Trinity College of Biblical Studies-Free Online Bible College
Life of Christ Unit Three
The Life of Christ is a thorough study of Jesus life and teaching along with studies in the historical first-century setting of Judaism
The Founder of Christianity by C. H. Dodd
The Story: (I) Galilee
Philip, a Galilean from Bethsaida, came across a friend somewhere in Transjordan, and proposed to introduce him to another Galilean who had made a great impression on him, "Jesus son of Joseph, from Nazareth." "Nazareth!" Nathanael exclaimed, "Can anything good come from Nazareth?" 2 The vivid little scene, whether or not it is strictly historical, places Jesus in his contemporary setting. The kind of environment in which he grew up can be described out of his own parables. Read with attention they yield a composite portrait of a whole community going about its daily affairs.3 Looking at the picture we may ask from what standpoint within this society it is observed. The answer is plain: it is that of the petit bourgeois, small farmer or independent craftsman, equally removed from the well-to-do and the "proletariat." To this class, we must conclude, the family of Jesus belonged. If at a later stage he was poor and homeless, this was a voluntary poverty, embraced for ideal ends. His most intimate associates, or at any rate those about whom we are told the most, were partners in a fishery business, owning their own boats and employing labor. Jesus himself, Mark says, was a carpenter; the son of a carpenter, says Matthew. Such crafts were normally hereditary. There is a parable about a son learning his trade by watching his father at work: "A son can do nothing on his own account, but only what he sees his father doing. What the father does, the son does in the same manner. For the father loves his son and shows him everything that he does himself" (all the secrets of the craft).4 It is perhaps not too bold to find here a reminiscence of the family workshop at Nazareth. There Jesus learned to be a "carpenter"; but the word in Greek (and in the native Aramaic of Galilee) had a wider meaning. His work included, for example, building operations. In one parable he depicts a scene in a carpenterís shop, where two brothers are at work and one of them gets a speck of sawdust in his eye. In another he pillories the jerry-builder who scamps his foundations; and in yet another he notes the importance of drawing up an estimate before operations begin: "Would any of you think of building a tower without first sitting down and calculating the cost, to see whether he could afford to finish it?" The practical craftsman is speaking. Jesus was not only (as we have seen) an observer of the workaday scene; he had been busy in it himself. It should perhaps be added that to say he was a craftsman earning his living is not to say that he was uneducated. The level of literacy among the Jews was probably higher than in any comparable community within the Empire. And although superior persons in Jerusalem dismissed him as "this untrained man," he appears to have been quite capable of meeting scholars learned in the Scriptures upon their own ground.
How long he continued to work at his trade we do not know. The occasion for his breaking away seems clear: it was the appearance on the scene of John son of Zacharias, called the Baptist. This, according to Luke, was in the fifteenth year of the emperor Tiberius, AD. 28/29, and Jesus was about thirty years of age. This may be taken as a reasonable approximation, though the figures cannot be pressed too closely.
John the Baptist, says the Jewish historian Josephus, was "a good man who commanded the Jews to practice virtue and to be just to one another and devout towards God." 5 So he did, and his moral precepts, so far as they are (scantily) recorded, are practical and down to earth. But Josephus has made it all sound too tame. The impact that John made did not depend on trite exhortations to be good. This formidable ascetic, haunting the wilderness in his uncouth garments, revived the popular image of an inspired prophet, and like the ancient prophets he announced the impending judgment of God on a recreant people. The "Coming One," he said, would soon be here, a terrifying figure, like a woodman laying about him with his axe, like a winnower separating grain from chaff. Indeed (and it was this that gave Johnís preaching its bite) he was here already, unknown, biding his time.6 At any moment the axe might fall. Johnís mission was to warn anyone who would listen to "escape from the coming retribution." What was the way of escape? To confess their sins, "repent," and be baptized.
The rite of baptism, or immersion in water, was no innovation. Various kinds of ritual washings or bathings were widely practiced. The sectaries of Qumran had made them into an elaborate system. But Johnís baptism was different. It was a single, unrepeatable act of initiation. It was more like the ritual bath which converts to Judaism had to take before they could be admitted into the holy people, as a sign that they were purified from the "uncleanness" of heathen ways. And now John urged born Jews, "children of Abraham," to undergo the same rite of purification, because in his view they needed it just as much. His task was, says Luke, "to prepare a people that shall be fit for the Lord." That was what he was doing when he urged moral reformation and baptized those who were ready to commit themselves to it. By immersing them in the river Jordan he marked them for future membership of the "people fit for the Lord." But baptism in water, he insisted, was only preparatory. The Coming One would "baptize with spirit and fire" -- a strongly emotive phrase which we need not try to spell out. Meanwhile they were to mend their ways and wait -- but not for long.
The response was remarkable. The official representatives of religion, it is true, looked askance, but masses of people of all sorts and conditions, from every part of Palestine, flocked to the banks of the Jordan, including, we are told, soldiers, tax-gatherers and prostitutes. Among the crowds was Jesus of Nazareth. What led him to take this step we are not told. If we have in mind his concern for the rise of a new people of God out of the confusions of contemporary Judaism, we can see that so far at least he would be in sympathy with the Baptistís aims. We have noted how he valued solidarity with those whom he saw as potential members of the new Israel, however alienated they might be from the religious establishment. And here they were, pressing forward to commit themselves, by a public act, to just such potential membership. Without attempting to penetrate deeper, we can understand that he would be impelled to put himself alongside these pathetic crowds -- soldiers, tax-gatherers, prostitutes, and all -- who confessed their sins and wanted to belong to "a people fit for the Lord."
But at his baptism something happened which altered the current of his life. All four gospels offer some description, heavily weighted, as we have seen, with symbolism. We are entitled to infer that this was the moment at which Jesus accepted his vocation, For him, and not only for those who wrote about him, it was the act of God by which he was "anointed" for his mission.
It is not surprising to be told that the next step was a temporary withdrawal into solitude,7 The description which the gospels give of that time of withdrawal is, as we have seen, once again highly symbolic. What they are saying is that as Israel was put to the test in the wilderness, so the new Israel, in the person of its Messiah, was put to the test, and came through successfully where the old Israel had failed. Yet for Jesus it was, we may believe, the solution of a personal problem. How was his newly embraced vocation to be carried though, in a situation as full of menace as of opportunity? Some courses of action might suggest themselves with a plausible appeal. He might gain power by "doing homage to the devil," as it is here expressed, or, in realistic terms, exploiting the latent forces of violence to wrest from Rome the liberation of his people. Later, as we shall see, there was a moment when he might have been tempted to do so. Or he might captivate the multitude by an exhibition miracle (for example, said the devil, by throwing himself down from the parapet of the temple and challenging God to intervene). He was in fact later invited to do something of the kind, and refused. His mission was to be guided all through by principles which can be stated very simply, as they are stated here in the three replies to the devilís suggestions. They are: implicit obedience to the will of God ("living on every word that God utters"), trust in God which asks no proof ("You shall not put the Lord your God to the test."), and a dedicated allegiance to him which excludes all lesser claims ("Do homage to the Lord your God and worship him alone."). Surveying the career of Jesus as it appears in the gospels, we can see that these were the keynotes of the whole.
The account of the "testing" could no doubt have been compiled retrospectively out of such a survey. But we have good reason to believe that Jesus had in fact faced his test and made his decision before ever he came out in public. In one of his parables he observes, "No one can break into a strong manís house and make off with his goods unless he has first tied the strong man up; then he can ransack the house." The implication is not far to seek: he had himself tied the strong man up; he had cleared scores with the devil before his work began, and he could carry his campaign into the enemyís country unhampered by any indecision or uncertainty about either his ends or his means. It is not at all incredible that he himself depicted the conflict and its issue in some such dramatic and symbolic form.
What followed? Mark, having briefly summarized the story of the "testing," takes a leap forward: "After John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee." But where was he in the meantime, and what was he doing? Mark did not know, or was not interested. Nor was Matthew, and Luke was not aware that there was any interval at all. John, however, reports that Jesus was for a time at work in Judaea, administering baptism to the people who came flocking to him, and this seems credible. Apparently he had decided that he could not do better for the time being than second the efforts of the Baptist and carry forward the work of preparation, waiting for a sign that it was the will of God for him to take a more decisive initiative. During this time he would appear to the public as an ally, or even a lieutenant, of the Baptist -- or perhaps a rival, and a successful one. This success, John hints, was unwelcome in some quarters: "A report now reached the Pharisees, ĎJesus is winning and baptizing more disciples than John.í When Jesus learnt this, he left Judaea and set out once more for Galilee." 9 It may be true that the suspicious interest which the authorities in Jerusalem were beginning to show was one consideration pointing to a new departure. But it is likely that the thing that decided him was, as Mark says, the arrest of John.
The Baptist, it appears, had gone a step too far in criticizing the irregular matrimonial arrangements of the local princeling, Herod Antipas, who thereupon clapped him in prison (at the fortress of Machaerus, Josephus tells us, near the Dead Sea), and there he was afterwards put to death. But Josephus also tells us something else: "Herod was terrified of Johnís influence with the people. He feared it might lead to an uprising, for they all seemed ready to do anything at his instigation. So he thought it much better to forestall any subversive action he might take, and get rid of him." Without necessarily denying the motive of private pique that Mark alleges, we may be fairly sure that political considerations were not far from Herodís mind. The gospel writers, understandably, tend to play down this aspect of the situation, but we ought always to keep in mind the chronic political instability which was an inseparable part of the background.
However that may be, the mission of John the Baptist was thus brought abruptly to a close, and this, it seems, was for Jesus the sign lie had been awaiting. The work of preparation was over. He came into Galilee proclaiming, "The time has come; the kingdom of God is upon you."
Galilee was to be the base of operations for the campaign which was now launched. How long it continued to be so we do not know. Nor does the silence of Matthew, Mark and Luke rule out the possibility, or even the likelihood, that the Galilean mission was from time to time interrupted by visits to Jerusalem. A point came later, at which there was a definite shift to the south, but at the start Galilee was the principal terrain. The movement of events cannot be reconstructed in detail; the necessary evidence is not available. But according to the general run of the gospel narratives Jesus was during this period engaged in three main types of activity, two of them arising out of his deliberate plan, the third forced upon him.
First, he was engaged upon a broad appeal to the public, by way of addresses in synagogues, preaching in the open air, teaching when he could find an audience willing to listen, and discussion with members of the public who wished to raise questions. The themes he dealt with we have already reviewed. His master aim was to make people aware of the presence of God as an urgent reality, and to induce them to give the appropriate response, so that they might become effectively members of the new people of God which was coming into being.
Secondly, he set himself to minister to human need by healing the sick in body or mind, by awaking faith in those who had lost hope or the courage to live, and by leading people, one by one, into a new life under the inspiration of a personal attachment to himself.
The two kinds of activity which we have noted -- the public appeal and the service to individuals in need -- run together. The spirit by which both are pervaded is nowhere more forcibly expressed than in one of the best known of the poetical utterances reported in the gospels:
Come to me, all whose work is
hard, whose load
The call is public, addressed to all who will hear; the response is necessarily made by individuals. The deep compassion that breathes through it is unmistakable, but no less strongly marked is the note of authority. Jesus lays a "yoke" on his followers; but it is his yoke, and unlike the "yoke of the commandments" of which the rabbis spoke, it is a "kindly" yoke. Paradoxically, the yoke and the load bring "relief" to burdened souls. Pursue the paradox, and it brings us somewhere near to the secret of what Jesus was doing.
The third kind of activity which bulks largely in the accounts of his work in Galilee is controversy. This was something which Jesus did not seek, at this stage. It was forced upon him. In the pursuit of his mission he found himself obliged not merely to neglect some of the finer points of current religious practice (such as fasting on the proper days) but also to break some of the rules which were thought necessary to safeguard the religion of the Law (such as those of Sabbath observance). Whether his actions did in fact amount to breaches of the Law in its true intention was arguable, and he did argue it. But they looked ill in one who set up as a religious teacher. Still more open to misconstruction was his evidently deliberate effort to cultivate friendly relations with classes of people from whom it was a point of honor to hold aloof. He risked incurring guilt by association. Not only so, he sometimes took upon himself to assure these people that their sins were forgiven, and that seemed unpardonable presumption, if not something worse. On all these points he was subject to criticism, and found it necessary to defend himself.
Added to all this, it seems, was an uneasy suspicion aroused by his remarkable healing powers. Evidently these could not be simply denied. If his critics were not prepared to admit that they betokened "the finger of God," there was (in their view) only one alternative. They challenged him to produce a sign from heaven to prove that his powers came from God, with the implication that if he failed to do so they would draw their own conclusions.11 He refused brusquely to do anything of the kind. The inference followed: "He drives out devils by the prince of devils"; in other words, he was a sorcerer. According to Jewish tradition (as we have seen) this was one of the charges on which he was condemned to death. In the gospels it appears rather as a "smear" than as a possible ground for criminal proceedings, but it was dangerous all the same.
A milder form of this "smear," perhaps, represented him as simply out of his mind, and his own relations either suspected that this was the truth or at least thought it wise to put him under some restraint until the ugly rumor should blow over. With this intention his mother and brothers tried to approach him. But he could not now submit to the claim of the family, though this claim was a binding one in Jewish society. When later on he gave the warning that anyone who joined him must "hate" father and mother, he knew what he was talking about. The new community which was forming around him must henceforth be his family: "Here are my mother and my brothers; whoever does the will of God is my brother, my sister, my mother." 12 As the breach with his relations foreshadows the tragic separation from his whole nation which was to be his fate, so his new "family" is the nucleus of the emerging people of God.
How soon the forces of opposition gathered against him it is difficult to say. It may be that the gospels, with their abridged and selective report, have made it look a swifter process than it really was. At any rate it is clear that his mission won a substantial measure of success, so far as success can be gauged by vast audiences, wide notoriety, and an excited following. But Jesus himself was less than satisfied with the response he got. At his home town, we are told, "he was taken aback by their want of faith." 13 "A prophet," he commented ruefully, "is without honor in his own country." 14 He bitterly lamented his failure in the Galilean towns where he was chiefly active, Capernaum, Bethsaida and Chorazin. What he missed in these towns was repentance, a change of heart, as at Nazareth he missed faith. Popularity, it seems, was his for the asking, but not faith, and not repentance, on anything like the scale he desired; and popularity, as we shall see, had its drawbacks.
Yet it was not all failure, by any means, even by the standards by which Jesus reckoned success; so much is clear. A considerable number of Galileans did respond and become disciples, in the sense that they adhered to him personally and were guided by his teaching, though not necessarily giving up their ordinary avocations to stay in his company. Out of this body an inner circle drew together. They accompanied Jesus on his journeys and put themselves at his disposal. At a certain stage of his mission he brought them into active service by sending them out to carry abroad his own message, "The kingdom of God is upon you." The intention seems to have been to face as many people as possible with the challenge inherent in that proclamation.
I have described it as a recruiting campaign; not of course that Jesus was persuading people to "join," or entering names in a list of members. But in a sense already explained he was recruiting for the new Israel. At the same time there was another movement bidding for support -- the national liberation movement of the Zealots. Its back had been broken, militarily, some years earlier, and it had gone underground. For the time it remained, so far as we know, without organization or leadership, but sporadic outbreaks proved that its force was far from spent. A favorable public for its propaganda was found in Galilee, and particularly among the humbler orders of the populace there. This was just the public to which Jesus at this time was appealing. Up to a point they seemed to speak the same language. The Zealots, as Josephus tells us, refused to recognize the Roman government because "they held God to be the only Governor and Master," and rather than acknowledge any man as master they endured indescribable sufferings. 15 This sounds not unlike the kingdom of God with its demand for exclusive loyalty. The two movements were likely to come into contact, perhaps into competition. And in fact one Zealot at least passed into the other camp and entered the inner circle of the disciples of Jesus.16 We may be sure that here were others with a Zealot background among the wider body of adherents. After the death of Jesus, so Luke relates, one of those who had followed him said wistfully, "We had been hoping that he was the man to liberate Israel." 17 It is likely that many others thought he might turn out to be the national liberator.
All this has to be kept in mind as we approach an episode in which, it would appear, the work of Jesus in Galilee found its culmination, and its virtual conclusion.18 The disciples whom he had sent out recruiting returned from their tour -- or perhaps from the latest of such tours -- with a gratifying success story. But it seems that Jesus was not altogether easy. He proposed that they should retire to "some lonely place where you can rest quietly." Perhaps the need for rest was not the only motive for temporary retirement. They took boat across the lake, only to find their purpose foiled. They were faced with a vast concourse gathered in the open country, to the estimated number of four or five thousand. Jesus saw the crowd, we are told, "like sheep without a shepherd," a leaderless mob without a clue. He had meant to avoid an encounter like this, at that moment. But when he saw them "his heart went out to them." So Mark, adding, "and he had much to teach them." We conceive him reasoning with them, explaining himself, and trying to get them to see what he stood for, all day until evening.
What happened then is one of the most puzzling stories in the gospels. It must have had an important place in the tradition, for not only is it reported in all four gospels, but two of them, Matthew and Mark, give duplicate accounts, differing unimportantly in detail. Briefly, we are told that Jesus fed the whole crowd on five loaves and two fishes (or alternatively on seven loaves and "a few" fishes). None of the attempts to make the story intelligible or credible by rationalizing it seem to carry conviction. But it may usefully be observed that the incident as it is presented to the reader is, primarily, not so much a miracle as a mystery. We are not told that they were "amazed," "astonished," or "dumbfounded" (which is the usual way of drawing attention to a miracle), but that "they had not understood." 19 John, after his manner, has appended a long discourse in which the mystery is expounded. The discourse is a series of variations on a theme; and the theme is drawn from the memory of that last supper at which Jesus broke bread for his disciples with the words, "This is my body" (which John gives, translating the Aramaic somewhat differently. as "The bread which I will give is my flesh"). He wishes us to see in the meal of the five thousand a prototype of the sacramental meal in which Jesus gave himself to his disciples, and which was perpetuated in the early churchís rite of the breaking of bread. In the earliest order of service for such an occasion one of the prayers runs, "Thou, almighty Master, didst create all things for thy nameís sake, and didst give food and drink, to men so that they might give thee thanks. But to us thou hast given spiritual food and drink and eternal life through thy Servant." 20 This is the meaning that John intended this story to convey to his readers, and in Mark too the form in which the crucial part of the proceedings is related is so like the language of his account of the last supper that a similar meaning is suggested.
But this does not necessarily dispose of the question, what was the place of this episode in the development of the mission on which Jesus was engaged. The gospels treat it as in some way symbolic of more than appears on the surface. It was a "sign," John says. From that it is an easy transition to the hypothesis that Jesus himself intended it as such. Nor is this at all a farfetched supposition. The Hebrew prophets who were his predecessors were accustomed to perform symbolic actions to reinforce their words -- "acted parables" as they are sometimes called. Jesus did the same upon occasion. What was there, then, in the event of that memorable day to give it a symbolic value? First of all, to break bread together is in all societies a token, and an instrument, of community. Secondly, we know that Jesus made use of the image of a feast to signify the blessings of the kingdom of God consummated in a world beyond this. He also hinted in parable that these blessings were even now available: "Come; everything is now ready," is the message that the host sends to his invited guests in one of his stories.21 We might fairly assume that a whole dayís teaching had not omitted the theme of the kingdom of God and its present reality. Luke in fact says that this was the subject of his teaching on this occasion. And when at the close of the day the feast was spread, it was not difficult to read in it the proclamation, "The kingdom of God is upon you. . . . Come; everything is now ready." Thirdly, Jesus was himself the host. "I did not come," he had said, "to invite virtuous people, but sinners," 22 -- and here he was doing it. The long day of teaching, culminating in the impressive symbolic action, may have been something like a last appeal to the Galileans to understand and embrace his true purpose. It failed, just as the mission to Nazareth had failed to evoke "faith," and the mission to Capernaum, Bethsaida, and Chorazin had failed to evoke "repentance."
The response was disconcerting. Jesus became "aware that they meant to come and seize him to proclaim him king." In that brief phrase John passes over what must have been a gravely critical situation. It was no less than an attempted rising against the government with Jesus as leader. If he had been a "Messiah" of the common sort it was a golden opportunity; but that sort of messiahship he had long ago rejected as a temptation of the devil. It remained to put an end to a situation which threatened to compromise his whole mission. First, the disciples must be isolated from dangerous contacts. He "compelled" them, Mark says (as if they were reluctant to leave the exciting scene), to take to the boat and cross the lake -- and that at nightfall and with a storm brewing. Then he used his remaining influence with the crowd to induce them to disperse peaceably, and retired in solitude to the hills.
So read, the narrative fits aptly
into its place in the turbulent history of first-century Palestine. As the
church moved outwards and made its appeal to wide circles in the Graeco-Roman
world, who could not have cared less about the internal tensions of that
distracted country, the political side of the story lost interest. It was
forgotten except in one branch of the tradition, that followed by John.
What remained was the memory of a sense of baffling mystery at the center
of the whole transaction. The mystery concerned the action of Jesus in
giving bread to the hungry crowd. Something about the way he gave it
seemed to remove his action from the categories of everyday experience:
"they did not understand about the loaves." It was one of the many
question marks which (as the gospel credibly inform us)
things that Jesus said and did imprinted on the minds of his followers.
Only the remoter sequel would bring an answer to the question. The three
earlier gospels get little further than a naive wonder that so little
should have fed so many. John knows the answer at which the church arrived
after much pondering in the light of later experience: "I am the bread of
1In this and the following chapters I have essayed an outline, and an interpretation, of the course of events, so far as this may be inferred from data in the four gospels. Inevitably this is to some extent conjectural. Informed conjecture, a legitimate tool of the historian, is often an indispensable tool to the historian of antiquity. For the result I do not claim more than a degree -- as it seems to me a high degree -- of probability.
2Philip and Nathanael: John 1. 45-46.
3I have attempted to put together such a "portrait" out of the parables in The Authority of the Bible, pp. 147-152.
4A son learning his trade: John 5.19-20a. Basically, this is a picture from daily life, but John, after his manner, has made use of it to enforce a theological point.
5Josephus Antiquities XVIII, v.2, ßß 116-119.
6John 1.26. The other gospels do not make this point, but it was most probably a part of the Baptistís message.
7Mark 1. 12-13, Mutt. 4. 1-b. Luke 4.1-13.
9John 3. 22-24, 4. 1-2.
10Matt. 11. 28-30.
11Luke 11. 15-16. Luke has seen that the demand for a "sign" and the accusation of sorcery belong together; in the other gospels they are reported separately, Mark 3.22, 8.11. Matt. 12.24, 38, 16.1.
14John 4.43, Mark 6.4, Matt. 13.57, Luke 4.24.
15Josephus Antiquities XVIII, i. 6. ß 23.
18Mark 6. 30-44, 8. 1-10; Matt. 14. 13-21, 15. 32-39; Luke 19.10-17; John 6. 1-15.
19Mark 6.52, 8. 27-58, 21.
20Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, 10.3.
After the dramatic scene which we have just been considering, the gospels begin to introduce a fresh series of place names, which seems to indicate an expansion of the area of movement. Any attempt to plot out a detailed itinerary would be an unhopeful project. Our information is fragmentary, and not easy to combine into an intelligible whole. There is little to suggest any further activity in Galilee, at any rate on the scale or in the manner of earlier days. We hear of journeys outside Jewish Palestine, and of activity in Transjordan, as well as on the borders of Samaria, which lay south of Galilee on the west bank. Some of this probably belongs to the period after the crisis in Galilee, but we cannot be certain.
There are, however, some probabilities. It is clear that after the encounter with the five thousand patriots things could never be the same again, and it is no surprise when Mark tells us that Jesus withdrew for a time into foreign territory. No doubt opposition had been hardening in the synagogues, stimulated by the "doctors of the law who had come down from Jerusalem." There was reason to apprehend hostility from Herod Antipas, whose domain included Galilee; at some point (but we do not know when) Jesus received a warning that Herod was out to kill him, as he had killed John the Baptist.1 But to all appearance it was less the threats of the opposition than the misguided enthusiasm of would-be followers that recommended a temporary retirement from the scene. Things had reached such a pass that any further public appeal in Galilee was inadvisable for the present. A new strategy would have to be worked out.
The fiasco of the abortive rising, we are told, had resulted in widespread desertions. From Johnís account we might gather that no followers at all were left except the faithful twelve. But he does not actually say so, and the extent of the defection need not be exaggerated. In any case, for any new departure at this point Jesus must rely on the more intimate group of fully committed disciples, whose loyalty was certain, and who at the same time were capable of being led into better understanding of what he was about. These he led across the frontier, out of Herodís domains, out of the restrictive atmosphere of the synagogues, and away from the ferment of an overexcited nationalism. The journey into foreign parts was in no sense a mission to the heathen; Jesus wished to remain incognito, so far as this was possible for one of his notoriety. His chief preoccupation was the instruction of the disciples who accompanied him. This concentration upon a select group must not be misunderstood, as if he had given up the idea of the new Israel as an open society, and now restricted its membership to a holy remnant. As the sequel shows, he had by no means abandoned the appeal to the people at large, but it had now to be made on different lines; the part which the Twelve were to play in it was one which would try them more severely; and for this they had to be schooled.
But we should probably conceive this time of retirement in part also as giving Jesus himself an opportunity of seeing more clearly how he was now to proceed in fulfillment of his vocation. Its main lines were fixed from the time of testing which followed his baptism; but the kind of action it called for at any given stage must be determined by developments in which he read the signs of the divine will for his guidance. Between his baptism and his irruption into Galilee with the proclamation of the kingdom of God, as we saw, he had marked time, until the removal of John the Baptist gave the signal for advance. So now, we may suppose, developments in Galilee having closed one door, he had to find out in what way the next step should be taken. Exactly how his mind worked we cannot pretend to know, but two things come out clearly: the objective is to be Jerusalem; and to go to Jerusalem is to face a violent death. The two themes are inseparable in a whole cluster of sayings which are so placed in the gospels as to prepare the reader for the account of the last journey and its tragic outcome.
If the mission of Jesus had as its aim the integration of a new Israel as the true people of God, then sooner or later his message must be presented, and presented in a way that challenged a decisive response one way or the other, at Jerusalem, the central hearth and shrine of historic Israel. The time came when he saw clearly that this would cost him his life. Such was his assessment of the situation, based, we must suppose, on an interpretation of various significant incidents, some of them recorded, others unknown to us.
He is unlikely to have arrived at this shattering conclusion without having been at Jerusalem to see how things were shaping. Mark indeed (followed by Matthew and Luke) has so concentrated attention on the final, and fatal, visit to Jerusalem as to give the impression that he had never previously visited the capital since his public activity began. But an attentive reading between the lines may suggest otherwise. At any rate even Markís narrative presupposes that when he entered Jerusalem for the fatal Passover he already had friends and adherents in the neighborhood. John has a circumstantial account of a visit at the Feast of Tabernacles, which fell between the middle of September and the middle of October, some six months before the Passover at which he was to meet his death. He went up, John says, "not publicly, but almost in secret," as if he wished to observe without being observed, taking the temperature of feeling in metropolitan circles.2 But "when the festival was already half over" he was moved to address the crowds in the temple.3 What he said so incensed them that he was in danger of being lynched.4 In the Fourth Gospel this episode is made, after Johnís manner, the setting for a whole series of dialogues and discourses which are evidently his own composition, though they contain undoubted reminiscences of earlier tradition, but there seems no valid reason to reject his statement that in September or October Jesus was in Jerusalem, and that the reception he met with finally convinced him -- whatever premonitions he may previously have entertained -- that any advance on the city would meet with implacable hostility. But go to Jerusalem he must. "It is unthinkable," he said with mournful irony, "for a prophet to meet his death anywhere but in Jerusalem." 5
This, then, was the way in which the mission of the Servant of the lord was to be consummated. This was how the ideal of self-sacrifice was to be translated into brute fact. Pointers afforded by the outward course of events coincided with the inner promptings of his vocation: he must go to Jerusalem -- and die there. From this point on his actions are those of a man who knows that his life is forfeit, and is indifferent to whatever his enemies may do.
When he broached his plan to his closest followers, Peterís immediate reaction, as we saw, was to repudiate the whole idea as an unfortunate aberration. But loyalty to the Leader prevailed, and, though without any clear understanding of what was happening, they steeled themselves for the ordeal, and followed him. Mark portrays the mood in which the march began: "They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, Jesus leading the way; and the disciples were filled with awe; while those who followed behind were afraid." 6 He had timed his approach to Jerusalem for the season of Passover, in March or April. It was a time when masses of pilgrims from all over the Jewish world would be present, and his challenge could be delivered with the widest publicity. Moreover, the festival commemorated the liberation of Israel from Egypt -- the birth of the nation. This yearís Passover was to be marked by its rebirth as the true people of God. The setting for the challenge to Jerusalem was eminently appropriate.
How the interval between October and April was occupied or where it was spent we could only conjecture; the differing accounts of the various gospels at this point are hard to correlate. When we are able to pick up a straightforward narrative again the party have just crossed from Transjordan to the west bank; the halting places are Jericho and Bethany, both on the road between the fords of Jordan and Jerusalem.
It is at this point that signs of prior planning begin to appear. So far, it is assumed, Jesus and his company had traveled, as usual, on foot, but when they reached the outer suburbs he called a halt, and (says John) "found a donkey and mounted it" The other gospels suggest that it was not quite so casual as that. Mark has a circumstantial story (copied by Matthew and Luke) about the way the donkey was "found" Apparently it had been left "tethered at a door outside in the street" at the entrance to the village (presumably either Bethany or the neighboring Bethphage), ready to be released to messengers who gave the password, "Our Master needs it." 7 There is nothing improbable in the story, if we assume that Jesus has been in Jerusalem and its neighborhood before, and made contacts there; and there is good reason for believing that he had. Even if (with many critics) we should reject the story as picturesque embroidery, there seems no reasonable doubt that Jesus did ride into Jerusalem on a donkey. It is unlikely to have been a mere matter of convenience. It may best be understood as one more symbolic action, or "acted parable," after the manner of the prophets. What was its significance we may perhaps best ask after looking more closely at the incident itself.
We have to imagine Jesus and his party as traveling in company with large numbers of other pilgrims making for Jerusalem. Among them would be many Galileans. It would appear (in this all gospels are agreed) that Jesus had not been much in Galilee of late, or, if there, not much in the public eye. As he now rode conspicuously among them, his Galilean fellow-pilgrims greeted him with enthusiasm. John may well be right in saying that other pilgrims who had arrived at Jerusalem in advance now heard of his approach and came out to meet him. The last mile or so turned into something like a triumphal procession. "Blessings on him who comes in the name of the Lord!" they shouted. But cheers were also heard for "the coming kingdom of our father David," and these were ominous. They recall all too clearly some of the poetry of militant nationalism which was current.
Behold, O Lord, and raise up
their king, the son
it and destroy.
Read "Romans" for "Gentiles" and the contemporary relevance of this warlike hymn becomes plain. The man on a donkey does not easily fit into the picture, His strange entry into the city reminded Matthew and John of a prophecy in the Old Testament. As quoted by Matthew it runs, "Tell the daughter of Zion, ĎHere is your king, who comes to you in gentleness, riding on an ass.í" The prophet continues his description of the gentle king: "He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the warhorse from Jerusalem, and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he will speak peace to the Gentiles." 9 As we might put it, he will carry out a program of disarmament and, instead of declaring war on the Gentiles, or "putting them to flight with his threats," he will make overtures of peace to them. If we suppose Jesus to have had this prophecy in mind, then his decision to enter the city in this guise is explained. He was challenging the people to rethink their ideas and their hopes for the nation: "Look on this picture, and on that!" The alternatives were before them.
Arrived in Jerusalem, he made his way, like most pilgrims, directly to the temple. But for the moment he did no more than look around and take note of what he saw with a view to future action; so at least Mark has it. Then he returned to Bethany for the night. Next morning he was back in the city, prepared to carry out an action designed to be the central point of his challenge to priests and people. It was to be staged within the temple precincts. The outer court was in these weeks before the festival the scene of a market where animals and birds could be bought for sacrifice, and where pilgrims from abroad could change the money they brought with them into currency acceptable for religious dues and offerings. The market was at least countenanced by the priesthood. The temple area was their special domain, its guardianship their exclusive responsibility. Jesus now ordered the traders to leave the place, overturned the tables at which currency transactions took place, and drove out the beasts. He then took control and prevented traffic from using the sacred precinct as a short cut. It was undeniably a highhanded action. It was also a bold one. The priests had a police force at their disposal, and in the castle that towered over the temple area a Roman garrison kept watch. The expulsion must have been effected with a minimum of disorder, and we cannot but conclude that the force which effected it was simply the personal authority that made itself felt when Jesus confronted the crowd. Many of them are likely to have sympathized with his action; others perhaps were overawed. There can hardly have been any conspicuous resistance, or the garrison must have intervened to forestall a riot; it was what they were there for. Jesus took command, and, for the moment, he was obeyed. Making the most of the opportunity he had thus made for himself, he spent the rest of the day teaching the people, who, Mark says, were "spellbound by his teaching." Of its content we are told very little, but perhaps enough to give a pointer to one at least of its themes, as well as to the purpose and meaning of his drastic action.10
It was not intended as a coup díťtat, for he took no steps to follow it up. It must have been something in the nature of a manifesto in action. For its significance we must follow any clue that the gospels provide. But first we may note that the very fact that the temple was chosen as the stage for this demonstration made it clear at once that his aims, though he had been acclaimed as a king, were not political; it was the worship of God, not the independence of the Jewish state, that he was concerned with. "Do not turn my Fatherís house into a market." With these words, according to John, he expelled the traders, asserting the elementary principle that the worship of God and the pursuit of gain -- and even of funds for religious purposes -- are two things and not one. "You cannot serve God and Money," as he had observed earlier. So much is on the surface, but there is more beneath. One of the ancient prophets -- the same, indeed, who spoke of the "king coming in gentleness" -- also drew a picture of a good time to come when men of all nations will go up to Jerusalem to worship the King, the Lord of hosts; and on that day the prophet adds, "there shall no more be a trader in the house of the Lord of hosts," 11 Jesus was offering symbolically a fulfillment of that prophecy, in line with his basic affirmation that the kingdom of God is here. So at least John understood the scene, and such an understanding coheres with the general tenor of the gospels.
In Mark (followed by Matthew and Luke) the traders, or rather their priestly patrons, are accused of having turned the temple into a "robbersí cave" -- not a "den of thieves"; that expression, which has passed from the King James Version into our current speech, is a mistranslation. The Greek language has a word for "thief," derived from a root which connotes something underhand, furtive, crafty; but that is not the word used here. It is a different word, which primarily connotes not larceny but violence, and was appropriately used of a highway robber or a gangster. The caves of the Judaean wilderness had long been the strongholds of these miscreants, and of the revolutionaries who were scarcely distinguishable from them, and were called by the same term. The charge that Jesus brought against the traders is not one of sharp practice in business, though with such a valuable monopoly in their hands they perhaps did not waste the opportunity. The charge is that the priesthood was exploiting the sanctity of the temple to make it the stronghold of a powerful and exclusive faction, whereas it was intended to be "a house of prayer for all nations." 12 So a prophet had declared some centuries earlier:
As for the foreigners who adhere to the Lord to worship him, to love his name, and to be his servants . . . I will bring them to my holy mount and make them joyful in my house of prayer. Their sacrifices and offerings shall be accepted on my altar, for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations.
In the prophetís wn day it was a protest against the morose exclusiveness which was the dark side of the Jewish reformersí zeal for religion. As such Jesus took it up. We recall that the Son of David was popularly expected to "cleanse Jerusalem from the Gentiles." Jesus wanted it cleansed for the Gentiles.
It was on the occasion of this "cleansing," according to John, that Jesus used the words which gave so much offense: "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it again." As we saw, the temple is here a symbol for a way of religion and a community embodying it, and the saying is a veiled forecast of the emergence of a new Israel out of the corruption of contemporary Judaism. In the light of this, the "cleansed" temple becomes itself a symbol of the new order, in which there is no distinction of Jew and Gentile, but a united people of God offers him a pure worship "in spirit and in truth" (as John puts it elsewhere). A symbol, but only a symbol: the true temple, "not made with hands" (as Mark has it), was yet to come into being. The crisis out of which it would emerge was now impending. The demonstration in the outer court was one more link in the chain of events which brought Jesus to his death -- to his death and to his resurrection, which was also, in his mind, the rise of the new people of God embodied in him.
It was not to be expected that this open challenge to the priestly custodians of the temple should pass unnoticed by them. "By what authority are you acting like this?" they asked. "Who gave you this authority?" 13 It was quite in character for Jesus to meet such a question by asking another. He reminded them of his predecessor, John the Baptist: Was he a prophet sent by God, or only one more sectarian leader? This touched a sore point; the official representatives of Judaism had been suspicious of the Baptistís goings-on, and yet in view of his immense influence with the people at large they did not care to repudiate him in express terms. "We do not know," was the lame reply. "Then," Jesus retorted, "neither will I tell you by what authority I act." The implication is that there is a kind of authority which is self-authenticating; either you recognize it or you donít, and if you donít there is nothing more to be said. The reference to John the Baptist is not a mere debating point. His work had been one of the "signs of the times" in which Jesus saw tokens of the coming of the kingdom of God, and in accepting baptism at his hands he had embraced his own vocation. Johnís program, "to prepare a people fit for the Lord," set the course which Jesus had followed. Johnís assault on the complacency of official Judaism had sounded a note which Jesus echoed. John had said (negatively) that Jewish descent was in itself no qualification for membership in the new Israel; Jesus now said (positively) that the new temple should be for all nations. He was asking the priests to recognize, belatedly, that the movement which John had initiated and he himself had carried into a new phase, was a work of God. The appeal found no response.
The priests were right in seeing that by his action Jesus had raised the issue of authority. The foundation on which the Jewish establishment rested was the assumption that supreme and unquestionable authority resided in the Law of Moses and could be rightly exercised only by the governing body believed to be in true succession to the lawgiver. At any rate it could be exercised by them alone "until" (as some said) "a faithful prophet should arise" -- one who would hold authority direct from God who gave the Law. Could Jesus be recognized as holding such authority? Were they to look on while he exercised it? It would mean abdication.
Jesus now passed from defense to attack. He appeared publicly in the temple and, in the presence of large audiences, delivered trenchant criticisms of the official representatives of the Jewish religion. The sharp point of his attack is to be found in a parable which reads almost like a declaration of war.
A man planted a vineyard and put a wall round it, hewed out a winepress, and built a watchtower; then he let it out to vinegrowers and went abroad. When the season came, he sent a servant to the tenants to collect from them his share of the produce. But they took him, thrashed him, and sent him away empty-handed. Again, he sent another servant, whom they beat about the head and treated outrageously. . . . He now had only one to send, his own dear son. In the end he sent him. "They will respect my son," he said. But the tenants said to one another, "This is the heir; come, let us kill him, and the property will be ours." So they seized him and killed him, and flung his body out of the vineyard.14
Like other parables, this one depicts an incident such as might well have taken place in the existing situation, when growing popular discontent might at any time erupt in open violence. Like others, it invited the hearers to a judgment: "What will the owner of the vineyard do?" Obviously it could be nothing short of a termination of the tenancy and the re-letting of the property. "They saw," says Mark, "that the parable was aimed at them." They must indeed have done so, if they were not peculiarly dim-witted! The prophets had spoken of Israel as Godís vineyard. The religious leaders of Israel knew that they were there to manage it for him. They understood the parable, rightly, as accusing them of gross abuse of their position and, in effect, serving notice of dismissal on them in the name of the Owner; the vineyard would be let to new tenants. In other words, Israel is still the Lordís vineyard, but the existing establishment is doomed; the new Israel will be under different leadership.
Such is the dťnouement of the parable, and such its inevitable application. But the gradual unfolding of the plot -- the fruitless dispatch of messenger after messenger and their sinister reception -- has also its own significance, That God had sent "his servants the prophets" to Israel, generation after generation, to remind them of their obligations to him, was an established part of the interpretation of their history which all Jews were taught. How Jesus thought about the sad story comes out in another saying of his which would seem to belong to the same situation of acute tension, though its tone is more that of regret than of denunciation:
O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that murders the prophets and stones the messengers sent to her! How often have I longed to gather your children as a hen gathers her brood under her wings; but you would not let me.15
The religious leaders, then, can hardly have missed the general purport of the parable, but it must have left them with a question in their minds: if the Ownerís servants are Godís messengers the prophets, who is the final messenger whose tragic fate is the climax of the story? Who is the Ownerís son? It might imply a dangerous claim.
Matters now moved fast. The priests had evidently decided that Jesus was too dangerous a person to be left at large. John indeed has a circumstantial account of a meeting of the great council which resolved on his death. The discussion, he says, was opened by a speaker who drew attention to the influence which Jesus was exerting on the public, and the danger that his activities might lead to a move by the Roman authorities which might be disastrous to the Jewish community. The debate was wound up by the high priest Caiaphas, who stated the case bluntly as he saw it: "It is more to your interest that one man should die for the people than that the whole nation should be destroyed." 16 In the nature of the case this cannot be taken as anything like "minutes of the proceedings," but there is little doubt that it accurately puts the case as the priests saw it. Jesus must be "liquidated" to avert the danger of disturbing the extremely delicate balance by which Judaea enjoyed a limited autonomy under Roman rule. It seemed to the council that there was here sufficient ground for action; at any rate they could put him under arrest, and that was an action which the governor might be expected to countenance, since it could be represented as being in the interests of public order.
If the authorities were to act, they must act quickly, if possible before Passover, which was now very close at hand. The city was already filling up with pilgrims. Many of these might be found to sympathize with Jesus, and if an attempt were made to arrest him publicly they might well riot in his support, and bring about just that military intervention which it was the object of the exercise to avert. Jesus, well aware of the danger, was now taking care not to be found in the city after nightfall; he either stayed with friends at Bethany or bivouacked on the Mount of Olives, where the little company would easily escape notice among the numerous groups which camped out there for the festival. The projected arrest, therefore, was quite a problem. An unexpected solution now presented itself. One of the twelve disciples who were nearest to Jesus was found to be willing to assist the authorities in effecting a secret arrest.
The motive which led Judas Iscariot to an act which has made his name a byword for the basest treachery is probably beyond discovery. Matthew indeed has a circumstantial story of his driving a bargain with the priests, and he even knows the exact amount of money that changed hands. But here we may reasonably suspect a certain amount of embroidery, the more so since Matthew has also an edifying story about the traitorís remorse and grisly end -- a story, by the way, inconsistent with another account of his death which is found in the Acts of the Apostles, not to mention a third divergent account which we know to have been handed down traditionally in the early church. It was natural enough that legend should have grown about this monstrous piece of treachery. Mark and Luke say simply that Judas approached the priests with an offer to betray his Master, and that they thereupon promised to pay him for his services. John knows nothing of any financial transaction. He says, as does Luke, that the act of Judas was inspired by the devil; that is to say, it was a piece of sheer irrational evil, the motive for which was beyond their comprehension; and that is probably as much as they knew about it. No doubt money may have passed, but it is unlikely that so human, if so sordid, a motive as plain avarice had much to do with it. In the unsavory ranks of traitors to their country who have been exposed in recent years it seems that, while in most cases some consideration was offered and accepted, there were few for whom gain was the dominant or sufficient motive. Some deep-seated psychological maladjustment, a chip on the shoulder, thwarted ambition, misdirected idealism -- these and other motives were at work. It would not be difficult to imagine ways in which some such motive might have influenced Judas, given his background and the situation in which he now found himself. But all this would be mere guesswork. We donít know nor probably did those who first told the gospel story. "The devil put it into the mind of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him"; 17 that is about as far as we can get.
The way was now clear, and the priests could go ahead with their plan for a speedy and secret arrest. One evening in that week Jesus and his twelve disciples met, with due precautions, at a house in Jerusalem where a room had been privately reserved for him, we may surmise by a sympathizer who did not wish to come out into the open (there were probably many such). Here they had supper together, for the last time, as it turned out. And indeed the air was heavy with forebodings. This was no ordinary meal. Although the day was perhaps not the official date for the celebration of Passover (it is known that the official calendar was not universally observed at this time), yet for them is was (or else it took the place of) the solemn Passover supper; and the historic memories which the festival recalled were present to their minds, arousing the deep emotions with which these memories were laden. But the words and actions of Jesus gave a new significance to the occasion. There were bread and wine on the board; of the profound meaning which Jesus attached to the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup something has already been said, and need not be here repeated.
Supper over, the company left the house and made for a familiar spot, an enclosure on the slopes of the Mount of Olives, across the valley from the east gate of the city. Judas Iscariot had already slipped away, on some errand, it was supposed, which fell to him as treasurer of their modest common fund. The others seem to have been in a mood of mingled exaltation and bewilderment; they felt they were in the midst of momentous happenings, but had little inkling of the real nature of the crisis that was upon them. "Pray that you may be spared the hour of testing," Jesus said. He himself was not to be spared. "Horror and dismay came over him, and he said to them, ĎMy heart is ready to break with grief.í " 18 So Mark has written, for once permitting the language of emotion to breach the severe reserve of his narrative Jesus now left his friends and withdrew "about a stoneís throw," to fall into solitary and agonized prayer. After some time he rejoined them, calm and resolute. "Up, let us go forward; my betrayer is at hand." And even as he spoke, lights were seen among the olive trees. and a posse of armed men approached, with the traitor Judas at their head. There was a brief attempt at resistance, but Jesus quickly put a stop to it and gave himself up. The disciples scattered, and Jesus was in the hands of his enemies.
The arrest had been effected, as the priests had desired, without attracting attention or giving any opportunity for a rescue by possible sympathizers. The Prisoner was now to be brought to trial In the account of the proceedings given in the gospels we have, in appearance, reports of two separate trials, one before a Jewish court, the other before the Roman governor, each ending in condemnation on a capital charge -- but a different charge in each. We have to bear in mind the ambiguous standing of the Jewish council, the Sanhedrin. In its own estimation it was the sovereign assembly of the nation of Israel, with authority to administer the law delivered by the Almighty to Moses on Mount Sinai, from which there was no appeal. In cold fact, Judaea being a Roman province, it was a municipal organ of administration, with powers just as wide as Rome allowed, and no wider. Under the liberal policy of the empire, which allowed a fair degree of local autonomy, the Sanhedrin exercised wide jurisdiction as a court of justice, especially in matters arising out of the peculiar practices and institutions of the Jewish religion. But the governor had ultimate responsibility. In particular, he kept in his hands all cases involving a capital charge. This was a principle in force throughout the empire. The only known exceptions, where a local court had the power of life and death, were a very few free cities, incorporated in the empire by treaty, not by conquest. Jerusalem was certainly no free city, and there is no sufficient evidence that the Sanhedrin enjoyed any such improbable privilege. It may, on occasion, have acted ultra vires, and a governor may have saved himself trouble by looking the other way; some such apparently irregular cases are cited. But in the case of Jesus of Nazareth there were reasons why no irregularity must appear.
The priests had a double aim in view: Jesus must be removed by death; he must also be discredited. The death sentence therefore must be legally and formally pronounced by the governor. The surest way to secure such a sentence would be to cite the Defendant on a charge of political disaffection. But such a charge would by no means discredit him in the eyes of the Jewish public; quite the contrary. It was for the Sanhedrin to show that he was guilty of an offense against religion. The prestige of the court would secure respect for the verdict. Yet in fact the Sanhedrin could act only as a court of first instance. And that is what the gospels say it did. Although the council appears to have pronounced the Prisoner guilty and liable to the death penalty, the priests came into the governorís court, not as judges seeking confirmation of their verdict, but as prosecutors. So the gospels all agree. The proceedings before the council therefore take on their proper character as a preliminary investigation to determine the charge to be preferred before the competent tribunal. Such was the legal position, though in the eye of orthodox Jews the judgment of the native court was valid in itself, and Jewish tradition in the Talmud assumes that the death sentence was passed by the Sanhedrin; understandably, it ignores the role of the governor altogether.
The arrest had been made in the dead of the night. Naturally, the council was not in session. But one man at least was awake; and expecting the result: Annas, the ťminence grise, no longer High Priest, but lurking formidably in the background, while his son-in-law Caiaphas discharged the sacred office by grace of Pontius Pilate. Before him the Prisoner was immediately brought for private and informal questioning. "about his disciples and about what he taught." So John (alone among the gospels) reports, noting that a disciple of Jesus who was acquainted with the High Priest had found his way into the house -- which we may possibly take as a hint that he had good information at this point.19
Meanwhile, we must suppose, steps were being taken to acquaint members of the Sanhedrin with the successful arrest and to secure a full attendance at a hastily summoned meeting. It must have taken some time, and we should probably accept Lukeís statement that the full session, with the High Priest himself presiding, took place in the morning. This would bring it into conformity with the rules of procedure, as they are known from Jewish sources. If the session was held at night, as might appear from Matthew and Mark, then the strict provisions of the Law were infringed, and by the High Priest himself. Perhaps they were, but it is more likely that the writers of the gospels have telescoped events. They were not concerned with nice points of legal procedure, nor indeed with chronological precision. Their narrative faithfully portrays the movement of the drama, with its fundamental unity and continuity, even though in fact the interval between the arrest and the session of the council, and between that and the trial before Pilate, may have been more considerable than appears.
The account of the hearing before the Sanhedrin is not without difficulties. The reports in Matthew and Mark (variants of the same) differ in some points from Lukeís, and John does not report the hearing.20 At best we are at a disadvantage in having no more than a very brief prťcis, in Greek, of proceedings conducted in Hebrew, which may have been quite lengthy. Markís account is fullest. He indicates that the object was "to find some evidence against Jesus to warrant a death sentence," and this is probably not far from the truth. But the forms of law were scrupulously observed. Several charges were preferred, of which Mark specifies only one, that of a threat to destroy the temple. This was a perversion of something which Jesus had actually said, as we have seen. But the witnesses could not agree upon the form of words they professed to have heard, so the charge lapsed. It was a principle of Jewish law that the evidence of "two or three witnesses" was required for a conviction. Nor did the other charges find the necessary consentient evidence. Nevertheless Jesus was offered the opportunity of replying to them, which he declined. The High Priest then interrogated him directly: "Are you the Messiah?" Here serious difficulties begin, for, as we have seen, the gospels do not entirely agree about the reply he gave. In any case, the High Priest construed it as a confession that he did make such a claim. Not only so; he gave it as his opinion that the words used were blasphemous. The court unanimously concurred, and the Prisoner was convicted of blasphemy, a capital offense in Jewish law.
Wherein the "blasphemy" consisted it is not easy to say. It is not clear that a claim to messiahship was in itself necessarily blasphemous. Presumably the offense lay in the implications of the language used. Elsewhere in the gospels the charge of blasphemy is particularly associated with two matters in which Jesus gave offense to Jewish religious feelings: he pronounced the forgiveness of sins,21 which seemed to mean usurping the divine prerogative of judgment, and he "called God his own Father" (as distinct from the sense in which he was the Father of all Israelites).22 There may be an echo of both in the language used in the account of the interchange between the High Priest and his Prisoner. Jesus was asked, not only whether he was Messiah, but whether he was the Son of God. In Mark the two are combined, but in Luke he is asked first, "Are you the Messiah?" (to which there was no reply), and then "Are you the Son of God?" (to which he replied, "It is you who say that I am" -- a noncommittal answer capable of being construed as an admission). It looks as if the expression, "Son of God," was not treated as a simple synonym of "Messiah," but was understood to be loaded (as Jesus used it) with startling implications. And these seemed to be emphasized when he went on to speak of "the Son of Man seated at the right hand of God," and associated this with the antique vision of final victory, in which "one like a son-of-man" is invested with universal sovereignty. If it appeared that in speaking of the Son of Man he was referring to himself, which (as we saw) would be consistent with common usage of language, then there might well seem to be here matter of blasphemy, in the sense of an outrageous affront to the most deeply held beliefs and sentiments of the Jewish religion. Whether it could be brought under any statutory definition of the crime is a question to which we have not the material for an answer. And indeed in what I here put forward there is already some reading between the lines. At any rate, the upshot of the investigation was that Jesus stood before the Jewish public tainted with a crime at which they shuddered. But Caiaphas had also succeeded in finding a charge which could be brought before the Roman court; for "Messiah" could readily be translated into "king of the Jews" and that was something that the governor could not ignore. Of the charge of blasphemy we hear nothing further; that was something of which the Roman court could not take cognizance.
Jesus, then was cited before the prefect on the charge of claiming to be "king of the Jews," or, in other words, of being a leader of rebellion against the emperor. There were possibly two supporting charges (so at least Luke says, and he may well be right) : subverting the people, and forbidding the payment of tribute. These perhaps, were stock charges against a nationalist agitator. The case therefore was presented as political from first to last, without any ostensible religious overtones. There is no improbability in the impression which the gospels convey that the prefect would have been glad to decline jurisdiction, as he could have done if the charge were reduced, or modified, so that it would come within the competence of the Jewish court. Matthew indeed has a dramatic scene in which Pilate calls for a basin of water and publicly washes his hands. Perhaps we should not take this as matter of fact, but that the prefect would have liked, metaphorically, to "wash his hands" of the affair is credible enough. He had learned by bitter experience how easy it was to fall foul of the susceptibilities of his incalculable subjects. But if the priests insisted on the capital charge he was bound to proceed with it.
The temperature of national feeling was always high about the Passover season, and it was hardly exceptional that at this very time there had been disturbances which called for police action. Three "bandits" (as the gospels call them, using the official term for what we might call "freedom fighters") were in custody awaiting execution, among them their leader, one Barabbas. And now the governor was asked to deal with another prisoner, Jesus of Nazareth, who (so the priests alleged) claimed to be king of the Jews. Was he, then, perhaps the real ringleader? What evidence was offered we are not told, nor are we informed in detail about the course which the interrogation of the Prisoner took. It has been reduced to the simple question, "Are you the king of the Jews?" to which, according to all gospels alike, Jesus gave the noncommittal reply. "The words are yours. John adds that he put in a plea in his defense: he could not be regarded as a leader of revolt. because he had no followers in arms. Since John himself says that the examination was held in camera, he can hardly have known exactly what was said. But the defense would have been a valid one, corresponding with the facts, and Pilate could easily have drawn the inference for himself, that, whatever may have been intended by the claim to royalty (which Jesus did not disown), the Prisoner was not a danger to the state. If so, that would account for his reluctance to convict, in spite of a prima facie presumption of guilt involved in the claim itself.
Moreover, Pilate had formed the impression that Jesus was a popular figure. So, as a conciliatory gesture to the populace -- and perhaps also as a snub to the priests, whom he obviously disliked and despised -- he offered to give the Prisoner an unconditional discharge. But he had miscalculated. "Not this man; we want Barabbas!" the crowd shouted, incited, we are told, by the priests. Nowadays we know all too well how easily a "spontaneous" popular demonstration can be staged by interested parties, and the clamor for Barabbas need not be given more weight than this. But the prefect was driven into a corner. When he still hesitated, the priests played their trump card: "If you let this man go, you are no friend to Caesar." The implied threat is obvious. Pilate had already more than once put himself in the wrong with the local authorities, and had reason to fear what in fact happened in the end, when he was recalled to Rome to answer their complaints before the emperor He dared not oppose their wishes any longer. After all, the Prisoner had made a technically treasonable claim which he refused to deny when given the opportunity, and the law must take its course. So sentence of death was pronounced.23
Jesus was led to the place of
execution in the company of two of Barabbasí desperadoes -- three
"bandits" to be punished for their crimes by Roman justice was what the
public was intended to see. All three were crucified, after the brutal
Roman practice. No fouler or more agonizing form of torture, perhaps, has
ever been devised. The day wore on; Jewish law required that the bodies of
the crucified should be removed before Sabbath began at sunset. Jesus was
found to be already dead; his fellow sufferers were dispatched. His body
was saved from the indignities commonly reserved for executed criminals,
and he was given decent, though hasty, burial through the good offices of
a well-to-do sympathizer. After sunset, the people of Jerusalem, and the
numerous pilgrims up for the feast, turned to the celebration of Passover;
for this was the day set for it in the official calendar.
1Luke 3.31. It was Pharisees who gave the warning; were they friendly? or was it an attempt to bring pressure to bear? One of the unanswered questions.
2John 7. 1-10.
4John 7.30, 8.59.
7John 12. 14-15, Mark 11. 1-10.
8The quotation is from the (so-called) Psalms of Solomon, 17. 23-27.
9Zechariah 9.9, quoted in Matt. 21. 4-5, John 12.15.
10Mark 11. 15.17, Matt. 21. 12-13, Luke 19. 45-46, John 2.13-19. John has placed this incident at an earlier point, but this is dictated by the order of thought rather than by chronology. I have discussed it in The Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel. pp. 300-303, and Historical Tradition in the Fourth Gospel. pp. 161-162.
11Zechariah 14.21. The word translated "trader" could also mean "Canaanite," the Canaanites (known also as Phoenicians) being the great trading people of the Mediterranean; but the prophet has just invited "all the nations" to Jerusalem, and there seems no reason for a last-minute exclusion of the Canaanites.
12Isaiah 56.67, quoted in Mark 11.17. Matthew and Luke, in copying Mark, have left out "for all the nations," missing the point.
13Mark 11. 27-33.
14Mark 12. 1-12.
15Matt. 23.37. Luke 13.34.
16John 11. 47-53.
17John 13.2 and similarly Luke 22.3.
20Mark 14. 55-64, Matt. 26. 59-66, Luke 22. 66-71.
22John 10. 33, 86. compare 5.18.
23Trial before Pilate: Mark 15. 1-15, Matt. 27. 11-26, Luke 23. 1-25. John 18. 28-29. 16
(III) The Sequel
The story as told in the gospels does not end with Jesus dead and buried. They go on to say that he had risen again.1 That this was so is a conviction that runs through the whole of the New Testament. As I said earlier, it is not a belief that grew up within the church; it is the belief around which the church itself grew up, and the "given" upon which its faith was based. So much the historian may affirm. Can he go further and ask what actually happened to give rise, or to give tangible form, to such a belief?
Our gospels never set out to describe the resurrection of Jesus Christ as a concrete occurrence (though some apocryphal gospels do). The question with which we should approach them is, how did his followers, who knew that he had been put to death by crucifixion, come to be convinced that he was still alive? To this question they give two answers: first, that the tomb in which the body of Jesus had been laid was subsequently found empty; and secondly, that he was seen, alive after death, by a number of his followers.
First, then, all four gospels report that on the Sunday morning after the Friday on which Jesus had died his tomb was found to be vacant. The discovery was first made by a woman follower of his known as Mary of Magdala, either alone or in the company of other women, all of whom had been present at his death. So far all gospels agree.
Luke adds that the discovery was afterwards confirmed: "Some of our people went to the tomb and found things just as the women had said." John particularized: the persons in question were Peter and another disciple. The condition in which they found the tomb, described in meticulous detail, confirmed, and more than confirmed, what Mary had told them; and they "saw and believed." The story is told with the dramatic realism of which this writer is master. It looks like something as near first-hand evidence as we could hope to get. Perhaps it is, and if so, it becomes the sheet anchor of belief in a "bodily resurrection." But the relation between seeing and believing is one of Johnís favorite themes; and at this point he is preparing the way for the pronouncement in which his gospel, as originally designed, found its climax and conclusion: "Happy are those who did not see and yet believed." Is he, then, here constructing an "ideal scene" in which the conditions for belief as based on "sight" are as favorable as they could possibly be, only to suggest that such belief is not, in the end, the most important or permanent kind of faith? It may be so.
At any rate it is remarkable that this is the only place in the gospels where the belief that Christ had risen is a direct inference from observation of the state of the tomb. In Matthew and Mark an angel assures the women, "He is not here; he has been raised again." In Luke, "two men in dazzling garments make a similar announcement. In the Bible, where angels are introduced, it is very often an intimation that a truth is being conveyed which lies beyond the reach of the senses, a "revelation." We might think of a discovery made (there are many such on record) by an imaginative, or "inspired," leap beyond the immediate data, to be verified by subsequent experiment. On this analogy, what the women saw brought only perplexity; then, by a leap beyond the evidence of the senses, they knew what it meant. But it still awaited verification from later experience.
It is indeed upon this verification that all the gospels lay stress. They seem unwilling to rest their case on negative testimony ("They failed to find the body," as Luke says), and they tend in a curious way to minimize it. According to Mark the women "said nothing to anybody" about what they had seen. According to Luke, they did report to the disciples, "but the story appeared to them to be nonsense, and they would not believe them"; nor does he suggest that the confirmatory visit brought any more positive conviction. According to Matthew, the women were on the way to report when Jesus met them -- and this was news better worth the telling. In John, Mary, finding the tomb laid open by the removal of the covering stone, concludes without investigation that the body has been removed by some person or persons unknown, and reports to the disciples in that sense, but as in Matthew, a meeting with Jesus himself resolves all uncertainty. The writers were evidently aware (perhaps they had learned by experience in trying to win credence for their message) that the mere fact that the tomb appeared to be untenanted, even if it were accepted, would not necessarily prove their case. The body might have been removed by friendly or by unfriendly hands; 2 both possibilities are allowed for (only to be refuted, of course). In any case the tendency is to shift the emphasis from the evidence of the empty tomb to the personal encounter with Jesus.
Elsewhere in the New Testament the evidence of the empty tomb is never adduced, though most of its writers have much to say about the resurrection of Christ. But an examination of the language they use may show that it implies more than we might suppose. It is true that they sometimes express their belief in such noncommital phrases as "Christ died and came to life again," 3 or, "In the body he was put to death; in the spirit he was brought to life." 4 But far more frequently they use such expressions as, "He rose from the dead," or, "He was buried; on the third day he was raised to life." The natural implication would be that the resurrection was (so to speak) the reversal of the entombment. The same implication seems to emerge from a careful reading of some other passages, though it may not be on the surface. Passages such as I have cited can be traced back to a time well before the composition of the gospels. It seems hard to resist the conclusion that this is how the early Christians, from the first, conceived the resurrection of their Lord. When they said, "He rose from the dead," they took it for granted that his body was no longer in the tomb; if the tomb had been visited it would have been found empty. The gospels supplement this by saying, it was visited, and it was found empty.
In Jewish circles at the time, those who believed in a life after death at all seem mostly, though not universally, to have imagined it as some kind of resuscitation of the body which was buried. Is it possible, then, that the earliest Christians, convinced on other grounds that Jesus was still alive, gave expression to this conviction in an imaginative or symbolic form suggested by the common belief, and that this was the origin of the story in the gospels? It may be so. Or, again, it may not. As we have seen, the story about the women at the tomb, on the showing of the authors themselves, circumstantial as it is, remains inconclusive as evidence apart from further verification. It looks as if they had on their hands a solid piece of tradition, which they were bound to respect because it came down to them from the first witnesses, though it did not add much cogency to the message they wished to convey, and they hardly knew what use to make of it.
I should be disposed to conclude that while the general tradition held that Christ "rose from the dead" (commonly understood to mean that he emerged from the tomb in which his body had been laid) it preserved also a genuine memory that on that Sunday morning his tomb was found broken open and to all appearance empty. At first the discovery was disconcerting and incomprehensible; later it was understood to mean that Jesus had in some way left his tomb. Whether this meaning was rightly attached to it, and if so in what sense, is another question, and one which lies no longer in the sphere of the historian. He may properly suspend judgment.
The main weight, in any case, is placed on the testimony that Jesus was "seen," alive after death, by a number of his followers, and here we are on firmer ground. We may start with the earliest known recital of the facts.5 This takes us back a long way behind the gospels. It is cited in one of the letters of Paul. Writing about a quarter of a century after the death of Jesus, he says that the tradition passed on to him, presumably when he became a Christian some twenty years earlier, contained the following statements: "that Christ died; that he was buried; that he was raised to life on the third day; and that he appeared to Cephas and afterwards to the Twelve. Then he appeared to over five hundred of our brothers at once, most of whom are still alive, though some have, died. Then he appeared to James, and afterwards to all the apostles." On these facts, he says, all Christian teachers are in full agreement, whatever differences of opinion there may be about other matters.
It is apparent that Paul sets store by the consensus, as evidence for the facts: if anyone doubts, he is free to interrogate those whom he mentions. They include Peter (Cephas), the leading member of the most intimate circle of the disciples of Jesus, and James, his own brother. Paul knew them well. He had met them both, and spent a fortnight with Peter, when he visited Jerusalem a very few years after Jesus was crucified -- almost certainly not more than seven years, possibly no more than four. We have here, therefore, a solid body of evidence from a date very close to the events. Something had happened to these men, which they could describe only by saying that they had "seen the Lord." This is not an appeal to any generalized "Christian experience." It refers to a particular series of occurrences, unique in character, unrepeatable, and confined to a limited period.6
It is with this background in mind that we should read the reports of the appearances of the risen Christ in the closing pages of the gospels. One thing the attentive reader will notice at once: the continuous narrative which ran from the account of the entry into Jerusalem to the discovery at the tomb is now broken. We have something more like a number of detached incidents. It is true that Luke and John show some ingenuity in weaving the incidents they relate into a single story, but the result looks artificial, and in any case it is not the same story. We have the impression that the occurrences described were not of a kind to enter into a developing narrative. They were sporadic, elusive, evanescent, yet leaving in the minds of those to whom they happened an unshakable conviction that they had indeed, for a short space of time, been in the direct presence of their living Lord.
The incidents are reported in stories of various types, some concise and almost bald, stating the bare minimum of fact, some told at length with deliberate artistry. But the pattern of all is the same: the disciples are "orphaned" (the phrase is Johnís) of their Master; suddenly he is there -- it may be in a room, on the road, in a garden, on a hillside, beside the lake, wherever they happen to be. At first there is amazement, with some doubt or hesitation (sometimes made explicit, always perhaps implied), and then, with overwhelming certainty, they recognize him. In Luke, two travelers entered into conversation with a stranger on the road; he sat down to supper with them, and suddenly "their eyes were opened and they recognized him." In Matthew (whose account is much more formalized) the disciples in Galilee were aware of a presence which some of them recognized at once, "but some were doubtful"; then he spoke, and they knew perfectly well who it was. In John, Mary of Magdala, by the dim light of early morning, sees someone in the garden. She thinks it is only the gardener, but he speaks: "Mary." "My Master!" she replies. The fisherman in their boat on the lake after a disappointing nightís work, catch sight of an unknown figure who hails them from the beach. He encourages them to make one more attempt, which succeeds. "Itís the Lord!" one of them exclaims -- and so it is. This is the dramatic motive of all these stories. In almost all other particulars they differ, and the attempt to harmonize them is not hopeful. In describing occurrences which, ex hypothesi, lay on the extreme edge of normal human experience, or beyond it, the writers are hardly to be pinned down to matter-of-fact precision in detail; and indeed the accounts they give, taken literally, are problematic if not contradictory. In various ways they are trying to justify, even to rationalize, what was for the original witnesses an immediate, intuitive certainty needing no justification. They were dead sure that they had met with Jesus, and there was no more to be said about it. It was the recovery of a treasured personal relationship which had seemed broken forever. It was also, as we have seen, their reinstatement after their failure in the "hour of testing." Now they were new men in a new world, confident, courageous, enterprising, the leaders of a movement which made an immediate impact and went forward with an astonishing impetus.
Clearly something had changed these men. They said it was a meeting with Jesus. We have no evidence with which to check their claim. To propose an alternative explanation, based on some preconceived theory, is of dubious profit. What was the nature of this meeting we cannot pretend to know. What actually happened, if by that we mean what any casual observer might have witnessed, is a question that does not admit of an answer. But the events that make history do not consist of such "bare facts." They include the meaning the facts held for those who encountered them; and their reality is known through the observable consequences. In this instance we may be clearer about the meaning and the consequences than about the "facts" in themselves, but this would be true of other momentous events in history. We are dealing with a truly "historic" event. It was the culmination of previous events in the lives of these men (summed up in their memories of Jesus), and the creative starting point of a new sequence of events of which the world was soon aware. It made them new men, but it was also the birth of a new community. Or rather, as they would have said, it was the rebirth of the people of God, the rising of Israel from the dead, and they were in it. It is because they speak out of the very center of this "new creation" that their witness carries weight. They themselves had passed through death to new life. The darkness and desolation of Good Friday and the miserable Sabbath which followed it had emptied life of all meaning for them. On the "third day" they were raised to life with Christ," as Paul put it; 7 and that is a confession of faith hardly less basic than the proclamation, "Christ is risen."
The "appearances" of the risen Christ, as we have seen, are represented as a series limited in time, and distinct from any subsequent type of "Christian experience." Luke, in his second volume (the Acts of the Apostles) has marked the close of the series by a symbolic scene in which, after "forty days" (a conventional number), Christ finally vanished from human view: "a cloud removed him from their sight." That chapter is closed, never to be repeated. But the entire New Testament is witness that the real presence of Christ was not withdrawn when the "appearances" ceased. The unique and evanescent meetings with the risen Lord triggered off a new kind of relation which proved permanent. The focus of this new relation is hinted at by John when he recounts how the risen Jesus gave bread to his disciples, and by Luke when he says that he was "recognized by them at the breaking of the bread." Both writers, no doubt, are looking back to the words and actions of Jesus at his last supper, and both certainly have also in mind the "breaking of bread" which was the center of the Christian fellowship as they knew it, and remained so. In the fellowship the presence of the Lord no longer meant a sudden flash of recognition, utterly convincing but soon over. It was an enduring reality, creative of a new corporate life.
Within that corporate life, as it
matured and expanded. and larger perspectives broadened out, their
understanding of what had happened went deeper. It was not simply that
their lost Leader had come back to them. God himself had come to them in a
way altogether new. And that put the whole story in a fresh light. Matthew
has made the point in the way he begins and ends his gospel. At the
beginning he says that the true name of Jesus is Emmanuel. that is, "God
with us." 8 He closes it with the words of the risen Lord: "I
am with you always, to the end of time." 9 All that lies
between, he means, is the story of how God came to be with men, for good
and all. Starting from there the church embarked on the far-reaching
intellectual enterprise which is the building of a Christian theology, and
philosophy of life, upon the foundation thus laid. But that is another
story, and it is not yet finished.
1Resurrection narratives are in Matt. 28, Luke 24, John 20-21. and Mark 16. 1-8. In most of the ancient manuscripts the Gospel according to Mark ends with 16.8: whether he deliberately stopped there, or meant to write more but was prevented, or did write a conclusion which was afterwards lost, is an open question. The remaining verses are a later addition.
2By the gardener, Mary first thought; by the disciples, according to a Jewish rumor (Matt. 28. 13-15).
4I Peter 3.18.
5I Corinthians 15. 3.7,
6When Paul claims (I Corinthians 15.8) that he had himself "seen the Lord," after all the others, he admits that this was something unexpected, exceptional, and abnormal, an appendix to a series already closed.
The Founder of Christianity by C. H. Dodd
Life of Christ Unit Three
The Life of Christ is a thorough study of Jesus life and teaching along with studies in the historical first-century setting of Judaism