Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews

Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews

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. 

Jesus and Palm Sunday

Jesus and Palm Sunday

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:

Map of Jerusalem and the Mount of Olives

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.

Mashiach’s Donkey

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.

Stay tuned…

Jesus and Valentine’s Day

Jesus and Valentine’s Day

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. 

Jesus and the Bad Samaritans

Jesus and the Bad Samaritans

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:Map of Palestine, AD 29

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.

Enemy Love

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.

Great Expectations on Baby Jesus

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. 


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