According to the gospel of Mark, (see Mark 6:3), Jesus of Nazareth had four brothers and at least two sisters.
That raises the question of how, exactly, these siblings were related to Jesus. Over the centuries, people have suggested three theories:
- They were children of Mary and Joseph.
- They were children of Joseph by a previous wife.
- They were cousins of Jesus.
I discussed all this in a previous blog post, Mother’s Day With Jesus, so I won’t go over that ground again.
My own opinion is that the four “brothers of Jesus” were biological sons of both Mary and Joseph.
But Jesus, according to two of the gospels, wasn’t.
Jesus, the Son of Mary
The gospels of Matthew and Luke say explicitly that Jesus was the biological son of Mary, but not of Joseph.
Matthew 1:16-20 tells us that Mary was found to be pregnant before she was legally married to Joseph, and that Joseph knew the child was not his.
Luke 1:26-34 tells us that an angel told Mary she would become pregnant while still unmarried. And Luke 2:4-7 says that Jesus was born before Joseph took Mary as his wife.
But if Jesus was not the biological son of Joseph, the village of Nazareth must have raised a question about the legal status of Jesus. Because when there’s a scandal, people will talk.
We can see hints of this in Mark 6:3, where Jesus is referred to contemptuously as the “son of Mary.”
We see another hint of this in John 8:41, in the middle of a debate between Jesus and certain Pharisees, when his opponents make the odd remark that they are not illegitimate children. They may well have been implying that Jesus was. It’s hard to know for sure, because they don’t make an explicit charge of illegitimacy against Jesus. But the innuendo is there.
So questions of legitimacy seem to have dogged Jesus for much of his life.
But ultimately, the question must have been decided in favor of Jesus.
Jesus, the Legal Son of Joseph
The gospels imply that, when all was said and done, Jesus was accepted as the legal son of Joseph.
Luke 3:23 tells us that Jesus was thought to be the son of Joseph.
Luke 4:22, John 1:45, and John 6:42 each portray various people or groups of people calling him the “son of Joseph”.
Matthew 13:55 calls him the carpenter’s son.
None of these passages really tackles the issue head-on, but they appear to be telling us that in the end, people accepted Jesus as the son of Joseph for legal purposes. And this would only happen if Joseph himself accepted Jesus as his legal son. (My novel, Son of Mary, explores all this in great detail.)
Friction Among the Five Sons of Mary
And yet there was a problem among the five sons of Mary, and Mary was mixed up in it.
John 7:1-5 tells of an incident just before the annual feast of Tabernacles, probably about half a year before the crucifixion of Jesus. The brothers of Jesus were telling him that he should go to the feast (in Jerusalem) and make a name for himself. But Jesus told them he didn’t intend to go.
And the episode ends with the crucial line that even his brothers didn’t believe in him.
That’s pretty harsh. In a tight-knit culture like ancient Galilee, when your own family doesn’t believe in you, you’ve lost all credibility.
The incident doesn’t say what Mary thought about all this, but we can guess.
That Time Mary Thought Jesus Was Crazy
Because this was not the first time we hear about conflict in the family.
In Mark 3:31-35, Matthew 12:46-50, and Luke 8:19-21, we read three different accounts of a day when Mary and his brothers came looking for Jesus. He was in a house talking to people, and he refused to come out to see them.
Certainly, Jesus had his reasons. He was doing God’s work. But even so, it’s easy to guess that Mary and her other sons felt hurt by this. They wanted to see him quite desperately, because they’d heard a rumor that he had gone crazy.
Yes, really. Mary, the mother of Jesus, and all his brothers thought he was crazy. Only the gospel of Mark tells this part of the story, in Mark 3:20-21.
Alone at the Cross
Even though the brothers of Jesus didn’t think he would amount to anything, the authorities thought otherwise. I blogged about this recently in my article Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.
The chief priests in Jerusalem thought Jesus was about to raise an insurrection, so they turned him over to Governor Pilate. But Pilate didn’t care if the charge was true or not. For him, all that mattered was that people thought Jesus was about to raise an insurrection. Rumors must be quashed.
So Pilate ordered the crucifixion of Jesus. But it seems that none of his four brothers had the guts to show up. How do we know?
John 19:25-27 tells us that Mary stood with Jesus while he was on the cross, along with a few other women. But only one male friend was there, “the disciple Jesus loved.” (None of the gospels says exactly who this disciple was, but ancient tradition says it was John, the son of Zebedee.)
This passage tells us implicitly that none of Jesus’s brothers were there. If they had been, Jesus would have asked them to take care of his mother. But they weren’t, so he gave her into the care of the only man with the courage to stand with him at the end.
Mary, Mother of Jesus
When you think about it, being the mother of Jesus was a tough, tough job.
- Mary got pregnant before she was married, and the whole village knew it.
- Even her intended husband thought she had cheated on him, and he almost broke off the marriage before it began.
- Rumors about her son’s legitimacy dogged him for most of his life.
- Mary’s other sons didn’t believe Jesus would amount to anything.
- When she heard Jesus had gone crazy and went to check up on him, he refused to see her.
And yet, at the end of all things, when Jesus was hanging naked on a cross, charged with treason, dying in agony, Mary was there.
The rest of his brothers refused to show up, but Mary was there.
Waiting for her son to die, hoping she could see he got a decent burial, Mary was there.
Because that’s what mothers do.
In my last blog post, Jesus and Palm Sunday, I talked about how Jesus committed sedition by climbing on a donkey and riding down the Mount of Olives into Jerusalem.
Every Jew of his time knew the tradition of “Mashiach’s Donkey”—the oracle of the prophet Zechariah about a coming Mashiach (“Messiah” in English) who would someday enter Jerusalem riding on a donkey.
They knew many other traditions about Mashiach from oracles in Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Zechariah, Micah, and various other prophets:
- That he would restore the kingdom of his father David.
- That he would reunite the two tribes of the old southern kingdom, Judah and Benjamin, with the lost ten tribes of the northern kingdom.
- That he would establish peace on all the earth.
- That he would rule the 70 nations with a rod of iron.
- That he would appear 483 years after the order to rebuild the Temple, and that day was coming soon.
Large number of Jews of the first century were desperate for this Mashiach to appear.
They had plenty of applicants for the job. Numerous leaders and chieftains and prophets tried to take the mantle of Mashiach in the first century. We know their names (in most cases) from Josephus, the Jewish historian who was born about the year AD 37 or 38, and who fought as the general of the Jewish army in Galilee during the Jewish Revolt of AD 66-70. Josephus tells us explicitly that one motivation for this revolt was an “oracle” predicting that a man from Judea would rise up to rule the world. This “oracle” is almost certainly the prophecy in Daniel 9 of the 490 years.
So on Palm Sunday, expectations were running high for a warrior-king to rise up and lead his people to freedom.
When Jesus sat on the donkey, all those expectations seemed to be coming true.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the revolution…
No Insurrection on Palm Sunday
If you read the whole account of Palm Sunday in Mark 11:1-11, which is the earliest written account of the incident, you’ll see that it all ends anticlimactically.
There was no revolution. No insurrection. No crowning of Mashiach. Not even one Molotov cocktail. Nothing.
We saw part of the reason why in my last blog post. The short route into the Temple would have taken the crowd of shouting pilgrims right past the Antonia Fortress, manned by Roman soldiers whose whole job was to shut down insurrections—at any price.
If Jesus had taken that route, there would have been a bloody massacre. The Romans would have sliced through the procession like a light saber through butter. Hundreds of Jews would have been killed or wounded. Jesus and his disciples would all have been cut down. End of story.
But instead, Jesus took the southern route—half a mile south down the steep Kidron Valley, then into the city, and then …
There was a requirement before entering the Temple Mount. You had to immerse in a mikveh—a ritual immersion pool. This was not optional. No Jew of the first century would consider the possibility of not immersing. To do it right, you had to get completely naked and immerse fully.
Just inside the gate at the southwest corner of Jerusalem was a large pool, the famous Pool of Siloam. A small part of this pool has recently been excavated. It has steps leading down into the water.
Here’s a picture I took of the excavated part of this pool in the summer of 2015:
If you’re familiar at all with mikvehs from the first century, you’ll see right away that this pool was not for drinking water. It was for ritual immersion.
Jesus and the whole party stopped everything when they reached the Pool of Siloam. They set aside their packs and sandals. They marched down into the water, which was undoubtedly very murky. They pulled their wool tunics up over their heads. They immersed completely. They pulled their tunics back on. They came up out of the water, very soggy. They collected their things. And then they went on up to the Temple Mount, walking one or two abreast through the winding, narrow streets of the Ophel District of Jerusalem—a steep uphill climb for half a mile.
If you think a mass ritual immersion might have put a damper on the party, I have to agree with you. I suggest that any revolution that might have happened fizzled out there at the pool.
So in Mark 11:11, when it says Jesus went in the Temple and looked around and then went back to Bethany, that’s the explanation. There was no insurrection, because Jesus took the fizz out of the party by taking the southern route.
And yet he still got executed only five days later.
How’d that happen? A lot played out over those five days, and it’s easy to get sidetracked by the details. But if we want clarity, the quickest way to find it is to zip to the end of the story and see what the Romans thought. They were the ones, after all, who ran the execution.
What did the Romans think was the crime Jesus committed?
The Writing on the Cross
We don’t have to guess why the Romans executed Jesus. All four gospels give identical explanations in almost identical wording. Governor Pilate ordered the charge against Jesus to be posted on the cross. Read it yourself:
The charge was this: “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.”
Jesus was executed precisely because a large number of his countrymen thought he meant to be the Mashiach, the warrior-king, the man of blood who would crush the Romans (and the rest of the 70 nations) and set up the reunited kingdom of Israel and rule the nations on the throne of David with a rod of iron.
Let’s be clear that there is no compelling reason to think Jesus wanted that. It’s true that Jesus wanted a kingdom. The gospels are packed full of talk of the “kingdom of God.” And what did he mean by that? I think he meant the kind of kingdom where you love your enemies, and thereby turn them into your friends.
But all the evidence shows that a very large number of Jesus’s fellow Jews wanted him to be a warrior-king, and they were willing to follow him into battle.
Which was something that terrified the Romans.
And also the chief priests, who ran the Temple.
What Scared the Chief Priests
The Temple at that time was run by a very small oligarchy, made up of chief priests from five aristocratic families. We know the names of these five families from Josephus and four of them from the Lament of Abba Saul in the Babylonian Talmud. The five families were:
- The House of Boetus
- The House of Hanan
- The House of Qathros
- The House of Ishmael ben Phiabi
- The House of Hananyah
All the high priests in the first century were appointed from one of these five families, and all of the other high-ranking priests in the Temple hierarchy came from these families also.
Of the Five Families, the most ruthless was the House of Hanan, whose senior member was Hanan ben Set. In English, his name is usually transliterated as Annas (or sometimes as Ananus). His son-in-law was a man named Yoseph Qayaph. In English, his name is spelled Joseph Caiaphas. This man Caiaphas was high priest when Jesus came to Jerusalem.
In the Roman empire, the Romans managed unruly provinces by appointing local aristocrats to collaborate with Rome to keep the peace. In case there was an insurrection, the aristocrats in charge had to help put it down, or their heads would roll.
The governor of Judea was Pontius Pilate, and he relied heavily on the local chief priests to maintain order.
Which is why the chief priests arrested Jesus and handed him over to Pilate.
It’s instructive to read the gospel accounts of the preliminary hearings the chief priests held with Jesus before they took him to Pilate. It’s easy to read these accounts as some sort of theological trial.
But that’s a mistake. These are accounts of a political trial. (With the caveat that of course all politics had some theological undertones in those days.)
The Son of God and the King of Israel
All four gospels give an account of some sort of trial. Take a look at the account in Mark, which is the earliest written story of the proceedings. It’s in Mark 14:53-72.
According to Mark, the high priest presided over the trial. A few chief priests and various other local aristocrats sat in attendance. Mark says things began with some scattered testimony that went nowhere.
Then the high priest asked Jesus point blank: “Are you the Mashiach, the son of the Blessed One?”
This may appear to be a theological question, in two parts. It’s not. It’s one political question, asked twice.
The Mashiach was simply the anointed king of Israel, who would be son of David and establish the new kingdom of Israel. That’s a political job. The only theological implication here is that of course this would be a theocracy, and so naturally God would be backing the Mashiach. So this part is very clearly political.
But isn’t the question about “the son of the Blessed One” a theological question? It may seem like it must be, to a Christian in the twenty-first century, who knows that Jesus was “very God of very God,” as the fourth-century Nicene Creed puts it.
But no Jew of the first century thought in those terms. If a Jew of the first century asked, “Are you the son of God?” they were asking quite simply, “Are you the king of Israel?”
In ancient Israel, it was standard to talk about the king of Israel as the “son of God.” The coronation psalm in Psalm 2 makes this explicit. Nobody in ancient Israel thought that King David or King Ahab was literally the biological son of God. They thought that King David and King Ahab stood as the visible agents on earth of the true King of Kings, the invisible God who ruled in heaven. King David and King Ahab were “the son of God” precisely because they were “the king of Israel.”
So in Mark’s account of the trial, when Caiaphas asked Jesus if he was the “son of the Blessed One,” he was not asking whether Jesus thought he was God. Thoughts of the Nicene Creed never entered Caiaphas’s head. Caiaphas was simply asking a political question—“Are you the king of Israel?”
Jesus said he was, and he warned Caiaphas that he would see the “Son of Man” coming in power. Every Jew of the first century knew that the “coming of the Son of Man” was a symbol of the coming apocalypse in which the wrath of God would fall on earth and the old order would be swept away. And that included the Temple which Caiaphas presided over. For Caiaphas, that was blasphemy.
In Mark’s account, that seals the deal. Caiaphas is convinced that Jesus is an insurrectionist, because Caiaphas thinks Jesus thinks he’s the king of Israel, the Mashiach. There is nothing else but to hand Jesus off to the Romans.
What Caiaphas and the Romans Didn’t Know
Anyone these days knows there was a lot more going on with Jesus than just another wannabe insurrectionist.
We know the next couple of thousand years of history, in which Jesus has ruled as king (of a sort) over billions of people on the planet. Not in the way Caiaphas or Pilate could ever have imagined, but in a kingdom “not of this world.”
For believers, Jesus was and still is the prince of peace. The king of kings. The son of God (again, in a very different sense than Caiaphas or Pilate ever dreamed of.)
The revolution came. It was not the revolution anyone was looking for.
It was a different sort of revolution. Led by a different sort of king. Leading to a different sort of kingdom.
Which is why that terrible Friday can be rightly called Good Friday.
Palm Sunday celebrates the day Jesus entered Jerusalem in a remarkable procession that sealed his death warrant.
Historians don’t agree on the exact year of this extraordinary event. According to the gospel of John, it was a year in which Passover Eve fell on a Friday.
Most scholars would put this in either the year AD 33 or AD 30. I think the evidence leans a little toward AD 33, but it wouldn’t shock me if it was AD 30 instead.
On that fateful Sunday, Jesus left Jericho in the morning and made the 16-mile climb up the Jericho Road to Jerusalem.
He had plenty of company. His twelve disciples and numerous other followers surrounded him. Very likely his mother and his brothers and their families came along also. Hundreds of pilgrims from Galilee and the Jordan Valley walked on the same road that same day.
The Jericho Road rises in elevation by about 3000 feet. It passes through arid country, so the travelers carried plenty of water. This road was notorious for bandits, so most of the men also carried short knives for protection.
Excitement hung electric in the air.
Passover and the City of the Great King
It was the week before Passover, and many thousands of Jews were headed into Jerusalem, the City of the Great King.
No doubt, they were singing psalms. No doubt they were retelling the story of the first Passover, when God miraculously released their ancestors from slavery in Egypt. No doubt they were wondering if this year, God would raise up a new deliverer like Moses to rescue them from the oppression of Rome.
For some centuries, the prophets had given oracles about this deliverer, a man who would be the anointed King of Israel, the son of David who would restore the kingdom of David and sit again on David’s throne.
In Hebrew they called this coming king “Mashiach,” a word which just means “the anointed one.” When you transliterate this word to Greek and then transliterate it again to English, you get the word “Messiah.”
In first-century Judea, Passover seemed the best time of year for Mashiach to appear.
On the Mount of Olives
The road from Jericho to Jerusalem peaked at the Mount of Olives. There were two villages here, Bethany and Bethphage. Here’s a map I drew for my novel Son of Mary that shows these villages and Jerusalem:
When Jesus and his entourage reached the Mount of Olives, he sent a couple of his disciples ahead to one of these two villages to borrow a donkey. (It’s not clear which village he sent them to, but my own best guess is Bethany, where he had friends who wouldn’t mind loaning him a donkey.)
We don’t know which two disciples he sent, but I’d guess Peter and John got the job. These were two of the three main disciples of Jesus, and the stories from this time seem to show Peter and John as close friends.
When they returned, Jesus took a seat on the donkey.
At which point, he committed sedition against Rome.
Among the ancient oracles from the prophets was one in Zechariah 9:9 that spoke of a future king of Israel who would come to Jerusalem riding on a donkey. He would go on to rule all the earth, commanding all the nations.
Jesus and his disciples and every single person on the road knew this oracle. The term “Mashiach’s Donkey” is a phrase that still lives today in Jewish lore.
When Jesus sat on Mashiach’s Donkey, he was making a powerful political statement. He was making a claim to be the king of Israel.
And the crowd went wild.
They began singing one of the victory songs that are traditional at Passover—Psalm 118. We know this, because the gospels record some of what they said in Mark 11:8-10 and it comes straight from Psalm 118:25-26.
The English word “hosanna” is just a transliteration of the Hebrew “hoshia na” which means “save us now!”
And every Jew of the first century knew what it meant for God to save them. It meant that God would go to war on their behalf. He would smite their enemies, as he smote the Egyptians in the time of Moses. As he smote the Canaanites in the time of Joshua. As he smote the Philistines in the time of David.
Entering the City of the Great King
The Mount of Olives is quite steep, and the road slants at an angle to make the slope easier. I have walked this road several times, and it’s challenging.
When Jesus and the crowd reached the bottom, they were in a narrow valley (the Kidron Valley) between Jerusalem and the Mount of Olives. They were looking straight up at the Temple Mount, but there was no gate directly into the Temple Mount from where they stood.
At this point, they had a choice.
They could go northwest around the corner of the Temple Mount to the north gate. This was a short walk of a few hundred yards up a moderate slope.
Or they could turn south and walk half a mile down the steep Kidron Valley to the gate at the southwest corner of the city. If they chose this path, they would then enter Jerusalem and walk another half mile right back up the steep hill which they had just walked down.
The southern route was at least five times farther than the northern one. It was steeper. It took a lot more physical effort. Jesus and the crowd had already walked sixteen miles up a long, dry desert road, and they were tired.
By all logic, Jesus and the crowd should have taken the easy northern route into Jerusalem.
Tradition says that Jesus and the crowd went south.
Why Jesus Took The Long Way Around
Why did Jesus take the longer, harder way when everyone was already tired from an arduous day’s walk?
Because the short and easy northern route entered the Temple Mount through a gate right next to the Antonia Fortress, manned by Roman soldiers. These soldiers had only one job—to prevent an armed insurrection.
Most of the men in the crowd with Jesus probably carried a short knife for personal protection. If you went traveling through bandit country without a weapon, you were just dumb, and these were experienced travelers. They weren’t dumb.
The Romans would have seen them as armed and dangerous. And they were right. This crowd—the entire crowd—was committing sedition by their words. And they were primed to take it to the next level. To violent insurrection.
If the Romans had seen them, they’d have come out in force. They wore armor and carried better weapons, and they were trained to fight as a team. It would have been a slaughter.
My view is that Jesus didn’t have a military bone in his body. His idea of Mashiach was not a military-leader king. His idea of Mashiach was a humble servant-king.
But he knew perfectly well that not one person in the crowd shared his ideas. The crowd surrounding him wanted blood. Roman blood. (Forty years later, their sons and grandsons got exactly that, in the terrible Jewish Revolt of AD 66-70. They began it with a slaughter of Roman soldiers.)
Jesus knew exactly what would happen if this crowd mixed it up with the Roman garrison at the Antonia Fortress.
So he took the southern route, and the soldiers in the Antonia Fortress never saw the commotion.
The Death Warrant of Jesus
By taking the safer route, Jesus saved the lives of many hundreds of his fellow Jews. Even so, he signed his own death warrant.
We’ll see exactly how that worked out over the next few days of Passion Week in the next blog post.
Nothing seems more ridiculous than to ask whether Jesus celebrated Valentine’s Day.
For one thing, Saint Valentine lived about 250 years after Jesus, and the feast honoring him was established in AD 496.
For another thing, many people would say that it’s sacrilegious and crazy to think Jesus might have had a wife or a girlfriend.
But a surprising number of people think that Jesus was secretly married, and that his wife was Mary Magdalene.
It’s worth asking why anyone would think so. It’s rather an old idea, but it became famous in this century with the publication of the best-selling novel, The Da Vinci Code.
Mary Magdalene and The Da Vinci Code
The Da Vinci Code is a novel written by Dan Brown and published in 2003. The book made a couple of weird claims:
- The church suppressed the early gnostic gospels because they taught that Jesus was purely human, not at all divine.
- One of these gnostic gospels, the Gospel of Philip, says that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene, referring to her by the Aramaic word for “wife,” and the early church suppressed this “fact.”
Both of the above claims are false.
Here are the facts:
- It’s true that the church suppressed the gnostic gospels, but they weren’t early, as compared to the canonical gospels, Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John. And none of the gnostic gospels taught that Jesus was purely human, not at all divine. The gnostics leaned heavily the other way, that Jesus was all or mostly divine, hardly human at all. That’s right—it’s the canonical gospels that (for the most part) stressed the humanity of Jesus, while each making room in their own way for his divine status.
- The Gospel of Philip was written in Coptic, not Aramaic, and it refers to Mary Magdalene as a “companion” of Jesus, which could mean many things, but it is not a synonym for “wife.” If you’re looking for Aramaic words, you’ll find a few in the canonical gospels, but none that say anything remotely about Jesus having a wife.
Of course, Dan Brown was not the first person to think Jesus might have been married to Mary Magdalene. She was clearly a close friend of Jesus, and she’s listed first in some of the lists of women in the gospels—in the crucial final scenes of his life and in the “empty tomb” scenes on Easter Sunday.
So it’s a fair question to ask what we know about this woman.
What Do We Know About Mary Magdalene?
It’s a blunt fact that we know very little about Mary Magdalene from the four canonical gospels. And she’s not mentioned anywhere else in the entire Bible.
Mary Magdalene is mentioned only once in the gospels before the crucifixion—in Luke 8:1-3, where she’s mentioned with a few other women who supported Jesus from their own pockets.
One of those other women was Joanna, the wife of Chuza, who was the manager of the household of Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee. This Joanna must have been quite a wealthy and powerful woman. Hang on to that fact. We’ll come back to it.
Another woman was named Susanna, and we know nothing more about her.
Apparently, there were other women. All that we know of them is that Jesus healed them of various things—diseases or “evil spirits, and they provided money to support Jesus.
It’s a fair and reasonable guess that all these women were wealthy.
It’s worth remembering that in first-century culture, wealth was respected, just like today. But unlike today, age was also venerated. If you made a list of people, you’d typically put the wealthiest and/or the oldest first.
Unfortunately, we have no indicator at all of the age of these women. They could have been in their twenties. They could have been in their eighties. Or anywhere in between.
As I said already, aside from this one verse in Luke, the only mentions of Mary Magdalene come in the crucifixion and burial scenes and the scenes on Easter morning. We’ll look at those next.
The Many Marys at the Cross
The four gospels are a bit confusing on the question of which women were at the cross with Jesus in his final hours.
Mark 15:40 names them as Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of “James the Less” and Joses, and Salome.
Most scholars would equate “Mary the mother of James the Less and Joses” with the mother of Jesus himself, because Jesus had four brothers, and the two oldest were named James and Joses.
It’s not clear from this text who Salome was.
A bit further on, when Jesus was laid in a rock-cut grave nearby, the women are named again in Mark 15:47 as Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses. Salome is not listed this time.
Matthew has similar lists in his parallel account of the scene. (Note that Matthew used Mark as a source for his gospel and often follows him closely.)
In Matthew 27:56, we read that the women included Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.
The sons of Zebedee were the two disciples James and John, and it’s possible this woman was the “Salome” named in Mark.
Then in Matthew 27:61, at the burial, two women are named, Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary.” Presumably, this “other Mary” was the mother of Jesus, although we can’t be certain.
In the gospel of Luke, the women at the cross and the burial are not named at all. They’re just called “the women who accompanied him from Galilee.”
The gospel of John mentions some women at the cross, but now in a different order, starting with Mary the mother of Jesus, followed by Mary’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.
It’s not entirely clear if this is three women or four. Did Mary the mother of Jesus have a sister who was also named Mary? That seems a bit unimaginative on the part of their parents. Maybe this other Mary was actually her sister-in-law? We can’t really know.
In any event, in John’s gospel, Mary Magdalene still makes the list, but now she’s last.
Why Put Mary Magdalene First?
It’s natural to ask why Mark names Mary Magdalene first, ahead of the mother of Jesus. (Matthew follows Mark closely in many passages, so it seems likely that Matthew names Mary Magdalene first because Mark does.)
Was Mary Magdalene named first in Mark because she was the wife of Jesus? Some scholars have argued this. And it’s logically possible. This is reasoning backwards from an effect to a possible cause. (The effect is that Mary Magdalene was named first in the list of women. The possible cause is that Mary Magdalene was the wife of Jesus. If she really were his wife, that would explain why she’s named first.)
But that’s not exactly an airtight case. When you reason backwards from effect to cause, Sherlock Holmes taught us that you need to consider all possible causes. You can’t just grab one possible cause and claim that’s the only possible cause for the effect.
Could there be other causes why Mary Magdalene comes first in Mark’s list? Yes, there could.
We know that Mary Magdalene probably had a fair bit of money, whereas Mary the mother of Jesus probably had little. So it’s possible that Mary Magdalene came first in the list because she was a woman of wealth.
We don’t know how old Mary Magdalene was. Mary the mother of Jesus would have been around fifty years old. In case Mary Magdalene was noticeably older, say beyond sixty, then that could also account for her being named first—because she was the oldest of the women.
So now we have three possible causes why Mark names Mary Magdalene first in his list of women:
- Possibly because Mary Magdalene was the wife of Jesus.
- Possibly because Mary Magdalene was the wealthiest of the women.
- Possibly because Mary Magdalene was the oldest of the women.
Can we say more to sharpen these up?
Mary Magdalene at the Tomb of Jesus
The women also play a role in the gospel scenes at the empty tomb of Jesus on Easter morning.
Mark 16:1 names three women who came to the tomb. He names them in the same order as he named them at the cross—Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome.
So there’s really no new information in Mark. It appears to be the exact same list he gave for the women at the cross.
Matthew 28:1 again follows Mark, and he again calls them Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary.”
Again, no new information.
Luke 24:9-11 now names some of the women at the tomb, following the same order as Mark and Matthew, but adding in Joanna. His list is Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James.
Luke commonly follows Mark pretty closely, but he also commonly adds in bits of new information. In this case, the new information is this wealthy woman Joanna, who comes ahead of Mary the mother of James (who was presumably the mother of Jesus).
Let’s be clear that this is useful new information. Joanna, as we saw above, was the wife of a wealthy and powerful man, Chuza, who was the manager of Herod’s household.
So Luke’s new information puts Joanna between Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Jesus.
If these women are being sorted by wealth, then Mary Magdalene must have been a very wealthy woman.
If they’re being sorted by age, then we have two women older than Mary the mother of Jesus.
But Luke is not sorting them by “wifeliness.” Joanna comes ahead of Mary the mother of Jesus, but Joanna was absolutely not the wife of Jesus, and not his girlfriend either. Joanna had a husband, and his name was Chuza.
John 20:1 lists Mary Magdalene as the only woman who came to the tomb.
Make of that what you will. Why list only her and nobody else? That’s not clear. With some imagination, we could come up with several possible reasons, but they’d all be guesses.
In the following verses in John 20, Mary Magdalene has an encounter with the resurrected Jesus. Clearly she loved him a lot, but the text says nothing at all about whether she had any romantic feelings.
Those who want to read in a romance between Jesus and Mary Magdalene will do so.
But I can’t see any reason to read in a romance here. We’ll see why I’m skeptical next.
Isn’t it Sacrilegious to Ask if Jesus Had a Wife?
Many modern readers will ask if it isn’t a terrible sacrilege to even hint that Jesus had a wife.
We should remember that first-century readers would not think that way. For them, Jesus was first and foremost the messiah, the anointed king of Israel, the son of David. And of course David had a wife. Several wives, in fact. In the first century, a messiah was expected to arise, and he would have every right to be married.
Jesus was also a rabbi, and rabbis were generally married.
Jesus was a first-century Jew. In Jewish thought, the first commandment of Torah is to be fruitful and multiply. If you’re a man, you do that by marrying a woman and having children.
In first-century Judaism, hardly anyone thought that celibacy was a sign of holiness. (The Essenes possibly thought this, but they were ascetics and Jesus was very far from being ascetic.)
So in first-century Judaism, there would have been no scandal if Jesus had been married.
Nobody would have batted an eye. Being married was expected.
In The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown claims that the marriage of Jesus was covered up because it was somehow scandalous, a secret to be contained.
That’s just silly. Not one Jew of the first century would have thought a marriage of a rabbi to a woman was scandalous. Or a marriage of the messiah to a woman.
Marriage was utterly normal in the world of Jesus.
If Jesus were actually married, there would have been no reason to hide the fact. We would hear about his wife, just as we hear of his mother and father and brothers and sisters. For more on the family of Jesus, see my blog post Mother’s Day With Jesus.
His children, if he had any, would have played an important role in the early Jesus movement, just as his brother James and his cousin Simon did. For more on James, see my blog post James the Brother of Jesus.
But we don’t hear about any wife or children of Jesus. It’s goofy to claim that there “must have been a coverup.” Nobody would have thought to cover it up until hundreds of years later, when the church lost its Jewish roots and began valuing celibacy and began teaching that sex was sinful.
If people knew for hundreds of years that Jesus was married, no amount of “coverup” could possibly cover it up. You can’t put public knowledge back in a bottle. Information wants to be free.
The most plausible reason that we never hear of a wife of Jesus is that he had none.
And why would he have no wife, when most Jews of his time did?
That calls for speculation. You can speculate all you want, but the Bible doesn’t comment on it.
The upshot is this. For whatever reason, it doesn’t seem that Jesus had a special woman to be his Valentine. He loved his mother. He loved his sisters. He had many women friends. But I can’t see a wife in this picture.
Say the word “Samaritan” out loud, and most people will think you’re talking about a good guy. Somebody who’d stop to change your tire in the pouring rain. Somebody who’d help you make your rent payment if you were about to get evicted. Somebody who’d rescue a baby from a burning building.
The phrase “good Samaritan” is such a part of the English language that it’s easy to forget that it was once a contradiction in terms.
When Jesus was alive, his people believed that the only possible kind of Samaritan was a bad Samaritan.
Jesus was a good and loyal Jew who lived in the Jewish district known as Galilee. He often traveled south about sixty miles to Jerusalem, located in the Jewish district known as Judea.
Please note that Galilee and Judea were not connected. Between them lay a non-Jewish region called Samaria, home to a people called Samaritans. Here’s a map that shows the lay of the land:
If you like this map, you can get a high-resolution copy here.
Who Were The Samaritans?
Samaritans and Jews were enemies, going back several hundred years.
So if you asked a Jew of the first century what he thought of Samaritans, he’d have told you that all Samaritans were evil. He’d have told you that Samaritans were wannabe Jews—people who were imported by Assyrians after the northern kingdom of Israel was destroyed in the 8th century BC.
Jews in the first century believed that Samaritans were “fake Jews.” Samaritans had a holy book, the Torah, the first five books of Moses. But the Samaritan Torah wasn’t the same as the Jewish Torah. If you compared them side by side, there were differences. The Samaritans claimed they had the “right Torah” and the Jews had the “wrong Torah.” Of course, Jews said exactly the opposite.
Jews had a Temple in Jerusalem. Samaritans had their own Temple on a mountain in Samaria called Mount Gerizim. At the foot of Mount Gerizim was an ancient town that was called Shechem in Hebrew. Abraham had spent time in Shechem. So did Isaac. So did Jacob, who was said to have dug a well there.
In the time of Jesus, there was a well that the locals called “Jacob’s Well,” just outside Shechem. Legend said that the patriarch Jacob dug the well. (That well is there to this day.) The Samaritans considered Jacob their father, and they considered the Jews to be renegades.
Jesus and the Samaritan Woman
There’s a famous story told in chapter 4 of the gospel of John about Jesus visiting this town of Shechem with his disciples. (In Greek, Shechem is spelled “Sychar,” and since the New Testament is written in Greek, the town is called Sychar in this story.)
Jesus sent his disciples into town to buy food, while he waited at Jacob’s Well. His plan was to get a drink, only he had nothing to draw water with. So he waited for a friendly local to come by.
A woman did come by, but she wasn’t terribly friendly. She was shocked when Jesus asked her help to get a drink. The reason she was shocked was because Jews and Samaritans didn’t get along. They didn’t ask favors.
The woman pointed up at Mount Gerizim, just south of the town, and told Jesus that the mountain was the right place to have a temple, not Jerusalem.
Why was she so hostile to Jesus? There’s a good reason. About 150 years before, the Jewish king John Hyrcanus came up from Jerusalem with an army and destroyed the Samaritan temple on Mount Gerizim. John Hyrcanus leveled it, and the Samaritan temple was never rebuilt. Jews desecrated the holiest place in the Samaritan religion.
Is it any wonder the Samaritans were hostile to Jews?
How Samaritans Got Back at the Jews
Forever after that, the Samaritans hated the Jews. They harassed groups of Jews coming down from Galilee to go to Jerusalem. The Jewish historian Josephus tells us that occasionally Samaritans killed Jews coming down the Samaritan Road on the way to Passover.
Once during a Jewish feast, Samaritans sneaked into the Temple in Jerusalem in the dead of night and scattered human bones all around the Temple Mount.
It’s important to remember that for a Jew, human bones are the ultimate descration. Human bones render a person or place unclean for seven days. So the Samaritans ruined the feast for all of Jerusalem.
Jesus Was Called a Samaritan
In the first century, one of the worst insults you could call a Jew was “Samaritan.” Jesus occasionally had run-ins with his fellow Jews. And they pushed back on him by calling him a Samaritan.
In John 8:48, some of his opponents claimed that he was not only a Samaritan, he was a demon-possessed Samaritan. Insult piled on insult!
Nobody took that seriously, of course. Jesus was a Jew, and everybody knew it. But the point is that when they reached for their biggest insult, the worst they could come up with was “demon-possessed Samaritan.”
On another occasion, Jesus and his disciples were coming through Samaria, and one of the villages was especially inhospitable. So two disciples of Jesus, the sons of Zebedee—James and John—offered to call down fire from heaven to destroy the village. Jesus wasn’t having any of that, very much to the disappointment of all twelve of his disciples. You can read the story in Luke chapter 9.
The Shocking Tale of the Good Samaritan
At one point, somebody asked Jesus a question about the Torah commandment that says to “love your neighbor as yourself.” The question was, “Who is my neighbor?”
Jesus answered this in the way he often did, with a story, which appears in Luke chapter 10.
Only he gave the story a shocking twist.
To understand the twist, think of the many jokes you’ve heard about “A priest, a minister, and a rabbi walk into a bar…” Those three stock characters represent three major religious traditions—Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish—and the punch line of the joke usually has something to do with the differences between the traditions.
If Jews in the first century told similar jokes, they would have gone like this: “A priest, a Levite, and an Israelite walk into a bar…” Those were the three divisions of Jews:
- Priests were members of the tribe of Levi who were descendants of Aaron
- Levites were all other members of the tribe of Levi
- Israelites were members of any of the other tribes
To this day, modern Jews distinguish between these three groups within Judaism.
So Jesus told his story about a traveler on the dangerous Jericho Road. Bandits attacked this traveler, took all his money, and left him for dead.
- A priest came along and didn’t help the traveler.
- A Levite came along and didn’t help the traveler.
- A third man came along and…
If Jesus had followed the usual pattern, this third man should have been an Israelite.
But here Jesus shocked his listeners. The third man who came along was not an Israelite, he was one of the evil Samaritans—and he helped the wounded traveler, who was a Jew, his mortal enemy.
The point of the story was a point Jesus tried to make often. If you want to really follow the heart of God, you need to love your enemies.
Loving your enemies is hard. Anyone who thinks it’s easy needs to think how that might look right here in this place and this time. This year in America, we find ourselves deeply divided. Neighbors call each other terrible names. Family members shun each other. Former friends have become fiery foes.
We have met the enemy, and it is us.
Jesus called his disciples to do a hard thing—to love their mortal enemies. Samaritans who murdered Jews. Samaritans who desecrated holy places. Samaritans who worshipped the wrong way, in the wrong place. Wicked, cruel, sacrilegious Samaritans.
Let’s be clear on one thing. “Loving your enemy” doesn’t mean somehow conjuring up a phony warm feeling in your heart for someone you actually hate. It means doing the right thing by your enemy, even if you don’t particularly like them. Being kind to someone who would kick you in the teeth if they had the chance.
Whether you feel like being kind or not.
You don’t have to like loving your enemy. You don’t have to pretend to be something you’re not.
Because loving your enemy is not about what you feel.
Loving your enemy is about what you do. It’s about doing the good and decent thing to a fellow human being.
When every fiber of your body wants to do the exact opposite.
The Samaritans didn’t like Jesus. They hated him. They treated him as their enemy.
In return, he made them the good guys in one of the most famous stories ever told.
That’s enemy love.
The world we live in is a very different world than the world Jesus of Nazareth was born into.
A king ruled over Judea, Samaria, and Galilee. His name was Herod the Great, and he was a savage man who killed his favorite wife because he thought she was cheating on him. He killed three of his sons because he thought they might try to push him off the throne and steal it for themselves. The gospel of Matthew tells a story of how Herod the Great ordered the murders of all the infant sons in Bethlehem under the age of two, and nobody was surprised to hear this tale, because that’s the kind of man Herod was.
At that time, the entire Jewish world was holding its breath in expectation of a king to be born. And what kind of king were they expecting?
We don’t have to guess, because we know. The great Jewish historian Josephus wrote the story of the Jewish Revolt of AD 66-70, in which Judea and Galilee rose up in revolt against Rome—and very nearly won.
Why did they revolt? Here’s the reason Josephus gives in his famous book Jewish War, Book 6, (312): “But now, what did most elevate them in undertaking this war, was an ambiguous oracle that was also found in their sacred writings, how, ‘about that time, one from their country should become governor of the habitable earth.’”
Josephus is talking about the prophet Daniel in the Bible. The “oracle” in question is not actually ambiguous. According to Daniel 9:24-26, there was to be a period of some 483 years “until Messiah the Prince”. While the beginning date of this time period was not known exactly by anyone in the first century, they could count centuries well enough, and they believed very strongly that the time was just about up.
At the time of Jesus, most Jews believed that the Messiah was due, and he would conquer the earth. Which raises a very important question.
What Does “Messiah” Mean?
That raises the question of what people meant by “Messiah.” In Hebrew, the word is “Mashiach,” and it means literally “anointed one.” It was understood to be either a high priest or a king, because both high priests and kings were anointed with olive oil when they took office.
Most Jews in the first century took the prophecy of Daniel to mean that this Mashiach would be an anointed king, a descendant of David, who would take the throne of a reunited Israel, conquer all the world, and rule as king.
Josephus had a different, very weird interpretation. He interpreted “Mashiach” to be the Roman emperor Vespasian, who was acclaimed emperor in the year AD 69 while general of the Roman army that was battling the Jewish rebels. Josephus argued that his Jewish countrymen got things wrong—Mashiach would not be born in Judea, he would merely be living in Judea when he was acclaimed Mashiach.
So far as we know, Josephus was the only Jew who ever said this. He said it because he happened to be getting a pension from Emperor Vespasian. Josephus had been a Jewish general during the Jewish Revolt. Vespasian captured him and meant to kill him, but then Josephus spun a wild tale about how he was a Jewish priest with the gift of prophecy, and he predicted Vespasian would be made emperor. Vespasian decided to wait and see if this panned out. When it did, he made Josephus his interpreter and gave him a pension for life.
This is why Josephus calls Daniel’s oracle “ambiguous.” But there’s no real ambiguity at all. Every other Jew at the time knew perfectly well that Mashiach would be a king, and he would save his people from the iron boot of Rome.
Mashiach would bring “salvation” to Israel, to use the term Jews used at the time. But now that raises another question.
What Does “Salvation” Mean?
If you ask a Christian in twenty-first-century America what “salvation” means, you’ll get a range of answers. Generally, the answers will have something to do with going to heaven when you die.
But if you asked a Jew in first-century Palestine what “salvation” means, you would get a very different range of answers. Generally, the answers would have something to do with crushing the enemies of Israel by raising up an army, going to battle, and killing the lot of them.
The Hebrew Bible is full of stories of salvation.
Moses and Aaron brought salvation to Israel by killing Egyptians.
Joshua saved Israel by killing Canaanites.
Samson saved Israel by killing Philistines.
David saved Israel by killing more Philistines.
Hezekiah saved Israel by killing Assyrians.
The Hebrew prophets don’t say much explicitly about Mashiach, using that exact term. But they do talk a fair bit about a coming king who would be a descendant of David. He would judge the earth. He would rule over the nations. He would gather the scattered tribes of Israel. He would kill his enemies. He would make an end of war. He would bring salvation to his people.
And practically every Jew of the first century believed Mashiach would bring salvation to Israel by raising up an army to defeat Rome and all the other wicked nations. As Josephus says, they went to war with Rome, expecting just such a Mashiach to arise.
Mashiach would be a man like King David. A man of blood.
A Problem for Jesus
From all that we know of Jesus of Nazareth, he was not that kind of man. Try to picture Jesus killing Egyptians like Moses. Or killing Canaanites like Joshua. Or killing Philistines like Samson and David. Or killing Assyrians like Hezekiah.
People debate exactly what kind of person Jesus was, but hardly anybody thinks he was a military leader or had any intention of leading a military revolt.
And that was a problem for Jesus growing up. Because from his very earliest infancy, the stories we read tell how the people all around him believed he would bring “salvation” to his people. And Jesus must have heard these stories.
Note that neither the gospels of Mark nor John say anything about the infancy or childhood of Jesus. Only Matthew and Luke do, and they don’t say terribly much.
What Matthew Says About Baby Jesus
The gospel of Matthew makes quite a bit out of the genealogy of Jesus, showing how it ran from Abraham to David to Jesus, in three sets of 14 generations. (What’s so important about 14? If you add up the Hebrew letters of David’s name, they add up to 14. This is a classic Hebrew game called “gematria,” and when a first-century Jew heard the number 14 and the word David, they knew you were connecting some dots to get from some person to David.) The genealogy in Matthew is connecting dots to get from David the ancient anointed king of Israel to Jesus the new anointed king of Israel. The Mashiach who would bring salvation.
In Matthew 1:21, we read that an angel told Joseph that his fiancee Mary would have a son who would save his people from their sins. Joseph, a good and loyal Jew of the first century, would have heard this as a prophecy that Mary’s son would be a military leader who would bring salvation to his people and erase the ancient sins of idolatry that had caused the Babylonian exile, 600 years before. Because most Jews never returned from that exile. Most Jews were still in exile. But Mashiach would bring the scattered tribes of Israel home, undoing the sins of the forefathers.
In Matthew 2:3, we read that King Herod the Great heard that a child was born to be king of the Jews. Matthew tells how this terrified Herod. Why? Because he, Herod, was already king of the Jews, but he was not a son of David, and he had no plans to conquer the world. The story portrays him as fearing a military leader who would throw him out. Herod was terrified of a Mashiach, a true son of David, and rightly so.
Herod would not be terrified of a good and kind rabbi who healed the sick. That was not his expectation in this story. The story makes clear his expectation—a warrior king.
What Luke Says About Baby Jesus
In Luke 1:29-33, we read the story of Mary meeting the angel Gabriel, who told her she would have a son who would be “Son of the Most High.” That was a classic term in the Hebrew Bible. The anointed king of Israel was called the “son of God.” Every anointed king of Israel was called that. Psalm 2 is the coronation psalm for the king of Israel, and it makes this explicit.
So what Mary heard in this story was that her son to be born would be king of Israel. He would be Mashiach. He would be a conquering hero, who would bring salvation to his people by killing their enemies. That’s the only kind of Mashiach that Mary would ever have heard about while growing up.
Luke 1:68-75 goes on to tell the story of the birth of John the Baptist. John’s father gives an oracle that tells how God would soon bring salvation to Israel and rescue it from her enemies.
The people who heard this oracle would have understood it to mean that the long-promised Mashiach would soon bring a military salvation to Israel.
After Jesus was born, Luke 2:25-32 tells the story of how his parents took him to be dedicated in the Temple, where a devout man of God was deeply moved. This man, Simeon, thanked God that he had seen a glimpse of the salvation of his people.
Anyone who heard this story would have understood Simeon to be saying that this baby Jesus would bring salvation to Israel by military victory.
Great Expectations on Baby Jesus
When we in the twenty-first century hear these stories of Messiah and salvation, we hear them with the meanings of “Messiah” and “salvation” we’ve heard all our lives.
But people in the first century who heard these stories would have heard a very different message. Because they understood “Mashiach” to be a warrior king, and they understood “salvation” to be a military victory over the enemies of Israel.
We don’t know exactly what Mary and Joseph told Jesus. But we can guess how they understood these stories, because Mary and Joseph were good and loyal first-century Jews, longing for freedom from the oppression of Rome. They longed for salvation from their enemies. They hoped for a Mashiach who would destroy those enemies and rule as king on the throne of David. A king like David, who was a man of blood.
And Jesus had four brothers. (For more on them, see my post, The Mysterious Brothers of Jesus.) Those brothers were probably younger than him, and looked up to him. They must have heard the stories Mary and Joseph told of the amazing predictions of what Jesus would do when he became a man. Those brothers must have been extremely proud of their big brother. They must have joined in the great expectations laid on him.
Those would be heavy expectations on any young boy.
They must have been incredibly heavy on a boy like Jesus, who was simply not the kind of person that everyone knew Mashiach must be.
A man of violence.
A man of blood.
A man like his father David.
In time, Jesus changed those heavy expectations laid on him. He changed the meaning of “salvation.” He changed the meaning of “Mashiach.”
But he didn’t do it during his lifetime, as we see by reading Acts 1:6, where his family and disciples ask Jesus, after his death and resurrection, if now was the time when he would restore the kingdom to Israel.
If the disciples and family of Jesus, even after his death and resurrection, still understood salvation in terms of a military victory that restored the kingdom to Israel, we can be pretty sure that none of them understood it before his death.
Americans have been celebrating Thanksgiving for some hundreds of years now, and it’s easy to assume we invented it.
But the basic idea of giving thanks to God for a good harvest is an old idea.
In the time of Jesus, all Jews celebrated three different harvest festivals every year: Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles.
Now it’s true that each of these festivals was not 100% about the harvest. These festivals commemorated other things too. But each festival included a celebration of the harvest as an essential part.
Let’s look at each of these.
Passover—Celebrating the Barley Harvest
Passover is an English word used for the celebration Jews call Pesach, which falls in March or April.
The celebration commemorates the Exodus story told in Exodus 12.
To summarize the story, the Hebrew people had been slaves in Egypt for hundreds of years. The prophet Moses demanded that the Pharaoh release his slaves. The pharaoh refused, and Moses responded by calling down ten plagues on Egypt.
The last and worst of these was the death of every firstborn son in Egypt. The Hebrews were instructed to kill a lamb and smear its blood on the doorposts of their homes to mark them out to be “passed over” by the angel of death. They roasted and ate the lamb and prepared to leave.
In the morning, all of Egypt mourned their dead, and the pharaoh agreed to let the Hebrews go.
The Passover festival has been celebrated most years ever since. (2 Kings 23:21-23 says that the Passover was not celebrated for several centuries, beginning in the time of the judges in the 11th century BC, right up to the time of King Josiah in the 7th century BC.)
At the time of Jesus, Passover was the second most important festival of the year. The gospel of John records at least three Passovers that Jesus celebrated in Jerusalem.
And part of the celebration was bringing in the barley harvest. (In Israel, wheat and barley are planted in the fall. Barley matures first, in March or April, and wheat matures in late May or early June.)
Leviticus 23:10-16 spells out the regulations on how to celebrate the barley harvest at Passover.
Pentecost—Celebrating the Wheat Harvest
Pentecost come from a Greek word that means “fiftieth,” because it’s celebrated 50 days after Passover, in May or June. Jews call this festival Shavuot, which means “weeks” or “sevens”. Note that 50 days is effectively seven weeks, because in Jewish reckoning, you always count both the first day and the last day of an interval of time.
What does 50 days have to do with anything? Because in the story of the Exodus, the Israelites took 50 days to walk from Egypt to Mount Sinai, where they received the Ten Commandments. So Shavuot celebrates the receiving of the Law on Mount Sinai.
Christians have long celebrated Pentecost to mark the story told in Acts 2:1-40, in which the Spirit fell on the followers of Jesus. Jerusalem was packed with visitors who had come to celebrate Shavuot.
It’s helpful here to remember that all the earliest followers of Jesus were Jewish, and they all observed the Jewish festivals, just as Jesus did. So the story told in Acts 2 is about good and loyal Jewish followers of Jesus who were in Jerusalem doing exactly what Jesus would have done if he were still alive on earth—they were celebrating Shavuot.
And part of that celebration was a celebration of the wheat harvest. Exodus 34:22 spells out the command in the Torah to celebrate this harvest at the time of Shavuot.
Tabernacles—Celebrating the Fall Harvest
Tabernacles is the English word for the Jewish festival “Sukkot,” which means “booths.” The festival falls in September or October. To this day, part of the celebration of this feast requires you to make a flimsy shelter and sleep in it, commemorating the flimsy shelters the Israelites used while wandering in the desert in the Exodus story.
The command to live in these booths is given in Leviticus 23:42-43.
But this festival is often called the feast of ingathering, because it came just as the fall harvest of grapes, figs, pomegranates, and olives was wrapping up. These were a major part of the diet in ancient Israel, and a good harvest meant a year of good eating and good drinking.
The command to celebrate this feast of ingathering is given in Exodus 34:22.
Jesus and Thanksgiving
We can be absolutely certain that Jesus celebrated all three of these thanksgiving festivals every single year of his life.
He may have celebrated some of them at home in Nazareth.
But the gospels record several instances of him celebrating them in Jerusalem, which was where every loyal Jew hoped to celebrate them every year.
It’s common to speculate on “what would Jesus do” if he lived in our place and our time.
I think we can be very sure he’d celebrate Thanksgiving with us.
But would he discuss politics? Would he watch football? Would he eat a second helping of pumpkin pie?
You bet your socks he would. Jesus doesn’t seem to have been shy about talking about important political issues (preaching the kingdom of God in first-century Jerusalem was a political statement). He was accused by some of having too much fun with the wrong sort of people (even hanging out with prostitutes and tax-farmers). And he was specifically called a glutton and winebibber.
But I think he would have also taken time to reflect on the good things that had happened in the past year.
And we know Jesus lived in a time when very bad things happened. People sometimes died in epidemics, or starved to death because the economy was bad. People sometimes died in riots caused by ethnic divisions. Crooked politicians and rich oligarchs took advantage of ordinary people who had no way to fight back.
Jesus knew all that, and yet he celebrated the feasts every year when they came around, and he found a reason to be grateful for the food set before him (and apparently also the wine).
It’s a little-known fact that the Bible tells three ghost stories, and two of them are about Jesus.
It’s hard to say how common ghost stories were at the time of Jesus and earlier, but we have quite an ancient ghost story in 1 Samuel, and we have two ghost stories in the gospels.
Let’s look at the ancient ghost story first, because it might possibly be related to one of the stories about Jesus.
The Ghost of Samuel
The first king of Israel was Saul, a very tall man who was chosen king by the prophet Samuel. The usual dating for this would be a few decades before the year 1000 BC.
Samuel anointed Saul as king, but the two never got along very well. That’s a long story for another day, but eventually the prophet Samuel died.
Saul had always been terrified of Samuel, but he respected him and looked to him for advice. Now that Samuel was dead, Saul had nobody to turn to.
Then the Philistines came out to make war on Israel. Saul’s duty as king was to lead his men into battle. Literally lead them, which was a not-so-clever tradition of kings in ancient times.
The night before the battle, Saul was so terrified, he decided to violate his own law and consult the advice of a witch woman. He went to her in disguise and begged her to bring up the prophet Samuel from the underworld.
It’s not clear if the woman really thought she could bring up a spirit of the dead, but the story told in 1 Samuel 28 says that she did her incantations and was shocked when Samuel appeared.
It wasn’t Samuel in the flesh. It was some sort of apparition. A ghost.
This ghost of Samuel warned Saul that he would die the next day, along with three of his sons.
Saul had been terrified before. Now, he was practically catatonic.
He staggered back to his army camp under cover of darkness. The next day, he led his men into battle, and he was killed, along with three of his sons.
That’s the first ghost story in the Bible, and it’s definitely a weird one. Biblical scholars don’t really agree on how to interpret the story, but there’s no doubt that the story was well known to all Jews at the time of Jesus.
And that brings us to the next ghost story, which features Jesus.
The Ghost on the Water
All four gospels tell the story about Jesus feeding five thousand men, along with some women and children, on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. In the time of Jesus, this sea was more commonly called the Lake of Ginosar, and it’s shown in the map below.
The exact location of the story has been debated a lot. People have suggested two different locations. I’ve been to both, and the one that makes the most sense to me is the one on the east side of the lake, just a bit north of the village of Kursi. This location is across the lake from Capernaum at a distance of about 5 miles, and it fits the story very well.
All four gospels tell the story of this miraculous feeding. In the telling of the gospel of John, the people were extremely excited and tried to make Jesus king by force.
Jesus sent his twelve disciples back home in a boat while he sent the crowds away. The gospels don’t explain how he convinced them to leave when they were so excited, but I have a theory on that, which I’ll share in my next novel about Jesus (Son of David, the sequel to my novel Son of Mary, which is Book 1 in my Crown of Thorns series.)
But now Jesus had two problems. First, he was on land, with a long walk ahead of him to get back to Capernaum. Second, his disciples were rowing across the lake, but the wind was against them.
The gospel of Luke doesn’t say how he solved these problems, but Mark, Matthew, and John all say that Jesus simply walked across the lake on top of the water until he caught up to his disciples.
Mark and Matthew add a remarkable detail. They say that the disciples saw Jesus coming and were terrified because they thought he was a ghost.
That is, they saw something mysterious on the water, but didn’t recognize it as Jesus—until he spoke up and told them it was him. Then they let him in the boat.
Why would they imagine he was a ghost? That’s a weird idea. What put that in their heads?
I have a guess on that. It’s a very wild guess, and I can’t prove it, but it explains the facts we have, and it’s at least plausible.
My guess is that the disciples were telling stories while they rowed across the lake, and one of them was telling the story of King Saul and the Ghost of Samuel just when they spotted Jesus.
Why would they tell that particular story just then?
Because the story of King Saul and the Ghost of Samuel happened just before King David became king of Israel. The death of Saul made it possible for David to become king. And remember what we know from the gospel of John—that very day, the people of Israel had tried to make Jesus king.
So the story of King Saul might have been very much on the minds of the disciples.
As I said, it’s just a guess, but if you put yourself in the skin of the disciples, they were certainly thinking about how and when Jesus would be made king of Israel. So there’s a connection there.
Make of it what you will.
The Ghost in the Secret Room
There’s a third ghost story in the Bible, and this one also features Jesus.
In Luke 24, we read the story of the very first Easter. Jesus had been crucified two days earlier on Friday. Early on Sunday morning, some of his women followers came to finish their burial rituals and found his tomb empty. Two men in “clothes that gleamed like lightning” appeared to the women and told them Jesus was risen from the dead.
The women went back and told the men, and the men didn’t believe a word of it.
Later that day, they were all gathered together in a room, hiding out for fear of the authorities, and an apparition of Jesus appeared to them out of the blue.
That was their first thought anyway—an apparition. A ghost. And they were terrified.
But the apparition spoke to them, and they recognized his voice—the voice of Jesus.
In the story, Jesus has a hard time convincing them it’s really him. He finally asks them to give him something to eat, and they produce a broiled fish, which he then eats before their eyes.
And that seems to convince them that Jesus is really alive again, after being brutally executed.
This ends the gospel of Luke, but the story isn’t quite over.
The book of Acts was written by the same author as the gospel of Luke, and it continues the story. In Acts 1:6, we read an absolutely remarkable question by the disciples. Jesus is with the disciples for the very last time. They’re on the Mount of Olives.
And the disciples ask Jesus if right now is the moment when he’s going to restore the kingdom to Israel.
They were not asking about some spiritual kingdom, as modern Christians think of it. They were thinking like normal, everyday Jews of the first century, looking for a very physical kingdom of Israel to be restored, right here, right now.
The kingdom of David, ruled over by the son of David, Jesus of Nazareth.
So all three ghost stories in the Bible seem to be tied in very closely to the kingdom of David.
An interesting coincidence, isn’t it?
Make of it what you will.
There is no doubt that Jesus and his family celebrated the Jewish New Year. They were Jewish, and they naturally celebated all the standard Jewish holidays. And they probably celebrated in Jerusalem. That was a major time commitment, as we’ll see shortly.
Several important holy days come in the fall, in the month of Tishrei:
- Rosh HaShanah (the New Year) on 1 Tishrei
- Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) on 10 Tishrei
- Sukkot (the Feast of Tabernacles) from 15 to 21 Tishrei
So the time spanned by these holy days is three whole weeks!
Why the New Year Starts in the Seventh Month
There’s something odd going on with the Jewish New Year. If you’ve read Exodus, you know that the holiday Pesach (Passover) begins on the evening of the fourteenth day of the first month.
That first month is called Nisan in Hebrew and it normally begins in March or April.
So how is it that the Jewish New Year comes in the fall, on the first day of Tishrei, which is the seventh month of the year? How does that make sense?
That makes sense because ancient Israel used two different lunar calendars. One began on the first day of Nisan, in the spring. The second began six lunar months later, on the first day of Tishrei, in the fall.
So both Nisan and Tishrei are actually the “first month,”—just in different calendars.
The holiday that became known as the Jewish New Year used the calendar that begins in the fall with Tishrei as its first month.
A Long Walk To Jerusalem
The fall holidays were considered the very best time of the year. And ideally, you wanted to celebrate them in Jerusalem.
That was not so easy if you lived in Galilee. Nazareth, the hometown of Jesus, was about 64 miles north of Jerusalem—as the crow flies.
But it was a bit farther as the Galilean family walks.
The shortest route ran south from Nazareth through Samaria to Jerusalem. This is the route that I call “the Samaritan Road” in my novels, because it passed through Samaria. As you can see in the map below, the Samaritan Road was not quite a straight shot. There were some forks and wiggles in the road (to go around mountains and generally find the easiest route over rugged terrain.)
The distance was probably more like 75 miles of actual walking. If you were young and healthy, you could theoretically cover that in 3 days, but 4 days was much more doable. If anyone in your party was older and slower, then 5 days was probably best.
The Samaritan Road Was Not Safe
The problem was that the Samaritan Road was not terribly safe. There was bad blood between Jews and Samaritans, going back several centuries.
The first-century historian Josephus tells us that Jewish travelers were sometimes killed on the Samaritan Road on their way to the annual holidays. On at least one of these occasions, Jews then went north from Jerusalem and wreaked their vengeance on the Samaritans.
But we know that Jews often took the Samaritan Road to Jerusalem. They probably had two reasons:
- The Samaritan Road was the shortest route from most parts of Galilee.
- The Samaritan Road went through the hill country, which was cooler than the other routes.
The gospels tell of at least two occasions when Jesus took the Samaritan Road (John 4:4-6 and Luke 9:51-55).
The Jordan Way Was a Little Safer
But Galileans had another route they could take to Jerusalem. They could head east and south until they reached the Jordan River south of the Sea of Galilee. Then they could walk south along the Jordan River (on either the east or west side) until they reached Jericho. Then it was a steep one-day climb from Jericho to Jerusalem, going west on the Jericho Road.
I call this entire route “the Jorday Way” in my novels, because a big part of the trip was alongside the Jordan River.
This was certainly a safer route for most of the trip, except for the last day climbing on the Jericho Road, which was notorious for bandits. (The story of the Good Samaritan is set on the Jericho Road).
But there were three main problems with the Jordan Way:
- For most Galileans, the Jordan Way was a longer route.
- The Jordan Way ran along the Jordan Valley, several hundred feet below sea level, which made it hotter.
- The last day of the route on the Jordan Way led up the steep Jericho Road, which made for a long, hard day of travel through lonely, dangerous country.
We know that Jesus took the Jordan Way at least once, on his final trip to Jerusalem.
A Backpacking Expedition
Whichever route you took to Jerusalem, you were looking at a trip of several days.
Getting to Jerusalem was essentially a backpacking expedition with very stripped-down equipment. You could take a pack animal, in theory, but most travelers probably just carried or wore everything they needed.
And what would you need? Here is a list of the things I’d consider essential for the trip:
- A tunic, made of wool, which covered down to your knees (if you were a man) or down to your mid-calf (if you were a woman). You did not wear underwear or socks. You did not need an extra tunic.
- For women only—a hair covering that completely obscured your hair.
- A cloth belt that wrapped around your waist and could hold coins, a knife, and other small personal items.
- Leather sandals.
- A warm woolen cloak to protect against cold and rain. This also worked nicely as a sleeping bag.
- A leather pack you could wear on your back to hold your cloak and a day’s worth of food.
- A waterskin to carry one day’s worth of water or beer. (In a world where you take water out of a well or a river, beer was often safer to drink, and it could purify water taken from a sketchy source.) The waterskin hung on a leather cord that you could sling over your neck and shoulder.
- A few silver coins to buy food and drink along the way, and to pay for a place to stay in Jerusalem, and for any sacrifices you intended to make at the Temple. Two or three coins per person per week should be enough.
- Optional (but strongly recommended)—a short knife. For general use, and for very modest protection from bandits.
And that’s all! You could wear all of it, leaving your hands free. It was light enough for each person to carry their own load.
Along the way to Jerusalem, I would expect that most people just camped out under the stars at night. There just weren’t enough inns to house thousands of travelers during the busy season.
I would also expect that they simply bought food along the way and either replenished their waterskins at every well or bought beer when they bought food.
In Jerusalem, you would need to rent a house or a room to stay. This would probably be small and barely furnished, but it would be hardly different than your home back in Galilee.
Jesus made this trip every year for the major holidays. And like any good and loyal Jew, he loved every minute of it.
It sounds absurd to ask what Jesus did on his summer vacation.
Except that we know exactly what he did on his summer vacation, because the gospels make that very clear.
Jesus Had a Day Job
Let’s start by noting the obvious fact that Jesus had a day job. He worked as a “tekton,” according to Mark 6:3. (This is the only verse in the Bible that says what Jesus did for a living.)
Note that “tekton” is a Greek word that means a manual laborer in stone, metal, or wood. This has been often translated into English as “carpenter,” but it’s not a great translation. From what I’ve been able to find, it seems that a better translation would be “builder.” Or “construction worker.”
Jesus’s father Joseph was also a “tekton,” according to Matthew 13:55. Without a doubt, Joseph taught Jesus and all his brothers the craft of the tekton, because that’s what a father did in those days.
Now Jesus had four brothers, according to the verses quoted above in Mark and in Matthew. Together with Jesus and his father, that made a total of six healthy men, all working the same job. Nazareth was a small village, and my best estimate for its size was about 200 souls. It seems likely that there wouldn’t have been enough construction work in Nazareth for the whole family.
Which means some of them often went out of town to find work. They didn’t have far to look. Tsipori, one of the two largest cities in Galilee, was only about three miles from Nazareth, and it had a lot of building activity during the first century. That’s a very plausible place where Jesus and his family could find day labor.
A day laborer could come into Tsipori, find a job for the day, and go home with a silver dinar—cash in hand. That silver dinar would feed twelve adults for a day, as we know from the Talmud.
So if all the men in the family of Jesus worked every day, they could theoretically have supported a family of 72 adults. That was far more cash than they needed.
Jesus Didn’t Work Every Day
We know Jesus didn’t work every day, because the gospels tell us that he and his whole family went to the various festivals in Jerusalem every year. See, for example, John 7:1-9. Those were big time commitments.
Passover, in the spring, lasted a full 8 days. Pentecost, in the early summer, lasted only 1 day. The long series of holidays in the fall began with the New Year, continued with the Day of Atonement, and finished with the feast of Tabernacles—more than 3 weeks.
And it took time to get to Jerusalem from Nazareth. Jerusalem is about 64 miles south of Nazareth as the crow flies. As the Galilean walks, it was probably closer to 75 miles. In theory, you could walk that in three very hard days, but four days would be much more doable, and five days would be a relaxed pace.
What this means is that Jesus and his family were gone from Nazareth at least two months out of every year, just to attend the feasts in Jerusalem.
They could afford this because they had a steady income of cash from their construction work. That was a luxury not every family in Galilee could afford. Had they been a family of farmers, some of them would have been forced to stay behind to care for their livestock and manage the farm.
But they were day laborers, able to work when they needed and take time off when they needed.
Jesus in Galilee
We know that sometime around the year Jesus turned 30 (plus or minus a couple of years), he began walking through Galilee preaching the good news that the kingdom of God was near.
There are some practical questions to ask:
- Why would anyone listen to a message like that? It sounds kind of weird.
- What did Jesus live on while he was doing this?
- It sounds impossible to walk all through Galilee. Why take on such a gigantic task?
All these questions have simple answers.
Why Would Anyone Listen?
The people of Galilee were heavily taxed by Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee, who was appointed by Caesar. Herod was not popular, and neither was Caesar. All of Galilee was looking for a better life. As they understood things, God would soon break in on their lives, raise up a new king—a son of David—who would toss out Caesar and Herod Antipas and all the rest and start over.
That would be the beginning of a new age, the Age to Come, in which the Son of David would rule over the kingdom of God. And that Son of David would be the anointed king of Israel, just like in the good old days. An anointed king was called in Hebrew a “mashiach.” In English, that’s usually transliterated as a “messiah.” In Greek, it’s translated as a “christ.”
News of the kingdom of God meant freedom to the oppressed people of Galilee. So if a man with a credible claim to be a Son of David came into a Galilean village, telling about a kingdom of God about to begin, the villagers would be only too happy to hear what he had to say. They weren’t thinking of a kingdom of God in the way a modern Christian might. They were thinking of a kingdom of God in the way a first-century Jew would naturally think of it—liberation from the hated Roman oppressors.
What Did Jesus Live on When He Was on the Road?
In first-century Galilee, villages had no entertainment except what they could create themselves. After the evening meal on summer nights, they’d gather in the village square to sing songs, tell stories, recite poems, study the Torah, make jokes. That was the normal entertainment.
But on a night when a visitor came to a village, he was the center of attention in the village square. A visitor was the only way to get news. So the whole village came to listen. And they all fought over who would get to offer the visitor hospitality.
Offering hospitality to strangers was a commandment, in the first place. But in the second place, it was the cool thing to do, because whoever had the visitor as guest would hear all the news first.
So Jesus had no problem finding a place to stay every night. He’d be housed and fed like royalty. And it no doubt helped that he had a reputation as a healer.
Jesus and his friends would have been able to find hospitality in any village of Galilee at no cost.
How Big of a Job Was it to Walk Through All Galilee?
Galilee was a region of about 750 square miles at the time of Jesus. (The region called Galilee today is quite a bit bigger that that.)
If you do the math, a circle with a radius of 15.45 miles has an area of 750 square miles. So any two points in Galilee were no more than about 30 to 35 miles apart. We also know that there were about 200 villages in Galilee, plus a few midsized towns and two large cities. I estimated the total population of Galilee in my blog post Around Galilee With Jesus at about 84,000 people.
In a region of 750 square miles, if there are 200 villages, that gives each village less than 4 square miles as its zone of influence. It works out that there must have been a village roughly every 2 miles or so.
If Jesus spent five months every summer going through Galilee, that would give him about 120 days per summer. Which means he could visit more than half the villages of Galilee in a summer. This would not be terribly hard. If villages were only a couple of miles apart, that’s not a big hike to move on each day to the next village.
No doubt he went back home many weekends to his headquarters at Capernaum. (Most of his men came from Capernaum, or thereabouts, and they had wives and children they wanted to see.)
Walking through Galilee is not a gigantic project. It’s very doable. If Jesus had three years to work his way through Galilee, there’s no doubt he could have hit every village at least once, and some of them more than once.
So that’s what Jesus did on his summer vacation. Don’t you wish you could have tagged along?