodus? Was not the Messiah expected to prepare a great banquet?19 Yet, there is a precedent in the Mosaic tradition for a contrary view. During the Exodus, God allowed Israel to become hungry; then he fed them on manna to teach them that man cannot live on bread alone. God cared for them; nevertheless, he tested and disciplined them to see whether or not they would keep the commandments (Dt 8:2-6). Jesus, according to Matthew, exercised self-restraint and resisted the temptation to exploit his opportunities for personal or political ends. Referring to Deuteronomy, he replied to the tempter, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Mt 4:4).
Then the temptation from the pinnacle or parapet of the Temple: “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down” (Mt 4:6). This “temptation,” taken literally, might well have been intended by Matthew as a shortcut to the achievement of Jesus’s purposes. The masses would quickly acclaim him the Messiah if he performed a miracle such as being saved by angels when he fell from the pinnacle of the Temple. As in the time of the Exodus, there was a longing among the people to know whether God was in their midst. In their view no harm could come to God’s anointed. Therefore, let him throw himself down and challenge deity to prove the truth of his claim. On the other hand, would rejection of such an act mean that he should never ask God for the special protection [p.63]which the scriptures had promised? Again, the answer came from Deuteronomy, “You shall not tempt the Lord your God.”20
“Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them; and he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me'” (Mt 4:8f). There was, of course, much popular support for the idea that the Messiah would be a powerful leader. Jesus was surely acquainted with the anti-Roman Zealots of Galilee, who expected the Messiah to lead a war of liberation against Rome and restore the Davidic empire. But he did not yield: “Begone, Satan! for it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve'” (Mt 4:10). His response, based on passages from Deuteronomy 6:13, was similar to his rebuke of Peter later in Caesarea Philippi, when Peter apparently refused to accept Jesus’s decision to go to Jerusalem to suffer and be killed at the hands of his opponents (Mt 16:23; Mk 8:33). In both instances Jesus was apparently refusing to identify himself as a Davidic messiah.
The Proclamation of the Kingdom
According to the Synoptics, Jesus began his ministry at the time of John’s imprisonment. In view of John’s fate, he probably was aware that he faced serious risks in proclaiming his message of the Kingdom. Nevertheless, he persisted in carrying the message of the Kingdom of God to the people. He called Israel to repentance and promised the joy of deliverance in the new kingdom. “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel'” (Mk 1:14f).
With this dramatic proclamation, Jesus entered upon a task which thereafter claimed his total commitment and energy. The Kingdom of God or Kingdom of Heaven is the focus and sub-[p.64]stance of all his teaching. His parables began “The Kingdom of Heaven is like.” And in the Sermon on the Mount, he required of true disciples that they “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness.” References to the “Kingdom of God” in Luke are synonymous with the “Kingdom of Heaven” in Matthew. Nothing in the Gospels is more authentic as a teaching of Jesus than the proclamation of the coming of the kingdom. To the very end he spoke confidently of it. Indeed, the most revolutionary elements of his entire message were centered in this pronouncement.
Among the problems encountered in the New Testament, none is more difficult to treat than Jesus’s meaning of the “kingdom.” Obviously from the Gospel writers’ points of view, Jesus had no use for the power, the pomp, and the obeisance commonly associated with kings and kingdoms. According to the Gospel of John, the followers of Jesus at one time “were about to come and take him by force to make him king.” To escape them he “withdrew … to the mountain by himself” (Jn 6:15). It is understandable that the Jews would commonly refer to God as king because they thought of him as a divine and absolute lawgiver. God was the author of the moral law which was the foundation of their religious beliefs and their social institutions. The Old Testament does not employ the expression “Kingdom of God,” but it does make reference to the “Lord’s Kingdom.” This appears not to be a reference to a place of actual rule but rather an expression to convey the idea of the supremacy of God and his moral law. Such references are found for instance in the 103rd and 145th Psalms.
Jesus’s conception of the kingdom as represented by the Gospel writers is not always clear. Their interpretations vary from a view of the kingdom as a future event to one already present. This is perhaps due in part to the different views among early Christians at the time of the writing of the Gospels. Some accepted the common Jewish notion that the kingdom would be a political entity in this world. Others believed it would be God’s realm in the hereafter. Clear identification of the kingdom with the church was apparently not made before Augustine, 354-430 CE. Perhaps [p.65]what Jesus intended is best expressed in the prayer in the sixth chapter of Matthew: “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, On earth as it is in heaven” (Mt 6:10). The establishment of God’s rule on earth had long been the hope of Israel. Now, according to the Gospel writers, the day of deliverance had dawned; the time of waiting was over. God’s kingdom was near; it was at the door.21
It was fitting that Jesus began his ministry in the Galilee.22 In Old Testament times, the Galilee and the Plains of Esdraelon southward, including Mount Gilboa, Bet She’an, and Mount Carmel, were places of great activity. Heroic scenes in Israel’s history were enacted here. At Mount Carmel, Elijah made his great stand against the priests of Baal (1 Kgs 18:17-46). Near Mount Tabor, Deborah rallied the forces of Israel against the tyrant Sisera (Jgs 4:1-5:31). At Mount Gilboa, Saul and Jonathan lost their lives in a crucial battle with the Philistines (1 Sm 31:1-13). There in the north are the Lebanon Mountains and Mount Hermon. The eastern boundary is provided by the Jordan or Rift Valley and the Sea of Galilee. The “Upper” and “Lower” Galilee are separated by the rugged Meron mountain range, of which Mount Meron is a prominent feature. The Phoenician coast forms the western boundary. On the south the Lower Galilee drops off into the Plain of Esdraelon, today referred to as the Yizreel Valley.
The Sea of Galilee, a prominent feature of this area, has been known by various names: “Sea of Tiberias” in the Gospel of John (Jn 6:1, 21:1), and “lake of Gennesaret” in Luke (Lk 5:1). In the Old Testament it is referred to as “Chinnereth” and in modern Hebrew [p.66]as “Kinneret,” which means harp, possibly so named because of its shape.23
The Galileans engaged in manufacturing and fishing and were active in commerce, but the majority were laborers on the land. During the ministry of Jesus, Galilee was one of the districts ruled by Herod Antipas under Roman dominion. According to Josephus, who was governor of Galilee a few years after the time of Jesus and who was sometimes given to exaggeration in his histories, Galilee was thickly populated and had 204 cities and villages when the revolt against the Romans broke out in 66 CE. Many of the larger towns were fortified. It was within this limited area, only fifty miles in length from north to south and from twenty-five to thirty miles east to west, that Jesus pursued most of his active ministry.
In the time of Jesus and even earlier, the Galilean dialect was distinct, marriage customs were different from those of Judea, and the Galilean system of coinage and weight varied from that of Judea.24 Galilee had been so often the focal point of periodic uprisings against Roman rule that for many Judeans the name “Galilean” meant “rebel.” Josephus, for example, refers to the Zealots from Galilee as “robbers.” In general, the Galileans were considered by the Judeans to be uncouth and uncultured. They were sometimes regarded as pagans.
That Jesus was a Galilean Jew probably contributed to the opposition against him. The Judeans who held power and influence in Jerusalem were not disposed to favor Galileans. The Galileans shared a northern religious tradition founded on Moses and the Exodus-Sinai covenant. This tradition continued through the major preliterary prophets, Samuel, Elijah, and Elisha. This apparently was the covenant which, according to Joshua 24, was renewed in Shechem in the period of the conquest of Canaan. But, Judean Jews and those in positions of leadership, the Pharisees [p.67]and the Temple officials, who usually were Sadducees, shared a David-Zion covenant. In the time of the monarchy this southern tradition superseded the earlier Exodus-Sinai covenant. The royal covenant was based on the claim that David and his dynasty were elected by God to rule Israel in perpetuity and that Jerusalem had been designated by God as Zion, the place of God’s central sanctuary.25 These differences may explain in part the scorn, resentments, and condemnations directed at Galileans by Judean Jews that are expressed in the insult, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (Jn 1:46).
Although Palestine was a small area, between Galilee and Judea there were important cultural differences. Variations can be found today, for instance, in art forms, decorative elements, and symbols in synagogues and other ruins. A conservative tendency seems to have characterized the synagogues of the Upper Galilee, including preferences for the Hebrew and Aramaic languages for inscriptions rather than the Greek language so widely employed in southern Galilee. It has been suggested that the rugged terrain in the north and in the Golan accounts for these variations since it is probable that many of those who settled in the northern mountainous regions did so to protect themselves from Graeco-Roman cultural influences and to take refuge from the Roman imperial administration which was very effective and oppressive in the south. This was especially true following the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE.
Jesus and Judaism
From the beginning there were dramatic events in Jesus’s ministry. He preached and was rejected in Nazareth. He preached in the synagogue in Capernaum. He performed exorcisms and healings. And he accepted into his presence sinners who did not fully observe the religious law and publicans, the despised tax collectors. As a consequence he soon became not only well known [p.68]but notorious. As his fame grew, opposition to him from the Jewish political-religious establishment became more intense. A most dramatic moment in Jesus’s early ministry occurred when on his return to Nazareth following his baptism, he announced in the synagogue that in his own person the prophecy of Isaiah was fulfilled, that the time of the Lord was at hand. The incident is given in the Gospel of Luke. According to the custom, which continues to this day in the more conservative synagogues,
he stood up to read; and there was given to him the book of the prophet Isaiah. He opened the book and found the place where it was written, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” (Lk 4:16-19)
This account from Luke is evidence that Jesus was a practicing Jew who attended synagogue services and participated in the reading of the scriptures. This is a most important index to the character of his religion, the meaning of his teachings, and the understanding of Palestinian Christianity. The passage which he read from Chapter 61 of Isaiah undoubtedly referred to the deliverance of Israel from bondage in Babylonia. However, the Jews of Jesus’s day, tying the biblical prophecies to their own time and condition, regarded it as presaging the coming of the kingdom.26 For Luke the Isaiah verses were clearly a prophecy encapsulating the whole purpose of Jesus’s ministry.
Understandably, Jesus chose Nazareth where he would be among friends and acquaintances as the place to proclaim this message. But when he said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Lk 4:21), it surely produced Shock in those who knew him and his family. Some were understandably puzzled: “Is not this Joseph’s son?” (Lk 4:22). He must have sensed the opposition [p.69]among them.27 Indeed in Luke’s Gospel, he is represented as knowing their very thoughts. “Doubtless,” he said, “you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Physician, heal yourself'” (Lk 4:23). He was aware of the low esteem sometimes accorded the Hebrew prophets in the past, as indicated in the aphorism that no prophet is accepted in his own country (Lk 4:24). According to Luke, Jesus pointed out that God cares for the needy and forsaken of all nations. He cited the examples of the prophet Elijah, who helped a widow living beyond the borders of the Jewish nation (1 Kgs 17:1-24), and Elisha, who healed Naaman the leper, a Syrian. Jesus’s assertion that God might bless Gentiles even in preference to the people of Israel, and his apparent readiness to set aside the people of his own town while he ministered to others, aroused some in the synagogue to violence.28 But according to Luke he escaped with apparent ease. In Luke’s view Jesus’s message of the establishment of God’s kingdom was now proclaimed, and his ministry was formally begun.29
It is impossible to overstate the importance of the fact that Jesus was a believing, practicing Jew. Notwithstanding his liberal interpretations of some Jewish principles and his conflict with some Jewish religious leaders, especially the Sadducees, he was a devout Jew. Even though the Gospels were written many years after Jesus’s crucifixion and during the early period of the Christian church, they were written by and for those closely tied to Jewish [p.70]tradition, culture, religion, morality, and worship. It is clear from such accounts as that of Jesus reading from the sacred books in the synagogue in Nazareth that his later followers regarded him in the light of Jewish customs and practice. Knowing him intimately, as many of the people in Nazareth no doubt did, they were understandably puzzled and deeply concerned by his authoritative pronouncements. To them he was just one of their townsmen. His mother and brothers and sisters were known to them. He perhaps seemed arrogant and presumptuous in his synagogue pronouncements, no doubt calling for repentance and announcing the establishment of the kingdom. Had Jesus come from some other country, they might have respected his views and believed in him. But here in the place where he was reared and known from childhood, they could not believe him.
The First Disciples
Following his baptism and the temptation, Jesus made Capernaum on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee the center of his activities. No doubt there were several reasons for his interest in Capernaum. It was an important cosmopolitan center, partly Jewish in population but supporting many nationalities. Here Greeks from the nearby cities of Decapolis and bedouins from the desert mingled with Romans in the military, on civil assignment, or as commercial travelers. Capernaum was an important link between Damascus and the Galilee and south to Jerusalem. It was a center for commercial and military traffic between the east and the Mediterranean.30 Matthew regarded it as significant that Jesus located his headquarters there.31 He may have considered it an indication of Jesus’s intention to extend his ministry beyond the boundaries of [p.71]Israel. Matthew quoted a prophecy of Isaiah (Is 9:1f). as meaning, apparently, that the very lands which had been invaded by the Assyrians and Syrians and had suffered greatly from the enemies of Israel and Judah would be the first to enjoy the multiple blessings which would accompany the coming of the kingdom.32
The account of the calling of the four disciples by the Sea of Galilee set forth in Mark 1:16-20 indicates they were not from the poorest economic class. Simon and his brother Andrew and James and John were all fishermen. Zebedee, the father of James and John, may have owned the boat and nets. Also, it may be concluded from the mention of hired laborers that these men were engaged in a prosperous fishing enterprise. The details of the story in Matthew and Mark are similar. Luke, however, gives the account of the so-called “miraculous catch” of fish which led to the conversion of Peter, James, and John. They were astonished at their catch, which they attributed to Jesus’s supernatural power.33
In Mark’s account, the four accompanied Jesus to Capernaum. On the Sabbath he taught in the synagogue “as one who had authority, and not as the scribes.” (Mk 1:21-28). He exorcised an unclean spirit from a man in the synagogue, and his fame spread throughout the region. The reference to “authority” suggests Jesus spoke from his own wisdom, insight, and experience. He did not speak like a scholar, tracing the genealogy of scholarly opinions and relying on past precedents in interpreting the sacred texts. Perhaps he adduced no argument to support his pronouncements, for the Gospel writers portray Jesus as possessing a unique insight into universal truths and moral principles. In Mark’s view, Jesus, recognized by the unclean spirit as “the Holy One of God” (Mk. 1-24), was himself the final [p.72]authority for his teaching. The authoritative character of his pronouncements apparently had an astonishing effect on his listeners.
Matthew the Publican
The synoptics agree that following the healing of the paralytic, Jesus called to discipleship the tax collector named Matthew in the Gospel of Matthew and referred to as Levi in Mark and Luke. Thereafter, according to the synoptic writers, both tax collectors and sinners “sat at table” with him and his disciples (Mt 9:9-13; Mk 2:13-17; Lk 5:27-32).34
In the Latin version the Greek for “tax collector” is translated as “publicanus,” hence our English word publican. Matthew may have collected customs for goods shipped across the Sea of Galilee, or as some scholars conjecture, he may have been given taxing responsibility for the caravan route leading into Capernaum from Syria. The phrases “publicans and sinners” and “publicans and harlots” were expressions which clearly indicated the contempt with which people regarded Jews who collected tax for the Roman government. It was bad enough for a gentile to collect the imperial taxes, but a Jew engaged in this occupation was regarded with special suspicion because his vocation provided him with ample opportunities for graft and corruption. Moreover, the tax collector’s work brought him into contact with the gentiles, who were outside the Law.
But Jesus looked upon Matthew differently. “Follow me” was his brief command. This incident is a vivid example of the evangelist’s view that Jesus extended his circle of disciples even to those who were held in low esteem. Matthew, the tax-gatherer, leaving the security and possibly even the wealth of his position, “rose, and followed him.”
Popular Acceptance of Jesus
When Matthew prepared a public dinner, perhaps in honor of his master, the opposition of the Pharisees was aroused. In their opinion, Jesus cared too much for social outcasts and too little for [p.73]Jewish tradition. The dinner with sinners and tax collectors was a public disgrace. The laws and rituals regarding the preparation and eating of food were violated. The “sinners” with whom Jesus associated probably were those who did not observe the Law, especially the dietary and ceremonial prescriptions associated with eating. It appears that these sinners were sometimes persons who did not know or fully understand the requirements of the Law or whose circumstances made it difficult or impossible to keep its requirements.
The scribes who belonged to the Pharisaic party put the question to the four disciples: “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” (Mt 9:11). The whole situation presented an opportunity for misunderstanding. Hearing their expressed resentment of his behavior, Jesus answered, “Those who are well have no need of a physician.” Then, perhaps with some indignation that these men of religious profession should so completely misunderstand the humanitarian purpose of the gathering, Jesus said, “Go and learn what this means.” He quoted an important pronouncement from Hosea, “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,” insisting that God values mercy and acts of service to those in need above the ceremonial forms of religious worship.35 The occasion demanded courage, for Jesus had challenged the religious authorities who assumed it was their religious and moral duty to shun persons whom they regarded as sinful.36
The local officials and religious leaders would be understandably concerned and no doubt deeply disturbed by the activities of one who commanded such a following as Jesus had generated. Jesus’s actions and teachings were neither authorized nor controlled by them. But according to the Gospel accounts, he did not write or in any way encourage publicity. Nor did he court confrontation with the religious leaders. In Matthew, for instance, Jesus on one [p.74]occasion withdrew from the vicinity of Capernaum to avoid conflict with the Pharisees. The conflict was threatened as a consequence of his defending healing on the Sabbath (Mt 12:1-14f; see Mk 3:6f).
It is apparent from the accounts in all three Synoptics that great popularity came to Jesus early in his ministry. The news of his preaching of the Kingdom and his exorcisms and healing spread rapidly. Many came to see and hear him from nearby Galilean cities, from Judea and Jerusalem, from Idumea south of the Dead Sea, and from the gentile cities of Tyre and Sidon on the Mediterranean coast (Mk 3:7f). Some were merely curious; others wanted to be healed or to witness miracles. But perhaps most came to hear Jesus’s words about the Kingdom. The gospel of the coming of the Kingdom was “good news” for the oppressed and underprivileged. This was the burden of Jesus’ message, and it was this promise and expectation that became the foundation of the Christian movement.
There was a prevailing fear among many people that a person could be possessed by actual, living demons who could then direct his will and dominate his life. Moreover, it was believed that evil spirits were the cause of sickness and disease. Such phenomena had been reported among the early Hebrews, as in the case of the “evil spirit from God” which tormented King Saul (Is 16:14-16, 23, 18:10, 19:9.) It is clear from the New Testament that this belief was also common among the Christians of the primitive church. Mark 1:23-26, 32-34 refers to the many healings and exorcisms which Jesus performed. According to Mark, God and his angels were engaged in a cosmic struggle against Satan and his hosts. Jesus as the Messiah had entered human history at a critical juncture when Satan’s kingdom had almost prevailed. Mark held that one of Jesus’s primary objectives in preparing for the coming of God’s kingdom was to weaken Satan’s dominion by exorcising evil spirits.37
[p.75]It is possible that the spread of Jesus’s fame throughout Galilee was due as much to his success as an exorcist in casting out demons as to his success in healing the sick. If the account in Luke 4:39 of the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law is taken literally, Jesus regarded some forms of sickness as due to evil spirits, for it says that he “rebuked the fever.” It is difficult for modern readers of the Gospels to adjust their thinking to the fact that Jesus, his disciples, and the Gospel writers believed literally in demons and demon possession. But these accounts must be read in terms of the practices and beliefs of the place and time when they were written. It would seriously distort Jesus and his teachings to modernize him by placing him within the culture of the twentieth century.38
The problem of miracles, which will be treated later in more detail, is difficult and perhaps cannot be discussed with full satisfaction in an age of science and scientific intelligence. However, in the case of miracles of healing, the influence of the mind on the physical body offers some explanation. Although the miracles reported in the Gospels are often described as interruptions of natural processes, in some cases they may be regarded as natural processes that were not understood in Jesus’s day. Moreover, the problem of miracles in the New Testament cannot be divorced from [p.76]the analysis of myth and its prevalence in the Jewish eschatology of Jesus’s time.39
That the disciples often failed “to see,” that is, to grasp Jesus’ meaning and intention, is a frequent theme in the Gospel of Mark. As recorded in Mark 1:35-38, this apparent failure to understand appeared early in the ministry. When Jesus went to a “lonely place” for prayer, his disciples followed him to persuade him to continue to administer to the people of Capernaum. He reminded his disciples of the urgency of his ministry by saying that those in other towns and cities must hear his word. So, “he went throughout all Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and casting out demons” (Mk 1:39).40
The account of Jesus healing the leper, given in Mark 1:40-45, has always intrigued those interested in the miracle stories.41 In ancient time leprosy was one of the most dreaded diseases, for it was believed that once the disease was contracted, the afflicted person was doomed to a slow and horrible death. Even more tragic, lepers were shunned by everyone because of the fear of contamination and because they were ceremonially unclean (Lv 13, 14). The law regarding leprosy in Leviticus was explicit: “The leper who has the disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head hang loose, and he shall cover his upper lip and cry, ‘Unclean, unclean.’ He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease; he is unclean; he shall dwell alone in a habitation outside the camp” (Lv 13:45f).42 But the leper in the story disregarded these regula-[p.77]tions. His hope led him to desperate action—”If you will, you can make me clean.” And Jesus, “moved with pity, … stretched out his hand and touched him,” and when he said the words “be clean” the leper was healed. Jesus’s adherence to Leviticus 14 is evident in this account when he tells the healed man to show himself to the priest.
When Jesus came again to Capernaum his fame had spread and crowds were attracted to him. The account of Jesus’s healing a paralytic at this time is given in some detail in Mark (Mk 2:1-12). The words, “When Jesus saw their faith,” refer to the four men and the paralytic whom they lowered through the roof because of the crowded room. His statement, “My son, your sins are forgiven,” inevitably produced shock in the listeners. To heal the sick was one thing, but only God could forgive a person of his sins. There were evidences of hostility among those present, and the scribes who witnessed the event raised the serious question, “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” Then Jesus, sensing their reservations about him, posed the question: “Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, take up your pallet and walk’?” Jesus’s identity and authority are prominent themes in Mark, and in this instance he makes it clear that Jesus is the Son of man and that he has the authority to forgive sins.43[p.78]
[p.53]1. According to the Fourth Gospel, the Baptist did not know Jesus: “I myself did not know him” (Jn 1:31, 33). The Baptist’s question put to Jesus at the time of John’s imprisonment in Luke 7:20, “Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?” seems strange in view of Luke’s claim that they were related (Lk 1:36f).
3. Neither the Gospel of John nor Mark provides an account of Jesus’s birth. Mark’s Gospel, “good news” or “tidings,” begins with the active ministry of Jesus following a brief account of the Baptist.
4. Matthew (3:11) seems to attach special importance to his wording “for repentance.” This suggests that for him John’s baptism “with water” was preliminary to, and inferior to, Jesus’s baptism “with the Holy Spirit.”
Now, some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod’s army came from God, and that very justly, as a punishment for what he did against John, that was called the Baptist; for Herod slew him, who was a good man, and com-[p.55]manded the Jews to exercise virtue, both as to righteousness towards one another, and piety towards God, and so to come to baptism; for that the washing [with water] would be acceptable to him, if they made use of it, not in order to the putting away, [or the remission] of some sins [only], but for the purification of the body: supposing still that the soul was thoroughly purified beforehand by righteousness. Now, when [many] others came to crowd about him, for they were greatly moved [or pleased] by hearing his words, Herod, who feared lest the great influence John had over the people might put it into his power and inclination to raise a rebellion (for they seemed ready to do anything he should advise), thought it best, by putting him to death, to prevent any mischief he might cause, and not bring himself into difficulties, by sparing a man who might make him repent of it when it should be too late (Book XVIII, chap. V, para 2).
6. For a detailed discussion of John and the Qumran community, which apparently produced the Dead Sea Scrolls, see W. H. Brownlee, “John the Baptist in the New Light of Ancient Scrolls,” in Kristen Stendahl, ed., The Scrolls and the New Testament (New York, 1957), 33-53.
8. Many of the laws on ritual purity are to be found in Leviticus, Numbers, and Exodus. Laws of purification and atonement in Leviticus (11-16) are combined with the laws of holiness (Lv 17-26) and are referred to as the Holiness Code. See the classic work of Alfred Edersheim, The Temple: Its Ministry and Services, reprinted in 1982, for a treatment of Jewish ritual at the time of Jesus.
9. For a detailed examination of the place of washing and ritual cleansing in connection with the sacrifice, see Roland de Vaux, Ancient Israel: Its Life and Institutions, trans. John McHugh (New York, 1961), 461f. It is known from the Babylonian Talmud that converts were inducted into Judaism by baptism by immersion as well as circumcision. In cases of religious revival, as with John’s preaching, baptism by immersion was sometimes practiced by the Jews as a public confession of faith. See David Daube, The New Testament and Rabbinic Judaism (London, 1956), chap. V.
10. In his account of the archaeological work at Masada in 1963-65, Yigael Yadin describes the discovery of two ritual baths on the rock of Masada. An account of the examination of the baths by rabbis who were experts in the Law governing the requirement, size, and volume of the mikve is given in Yadin’s Masada, Herod’s Fortress and the Zealots’ Last Stand, trans. Moshe Pearlman (London, 1966), 164-67.
11. In the account of baptism by the apostles in Acts 8:14-18, the coming of the Spirit follows prayer and the “laying on of hands.” In Luke’s Gospel, most of the major events in Jesus’ ministry include accounts of Jesus praying: at his baptism (3:21); choosing the Twelve (6:12f); the confession at Caesarea Philippi (9:18); the Transfiguration (9:28f); at Golgotha (23:34); and at the moment of his death (23:46).
12. The query by John about Jesus’s need for baptism and Jesus’s reply are found only in Matthew (3:14f). Presumably this is Matthew’s resolution of the dilemma posed by the accepted fact of Jesus’s baptism at the hands of John. When the early church began to interpret baptism as relating to repentance for personal sins, the Christians, who regarded Christ as sinless, faced the problem of why he was baptized by John.
13. The dove motif is presented in all four accounts. That the dove symbolized in the Gospels the coming of the Spirit seems appropriate, as it was already a religious symbol in Hebrew literature. In the Genesis story of the flood, the dove was a symbol of the reconciliation of man to God. In the later rabbinical writings, as among the early Christians, the dove was a symbol of the spirit or the Holy Spirit.
14. The pseudepigrapha has traditionally included pseudonymous and anonymous Jewish writings produced between ca. 200 BCE and ca. 200 CE. They usually purport to have been written by illustrious figures from Jewish history who lived long before they were actually composed.
16. Mark’s interpretation of the Spirit driving Jesus into the wilderness conforms to accounts of the Spirit coming with great power upon Old Testament heroes, kings, and prophets—Saul, David, Samuel, and Elijah (1 Sm 10:6-10, 16:13f, 19:20-24; 2 Kgs 2:15f.).
18. Matthew and Luke provide most of the details. The Gospel writers unquestionably regarded Jesus as the Messiah and the Son of God. From the perspective [p.62]of the Christian Church of their time, what Jesus did and said bore witness to the truth of their claim of his Messiahship and sonship.
20. This has an apparent reference to Deuteronomy 6:16: “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test, as you tested him at Massah.” Exodus 17:7 reads, “And he [Moses] called the name of the place Massah and Meribah, because of the fault finding of the children of Israel, and because they put the Lord to the proof by saying, ‘Is the Lord among us or not?'”
21. Jesus was talking to Palestinian Jews who were steeped in apocalyptic imagery and confident that God would deliver them. The Age to Come, the new age, would suddenly and spectacularly appear (Morton S. Enslin, The Prophet from Nazareth [New York, 1968], 71).
22. The term “Galilee” is thought by some to have referred originally to a small circuit or ring of cities in the northern area of Palestine. Solomon gave King Hiram of Tyre these cities in payment for materials and services in the building of the Temple. More likely “Galilee” derived from the several prominent round-shaped hills which dominate this northern region.
23. The Sea of Galilee is approximately 695 feet below the level of the Mediterranean. It is approximately 14 miles long from north to south, 7 miles in width, and averages about 150 feet in depth. Capernaum, where Jesus centered his activities in Galilee, was located on the northwest shore.
25. For a detailed discussion of the history of these religious traditions, northern and southern, see Bernard W. Anderson, Understanding the Old Testament, 3rd ed. (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1975), 267f, 518-21.
27. Matthew and Mark record that, “they took offense at him” (Mt 13:57; Mk 6:3). Also, Matthew reports that Jesus “did not do many mighty works there, because of their unbelief” (Mt 13:58). The fact that in Mark, Jesus is referred to as “the Son of Mary” (Mk 6:3) and Joseph is not mentioned suggests either that Joseph died while Jesus was a young man or that the earliest Gospel retains a tradition that knows of no father for Jesus. In Luke, however, Jesus is referred to as Joseph’s son (Lk 4:22). Four brothers are named in Matthew and Mark, and the fact that sisters are mentioned indicates that Jesus was a member of a family of at least seven children (Mt 13:55f; Mk 6:3).
29. Luke’s account places the event at Nazareth soon after Jesus’ baptism, the temptation, and his first preaching tour in Galilee. Mark and Matthew place the rejection at Nazareth later in the sequence of events. This fact has given rise to the claim of some that there were two rejections at Nazareth. The evidence seems to favor two versions of a single event.
30. In the New Testament and in Josephus, the name of Capernaum is more frequently written as Capharnaum. The original Hebrew name Kfar Nahum means the village of Nahum. In Jesus’ time Capharnaum extended for some distance along the narrow shoreline, confined between the hills and the sea. For details, see Stanislan Loffreda, A Visit to Capharnaum (Jerusalem, 1981).
31. Capernaum was the location of Peter’s and Andrew’s home; here Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law of a fever (Mk 1:29-31). According to the Gospels, several other important events occurred here: Jesus taught in the synagogue at Capernaum, healed a man with an unclean spirit (Mk 1:21-28), and cured a servant of a Roman centurion (Lk 7:1-10).
32. In Matthew the pattern of future events is established early in Jesus’s ministry. Matthew’s account differs from Mark and Luke in that according to Matthew, Jesus left Nazareth and “dwelt in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali” (Mt 4:12f). This account, in accordance with Matthew’s predisposition to relate Jesus to earlier prophecy, fulfilled scripture. The move to Capernaum was probably to inaugurate Jesus’s ministry to the gentiles, i.e., “the people who sat in darkness” (Mt 4:16/Is 9:2).
36. Each of the synoptic writers mentions that Jesus’s intention was not to call “the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Lk 5:32). See parallels in Mt 9:13 and Mk 2:17, which omit the phrase “to repentance.”
H. C. Kee holds the view that the portrayal of conflict with the demonic in “Q” and Mark “is an essential factor in the fulfillment of God’s redemptive purpose through Jesus” (Howard C. Kee, Jesus in History, 2nd ed. [New York, 1977], 98). Jesus the Magician, by Morton Smith (San Francisco, 1978), is an account of the view of Jesus held by his enemies and the opposers of Christianity. It gives an extensive treatment of demonology and Jesus’s exorcisms. Jeffrey Burton Russell, The Devil: Perceptions of Evil from Antiquity to Primitive Christianity (Ithaca, New York, 1977) and Satan: The Early Christian Tradition (Ithaca, New York, 1981), are informative studies on early conceptions of the sources of evil.
38. The error of modernizing Jesus is the subject of Albert Schweitzer’s influential The Quest of the Historical Jesus, trans. W. Montgomery (New York, 1906). See also the work of Rudolf Bultmann, whose basic interest has been the eschatological framework of Jesus and the early church (Rudolf Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament, trans. Kendrick Grobel, Vol. 1 [New York, 1951]).
39. The Bultmann concept of demythologizing the New Testament with its three-storied conception of the universe contributed importantly to the enthusiasm for biblical study over the last several decades. See Bultmann, Jesus Christ and Mythology.
40. Luke is even more explicit than Mark (1:35-39) about Jesus’s motivation to reach other people, “for I was sent for this purpose.” Also, according to Luke (4:42f), the people, not the disciples, attempted to detain Jesus: “The people sought him … and would have kept him from leaving them.”
42. “Leprosy” is a biblical term apparently employed to refer to a variety of skin diseases. The distinction between clean and unclean was primarily a religious distinction, although it probably had some connection with early tribal codes of hygiene. In ancient Israel only the priest could declare a leper clean; only he could make atonement for the leper, which was essential for his return to normal life in the community. Leviticus 14:1-32 describes the extensive ritual of cleansing.