Study Leave — Week Three

Tiberias, Israel
Friday, 22 March 2013

A sunny morning in Tiberias catching up on reading

It is now three weeks since I arrived in Israel for my sabbatical, and the place is abuzz with preparations for Passover and—for the Western Christians in Jerusalem—Holy Week.

For the local Christians, Easter will be observed on the first weekend in May and outside Jerusalem all the Christian communities have agreed to observe the Orthodox calendar this year. This creates some liturgical dissonance for visitors such as myself, but I welcome the grassroots collaboration between often competing Christian communities and rejoice in the messiness of it all.

The shops have been crazy; like a pre-Christmas shopping frenzy back home. And I am told the traffic will be chaotic after the weekend as people take advantage of the holidays to visit family and friends.

During this third week of my study leave I seem to have settled into more of a pattern. I went to Jerusalem on Sunday, without needing to use the GPS (despite taking at least one wrong turn in the process). Not long after arriving at St George’s College I ran into John Stuart, an Australian serving as chaplain to SGC this year, and we made arrangements to celebrate St Patrick’s Day at a nearby Irish Pub in West Jerusalem. O’Connells did not offer Irish Stew (despite it being on the menu), so we settled for “Australian Burgers” and Guinness. It was lovely couple of hours, and we found that we have so much in common. Finding such interesting people in unexpected places is one of the joys of travel.

Monday and Tuesday were spent in the coin department at Israel Antiquities Authority beneath the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Some real progress has been made with the coin database project, although at times it seems that really just means I am getting a clearer sense of the mess I am seeking to clean up.

The other major project on my agenda is beginning to call for my attention. Before my study leave is finished, I need to have the first draft of a new book for Polebridge Press. This will be the long-awaited (by me, at least) ‘Jesus book’ and it will draw together some of my work at Bethsaida, as well as other historical Jesus projects and biblical studies. The last few days I was able to spend some time on questions around the towns Jesus visited and avoided, including what we now know about Nazareth in the first couple of decades of the Common Era.

While at a wonderful concert in Nazareth on Wednesday evening, I met a local gentleman with a deep connection to Nazareth Village project. We soon discovered that we hold very different views on the size of Nazareth in the first century, and the date of its founding as a Jewish village. He has offered to guide me through some of the local archaeological sites not open to tourists, and I am very much looking forward to that. In the meantime I have done some further reading on the key archaeological investigations at Nazareth so I am well prepared for our discussions (and re-assured in my existing opinions!).

It has been good to have a break from the obsession with coins, although it was a real thrill to hold in my hands this last week a coin minted by Cleopatra during her ill-fated relationship with Mark Antony, as well as a coin of Agrippa II (who crossed paths with Paul of Tarsus according to Acts 25) dated to 82/83 CE. This date is about 10 years after the end of the Jewish War, while Agrippa continued to reign—and around the time that Josephus was sending Agrippa drafts of his own book project, The Jewish War, for comment and correction. Both coins were found at Bethsaida in 2012.

With the imminent holy days I am planning to take a break from the research and enjoy time with friends here. I suspect the highlight 0f the next few days will be a visit to the Herod exhibition at the Israel Museum on Sunday. I have walked past it several times already, so now I plan to go and see the exhibition for myself. From all reports it is definitely well worth seeing.

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  1. Dear Greg,
    I follow with interest your pilgrimage/ sabbatical. I note with some jolt inside your reference to the towns that Jesus rejected. Naturally I think of Capernaum, Bethsaida and Chorazin from the references in Matthew and Luke but you may have other towns in mind. The jolt comes because one of the diktat that have resounded in my head since I was an impressionable schoolboy was …”much is expected from those to whom much has been given”. This has governed, I realize in retrospect , many of the nodal decisions in my life.The jolt comes when I appreciate the parallel with the cursing by Jesus of the towns to whom much had been given. It seems that, as the center of the ‘evangelical triangle’ these towns would have been exposed to the teaching, healing and other ministries of Jesus in a way that would have given them extraordinary privilege yet they did
    not repent nor change their ways. The result it seems is to be cursed. Woe to us then!!

  2. As always, Graham, a perceptive observation. One of the questions I am seeking to answer for a chapter in the new book is (something like) the following: Given that Jesus was disappointed by the lack of response (or the nature of the response) from places like Bethsaida after his activity there, just what kind of response was he seeking from them?

    1. Armed rebellion? (what evidence for that?)
    2. Withdrawal into a separated community similar to Dead Sea sect? (ditto)
    3. A new religion centered on himself? (not likely)
    4. Mass renewal of covenant faithfulness in preparation for coming of messianic age? (JBap +)

    Any other options?

    I guess I am inclined towards #4 at this stage in my thinking.

    BTW, among the towns that “disappointed” Jesus I would include Nazareth.

  3. Dear Greg,
    It would appear from the four options presented that the only one with any resonance for me is # four as you suggest for yourself. The words ‘renewal’ and ‘mass’ both excite a little dissonance for me. Nothing I read suggests to me at least that Jesus was interested in anything on a mass scale, unless of course he expected that any renewal or other response would naturally go viral. Renewal also makes me ask how does that fit with the general tenor of ‘I come to bring a NEW thing’ (my paraphrase which may be an inadequate interpretation). It may simply be a semantic quibble to distinguish between new and renewed.

  4. Thanks for the follow up in this thread, Graham. It is good to have you as a conversation partner as I think about these questions.

    There may well be other options, for example, was Jesus simply a Galilean shaman (a holy man similar to such characters as Oni the Circle Drawer, described by Vermes some years ago now) who gained a reputation as a healer and sage? However, such characters tended to stay at their home and people came to them. Also healer and sage are not natural aspects of the same person, leaving aside some notable exceptions among our mutual medical friends in ministry. In ancient (pre-modern) societies, I think healer associates more with priest, while sage is a little distant from religion and tends to be more scribal in orientation. Both roles also tend to require some considerable time to pass as the person’s skills develop, their reputation is established, and people begin to come to them from near and far.

    On balance none of that sits well with my reading of the Jesus story. He was an itinerant prophet himself and he also sent his immediate followers out on mission to the same audience (the towns and villages of Israel). His self-designation suggests “prophet” as the key category for his own self-awareness, and no clear conception of himself as “messiah.” There seems not to have been the time for him to acquire the “skills” and develop the “reputation” to attracts the crowds to come to him. And he did not stay at home while people came to him. Something drove him to leave Nazareth and operate on the NW shore of the Kinneret.

    The phrase “mass renewal (movement)”—I should have included that third term—presumes a focus on activity within the Jewish communities of Palestine, and no concern for the Diaspora Jews or the Gentiles. This suggests something about the local and immediate situation of Jews under the Herodian dynasty, and especially following on the ministry of John the Baptist who was executed by Herod Antipas precisely for fear of a popular uprising. Maybe “grassroots renewal movement” or even just “religious renewal movement” are synonyms, although the term “religious” can attract anachronistic associations for the contemporary 21C reader?

    “Covenant faithfulness” could suggest some common ground with the Pharisees and even some resonance with the spiritual impetus of the Qumran sectarians, each of whom saw the need for individual and collective faithfulness to Torah as desirable, possible and necessary. However, I think the links are strongest with John the Baptist; but note that he operated in one location and people came to him, while Jesus developed a strategy of taking his message to the potential audience.

    The reference to “preparation … messianic age” allows for some kind of messianic outcome to be in the mind of Jesus, while connecting with deeper Jewish aspirations at a time of alienation and social distress.
    I wonder to what extent Jesus thought he was doing something new, and to what extent he thought he was reiterating traditional “Israelite” covenant values? And what counts as evidence when considering such a question?

    Anyway, thanks for the conversation. Your comments and reflections are welcome and will help me to fashion my own thoughts as I work on the relevant chapter in the new book.

  5. Thank you Greg. Reflecting on the four (?5) options I would be inclined to a view that saw Jesus as reclaiming shalom not quite on the JBap+ lines but remembering always that Jesus was baptised by him so must at some time at least shared some of his dynamic hope. I have reflected on my self-definition as I join this conversation and words such as orthodox progressive seem to be comfortable.

    1. Yes, Graham, I am sure there is something highly significant in the association of Jesus with John the Baptiser, and also note that Matthew describes Jesus as only beginning his ministry after news of John’s arrest. Almost as if the baton had been passed in some kind of succession process. Of course, it is almost as tricky to define the agenda of John as that of Jesus, since our only sources are the descriptions of John in the NT (all written by followers of Jesus rather than by John or his disciples) and a brief mention in Josephus. However, there is a strong case to view Jesus through the lens of John rather than through some of the other lenses that scholars apply, eg itinerant sage. There were also differences, including the itinerant nature of Jesus’ activity (contrast John’s stationery location), the emphasis on healing (= restoration of the broken into community?), and the significance of sharing meals (breaking strict holiness codes in the process). It has been helpful for me to “think out loud” about these issues, so thank you for your comments and reflections. I may try and pull this chapter together in the next few days and see what the draft looks like. 🙂

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