Written in the Stars

Ruins of Hellenistic theater
In the deep backcountry of Turkey sits the region of Galatia. In 2010, I had the opportunity to hike in this terrain and ascend one of the mountains in this region. As we began to get closer to the top, we ran across the ruins of an old, small, Hellenistic theater (dating to around 400–200 BC). This was odd, considering there was no ancient city or village located on this mountain; this served as a clear indicator that whatever happened on this mountain was significant to the people who lived in this region. The situation became more perplexing as, only a few hundred yards up the road, we ran into some other ancient ruins that dated a couple thousand years older than the theater. We continued to ascend the mountain, until we arrived at an ancient temple at its peak.

It turned out to be the temple to MenEskenu, of ancient Phrygian origin, around 4000–3000 BC. The temple was a place of astrological worship to the god connected to the constellation (what we would call) Taurus. All around the ruins were carvings and markings declaring “the Bull” (Taurus) was in “the house” (temple?).

Central to ancient pagan religions has always been the worship of the stars. In ancient cosmology, the belief was that the earth existed in a “vault,” a bubble of existence which was surrounded by chaotic waters. You can find this belief spelled out clearly in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, as well as Hittite belief, Babylonian/Chaldean/Sumerian belief, and even Hellenistic Greek belief. They believed the stars were great people who had gone before them (you may remember the Apostle Paul encouraging his readers to live like “stars” in the universe).

However, there were seven “stars” that didn’t hold to the same movement as the cosmic ocean — the sun, the moon, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and Uranus. Often, pagan worship connected these seven stars to the gods of their system. Those gods were so powerful that they existed outside the movement, constraint, and influence of the cosmic ocean. Obviously, the zodiac played into these beliefs in many different ways. But in the days of Jesus, on the spring solstice, the sun (the big “star”) would rise into the “house” (i.e., the sign) of Aries. If you go out and look up into the morning sky this March 21, you will see the sun rising into the sign of Aries.

However, in 167 BC, a Greek philosopher/astrologer made a startling discovery. As he studied ancient astrological thought in Egypt, he noticed all records indicated the sun rose every spring into the house of Taurus (hence, “the Bull is in the House” in the ancient Phrygian temple). Assuming the ancient Egyptians had made an error, he travelled to Babylonia, only to find their records said the same thing. Out of this discovery, a stunning conclusion was reached. There must be some god who is so big that he entered the system (from outside of the system), altered the cosmic ocean, and left the system.

That is one powerful god.

Needless to say, the rise of Mithra worship was underway — the worship of a god so big that he was outside the system. In the first century, the worship of Mithra was the fastest-growing religion of the Roman world (Christianity being the second). This belief was rocking the world as they knew it. What we understand today is that the earth has a  very slight wobble in its rotation that causes it to move in reference to the zodiac (or maybe vice versa?) every 2200 years or so. In just over one century, we will actually move into the house of Aquarius. They did not understand these scientific truths and instead assumed that “somebody” had changed the heavens.

This entire conversation is to say two things:

First, who are the magi who come to visit Jesus? My belief is that the magi are, in fact, Mithra priests from the region of Babylon. If this is the case, it would help explain why they knew WHEN and WHERE to come looking for Jesus. One of their very own prophets would have spoken about this many centuries before. Balaam, a Chaldean star-gazer, was once called in to prophesy against the children of Israel. Here is what he said:
“I see him, but not now;
    I behold him, but not near.
A star will come out of Jacob;
    a scepter will rise out of Israel.

He will crush the foreheads of Moab,
    the skulls of all the people of Sheth.
Edom will be conquered;
    Seir, his enemy, will be conquered,
    but Israel will grow strong.
A ruler will come out of Jacob
    and destroy the survivors of the city.”

You don’t suppose a few pagan priests would be willing to trust the Text, do you? Well, if they did, that Text led them to the birth of the Prince of Peace. This would sure fit the agenda of Matthew, an author who portrays the gospel of the outsiders and those who don’t belong. Attending the birth of the King of Kings will be a bunch of people who don’t belong.

Second, it is incredibly interesting to notice how Mark deals with his gospel in light of the fastest-growing religion of his day. Mark is the only gospel writer who states that at Jesus’s baptism, the heavens are torn open (versus simply being “opened”). His gospel will end with the tearing of the curtain. Now, the temple of Herod had two curtains; there was the famous curtain before the Holy of Holies and the curtain at the entrance to the Temple itself. This would be the only curtain a Roman audience would be familiar with. We know from Josephus that the front curtain had the zodiac on it.

That means Mark deliberately bookends the life and ministry of Jesus with the heavens being torn open. His message? You are now reading about a God that is so big he tore open the heavens and entered our world. He messed with the system and then left to return to His place outside the system.

Simply put, that’s awesome.

I continue to be amazed at what these gospel writers are able to do within their writings.


JOHN: Grafted

Most have presumed that the gospel of John is written as the latest of the gospel accounts, in an effort to help fill in all the gaps that the “synoptic” gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) missed. While I agree that the gospel of John is certainly written late, I do not believe that his intent was to help tell some of the lost stories of Jesus’s ministry. As the case has been for Matthew, Mark, and Luke, I believe the story is much deeper once we look at the audience of John.

As a matter of context, it’s helpful to know that John is often referred to in historical circles as “the pastor to Asia.” By “Asia,” they would be referring to the modern-day region of Turkey, what was known in the Greco-Roman world as Asia and Asia Minor. John was the pastor of Asia, and church tradition has John frequently traveling amongst the seven churches of Revelation (and there’s a good chance that he did). Church history, on the other hand, has him living at Ephesus and Sardis. John is a disciple who has taken his leadership into the Greco-Roman world and into the Judaism of the Diaspora (“Diaspora” refers to the dispersion of the Jews who went to live throughout the regions of Rome, Macedonia, Greece, Asia, and Asia Minor).

It would be too much to write about who John is and how his gospel works, but you could listen to my teaching of Luke and John here.

It will be enough to say that John’s gospel is a gospel of a grafted people. By grafted, I am referring to a Jesus community that consists of both Jews and Gentiles. This Jesus movement that spread through Asia and Asia Minor was a movement that invited all kinds of people to the table. This community consisted of committed Jews and passionate Gentiles. This means that John’s gospel would need to be written in such a way that it communicates the message of Good News to both groups simultaneously. John is known for many unique attributes. One example would be the “I am” statements.

I am the bread of life.
I am the Good Shepherd.
I am the light of the world.
I am the resurrection.
I am the way, the truth, and the life.

These statements can be found in Jewish teaching, predating the gospel of John, in reference to Torah. One of John’s main teaching points is that Jesus is Torah, wrapped in flesh. Any Jew who heard Jesus’s “I am” statements would hear in them a claim to be Torah. But what if a Greek heard these same teachings? They would be ignorant of the teachings of Torah and the traditions surrounding them. However, they too would have experiences that shine light on Jesus’s teachings. When Jesus claims to be the bread of life, they would hear the claim of Demeter, the goddess of provision — who also claimed to be the bread of life. They would hear Dionysius in Jesus’s claim to be the resurrection. Each of these teachings would carry incredible weight for a Gentile in the Roman world.

Ruins of the Temple of Demeter in Pergamum

Both groups would hear the same message: Jesus is what you’ve been chasing your whole life.

John writes his gospel in such a way that both groups hear the same message in two separate ways in the same Text — simultaneously.

It’s almost impossible to wrap your head around how an author is able to do that throughout an entire gospel. And this is a characteristic of John’s writing in his other books as well. John is a masterful cultural storyteller. John isn’t simply trying to “fill in the gaps” that the other gospels missed. John is trying to tell the stories of Jesus that relate to the culture he’s ministering to.

John is living in shephelah; and his gospel is a shephelah gospel.

John wants the world to know — the whole world, the world he’s living in — who this Jesus is and who He can be in their lives. He’s willing to take the life of Jesus and pick out the stories that help accomplish this purpose, and the stories which confront the Roman agenda in the clearest way, in order to reach his goal. As John will say in one of his letters:
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. We write this to make our joy complete.


LUKE: Ordered

The good doctor Luke is the one author of Scripture that we can say is a Gentile author. Actually, I’m not sure we can, since Luke would more than likely be a proselyte (a convert), converting to the Jewish faith before the introduction to the Gentiles. Everything about Luke’s account (predominantly from Acts) puts him as a fellow follower of the Way — a Jewish faith movement — and a working companion to the apostles.

Nevertheless, we can be fairly confident that Luke has Gentile roots and comes from pagan stock. In fact, some would say that if Luke is a doctor, then it would mean that he was trained in the worship of Asclepius, the Greek god of healing. We will talk more about this pagan belief later, but the Greco-Roman version of health care was seen in Asclepion worship; if this is the case, he has very pagan roots indeed.

Many have used Luke’s Gentile roots to make the case that Luke is trying to write a gospel that is more detail-oriented than his Jewish counterparts. We’ve talked before about how western Gentiles would be much more concerned with accuracy, details, and a literal rendering of the historical account. Many have proposed that Luke set out to do this very thing. The introduction to Luke’s gospel seems to point in this direction, as well:
Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.

It would appear that Luke is telling Theophilus that he is attempting to give an “orderly” and accurate account, so that he might know with certainty what happened. For many years, Textual critics maligned Luke for his inaccuracy, stating that too many details are off in his account of history. However, as the search through archaeology continues, we have often found Luke to be the most accurate in his accounts of history.

However, the translation of the Greek in this passage may be a bit more interpretive than we usually assume. There is a book written by M.D. Goulder called The Evangelist’s Calendar which proposes the gospel of Luke is written to accompany the weekly parashah readings in the synagogue. This would assume that the early church was indeed a Jewish movement and that they wanted to read about the life and teachings of Jesus as a part of their worship services. In this light, Luke would be writing his gospel to be separated into weekly readings, thus changing the purpose and design of his gospel — as well as its intent and agenda — entirely.

The Greek could literally be translated, “I too decided to write an ordered account for you…” The word in the Greek, if translated “ordered” (instead of “orderly”) would mean in order or sequenced. This would definitely fit a view of Luke being written as a lectionary accompaniment to the weekly parashah readings in the synagogue. This would also explain the discrepancies that we find in Luke’s account in reference to chronology (if Luke is trying to write an accurate account, why does it appear to be the least chronological?) and other small details.

Now, this is simply one of many theories, but Goulder is far more studied than I am on the matter, and I encourage you to read the book if you get the chance and can stomach scholarly writing. (The book is very hard to find and used copies can run hundreds of dollars.)

Nevertheless, it would be very safe to say that Luke is writing his gospel to be a gospel of order. Which order (orderly or sequenced)? We may never know. However, Luke is certainly not without his own literary genius and brilliant tools of written communication. In fact, the more I study Luke, the more that I find deeply seeded literary devices (chiasms, parallelism, etc.) and brilliant teaching points. One of Luke’s main agendas under the surface appears to be that Jesus is the second Moses.

Was Luke written to a Gentile? The name Theophilus (“Friend of God”) is a Greek one; but it is one that speaks of God. It could also be a code name for God’s people or a particular body of faith or a church. It could also be a Jewish name of a more Herodian bent.

Was Luke written to Jews? The theory of Goulder would point toward a Jewish audience, as would the theme of a second Moses and the presence of eastern literary tools.

At the end of the day, we may not have answers to the many questions that are raised, but the truth of the matter is that Luke provides us with one of the most thorough accounts of Jesus’s life, as well as one that differs from the two gospels that appear to have shared source information.


MARK: A Roman Gospel

Mark’s gospel ends up being significantly different than Matthew’s. The main difference between the two will be Mark’s audience. Whereas Matthew was a Jew writing to Jews, Mark will be a Jew who pens a gospel to the Roman culture. This will shape the message and agenda more than anything else.

The first thing that a reader notices about Mark is the pace.
Mark is much shorter and carries a much faster pace through the gospel. Romans are westerners who like to be entertained. They are not easterners who value a treasure hunt buried in the Text or an expectation that you would want to work through tough questions in order to unearth amazing truths. Romans want you to get to the point and tickle their fancy. And so Mark writes a gospel that is a fast-paced tale of all the things Jesus did. He bounces from story to story, keeping the characters moving and Jesus busy.

Mark also plays on the value system of the Roman culture. The Greco-Roman culture was built on four pillars of Hellenistic life: education, health care, entertainment, and competition. If you pay attention to the stories Mark chooses to tell and the way he chooses to tell them, you begin to notice that Jesus is being portrayed as quite the impressive character. He's a master teacher (education), an incredible healer of all kinds of conditions (health care), an entertainer of crowds who are constantly “amazed” (entertainment), and better than any other man being offered for consideration (competition).

I think there is a reason that many of us prefer the gospel of Mark. In short, we are Romans! We are westerners who are cut from the same cloth. It’s for the very same reasons we enjoy the shorter, faster, more entertaining gospel of Mark. But Mark has an agenda much deeper than simply entertaining his readers. And he starts to head down his main path as the gospel nears the end.

One of the many differences that you can find in the gospel of Mark appears to come during the telling of the crucifixion story. An astute Bible student may notice that in the gospel of Mark, Jesus is offered wine mixed with myrrh before He is on the cross; in every other gospel, He is offered vinegar mixed with gall, both before and on the cross. This seems like a minor detail (or a major one for biblical critics), but in fact, Mark is doing something much deeper under the surface. In order to explain this, I would like to describe the coronation of a Roman Caesar. (While I heard this teaching from Ray Vander Laan, the man who did the definitive work on this was the Oxford scholar Thomas E. Schmidt.)

We don’t have a comprehensive account of every coronation of a Caesar, but we do have a few. One of the best records we have is of the coronation of Emperor Nero. From the records that we do have, one could conclude that the typical coronation had nine steps:

1. The Praetorian Guard gathers to hail Caesar as lord and god.
2. Royal robes, a wreath crown, and a scepter are placed on Caesar.
3. They lead Caesar through a procession, lined with incense altars.
4. Caesar is followed by the sacrifice (a bull, in Nero’s case), and he carries the instrument of death.
5. They arrive at Capitoline Hill; Caesar is offered wine mixed with myrrh, but he refuses it, pouring it out.
6. The bull is killed; Caesar pronounced death or life on a host of prisoners, demonstrating that he has the power of life and death.
7. The emperor ascends the steps of the temple with the High Priest on his right and his commander on his left.
8. Caesar is acclaimed “lord and god” as people sing his praises.
9. They wait for a sign from the heavens (in Nero’s coronation, according to history, there was an eclipse).

If one takes this list and reads through Mark’s account of the crucifixion, they are stunned to find what Mark is doing. Take the list above, open your Bible to Mark 15, and connect them to the following passages:

1. 15:16
2. 15:17–18
3. 15:20
4. 15:21
5. 15:22–23
6. 15:24
7. 15:27
8. 15:29–32
9. 15:33

Mark tells the crucifixion as if it was Jesus’s coronation. Mark’s trying to make the case that Jesus’s crucifixion was not a moment of defeat — it was His greatest moment of triumph.

This is a stunning agenda to attempt to communicate to a bunch of Romans. Mark is essentially trying to tell them that the world they live in is completely backwards and upside down. He’s saying that the way of empire doesn’t actually bring true peace. That in weakness — in the laying down of His life — Jesus showed empire to be the farce that it is.

And then, there is the ending. If you look in your Bible, you will notice a note that says that Mark 16:9–20 is not in the earliest manuscripts. To be quite frank, I do not believe that Mark 16:9–20 should be in our inspired Text. I believe that the early Christians attempted to “clean up” the ending to Mark’s gospel and fix something that was never broken.

If you read Mark 16:8, you can see why they would think such things. Would Mark really end his gospel with women running away, trembling and afraid?

Of course he would.

Because any Roman who reads Mark’s gospel — and accepts it — is going to feel just like those women. If they affirm the truth that Jesus is a better king, their Roman life as they know it is over. They have much to fear. And so, much like the story of the prodigal son, Mark leaves the ending open-ended and unwritten, inviting the Roman readers to consider what they believe to be the truest true about the world and what brings real peace. This is our great challenge as “Roman” readers. Do we really want to choose the “triumph” of Jesus? It runs counter to everything that our worldview says is power. Yet Mark confronts our worldview and invites us to consider — as we possibly sit trembling and afraid of the implications — whether or not we’d like to believe this “gospel” of a better kingdom.


MATTHEW: The Mumzer

As we look at the gospels, there will be a set of questions that we will always ask when considering the context of that narrative. Who is the author? who does the author work with? who is the audience? and other questions will help us begin to approach each particular narrative with the appropriate posture of interpretation.

In short, Matthew is a Jewish author who happens to be writing for a Jewish audience. Much of my opinion about the gospel of Matthew will go against popular scholastic opinion, was inherited from my learning under Ray Vander Laan, and was shaped by listening to others teach on Matthew’s gospel. While I don’t believe this is nearly as important as we seem to make it, regarding the question of when each gospel was written (in terms of order), it is my personal opinion that Matthew was in fact written first. I also happen to believe that Matthew was originally penned in Hebrew. These are not the typical opinions. There is no external evidence to support the idea of a Hebrew version of Matthew, but there are many clues within the Text itself. I do not discredit all of the discussion about the source material “Q,” or even doubt its existence (in fact, I see that discussion as very fruitful), but I do see Matthew being the first record and Mark being penned later. This is neither here nor there for the purposes of this blog, so we’ll continue moving forward.

In order to understand the agenda that Matthew has behind writing his gospel, we need to look no further than the first chapter of his gospel. Bible students will immediately raise their eyebrows at that suggestion, as they remember that the first chapter of Matthew starts with a thorough genealogy. I believe this is one of the most intentional decisions made by Matthew in his gospel.

If a Jew were to read Matthew’s genealogy, they would quickly notice how odd the genealogy is. From a Jewish perspective, the genealogy is one of the worst ever recorded in biblical history. The passage is riddled with problems:

The passage contains multiple references to women. Women are not typically included in Jewish genealogies. The maternal lineage does not become important until later in history; the mention of fathers takes all priority. Women are not mentioned in a genealogy unless absolutely necessary.

The women Matthew mentions in Jesus’s genealogy are not women you would ever want to go out of your way to point out. Under normal circumstances, the author would work incredibly hard to bend the lineage around these stories and avoid bringing them up all together. Each of these women comes from a frustrating past, therefore marring the genealogy. Tamar slept with her father-in-law. Rahab was a prostitute. Ruth was a pagan, a Moabitess forbidden to enter the assembly of God. Bathsheba is part of the worst moment of King David’s life. The purpose of a genealogy is to prove the purity of a person’s pedigree. Why does Matthew deliberately go out of his way to mention these women?

If we consider for a moment who Matthew was and his background, it may shed some light on the agenda that lies behind his gospel.

Matthew was a tax collector. He was a traitor. He had turned his back on the people of God and agreed to work for Rome. If Matthew had any family to speak of in Galilee, he had turned his back on them and his faith community. Matthew was an outsider — a mumzer. (I use this term very loosely and poetically; the word in the Torah literally refers to a child of illegitimate birth — a “bastard,” without the derogatory stigma.) The day that Matthew was sitting at his collection booth and Jesus walked by, calling him to be a follower of a strictly-observant rabbi, must have been a stunning experience.

Somebody was giving the mumzer a second chance. Somebody had truly seen him and invited him into something amazing. The first act of Matthew is to throw a party and invite all of his “sinner” friends. This is a guy who is going to follow Jesus with a heart for the outsider.

So, when Matthew writes a gospel — the “good news” about a new King who is reigning — what is the thing that has always stuck out to him about Jesus? What is the thing that he wants all his Jewish readers to understand? What is his agenda?

I was always taught in Bible college that Matthew was written in order to prove that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah. I believe this is incorrect. If this is Matthew’s goal, then he fails miserably. Matthew is written to say this Jewish Messiah is one who sees the outsider. Jesus is one who welcomes the mumzer. And Matthew is going out of his way, not to prove the purity of the Messiah’s bloodline, but the messiness of it, because this is a Messiah who understands the messiness of life. When you read Matthew’s gospel, you begin to see “the one who doesn’t belong” on every page. It’s the leper. It’s the Roman. It’s the gentile woman. It’s the demoniacs in the Decapolis. It’s the blind men and the bleeding woman. It’s the unclean, the pagan outcast, the rejected, and the despised around every corner of Jesus’s ministry.

Matthew sees himself in the ministry of Jesus. Matthew’s story is his agenda.

Our God is the God who sees the one who doesn’t belong. Our God is the God who would be born of a questionable pedigree, just to prove that He’s not here for everyone who has it all together.

God is looking for mumzers.


Gospel Narrative

In the next few posts, I’d like to unpack a general overview of the gospel writers and what they are trying to accomplish with their four accounts. In order to do this, I will need to lay some ground work and address some assumptions made by many students of the Bible.

I will not be making an attempt to “harmonize” the gospels. These attempts end up being the right answer to the wrong question — which is really just a wrong answer. One of the first things we have to come to grips with is that the Bible is not a piece of western historical literature. The goal of biblical history is NOT to give an accurate, detailed description of events. Historical narrative — especially gospel narrative — is written to tell a compelling story with an agenda. Attempts to harmonize the gospels stem from this apologetic impulse to make sure all the details line up and the “accuracy” of the accounts is verified. Simply put, the gospel writers were not concerned with telling you how something happened, as much as telling you something about who Jesus is.

Each gospel writer has an agenda behind their gospel. Oftentimes, this agenda is driven by that writer’s audience. The writer is trying to convey convictions about the person of Jesus to a particular group of people as they tell the audience about the life of Christ. In the day of the gospels, it was perfectly acceptable to bend details in such a way as to make a deeper point about the story. Accuracy was not their main goal; the sooner we come to grips with that, the sooner we will appreciate the gospels for the inspired, authoritative works that they are.

“Gospel” is an ancient term that was used by the Greco-Roman world to announce that a new kingdom had arrived on the scene. The gospel (or euangelion in the Greek) was “good news” that a new ruler was here. Alexander the Great brought a gospel, the good news that the kingdom of Greece (and all it had to offer its citizens) was here. The kingdom of Rome burst onto the scene with a gospel of peace in Caesar Augustus. In fact, here is the translation of a plaque we found in Priene (an ancient city in modern-day Turkey) announcing the gospel of Augustus:

“Citizens of Priene: Since Divine Providence has brought to life the most perfect good in Augustus, whom she filled with virtues for the benefit of all mankind, bestowing on us Augustus Caesar as Savior of the World, for he has put an end to war and brought perfect peace. By the epiphany of his birth, he brought the gospel of peace to all mankind. For that reason, the Greeks of Asia have on this day declared that the New Year should begin from now on, on the 23rd of September, the day of the birth of this god. Never will another gospel surpass the gospel that was announced at his birth. He is not only Lord of the Empire, but Lord of the Earth and of the calendar and of time itself.”

The reader must understand when they read the “gospel of Mark” that they are reading a subversive piece of literature where Mark is claiming that he has good news that a new Kingdom is here. A new Prince of Peace is reigning and that all are being invited to recognize a better kingdom. These authors aren’t trying to just give an accurate record of history! They are trying to announce the coming of a better King in an artistic way.

After we address the four authors and what their agendas are, my plan is to walk through the life and ministry of Jesus. While most people would choose the gospel of Luke to do this, I will be using the gospel of Matthew as my original template. This does not mean I will always use the Matthew Text, as sometimes I will choose the way the passage is worded in another gospel. There will also be moments where I try to “harmonize” individual stories in order to address certain questions, but these moments will be few and far between. After Matthew, I will address a few of the stories within the gospel of John, all the while trying not to disturb the way in which I will attempt to address the book of Revelation later in our study.

To summarize, I believe it is incredibly important to learn how to hear each gospel within the context of the agenda of the author. The voice of Matthew needs to be heard as the voice of Matthew, and his gospel needs to be read and seen as a whole narrative, from beginning to end — with a purpose and a narrative arc and a point to be made. The same is true with Mark, Luke, and John. I will try to preserve those distinct voices in their diversity, not harmonize them together and ruin the voice in which the inspired Word is meant to be heard.

So, with nothing further to cover, let’s start with the gospel narrative of Matthew…


THE SILENT YEARS: Perfect Timing

We’ve looked at the five different responses within the first-century Jewish world to the problem of Hellenism and the Greco-Roman empire and influence. While we’ve touched on a few of the aspects of these different groups, I wanted to dedicate a post to reviewing and summarizing the different responses and how they will play into the cultural landscape of the gospel narratives and the stories of Jesus.

As I teach this material to my students, I often find there are universal experiences that demand very important observations. First, you will find yourself resonating with one of these groups. We have the same groups and responses at work today within the religious community; for certain, you can find Pharisees, Herodians, and even Essenes. That is actually very helpful to wrestle with. To understand oneself, to be able to objectively critique and evaluate your own experience, and to identify weaknesses and dangers in your daily walk is incredibly beneficial. So don’t resist or miss the opportunity to relate with the story. This, however, leads to another significant observation. This is NOT about figuring out which group was the most “correct” or the “right” group to belong to. To be sure:

Each group had its struggles. None of these groups had the methodology perfect; they all had an approach skewed by biases and misinterpretations. In short, on some level, each of these groups was wrong.

Each of these groups also brought something quite valuable to the table.
This will be hard for most of us to accept. Each of us will have a group that we will demonize and vilify and act as if there was no redeeming value to them; we will all talk as if the world would be better off without “that group.” (By the way, I have found this is often indicative of your own personal struggles; almost without fail, the group you hate the most is the one you struggle with becoming.) It is important to realize that each group offered something while struggling with something else.

With that being said, let’s take a moment to review the five groups and I’ll suggest what I believe to be the strengths and the weaknesses of each group. My language will certainly betray my own biases (as you can probably already tell from my writing, I identify most with the Essenes). But nevertheless, here goes nothing:

ZEALOTS — This group brought an incredible amount of passion and zeal to the table. This was their incredible strength, as it takes some chutzpah to actually get out and change the world — to go and DO something. The Zealots were nothing if not action-oriented. They put their money where their mouth was and aligned their behavior with their beliefs. Their obvious weakness would be their steadfast resolve to use redemptive violence, something that definitively goes against the teachings of Jesus. A Zealot would have been offended at the suggestion of Jesus to love his enemies; he had likely taken a vow to kill them. But Jesus saw their strengths and called a few Zealots to be his disciples; he saw the passion and zeal and knew that if he could just change the weapon in their hand and rewire their passionate hatred into zealous love and compassion, he’d be on to something.

PHARISEES — This group definitely gets the worst treatment in the gospels. Their negative side is in the open for all to see. Their self-righteous devotion to what they perceive as the correct path is what will keep the Kingdom from coming. Jesus was ruthless against their weaknesses, frequently telling them that the sinners (the people the Pharisees blamed for the world’s ills) were entering the Kingdom ahead of them, while their own piety was blinding them to seeing things through God’s eyes. However, they were incredibly devoted to the path of God and living a life that was set apart. Jesus exhorted His followers to do what the Pharisees say, just not what they do. They had the truth correct, but they had forgotten about loving others and chasing after the marginalized. If the Pharisees would keep their rugged devotion to obedience and not let it get in the way of truly seeing and loving people, they would be a formidable force for the Kingdom. But self-righteousness is so hard to overcome; it makes the victim blind to God’s peace

SADDUCEES — To be sure, the Sadducees had been called to their role by God Himself. This is their strength. They have a role that is appointed, commissioned, and ordained by God to help the people in their relationship with God (you may recognize the roles of the priest here). However, having spiritual power is incredibly dangerous and difficult to carry well. Many of us in today’s church culture can relate with abused religious leadership. And far too many of us have given up on religious leadership and have judged anyone who carries a title guilty until proven innocent. This is a tragedy for both parties. We need people to be called to the God-ordained offices of church leadership and they need to carry that responsibility with integrity. But we also need to respect our leaders, allowing them to be human, encouraging them to fulfill their duties as God intended.

HERODIANS — This may not be something that we want to hear, but most of us are Herodians. We wouldn’t last a day in the life of the Hasidim in the Galilee. Take away our running water, air conditioning, and smartphones, and we’d be crying uncle by lunchtime. We have convinced ourselves that we can live in the Hellenistic world that is American consumerism and serve God at the same time. We do not see our consumption as idolatry. And we may be right, but that is the danger and the weakness of the Herodian. They had exchanged the “set apart” life of the Pharisees for the comforts of the world. However, the positive of the Herodians is that they are perfectly placed for God’s mission. If they will snap out of their idolatrous slumber, they find that they are sitting right at the crossroads of the earth, perfectly placed to impact a world that’s buying into the wrong message and the wrong kingdom.

ESSENES — The positive of the Essenes is their passionate commitment to know the path of God and walk it. They had all the zeal of the Zealot, the devotion of a Pharisee, the calling of a Sadducee, and they hadn’t forgotten generosity, hospitality, and love to the outsider. But it didn’t matter. They ran off into the desert and separated themselves so much from the culture that they weren’t ministering to the people God so desperately wanted to rescue. This may sound very familiar to our discussion about shephelah. Please notice that over 2,000 years later, the wrestling matches haven’t changed one bit.

It’s very important to point out that Jesus calls all of these guys into His havurah (group of disciples). He calls at least two Zealots (Simon and Judas), five boys from Pharisee-ville (Peter, Andrew, James, John, and Philip), two Herodians (Matthew and Thaddeus, whose Greek name gives him away, specifically), and He is influenced and trained by an Essene (more on this later). There also appears to be connections to priestly families spread throughout, as well (you may remember Jesus’s uncle is a righteous priest named Zechariah). Jesus calls these guys together and tells them to get along! Can you now appreciate why they are always arguing about who’s the greatest? They aren’t taking about personal greatness; they’re arguing about worldviews. Every conversation that comes up is going to be divided amongst themselves; Simon is never going to read the Scripture in the same way as Thaddeus — they can hardly stand being in the same room!

One final point: Galatians 4:4 tells us God sent Jesus at just the right time. When all the pieces were in place, Jesus showed up. That means that there could not have been a more perfect time for Jesus to come than when He did. So why did God wrap Himself in flesh and enter the story when He did? There must have been something about this newfound love for the Text and how it was interacting with culture. The different responses amongst God’s people must have set a stage that God wanted to crash and fill with His truth.

What will we find as God comes and walks among us?