- Exodus 1:8-2:10 & Psalm 124 (or, Isaiah 51:1-6 & Psalm 138)
- Romans 12:1-8
- Matthew 16:13-20
First Reading: The birth of a saviour, Moses
While the sacred traditions of ancient Israel and Judah celebrate Abraham and Jacob as the ancestors of the nation, or even David as the archetypal dynastic founder, it is Moses who is honoured with a classic birth story as befits the founder of a new religious tradition.
For an introduction to some of the ancient birth stories now known to us, and as an aid to reflection on the significance of the Moses story, the following pages are especially relevant:
Gospel: Who is Jesus
This week’s Gospel passage is one of the classic scenes in the Synoptic Gospels.
Jesus travels to the far north of the Holy Land, to the area around Caesarea Philippi. This was a city created by Philip, a son of Herod the Great, who had was given authority over a portion of his father’s kingdom by Augustus, emperor of Rome. Best known as Philip the Tetrarch, this “Herod” appears in the NT record and this extract from the Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (vol. 5, p. 311) outlines what we know of him:
Philip is known primarily as a builder. He refounded the city of Panias and named it Caesarea—the Caesarea Philippi (literally, “Philip’s Caesarea”) of the New Testament (Matt 16:13; Mark 5:27). He also refounded the town of Bethsaida: he supplemented its population, strengthened its fortifications, and named it Julias after Julia, Augustus’ daughter. The refoundation will therefore have taken place early, presumably before Julia’s exile in 2 B.C. (Ant 18.27–8). The foundation and refoundation of cities named after the emperor and his family was characteristic of client rulers under the Principate (Suet. Aug. 60 with Braund 1984: 107–11). Such cities tended to be centers of imperial cult: Herod the Great had already built a splendid temple near Panias for Augustus (Ant 15.363–64; JW 1.404–6). Philip’s subjects were predominantly non-Jewish. Thus Philip’s coinage bears images, most notably the heads of Augustus and Tiberius respectively. They also depict a temple, probably the temple which Herod had built near Panias. These coins indicate that Philip called himself simply “Philip, tetrarch” (HJP2 1: 340 n. 9).
Philip reigned as tetrarch from 4 B.C. until his death in A.D. 33/4. According to Josephus, he was a good ruler. His reign was mild and he avoided external entanglements. He traveled about his territories with only a small, select entourage, which would not be a burden upon his subjects. He dispensed justice promptly and fairly from a throne which he took with him in his travels around his tetrarchy. He died at Julias, where, after a costly funeral, his body was consigned to a tomb which he had built in preparation for his death (Ant 18.106–8).
Philip had married Salome, daughter of Antipas and Herodias, whose dancing had cost the head of John the Baptist (Mark 6:22) and who survived Philip to marry again (Ant 18.137). But Philip had no children: Tiberius annexed his territories upon his death (Ant 18.108).
For a more detailed discussion of the coins issued by the successors of Herod, including Philip, see:
- Gregory C. Jenks, “‘We Three Kings’: Glimpses of the Herodian Succession in the Coins of Archelaus, Antipas, and Philip.” Biblical Characters in the Three Traditions Seminar, SBL International Meeting, St Andrews, Scotland, 7–11 July 2013.
- A less technical version of the same material has been published as “Whose head is on the coin?” in Gregory C. Jenks, Jesus Then and Jesus Now: Looking for Jesus, Finding Ourselves (Melbourne: Morning Star, 2014), ch 3 (pp. 31–43).
The imperial politics in which Herod and his sons were immersed clearly impacted on Jesus in various ways, and not least in his crucifixion. While the reference to John the Baptist may strike the modern reader as a religious reference, in the ancient world it was perhaps a more directly political note.
Within that world, and within the confused network of competing claims to authority and loyalty, Mark tells a story of Jesus travelling to a region closely associated with both the Herodian succession and the continuation of that dynasty before, during and after the great war with Rome in 66-73 CE. Caesarea Philippi was the seat of government for Agrippa II, who sided with Rome at the time of the Jewish rebellion and was later a confidant of Flavius Josephus, on whose writings we rely for much of our knowledge of Jewish history at this time.
Whether Jesus actually was in the region of Caesarea Philippi during the reign of Philip the Tetrarch, or whether Mark is creating that location because of its significance as the centre of Jewish authority after 70 CE, this scene is of great significance in Mark’s narrative. Indeed, given Mark’s own understanding of Jesus as “son of God” (cf. 1:1; 1:11; 3:11; 15:39), the answers he puts on the lips of the disciples are quite restrained:
- John the Baptist
- one of the prophets
- the Messiah
These issues are teased out in a longer discussion in Gregory C. Jenks, Jesus Then and Jesus Now: Looking for Jesus, Finding Ourselves (Melbourne: Morning Star, 2014). See, “One of the prophets” ch 4 (pp. 45–57).
While “Messiah” is clearly the answer Mark wants the readers to embrace, this is a term that has not appeared in his Gospel until now (except for the opening line of the narrative, best understood as a superscription or title for the work as a whole:
- “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” (Mark 1:1)
However, after this point the Greek word christos (anointed, messiah, Christ) is found a number of times:
- “For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.” (Mark 9:41)
- “While Jesus was teaching in the temple, he said, ‘How can the scribes say that the Messiah is the son of David?'” (Mark 12:35)
- “And if anyone says to you at that time, ‘Look! Here is the Messiah!’ or ‘Look! There he is!’—do not believe it.” (Mark 13:21)
- “But he was silent and did not answer. Again the high priest asked him, ‘Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?'” (Mark 14:61)
- “‘Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, so that we may see and believe.’ Those who were crucified with him also taunted him.” (Mark 15:32)
It is possible that Mark is deliberately restrained with his narrative here. While “son of God”—with all its political overtones in an empire whose rulers claimed to be sons of the divine ruler who had preceded them, and in which local rulers dedicated temples such as we find at Bethsaida and Caesarea Philippi to the imperial cult—was important for his view of Jesus, he chooses to speak of Jesus in traditional Jewish terms, as the anointed one, the messiah.
Matthew will change Mark’s narrative to make Peter profess the faith held by Matthew’s early Christian community:
- “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God …” (Matt 16:16)
And Luke will also assert the special relationship between this Messiah and Israel’s God:
- “the Messiah of God”
Almost 2,000 years later we still find ourselves reflecting on the question: Who is Jesus? We may answer it differently from earlier generations, but the question persists and the way we answer it shapes the way we live.
- 073 Who is Jesus – (1) GThom. 13; (2a) Mark 8:27-30 = Matt 16:13-20 = Luke 9:18-21; (2b) GNaz. 14; (2c) John 6:67-69.
Liturgies and Prayers
For liturgies and sermons each week, shaped by a progressive theology, check Rex Hunt’s web site
Other recommended sites include:
See the following sites for recommendations from a variety of contemporary genre: