Religion Today

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Jesus the Healing Prophet

The Gospels associate many different identities with Jesus. In some places, he is presented as a messiah. Pilate crucifies him as a king. Both angels and demons recognize him as the Son of God. He refers to himself, frequently, as the son of man. The people see him as a prophet and debate whether he is Elijah, Jeremiah, or the prophet like Moses. As the early Christian Church loses its Jewish character and becomes more Greek, because the number of Greek converts quickly outnumber Jews, it loses the separate nature of these titles and mixes them together within Jesus’ identity as messiah.

But if we want to understand the impact that Jesus had on the Galileans and other Jews who first followed him, we need to separate these out. The first thing that becomes clear is that Jesus tried to hide some of these identifications. The Gospels present Jesus as trying to limit discussions about his character as the messiah or the Son of God to the disciples. When the demons identify him as such, he shuts them up. When a crowd member links him to God or calls him the messiah (or the Christ, its Greek term), Jesus asks them not to tell anyone.

In the Gospels, Jesus public persona seems to be that of a prophet. When he asks his disciples, “Who do people say I am?” they reply that the people are talking about him as a prophet. In Luke 9 and Matthew 16, they report how the people speculate which prophet he may be, perhaps Elijah, one of the prophets of old, or even John the Baptist. From the Gospels’ perspective, John was a prophet. Even though John himself denied it (John 1), angels (Luke 1) and Jesus (Matthew 11) both insist on it.

Jesus himself seems comfortable with a public identity as a prophet. He even encourages it. In Luke 4, when Jesus appears in the synagogue at Nazareth, he reads Isaiah 61 which describes the mission of the prophet Isaiah. He then sits down and claims that prophetic identity for himself. The worshippers in the synagogue at first accept this, for they “spoke well of him.” But then he goads his listeners and says “no prophet is acceptable in his own country.” They then become angry and attempt to throw him off a cliff. In terms of the Gospel story, this rejection actually strengthens Jesus claim to be a prophet.

But what is Jesus’ own perception of himself as a prophet? What does he think it means for him to be one? In Luke 4, Jesus indicates his models, Elijah and Elisha. This is interesting, for in identifying these two, Jesus passes up the prophets famous for their great oracles and predictions, like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Zechariah, and Malachi. Instead he focuses on two prophets who are more important for their deeds than their words. Jesus emphasizes this distinction when he describes the two prophets. Elijah was sent to a widow in Sidon during a famine. And there he raised the widow’s son from death. Elisha, Jesus says, healed a Syrian leader of leprosy.

Interestingly, Jesus performs these actions himself. His healing of people ill with leprosy and other diseases is well known. Many Gospel readers can recall the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, but he raised two other people from death as well: a young man (Luke 7) and a young girl (Luke 8). Thus, in his own view, Jesus acts like a prophet when he heals people and raises the dead. He is then following in the footsteps of Elijah and Elisha. He does not see his preaching and his message as indicating his prophetic nature. It is his healings and his miracles that reveal his prophetic character.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Jesus the Sailor

There are several locations which Christians immediately associate with the life of Jesus. There is Bethlehem, in Judea, where Jesus was born; Nazareth, in Galilee, where he grew up; and Jerusalem, where he was crucified. These are the places where Jesus began and ended his life. But the places of where Jesus carried out his ministry are less familiar.

The most frequently mentioned town and perhaps the most memorable is Capernaum. Jesus seems to have made his ministry’s headquarters there, at the home of Simon Peter’s mother-in-law. Not only does Jesus return again and again, but when the gospels of Mark and Luke say Jesus “returned to his hometown,” they usually mean Capernaum rather than Nazareth.

It should then not be surprising that many of the other named locations of his ministry are near Capernaum, such as Ginnesar, Chorazin, Bethsaida and Gergesa. These are the most frequently mentioned places in Matthew, Mark and Luke, and most of Jesus’s ministry takes place in and around them.

These towns bring out another observation about Jesus’ ministry. It took place around the Sea of Galilee. Several other events, such as Jesus driving out demons or preaching to large crowds, take place at unnamed locations “in the wilderness” on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. At another point Jesus takes a trip into the “cities of the Decapolis,” a region on the southeast shore of the Sea of Galilee.

All this points to a single conclusion. For most of his ministry, Jesus based himself on the Sea of Galilee and used it as a means of transportation. This shows that Jesus took advantage of the fastest mode of transportation in the ancient world, the sailboat. Neither walking nor riding on donkeys or camels could match the speed or the comfort of moving about on the water. By sailing, Jesus could cover the most “ground” in the least amount of time.

While Capernaum and the Sea of Galilee was a good transportation choice for Jesus’ activities, it raises the question, what was Jesus doing so far from home? In the ancient world, few people ever traveled more than a day’s walk, about 15 miles, from the place where they were born. After all, their entire family, the family land, as well as their livelihood and responsibilities were all right there. To leave familial territory was to cut off contact with one’s family, for there were no means of communication. Few people could read or write a letter, but even if they could, there was no postal service. And of course the telephone and email were millenia in the future. So what was Jesus doing a two-day journey, some 30 miles by road, away from his home in Nazareth!

Most of the gospels ignore this question, but Luke addresses it head-on. In Luke’s story, once John the Baptist baptised Jesus, Jesus fasted for forty days in the wilderness. Jesus then returned to Nazareth, where in the synagogue, he claimed to be the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy of being God’s chosen messenger. This bold claim was seen by the villagers as blasphemy and they attempted to carry the appropriate punishment for this sin, death. They could only see him as Joseph’s son, who had grown up among them, rather than a prophet. Jesus escaped from them and left the area. According to Luke, Jesus then proceeded directly to Capernaum to begin his ministry around the Sea of Galilee.

So Jesus picked the best location in Galilee for his ministry, the transportation center of the Sea of Galilee. In doing so he left his home region behind. But he was pushed out by the inability of those with whom he had grown up to grasp his new role.