What are the Beatitudes?

Matthew 5:6, Beatitutes, LatinThe word beatitude comes from a Latin word meaning “happiness” or “bliss,” translating the Greek word μακάριος. The following verses (5:3-12) form an introduction to the whole Sermon on the Mount.  “Happy is the one who is….” is the form, this is a very basic instruction on how to have a happy successful life. The earliest macarisms (“blessed are”) in Greek literature is from the Homeric Hymn to Demeter (480–83), “Happy is he among men upon earth who has seen these mysteries” (Collins, ABD 1:629). The idea of each of these statements is as opportunity or chance to be happy. As Scot McKnight says, get this word right, the rest falls into place; get it wrong, the whole thing falls apart” (Sermon on the Mount, 32).

The noun אַשְׁרֵי (ʾašrê) is normally translated “blessed” (Psalm 1:1). It is the normal introduction to a blessing. Pennington associates the state of being blessed with the biblical concept of shalom (Sermon on the Mount, 44). Shalom is usually translated “peace,” but like many important Hebrew words, it is difficult to translate the word with just one word. It really has to do with functioning exactly as God intended. Prior to the fall, the world was in a state of shalom, peace. But the world implies everything was God intended. Perhaps shalom as the sense of “just right.” Scot McKnight suggests the character of God blesses the one who pursues wisdom. This blessing is always tangible, a “flourishing life rooted in common sense, hard work, and listening to one’s elders” (32).

The combination of “blessed and cursed” is common in Hebrew wisdom literature and may help unpack what this state of blessedness is.  Psalm 1 for example begins with “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked…” and contrasts the blessed person with the wicked. The prophets often pronounce a “woe” on their listeners, a kind of anti-beatitude. The cursed is a state of being “not as God designed.” So the wicked described in Psalm 1 are living outside of the way God intended for them and are therefore living is a state of cursed-ness as opposed to blessed-ness.

To illustrate this, the beatitudes in Luke 6:17-26 have four “blessed are” statements matched by four “woe to you” statements. Blessed are the poor, but cursed are the rich. Where are the woes in the Sermon on the Mount? In Matthew 11:20-24 Jesus pronounces a series of woes on the towns which rejected the preaching of the disciples when they were sent out two-by-two. Matthew also has collection of woe-sayings targeting the Pharisees (Matt 23). Since that is a long speech which transitions into the Olivet Discourse (Matt 24-25), Matthew may have intentionally separated the blessing from cursing as he wrote his gospel.

One way to define “blessed” in this context is to think of the sayings as describing how people can flourish and live a successful life. Jonathan Pennington recently defined “blessed” as “human flourishing.”  He says “a macarism is a pronouncement based on observation, that a certain way of being in the world produces human flourishing” (Pennington, The Sermon on the Mount, 42). To illustrate, consider 1 Kings 10:8. The Queen of Sheba praises (blesses) Solomon using the word, “Happy are your men! Happy are your servants, who continually stand before you and hear your wisdom!” In this context, Solomon’s servants flourish because they are in Solomon’s presence. They are not rewarded with this flourishing, it is simply the result of the fact they are in Solomon’s presence.

In these sayings, Jesus defines the kingdom of God as living out the life of wisdom and obedience to the Law. The Sermon on the Mount goes well beyond the “letter of the Law” to describe the life of the follower of Jesus. But these are not commandments, Jesus does not say “be poor in spirit if you want to get blessed.” He says those who are poor in spirit are in a state of blessedness.

This is a radical way of looking at these sayings since most modern readers what to read them as commands and preach a sermon on “Twelve Steps to being Poor in Spirit.” These are not promises to the meek that (someday) they will inherit the kingdom if they are meek enough. On the contrary, Jesus is telling his disciples that their meekness, poverty, and even their state of persecution means they are already in a state of shalom, the kind of happiness that comes from being exactly where God intends you to be.

How does this way of looking at the Beatitudes reverse popular teaching and preaching? Do the “blessed are…” sayings describe “human flourishing” in the same way the present day church does? As we enter into to the Sermon on the Mount, how will this way of thinking change our view of Jesus’s teaching?

 

 

Bibliography: Raymond F. Collins, “Beatitudes,” in ABD 1:629-631; Hans Deiter Betz, “The Beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:3–12)” in Essays on the Sermon on the Mount (Tr. L. L. Welborn; Philadelphia: 1985), 17-36;  Betz, The Sermon on the Mount, (Hermeneia. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995); Robert Guelch, The Sermon on the Mount, 62-118; C. M. Tuckett, “The Beatitudes: A Source-Critical Study. With a Reply by M. D. Goulder” in The Synoptic Problem and Q: Selected Studies from Novum Testamentum (Ed. David E. Orton; Brill Readers in Biblical Studies 4; Leiden: Brill, 1999), 180-203; Jason Kuo, “Beatitudes,” Lexham Bible Dictionary.

Jesus as a New Moses

“Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him. And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying…” (Matthew 5:1–2).

In Exodus, Moses went up on Mount Sinai and received the Law then taught the Law to God’s people. Like Moses, Jesus is presented as a second Moses who teaches the Law on the Mountain. Matthew intentionally draws a parallel between Moses as the original leader of God’s people and Jesus, the ultimate “lawgiver” and interpreter of God’s Law.

In fact, there are a number things in the Gospel of Matthew which indicate the author wanted to intentionally present Jesus as a “new Moses.” Dale Allison pointed this out in his 1993 monograph, The New Moses: A Matthean Typology and it is now quite commonplace to find this commentaries on Matthew. In fact, drawing parallels between Jesus as Moses goes back at least to the fourth century writer Eusebius in this in his Demonstration of the Gospel. McKnight has a lengthy quote from Eusebius (p. 23), but as he observes, Eusebius’s point is “the noxious fumes of supersecessionism,” the belief the Church has replaced Israel as God’s people.

Moses Ten CommandmentsJust a few examples should be sufficient here. First, when King Herod ordered the execution of children in Bethlehem Jesus and his family escape to Egypt (Matt 2:13-18), just as Moses escaped Pharaoh’s order and was adopted by the Egyptian princess. Second, Jesus passes through the water in his baptism (3:13-17) and goes into the wilderness for forty days to be tempted by the devil (4:1-11). Israel passed through the waters at the Red Sea and went into the wilderness and were eventually tested for forty years. It is also significant Jesus answered the devil’s temptations with quotations Moses’s words drawn from the book of Deuteronomy. Third, in Matthew 5 Jesus “went up a mountainside” (ἀνέβη εἰς τὸ ὄρος) to teach his disciples. The content of this teaching is in many ways an interpretation of the Law of Moses. In Exodus 19:3, Moses “went up to the mountain of God” (ἀνέβη εἰς τὸ ὄρος τοῦ θεοῦ). Moses “goes up to the mountain” in Exodus 24:18 (when he entered into the glory of God) and 34:4 (when he received the two stone tablets from God). Finally, Scot McKnight points out Jesus’s posture is important: he is sitting down to teach the Law, just as those who teach with legal authority “sit in the seat of Moses” (Matt 23:2).

Why would Matthew use Moses as a model for Jesus in his Gospel? Most commentators want to avoid any hint of supersecessionism and anti-Semitic overtones and (correctly) observe Jesus does not replace Moses (nor does the church replace Israel), but rather Jesus fulfills the Law of Moses (McKnight 24). As we will see as we work our way through the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus offers a new way of reading the old commands, “do not kill” or “do not commit adultery.” This “new way” is really the original way, to seek the heart of God in his commands and find ways to live out God’s heart in the real world.

I would suggest Jesus is a new Moses in that he demonstrates how the disciple in the new age should understand how to apply God’s word in the new age of the Kingdom. Under the Law, it was entirely possible to do many functions of the Law perfectly, yet still miss the heart of the Law. This is what the prophets constantly condemned Israel for doing. Amos, one of the earliest writing prophets, declared that God hated Israel’s worship, the sacrifices and music was offensive to him because Israel did not practice the justice at the heart of the Law. Amos 5:11 decries abuse of the poor through taxation and 5:15 demands justice prevail in the courts.

Jesus therefore says it does no good to “not murder” if you are going to hate people in your hearts. It does no good to follow the commands on oath making if you are going to find all sorts of ways to bend the rules. As the New Moses, Jesus demands his disciples look deep beneath the surface of religious practice for the heart of God.

If this first sermon in Matthew’s Gospel is intended to recall the original covenant God made with his people, how does that change the way we read the Sermon on the Mount? Is this a “strict moral code” for following Jesus? Or is Jesus offering a pattern for thinking through how the heart of God can be applied to new and different cultural situations as his disciples move out into the world with the message of the Gospel?

 

Creating the Sermon on the Mount

Matthew 5:1-2 Now when he saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them, saying…

The Sermon on the Mount is the first of five sermons in Matthew.  Notice that the first and the last are given “on a mountain,” all of them are addressed to the disciples, although in the case of the Sermon on the Mount there is a crowd that is listening to the teaching.

The five teaching sections in Matthew form a chiasm. The Sermon on the Mount (chapters 5-7) is about the law and the Olivet Discourse, another “sermon on a mount,” but this time the Mount of Olives near Jerusalem (chapters 24-25, similar to Mark 13 and Luke 21).  Chapters 10 and 18 are shorter sermons on discipleship. In the central position is a collection of Parables of the Kingdom, similar to Mark 4.

The Sermon on the Mount, JesusSome of the material in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount is found in Luke’s “Sermon on the Plain” (Luke 6:17–49) and other material is sprinkled throughout Luke (for example, Matt 5:13 = Luke 14:34–35; Matt 5:14 = Luke 11:33). This common material is usually designated as Q, a hypothetical “sayings gospel” that predates Matthew and Luke.

Was the Sermon on the Mount preached at one time, or is this a compendium of the teaching of Jesus? This is occasionally a controversial topic because Matthew begins the section by stating “Jesus went up on a mountainside and began to teach….”  This implies that there was a single occasion when Jesus gathered his disciples and taught them this material. To many scholars, including evangelicals, Matthew has “created” the Sermon on the Mount by taking various sayings of Jesus on the topic of the Law and arranging these sayings thematically. Luke did the same with the sayings source, except he placed the material in different locations throughout his Gospel. Luke is often thought to have preserved the order or Q, but that is not a critical point.

This means the “Sermon on the Mount” as we know it is ultimately the literary product of the first evangelist. Robert Stein, for example, thought the “Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:1-7:29) and the Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6:20–49) are literary creations of Matthew and Luke in the sense that they are collections of Jesus’ sayings that were uttered at various times and places and have been brought together primarily due to topical considerations” (Luke, 198). This is not to say the gospel writers created sayings of Jesus, but rather they collected the sayings of Jesus and placed them in some sort of context. Jesus probably often sat on a hillside to teach the disciples with the crowds listening as well.

Other evangelicals find this sort of suggestion to be an attack on the inerrancy of scripture. For example, Robert Thomas says “If Jesus did not preach such a sermon on a single occasion, why would the gospel writer mislead his readers to think that He did? This question has no plain answer” (Robert L. Thomas, “Evangelical Responses to the Jesus Seminar,” Master’s Seminary Journal  7 (1996): 88-89). For Thomas, the idea that Matthew collected sayings of Jesus and placed them into an artificial context strikes at the heart of inerrancy and challenges the authority of the Bible.

Is this the case? If Matthew collected genuine sayings of Jesus and placed them into a context different than Luke, would the authority of Jesus’ words be lost? If one accepts that Matthew arranged the sayings of Jesus this way, is the door open to argue Matthew “created” other sayings of Jesus?

The Sermon on the Mount and Christian Ethics

It is no coincidence that the Sermon on the Mount echoes throughout the Gospel of Luke, as well as in Paul’s letters and the rest of the New Testament….  In the first three centuries of the church, no other biblical passage was referred to as often…There is no question that it was understood as the charter document for Christian Living.  Church leaders constantly quoted it when offering moral exhortation. Glen H. Stassen and David Gushee, Kingdom Ethics (Downers Grove:  Invert-Varsity, 2003), 31.

For many Christians, the Sermon on the Mount is the core of Christian Ethics. As Stassen and Gushee state above, the early church used the Sermon frequently to describe how a Christian ought to live out their life in Christ. The same is true for modern Christians. Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously used the sermon as the basis for his The Cost of Discipleship, one of the most influential books on the thinking of Christians in the latter half of the twentieth century. For many Christians, the Sermon on the Mount is the foundation for Ethics, so that books like Kingdom Ethics can use Matthew 5-7 as a starting point for an ethical system.

But as Scot McKnight comments in his recent commentary on the Sermon, Jesus does not “do ethics” quite like anyone else. His teaching is not quite virtue ethics or utilitarianism or any other category of “modern ethics.” He therefore suggests “it is wiser to begin by wondering what Jesus sounded like—morally, that is—in a first century Galilean Jewish world” (Sermon on the Mount, 7).

Sermon on the MountAs McKnight explains it, the Sermon makes people nervous because it does not fit any one category of “doing ethics.” He suggests there are three dimensions to the ethics of Jesus, “from above, beyond and below.” “From above” refers to the commands directly from God as found in the Torah. The Law is not ethics in the contemporary sense since it claims to be a direct revelation of God’s will. Jesus speaks this way in the Sermon on the Mount. He teaches “by his own authority” (Matt 7:28-29). Even if he makes reference to the Law (Matt 5:21, 27) or seems to reflect rabbinical debates (Matt 33-37), Jesus declares “this is what I say.”

But Jesus does not simply command. According to McKnight, his ethics also is “from beyond.” Here McKnight refers to a “kingdom ethic.” The disciples of Jesus are part of the new age (already) even if that new age is (not yet) fully present. There is an eschatological dimension to the Sermon on the Mount since the “future has already begin to take place in the present…An ethic unshaped by eschatology is neither Jesus nor Christian” (11). But Jesus did not have in mind a kind of other-worldly detachment from the present world. The coming Kingdom of God shapes the way Jesus-followers live right now in this world.

A third dimension to Jesus’ ethic is “from below,” by which McKnight means Jesus’ ethics are like biblical wisdom. Biblical wisdom is intensely practical and is often based on observation of the human condition. Jesus’ teaching on worry in Matt 6:25-27 says worry is not worth the effort, one is better to find contentment in want God has already provided than worrying about tomorrow. This is not a “from above” commandment, “Thou shalt not worry.” Nor is it based on a prophetic look ahead to a future when one does not have any worries in a future kingdom. It is based on a common observation that people who are overly worried do not accomplish much.

In the end of his introduction, McKnight concludes that Jesus’ ethics are messianic and kingdom-oriented, but they also describe how a gathered, Spirit-filled people are to live. This observation bridges the gap between the original audience and later Christians who seek to follow Jesus.

Do other teachings in the Sermon fit into McKnight’s three categories?

Book Review: C. Marvin Pate, 40 Questions about the Historical Jesus

Pate, C. Marvin. 40 Questions about the Historical Jesus. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel, 2015. Pb. 407 pp., $23.99.   Link to Kregel

Historical Jesus studies have fallen on hard times in the last few years. In the mid-1990s there was a flurry of publications responding to the machinations of the Jesus Seminar. These responses were often called a “Third Quest” for the historical Jesus since they evoked the memory of Albert Schweitzer’s Quest for the Historical Jesus. Sometimes these responses were conservative, but many in the academy were uncomfortable with the minimalist Jesus produced by the Jesus Seminar.

Pate-Historical-JesusBut this torrent of monographs and articles as slowed recently. One factor is the demise of criteria of authenticity announced by Chris Keith and Anthony Le Donne. In fact, most scholars who attempt to do historical Jesus work today find themselves defending their method as much as employing it in their study of the Gospels. A second factor may be the rise of Theological Interpretation of Scripture (see a basic introduction, see Daniel J. Treier or Stephen Fowl). By using this approach to the Gospels, historical questions are less important (or completely unimportant) since the focus is at the canonical level rather than the historical level.

Usually historical Jesus studies focus on what we can know about Jesus by using historical methods exclusively. This can be a skeptical approach, doubting everything until proven authentic. The result is often the claim the Gospel writers have created sayings and placed them in Jesus’ mouth in order to advance a theological statement about what they believed about Jesus. Other historical Jesus studies focus on the cultural and social background in order to place Jesus in a proper context.

This is the context for a book like 40 Questions about the Historical Jesus. Pate is solidly conservative, never describing any statement or event in the life of Jesus as non-historical or created by the Evangelists. In fact, I would describe the bulk of the forty questions as background studies for the Synoptic Gospels rather than historical Jesus studies. He is interested in answering historical questions about Jesus from the cultural of the Second Temple period rather than answering questions of how to prove a saying or event as authentic.

The first section of the book begins with a justification for the study of historical Jesus. For Pate, historical Jesus studies support the reliability of the four Gospels in response to the skepticism of historical criticism of Gabler or Reimarus or conspiracy theories made popular by the Da Vinci Code. He argues the Gospels present an accurate picture of Jesus despite the skepticism nineteenth century protestant liberalism, Bultmann, or the Jesus Seminar.

Pate answers several questions in this section on the history of the “quest for the historical Jesus” and the current state of the question. This section includes six chapters on our sources for studying historical Jesus, including the Old Testament, apocryphal gospels, oral tradition and archaeology. Not surprisingly, Pate rejects apocryphal gospels as potential sources for the study of historical Jesus, stating clearly that the “New Testament is our sole authority” for a proper view of Jesus (95). He is also skeptical of the arguments against the reliability of Oral Tradition, although he restricts his comments to classical Form Criticism and does not discuss recent work on oral tradition from James Dunn or Francis Watson.

Section two of the book deals with Jesus’ birth and childhood. Three chapters are devoted to the virgin birth, which I find strange in a book about the historical Jesus. Usually scholars doing historical Jesus work will overlook the virgin birth since it cannot be verified historically, or dismiss it entirely as theologically motivated. Three questions concern Jesus’ family and childhood, another area usually omitted from historical Jesus studies since there is nothing which can be verified. The final question concerns the languages Jesus may have spoken (Aramaic, with some Hebrew, Greek and Latin, but he taught in Aramaic).

In the third section of the book Pate covers the life and teaching of Jesus. This is often the heart of historical Jesus studies. He begins with a short overview of why there are four accounts of Jesus life (Question 20). Typically this is the point where a historical Jesus study would survey the Synoptic Problem and offer an opinion on Markan priority and the (non)existence of a source document like Q, but Pate does not cover these issues except in passing.

Several of the questions in this section concern the beginning of Jesus’ ministry (baptism, temptations, the Twelve), and two concern miracles, including the transfiguration. Once again, some of the material in these sections is not typically within the domain of historical Jesus studies, such as the identity and fate of each of the Twelve Apostles or the meaning of the Transfiguration. That the Transfiguration happened can be a historical question, but the meaning is a theological question. Pate does briefly comment on Bultmann’s claim the event is a misplaced resurrection account (246), but (rightly) dismisses the suggestion.

I think more could have been made of the historical value of Jesus’ miracles, especially since they are routinely rejected in classic historical Jesus studies as creations of the evangelists. He uses two pages for a chart of Jesus’ miracles in each of the Synoptic Gospels; this space ought  to have been used to more fully develop the meaning of miracles in the Second Temple period (which is covered briefly) and to expand on the short sentence claiming miracles were part of Jewish Messianic expectations. A messiah who did not do miracles would have been more anachronistic than the Gospel’s presentation of Jesus as a miracle worker. This criticism is more aimed at the style of the book (forty short answers); Pate is constrained by the format of the book and cannot cover everything which might be important (in my opinion).

Questions 28-32 ask about the main message of the four Synoptic Gospels. The content of these chapters is very good and nothing is radical or unexpected. However, the study of the historical Jesus usually does not concern itself with the theology of the evangelists but rather the words and deeds of Jesus. Question 27 and 32 (the focus of Jesus’ teaching and the Olivet Discourse) are perhaps the best in the section since they do indeed focus on the teaching of the historical Jesus. Pate rightly focuses on the Kingdom of God in these two chapters and he spends significant space comparing and contrasting consistent, realized and inaugurated eschatology before concluding some sort of already/not yet approach best explains the data.

The final section of the book concerns the death and resurrection of Jesus. The events surrounding the crucifixion are one of the more profitable areas of historical Jesus research since the events are narrated in all four Gospels as well as external sources. History and geography can be used to confirm the general flow of the story of the Gospels. Several of the questions in this section are historically plausible (the Triumphal entry, Temple action, crucifixion), although Pate includes a chapter on why Jesus died (question 36). This is not on the crucifixion as a historical event, but on the theological concept of substitutionary atonement. Remarkably he include the Pauline and General epistles, which seems odd for a book on the historical Jesus.

Only two questions are devoted to the resurrection the ascension, events conservative readers will affirm as historical, although many historical Jesus scholars hesitate to comment on the resurrection and routinely ignore the ascension as a theological statement rather than historical reality.

Conclusion. This book achieves the goal of studying Jesus through a historical, albeit conservative lens. For the most part I agree with Pate and much of the book resonates with my own approach to Jesus when I teach a college level Synoptic Gospels class. However, I have some reservations based on the use of the phrase “historical Jesus” title of the book. Pate seems to assume the Gospels are historically reliable early in the book and then develops what the Gospels say about Jesus rather than arguing for the authenticity sayings or deeds of Jesus. Perhaps it would have been better to entitle the book 40 Questions about Jesus and the Gospels since the questions are not always the domain of typical historical Jesus studies.

I think a chapter on parables should have been included since the parables are usually the bedrock of Jesus’ teaching in historical Jesus studies, even in less-than-conservative circles. Pate uses parables in his chapter on the Kingdom of God, but the focus is on what the parables say about the kingdom, not whether they are verifiably the words of Jesus.

Since there are forty questions in less than 400 pages of text, the chapters are necessarily short. I found the chapter on archaeology frustratingly short, but that is the nature of this kind of book. Some chapters have helpful charts or bullet-points to cover details quickly. Pate frequently includes lengthy block quotes as part of his response to questions, perhaps too often. Each chapter concludes with several questions for reflection, so the book could be used in a college classroom or Bible study. Pate provides footnotes pointing to additional resources for the serious student who is interested in going deeper into the issues presented in the book.

 

NB: Thanks to Kregel Academic for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

Jesus and Purity (Part 1: Hand Washing)

In Mark 7:1-5 the Pharisees question Jesus over his lack of attention to the tradition of “hand washing” before meals. Jesus’ disciples do not wash their hands before a meal in order to avoid ritual purity, presumably the question directed at Jesus implies he was not requiring his disciples to follow a “tradition of the elders” (v. 5).

“Unclean hands” or “defiled hands” (ESV) refers to the state of impurity with respect to the Law. If one touched something unclean and then touched clean food, the clean food may become unclean. If that is the case, then a person could be eating unclean food even if the food was permissible in the Law. The Pharisees are accusing Jesus of behaving in a way that would make him unclean with respect to their traditions.

HandWashingR. T. France comments Mark’s description of the Pharisee’s practice is a “broad-brush, unsophisticated account which conveys a general sense of meticulous concern to avoid defilement” (Mark, NIGTC, 281). Mark is explaining only very generally the practice of the Pharisees with respect to washing hands before meals. France also points out that it is impossible to know if hand-washing for ritual purity before meals had become the norm for all people at the time of Jesus.

When challenged for his non-practice of “the tradition of the elders” (κατὰ τὴν παράδοσιν τῶν πρεσβυτέρων), Jesus quotes Isa 29:13. The verse is part of a long oracle of woe spoken against Judah and Jerusalem. Isaiah is looking forward to the judgment of God on Jerusalem because of the half-hearted worship in the Temple. While they did the ritual correctly, their hearts were not right with God and as a result the nation would go into exile. By quoting this verse, Jesus is comparing the present leadership of Israel (the Pharisees) to the generation responsible for the exiles. The Pharisees are right to be aware of ritual purity and cleanliness, but they have made their interest in purity an end to itself. Their hearts are still far from God, despite their perfect obedience.

What is Jesus doing here? Is he intentionally ignoring the tradition of the Pharisee because it is not biblical? Was this a “mission strategy” intended to draw the sinner into a relationship with Jesus?  Is he trying to challenge these traditions, or is he simply eating a meal with sinners? When Jesus ate at the house of a Pharisee, did he wash his hands as we expected? I would expect that he did, simply because a Pharisee might not eat with Jesus if he had not washed his hands prior to sitting down to eat.

A more interesting question (to me) is why the Pharisees think that Jesus ought to submit to their tradition of hand-washing. I think that Jesus was teaching things which resonated most with the Pharisees and there is at least a possibility that they thought he was “one of them.” Jesus is described as discussing the Law with Pharisees and weighing in on issues like a Rabbi (divorce, for example). Clearly Jesus was not living as a Pharisee, attempting to maintain Temple purity at all times. Theologically he was “conservative,” but socially (from the Pharisee’s perspective) he was permissive.

Non-Jewish Christianity has always been perplexed by this passage since we Gentiles tend to smugly dismiss Jewish practice with little thought to what application this non-practice by Jesus might have for modern Christians. If Jesus were to visit a contemporary church, what practices might he ignore because they are simply external rituals without any real change of heart? (If Jesus did visit my church, I would hope he did not bring his whip!)

How Political was Galilee?

Jesus is often described as a kind of revolutionary, a political operative who was subtly working to challenge Roman authority. Historical Jesus studies often examine the Roman presence in Galilee as well as the shock of increased urbanization in an otherwise agricultural region. As Crossan points out, a first century Galilean Jew could not escape the “all-pervasive presence of Rome” (The Historical Jesus, 19). But can we fairly describe Galilee as a hot-bed of political rebellion against the Herodians and Rome? If so, how might this tense political situation affect our understanding of Jesus?

Jesus as Che GuevaraWhen Herod was named King of the Jews in Rome in 40 B.C, secured his kingdom with the help of troops from Marc Anthony.  In 39-38 B.C. he cruelly put down rebellions in Galilee (War 1.311-313). While Josephus calls these people “brigands,” E. P. Sanders suggests these brigands were people unwilling to live under Herod, who was considered a “low-born upstart” who slaughters his own sons.

There were people just prior to the time of Jesus who were ready to fight Rome given the right circumstances. Josephus describes a “fourth philosophy” which he claims was founded by Judas the Galilean and Zadok the Sadducee in A.D. 6 (Antiq. 18.3-10, War 2.117f). When Archelaus was deposed, Rome sent a prefect to govern Judea.  In order to organize and tax more efficiently, a census was ordered.  Judas rallied some followers and fought against taxation because it represented foreign rule.  His slogan was “no master but God,” a rather spiritual sounding phrase to be sure, but it is not exactly clear how “no master but God” gets worked out in the real world.

Thirty years after Jesus was executed there was open rebellion against Rome in Jerusalem. But did this rebellion reach Galilee? In a recent essay, Mordechai Aviam compares the archaeological record for villages and towns in Galilee with Josephus’s claim to have fortified 19 settlements in Galilee prior to the rebellion against Rome in A. D. 66. This claim was once dismissed as wishful thinking, but as Aviam observes, scholars have become more open to taking Josephus’s claim as valid (p, 30). If towns like Sepphoris and Gischala were fortified, the people of the towns did the work. While this is not evidence for widespread anti-Roman political activity, Aviam thinks it does indicate “most of the Galileans shared an approach similar to that of Josephus, as did the rebel government in Jerusalem…Galileans were no different” (p. 44).

If the people of Galilee were more closely related to Jerusalem politically, what would they have thought about Jesus in Galilee in the late 20s A. D.? Jesus selected twelve disciples to train as leaders of some sort of movement he called “the Kingdom of God.” If we replace “twelve disciples” with “twelve lieutenants” this sounds even more political! He took many of his followers out into the wilderness and re-enacted the Wilderness people of Israel’s history. Perhaps people who heard Jesus’s teaching and saw his growing movement thought of him as another challenger to Herodian and Roman authority, someone who might restore a kingdom to Israel.

While it is possible a disciple of Jesus, Simon the Zealot, was part of the same political movement as Judas the Galilean, most New Testament scholars prefer to take the word “zealot” in this context as spiritual zeal. Personally, I wonder about the word “zeal” having a modern sense of “spirituality” in the context of A.D. 30 Galilee, where only twenty years beforehand Judas led a revolt against Rome which might be described as “zeal.”  Notice also, there are two men named Judas out of the twelve disciples.  Judas was a patriotic name going back to Judas Maccabees, the last successful Jewish rebel against foreign power.  It is possible some parents were supporters of Judas the Galilean and named their sons after him and other members of the Hasmonean dynasty (Simon, Jonathan, Matthias).

To what extent is Jesus a “political rebel”? Could a Roman official refer to Jesus as a “terrorist”? How might reading the words of Jesus challenge Herodian or Roman authority?

 

Bibliography:  Mordechai Aviam, “People Land, Economy and Belief in First-Century Galilee and Its Origins: A Comprehensive Archaeological Synthesis,” page 5-48 in The Galilean Economy in the Time of Jesus. Ed. David A. Fiensy and Ralph K. Hawkins. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2013.