Saturday, July 12, 2008

Chapter 5 - Born Again

Sometime during the fifteenth year of Tiberius (possibly as early as autumn 26 CE, but not later than the summer of 29 CE), when Pontius Pilate served as procurator of Judaea, a prophetic figure named John the Baptist came forward from the wilderness beyond the Jordan and preached baptism for the remission of sins. John, most likely, had been born a good thirty years earlier during the reign of Herod the Great. Reports[1] tell how his father, Zacharias, was killed by Herod's soldiers while performing his priestly duties in the Temple at Jerusalem, because he had refused to reveal the whereabouts of his newborn son. These same reports tell how Elizabeth, with the assistance of an angel, fled into the wilderness. Elizabeth and the infant may have been granted refuge by members of a group called the "Essenes" who lived in monastic type communities near the Dead Sea. The Essenes were known to accept widows and orphans into their community. In any event, John grew to manhood in the wilderness.

John is reported to have begun his public cry for repentance and baptism on the banks of the Jordan River. Many people believed that John was ushering in a new era of salvation, which would restore Israel to a position of stature among the nations of the world. Some people saw John in the light of a revivified Elijah - - one who had returned with heavenly powers to address the needs of the people. He performed a ritual of baptism for those who were properly prepared to enter this new kingdom, and he challenged his audience to treat one another with fairness.

Jesus described John's reputation with words such as these: "What went ye out into the wilderness to see? [Zealot] cane-spears thrashing in the wind? Or did you go out to see something else, a royal manikin flattered by fancy notions? Surely one suited with fancy notions is seen posing on a palace tower. What then did you go out for, to see a prophet? Yes I tell you, and much more than a prophet. He it is of whom it was stated, 'See, I will send my messenger before you, to pave the way for you.' I tell you truth among all those woman born [i.e. born in Virgo], there has never arisen a greater [herald of the dawn] than John the Baptist, yet even the lowest in the kingdom of heaven ranks higher than he [who parades about on the highest pinnacle]. From the [first] days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven is besieged, and the violent [both Zealot and Herodian] take it by force; for all the Prophets (Nevi'im) and the Law (Torah) prophesied until John, and if you are willing to accept this - he is Elijah, who has come forth."[2]

It therefore should come as no surprise to learn that Jesus in his turn sought out John for his special baptism. Eusebius, an historian of the early Christian church, takes this to be the fifteenth year of Tiberius, but we are not told by Luke's gospel of just how long John had been preaching when Jesus came to be baptized. Several years may have lapsed from the time John started preaching in the wilderness to the time when John baptized Jesus. Elsewhere, Eusebius does actually confirm this to be the case. In the chapter dealing with "The Order of the Gospels" Eusebius writes, "The three [synoptic] gospels previously written [ahead of the fourth gospel] having been distributed among all, and handed to him [that is John, author of the fourth gospel], they say that he admitted them, giving his testimony to their truth; but that there was only wanting in the narrative the account of the things done by Christ, among the first of his deeds, and at the commencement of the gospel. And this was the truth. For it is evident that the other three evangelists only wrote the deeds of our Lord for one year after the imprisonment of John the Baptist, and intimated this in the very beginning of their history. For after fasting of forty days, and the consequent temptation, Matthew indeed specifies the time of his history, in these words: 'But hearing that John was delivered up, he returned from Judaea into Galilee.' Mark in like manner writes: But after John was delivered up, Jesus came into Galilee!' And Luke, before he commenced the deeds of Jesus, in much the same way designates the time saying, 'Herod thus added, yet this wickedness above all he had committed, and that he shut up John in prison.' For these reasons the Apostle John, it is said, being entreated to undertake it, wrote the account of the time not recorded by the former evangelists, and the deeds done by our Savior, which they have passed by, (for these were the events that occurred before the imprisonment of John,) and this very fact is intimated by him, when he says, 'this is the beginning of miracles Jesus made:' and then proceeds to make mention of the Baptist, in the midst of our Lord's deeds, as John was at that time 'baptizing at Aenon near Salim.' He plainly also shows this in the words: 'John was not yet cast into prison.' The apostle [John], therefore, in his gospel, gives the deeds of Jesus before the Baptist was cast into prison, but the other three evangelists mention the circumstances after that event. One who attends to these circumstances, can no longer entertain the opinion that the gospels are at variance with each other, as the gospel of John comprehends the first events of Christ, but the others, the history that took place at the latter part of the time."[3]

In light of Eusebius' explanation of how the gospels relate to one another, we really only know that a period spanning several pilgrim festivals had lapsed from the opening of the fourth gospel until sometime later when Jesus "began to be about thirty years of age" and approached John for baptism. One can therefore place the following references found in the fourth gospel such as: John's recognition of Jesus as "the Lamb of God," the marriage feast at Cana, the first "cleansing of the temple" (at Passover in the fourth year of a weekly span of seven years[4]), the stated allusion to the 46th year into the era of temple reconstruction (as counted by the then current Jubilee), and the interval when both John and the disciples of Jesus both baptized in the same area; all as occurrences which took place before the year of John's imprisonment. It is, therefore, not unreasonable to mark the calendar year for the baptism of Jesus as overlapping or occurring soon after the twentieth year of Tiberius, which we will take as 34 C.E. If Jesus had seen this occasion as a time of rebirth, then he may have chosen a time, which marked the anniversary of his birth. Those who recorded the event tell how a heavenly voice acknowledged Jesus as a "beloved son" at the time of his reemergence from the water.

As soon as Jesus came forth out of the water, he immediately sought the solitude of the wilderness as if he should once more separate himself from the community as occurred at the time of his infant birth. Near the conclusion of this period, an adversarial figure represented as Satan confronted Jesus with a final trial of worthiness. Identification of Satan, or the forces of Satan varies among people from one culture to another. There is no doubt that during the period of Roman rule, the people of Jewish Palestine, who suffered under the imperial Roman yoke, personified Rome as the �Evil One.� If we take this perspective, then the episode describing the three temptations can be viewed as a confrontation between Roman values and the values suitable to the kingdom of Heaven.

Satan's first temptation challenged Jesus to "turn this stone to bread." The Roman world knew how to turn stone (that is, either stone, or concrete) into bread. Roman engineering had produced stone-arched viaducts to route water from distant mountain streams to irrigate fields of grain. Stone-lined underground silos permitted the timely storage of grain. Stone-paved roadways and stone-sheltered harbors enabled shipment of grain to many destinations. And finally, the miller's stone literally turned grain into the essential ingredient for bread. All of these commercial uses of stone allowed Rome to build up an extensive economy based upon a program of "bread and circus."

Jesus was well aware of the biblical injunction, "In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread," but he chose to answer "It is written, That a man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word of God." The reply acknowledges man's need for bread, but challenged the circus, Rome's ancillary companion to bread, where man competed against man or animal for sport and sometimes just for the sake of cruelty. In contrast, Jewish biblical culture required studious attention to God's word during holy sabbath periods when their hands were freed from their daily toil. No aspect of the Roman circus fit within the life of a pious Jew. Furthermore, those who honored the sabbath were promised an adequate supply of bread to sustain their daily needs during the required time of rest.

Satan then showed Jesus the kingdoms of the world. The Roman empire must have naturally captured center stage in Satan's world picture. Satan's injunction, "If thou shall worship me, all [Roman wealth, power, and prestige] shall be thine," is simply a repetition of the Roman decree calling for worship of the ruling Roman emperor. Where foreign nations turned their rulers into their gods so as to be favored with their benevolence, Jewish tradition turned their transcendental God into their supreme ruler, so that even their appointed kings were subject to God's rule. The Maccabean uprising against the Greek Seleucid rulers, and the attempted revolt by the Zealots at the time of the first Roman Census in Judaea, subscribed to the edict, "No ruler but God."

Jesus responded to Satan for the second time with the biblical injunction, "It is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him alone shalt thou serve." Allegiance to Rome meant at least the inclusion of a deified Roman ruler into a pantheon of gods who were worshipped at the local level. The Jewish scriptures did not allow any such acknowledgment. Sacrifices and prayers could be offered for the well being of Rome and its ruler, but Rome invariably either invited or demanded greater subservience. The temple at Jerusalem reminded the Jewish people both in Judaea and the Diaspora that they worshipped a singular God, who governed their destiny. But most importantly the sabbath, a temporal institution representing God's kingdom on earth, invariably infringed upon Roman imperial designs. Allegiance to God and proper reverence toward the sabbath were the only prescribed safeguards for the inhabitants of God's land. The message behind the second reply indicated that the satanic Roman world had nothing to offer those who sought after the kingdom of heaven.

Satan at last conveyed Jesus to a pinnacle on the temple, and there challenged Jesus to throw himself forward for the purpose of revealing whether he was truly the Son of God. Satan taunted, "... it is written, He shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee: And in their hands they shall bear thee up, lest at any time thou dash thy foot against a stone." Roman strength was based upon a general's ability to instantly demand the loyalty of his troops to achieve a specific military objective or to conquer an enemy force. This meant that action was driven by individual initiative, and not irreconcilably blocked by phases of the moon, seasons of the year, or heavenly cycles. In Roman eyes, a man of divine power or a supreme commander did not ultimately wait for a time when one of the gods was willing to give his approval.

The people of Israel synchronized their messianic hopes for redemption according to the seventy week of years outlined in the Book of Daniel. In Jewish tradition, God was the sole person who governed the timing of earthly events. Many Jewish zealots anticipated an immediate display of heavenly power at this particular time. A jubilee of heavenly days had past since the rise of the Macabbean revolt, and a week of heavenly days had past since the uprising caused by the Roman census. Roman officials took special precautions to offset any such reoccurring radical movement. If the time were right for Jesus to show himself, then he knew the situation would follow of its own accord. God, and only God, would reveal the moment when the messiah could reveal himself. Jesus therefore replied, "It is said, Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God."

The interview concluded with this final response. Satan's person departed with the realization that Jesus held those views, which were essentially alien to the Roman world. The Roman way respected a man who conditioned his body for combat in the circus or the battlefield, and couldn't understand why a person would engage in fasting or personal isolation from the community. The measure of a Roman individual was the extent of his power, wealth, and evident glory, and not his deference towards an unseen and iconoclastic god as shown by those who followed God's written word. The self-proclaimed achievement of the Roman world was not only the subjugation of other nations, but also its subjugation of time to conform to the dictates of the Emperor. The bureaucratic demands of the empire required Rome to both homogenize time into uniform units and determine the proper schedule for affairs of state, instead of conforming to a progression of mystical signals from heaven as Jesus seemed prepared to do.

At about this time when Jesus had been engaged by Satan in the wilderness, John the Baptist was arrested by the tetrarch Herod Antipas and taken prisoner to the desert fortress of Machaerus in Perea, just east of the Dead Sea. John had become an obstacle standing in the way of Herod's political venue. The death of his half-brother Herod Philip, Tetrarch of Trans-Jordan, provided Herod Antipas with an excellent opportunity to annex Philip's territory and position himself to be reinstated as sole ruler for all of Judaea. Antipas sought out a marital relationship, which would place him in closer touch with Roman politics. The sequence of events can be laid out with the aid of Josephus. Antipas accomplished his purpose during a visit to Rome by arranging a marriage to Herodias, an Hasmonean daughter. She had many influential contacts in Roman circles. Herodias, then married, chose to end the relationship with her husband, another Herodian.

Problems loomed ahead, because Herod Antipas was already married to a woman who wouldn't allow another woman to replace her position next to Antipas. This wife was the daughter to an Arabian monarch named King Aretas. The marriage had been originally forged to ensure peace between two sometimes-hostile neighbors. It therefore comes as no surprise that as soon as the Arabian princess discovered the planned wedding between Antipas and Herodias, she secretly escaped to her father's country. The daughter of King Aretas feared for her personal well-being. By escaping to safety, she not only protected herself, but she also prevented Antipas from holding her as a political hostage. When King Aretas discovered the affair, the political marriage fell apart. Old hostilities resurfaced and the outrage eventually rekindled open hostilities.

Herod Antipas imprisoned John the Baptist for several reasons. Foremost, John had stimulated messianic fervor among the people, which by itself could cause civil unrest. The upcoming sabbatical season was still another cause for anxiety. Antipas could not tolerate any domestic disturbances while attempting to prepare for a possible conflict with King Aretas. He, consequently, held John hostage to keep his followers peaceful. In addition, John had more than likely assumed the role of admonishing Antipas for his religious laxity much in the same manner as the ancient prophet Elijah had chastised King Ahab in his day. It is very likely that John's criticism focused on the neglected levirate duty due a deceased brother, who had died without leaving a male heir. Philip the Tetrarch had been a moderate ruler, and there must have been a good deal of concern over the possibility of having Philip's territory fall to Antipas. The proper course for Antipas, according to Jewish scripture, mandated that he take the widow of his deceased brother in marriage to raise a child in his brother's stead. In this way, a legitimate posterity would be able to inherit Philip's territory. Herod Antipas chose otherwise. He preferred to risk an untimely war with King Aretas for the sake of acquiring his deceased brother's territory rather than respect the Sabbatical year or honor his religious duty.

Herodias was driven by the need for power. She saw a living John the Baptist as a liability and sealed John's fate by having her daughter Salome request the head of John the Baptist as a reward for Salome's captivating dance during a birthday banquet[4] for the king. As a result, Herod Antipas executed John. In the end, fate ruled against Herodias and Antipas. Military defeat, domestic unrest, political miscues, and allegations of political disloyalty fell one after another. Consequently, within a week of years from the time John was killed, the ambitious pair had been banished to Gaul, and Agrippa, another Herodian, was granted the kingship sought by Herod Antipas.

[1] The Lost Books of the Bible and the Forgotten Books of Eden,
The Protevangelion 16:9-25 (pg. 36)
[2] Luke 7:24-28
[3] Eusebius' Ecclesiastical History, Ch. xxiv - The Order of the Gospels
[4] The Antipas� birthday banquet may well have occurred on the Jewish New Year�s Day for kings, that is Nisan 1, in the year 34 CE.

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