The Mission in Galilee
In almost all accounts of the life of Jesus, it is customary to divide his relatively short public ministry between the initial period in Galilee and the later culmination of events in Judea and Jerusalem. However, the matter is not quite that simple. For one, there is not any unanimous agreement on just how long this public life lasted—whether it was a bit more than two years, or only little more than a year. Jesus appears to have made several trips to Jerusalem during this period, usually at the time of the major religious feasts, particularly on the Passover. However, here we run into a discrepancy, the synoptic gospels mention only two such festivals during this period, yet John’s gospel seeming to indicate three.
This problem of chronology may seem purely academic, except that, for our present purposes, it presents a crucial problem of interpretation, especially hinging on the question of when Jesus actually went to Jerusalem to challenge the temple authorities. Kurt Aland’s Synopsis of the Four Gospels opts for seeing Jesus’ “cleansing of the temple” episode as described in the second chapter of John’s gospel as having happened before the Galilean ministry as an alternative to placing it just after his triumphal entry into Jerusalem at the beginning of the final week of his life. Certainly, if the third temptation as depicted by Luke actually did take place at the temple, then the earlier date for this confrontation seems more likely. Yet, all three of the synoptic gospels put it at the much later date.
Or might Jesus have raised such a ruckus in the temple on more than one occasion? We could go on the supposition, one used by the much older Chronological Harmony of the Gospels (Stephen J. Hartdegen, 1942), that Jesus indeed may have in fact done this at least twice. For a person with a sense of mission, it does not seem impossible. Thus, we would have his early ministry in Galilee prefaced by this first attempt to cleanse the temple in Jerusalem, and his later ministry, in Judea, culminated by another episode of temple cleansing, one that would immediately lead to his passion and death.
Proceeding on these assumptions—three Passovers, two temple cleansings, and two years plus some months of public ministry, it is also possible to paint in broad strokes, not only a general shift of location in Jesus’ public ministry, but a shift in emphasis that represents, in a concrete way, a further transformation of Jesus’ own sense of mission, and with it, a further transformation in his faith. More exactly, these changes represent, in my estimation, a distinctive shift from a faith that is deeply and intensely personal to a more fully integrated or conjunctive faith.
To understand this change, we have to first examine, however briefly, that first year of preaching in Galilee and the crisis to which it led.
Signs and Wonders
The mission of Jesus in Galilee was conducted in the manner of a wandering teacher or rabbi with a small group of intimate disciples or learners—of whom the gospels give the number as being seventy‑two—along with (or including?) twelve specially chosen men who later became known as his apostles or “emissaries”. The distinctive message of Jesus at this time centers on the theme of the “kingdom” or “reign of God”.
A great deal of paper and ink has been expended, especially in recent times, in the attempt to explain exactly what it was that Jesus meant by this phrase. Meier devotes over two‑hundred pages of his second volume to this question alone. Although the idea that Israel itself was the object of God’s special providence and rule is an old one in the Hebrew bible, the actual phrase, whether in the form of “God’s kingdom” or “Reign of God” or in the form favored by Matthew (“kingdom of heaven”) is relatively unique to the gospels. However, it first appears, but only fleetingly, once in the deutereocanonical Book of Wisdom (10:10), a few times more in some of the late intra-testamental “apocrypha” or pseudopigraphic literature like the Psalms of Solomon and in a couple of the Qumran documents. Then the theme more or less disappears, even in the New Testament. St. Paul used the phrase only a half a dozen times or so and the other epistles even less. Even the book of Revelation, despite so much of it being devoted to the final age of God’s judgment on human history, seldom uses the phrase as such.
Perhaps there is a special reason for this. The phrase itself, for all its evocative power, seems to have a rather elusive meaning. As we see it introduced in the preaching of John the Baptist, God’s kingdom seems to be something that is soon to arrive, but not yet here. Its arrival will bring on the judgment of God upon Israel and bring all human history to a close. The message is unmistakably eschatological, in the sense of dealing with the final or last age, breathing very much the apocalyptic atmosphere, if not necessarily repeating the exact style, of much of this later Old Testament era literature.
On the other hand, as reportedly used by Jesus, the phrase seems to acquire a much more immediate meaning, as if it were referring to something that has already, to some extent, become realized in our midst. Although it is soon to make an even more definitive appearance, it is even now present in seminal form in the good news of God’s unconditional gift of love. It is, to use some other phrases much relied upon by theologians today when discussing this subject, a “both-and” proposition, a case of the kingdom being both imminent (not yet, but soon, to arrive) and realized (already—even if not yet apparent). How much of Jesus’ message is to be interpreted in either mode remains a hot topic of debate.
Just to take one example: the question of how the famous saying found in Luke l7:21 should be translated. According to this passage, the Pharisees asked Jesus when the kingdom of God is coming. He is said to have answered that it “is in your midst”—in the sense that it is already here. Yet as Meier points out (II, p. 424) this is only one possible translation. It also could mean, in an imminently future sense, that the kingdom “is within your reach”—even if not quite here yet. The only thing that it doesn’t mean is that “the kingdom of God is within you”, especially in an individualistic way. (While Jerome used the Latin intra to translate the Greek entos, he used the plural vos when it comes to the “you”.)
In Meier’s estimation, such a complete interiorization of the kingdom is almost completely at odds with rest of the “canonical Gospels in general or Luke in particular” and is a “foreign intrusion” typical of “2nd century Christian Gnosticism” and of “19th century German liberal Protestantism and some 20th century American quests for the historical Jesus.” His reference here seems to be to the already controversial product of the so‑called “Jesus Seminar” published under the title The Five Gospels (Macmillan, 1993) in which the fifth is “The Gospel of Thomas”. This long‑lost Gnostic document, rediscovered in 1945, has influenced a few scholars, like John Dominic Crossan, whose work, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant, contains some insights into the background of Jesus that are as intriguing as his book’s subtitle, but whose conclusions are hardly within the middle range of accepted scholarly opinions.
The reason for this excursion into the infighting of present‑day scripture scholars is not a minor one. Apart from the historical importance of how this “Kingdom of God” is to be understood (to take two extremes, an imperial church seeing itself as the Kingdom of God on earth versus an isolated non‑conformist body of believers who are convinced that the world is about to end) we also have here, in a kind of test-case example, the question of what Jesus himself may have believed. To some extent, all the experts seem to agree that Jesus did go beyond the message of John the Baptist in stressing God’s forgiveness and love. As to the question as to how and when this new reign of love and forgiveness would be manifested, they remain divided, even as we do, to some extent, within ourselves.
Back to Jesus. Did he himself think the world, or at least its prior history to the advent of a messiah, was about to end? If so, then a great deal more of his message, not the least of which was his seeming indifference to the political situation and his apparent willingness to console people in a way that some see to be excessively passive in the face of injustice. From this foreshortened view of the future, his “Blessed are the poor ... the meek ... those who suffer persecution”, etc., seems quite logical. On the other hand, if the Kingdom is entirely within—which it isn’t—such passivity could equally result, but at least Jesus couldn’t be accused of a complete misreading of the future. The fact that the political and religious establishment of his time reacted as it did, and that he appears to have been aware of this probable outcome, would lead one to assume that Jesus was intending neither apocalyptic fanaticism nor pie-in-the-sky mysticism.
If the former was particularly the view of Albert Schweitzer who early in the twentieth century gave up, all too soon it seems, on his quest for the historical Jesus, since then a great more has been learned about the Essenes and other apocalyptic currents of Jesus’ time. In contrast to such groups, the teaching of Jesus seems remarkably free from exaggerations in this direction, even if it does seem to share some of the eschatological urgency of John the Baptist’s theme. How to interpret this tendency, however, remains a problem. Trying to just ignore it, or deciding beforehand that passages in the gospels that seem to reflect this line of thinking can’t be authentic—which seems to have been one of the criteria used by the “Jesus Seminar”—then we do have a problem, that is, unless we drop our assumptions that Jesus couldn’t have been wrong about anything.
On the other hand, suppose Jesus was really preaching an advent of a divine rule that was imminent, at least in the sense of something that could soon be realized in the form of a new era in human relationships both on a person‑to‑person level as well with ramifications in the whole structure of society, including its religious aspects. Then we may have an ancient form of “liberation theology”, regardless whether Jesus was aware of such implications or not. Yet if this is the case, then the message of Jesus also differs from the pharisaic schools that saw the reign of righteousness to consist primarily in the observance of the Law (seen primarily in terms of religious piety) on the one hand and from the outright revolutionary political activism promoted by the Zealots on the other. The Kingdom of God, in that case, would be primarily what we ask for when we pray in the words attributed to him—that our own conduct here on earth reflect that decreed by our Father in heaven. If that program were carried out, this world would indeed be a better place.
Did Jesus really believe that the world was about to end? Later, when we examine the words attributed to him about the fall of Jerusalem, we will have to take a closer look at this question. Still, even if Jesus thought the end of the world was imminent, he apparently did not let it affect his conviction that something more than personal repentance was required and that some reform of society was in order, at least within the community of Israel. Yet at the same time, Jesus does not present any program of reform. His “beatitudes”, or recipes for happiness, may show great sympathy and understanding for the poor and oppressed, but he does not appear to have preached any type of external revolution. So despite all warnings about mistranslations, Jesus’ appeal seems to have been directed first of all, like those of most of the prophets, to an interior transformation, to a change of heart. Whether or not the world was going to last long enough for inner conversion to bring about a change in the structure of society seems to have been, if not beyond his interest, possibly beyond his immediate concern. In the meantime, the answer to what such a transformation might have meant or still mean may be less a deduction from what he said than it is an inference from what he did, that is, from the many signs or wonders that he was said to have worked.
Without getting into any technical discussion of just what or what not might be a miracle and what different categories of any such thing there might be, let us simply note that according to the gospels not only the followers of Jesus, but even his enemies, apparently credited Jesus with certain startling deeds to account for his popularity. The same goes as well for a more or less neutral historian writing shortly after that period, Flavius Josephus. Granted that the authenticity of this latter source has been much debated, still, in the eyes of Josephus, who devoted considerably more space to John the Baptist and his death, it was particularly his reputation as wonder‑worker that set Jesus apart. That this makes people who may be in search of the historical Jesus uncomfortable is understandable. However, that seems to be a problem peculiar to our time, not to people of times past.
Perhaps, as a concession to modern skepticism, we should at least make a broad distinction between the various types of healings that Jesus performed and the other wondrous deeds (so‑called “nature miracles”) that he was said to have done. These first are the kind of thing that is at least thought to be theoretically possible, even today. Despite the skeptics, inexplicable cures do sometimes occur. Indeed, there are places, such as Lourdes, where skeptics have even been appointed official inspectors with the job of tearing down any possible claims for the supernatural.
If it is conceded that Jesus actually worked or promoted such cures, what was the meaning of his actions? Certainly, they were not merely for the sake of philanthropy, despite the frequent mention of Jesus being moved with “compassion”. If this had been his only motive, he could have simply healed those who flocked to him and avoided whatever else might cause opposition to him. Nor, again, were these healings for the sake of self‑advertisement. Instead, they were meant to be signs of the kingdom already made present. That should be obvious enough, because when Jesus himself was questioned about them, he made it very clear that this is what he was about.
Yet at the same time, we can hardly speak about this aspect of his ministry or this phenomenon of signs or miracles without particular reference to faith. Faith, in the sense of trust, seems to have formed a precondition for Jesus being willing to help others. True, there are passages in the gospels where this factor is not explicitly highlighted. In addition, there are other healing stories that instead emphasize faith, or an increased faith, as being the result of his activity. Still, there is at least one reference to Jesus not only refusing to heal because of some people’s lack of faith but of himself being unable to do so without their faith that they indeed could be healed (see Mark 6:5). Jesus often acts like he has no power to heal unless this trusting faith is present. Repeatedly he asks those who besiege him: “Do you have faith?” Or very often, he exclaims, “Your faith has healed you!” Indeed, so much is this trust or “faith” the central ingredient of these stories that we must ask the question from where comes this power of Jesus to heal if not equally from his own faith as well?
This is particularly evidenced in one episode that is described in all three of the synoptic gospels (Mt 17:14-21, Mk 9:29, Lk 9:37-42)—the healing of an apparently epileptic boy at the request of the boy’s father. That this malady, like many others at that time is described in terms of an evil spirit inhabiting the boy should not throw us off track. This was a standard diagnosis of the period. We are even told that some of Jesus’ disciples had attempted an exorcism on this boy, but to no avail. Only when Jesus arrives on the scene and gives his command is the boy cured. When asked why it is that he was successful when his disciples were not, Jesus replies that such difficult cases require extra strong faith and just as confident prayer to go with it (some manuscripts add “fasting” as well to Mark 9:29, but this is generally considered a gloss or scribal mistake).
That it is not a question of the boy’s faith, or even that of the boy’s father, who is related to have asked Jesus to strengthen what little faith he had, seems clear enough. The contrast is between the supreme faith in God’s power as expressed by Jesus and the apparently hesitant faith of his followers. Jesus may not have said, “You must have faith as strong as my own”, but on this occasion, he could have hardly made that point any clearer. If the passage in Hebrews 12:1-2 is the only place in the New Testament where it speaks most explicitly of the faith of Jesus, this account is where it comes a close second.
That Jesus, and not his disciples, possessed the power to bring about such cures presents no problem for those viewing Christ simply as God appearing as a man. He obviously has the power to begin with. However, as we can see from a number of other incidents, this view manifestly contradicts the gospel records on several occasions. Even in the “high christology” of the Gospel of John, with its strong emphasis on the divinity of Christ, Jesus is depicted as praying to the Father before he raises Lazarus from the dead (Jn 11:40-42). Although the idea that Jesus was praying aloud for God to grant his wish is proclaimed to be more for the sake of the crowd “that they may believe you have sent me”, even though “I know that you always hear me”, still, the point is that even here the power of Jesus is seen not as his own, but as coming from God.
This approach is emphasized here because if we see this phenomenon from the viewpoint of Jesus’ own faith operating cooperatively with the faith of others, the entire matter and problem of miracles makes a whole lot more sense, even to our skeptical modern minds. One of the most disconcerting features of the gospels is the sheer profligacy of these occurrences. This impression is accentuated by the almost uncontested acceptance, even by his most vehement enemies (or, as we have seen, by a neutral historian like Josephus), of the factualness of these cures. So many of them occurred, it seems, that his critics’ only weapon was to accuse him of sorcery and diabolic power.
What can be said as well for the nature miracles contained in the gospels, especially those reported by Mark? The calming of the sea, the walking on water, the multiplication of loaves; are not these meant to be taken as wonders that many were eager to see and report? Yet more often, the gospels describe them as “signs” pointing not so much to Jesus himself, but to the kingdom as already having arrived, in the midst of this world—at least for those who have “ears to hear” and “eyes to see”.
About this latter class of phenomena, we can really say little, except point out how much the ancient world took this type of thing for granted and to suggest that perhaps they may, for the most part, be a literary embellishment to highlight the “good news”. Still, we need to be cautious! True, the ancient world took the frequent occurrence of miracles for granted. Even for it, enough was enough! Yet, in a “post‑modern” world where the supposedly inflexible “laws” of Newtonian physics are rapidly being replaced by what seem to be at most statistical averages of “quanta” existing in a state of fundamental indeterminacy, perhaps we are too quick to write off these reported phenomena as the literary embellishments of the early Christian community. If what we have said about the role of faith in healing is true, particularly a faith that is expressed primarily in the restorative power of love, then who is to say what the limits of the power of faith may be when it comes to some other phenomena as well? Even such a tough-minded biblical scholar like Meier has to admit that at least one of the nature miracles, that of the mysterious multiplication of loaves and fishes, is so repeatedly referred to in the Gospels that something strange must have actually happened to account for this.
Finally, what about reports of Jesus having raised the dead? Again, probably all we can say about this is that even this sort of thing was even ascribed to pagan wonder-workers and for us will probably have to be understood in much the same way as those other wonders recounted above.
Faith, Belief, and Love
Love, or really the confidence induced by love, could be seen as another name for “faith”, at least in the basic gospel sense of the word. On the other hand, if we focus on what might be called the specifically intellectual content of this faith, or the beliefs that Jesus affirmed and taught his followers, again we arrive at the close linkage of all this to love. God is a loving father who welcomes all his children—even us sinners. God’s providential love will remove all cause for fear. Our lives are truly in God’s benevolent hands. Only those who resist this all‑embracing, all‑forgiving love need fear.
Again, to attempt to summarize the teaching of Jesus during this period, its underpinning can only be described as faith, even if its most pervasive expression is love, the love that forgives enemies, and again, out of love, would share the goods of this earth with compassion for all. Such love overrides all demands of the law, indeed, is the sum of all law. It is founded on faith, on the trusting belief that an overriding concern for God’s kingdom will both free us from any other concern and at the same time bring all else that we may need besides. Faith in this sense is almost indistinguishable from love. One expresses the other, and vice versa. They cannot be separated. “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord’, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Mt 7:21).
Yet what exactly is the Father’s will? Where is it to be found? The later controversy that we see reflected in the Epistle of James, the problem of belief without expression in love, and the works of love, begins to rear its head here. However, we cannot allow this to detain us for long. Suffice to say that we find differing emphases or interpretations in the New Testament depending on the audience and context. The famous passage in Matthew 5:17‑20: “I have not come to abolish the law or the prophets but to fulfill...” etc., as well as a parallel passage in Luke 16:17, has been the subject of much debate. Matthew shows a definite pro‑law bias compared to the other gospels. This is readily explainable if his principal audience consisted of Palestinian Christians of Jewish ancestry, or even, in its later Greek rendition, Jews of the diaspora. (For a detailed summary of the scholarly discussion of the attitudes contained or combined in the Gospel of Matthew, see Raymond E. Brown and John P. Meier, Antioch and Rome, especially Meier’s third chapter.)
A similar contrast exists between the Epistle of James with its emphasis on the performance of good works as compared to the theme of freedom from the law in St. Paul’s epistles, especially in Romans and Galatians, and Paul’s emphasis on grace. Although Jesus may have really said what Matthew’s gospel reports in support of the law, his own actions seem to have been anything but legalistic. So obviously, we are dealing with theological interpretation by way of emphasis. Still, other factors enter into it as well.
Central to such discussions must be recognition of the varying faith stages of the audiences. It is a mark of conventional faith or religiosity to see moral or ethical standards in terms of codes or rules to be obeyed and as sanctioned by external authority. In contrast, when there is a movement towards a more “individuative” and personally reflective faith, authority becomes more internalized and moral standards generally become more integrated with the logic of the belief system, although with some qualifications. Occasionally a superficially individuated faith will incorporate a repressive side that re-enforces reliance on an externalized code to keep not-yet-integrated elements in check. The excessive legalism of the Pharisees probably had something of this element to it—perhaps as a counterbalance to too much freedom in their radical reinterpretation of what had been an over-ritualized temple cult.
Bernard Lee, however, has given us another insight to this passion for “jots and tittles”. The pharisaic movement can be seen as replacing temple‑centered worship, with all its minutiae as detailed in The Book of Leviticus, with a new approach that translated all this rule-keeping into a new home- and synagogue‑based and more heart‑centered piety. This lay‑led religion, where the scribes and rabbis were generally not officially ordained clergy, actually did, as history shows, keep Judaism alive long after the temple and its priestly‑led worship had passed from the scene.
However, if Jesus himself, as David Flusser claims, represents a type of piety that could be characterized as a “phariseeism of love”, then we are witnessing a still more radical reinterpretation of the old law. Thus Jesus’ apparent disdain for the Pharisees’ detailed list of rules (they would later be numbered at six hundred and thirteen) and his insistence (Mt 22:37‑39; Mk 12:30‑31; Lk 10:27) on the two commands of love: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus tells us that these indeed sum up the whole law and the prophets. This is radical, and yet, scripturally-based as well (Dt 6:5 and Lv 11:16). It is no wonder Jesus incited such enmity and suspicion. No one has ever made religion more simple, and at the same time, more difficult!
All this, of course, inevitably leads to the problem of the rejection of Jesus, not so much by the authorities or even by the population which showed some enthusiasm for him at first, but eventually by a sizable number of his would‑be followers. That something went wrong and produced a crisis at the end of what we now call the “Galilean ministry” seems to be the conclusion of many contemporary New Testament scholars. They differ only in how much emphasis they give to the change and how they explain it. We will return to this puzzle shortly. However, one thing is clear already: neither the religious‑political authorities, most of whom were Sadducees, nor the popular religious authorities, who were for the most part rabbis and scribes leaning toward the pharisaic outlook, were ready or able to appreciate the “law of love” approach to human conduct that Jesus preached. They had simply, for the most part, despite all their zeal for the law, or in the case of the Pharisees, mostly because of it, been unable to see through the law to its central foundation in God’s love. On the other hand, even if they did in an intellectual way, they were nonetheless unable to translate this insight into a love that both sums up and transcends the law beyond a love of the law for its own sake.
For such a mentality, the freedom of the Gospel is a scandal and presents a threat that must be, one way or another, defused of its explosive potential for radical change. This higher law simply remained incomprehensible to those whose faith demands above all the security of knowing they are always right. It has remained a stumbling block not just to the Jews of old, but just as much, or even more, numerically speaking, to many calling themselves “Christians” today. To let go and allow “God to be God” in our lives is equally difficult for all, and theologians and religious bureaucrats can usually be counted on to so qualify any such breakthrough as to render it harmless to the established order.
However, this does not explain why many of his most devoted followers, who had, by dint of repetition, presumably absorbed this lesson, eventually turned against him. Was it simply, as so many have suggested, that his idea of the kingdom was too heavenly for them? Or was it simply that he failed to live up to popular expectations, fueled by the Zealots, of a royal Messiah, a princely liberator, who at last would “restore the kingdom to Israel”?
Before we consider any other possible cause for the rejection of Jesus, we must first consider this other possibility; that his faith was simply too advanced to be understood or imitated by the rest. What seemed to the Pharisees to be his outrageous behavior maybe confirmed the suspicions of many. That he often ate and drank with sinners, even with tax collectors and prostitutes, may have been refreshing good news, especially to many people. Yet, that this openness must eventually lead, sometimes even to his own amazement, to the conclusion that pagans might even be accepted by God before the Jew—this required an altogether new type of faith.
The Turning Point: The Emergence of Conjunctive Faith
It is hard not to see where Jesus’ own preaching and conduct were leading him. He had decided, back in the desert, against popular political zealotry, but people were trying to push him more and more in that direction. He was sent instead to preach a kingdom where the sinners and the outcast were welcomed to join with the “children of God”, but official religion would have none of it. John the Baptist, in the meantime, had, quite literally, lost his own head in his confrontation with the corruption of the system. Had Jesus already planned his own little confrontation with the temple authorities? Or was he planning a repeat performance of one enacted earlier? If so, now he had better really think twice! Even some of Jesus’ own disciples lost patience with him and began to think, as his relatives had already concluded, that he was deluded or demented. So Jesus left his own country, for the first and only time in his life.
According to the synoptic gospels, Jesus took the twelve with him to the region around Tyre and Sidon on the seacoast of modern Lebanon and from there he traveled back down southeast towards Mt. Hermon and the sources of the Jordan around Dan, which had by then become known as “Paneas”, a celebrated pagan shrine. We are often told in older “Life of Christ” type of books that this trip was in the nature of a training mission to make the apostles ready for when he would be gone and they would have to go out on their own and preach the Gospel. Perhaps so, but it is doubtful that it was intentionally so on Jesus’ part. Indeed, the first notable incident in this journey had to do with his refusal to cure an epileptic pagan girl because, as he said, he was sent “only to the children of Israel”. Still, the girl’s mother importuned, “even dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs” (Mk 7:28; Mt 15:27). She had him there, so he relented and cured the girl, much as he already had cured the centurion’s servant at Capharnaum. Again, he began to marvel at a pagan’s faith.
What we see here, perhaps, is the emergence of a new stage of consciousness in Jesus. These repeated incidents, where so‑called “pagans” displayed more openness and trust than his own people, surely caused a significant change in Jesus’ own awareness of his power to reach out to people with the message of God’s love. On the one hand, not only the religious establishment, but also even his own people had, for the most part, rejected him. On the other hand, he saw in these goyim or “gentiles” a faith in the sense of a trust and openness to the possibility of God’s kingdom that was largely untouched by dreams and expectations of a political messiah.
This was not entirely a new revelation. Recall the long account in the fourth chapter of John’s gospel about the encounter with the woman at the well at Shechem. Kurt Aland situates this as being shortly after the death of John the Baptist. If so, after this loss, Jesus must have been even more conscious of the potential “harvest” being great but the “laborers” all too few. That the Samaritans, with their mixed Jewish‑pagan ancestry and their rival temple on Mt. Gerizim, were considered worse than mere pagans made little difference. Jesus predicts the day when his Father would no longer only be legitimately worshipped in the temple in Jerusalem, or in any such exclusive or disputed settings. Instead, the day will come when God will be worshipped everywhere “in spirit and in truth” (Jn 4:23).
However, now the situation was somewhat different. If, on that earlier occasion, Jesus could still boast that “salvation is from the Jews”, it was now becoming apparent that rejection of not only the message of salvation but of the messenger himself also seemed to be coming from his own people. This alone would be enough to make anyone, even a prophet, doubt himself and his mission.
The sudden or even sometimes gradual expansion of awareness that usually is a part of the coming into a truly personal faith is often still limited, and is often tied to a specific location or culture. It typically involves a struggle between self‑awareness as an individual as opposed to one’s immediate surroundings. At that stage, one defines oneself in terms of a role within that structure, even while the role itself to a certain extent sets oneself apart from the others. This is the natural setting for the emergence of a “vocation” in the usual sense of the word.
When one has lived long enough or has been exposed to a wider world, a whole new stage of awareness can emerge. The narrowness of the boundaries within which one’s self‑awareness and its vocational expression were conceived begins to fall apart. A broader, and sometimes confusing, vision of the world emerges. As the horizon of consciousness expands, a new stage of self‑questioning very often begins, one that heralds the beginning of a more conjunctive faith. It is “a faith that calls for the integration of elements in ourselves, our society, and in our experience of ultimate reality that have the character of apparent contradictions, polarities, or at least paradoxical elements” (Fowler, 1984. p.64).
“At least”—to put it mildly! The paradox, the contradiction, which is central to the mystery of Jesus and his mission, is revealed in two pivotal incidents in the gospels that form, as it were, a question and an answer. Jesus put the question to his apostles, but the full answer could come only from God.
The Question at Dan
If there were a few more incidents like that on the trip up into Lebanon, we have not been told anything about them. The only other thing we know about this one and only trip that Jesus ever made out of his own country took place near the source of the Jordan River, close to the town of Caesarea Phillipi and the ancient shrine of Dan. It was there, we are told, that Jesus confronted the twelve with the question, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” So now, he had to ask them, those from whom he hoped for undying loyalty, who they really perceived him to be. It was not an easy question. After beating around the bush a bit, Peter spoke, presumably for the rest. According to Mark (8:29) Jesus was the “Messiah” to which Luke (9:20) adds “of God”, while Matthew (16:17) has “the Son of the living God”.
Again, what these titles in turn might imply seems to have been the nub of the problem. The synoptic gospels where this incident is recorded, with the exception of Matthew’s digression on Peter’s future mission, move directly to one common theme; that to be the Messiah means rejection, suffering, and eventually death, yet only to be raised again “on the third day”. (Compare Mt 16:13‑20, Mk 8:27‑30, and Lk 9:18-21.)
Although all three synoptic gospels include this warning, whether Jesus really did predict his own death and resurrection at this point is a matter of keen debate. Many modern commentators see these predictions as a product of editorial hindsight or what the Vatican biblical commission might classify as the second level of tradition—the kerygma or a proclamation of post‑resurrection faith. On the other hand, it should be pointed out that, following the collapse of his popularity in Galilee, it took no great powers of prognostication to see where the course of his mission was leading him. Too many of the prophets had met a violent death for Jesus to harbor any illusions. Thus, it would only be natural that his most devoted followers would resist this logic.
As for his own resurrection “on the third day”, here we may have something else other than the logic of history. If there is any issue on which Jesus clearly stood on the side of the Pharisees, it was this one. Jesus was later not only to declare his firm belief in the resurrection of the dead but gave his own argument, which is an interpretation of Exodus 3:6.
About the dead rising again, have you never read in the book of Moses, in the passage about the bush, what God said to him: “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob”? He is God, not of the dead but of the living.
That this passage necessarily implies a bodily resurrection, of course, remains debatable. Yet, in the context of a strictly Hebrew view of human nature, which recognized no such thing as soul, at least in the Platonist philosophical sense of the word (that is, as an immortal spiritual “substance” that can exist entirely independently of the body) the idea of resurrection is the only logically consistent way of expressing belief in eternal life. This is because for a Jew remaining within the confines of a Hebrew vocabulary, only God’s breath or spirit (God’s ruach) could give life to the flesh (the bashar) so that one becomes a nephesh or “living being”. Although for most Jews this nephesh might have a shadowy existence of some sort after death in sheol or “the Pit” or at best, was somehow gathered into “the bosom of Abraham”, only a literal resurrection or reconstitution of the body, much as depicted in Ezekiel’s famous vision of the dry bones taking on flesh again and coming back to life, could qualify as true eternal life.
We do not know whether Jesus understood eternal life in such a literal way, but it is probable that the Sadduccees and other Jews coming more under a Greek influence, even had they believed in some form of eternal life, would not have believed in it in precisely these terms. Nor is this to say that for Jesus, as for the Pharisees, a passage like that is quoted above, argued for resurrection to bodily life in exactly the same manner as life lived before death. Previous to this same passage, Jesus attempts to refute the Sadduccees over the question of the status of marriage in the next life, comparing the state of the risen to that of “angels” who “neither marry nor are given in marriage”. Unfortunately, this response would have meant little to the Sadduccees, who didn’t believe in angels either, hence Jesus’ final appeal to “the God of the Living, not the dead”. (See also Mt 22:23‑33 and Lk 20:27‑40.) Yet there can be no doubt that for Jesus the promise of resurrection, for all the “just” (that is, the “saved”) was very real.
Still, we must ask about Jesus’ belief, not in a general resurrection at the end of time or at the coming of the Messiah, but in his own, almost immediate, resurrection from the dead. Beginning with the exchange at Dan, we keep running into the phrase “on the third day” (Mt 16:21 and Lk 9:22) or “after three days” (Mk 8:31). How could Jesus be so sure? It is this phrase, repeated in nearly all the early Christian creeds, that leads many to conclude that this whole resurrection prediction is indeed inspired hindsight, inserted into the gospel accounts long after the event took place. However, do we need see it to be simply that?
Granted Jesus’ strong personal belief in the resurrection, and his twice repeated (Mt 12:38‑43 and Mt 16:4) comparison of himself to the fabled prophet Jonah, the three-day phrase comes naturally to mind. Despite the fact that from Friday afternoon before sundown to early Sunday morning would take us to what is, according to Hebrew reckoning, the “on the third day”, it is not strictly speaking, as Mark has it, “after three days”. Still, the comparison remains apt, if even in a loose way. Nevertheless, if Jesus is pictured as saying on an earlier occasion, “For just as Jonah was in the belly of the sea-monster for three days and three nights, so shall the Son of Man be for three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Mt 12:40), then we have a problem, for if understood literally, especially when compared to the gospel accounts of the Resurrection, this was not to be. From these discrepancies, we have an additional reason to suspect that here we have second‑level post‑resurrection interpretation, but still, a perfectly logical explanation of why Jesus, if he did strongly believe in his own resurrection, would speak of it as occurring “on the third day”.
This whole question underlines the problem of trying to guess exactly what was in Jesus’ mind at any given point. Yet at the same time, it demonstrates why we should not think that this prediction, if indeed it was made on this occasion, was necessarily based on a supposed divine foreknowledge of all that would occur. If Jesus did really make these predictions of his resurrection, it is readily explainable in terms of his beliefs, just as much as the impending sense of his own death seemed already written in the books.
In any case, where other predictions of this sort are recorded (see Mt 17:21‑22; 20:17‑19, Mk 9:29‑31; 10:32‑34, Lk 9:44b‑45; 18:31‑34), we are also repeatedly told, especially by Luke, that his disciples could not comprehend what he was saying. So it is unlikely that on this occasion this prediction would have made any more sense. Instead, the evangelists seem to have used this recollection as an opening for a moral lesson about the place of suffering in life, particularly the futility of trying to preserve one’s own life, or one’s sense of self, in the face of the universal demand that we die to one’s self before we can ever expect to truly live.
This same lesson is repeated again on another occasion, in the midst of Luke’s rendition of the apocalyptic prediction of the impending disaster awaiting Jerusalem (Lk l7:33). Here we are also cautioned to remember stories of Noah and of Sodom and Gomorrah, and especially the fate of Lot’s wife (see Genesis, chapters 8‑9 and 19). The emphasis here is obviously on the unpredictable suddenness of the end—whether it is the Romans’ destruction of Jerusalem, the end of the world, or simply the end of one’s individual life. Certainly, there is a lesson here for all occasions, but is it simply a warning to “be prepared”?
Here the older New American Bible translation (the version before the 1986 revision of the New Testament) of a similar saying in Matthew 10:39, with its rather existential twist (“…he who brings himself to nought for me discovers who he is”), delivers a very salutary as well as jarring thought. Surely here we are dealing with something more than just the immediate possibility of martyrdom. Instead we are facing what is the essential paradox of faith—the risk that must characterize all religious commitment despite any promise of reward or fulfillment.
With this broader application of this fundamental paradox in mind, perhaps we should also transpose this same understanding back to Luke’s version of the exchange that follows Jesus’ prediction at Dan. If the parallel Greek texts are not identical, certainly the next verse, especially when the Greek word psyche is translated more in keeping with the Hebrew concept of the nephesh, also bears this existentialist weight: “What benefit is it to anyone to win the whole world but to forfeit or lose his very self?” (See Luke 9:25 in The New Jerusalem Bible; emphasis mine.)
Surely, this is one of the most difficult challenges of any religion, indeed of all life. Still, why is it here, as a kind of meditation, in the midst of what is otherwise a question demanding a straight answer? Perhaps it is because Jesus was asking the same question of himself: who am I really, and what am I accomplishing except to go more inevitably to my death? So die he must, “... but truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Kingdom of God” (Lk 9:27).
Again, there seems to be some confusion about the exact wording of this last prediction. For Mark (9:1) it is to be “the kingdom of God with power”. For Matthew (16:28) it is a prophecy of “the Son of Man coming in his kingdom”—an interesting couplet with the earlier Matthean “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God”(Mt 16:16).
It appears that here, at least, we are dealing with various convictions or expressions of faith, which is to say beliefs. However, these need to be understood in relation to a more basic faith, this in the gospel sense of the word, which is a basic trust in God. Although one cannot simplistically reduce these parallel statements to their common denominator and thereby declare that one has automatically arrived at the actual words of Jesus on this or that particular occasion, it is clear from this sequence of passages, if treated at their face value, that the turning point had indeed come. Any hopes that Jesus or his followers might have had that the kingdom could be inaugurated without bloodshed, without their own martyrdom, were rapidly diminishing. The end time was, at least for them, rapidly approaching and only faith in the coming kingdom of God would see them through.
What might be seen in all this, if not exactly a “mid‑life” crisis, is a mid‑career or mid‑mission one. The self‑questioning that we can detect in Jesus’ questions about his identity to his disciples parallel, in a way, the same question he was faced to ponder alone in the desert following his baptism. These, in turn, are foreshadowed by the picture that Luke gave us of the boy Jesus in the temple who, in questioning the rabbis and scholars, was perhaps somehow groping toward his own self‑identity in terms of the “Father” whose “business” (according to the old King James Bible) he must pursue.
The various crises in the life of faith, as well as those of life in general, are perhaps drawn out too neatly by the developmental psychologists. In particular, although the idea that both adolescence and mid-life are especially times of religious crisis may be true enough, it is more likely that what occurs as such times is more of a beginning of a slow change, rather than anything leading toward a quick resolution. If what might be read into the boyhood temple incident given by Luke marks the beginning of the movement toward a personal faith, what we witness at the Jordan and during the solitary struggle in the Judean desert are milestones on that same critical movement of faith.
So too, what we see taking place during Jesus’ reaction to the apparent failure of his Galilean mission and the self‑questioning it provokes, although it may mark the sudden onset of a faith that is being forced to become more inclusive or conjunctive in its scope, is not to be quickly resolved! Accordingly, we might hesitate to pinpoint the episode just discussed as being indicative of Jesus having suddenly arrived at the stage beyond a purely personal faith or one that is “individuative” even in the broad sense of that term. Nevertheless, the whole situation demands a faith that is more fully integrated or inclusive. The experience of his rejection by his own compatriots, and his growing awareness, however limited, of the trust and openness of many gentiles in his presence, must have caused Jesus to wonder and to ponder about himself and his mission. The resolution of this question, even in part, will determine the whole future of his ministry—what little future was left!
To state the point again, the question “Who do people say that I am?” may reflect Jesus’ own questioning of himself and of God’s will for him as much as any question the apostles had asked or were perhaps afraid to ask. The answer given to that question, not by Jesus, but by the apostles, is that Jesus truly is the Messiah. Yet Jesus’ own answer to that revelation poses another question, the answer to which the apostles are far from being able to accept. The meaning of that answer, as we have seen, is in the riddle of a suffering and dying Messiah whose cross, in the words of St. Paul, was to be a “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Greeks” (1 Co 1:23).
Yet this is not the whole answer. Like the secret of his true identity, which according to Matthew was revealed to Peter by the Father, the full disclosure of Jesus as the Christ was to be revealed by an experience granted only to Jesus and his closest intimates among the chosen band.