“Idle fancy and historical imagination”

Jan 16 2021

Gospel Scholar Vincent Taylor once wrote, “It goes without saying that in any recreation of the past much has to be supplied by the imagination; but there is all the difference in the world between idle fancy and the historical imagination controlled by facts which have been patiently investigated.”+

The SpendaYearwithJesus story is the result of ten years of patient investigation.

If the details of the Gospel accounts are to be accounted for on first-century terms (and in light of pre-Pentecost realities), then economic, geographical, and relational implications may be played out in narrative form. SpendaYearwithJesus is exactly this sort of play–one which emerges out of the historical realities of the available details.

+ Vincent Tayler, The Formation of the Gospel Tradition (London: MacMillan, 1933), 168.

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3 kinds of travel with Jesus

Jan 12 2021

Jesus walked and walked and walked. Traveling was a major part of Jesus’ experience.

First, there was feast travel. At an early age, Jesus traveled to Jerusalem with his father Joseph (Lk 2:41). And since Jesus kept the Mosaic Law, he made three trips a year (Ex. 23:17) to Jerusalem for more than a decade before he started preaching. The trip to Jerusalem was a common travel scenario for the people Jesus lived among.

Teaching tours. The Gospel of Luke describes how Jesus went from village to village in Galilee preaching about the kingdom of God. Luke also mentions that the 12 disciples as well as some women went with Jesus (8:1-3). The region of Galilee must have accommodated co-ed travelers, meaning that necessities such as safe roads and separate quarters were available.

Withdrawals. During the summer of Jesus’ last year, he went to Tyre and Sidon and then to the Decapolis both outside Galilee. After the Feast of Dedication in the winter, Jesus went to the remote place where John had baptized years before (John 10:40). Later that last winter, Jesus and his disciples withdrew to a wilderness border town called Ephraim (John 11:54) where no one found him until he re-emerged traveling to Jerusalem for the Passover and Feast of Unleavened Bread.

In all of this travel, Jesus used that most humble and human form of transportation, his own two feet.

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How to respond to rejection and hostility

Jan 05 2021

Jesus’ experience included a series of withdrawals his last year. During the summer months, he traveled in and out of Galilee. During the winter, he visited Jerusalem and withdrew multiple times.

This pattern of engagement and withdrawal points to the mounting tension between Jesus and the religious authorities.

The perception of Jesus as a dynamic, likable teacher-leader is true enough. But often in our focus on Jesus, we ignore the feelings of all of the other dynamic leaders around him who were competing for public interest, let alone those who were attempting to preserve the power they had already attained.

The leaders in Nazareth and Capernaum and other towns in Galilee turned against Jesus. Not long afterwards in Jerusalem at the Feast of Huts, the religious leaders sent the temple guards to arrest him. And a few months later, on Jesus’ next feast-visit to Jerusalem, some of his listeners/competitors intended once again to seize him.

Jesus lived in this mounting tension of rejection and hostility for months. Yet he never lost his nerve or his focus.

If we tell the story overlooking this tension, we do it not because the circumstances demand it, but because we are so overawed by Jesus’ calm in the face of unrelenting opposition.

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Did Jesus say … “You are gods”?

Dec 24 2020

Timing is everything.

It was the Feast of Dedication. As the people engaged Jesus in a heated argument over his identity, Jesus quoted a song. Today, we read about the exchange in John 10:22-42, but we hardly know the song.

What Jesus said was, “Is it not written in your Law, ‘I have said you are gods’?” (10:34). The people revolted against Jesus’ title “Son of God,” so Jesus invoked the authority of the Hebrew Scripture and Psalm 82 to validate the designation.

The problem is the next few lines in the song (which to most readers today are unfamiliar) — “But you will die like men and fall like one of the rulers” (Ps 82:7). The Psalm itself is about God judging injustice! Was Jesus trying to enrage his listeners?

But it gets even more interesting because there is a reference in the Mishnah to the songs that the Levites sang in the temple corresponding to the days of the week (m. Tamid 7.4).** On the third day of the week (Tuesday), guess what they sang? Psalm 82!

This song, Psalm 82, was well-known in Jesus’ experience. His words cut like a knife. And the attendees of the Feast of Dedication, the people in the temple court, mobbed to grab him.

** Jacob Neusner, The Mishnah : A New Translation (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1988), 873.

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The difference between good and bad shepherds

Dec 22 2020

The “good shepherd” is an important leadership image from Jesus’ experience. Jesus referred to the metaphor during the Feast of Dedication when the nation celebrated political independence.

The national significance of the shepherd image originates from the Hebrew Scripture in the writings of the prophet Ezekiel, among others.

Ezekiel described how bad shepherds feed themselves and ignore the needs of the sheep. They fleece their followers for wool, and kill them for meat. Strays are abandoned (Ezek 34:1-6).

At the Feast of Dedication, Jesus suggested that he stood (right there in the temple courts) as the antithesis of Ezekiel’s scathing metaphor. Jesus was the “good shepherd” (John 10:14).

One can imagine the reaction of the religious authorities. They wanted to finish what they had started at the Feast of Huts, but once again, Jesus retreats.

In the previous posts, we looked at Jerusalem’s resilient leaders and the preservation they achieved for their nation. The religious leaders of Jesus’ day were part of that tradition.

So was Jesus trying to pick a fight with people in power?

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Extreme preservation from national threats, even Alexander the Great

Dec 17 2020

As Jesus’ story continues, the plot thickens. On one side, the religious leaders’ work to preserve their nation. On the opposing side, the unpredictable popularity of an obscure teacher threatens the status quo.

The leaders in Jerusalem had a great heritage of national preservation. Their ancestors had survived invasions by the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, the Egyptians, and the Syrians.

Josephus, the Jewish historian from the latter half of the first century, relates in detail the miraculous delivery of Jerusalem from Alexander the Great.

As Alexander approached the city, the high priest Jaddua dreamed instructions from God to go out and meet the conqueror (Ant 11.326ff. **). When Alexander saw the procession, he greeted Jaddua peacefully. For Alexander, too, had seen a vision of the scene many years before (Ant 11.331ff.).

After Alexander entered the city, the priests showed him the scroll of Daniel (possibly  Dan. 7:6; 8:3–8, 20–22; or 11:3). Josephus writes, “Wherein Daniel declared that one of the Greeks should destroy the empire of the Persians, he supposed that [he] was the person intended.” (Ant 11.337)

National preservation and national participation in the Law converged in the next scene. When Alexander asked how he might favor the people, Jaddua replied that they wished to follow the Mosaic law, the people in Jerusalem as well as those scattered among the nations.

Jesus collided with Jerusalem leaders committed to political and legal preservation within a world of foreign dominance. And as Jesus’ last year passed, it was becoming clearer to the authorities that Jesus threatened the gentle balance of peace.

** Flavius Josephus, The Works of Josephus: Complete and Unabridged ed. and trans. by William Whiston (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1987).


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A once-in-a-millennium opportunity

Dec 15 2020

Around 200 years before Jesus’ last year, Judas Maccabees led his army into Jerusalem liberating the city from foreign invaders.

1 Maccabees 4:36-61 tells the story of the rededication of the temple — later called the Feast of Dedication and now known as Hanukkah. Judas and the people celebrated for eight days beginning on the 25th day of the 9th month Kislev.

During the two centuries from Judas Maccabees to Jesus’ day, the temple feasts grew in national significance and participation. A major part of Jesus’ experience was the calendar of holy days and feasts reinstituted from the Law of Moses. In fact, the Gospel of John tells of Jesus’ travels to the feasts in Jerusalem including the Feast of Dedication (John 10:22).

The irony is that in the previous 1,000 years, the nation had inconsistent feast celebrations and participation at best. Kings David, Solomon (2 Chron 5:3), Hezekiah (30:1), and Josiah (35:1) as well as reformers Ezra and Nehemiah (Neh. 8:18) led efforts to revive the instructions of Moses including the celebration of the Feasts — during their lifetimes.

In the first century, the Mosaic Law was definitive not only for Jesus personally but also for the nation around him and not just a few devout leaders.

One of the major statements of Jesus’ teaching was that he came to fulfill the Law. Jesus could not fulfill the Law without the celebrations of his nation. When Jesus entered the scene, the stage had already been set starting centuries before his birth.

His was a once-in-a-millennium opportunity.

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Becoming a friend with Jesus

Dec 10 2020

“Your dear friend is sick” (John 11:3). Jesus received this message from Mary and Martha concerning their brother, Lazarus.

Two words caught my attention — “dear friend” (ὃν φιλεῖς: often translated word-for-word from the Greek as “the one you love”). Jesus dropped what he was doing and willingly put himself in danger to help his friend.

The issue here is a question of friendship formation. How many people can interrupt your life? Of those, who will you face danger to help? Frankly, there probably are not that many people. And that depth of friendship generally takes years to develop.

The Gospel of John does not develop Jesus’ friendship with Lazarus. We are simply given this introductory statement and then a story that serves as a plot turning point in the Gospel. What we know is that Jesus was willing to be interrupted and face danger for his friend.

So how does one become a dear friend? Human friendships develop around shared space, shared time, shared interests, and shared respect. Proximity of space and time alone, however, does not create deeper connections.

So what were Jesus’ and Lazarus’ shared interests and shared respect as well as their shared time and space? The SpendaYearwithJesus storyline suggests an activity.

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3 things you should know about vines (Jn 15)

Nov 24 2020

Jesus told his closest followers, “I am the vine, you are the branches” (Jn 15:5) He talks about pruning as well. The metaphor rises and falls on our knowledge of growing and tending vines.

Here are three things to keep in mind from Pliny the Elder’s Natural History written in the first-century.

  • Vines require space but not too much space.

The space between every two vines in a soil of medium density should be 5 feet, in a rich soil 4 feet at least, and in a thin soil 8 feet at most. (Pliny the Elder, Natural History 17.35.171)

  • Vines are pruned and pruned again. And the pruning is drastic.

A quickset (a cutting of the vine) placed in a vineyard after two years is cut back right down to the ground, leaving only one eye above the surface. . . . In the following year also it is again lopped in a similar way, and it acquires and fosters within it sufficient strength to bear the burden of reproduction (italics added, 17.35.173).

  • There is a big difference between growth and bearing fruit.

…in its hurry to bear fruit [the vine] would shoot up slim and meagre like a bulrush and unless it were restrained with the pruning described would spend itself entirely on growth. No tree sprouts more eagerly than the vine, and unless its strength is kept for bearing, it turns entirely into growth (17.35.173).

Jesus was a carpenter by trade, but he knew something about vines in order to craft such a rich metaphor.

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Cross-Branding Jesus, Part 2

Nov 19 2020

I suppose we could say that Jesus and super-heroes have some things in common. They help people. They have supernatural powers. They uphold truth and justice. They are somewhat misunderstood by those around them.

On the one hand, there is enough information in the Biblical Gospels to give us a pretty good idea of who Jesus was. On the other hand, the writers leave out or assume a considerable amount of day-to-day detail in Jesus’ experience.

As readers, we supply day-to-day attitudes and actions from our experience and from virtual options like comic books and movies. So Superman flies, and Jesus walks on water. Inevitably, we develop a storyline around Jesus from our cultural expectations.

But there is a disconnect. In Superman’s story, he made headlines all over the world for his exploits. Somehow, Jesus, in spite of his miracles, was relatively unknown in the wider world. For some centuries, detractors wondered if Jesus existed at all.

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