In the time of Jesus, his family and friends and countrymen thought there were two main ways to salvation, and they argued about which was the better way.
Before we talk about these Two Ways of Salvation, we should first define what we mean by “salvation.” It meant something different two thousand years ago than it does today.
If you ask an American Christian in the 21st century what “salvation” means, they’ll tell you that it has to do with going to heaven when you die. And making sure you avoid the other place.
But that is not what Jews in the time of Jesus meant by “salvation.” We know what they meant, because we have a fairly large number of documents that various Jews wrote during the last couple of centuries BC and the first couple of centuries AD.
What “Salvation” Meant in the Time of Jesus
In the time of Jesus, if you asked a Jew living anywhere within a hundred miles of Jerusalem what “salvation” means, they’d tell you something like this:
“Our nation is in terrible shape. God promised this land to our father Abraham. Moses brought us here, and David built a great kingdom here. But then we sinned, and the Babylonians took us into captivity. We came back and rebuilt, but the Persians oppressed us, and then the Greeks, and then the Syrians. For about a hundred years, we had our own Jewish kings. But they were corrupt and sinned, and the Romans came to oppress us.
“We have prophecies that say God will restore our nation. An anointed king will arise, a son of David, and with God’s help, we’ll drive out Rome. Then God will come to live among us, and at last we’ll have the kingdom of God we always dreamed of. That is what salvation means—that our nation will have God as its king. We’ll live in peace. God will raise our dead to life. And he’ll bring the wicked nations to judgment for the harm they did to us.”
See the difference? Our modern definition of “salvation” is intensely personal—it’s all about me and whether I get to heaven. The ancient Jewish definition of “salvation” was national—it’s all about whether my nation will live at peace in the coming kingdom of God.
Now notice that there’s a personal element in the ancient Jewish definition. Because even if my nation lives at peace in the kingdom of God, I still need to make sure that I’m a member of my nation in good and regular standing. If I should do something to get kicked out of my nation, then I wouldn’t enter into our national salvation.
The Many Flavors of the Kingdom of God
It’s easy to think that everyone means the same thing by the term “kingdom of God.” According to the gospels, this was a phrase Jesus used many times. (The gospel of Matthew generally uses “kingdom of heaven,” in place of “kingdom of God.”) Other Jews at the time of Jesus used various phrases: “the World to Come,” or “the Age to Come,” or “the Age of the Messiah.”
But it appears that different people meant slightly different things by “kingdom of God.” The Hebrew prophets talked about a restored kingdom of David, in which a righteous Branch of the house of David would rule over the same territory David ruled.
But later writings from around the time of Jesus talk about the coming kingdom in a variety of ways. Some seem to have believed that the new kingdom would be here on earth, as the prophets had said. Others seem to imply that this present earthly reality might come to an end, to be replaced by another heavenly reality.
But almost everyone was quite certain that the new kingdom of God was coming soon, and they hoped to be part of it.
(The party of the Sadducees appears to be the exception. They were the wealthy oligarchs who ruled as high priests in the Temple in Jerusalem, and they were quite happy to work with the Romans to keep the status quo. They hated the Romans as much as anyone else, but they were doing well under the System. They saw no need to try to fight a superior military power when there seemed no chance of winning.)
The Two Ways to Salvation
As I said above, Jews at the time of Jesus desperately wanted national salvation. Liberation from Rome, the new messianic age, and the kingdom of God. Even if they didn’t agree on exactly what the kingdom of God looked like, they wanted it. And they believed that the prophets had foretold that the time would come very soon.
But they had two very different approaches to how to achieve the kingdom of God and national salvation:
- Anoint some son of David as a new messianic king and take up the sword. Fight the Romans, drive them into the sea, and set up the new kingdom with the son of David on the throne. Men must first take action, and then God will certainly bless their efforts, and so Israel will find salvation.
- Wait for God himself to act decisively in history, as foretold in the book of Daniel and the book of Enoch. A “Son of Man” will come down from heaven to fight on behalf of True Israel. This “Son of Man” will be the same “Angel of God” who killed the first-born sons of Egypt at the time of Moses. He will come down on the clouds of heaven and destroy Rome and set up the new kingdom of God. Then a son of David will rule as king, and True Israel will find salvation without ever having to fight on her own behalf.
Method #1 above was exactly how Jews achieved national freedom two centuries before Jesus, when the Maccabee heroes took up the sword, fought the Syrians, drove them out of the land of Israel, and set up a kingdom ruled by priests. (The five Maccabee brothers were priests, and their dynasty ruled as priest-kings for over a century.) So we might call this method of salvation the “Maccabee Way,” because it had worked out very well in recent memory. The Jewish festival of Hanukkah is celebrated to this day to honor the Maccabee victory.
Method #2 was exactly how Jews told their tale of national liberation from Egypt at the time of Moses. No Hebrew in ancient Egypt took up the sword. Not a single Hebrew killed an Egyptian. Instead, a mighty prophet rose up, Moses, and he called down smites from heaven on Egypt. And the last and greatest smite on the Egyptians came on the very first Passover Eve. The Angel of God went through all the land of Egypt, killing the firstborn son of every house. The Hebrews marked themselves out for salvation as part of the Hebrew nation by putting the blood of a lamb on their doorposts. That was all they did. The Angel of God fought on their behalf, and so they entered into national salvation.
In the time of Jesus, everyone knew that the book of Daniel promised that the Angel of God (“one like a Son of Man”) would judge the nations. And at the time of Jesus, a new book had recently come into circulation. Today it’s called “The Parables of Enoch” and it forms chapters 37 to 71 of the Book of Enoch, a very famous apocalyptic work. The Parables of Enoch told how the Son of Man would bring in justice, punish the wicked, create the new kingdom of God, and give salvation to all of True Israel. So we might call this method of salvation the “Enoch Way,” because it was pushed so heavily by this new book, The Parables of Enoch.
Groups Who Followed The Two Ways of Salvation
At the time of Jesus, different groups got behind each of these Two Ways of Salvation.
The Essenes (or whoever it was that lived in Qumran) appear to have thrown their weight behind the Enoch Way. The Qumran community left behind a number of apocalyptic texts in the famous Dead Sea Scrolls. These texts include the various books attributed to Enoch, along with the War Scroll, which told about the coming War Between the Sons of Light and the Sons of Darkness. The people of Qumran thought they were the Sons of Light. They believed that the Angel of God would fight on their behalf. So when the Jewish revolt broke out in the year AD 66, the Qumran community sat by and refused to fight, expecting the Angel of God to do all the fighting. They were wiped out by Rome anyway.
The majority wing of the Pharisee party seems to have followed the Maccabee Way. War broke out in AD 66 when a number of revolutionary young Pharisees decided that enough was enough. They rebelled against Rome, slaughtered the small Roman contingent of soldiers garrisoned in Jerusalem, and took up arms against Rome. They destroyed a large Roman force at the famous Battle of Bet Horon. Meanwhile, in Rome, the emperor Nero had so brutalized the aristocrats that they finally began pushing back. By the summer of AD 68, Nero committed suicide as his own army moved in to capture him. God appeared to be blessing the efforts of his loyal Jewish soldiers.
A minority wing of the Pharisee party rejected the Maccabee Way. The great rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai opposed the Jewish revolt and left Jerusalem in the middle of the war. It’s not entirely clear whether Rabbi Yohanan followed the Enoch Way. We don’t have anything he wrote himself. All that we know of him was written centuries later in the Talmud. But Rabbi Yohanan most likely was a student of the famous Rabbi Gamliel, and we have a first-century source in which Rabbi Gamliel says, in essence, that God is in control of the revolution. (Acts 5:33-39). And that sounds a lot like the Enoch Way.
The Two Ways of Salvation in the Gospels
If you read the gospels, you’ll find many verses that allude to the Two Ways of Salvation.
One of Jesus’s twelve disciples was called “Simon the Zealot.” In the first century, zeal for God meant that you were pursuing salvation by the sword. So it’s pretty clear that Simon the Zealot followed the Maccabee Way and was eager to take up the sword and fight Rome. At the Last Supper, somebody laid a couple of swords on the table. Simon the Zealot may have owned one of them. Simon Peter may have owned the other, because later that night he used a sword to cut off an unfortunate ear.
On Palm Sunday, all four gospels tell how Jesus made a triumphal entry into Jerusalem riding on a donkey. See my recent blog posts on this, Jesus and Palm Sunday and Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.
The people waved palm branches while Jesus came down the Mount of Olives. Palm branches—exactly what people waved for the victorious Maccabees two hundred years before. It’s a good bet these people on Palm Sunday followed the Maccabee Way.
Jesus himself talks about the “men of violence” who try to enter the kingdom through violence. (See Matthew 11:11-15). That’s the Maccabee Way yet again.
But if you look through the gospels, you’ll also see many references to the “Son of Man.” These references have been debated endlessly by biblical scholars. It seems likely that some of these references hark back to the “Son of Man” in the book of Daniel. And as we’ve seen, people who loved the book of Daniel also tended to love that new book, The Parables of Enoch. So when Jesus talked about the “Son of Man,” his hearers probably thought he was talking about the Enoch Way, whether he actually was or not.
What about Jesus himself? Did he follow the Maccabee Way or the Enoch Way? Biblical scholars have written massively on exactly what Jesus hoped to achieve in the last week of his life. You can find all kinds of theories, but you can’t find a consensus.
The Third Way of Salvation
My thinking is that Jesus followed a new way, which we might call the Third Way of Salvation. It’s the way of nonviolence. Of enemy love.
In the gospels, you’ll find numerous sayings of Jesus along the lines of, “love your enemies,” and “pray for those who despitefully use you,” and “make peace with your brother,” and “turn the other cheek.” The Tale of the Good Samaritan is a classic story of enemy love.
The Third Way of Salvation deals with enemies by loving them, thereby turning them into friends. The Third Way of Salvation makes your enemies vanish without harming them! That’s deep.
And it seems clear that the Jesus Community in Jerusalem lived by this Third Way. Sometime shortly before the Jewish revolt of AD 66, the Jesus Community left Jerusalem. The historian Eusebius tells us this was because of “an oracle.” Which oracle was that? Presumably one of the sayings of Jesus in which he warns his disciples to leave Jerusalem before it’s destruction. (See Mark 13, Matthew 24, and Luke 21 for some sayings of Jesus on the coming destruction of the Temple and the need to “flee to the mountains.”)
So the Jesus Community refused to take up the sword and fight Rome. They also refused to sit passively and wait for the Angel of God to destroy the Roman army. Instead, they followed the words of Jesus and left the city and moved across the Jordan river to a small city named Pella.
And they lived on. Because they followed the Third Way of Salvation. The Way of Jesus. And in time, many decades later, the Way of Jesus conquered Rome itself.
Not by the Maccabee Way, by taking up the sword.
Not by the Enoch Way, by the hand of the avenging Angel of God.
By the Jesus Way—by loving their enemies, by submitting to their enemies, and in some cases by accepting death from their enemies.
That’s the Third Way of Salvation, the way Jesus himself lived his life, the way he met his death, and the way that his followers understood to be the entrance to the true kingdom of God.
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.