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WHAT THE BIBLE REALLY SAYS
By: J. R. Hyland

Chapter 16: JESUS: THE EARLY YEARS
PART I

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 historian.

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 insurrectionists.

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.[1]

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,[2] 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 than Nazareth.

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 and Ann.[3]

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.

PART II

>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.”[4]

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.”[5]

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.”[6]

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.’ ”[7]

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.[8]

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.”[9]

“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 listen.”[10]

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.[11]

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.”[12]

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.[13]


[1]  see “Jesus & the Forgotten City: New Light on Sepphoris and the Urban World of Jesus.”  Richard A. Batey, Baker Book House, Grand Rapids. 1991

[2]  Population estimates range from 1,000 to 2,000 (See BBC, NT, p. 198)

[3]  Written records extant from AD 570, attest to this fact, Ref: Batey, p. 20

[4]  Matthew 3:14  JB

[5]  Genesis 8:8-11  KJ

[6]  Luke 4:1-2  JB

[7]  Luke 4:5  NIV

[8]  Hebrews 2:17-18  TEV

[9]  Luke 4:18  JB

[10]  Luke 4:19-21 JB

[11]  Isaiah 2:4 & Micah 4:3  JB

[12]  Matthew 5:45  JB

[13]  Luke 10:33-37  NIV

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