Why Did Paul Not Go to Jerusalem?

When Paul encounters the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus, he immediately goes to the synagogues in Damascus (Acts 9:19-25).  These are the synagogues which had likely informed the Sanhedrin that Hellenistic Jews were proclaiming that Jesus was the Messiah and were expecting Paul to arrive and argue against the Hellenists who have recently arrived from Jerusalem with this new idea that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah.

BenTal SignInstead, the content of Paul’s message is that Jesus was in fact the Son of God (Acts 9).  This is a messianic title drawn from Psalm 2.  Jesus was the long awaited son of David, the ultimate heir of the Davidic Covenant.  That Paul preaches Jesus is as the Son of God is significant because it is the first time such language has appeared in Acts; it will appear a second time in Acts 13:3.  This is likely a clue that the synagogue speech in Acts 13 is intended as representative of Paul’s speech before Jews in a synagogue. Paul’s presentation in the synagogue was the exact opposite of expectations – It is little wonder that there was a strong reaction in the synagogues against Paul!

After his encounter with Jesus, we might have thought Paul would have returned to Jerusalem and immediately confronted the Sanhedrin and the High Priest, the very people approved of Paul’s mission to Damascus in the first place. But he does not return to Jerusalem for three years and, according to his own testimony on Gal 1:16-17, when he did go up to Jerusalem, it was only for a short visit of fifteen days.

As Martin Hengel points out, Jerusalem is where the apostles are to be found, not Galilee or elsewhere in Judea.  If Jerusalem was the focal point of the messianic preaching of the apostles, why did Paul not immediately go there and work with Peter and John in the Temple courts.  Rather than go to Jerusalem, Paul goes into “Arabia” for three years.

Hengel and Schwemer suggest three reasons for Paul’s activities immediately after his conversion.  First, Paul was a zealous persecutor of the church and he transferred that zeal into preaching the gospel.  He met a resurrected and glorified Jesus who commissioned him as the apostle to the Gentiles.  It is only natural that he would want to immediately begin this new task, given to him by his Savior.

Second, belief in an imminent return of Jesus meant that evangelistic activity needed to cover as wide an area as possible.  Evangelism in Jerusalem was already underway and the apostles were stationed there to continue their work.  Later in his career Paul will constantly move out into un-reached areas of the world, creating strategic bases in larger cities from which the local churches can continue the work of evangelism.  For Paul, Arabia was an unreached area and he was uniquely suited to the task as a Hellenistic Jew.

Third, it would have been extremely dangerous to return since he has “switched sides” and now was a passionate supported of Jesus as the Messiah.  While Paul is not described as avoiding persecution, he may have thought that it would be better to have success elsewhere rather than go and be executed by his former masters!

Martin Hengel and Anna Maria Schwemer, Paul Between Damascus and Antioch (Louisville: Westminster / John Knox, 1997), 94.

Examples of the Value of Archaeology (Part 3)

1873 Wood Engraving

Southern Temple Excavations. There is a great deal of archaeological activity around the southern end of the Temple. Since the first two examples I used concern the Old Testament, I will focus on the importance of these excavations for New Testament studies. There are few who would deny the Western Wall represents the walls built by King Herod to expand the Temple Mount.

In 1838 E. Robinson, one of the first archaeological explorers of Jerusalem, discovered the remains of an arch on the southwest corner of the Temple Mount. Photographs show that this arch was only a few feet above ground level at the turn of the twentieth century, and even in 1968 it was near ground level with a vegetable patch growing beneath. Today, visitors to the archaeological park can see the arch some twenty feet from the ground level. Archaeologists have excavated to the level of the first century streets. The arch is part of a stairwell from ground level to the Temple Mount.

Photo Taken May, 2009

One of the most spectacular finds in this area was the “trumpeting stone” from the corner of the wall. On the inside of the parapet is an incomplete inscription saying “to the place of trumpeting.” The stone was 138 feet above the street level! It appears that a priest or Levite would sound a shofar (Josephus, JW 4.582, b. Sukk. 5:5).On the southern end of the Temple Mount a stairway goes up from the street level to a double gate and triple gate. It is likely that there was a plaza at the base of the steps, and there are several public ritual baths near the steps. The double gate is built in the Herodian style, although it was filled in by the Crusaders and a building was added by the Umayyads, nearly covering the entrances. Since the other since of the gate is now part of the Al Aska Mosque, detailed investigation is impossible. Ritmeyer suggests that this may be the Beautiful Gate mentioned in Acts 3, although it is impossible to know for certain. These gates opened up into the Royal Stoa, a huge area on the south end of the Temple Mount.

Trumpeting Stone

In summary, the southern Temple excavations demonstrate what Jerusalem looked like during the ministry of Jesus and the Apostles. The archaeology of the Southern Temple area gives the physical context of last week of Jesus life and the early part of the book of Acts. Let me suggest one application of this physical context to the book of Acts. As is well known, on the day of Pentecost 3000 people respond to the preaching of the apostles and were baptized. In Acts 4:4 and additional 5000 believe. How is it possible to baptize such large crowds in the Temple area? The only real possibility are the many mikvoth around the Temple area, including the pools of Siloam and Bethesda. I think that the baptism of Acts 2 and 3 is a self-baptism in one of the many ritual pools around Jerusalem. In this case, the archaeological context helps explain a detail of the text.

Israel Day 11 – The Final Day in Jerusalem

I am back in the warmth of Michigan today, having recovered somewhat from the long travel day yesterday. Or yesterdays, I suppose. We drove from Petra, Jordan to Jerusalem, then Tel Aviv, flew to JFK in New York, then to Chicago, then drove from Chicago to Holland and on to the Grace Bible College parking lot in Grand Rapids where it all started less that two weeks before. We gained back the seven hours we lost traveling to Israel, but I could use another week to recover.

We planned to leave Petra about 9AM, which is close to when we actually left this time. It was only about 32 degrees when we boarded the bus in Wadi Musa, about ten degrees cooler than Grand Rapids, Michigan. The sky was bright blue with no clouds, quite striking in the desert. We made great time, only making one stop on the way to the King Hussien Bridge / Allenby Bridge border crossing. Suliman made the border stop as painless as possible, and we left him at the border. The Israeli side was remarkably painless as well, we moved through security much more quickly than when I was there in May. Our driver was waiting and ready to drive us to the Jaffa Gate of the Old City in Jerusalem.

As we went up the Jericho road we could tell the weather was going to be chilly and cold. Dark clouds loomed over the city, and as expected we hit rain as soon as we got to the city. I was told that it had rained most of the day, but we got a nice break for the three hours we were there. We had a late lunch at Jacob’s Pizza just inside the Jaffa Gate. (I recommend it, fast and friendly service even though 19 people packed into his little shop to avoid the cold!) This little restaurant is typical of the strange things you see in the Old City – it was still decorated for Christmas (Santa and a Tree), there was strange classical music on the stereo (including the Death March), and two flat screen TV’s playing Tom and Jerry cartoons (with the sound muted).  Positively surreal.

Some of the group split off for some shopping, I lead a group down to the Holy Sepulcher. Since it was cold day in January, the streets down through the Christian Quarter were nearly deserted (making us prime targets for the vendors, “Hey mister, you forgot to look in my shop!”)

The crowd was also light inside the Church so we were able to get to look inside the Tomb without a long wait. I must admit that it was somewhat disappointing. The family ahead of me looked like they were on a trip to Disneyland and were taking the whole thing rather lightly. There was an empty Coke bottle shoved behind a candelabra just before the entrance. The orthodox priest who was there to keep things moving inside the shrine looked like Rubeus Hagrid’s cranky brother. I would have liked my time in the shrine to be spiritually moving, but the whole thing seemed set up to distract my attention away from the Resurrection.

One of my fellow-travelers Ray Crumb spent more time poking around the side rooms and drew my attention to the first century tombs directly behind the Tomb of Jesus. There is a little Coptic Chapel attached to the Tomb, opposite that is a door which leads to the Syrian chapel. My interest was in the two small tombs, but there were a number of people in the Syrian chapel venerating an icon of some sort. My copy of Murphy-O’Connor’s Archaeological Guide gives no details on this very plain room other than a name on a plan of the site.

This points out one of my frustrations with the Holy Sepulcher – I am ignorant about 90% of what is in the church! There are all kinds of chapels and art pieces, but all the guide books are interested in is the Tomb. If any reader knows of a serious “guide to the Holy Sepulcher” please leave a comment. Every time I go in the place I leave wanting to know what each room is for and where “those mysterious stairs lead.”

After some final shopping we were ready to head to the airport, although it was really too early yet. The weather was just too cold to enjoy the evening. I did all my shopping in the Franciscan Book Shop, picking up a copy of Fr. B. Bagatti, Excavations in Nazareth (part 1, 1969). I realize most people have probably already bought a copy of this one, but it makes for some good reading for me. It contains many diagrams and sketches of the Church of the Annunciation, among other things. (This is the sort of report I want on the Holy Sepulcher!)

Assuming that my jet-lag subsides, I will edit the previous posts on the Israel 2012 trip and fix any spelling errors (which I blame wholly on the iPad’s auto-replace feature) and add a few more pictures. I will update my Flickr site as well, so check back sometime this weekend for my final thought on our trip.

John 5 – The Pool at Bethesda

This healing takes place sometime after Jesus’ return to Galilee, likely during the feast of Tabernacles. If this is true, then it is late October. Assuming a three year ministry, this is the only event from the second year of Jesus’s ministry. John gives the location precisely, the Sheep Gate near the pool of Bethesda. The Pool of Bethesda has been identified near St. Stephen’s Gate of the Old City of Jerusalem, next to St. Anne’s Church.  Until the mid 1960’s, it was thought that John either did not know the city of Jerusalem very well, or that the Pool and Gate were metaphors.

The Pool of Bethesda

The Pool of Bethesda, May 2011

The Pool is near the Sheep Gate on the north end of the Temple Mount. The Gate is mentioned in Nehemiah and may have been used for sheep being brought to the Temple for sacrifice.  The Pool would therefore be used to wash the sheep before they were brought into the temple for sacrifice. This means that the pool was not the sort of place were “classy” people went to wash before entering the temple. The fact that a number of invalids are waiting for the water to stir to be healed means that the Pool was a gathering for lower class people, the sick and injured.

The site was also likely the location a shrine dedicated to Asclepius, the Greek and Roman god of healing. This is certainly the site of Hadrian’s Shrine to Asclepius and Serapis, and it appears that a pool dedicated to these gods was first built in the first century B.C. James Charlesworth thinks there was, based on his paper at the 2010 ETS meeting. If the “Five Porticos” describes the unusual building housing the pools, then it is possible that one area was dedicated to Asclepius, and another was used to wash sacrificial animals.



If it is true that the site was used to worship Asclepius, then this helps explain the superstition that the waters might heal the sick. John 5:4 does not appear in the NIV or ESV.  It is probable that this verse was a marginal comment by a Bible reader explaining the tradition of healing at the pool.  This comment was inadvertently included in the text at some point.  Virtually no scholar or modern translation includes the verse, conservative or liberal!

Since the pool was fed by an underground spring, ever once in a while the waters did naturally stir. It is easy enough to explain this as an action of a god, if you were Roman it is Asclepius, if you were a Jew, it is an angel of God.

Could the waters actually heal? There is nothing in the text to suggest they might, but there are many illnesses which are psychosomatic.  In addition, it is possible that the springs gave some mineral content to the waters, which might have some health benefit. But if one believes that Asclepius is going to heal then, then perhaps healing did happen.  Like the results of many modern sham-faith healers, that healing might not last since it was not a real healing.

This background also helps to explain the relevance of this miracle to John’s audience in Ephesus of the A.D. 90’s. The cult of Asclepius was popular and offered something of an alternative to the biblical idea of God as the ultimate healer. This background sets the scene for Jesus’ miracle.  Who will be the one to provide healing for this man, the god or Jesus?

Who is really the giver of life?