A Sermon at the Well

Second Sunday of Lent, Year A (19 March 2017)
St Paul’s Anglican Church, Byron Bay

It is not often we can identify the actual location of a Gospel episode, but today’s Gospel reading may be one of those rare times.

Jesus’ conversation with a Samaritan woman in John 4 takes place at Jacob’s Well, the ancient water source for a series of Canaanite and Israelite villages now preserved under the archaeological site of Balata.

The well still exists and has been venerated in a series of Christian churches, built one on top of the other. These days the web is located in a crypt below a large Orthodox Church build only in the last few decades.

Jacob's Well web

The well itself is very ancient, although the structures have been rebuilt and repaired after different phases of destruction over the years. As mentioned, the well is integrated with the nearby archaeological site of Balata, and that gives us increased confidence in the historicity of the well’s location.

In today’s Gospel, the focus is not so much the antiquity of the well as the conversation between Jesus and the anonymous local woman that he meets at the well.

160116 Jacobs Well Icon

In the biblical tradition, significant encounters often take place at wells. So anyone listening to this story in the ancient world will know immediately that they should expect something special to happen here.

Let’s engage with the story and see what wisdom we may be able to draw from the ancient well of Scripture this morning.


Where is this story happening?

The story is set in Samaria, a region with a troubled relationship with Jerusalem after centuries of deep religious rivalry between these two factions in the biblical community.  The Jewish Jesus in Samaria is rather like a Catholic priest in Ulster.

The location is quite specific, as already mentioned. At the ancient well outside the village of Sychar.

The well is a short distance outside the village, and the women will have come early in the day or late in the afternoon to draw water for their families.

It is around noon.

Only an outsider will come to draw water at that hour.

Who is in this story?

The lead character, of course, is Jesus. He is exhausted by his travels, but that is not the point of the story. Like many a male hero from the biblical narratives, he stops at the well and rests from his journey.

The disciples play a minor role in this story, as Jesus has sent them away to the nearby village looking for supplies. By the time they return, the action is over.

Then there is a woman with a complex personal history. She is a seeker, although not exactly a puritan. She has had a colourful history, but comes across as a feisty woman. This anonymous Samaritan woman is the central figure in our story.

As an aside, let me mention that the later tradition could not leave this amazing woman nameless. She had seen the light, so to speak. She was given the name Photine (or sometimes Photina), which means “the luminous one”, as it is derived from the Greek word for ‘light’, φως (phos).

What is happening in this story?

At the heart of this story we see Jesus crossing boundaries:

  • The ethnic/nationalist hostility between Jews and Samaritans.
  • The gender divide between male and female in the Jewish world.
  • The additional gap between a holy man and a woman with a colourful sexual history.

This story is about scandal, but we have so domesticated it that it now mostly functions as a pale echo of the original dramatic story. The disciples were rightly shocked to find Jesus speaking to such a woman when they returned from the village. We have been taught to think they were lacking in spiritual perception, but perhaps we are the ones who have not been able to see what is happening here.

So let’s now stand back from the story and think about what is happening!


None of this was in the mission plan for Jesus and his disciples as they made their way to Jerusalem. This was not how they usually did things in the Jesus group. Jesus was going off script. His handlers were getting anxious.

  • Do we think we are Jesus’ handlers?
  • Do we have a monopoly on the Jesus franchise in this place?
  • Do we have the only well from which people can draw the living water?

Where are the places in the Bay where we may encounter people who will never be found inside these walls?

  • Are we willing to go off script?
  • Can we look beyond lifestyle to see the person?
  • Can we discern the fragment of the God story in their lives?
  • Can we call them on to the better rather than berate them for the past?
  • Can we be a safe place for people to explore the future into which God is calling them?
Posted in Byron Bay, Sermons, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

The ‘First Peoples’ of Palestine

In a recent op ed piece for the Australian Financial Review, Nyunggai Warren Mundine has suggested that the Jewish people are the only surviving descendants of the ‘first peoples’ of Palestine, and as such enjoy an exclusive claim to the land of Palestine.

Mundine is an experienced public figure, a former president of the Australian Labor Party, and an Australian indigenous leader. He was writing at least partly in response to recent statements by former ALP Prime Ministers, Bob Hawke and Kevin Rudd, calling for immediate recognition of the State of Palestine by Australia. As such his comments should be read in the context of an internal ALP debate as well as a growing national debate about the desirability of Australia recognising the State of Palestine. This is all healthy debate in an open society.

Mundine’s AFR article has drawn criticism from a number of angles, including this critique by Bishop George Browning.

Like Bishop Browning, I am appalled at the way Mundine trashes his own legacy as an indigenous human rights activist to support the policies and actions of the government led by Benjamin Natanyahu. There are many ways to support Israel without descending to that political gutter.

In this essay, I want to offer a different perspective on the question of the ‘first peoples’ of Palestine.

Before doing that, I note that even Mundine finds it necessary to speak about the Palestinians as real people living in the land of Palestine and of the desirability of them having their own state. Whether such a Palestine ‘state’ would be anything more than an ethnic homeland designed to exclude Palestinians from full democratic participation in the Israeli political system is another matter, and not one that I plan to address here. However, it does get me wondering whether that is the kind of model Mundine now proposes for the indigenous people of Australia?

At the outset, let me make it very clear that I support the right of the Jewish population within Palestine to create a separate and independent national state rather than live in a bi-national state alongside non-Jewish citizens. I may think such a choice was a mistake, as many Jews around the world did in 1948, but in the immediate aftermath of World War II and the Nazi death camps that was the choice of most Jews inside Palestine and many more who came to join the Zionist project after 1948.

The existence of Israel as a successful and vibrant national society is beyond question, and the achievements of the citizens of Israel—both Jewish and Palestinian—since 1948 are remarkable.

Much remains to be achieved, but that is no criticism of Israel.

Our own record of treating the indigenous peoples of this land—as we benefit from the settler society created by British colonists—should caution us against cheap criticism of the settler society created in Palestine by Jewish colonists. Indeed, our national stories have eerie parallels during these past 200 years, and we may have much to learn from each other: not in tactics for controlling the indigenous people, but in strategies for reconciliation and doing justice.

Here Mundine could be a serious contributor to the task of community building and intra-national reconciliation. Sadly, he has chosen to be a protagonist for colonial oppression of the indigenous majority of  Palestine by settlers of mostly European origins.

Let me now turn to the question of the first peoples of Palestine, and specifically Mundine’s claims  (1) that the Jewish people are the only surviving descendants of those first peoples, and (2) that this gives them an exclusive right to enjoy the land of Palestine today.

This is bad history, bad theology, and bad politics.

Let me address each of these in turn.

Bad History

Like many pro-Israeli activists, Mundine mistakenly accepts the claim that the Jewish people controlled ancient Palestine, whether by conquest or some other social transformation, for a considerable period of time in the ancient world. This historical Jewish national presence was ‘interrupted’ between 70CE and 1948CE, but has now been restored.

So goes the Zionist propaganda. But it is bad history and, as we shall see, bad theology which—when combined—create even worse politics.

The historical account is much  more complex than either the contemporary spin doctors or the ancient authors of the biblical texts would have us believe.

Contemporary historians of the ancient Levant as well as critical biblical scholars have established beyond reasonable debate that the biblical narratives do not reflect historical reality, but rather express the political and national aspirations of a small Jewish community whose elite promoted the Jerusalem temple as the unique place for encounter with YHWH, the national god of ancient Israel.

Even the terms “Israel” and “Jewish” are problematic in the biblical context.

‘Israel’ tends to refer to the larger and more powerful political entity whose capital was located—ironically—in the West Bank. This Israel opposed the religio-political aspirations of the more backward society centered around Jerusalem, and indeed for much of the time the southern kingdom (Judah) was a client state of the northern kingdom. The term ‘Jew” is derived from Judah, and does not include the bulk of the ancient Israelites from the biblical period.

Those ‘Israelites’—a term which can include the people of Judah—emerged in ancient Canaanite society around 1200BCE, at the beginning of the Iron Age in the southern Levant. They shared Palestine with many other ethnic groups, as one would expect given the geopolitical location of Palestine between the great empires of Egypt and Mesopotamia.

Out of this ancient melting pot emerged a distinctive people, who described themselves as ‘Israel’. At first these people are indistinguishable from the non-Israelite population of ancient Palestine on the basis of their archaeological legacy. Over time they develop some distinctive features, including the worship of YHWH to the exclusion of all other gods. Even that, however, is not clearly established until well into the Hellenistic period which is probably also the time period during which the biblical texts common to Jews and Christians took their current form.

By the time of Rome’s crushing defeat of the Jewish rebellion in 70CE, the peoples of Palestine tended to describe themselves as either Greeks, Jews, or Samaritans. These are not racial categories, but ethnic identities largely shaped by culture, including language and legion. Hold that idea in mind since it applies equally after the Islamic invasions in the mid-600s CE.

What happened to these ancient ethnic communities of first-century Palestine during the 600 years between the capture of Jerusalem by Roman forces and the capture of Jerusalem  by the Arab forces?

The simple answer is that most of the people became Christians. A few remained Jewish. A larger minority continued to identity as Samaritans.

Today, Palestine has Jewish communities with ancient roots stretching back hundreds of years (if not longer), as well as a very small Samaritan community (mostly centred in Nablus), a substantial Christian community who also traces its roots back to the first century, and a large Muslim community. All of these people trace their roots in the land back centuries, if not millennia.

DNA analysis confirms this, with the closest match between any groups being the match between Israelis, Palestinians, and Syrians. That, of course, is equally unwelcome news in Jerusalem as it is in Damascus or Ramallah.

What happened in the 7th century was not a colonisation of Palestine by Arabs, but a conquest of Palestine—along with Egypt, North Africa, the Levant, Syria, etc—by Arab forces united by their new Islamic religion. The indigenous people of Palestine were no more eradicated by this conquest, than the indigenous peoples of Egypt or Syria. We might compare this with the British conquest of India, where the indigenous people remained a vast majority that would eventually reassert its independence.

The Arab conquerors formed a ruling elite, but the great mass of the peasants were the local people. In the beginning they were almost entirely Christians, and they were not required to convert to Islam. Some did in the first few decades, and over time almost everyone converted. A significant minority of Christians, representing around 10% of the population, did not convert. Similarly, a very small community of Samaritans continued to maintain their identity and their culture.

What did happen was that the Christian majority in the early decades of the Islamic conquest decided to switch from Aramaic to Arabic, and to adopt the identity of the rulers. Everyone in the Islamic empire found it convenient to claim Arab identity: Palestinian Christians became ‘Arab’ Christians, Palestinian Jews became ‘Arab’ Jews, and so on.

The direct descendants of the ancient people of Palestine are still with us. A small percentage of them are to be found among the Diaspora Jews who retained their Jewish identity, but the vast majority of them are to be found among the Palestinians of various religious communities still living in their ancestral lands. They never left. They are still present in the land of their ancestors. They have adapted to other conquests in the past. and will adapt to this latest conquest by Zionist Jews. They are all one people, but have developed different identities during the last 2,000 years of history.

Bad Theology

Many Jewish Zionists (but not all Jews) and many Christian Evangelicals (but not all Christians) combine the bad history seen in Mundine’s essay with equally bad theology. Indeed, the theology may be worse than the bad history since it shapes how people act and excuses crimes against humanity as religious observance. We have seen too much of that in the Middle East these past few decades.

Many Zionists, whether Jewish or Christian, promote a theology which affirms that God gave the land of Palestine to the descendants of Abraham as an eternal gift for their exclusive enjoyment.

Already the problems with this tribal religion masquerading as biblical theology are very apparent.

  1. History does not support such a self-serving claim by the Hellenistic Jews who created the biblical texts that promote this toxic idea.
  2. The ‘descendants of Abraham’ are not limited to the Diaspora Jews arriving in Palestine between the late 1800s and the present time. All the Palestinians can claim the land under such narrative theology.
  3. Even the Bible preserves a ‘minority report’ that understood the relationship between land, people and covenant very differently.

The Bible suggests that the ancestors of the Israelites were from ‘Ur of the Chaldees’, the area we now call Iraq. In this narrative they mostly settled peacefully among the indigenous people, despite the occasional disagreement over pastoral rights, etc.

There is  no tradition of conquest here. That will come with the exodus traditions and in the great—and very late—nationalistic epic stretching from Joshua to 2 Kings. Here there is no driving out of the indigenous people. No ethnic cleansing. No separate national states with exclusive economic benefits for its people at the expense of those excluded.

Indeed, in Genesis 12:1–3 Abraham and his extended family are led to Palestine by YHWH, who directs them to settle in the land, to live among the indigenous peoples, and to conduct themselves in such a way that the local people will consider themselves blessed to have Abraham and his descendants living with them.

Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country (eretz) and your kindred and your father’s house to the country (eretz) that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the land (‘adamah) shall be blessed.” (Gen 12:1–3 NRSV modified)

In verse 3, ‘adamah is most often translated as ‘earth’. Imperial theology such as we find dominant in Western Christianity prefers to read this as global evangelisation, but that can hardly have been the intent of the author. In context it can equally be understood as the peoples (families) of the land of Palestine. Abraham and his family now share this land (‘adamah) with the indigenous peoples, to the acknowledged benefit of the first peoples.

Tribal religion based on self-serving fictional narratives of the past encourages imperial theology. This is toxic religion. This is bad theology.

Such theology encourages the powerful to oppress and exploit the poor, among whom we most often find the indigenous peoples in a world of empire.

Bad Politics

When a flawed historical narrative is combined with a tribal theology that justifies military force to achieve the ambitions of one ethnic group over other ethnic groups, we have a ‘perfect storm’ of bad history, bad theology, and bad politics.

The prophetic legacy of the Jewish Scriptures, which Christians find embodied in the person of Jesus (himself a Palestinian Jew in a world of empire) and enacted in his mission, calls empire to account and affirms the universal sovereignty of the God revealed in the biblical narratives, as well as in other sacred traditions.

We need a theology that promotes justice, gives hope, and constrains the predilections of the powerful. We need good news. We need Gospel.

We desperately need a political program that engages critically with the best of our historical and biblical scholarship, rather than one that pampers to popular prejudice in order to secure a tainted victory in a dysfunctional electoral system. Sadly, what we see in many Western societies at the moment is a flight from good history and gospel theology into political programs that enrich the few and enslave the many.

Jesus of Nazareth joins with the prophets of ancient Israel in warning us that such systems of oppression and exploitation will fall under the judgment of God. Bad politics will not stand the test of time. In the end, God’s vision for a just society in which all creation finds blessing is not only better theology, but also good politics and that will create a better history.

Posted in Bible, Palestine | 7 Comments

Romulus and Remus coin

A coin which Ibrahim Abu Rakbeh (from St George’s Bazaar across from the College in Nablus Road) recently asked me to read for him has proved to be rather interesting.

Here is what the coin looks like:

 The official description of the coin, which was issued by Constantine I in 330–333 CE to commemorate the founding of his new capital, Constantinople, reads as follows:

18 x 19 mm. 3.0gm. OBV: VRBS-ROMA [City of Rome] Roma, helmeted, wearing imperial cloak. REV: She-wolf with circle on shoulder standing left with twins (Romulus and Remus); above, two stars. In ex. SMTSE (Signata Moneta, Thessalonica, 5th factory) [RIC VII Thessalonica 187]

In case it is easier for you to view, here is an example of an identical coin from the same mint:vrbs-roma-thessalonica-187

It is interesting to note that 5 years after the Council of Nicea, Constantine is still issuing a coin that celebrates the myth of Rome’s founding by one of the two boys that had been abandoned in the forest but survived when suckled by a she-wolf.

The myth exists in several versions, including this one from Plutarch ca. 75 CE:

There was an oracle of Tethys in Tuscany which Tarchetius consulted, and received an answer that a virgin should give herself to the apparition, and that a son should be born of her, highly renowned, eminent for valour, good fortune, and strength of body. Tarchetius told the prophecy to one of his own daughters, and commanded her to do this thing; which she avoiding as an indignity, sent her handmaid … the waiting-woman was delivered of two boys, whom Tarchetius gave into the hands of one Teratius, with command to destroy them; he, however, carried and laid them by the river side, where a wolf came and continued to suckle them, while birds of various sorts brought little morsels of food, which they put into their mouths; till a cowherd, spying them, was first strangely surprised, but, venturing to draw nearer, took the children up in his arms. Thus they were saved, and when they grew up, set upon Tarchetius and overcame him. [Plutarch, ca 75 CE]

More on the Romulus and Remus legend here.

This myth clearly had currency well into the beginning of the Byzantine period, and it may have been in Luke’s mind as he prepared his “orderly account” of the birth of Jesus for his high-placed Roman addressee, Theophilus.

As Luke tells the story, there are two boys who share similar miraculous signs: John and Jesus. In the biblical account they are cousins rather than siblings, but the Lukan infancy narrative may still have evoked the legend of the founding of Rome. When Luke addressed his elite Roman Christian audience represented by the ‘most excellent Theophilus’ (Luke 1:4), he was not so much seeking to describe the birth of Jesus as to celebrate the significance of the Christ Child.

One of these two boys—and Luke clearly indicates that it is Jesus, not John— is destined to establish the empire of God (basileia tou theou in Greek), to bring peace, and to be the Savior of the world. Again, this evokes the traditional imperial claims to be a son of God (F DIV on Roman coins), the Saviour (SERVATOS in Latin, soter in Greek) and the guarantor of peace (PAX). Luke is proclaiming the divinity of the Christ Child, as well as his destiny as the ruler of the empire of God. This is powerful ‘public theology’ that engages with and challenges the assumptions of privilege and power.

Note: This story was first published the St George’s College Jerusalem web site on 9 July 2016. I acknowledge the assistance of Dr. Peter Lewis in Australia in confirming my interpretation of this coin and also advising of the identity of the mint where it was issued.
Posted in Coins, Early Christianity | Leave a comment

2017 Bible and Archaeology Study Tour

150620 Banias

For those interested in a three week study tour with a focus on the Bible and archaeology, here are some details of the 2017 Bible and Archaeology program to be offered at St George’s College, Jerusalem in June/July this year.

Dates: 18 June – July 7, 2017

Study Tour Leader: Dr Greg Jenks

Costs: The College fee for this three week program is US$5,000 per person. This includes all accommodation, meals and land travel in Israel/Jordan, as well as entry to national parks and museums. It excludes air travel, travel insurance, drinks and tips. The College will collect US$100 from each participants to cover gratuities to all staff as well as drivers, porters, etc.

Closing Date: Friday, 10 March 2017

Academic Credit: For eligible students, academic credit may be given for THL361 Theology International Study Experience at CSU School of Theology. Financial assistance for the cost of the program may also be available. Full details at the CSU Global web site.

Description: The program is designed to include two weeks working on the archaeology dig at Bethsaida, but that aspect of the program may need to be changed.

In brief, we are in transition from the project being hosted by the University of Nebraska at Omaha to a new hosting arrangement with Drew University. It is possible that there may not be a season at Bethsaida in 2017, or that we may be digging at Magdala instead of Bethsaida. As a result, I have prepared an alternative three week program without any actual time on a dig, just in case that is necessary.

Copies of the draft schedule, including the alternative option that includes no time working as a volunteer on a dig site, are available on request. Simply drop me an email and I shall be happy to send the draft schedules to you.

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A sermon for St Andrew’s Day

Andrew of Bethsaida, the ‘first-called’

 A sermon preached at St Andrew’s Theological Seminary, Manila on St Andrew’s Day, 2016.



It is an immense honor for me to stand here among you on this feast day of St Andrew, and it is with a deep sense of privilege that I bring you greetings from the Christian community in the Holy Land, in Bethlehem, in Jerusalem, and in Nazareth.

Greetings in the name of Jesus our Lord from your sisters and brothers in Palestine, and Israel, and Jordan, and Lebanon.

Greetings, in particular, from Archbishop Suheil Dawani, the Anglican Archbishop in Jerusalem.

The land of the Holy One, the land that Jesus knew, is now divided among four nations.

It is the one land, with two peoples, and three faiths.

The Christians of that land give thanks to God for you, and they ask you to remember them in your prayers.

They do not ask you to take side in their national, political, and social conflicts, but they do ask for your solidarity in Christ as they seek to be faithful people of God in their land at this time.

And they make the same prayer for you here in this land at this time.

Andrew of Bethsaida

It is sad but true that Andrew’s connections with Bethsaida are not often considered. Sadly this is true even for someone such as myself who is one of the co-directors for the Bethsaida archaeology project.

We tend to focus on Bethsaida as the city of Simon Peter and the city of Philip, but not to give much thought to Bethsaida as the city of Andrew.

That is an oversight I regret, and the invitation to be here with you today offers me an opportunity to make amends!

After 30 years of excavations at Bethsaida we have a pretty good idea of what Andrew’s town was like.

It was located at twelve o’clock on the Sea of Galilee, right next to the point where the rapidly running waters of the Jordan River flow into the still waters of the lake. After dropping 3000m from the Lebanese mountains to the lake, the water is moving at a pace and carrying lots of silt. As it meets the lake it loses its momentum and drops its load of soil and nutrients at the northwestern edge of the lake.

Over time the silt accumulates. The water slowly becomes shallow. It is warm. It is rich in nutrients. It creates the fish breeding grounds of the Kinneret then and now. This slow physical process created Bethsaida, and its was to destroy it as well.

Andrew lived in Bethsaida at a time when its natural advantages as a fishing village had expired. As the delta in the NW corner of the lake grew in size, Bethsaida found itself cut off from the lake. A fishing village without access to the lake is a village without a future.

Maybe that is why Andrew and Peter were to encounter Jesus in the nearby village of Nahum, better known to us as Kefar Naoum, Capernaum? There the fishers had good access to the rich fish breeding grounds in the NW corner of the lake,

Andrew was proactive in the face of adversity.

Together with his brother, Simon—and perhaps other fishing colleagues from Bethsaida—Andrew relocated to Capernaum. It was not a long journey, But it was on the other side of a deep political divide. That is a story to which we shall need to turn shortly.

First, let me observe that Andrew was known by his Greek name, as was his neighbour, Philip. This is in contrast to Jesus and his family, all of whom—according to the tradition preserved in Mark 6—had Jewish names with good biblical pedigrees:

Mary/Miriam – sister of Moses
Joseph – the dreamer, one the 12 sons of Jacob/Israel
James/Jacob – the ancestor of the 12 tribes
Jeshua/Jesus – Joshua
Joses/Joseph – perhaps named for their father
Simon – another of the 12 sons of Jacob/Israel
Jude – yet another of the 12 sons of Jacob/Israel

Andrew’s name reflects the character of Bethsaida as we have come to know it from its material culture that we have unearthed in our excavations.

Once the capital of the Aramean kingdom of Tsur during the Iron Age, this village had never been an Israelite town. It was always a border town, in the foothills of the Golan.

We can trace the contours of its culture and its political fortunes as we sift through the layers of Iron Age city and then the new village that was established by settlers from Tyre and Sidon in the Hellenistic period. For a hundred years and more after the conquests of Alexander the Great, this was a frontier village on the northwest boundary of the Ptolemaic Kingdom. It then came within the Seleucid Empire, and we can trace the change of administration in the coins at Bethsaida that now celebrated Antiochus rather than Ptolemy. Finally, not long before the time of Jesus, it became a Jewish outpost as Herod the Great completed the unsuccessful attempt by the Hasmonean to impose Jerusalem control on this northern edge of the biblical lands.

The village had become Jewish, as we can see from the Herodian oil lamps, the limestone vessels, the Herodian coins, and from the deliberate desecration of a small pagan temple from the second or third century BCE. But the town retained some vestiges of its non-Jewish past.

Following the death of Herod the Great in 4 BCE, the north east corner of his kingdom was assigned to one of his three surviving sons: Philip the Tetrarch. Another son, Antipas, was assigned the fertile country between the Sea of Galilee and the Mediterranean as well as the territory of Perea on the eastern side of the Jordan River (opposite Jericho).

The two sons engaged in a long running competition for Roman endorsement as their father’s heir, and each aspired to the title, “King of the Jews”. Bethsaida was destined to play a role in that conflict, even though it was too little too late for Philip. And this takes us back to the political divide between Bethsaida and Capernaum that I mentioned earlier.

Non-Jewish traditions flourished in Philip’s jurisdiction, as we see from his coins which feature the head of the Roman emperor and (just once) his own image. Neither Herod nor Antipas ever issued coins with such images, which were deeply offensive to pious Jews. In the far north of his territory Philip was delighted to have inherited the Augusteum, a temple in honor of the divine Emperor. This building at Caesarea Philippi, the city Philip built for Caesar, featured on most of his coins. and it celebrated pagan traditions connected with the emperor cult.

A year after the execution of Jesus (on the first anniversary of the death of Julia, mother of Tiberias), Philip transformed Bethsaida into a Greek city with the name, Julias. He most likely rededicated the Hellenistic pagan temple as a shrine in honour of the divine Julia. Sacred images of Julia have been recovered from the site in our excavations.

So Andrew of Bethsaida is not just a fisherman from a small village on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee. He carried a Greek name and will have lived through times of significant social change in his home village.

But there is more to Andrew than an interesting multicultural zip code.

At this point we shift our focus from Philip the Tetrarch to his brother, Herod Antipas.

Antipas was in many ways a worthy candidate for his father’s throne. He was ambitious and calculating. Jesus called him “that fox” (Luke 13:32).

After initially rebuilding Sepphoris to be the capital city of his new jurisdiction, by 18 CE he has moved to a new project. With the succession of Tiberius as emperor after Augustus, Antipas decided to found a new city on the western side of the lake. He named it Tiberias and the centre of gravity for his administration shifted from Sepphoris to the lake.

He taxed the fishing industry hard, as it was one of the few natural resources at his disposal.

Tiberias lay then (as now) at the southern end of the fish breeding grounds in the NW corner of the lake. Capernaum and Migdal to the north were key centres for the fishing industry.

Despite the burden of these heavy taxes, Andrew relocates to Capernaum. Along with Peter—and perhaps also James and John, the sons of Zebedee—Andrew chooses to live in the jurisdiction of Herod Antipas.

But there is more to the story of Andrew and Antipas.

Andrew was also a follower of John the Baptist, and John was critic of Antipas. His criticism of Antipas for divorcing his own wife to marry the wife of his brother, Philip, was to cost John his life.

So let’s tease this out a little further,

Andrew has relocated from Bethsaida to Capernaum, but in John 1 we find Andrew among the disciples of John the Baptism in the southern area of Antipas, at Bethany-beyond-Jordan, on the eastern side of the Jordan River.

The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed). He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter). (John 1:35–42 NRSV)

This suggests that Andrew had been drawn into the prophetic renewal movement associated with John the Baptiser. Andrew—along with his brother, Peter, and at least one other person from Bethsaida, Philip—had travelled down to the southern end of the Jordan Valley to participate in John’s mission.

We would love to know more.

One thing we can be sure of: this was not a fishing expedition!

Like Jesus himself, Andrew and his close associates from Bethsaida had been drawn into the crowds responding to John’s preaching in the wilderness. He was already on a spiritual journey before he encountered Jesus.

And that journey was political as well as religious.

To associate with John was to oppose Antipas.

Then we see Andrew among the first to shift his allegiance from John to Jesus.

After that, Andrew tells Peter that he has found the Messiah. In the classic turn of phrase, “he brought Simon to Jesus.” Not a bad achievement for the first convert of the ‘first-called’.

Later in John’s Gospel, Andrew will bring to Jesus the small boy with the five barley loaves and two small fish (John 6:6–10), and then he and Philip will go to tell Jesus that some ‘Greeks’ are wanting to meet him (John 12:20–24).

Apart from being consistently named among the Twelve, there are two other traditions about Andrew in New Testament.

In Mark 1, Andrew is described as jointly owning with Peter the house in Capernaum that we tend to call “Peter’s house”. This house became a place of hospitality and healing, a place of teaching and wisdom, and the place that Jesus himself would call home.

Finally, in Mark’s version of the apocalyptic discourse (Mark 13:3), Andrew is named among the inner circle of disciples who ask Jesus to explain his teaching on the end of the world.


Andrew of Bethsaida then disappears from our sight, and is never included among the “so-called pillars” of the church in Paul’s correspondence. We have no reliable information about him after Easter, although that has not prevented Christians in various parts of the world claiming him as their patron saint.

What thumbnail sketch of Andrew emerges from this survey of archaeology and text?

What wisdom for our journey of faith?

What insights for our mission?

Andrew was grounded in his own faith tradition.

He also lived in a pluralistic community where his tradition was not the only option.

Andrew of Bethsaida lived in a mixed community with Jews and pagans, and his own name reflects the cultural and religious diversity of Bethsaida.

He lived at time when ecological changes in the local environment made traditional life difficult, and required him to relocate to a more sustainable location.

Andrew never forgot his roots even when creating a new future for himself and his family.

He lived in a time of political tension as the surviving sons of Herod the Great pursued their personal political ambitions with no regard for the people under their rule.

Andrew was drawn into the Jewish renewal movement led by John the Baptist, and traveled to the southern end of the Jordan valley to explore what this might mean for him and for his family.

He was not content just to be a passive participant in the crowds that came to hear John, but we find him spending time in John’s company and seeking to go deeper.

Andrew was with John when Jesus walks by and decides to go after this stranger of whom John spoke so highly.

With the patience of an experienced fisherman, Andrew spends a whole day with Jesus: observing, listening, asking questions.

Andrew becomes the first-called, the first person we know who was called to follow Jesus.

He embraced the call to be a disciple, and he invited others to do the same.

This is the person we celebrate today, and this is the legacy we claim as our own. The Jesus who called Andrew, calls us.

May our response be as strong as Andrew’s, and as true to our own context in this place at this time.

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Saying YES to God

A sermon for the Feast of the Annunciation to the Blessed Virgin Mary at the Cathedral Church of St George the Martyr, Jerusalem on Monday, 4 April 2016.

Today we celebrate the courage of a young woman who said YES to God.

Luke the master storyteller has crafted a beautiful story about the birth of Jesus.

He has woven together elements from Jewish tradition as well as the Roman world in which he lived. The world of his principal addressee, Theophilus.

Luke is celebrating the strange workings of God among us.

The strange workings of a God who calls Abraham from Ur of the Chaldees.

The strange workings of a God who speaks to Musa from the burning bush.

The strange workings of a God who calls the people of Israel into being in this land of promise.

The strange workings of a God who comes among us in the person of Jesus.

The strange workings of a God who calls the Jewish people back from Diaspora to renew their ancient connections with this land.

Luke begins with a story of two births.

Two women who find themselves pregnant in unusual circumstances. An elderly woman who has not conceived despite several decades of married life. And a maiden not yet married.

Two miraculous births.

At the heart of the story is a young Palestine Jewish woman from Nazareth who says YES to God.

This evening we are invited to imitate Mary by making our own YES to God.

God invites our YES.

That is amazing. Think about it. God waits for us to respond before acting. In creation we are called to collaborate with God, but in salvation God chooses to wait for us.

God comes to us. In the reading from Isaiah 52 just now, God says, “Here am I.” The words later found on the lips of Mary in Luke 1, and on the lips of Jesus in Hebrews 2, are also found on the lips of God. “Here am I.”

God waits for us.

God invites our response.

God chooses not to act until we are ready to say YES.

How shall we respond to the God who invites our response?

And to what might we be saying YES?

We will be saying YES to hope

We will be saying YES to trust

We will be saying YES to life

We will be saying YES to justice

We will be saying YES to compassion

We will be saying YES to freedom

We will be saying YES to joy

We will be saying YES to love

The world needs people who say YES to these things.

The world needs people who say YES to God.

We need to be people who say YES to the God who invites us to work with God to heal and save a broken world. AMEN

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The Eternal Dance of Love and Fear

A sermon at the Cathedral Church of St George the Martyr, Jerusalem on Maundy Thursday, 24 March 2016.

Our paschal liturgies have commenced.

It is Maundy Thursday, and we stand at the beginning of the three holiest days in the year for Christians.

In the next few hours and during the next two days we shall follow the ancient observances of the paschal liturgies:

Tonight we join Jesus and the disciples in the upper room as they share a final meal, and as Jesus offers them a master class in spiritual leadership.

Later we shall walk to Gethsemane, as Jesus and those first disciples did here in this city on that first Maundy Thursday night so long ago.

Unlike them, we know the outcome of the story. We walk to the garden knowing about the betrayal and the imminent arrest. And we shall walk away from the garden with hearts that are not weighed down with confusion, fear and grief as theirs were on that first Maundy Thursday.

Tomorrow morning, we shall gather in the narrow streets of the Old City to walk and pray the traditional route of the Via dolorosa, the way of the cross.

The indifferent stares of the residents as yet another bunch of Christian pilgrims treads the flagstones of this ancient city will be but a pale echo of the rejection experienced by Jesus as he walked those streets on his way to Calvary.

At noon we shall gather here again for the solemn liturgy of Good Friday.

Our sadness at the cruel and undeserved death does not even begin to touch the depth of the grief of those who watched helpless from the sidelines as Jesus was executed under the noonday sun.

The silence of the following day will eventually surrender to the shouts of joy as the news of Easter spreads like a ripple in a sceptical and distracted world. Who cares what happened to this man? What difference does it make anyway?

Perhaps it makes all the difference in the world. At least, that is our faith!

That is the pathway that stretches out before us tonight, and now we begin that journey.

The eternal dance of love and fear

As I have reflected on these events and liturgies the past few days, I have found myself noting the interplay of love and fear.

Michael Leunig, an Australian cartoonist, poet and cultural commentator has observed as follows in his poem Love and Fear:

There are only two feelings.
Love and fear.
There are only two languages.
Love and fear.
There are only two activities.
Love and fear.
There are only two motives,
two procedures, two frameworks,
two results.
Love and fear.
Love and fear.

That poem offers a way to reflect on the significance of the events back then as well as the dynamics around us here and now.

Love and Fear Then 

Was the death of Jesus an act of love, or the expression of a deep and deadly Fear?

Do we even need to ask?

Jesus was drawn to Jerusalem, and thus to his death, by love. His love of God. His love for the city of God, over which he wept as he considered what lay ahead. And his love for the people who gathered around him as disciples and fellow pilgrims.

It was love that made the preparations for the last supper in a borrowed upper room.

It was love that put Jesus on his knees washing the feet of his disciples.

It was love that broke the bread and blessed the cup.

It was fear that drove Judas to hand Jesus over to his enemies.

It was fear that persuaded the leaders to seek a way to eliminate Jesus.

It was fear that caused the crowd to call for his crucifixion.

Love and Fear Now

Here in this city these past several months, it has been fear that drives people to stab strangers and run them down with cars.

It is fear that causes armed soldiers to shoot dead attackers who are armed only with knives and scissors.

It is fear that causes extremists to vandalise and burn churches.

It is fear that surrounds illegal settlements on stolen land with barbed wire fences.

It is fear that erects a concrete wall through the heart of the land.

It is fear that attacks civilians in Paris, in Istanbul and in Brussels.

It is fear that turns away refugees seeking asylum.

It is fear that causes children to drown in the ocean in the quest for safety.

It is fear that rains death from the sky on Raqqa, on Homs, or on Damascus.

It is fear that traps 1.8 million people inside the fences that surround Gaza.

It is fear that threatens Christian minorities across the lands held by Daesh.

It is fear that can imagine no way for two peoples to share the one land.

It is fear that prefers the status quo to a just peace.

It is fear that divides, hates, and kills.

It is fear that blinds us so that we can see no partner for peace.

It is fear that distorts our vision so that we project our worst nightmare onto our neighbor, rather than seeing him as a human being just like our selves.

This city, this land, and this world is filled with fear.

Where is the love?


Fear has No Future

Fear seems so much stronger because it is so destructive.

But in the end – in the End – fear has no future, because fear does not sustain life.

Lives, corporations, and societies grounded in fear and defended by violence never last.

As the darkest night is split by a small flicker of light, so the empire of fear is doomed once love takes root and life begins to bloom once more.

This is the message of Easter, and it is the message of this first evening of the sacred triduum.

Fear seems so powerful, and it is indeed destructive. But in the end fear destroys even itself.

Love seems so fragile, and is often the victim of fear, but in the end love wins.

In his famous hymn to love, St Paul writes:

Love is patient;
love is kind;
love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.
It does not insist on its own way;
it is not irritable or resentful;
it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.
It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never ends. (1 Cor 13:4–8)

As we walk through the Paschal liturgies these next three days, let us never lose sight of the gentle power of love to overcome all obstacles, and of the ultimate impotence of fear. In the end, love prevails. Life wins.

With Mary we affirm:

[God is] casting down the mighty from their thrones
and lifting up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things
and sent the rich away empty.

And with the author of 1 John we proclaim:

There is no fear in love,
but perfect love casts out fear … (1 John 4:18)

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The God who Reconciles

A sermon delivered at the Cathedral Church of St George the Martyr, Jerusalem on the Fourth Sunday of Lent, 6 March 2016.

Today we enter the second half of our Lenten journey.

Behind us lie the first three Sundays of Lent:

  • Lent 1 – Jesus is tempted in the wilderness by Satan (Luke 4:1-13)
  • Lent 2 – Jesus condemns Jerusalem for its treatment of the prophets (Luke 13:31-35)
  • Lent 3 – the parable of the barren fig tree (Luke 13:1-9)

Those are all fairly grim texts.

Ahead of us the two Sundays that especially focus on the Passion of Christ:

  • Lent 5 – a woman anoints Jesus for burial (John 12:1–8)
  • Lent 6 – Palm Sunday (Luke 22 & 23)

Today we have something of a respite.

In some Christian traditions today is known as ‘Refreshment Sunday’ because it offers a slight relaxation of the Lenten fast, and something of a respite from the penitential focus of this season.

Sometimes rose-colored vestments are worn, instead of the traditional purple. (You may recall a similar thing happens on the Third Sunday of Advent.)

In the UK and some parts of the Anglican Communion today is also observed as Mothering Sunday.

That observance has its origins in the tradition that servants and apprentices were released from regular duties to visit the church of their baptism and also to see their mothers, perhaps even taking them a gift from the place where they served.

Here in this land, Mothers’ Day is observed on March 21, so we can focus on today as the Fourth Sunday of Lent.

Reconciliation as the Mission of God in our Time

Given the themes of the NT readings for this Sunday, we could consider designating today as ‘Reconciliation Sunday’. That is not its official title, but it would certainly fit with the readings.

In Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself … (2 Cor 5:19)

This is a powerful piece of very early Christology. The letters to the Corinthians preserve pastoral communications between Paul and the emerging Christian community in Corinth. They date from a time in the 50s, around 20 years after Easter.

In these letters, which predate the Gospels by several decades and perhaps 100 years in the case of Luke, we get the first evidence of how the followers of Jesus were already making sense of his death as something God did for our benefit.

Everybody in Corinth realised that crucifixion was something awful. It was the worst form of capital punishment used in the Roman Empire. It reflected final condemnation and exclusion from society. There was no honour attached to such a death. Nothing could be rescued from such a disaster.

But the followers of Jesus came to see the cross as an action in which God reconciled the world to himself.

It is a far richer concept than the medieval idea that someone had to pay for sin, so Jesus suffered in order to preserve the patriarchal honor of God.

Instead, here we have God taking the worst that Rome could inflict on Jesus, and making that very act the occasion for reconciliation.

Not merely the forgiveness of sins, but the reconciliation of a world gone awry.

The prodigal and the loving father (Luke 15)

The lectionary matches that Pauline text with one of the most confronting parables of Jesus, the so-called Prodigal Son.

Here we see reconciliation at work, and also its limits.

We all know the story. It has three main characters, as in many oral stories:

  • the ungrateful son
  • the generous father
  • the grumpy older brother

These are exaggerated caricatures, and that exaggeration invites us to reflect on those times when we are one or more of these characters.

The wealth of the father is matched by the selfishness of the younger son, which is in turn matched by the self-less love of the father, which itself is trumped by the self-righteous indignation of ‘Mr Perfect’, the elder brother.

Reconciliation is hard work, and not everyone will agree to be reconciled.

Yet it remains our work, because it is the mission of God.

… and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. (2 Cor 5:19)

The divine mission of turning hatred, death and rejection into an act of cosmic reconciliation has been entrusted to us.

To us.

Of all people, to us.


Of all places, here in this conflicted city and divided land.

Not only here.

But especially here, because this is where the cross become Ground Zero for the divine mission of reconciliation.

As we come to the Table of the Lord this morning and stretch out our hands to receive the Body of Christ, we ask for grace to be ambassadors for Christ, spending our lives in the mission of reconciliation.

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A Christian theology of Jewish presence

The first reading for this Second Sunday after Christmas is Jeremiah 31:7–14:

For thus says the LORD: Sing aloud with gladness for Jacob, and raise shouts for the chief of the nations; proclaim, give praise, and say, “Save, O LORD, your people, the remnant of Israel.”

 See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north, and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth, among them the blind and the lame, those with child and those in labor, together; a great company, they shall return here.

 With weeping they shall come, and with consolations I will lead them back, I will let them walk by brooks of water, in a straight path in which they shall not stumble; for I have become a father to Israel, and Ephraim is my firstborn.

 Hear the word of the LORD, O nations, and declare it in the coastlands far away; say, “He who scattered Israel will gather him, and will keep him as a shepherd a flock.”

 For the LORD has ransomed Jacob, and has redeemed him from hands too strong for him.

 They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion, and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the LORD, over the grain, the wine, and the oil, and over the young of the flock and the herd; their life shall become like a watered garden, and they shall never languish again.

 Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance, and the young men and the old shall be merry. I will turn their mourning into joy, I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow.

 I will give the priests their fill of fatness, and my people shall be satisfied with my bounty, says the LORD.  (Jer 31:7–14 NRSV)

How is a Palestinian Christian reading that those words in Israeli-occupied Jerusalem supposed to respond to the ‘word of the Lord’?

My first reaction as someone listed to preach today at the Cathedral Church of St George the Martyr in Jerusalem was dismay. This is a problematic text for Palestinian Christians living with dispossession, ethnic cleansing, occupation, and systemic—even if sometimes unofficial—discrimination. How can such a text serve as the word of life for a Christian Arab?

This is not a new problem. Many OT texts offer exactly the same challenge, and specially those associated with the exodus from Egypt and the conquest of the land by Joshua. How does an Arab Christian read these Jewish texts in Palestine today?

On the one hand, I am grateful for the discipline of the lectionary. With all its faults (and they are many), the lectionary requires us to move beyond our comfort zones and engage with portions of Scripture that we might otherwise choose to ignore.

In this case, we have a text set for the second Sunday after Christmas, which is a rare Sunday in the cycle. It only occurs in those years when two Sundays fall between December 25 and January 6. So it would be possible to attend church regularly and never encounter this part of Jeremiah 31.

Just my luck, then, to be the rostered preacher today!

My first response was to consult the Ancient Christian Commentaries on Scripture, a module in my ever useful Accordance Bible software package. What I found was that those early Fathers who addressed this passage tended to spiritualise the meaning, and interpret the ‘remnant of Israel’ as the Christian Church. That is a hermeneutical strategy that I cannot and will not employ as it fails to take seriously the continued presence of the Jewish people as the covenant community among the nations.

Of course, I can quite properly observe that these words from Jeremiah themselves derive from a context: ancient Judah, around 580 BCE. At that time Jerusalem was in ruins following the conquest of Nebuchadnezzar and his Babylonian army. Many Jews—and most of the elite—were languishing in Exile in Babylon, present day Iraq. Others had fled to Egypt as refugees. Jeremiah himself was soon to be kidnapped and taken off to Egypt with one band of refugees.

In that context, Jeremiah speaks a message of hope. This too will pass. YHWH will bring the scattered Jews home to the land of promise. They will prosper once more in their own land.

We cannot limit the spiritual significance of Jeremiah 31 to the sixth century BCE. His words were received by the ancient Jewish community and found their way into the future Jewish Bible that is itself the ground of the larger Christian Bible.

These ancient texts have an ‘afterlife’ that extends way beyond their original context. We read them today in Christian churches all around the world. And we read them this morning at the Anglican  Cathedral in Jerusalem.

So how is a Palestinian Christian supposed to ‘hear what the Spirit is saying to the church’ when this text is read in our liturgies today?

It seems to me that the Spirit is inviting us to engage with the challenge of fashioning a constructive Christian theology of the Jewish presence in Palestine.

That was not what Jeremiah had in mind when these words were first written, but we are accountable for what we make of these words here and now—in this context, right now—rather than for their significance 2,500 years ago.

How can a Palestinian Christian enunciate a theology of Jewish presence in Palestine? Why should we bother? Why not just complain of the injustice, and appeal to the international bodies to intervene on our behalf?

It is too easy to complain and protest. That also needs to happen, and especially when the injustice is so clear and so prolonged. But we must do more than complain about the injustice. We must offer a theology of hope for the future, and such a theology must include a positive and constructive proposal for the presence of the Jewish people among us in this land.

I do not claim to have such a theology prepared, and I will not keep talking this morning until I finish the task of shaping one. We may never get to have lunch!

However, I think this is the challenge that the Spirit places before us today as we reflect on this passage from Jeremiah, in the context of occupied Palestine, and in the days after Christmas. If the angels promised peace on earth to those of goodwill, perhaps we need to demonstrate our goodwill if we are to experience God’s peace.

Imagine the contribution that Christians could make to reconciliation and peace in this land if we could find a way to speak in positive terms of the proper place of the Jewish people among us in Palestine. This is their land as much as it is our land. How we can find the grace to say that, and to work for a solution to the conflict between our two peoples, who share both a common history and the same land?

I do not imagine that I have the words yet, but I do think God is calling us to the task of being peacemakers who can see Christ in the other, even in the one who steals our land and denies our own right to be here.

God give us the grace to begin that immense project.




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A Palestinian Jesus

A recent report in Haaretz has highlighted a controversy in Australia about the Palestinian identity of Jesus of Nazareth.

The controversy itself is spiralling into an unattractive—and mostly ill-informed—social media ‘debate’ about the existence of Palestine prior to the destruction of Jerusalem by Roman forces in 70 CE, the on-going conflict over Palestine as in some sense also a Jewish homeland, and even the historicity of Jewish cultural continuity with the biblical lands. This is the stuff of media controversy that makes news editors happy at the festive season in the Western world.

The three critical players in triggering this controversy are:

Two members of APAN (Australian Palestinian Advocacy Network), who published an opinion piece in New Matilda about a recent Australian delegation to Palestine that was criticised by local officials for its alleged ignorance of Palestinian issues. The opening paragraph of that op-ed piece reads as follows:

So this is Christmas, and what has Australia done? An official delegation representing our country in Israel has added fuel to the flames of extremism abroad by applauding proven human rights violators and insulting the living descendants of Christ in his home of birth in Palestine.

That final comment was hardly the primary point of the article, but it provided the basis for a complaint by the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, who is the second critical player in this fake controversy. They addressed their concerns not to New Matilda, nor even to APAN, but to the President of the Uniting Church in Australia; with which APAN has a very informal connection via the local ecumenical networks.

The third player in this saga is the ill-advised President of the Uniting Church in Australia, who issued a statement that betrays a profound lack of knowledge about the historical realities in Palestine as well as the political dynamics of the conflict between Jews and Arabs in Palestine. The key text from his statement is as follows:

I would like to assure you and the Jewish community that the Uniting Church does not accept the view that Jesus was Palestinian. We affirm that Jesus and most of his early followers were Jewish. We note that Jesus was born neither in Israel nor in Palestine, but in the Roman-occupied province of Judea, and that it is entirely inappropriate for anybody to attempt to claim political capital from the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem to bolster claims of either ‘side’ of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

Apart from the nonsense of claiming to speak from a non-political position in this most-politicised of all religious issues, this statement betrays a lack of knowledge of the historical connection of all Palestinians—whether Christians or Muslims—to the figure of Jesus.

It is beyond reasonable debate that Jesus was a Palestinian, but he was a Palestinian Jew (or a Jewish Palestinian, if you prefer). He was a Palestinian because he lived in Palestine, and seemingly moved between different political entities within his country—including checkpoints (toll booths) as he passed from one jurisdiction to another—in a way that resonates for many contemporary Palestinians.

For the record, it is inaccurate and misleading to describe the homeland of Jesus as “the Roman-occupied province of Judea”. Rome established political control of Palestine in 63 BCE, but chose to work through local indigenous political structures until after the Jewish rebellion in 66 CE. At first Rome worked with the Hasmonean dynasty; and later with Herod the Great, appointed ‘King of the Jews’ by Rome in 37 BCE.

If Jesus was born prior to the death of Herod in 4 BCE, then he was not born in “the Roman-occupied province of Judea” but in the puppet kingdom of Herod the Great. If Jesus was born in Bethlehem between 4 BCE and 6 CE, then he was born in the puppet kingdom of Archelaus, Ethnarch of the Jews. If Jesus was born in Nazareth any time after 4 BCE, then he was born in the puppet kingdom of Antipas, Tetrarch of Galilee and Perea. At no stage in these three different political arrangements was Palestine occupied by the Roman army. That happened in Judea from 6 CE, following the dismissal of Archelaus; and in the rest of the country only after 70 CE.

(This contrasts with the parallel situation in Britain at the time, where Rome did not work with local rulers, but conquered the country and maintained the Pax Romana by direct military presence.)

The ‘hot button’ issue underlying this fake controversy is not the political arrangements at the time of Jesus’ birth, but the present day conflict between Jews and Arabs for control of Palestine. Official Israeli representatives and members of the Jewish diaspora communities in Western countries, are highly sensitive to two issues caught up in this controversy.

In the first place, and quite correctly, there is deep concern at the recent tendency of Palestinian advocates to question the historical connection between the Jewish people and the land of Palestine. Such historical revisionism draws on critical biblical scholarship, including work by esteemed Jewish colleagues, that undermines the historicity of the Old Testament narratives. It is correct (and important) that we acknowledge the non-historical character of the biblical traditions about Abraham, the Exodus, the Conquest and even the ’empire’ of David. But this in no way undermines the authentic Jewish connection to the biblical lands.

Just as we should not countenance Zionist exploitation of the great Jewish religious texts for contemporary nationalistic purposes, nor should we allow Palestinian advocates to distort biblical and historical scholarship to deny Jewish links to Palestine. In both cases this represents an abuse of good scholarship and a betrayal of the best of our shared biblical heritage.

Secondly, and equally unacceptable, there is a tendency among Jewish advocates to deny the historical existence of the Palestinians, including their authentic connections to this Land. It is a well established fact that the Palestinian population are the direct descendants of the ancient peoples of this land, including ancient Jews. As another recent Haaretz article has reported, DNA analysis has demonstrated that the closest match for Jewish DNA is to be found in the Palestinian population, including Bedouin and Druze.

Some of the most recent research was by Ostrer and Skorecki, and was reviewed in the journal, Human Genetics in October 2012. They summarise  their findings as follows:

The closest genetic neighbors to most Jewish groups were the Palestinians, Israeli Bedouins, and Druze in addition to the Southern Europeans, including Cypriots …

The persistent Israeli refusal to recognise the ancient connection of the Palestinian population with the Jewish population in biblical times is a sad index of the nature of the conflict over Palestine. The Jewish and Arab populations have equal historical connections to the biblical lands, which is not the same as a valid claim to political sovereignty over Palestine. We are dealing with a conflict between two related population groups which, over time, have adopted different identities.

Jewish diaspora communities in the Middle East and in Europe maintained a sense of their identity, as well as their deep attachment to Jerusalem and to Eretz Israel. From time to time, and especially during the Ottoman period, significant numbers of these Jews returned to Palestine. However, they held no dreams of a Zionist state.

Over the past 2,000 years, the Jewish and non-Jewish populations that remained in Palestine adopted a series of new identities, including Byzantine Christian and—from the seventh century CE—Arabic. As they adopted Arabic language and accommodated to the new realities following the Islamic conquest of Palestine in the 600s, these ‘Arabs’ mostly forgot their own ancient identities as Jews, Canaanites, Phoenicians, etc.

For both communities the land is basic to their identity. In addition, they have a common attachment to Jerusalem.

In the late nineteenth century, European imperial interests colluded with an emerging sense of nationalism among European Jewry, to cultivate the dream of the Jewish colonisation of Palestine. All of the people of Palestine, whether they identify as Arab or Jewish, continue to suffer from the tragic consequences of European colonialism; as do their neighbours in Iraq and Syria, where international borders drawn up by imperial bureaucrats in London and Paris continue to diminish the lives of people across the Middle East.

It would truly be a Christmas gift worthy of celebration if we could avoid the fake controversy around the New Matilda article, and focus on the quest for an outcome that offers hope to millions of people in Palestine and its neighbours.

Note: For a related post from May 2014, see The Human Jesus.
©2015 Gregory C. Jenks
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