Chapter 13 JESUS: Some Background Impressions
Except for being unmarried, Jesus seems to have been an ordinary craftsman who lived in a backwoods village in Palestine for most of his life. He was not a rabbi by profession; he was not a priest; he was a simple lay person, a working man.
None of the gospels offers us a physical description of Jesus. We know only that he was Jewish, a native of the district of Galilee, so most likely he resembled people who are native to north Africa and the east coast of the Mediterranean Sea, rather than modern Jewish people of northern European heritage. Thus he was probably short in stature, perhaps stocky, with black hair, dark eyes and dark skin. Since wood in a desert country was an expensive commodity, it is likely that his work involved building stone houses and laying roof beams rather than crafting delicate cabinets. That he may have earned his living in construction work could indicate a measure of physical strength.
The gospels do not suggest that he was a frail ascetic; on the contrary, some accused him of not fasting as much as they thought he should. During his years as a travelling preacher, he accepted hospitality wherever he went, probably discussing his teachings around the table long into the night: “The Son of Man came eating and drinking,” he says of himself.
Jesus in his homeland
The district of Galilee, where Jesus lived, was in the hill country. It was few days’ journey (about 100 km) north of the great city of Jerusalem, but it was light years away culturally. Jerusalem was the centre of Jewish civilization and religion. Although there were synagogues where rabbis led worship in the towns, there was only one Temple in the whole country. It was in Jerusalem; it was impressive and undergoing renovations that were still unfinished at the time of his death. There priests offered sacrifices and led the celebration of the high holy days. The Temple Mount dominated the city of Jerusalem, and in a way it dominated the whole country. Political and religious leaders in Jerusalem collaborated with their Roman overlords, and had grown accustomed to a fairly privileged lifestyle. They gave orders and expected the people to obey.
The people of Galilee, on the other hand, were poor. They were not well-educated; they spoke in a dialect, with a distinctive accent. After Jesus was arrested, when Peter tried to claim that he didn’t even know Jesus to a group loitering outside the high priest’s courtyard, Jerusalem servant-girls remarked on his backwoods style of speaking: “Your accent betrays you.”
As a citizen of Galilee, Jesus’ first language was Aramaic. Apparently he could read Hebrew (the language of the Scriptures), which would be taught to young males by the rabbis in the local synagogues; no doubt he spoke it with the same accent as Peter. Because the language of the Roman Empire was Greek, Jesus may have spoken a little of that language as well. There is no evidence that Jesus could write; that skill was for professional scribes, not construction workers.
Over the years, many Galileans had assimilated with a series of conquerors (Assyrian, Babylonian, Greek and Roman) and in some ways had become more gentile than Jewish – “Galilee of the nations.” Though they attended services in local synagogues, they rarely travelled to the capital city for Temple worship. Strict orthodox Jewish authorities – the leaders in Jerusalem – scorned the Galileans as irreligious and ignorant.
Average life expectancy was 22 years, due to the high rate of infant mortality. People lived short and miserable lives; 95 per cent were dead by the age of 45. They married at puberty and started their families immediately in the hope that one out of five offspring might live to adulthood and help support the family. Jesus, who was about 30 years old when he began to preach, was already an elder in his community. The people he grew up with were becoming grandparents at that age.
Then Jesus, after 30 unexceptional years of smalltown life, stepped out of his craftsman’s role and announced that his life was to be the turning point of human history. He claimed that he lived in intimate friendship with God, and that he spoke for God more reliably than the traditional religious leaders did.
Jesus and His Family
His family was seriously concerned, “for they were saying, ‘He has gone out of his mind.’ ” The townspeople were dubious, even hostile, asking, “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? …Where did this man get all this?”
These words about Jesus’ family can cause some anxiety among believers, but the questions must be faced.
Did Jesus Have Brothers and Sisters?
Even the Gospel of Matthew, whose narrative of Jesus’ birth clearly teaches that he was born of a virgin, refers to his brothers and sisters, as does Mark. Elsewhere in the New Testament, James, the brother of the Lord, is mentioned by Paul as a leader of the Jerusalem community after the resurrection.
The New Testament does not claim that Jesus was Mary’s only child; indeed, by giving the names of four brothers and referring to his sisters, the gospels seem to be indicating that Mary was fortunate enough to have at least seven children grow to adulthood.
Still, the belief that Mary was ‘ever virgin’ (that she never had sexual intercourse, and had no other children than Jesus) has been a long-standing tradition in the Catholic Church. The tradition depends on deciding that the people listed in Mark 6:3 are members of Jesus’ extended family: cousins rather than blood brothers. And yet, in other places the gospel writers use the proper word for ‘cousin’ or ‘relative’– for example, in identifying Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, as Mary’s ‘relative’ in the Gospel of Luke.
Didn’t His Mother Know of His Greatness?
Most scholars agree that the Gospel of Mark was the first to be written. Although it has a strong theological understanding of Jesus as the Son of God, it gives us a down-to-earth picture of him as he was remembered four decades after the resurrection.
Mark gives us no stories of Jesus’ childhood. The well-known Christmas stories are part of the gospels of Matthew and Luke, which were written at least 10 years after Mark. (The Christmas stories will be discussed in some detail in Chapter 25.) Mark’s community was not aware that Mary had special knowledge about the greatness of Jesus. Mark reports instead what his community remembered: that there was significant tension between Jesus and his family. They do not come across as being among his early supporters; for some people, his refusal to see them when they try to talk with him – “Who are my mother and my brothers?” – seems rude and harsh.
Even Matthew and Luke, who do speak of Mary’s role in the early childhood of Jesus, report his refusal to speak to her in that situation; it is a significant comment about one’s family in faith being much larger than one’s biological family. Mark never mentions Mary again after the townspeople express amazement at how different Jesus has become after a long life as an ordinary citizen. Matthew, Mark and Luke do not report that Mary was present at Jesus’ death, though they name other women who were. Our tradition about Mary’s presence at the death of Jesus depends solely on the Gospel of John.
The Christmas stories were developed long after the resurrection, primarily to assure believers about the greatness of Jesus. Their depiction of Mary as having received special revelations about her son may be theologically useful, but they are historically questionable.
Was Jesus Married?
Popular opinion is always intrigued by discussion about Jesus having been married, possibly to Mary Magdalene. The custom in that society was to marry at puberty; the gospels are quite open in talking about Jesus’ family, but there is no mention of a wife or children anywhere in the gospels. The name of Mary Magdalene indicates that she was a native of Magdala, a town on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, so it is very unlikely that Jesus of Nazareth would have met her when they were young people at the customary age of marriage. When he began his ministry at about the age of thirty, he would be an elder in his community; his contemporaries would be grandparents; very few people lived beyond the age of 40. Their social situation would be very different than that of thirty-year-old people today.
Jesus, like the prophet Jeremiah before him, probably never married. No doubt he had a single-minded sense of his future calling from an early age, and realized that it would be unwise for him to marry or become a father.
The Religious and Political Background
Jesus was a Jew, as were his friends and most of his enemies. There were many factions in Jewish religious society, and they often disagreed with each other. Jesus occasionally agreed with some of them, perhaps more often than we have been led to believe.
All Jewish priests were members of the tribe of Levi, but only a select few enjoyed the hereditary privilege of working at the Temple in Jerusalem. At that one location only, such priests offered grain and animal sacrifices on behalf of worshippers, made declarations regarding the Law of Moses, and presided at the annual festivals. The council of Temple priests was known as the Sanhedrin; at the time of Jesus the president of the council, the High Priest, was Caiaphas.
To consolidate their position, the priests co-operated with the Roman occupying force, which had established its headquarters in the Fortress Antonia, adjoining the Temple area. The priests enjoyed the trappings of power, and did not take kindly to opposition from an upstart Galilean working man, especially when he invaded the seat of their authority and challenged them directly in front of their subjects. All the gospels blame the Temple priests (rather than the Roman governor) for causing the death of Jesus; as a result, no follower of Jesus was ever called a ‘priest’ in the New Testament, though the community was called ‘a royal priesthood.’ Interestingly enough, Acts of the Apostles reports that many Jewish priests later became Christians.
The Letter to the Hebrews speaks of Jesus as the great High Priest of the New Covenant, “offering for all time a single sacrifice for sins.” In later centuries, the term ‘priest’ was restored to honour among Christians, as they realized that the leaders of the Christian community were carrying on the ministry of Jesus, the great High Priest.
The Scribes or Rabbis
The scribes (so called because of their ability to write) were scholars who knew and taught about the Jewish Scriptures and traditions. Their disciples called them rabbi, a title of respect meaning ‘master’ or ‘teacher.’ (Sometimes people called Jesus ‘rabbi’ to honour his teaching, but he was not a rabbi by profession.) The rabbis taught in the synagogues in every town where Jewish people lived.
In general, the scribes were opponents of Jesus (and later of the early Christian community); they were involved in his trial and supported his execution. He responded to their attacks in kind, with fervour. And yet, the New Testament reports that some individual scribes wanted to follow Jesus, and asked for and respected his opinion.
The Pharisees were scholars united by a point of view; they were one school of thought within the Jewish community. They studied the Law of Moses with great care, offering strict interpretations about exactly what was required by the Law. Most of the scribes (or rabbis) belonged to the Pharisees’ school; that is why the two terms are lumped together in some of Jesus’ more vitriolic denunciations.
The Pharisees were not entirely closed to new thought and new traditions. After Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed by the Romans in 70 ce, it was primarily the Pharisees who took charge, reorganized the community, and initiated ‘Judaism,’ a new form of Jewish tradition that has endured for 2,000 years.
We tend to see all the Pharisees as being against Jesus, but this is not true. The Gospel of John describes a Pharisee named Nicodemus, who sought enlightenment from Jesus, defended him from attacks by religious authorities and, loyal even after his execution, participated in his burial. Paul, who also adhered to the Pharisees’ point of view, also became a Christian and a great early missionary.
Jesus’ Ministry in Galilee
When Jesus began his ministry of teaching and healing, many people rejected him. According to Luke, Jesus’ townspeople attempted to kill him (a common treatment for insanity with religious overtones), and drove him out of his home town permanently. Jesus left his own village and established a base in the fishing community of Capernaum, by the shore of the sea of Galilee, some 20 kilometres east.
The Sea of Galilee is a small lake in the northern part of Jesus’ homeland. Though it is below sea level, it is a freshwater body; the Jordan River flows into it from the north, and out of it towards the south on its way to the Dead Sea. In the gospels, this same lake is called Lake Tiberias (so named by the Romans to honour one of their emperors) and Lake Gennesareth (named after the area to the east of the lake). Today it is called Kinneret, and vacationers waterski and sailboard on its surface. It is not really a sea as it is no more than 10 kilometres wide; you can always see the other shore, wherever you stand. Peter and his friends would catch the sort of small fish that could live in such a confined area; today, you can order “St. Peter’s fish” (tilapia) at local restaurants and buy it in North American grocery stores.
With Capernaum as his base, Jesus became a travelling preacher and healer, moving mostly within a 20-kilometre circle from village to village among the poor of Galilee. People were enthralled with his proclamation of good news, his wonderful healings, and his claim that through him, God was acting to free poor people from sin and oppression and to begin an era of everlasting love.
While the authorities in Jerusalem had heard of his ministry and had sent agents to observe his activities, they probably would have let him continue to seduce the poor of Galilee indefinitely if Jesus had stayed within the area around the shores of the lake and in the surrounding hills.
But Jesus was more radical and more daring than that. After many months of ministry in his home district, “his face was set towards Jerusalem.”
Climax in Jerusalem
According to Mark, Matthew and Luke, Jesus’ ministry took place entirely in Galilee, until he went to Jerusalem for the first time in his adult life the week before Passover. (John reports several earlier trips to Jerusalem.)
Jesus arrived in the capital with a little band of followers who were shouting messianic slogans (“Hosanna to the Son of David”). One can imagine the big-city crowds watching this little procession of hill people and asking each other, “What is going on here?” “Who does this person think he is?” Jesus entered the city riding a donkey, recalling the prophet Zechariah’s poetic description of the humility of the Anointed One. Jesus was symbolically acting out the role of the Messiah taking possession of his capital city.
Five days later, he was dead.
A brief narration of his activities in the last week of his life makes it clear that he was attacking the power structure of his society, and that he knew exactly the effect that such radical political action would have.
The day of his arrival, according to Mark, Jesus rode purposefully into the Temple area, silently inspected the scene, and then left the city to spend the night in Bethany, a village just a few kilometres east of Jerusalem.
The next day, Jesus came back into the city and started a riot in the Temple area. There was a market in the outer courtyard of the Temple, where merchants sold doves, goats, sheep and bullocks to be used in the sacrifices. . It must have been a noisy and smelly area, but it was part of the routine structured worship patterns at the Temple. Jesus freed the animals, so he had sheep and cattle running around the market area, and birds flying around. He dumped the tables of the sellers, and money rolled across the pavement, presumably pursued by people of the marketplace. Jesus freed the animals, and knocked over the sellers’ tables. As Jeremiah had done 600 years earlier, Jesus shouted that they were defiling the sacredness of the house of God and turning it into a house of robbers. He wasn’t just challenging corrupt money-changers; he was attacking the whole Temple system: the role of the high priests, their political collaboration with the Romans and their position of power in Jewish society. The Temple priests knew it, too. They saw him as being very dangerous to them.
On subsequent days, Jesus taught in the Temple area and attracted some followers. The authorities challenged him with questions that they intended to be confounding, but Jesus responded brilliantly. He denounced the Temple authorities with unexpectedly forthright and vicious accusations.
It might also be of value at this point to reflect on the role of Jesus' integrity in causing the authorities to seek his death. He could have confined his remarks to beatitudes and teachings about love, but he obviously felt that to do so would not have been faithful to God, or to the demands of truth. He could have given in to popular wishes, and tried to take political command, and to lead a revolution against the Roman overlords. He realized that such action would not be faithful to his mission either. Even in the last week of his life, Jesus could have fled from Jerusalem back to his home district, and it is unlikely that the authorities would have chased him down. But that would have made it clear that he did not have the courage of his convictions. Instead, Jesus felt obliged to “tell the whole truth”; he had to express the demands of God in a radical way that was certain to draw a response from people in power. He didn't need super-human knowledge to foresee that his radical challenges to the power structure of his society would have disastrous effects. He did what he had to do, because he was entirely faithful to the call of the truth.
Within a few days of his arrival in Jerusalem, the Temple authorities had Jesus in custody. The arresting agents are identified as “a crowd” or “the Temple guard” or (only in John) a detachment of soldiers together with police from the chief priests. The Temple priests held a trial; they thought Jesus was wrong, for they believed their power to be God-given. When Jesus claimed to be God’s favoured son, they considered his claim blasphemy – an offence that called for the death penalty.
The religious leaders had to convince the Roman authorities that Jesus was also dangerous to the state. For that purpose, the claim that he aspired to kingship was more appropriate.
The gospels don’t primarily blame the Romans for the death of Jesus; for one thing, the Romans were still in command when the gospels were written, and the Christian community did not wish to give them any reason for increasing persecution.
The gospels don’t blame the Jewish people, either, for Jesus and all his friends were Jewish. Even the cry of the Jerusalem crowds was understandable, since Jesus was an almost-unknown agitator from the back country. Barabbas, whom the crowd chose to be freed rather than Jesus, may have been a local hero, since he was “in prison for committing murder during the insurrection” – in other words, he was a revolutionary who had fought against the Romans.
The gospels clearly blame the Temple priests for Jesus’ death. The here