WHAT THE BIBLE REALLY SAYS
By: J. R. Hyland
For many centuries, the life that Jesus lived
before he began his public ministry has been portrayed as that of a small-town
craftsman. He is pictured working with his stepfather, Joseph, in a home-based
carpenter shop in the district of Galilee. And his hometown of Nazareth is
described as an isolated village; a place where his work had to do with meeting
the everyday needs of the people who lived there. According to that scenario,
Jesus lived a very simple life in a setting of unhurried labor. Nazareth was a
quiet place in which it would be relatively easy for him to meditate on the
things of God as he completed his tasks.
Although the Gospels make it clear the prayer
and solitary communion with God were and important part of his life, they were
not the only preparation for his ministry. Jesus came to reveal the nature of
God to men and in order to do that he had to experience human nature. But human
nature is not experienced in a moment of illumination. It is a continuing
process that begins with birth and like every child Jesus was subject to the
conditioning of the world into which he was born. The be-liefs and the
prejudices, the truths and the rationalizations of those he lived among nurtured
him just as surely as the food he was given. But until recently, both
conventional and scholarly wisdom held that what he learned from the world
around him was limited by the isolation and insulation of Nazareth.
The claim that Jesus lived a life of bucolic
isolation became well-established in the fourth century when a growing trend,
that ignored the human nature of Jesus in favor of the divine, gained the
ascendancy. This emphasis was bolstered by insisting that Jesus lived a simple
life, little influenced by the outside world. But in order to foster that claim,
churchmen had to ignore the records of Josephus, a first century Jewish
Nazareth was part of a network of villages located in the Galilee region of
Palestine and according to Josephus, Galilee was the seat of Jewish political
power in the north just as Jerusalem was in the south. And it was a hotbed of
It was the part of Palestine that nurtured men
like Judas the Galilean and John of Giscala, famous leaders in the movement that
called for the violent overthrow of Roman rule. Those men travelled throughout
Galilee, demanding that every loyal and God-fearing son of Abraham join them in
the fight to overthrow Rome. They laid the foundation for the Zealot party that
eventually forced the confrontation with Rome- -and cost the Jewish people their homeland.
It was not only the virulent nationalism of
many of his countrymen to which Jesus was exposed. He was also able to observe,
at first hand, the kind of lifestyle that is lived in a cosmopolitan city.
Nazareth was less than four miles from Sepphoris, the city in which Herod
Antipas, Jewish ruler of Galilee, built his palace. The son of Herod the Great,
Antipas had been educated in Rome and was determined that life in his district
would provide the amenities of the sophisticated and luxurious lifestyle he had
enjoyed as Caesar’s protégé.
Antipas began his massive construction
projects before Jesus was born and they continued until after the crucifixion.
Archaeologists have uncovered evidence of luxurious public baths, frescoed
walls, beautiful pools and fountains and dazzling varieties of marble
incorporated in the lavish homes and public places of the city. Roman style
colonnades framed the broad main street and rising on a hill above the city was
an imposing theater. Commissioned by Antipas, it was more than two stories high
and seated 4,000 people.
The wealthy residents of Sepphoris created the
same kind of demand for craftsmen and artisans in the private sector as did the
public building projects initiated by Antipas. They, too, were determined to
keep up with the Amenities, the fads and the fashions generated by Rome, as well
as with the much-admired cultural influences of the Greeks. Those demands
insured there would be plenty of work for carpenters like Joseph and Jesus.
Sepphoris was little more than an hour’s walk
from Nazareth and the men could work on building projects there and return home,
at sunset, each night. In that time, as in the present, carpenters were just as
likely to work on larger construction projects as they were to do the more
humble work generated by the needs of the villagers among whom they lived. In a
town like Nazareth, with only about 1,500 residents,
it would be difficult for men to meet the needs of their families if their only
source of income was generated by the needs of the residents. Records from the
time of Jesus show that it was customary for craftsmen to travel to those places
where there was a demand for their work. And Sepphoris, with its ongoing
projects and continuous development, employed men who lived much further away
The population of Sepphoris is estimated to
have been about 30,000 people and its resident population of Jews, Romans,
Greeks and Arabs was continuously augmented by the flow of workers, transients
and traders constantly entering and leaving the city. Located at the confluence
of major trade routes that brought cara-vans from places like Egypt, Syria and
Persia, it was also the hub of market-day trading for the residents of more than
200 villages that, like Nazareth, were satellites of the city. And the business
of marketing was a time of social as well as economic transactions. The latest
news and gossip from the region and beyond was passed on along with the goods
and services that were exchanged.
This was the kind of environment familiar to
Jesus from the time he was a child. In addition to the market-day trips, as a
boy he and his friends would have easily walked the few miles that led to
Sepphoris to observe, at least from its outskirts, the kind of excitement that
city life offers. And he would have travelled there often to see his
Grandparents: Christian tradition has long held that Sepphoris was the
birth-place of his mother, Mary, and the lifelong home of her parents, Joachim
As a young man, working on various building
projects, Jesus would have been in contact with all kinds of people; wealthy
Jews and Gentiles who commissioned the building of their luxurious homes;
rabbinic teachers who came from Jerusalem to Sepphoris; Greeks who were welcomed
for the Hellenistic culture they brought to the city. And there were Arab and
Jewish tradesmen, Roman citizens and soldiers as well as the Zealots, whose
violent nationalism was clothed in the language of religion.
The life that Jesus lived before he began his
ministry was neither isolated nor other-worldly. And he was able to view life
from a much broader perspective than would have been possible if he had been
raised in Jerusalem. There, in the province of Judea, the rules of ritual purity
were scrupulously observed- -and enforced. There, the elite of the religious,
political and economic institutions of Judaism lived and ruled. And like the
elite of any group dedicated to preserving itself, the leaders of those
institutions were determined that any challenge to its rules, its beliefs or its
authority were quickly suppressed- -or exorcised. There was no room for the kind
of teaching and preaching that did not conform to rabbinic and scribal
interpretations of Jewish Law.
It was much easier to exercise control over
the people who lived in Jerusalem and the surrounding towns than it was to
control the beliefs and activities of those who lived beyond its boundaries. So
although by the time of Jesus, the Galilee had once again become Judaized, the
old appellation “Galilee of the Gentiles” was still used. It was a way of
conveying the idea that the Jewish people who lived there were ignorant of the
intricacies of the Law, and lax in the observance of what they did know. It was
a mindset that regarded the district of Galilee in the same way that a colonial
posses-sion or missionary territory might be viewed by the elite; and religious
leaders promulgated the popular saying that “no prophet arises out of Galilee.”
Nevertheless, it was in Galilee that Jesus
began his public ministry. But first he went to the district of Judea to find
his cousin John, whose fame as the Baptizer was bringing multitudes of people to
the east bank of the Jordan River.
>Jesus was thirty
years old when he left Galilee and traveled to Judea in search of his cousin
John. He found him on the banks of the Jordan River, just north of the Dead Sea.
He told him he had come to be baptized but John resisted that request. “It is
I who need baptism from you, he said, and yet you come to me.”
But Jesus prevailed. John was teaching that a
new order was about to begin; that the Kingdom of Heaven was near and Christ
knew it was time for him to begin preparing for his own public ministry. Just
as the waters of the Great Flood had washed away a corrupt world filled with
violence, so the baptism of Jesus signified that a new world order was at hand.
The synoptic gospels report that as he emerged from beneath the waters of the
Jordan, a dove descended upon him.
He understood the significance of this sign of
the dove. He knew it was a sign that had been given to Noah to let him know that
the world of the past, washed away by the Flood, was ready to be replaced.
“He (Noah) sent out a dove from him, to see if the water was abated from off the
face of the ground; But the dove found no rest for the sole of her foot. . .and
again he sent the dove out of the ark; . . .and lo, in her mouth was an olive
leaf plucked off; so Noah knew that the waters were abated from off the earth.”
As Jesus emerged from the waters of the
Jordan, the dove found “rest for the sole of her foot.” He was the ground upon
which the new order was to be built. But first he had to wrestle with the
temptation to carry out his mission by accepting the rewards offered to those
for whom the end justifies the means. “Filled with the Holy Spirit, Jesus
left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit through the wilderness, being tempt-ed
there by the devil forty days.”
For forty days and nights he fasted and
prayed, trying to find the way in which he would be able to carry out his
redemptive mission. And during that time he was tempted by the collective
consciousness of this world; a consciousness personified as Satan.
“The Devil took him up and showed him a second
all the kingdoms of the world. ‘I will give you all this power and all this
wealth’ the devil told him. ‘It
has all been handed over to me, and I can give it to anyone I choose. All this
will be yours, then, if you worship me.’ ”
It was very real, this temptation to accept
the success that the world offers those who pay homage to its ways of achieving
and using power. But the only rulership the world offered was the kind of
triumph that comes from military force and the economic power that fuels it.
Jesus was well aware that he had no other
prospects. He had just received his call to minister and did not know where he
would draw support for his mission. He was not wealthy; neither did he have the
kind of religious credentials that come from study-ing under a renowned rabbi.
He was neither priest, Levite, Sadducee nor Pharisee. And although he had been
raised in the Galilee, a breeding ground of violent agita-tion, he was no
Zealot, convinced that leading an armed confrontation against Rome was the way
to bring about the reign of God.
The Gospels report that Jesus was tempted in
the wilderness for forty days and nights; his ancestors had wandered there for
forty years. New Testament writers point out that he successfully resisted the
temptation that came to him, while the sons of Israel had succumbed to the
temptations that came to them in their wilder-ness experience.
The end of those forty years had marked a new
beginning for the Israelites. Under the leadership of Joshua, an army of
invaders came out of the wilderness to make their first attack on the people of
Canaan. They entered that land coming from east of the Jordan and crossing over
the river, just north of the Dead Sea.
Christian tradition has long held that Jesus
was baptized in the same area of the Jordan that Joshua’s army crossed over on
their way to the siege of Jericho. But it was not just 1200 years that separated
the wilderness experience of the two men. Joshua’s attack on Jericho inaugurated
a history of violence and warfare in which the Chosen People killed and were
killed by Assyrians, Babylonians, Seleucids, Romans and each other. And in the
time of Christ, the anticipation of a messiah who would lead the descendants of
Abraham in still another bloody and victorious battle was at fever pitch.
From the desert enclaves of Qumran to the
world of power-politics at Jerusalem and North into Galilee, expectations of
cataclysmic change permeated the land. And whether they were Essenes, Pharisees,
Sadducees or Zealots, the belief was the same; the coming of the Messiah was at
hand and would be marked by violent confrontation; by a war between the forces
of good and the forces of evil; by a battle between the sons of Israel and their
Roman enemies; a battle in which God would assure them victory and restore
Palestine to their rule.
Prior to his baptism, there is no record of
Christ’s adult life so there is no way to trace his rejection of those
expectations. But the account of his life after his wilderness experience
clearly shows that by the time he began his mission, he had resolved not to
utilize the ways of a world that worshipped the gods of battle; a world that
said that was the way to bring about peace; that the brutal treatment of one’s
enemies would bring about a benevolent society. Jesus knew what was expected of
a great Jewish leader, but he refused to fulfill those expectations.
He never attempted to organize a military
takeover; there was no calling upon God to destroy the enemies of the Hebrew
people or those who opposed him. Instead, he went back to Galilee and began his
ministry in his hometown of Nazareth, he went to the local synagogue, and he
read from the scroll of Isaiah identifying his mission with that prophet.
“The Spirit of the Lord has been given to me,
for he has anointed me.
He has sent me to bring the good news to the poor,
to proclaim liberty to captives
and to the blind new sight,
to set the downtrodden free,
to proclaim the Lord’s year of favor.”
“He then rolled up the scroll, gave it back to
the assistant and sat down. And all eyes in the synagogue were fixed on him.
Then he began to speak to them: This text is being fulfilled today even as you
In identifying his mission as the fulfillment
of the prophecies of Isaiah, Jesus was laying the foundations of the Messianic
Age. It was to be an age in which the worship of God manifested itself in
compassion and social justice. And it was to be non-violent. It was Isaiah who
told the people that God wanted an end to war and violence; that they were to
convert their weapons of war into implements of agriculture.
But centuries after Isaiah died, Jesus was the
only religious leader who rejected the idea of a Holy War that would usher in
the Messianic Age. He lived in a society in which it was axiomatic that one’s
enemies were sinful and evil and because they were evil they were also God’s
enemies. But Christ taught that God’s mercy and goodness were not reserved for
any one group: the world was not divided into those God favored and those who
were His enemies.
In his Sermon on the Mount, he told the people
that God’s favor and goodness was available to all. They were not to hate those
they perceived as enemies “for in this way you will be sons of your Father in
heaven, for He causes the sun to rise on bad men as well as good and his rain to
fall on honest and dishonest men alike.”
Evil was not to be overcome by violent
confrontation; darkness could only be dispelled by light; hatred by forgiveness
and compassion. And in an effort to overcome the belief that one’s enemies were
corrupt, sinful and treacherous, Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan.
see “Jesus & the Forgotten City: New Light on Sepphoris and the Urban
World of Jesus.” Richard A. Batey, Baker Book House, Grand Rapids. 1991
Population estimates range from 1,000 to 2,000 (See BBC, NT, p. 198)
Written records extant from AD 570, attest to this fact, Ref: Batey, p. 20
 Matthew 3:14 JB
 Genesis 8:8-11 KJ
 Luke 4:1-2 JB
 Luke 4:5 NIV
 Hebrews 2:17-18 TEV
 Luke 4:18 JB
 Luke 4:19-21 JB
 Isaiah 2:4 & Micah 4:3 JB
 Matthew 5:45 JB
 Luke 10:33-37 NIV
Go on to: THE GOOD SAMARITAN
Return to: WHAT THE BIBLE REALLY SAYS