by: W. D. Davies

T he world was bathed in gold, heaven and earth merging in the Galilean sunset that greeted my arrival at Safad, “a city that is set on an hill.” Amid such luminosity how natural seemed the vision in the first chapter of the Gospel of John: “Hereafter ye shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descend-ing upon the Son of man.” Is there a connection between geography and religious intensity in this small corner of our world; mere accident that Jesus appeared in luminous Galilee?

I often wondered about this as I came to know the radiant face of that land and gazed upon the Sea of Galilee — now a sheet of bright pewter, now a plate of blue china rimmed with gold. But I could not forget the dark side of the Galilee of 2,000 years ago—the misery and the violence, for the centuries-old conflict between Hellenism and Judaism was coming to a climax in blood. The Hellenistic ideal stemmed from Alexander the Great’s attempt to unite the diverse peoples of his empire. Embodied in the Roman Empire, it set aside ethnic and national distinctions in the interest of a common culture. In Palestine it collided with the Hebrew belief that the One God had chosen the Jews to make his revelation known to all mankind, and commanded them to live by his law uncontaminated by alien cultures. Having known the yoke of Assyria, Babylonia, Persia, Greece, and Rome, the Jews and their cherished land were harrowed to be the seedbed for deep things. Faithful to the God who had delivered them out of bondage iii Egypt, the people yearned to be delivered again. Many centered their hopes on a future savior whom they called the Messiah

Jesus thus came to a land prepared for him, among a suffering, believing, hoping people who ascribed authority to a book, and who were challenged in their loyalty to their God and in their identity asa nation. From the first, those who identified Jesus as the Christ, or Messiah, looked upon his life as the fulfillment of Jewish expectations revealed in their scriptures. Our earliest formulation of Christian belief comes from Paul, a Jew who persecuted the infant church, then became its greatest missionary following his call on the road to Damascus. Writing to a congregation at Corinth about A.D. 50 ---some 20 years after Jesus’ crucifixion — Paul hands on these central points: that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures: And that he was seen of Cephas [Peter], then of the twelve” (I Corinthians 15:3-5).

Faith in the resurrected Christ would influence the course of Western civilization . Men would die for that faith, crusade for it, carry its message to the ends of the earth. It would inspire cathedrals, sublime art, music— and the disharmony of theological controversy, religious war, and the proliferation of antagonistic sects. Today, across two millenniums, Christ’s message shapes the ideals and societies of 950 million adherents of the worlds largest faith. Although millions upon millions have felt the impact of Jesus’ personality and message, his life is not exhaustively known. Even the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were probably not primarily concerned with biography. Yet writing in the koiné, the common Greek understood almost everywhere, the evangelists held up the example of Jesus life to guide his followers as they spread out and established communities of believers in the Greco—Roman world.

Only Matthew and Luke narrate Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, and they say little about his growing to manhood in Naiareth; yet all four gospels yield much information indirectly. We can see the strong influence of the Galilean landscape on his thought when Jesus speaks of wheat and tarcs, laborers in the vineyard, lilies of the field, and birds of the air. He likens God’s word to seed sown on good ground, and asks whether men gather grapes from thorns or figs from thistles. He weaves parables —challenging lessons —around sowing anti reaping, the telling of unfruitful trees, the hncbng of lost sheep. Our knowledge of the social and religious background also indicates other influences on him.

“Galilee of the Gentiles,” as the scriptures called it, had a mixed population — “mongrel” iii Jerusalem’s scornful eyes. .Jewish families had settled here during the patriotic Maccabean uprising against the Seleucicis that preceded the Roman take- over in 63 B.C. They mingled with Syrian shepherds, Greek merchants, and Roman soldiers in cosmopolitan Tiberias and Capernauni. Even in humble Nazareth, Jesus may have played with Greek children, heard the Latiii of the soldiers, lie spoke Aramaic, the Semitic language common in Palestine. Jesus grew up as the son of a carpenter among artisans and small farmers, who bore a double burden of Roman and Teniple taxes. A member of a pious family, he doubtless was schooled in his people’s age—long encounter with their God, the demands God placed upon them, the exhortations and consolations of the prophets God sent to them, the wisdom of their sages, the visions of their dreamers — all preserved in the Hebrew scriptures which Christians refer to as the Old Testament. How well he learned is illustrated by’ Luke’s story that when Jesus was only’ 12 he astonished teachers in the Temple at Jerusalem with his questions and answers. Enshrined in those scriptures he would find expression of hopes particularly’ alive in Galilee, where nationalists fiercely opposed to foreign rule sought to raise the land in revolt.

N ow out of the wilderness a new voice sounded. Repent! Prepare the way of the Lord! in .John the Baptist’s cry’ the voice of prophecy’, silent for centuries sounded again. it struck deep into the troubled nation’s consciousness: “And there went out unto him all the land of Judaea ... and were all baptized of him in the river of Jordan” (Mark 1:5). Among the crowds was Jesus of Nazareth, probably in his early thirties.

Standing by the Jordan, I was overcome by how commonplace that river seemed — narrow, shallow, muddy’. Only extraordinary’ events could have transformed such a scene and such a stream into symbols of such power in the life of men. As pilgrims hustled between Hijlah Ford anti the Monastery’ of St. .John the Baptist, I tried to imagine the press of the populace, the commanding figure of John clad in camel’s hair, the electric nioment when he recognized Jesus’ uniqueness. Iii the rumble of trucks of the Israeli frontier I heard echoes of Joshua leading the Israelites against the Canaanites to claim the Promised Land. Men of Jesus’ clay’ yearned for a new Joshua to lead the people out of the wilderness of their suffering into the promised kingdom of God

Jesus’ baptism marked a turning point in his life — and in history’. There in the waters of the Jordan, Jesus underwent an experience of singular intensity’ that confirmed he was now set apart in a special way for the service of God. But how should he fulfill his new vocation? In the story of the temptations, the gospels symbolically give us a glimpse of the dilemmas with which Jesus wrestled as he accepted and persisted in that service. The Devil posed dazzling alternatives: command the stories to become bread; cast yourself down from the pinnacle of the Temple, to be saved at the last moment by angels; seize “all the kingdoms of this world, and the glory of them” (Matthew 4:8). We might think of these as offering salvation through economic well-being, using supernatural powers for vainglorious exhibitionism, or seizing political power. These temptations Jesus rejected, whether in the Judaean wilderness or in the fastness of his mind. He returned to Galilee a servant of God and man.

Soon after the start of his public ministry, Jesus went into the synagogue at Capernaum to teach. Challenged by a man with “an unclean spirit,” he cast out the spirit. In performing this exorcism Jesus revealed that he was more than a follower of the Baptist. John placed less emphasis on the good that the kingdom of God might bring than on the wrath and the winnowing that would accompany it. Jesus stressed fhrgiveness and compassion. The troubled mind, the twisted limb should be ministered to now. Thus the great healer introduced a startlingly new variation on an ancient theme: “If I cast out devils by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God is come unto you” (Matthew 12:28). The kingdom of God has already begun to manifest itself, here arid now, in the midst of men, Jesus teaches, though the older order has not completely passed sed away. A time of decision is at hand, and men must face its challenges.

A round him Jesus drew disciples who “forsook all, and followed him.” Their number symbolizes the twelve tribes of Israel; their vocations reflect the every-day life of Galilee’s bustling towns. Matthew was called from the custom-house at Capernaum, astride the caravan route from Damascus to Egypt. The two pairs of brothers—”Simon called Peter” and Andrew, James and John—made their living by fishing in the lake known as the Sea of Galilee. Watching a fisherman tend a double-ended skiff near Capernaum where warm springs still draw fish toward the shore, I recalled Simon Peter’s skepticism when Jesus said, “Simon, launch out into the deep and let down your nets.” Simon replied, “Master, we have toiled all the night, and have taken nothing.” Then under Jesus’ gaze: “Nevertheless at thy word I will let down the net.”

Luke goes on to relate that Simon Peter had to call his partners to come and help, so great was the catch. Astonished, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, 0 Lord.” Simon Peter became the leader of the disciples, chosen to help Jesus spread the gospel that God’s kingdom is present and at work. On them Jesus placed demands of comprehension and obedience that were to test them to the uttermost. In the end they would prove all too human.

Significantly, it was to those on the edges of society that Jesus reached out. To the “lost sheep of the house of Israel” he brought the good news of God’s mercy. He ate with “publicans and sinners,” did not condemn a woman taken in adultery, nor spurn Zacchaeus, a Jewish collaborator who gathered taxes for the hated Romans. To sufferers of ailments which society might view as the result of sin, Jesus brought healing and redemption. Comforting the afflicted and bringing the strayed back into the fold were both manifestations of the grace which emanated from Jesus like the father’s love for the returned prodigal son.

John the Baptist, imprisoned by Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee, sent followers to appraise the new prophet. They asked Jesus, “Art thou he that should come, or do we look for another?” Jesus told them to tell John what they saw and heard: “The blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and .. . the dead are raised up.. And blessed is he, whosoever shall not be offended in me” (Matthew 11:3—6).

But some were offended. Pharisees coining from Jerusalem to check on Jesus’ signs and wonders” were outraged. By what authority did this Nazarene upstart act? His claim to be able to forgive sin usurped the prerogative of the divinely ordained sacrificial system and priesthood. He must he possessed by Beelzebub, the scribes agreed, “and by the prince of devils casteth he out devils” (Mark 3:22). Furthermore, he violated sacred law when he ate with the “unclean,” and his disciples picked grain on a holy day. Jesus’ reply was sacrilege to their ears: “The sabbath was made for man, and not .man for the sabbath: Thcrefore the Son of man is Lord also of the Sabbath. (Mark 2:27—28).

Equally startling was the moral teaching of Jesus, presented in large part in the Sermon on the Mount, which tradition places near Tabgha, overlooking the lake. With the gentle beatitudes presented in the filth chapter of Matthew (“Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth’’) stand these stern injunctions: Ye have heard that it was said....Thou shalt not kill. . . . But I say unto you......that whosoever is angry with his brother ... shall be iii danger of the judgement Ye have heard that it was said.....Thou shalt not commit adultery : But I say unto you,. That whosoever looketli on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.’’

“Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That..whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.

Jesus asked obedience to a new law of lovc: those who receive grace should show grace. So demanding a doctrine inevitably came into conflict with the world of’ mcn. Though his following increased, he grew aware that much of this popularity rested on a false understanding of his intention. I pushed my car into low gear as I climbed into the hills at the northern end of the Sea of’ Galilee. Israeli Army jeeps ground up the grades with me. Not long ago, these highlands were under bombardment from Syrians across the Jordan Valley. My eyes scanned the rises audi gullies where, in an earlier clay of war lever, Jesus may have walked oii his way to a fateful rendezvous.

All four gospels refer t o a vast crowd of about five thousand following Jesus to a solitary place. He had sought refuge to rest, but took compassion on them, feeding them, we are told, through a miraculous multiplication of loaves and fishes. In solidarity’ with his followers he anticipated —by the breaking and blessing of bread — his relation to them as the giver of life. But they did not comprehend. They hungered not so much for spiritual sustenance as for political Freedom. An army without a general, they sought to push Jesus into the role of’ their champion. ‘This miracle worker would deliver them from grinding burdens of taxation and the tyranny of foreign rule. John relates that Jesus, perceiving “that they’ would come and take him by force, to make him a king” (6:15), withdrew into the hills alone. Their hopes dashed, many’ of his followers “went back, and walked no more with him.”

Jesus must have sensed that his Galilean ministry was over. Even Nazareth had rejected him, evoking his comment, “A prophet is not without honor, save in his own country, and in his own house” (Matthew 13:57). He felt it imperative to reexamine his mission and deepen the understanding of the few who remained

 “For which of you, intending to build a tower, sitteth not down first, and Counteth the cost, whether he have sufficient to finish it?” (Luke 14:28). The carpenter’s son doubtless had long pondered the cost of his commitment. Now, withdrawing northward with his disciples to Caesarea Philippi, Jesus proceeded to teach them that “the Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected of the elders, and of the chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again” (Mark 8:31). Peter objected: The Messiah could not possibly suffer. Bu Jesus rebuked him and concentrated henceforth on preparing himself and them for their confrontation with .Jerusalem, and for derision, defeat, and death.

Word had come that Herod Antipas sought Jesus to kill him. But Jesus determined to take his message to the center of the nations religious life — to a city that bad rejected .Jerenuiah, Ezekiel, and Micah — because “it is unthinkahle for a prophet to meet his death anywhere but in Jerusalem” (I.uke 13:33).

J esus entered Jerusalem at the festival of Passover when pilgrims streamed into the city to commemorate Israel’s deliverance from Egypt. Mark tells us that when Jesus approached by’ way of Jericho, a beggar hailed him as Son of David. His procession became a multitude, crying “Hosana; Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord: Blessed be the kingdom of our father David, that cometh ........ . . Hosanna in the highest” (11:9-10).

Those cries must have ignited nationalist fervor in the teeming city. If the Son of David was on the way, deliverance was at hand. But Jesus responded with two symbolic acts. He rode in, not on a spirited charger as the warrior son of David, but on a donkey as the king of gentleness prophesied by Zechariah: “. . . behold, thy King cometh unto thee: he is just, atid having salvation; lowly, and riding upon an ass . . . and he shall speak peace . . . and his dominion shall be . . . even to the ends of the earth” (9:9-10). And Jesus cleansed the Temple, confirming that his challenge was religious, not political.

Mark makes it clear that the cleansing was calculated—not a sudden burst of indignation. On entering the city, Jesus went in arid looked around the Temple, as a general surveys a field of coming battle. Next day be returned to drive out traders and money changers who clogged the great outer Court of the Gentiles. Here pilgrims bought sacrificial sheep and birds, and changed their money into acceptahle currency to pay the half-shekel Temple tax. In restoring the Temple’s area for Gentiles, jesus evoked Isaiah 56:7: “. . . mine house shall be called an house of prayer for all people.” He had prophesied that “many shall come from the east and west, and shall sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdonmm of heaven” (Matthew 8:11), heralding the day when Jew and Gentile would worship the One God.

In the Temple he healed the blind and lame, and taught the multitude. According to Matthew 23:24, he castigated scribes and Pharisees who “strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel,” who cloaked iniquity under a show of righteousness. They tried to trick him into a seditious statement by asking if it was lawful to give tribute to the emperor, but he replied: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12:17). He praised the poor widow’s offering of two mites above the abundant gifts of rich men. Indeed, he had said “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God” (Matthew 19:24). Now he shocked his hearers by predicting the Temple’s destruction: “There shall not be left one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down” (Mark 13:2).

The “establishment” in Judaism clearly saw that Jesus had laid an axe to the root of their tree. He threatened their law, their way of life, the very existence of their nation. His revolutionary activities could well bring down the wrath of Rome upon the Jews. According to John, Caiaphas the high priest had counseled that it was expedient that one man should die rather than the Jewish people. The gospels which, it must be remembered, were written at a time of mounting tension between the followers of Jesus and the synagogue—relate that it was the priests who moved to initiate the Roman proceedings against Jesus.

Aware of their intent, Jesus held a last supper in .Jerusalem with his disciples. Later those who shared in it came to think of it as a new Passover in which Jesus bound them to himself as a community of a new Exodus. For “Jesus took bread, and Blessed, and brake it, and gave to them, and said, Take, eat: this is my body. And he took the cup, amid aid unto them, 1~his is my blood’’ (Mark 14:22—24)

Betrayed by one participant, lesuS faced the ultimate test of obedience in a garden at the foot of the Mount of Olives. In his agony he prayed: “Abba, Father, all things are possible until thee: take away this cup from me: nevertheless not what I will, but what t hon wilt” (Mark 14: 36). Armed men catiie with the traitor Judas, and at his signal, a kiss, arrested Jesus. All the disciples fled.

Recently I entered that Garden of Gethseinane. The gnarled olive trees appeared twisted with 1)itter memories; the cock’s second crow —by which time Peter had thrice denied Jesus — seemed still to hang in the air. I ponder Jesus’ noncommittal l reply to Pilate’s query, “Art thou the King of the Jews?” A political question implying an attempt to overthrow the government. And the ultimate question from the high priest, “Art thou the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?’’

According to Mark, Jesus answered, “ I am.” The other gospels arc less explicit. Yet I had only to recall Jesus’ prayer iii this very garden: “Abba, Father..... In all

 Jewish literature nothing parallels this use of Abba, without a suffix, as an address to God. The equivalent in human endearment to “Dad ,“it indicates the intimacy the evangelists perceived between Jesus and God, son and father. Clearly, Jesus shunned the title of Messiah in his ministry because to affirm it would have been to court misunderstanding. Many would have foisted on him their concept of a Messianic warrior come “to slay their foes and lift them high.” Of that Messiah Jesus watitecl no part, so he had to avoid their term. He was to a suffering Messiah, a compassionate Christ who would “give his life as ransom for mail)’.” He might have used to his contemporaries the words of William Blake: “The Vision of Christ that thou clost see, Is my vision’s greatest enemy.......”

Condemned For Blasphemy by his priestly opponents, Jesus was taken before Pontius Pilate; the Romati govermior had to review any case involving the death penalty’. He Found Jesus guiltless. But the mob cried, “Crucify him!” When Pilate offered to release lesus under the traditioiial Passover amnesty, the mob instead dcmanded Barabbas, one of three insurrectiomsts awaiting execution. Faced by tumult, Pilatc freed Barahhas. He “washed his hands” of Jesus’ blood and delivered him to be crucified” (Matthew 27:24, 26). To be nailed to the cross—a slow, agonizing death reserved for slaves and non-Roman criminals.

In the gospels Jesus goes to the cross sinless, solitary, sovereign. They report “darkness over all the land” at the hour of his death — a symbol of God’s judg- ment on a sinful world that had rejected his son. And they assert that the veil before the Temple’s holy of holies was “rent in twain from the top to the bottom.” “This suggests that through the death of Jesus the veil separating man from God has been sundered. His body, as Jewish law required, was removed before the Sabbath began at sunset. He was buried hastily l)ut decently through the goocl offices of a sympathizer, whose Ilame is given as Joseph of Arimathaea.

A s I left the garden and walked back towards the walled city, I reflected on the fact that the story tiiight have ended there, had Jesus “merely” died on the cross. Anatole France’s portrayal of an agitig Pontius Pilate, the governor, failing to recall any one by the name of Jesus of Nazareth is plausiblc.

But death did not vanquish him. The gospels assert that on the Sunday morning after the Friday of the Crucifixion the tomb was found empty and that Jesus rose again from the dead.” He appeared to Peter, to lames, to all the apostles including Thomas who at first doubted, and then to more than “five hundred brethren.” The The impact of their encounters with Jesus after his death drew his scattered, disillusioned, discredited followers together to launch a community into the world — an enduring community of the forgiven, sustained by his living, dynamic presence. It was the conviction that .lesus had returnedl to renew his fellowship with those who had failed him that created the Christiati church.

Easter had followed the Crucifixion and turned Black Friday into Good Friday beause Jesus hadl risen. “I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though lie were dead, yet shall he live; And whosoever liveth and believetli in me shall ncver dlie” (John 11:25, 26).




Copyright @ 1971, 1978, National Geographic Society

“Christianity”, ( pgs. 295-304)

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