Lecture 19: Jesus' Early Galilean Ministry - Part 1
I. Opening Remarks
We jump now to the four Gospels’ betrayal of the beginning of Jesus’ adult ministry. Students often wonder what else Jesus did in between the ages of two and twelve and again between the ages of twelve and the start of his ministry. The answer is, from a historian point of view, nothing that has been recorded that we can declare with any confidence, other than what can be inferred from the fact that the Gospels describe him as a carpenter or stonemason, as Joseph was before him. Apocryphal legends from the early centuries of the Christian era through the Middle Ages, down to even the 20th and 21st century have often attempted to fill in those gaps with bizarre miracles or Jesus, and even travelling to different lands to study with Hindu or Buddhist sages; there is no historical truth or support for these legends. Presumably, the reason that nothing was recorded is because nothing of significance for his subsequent public ministry occurred during this period of waiting and preparation.
II. John and Jesus
As Jesus burst onto the Israeli scene, he does so in conjunction with the figure of John the Baptist, who in fact, is more known and has more coverage in the four Gospels than any other character apart from Jesus himself and yet is not at all well known in Christian circles and particularly in evangelical protestant circles. Baring from the titles in John Myers’ book on Jesus, a Marginal Jew, we may supplement our comments in the textbook by considering John and Jesus under three headings: first, John without Jesus, then, Jesus and John and thirdly, Jesus without John. All three synoptics agree, see Mark 1:4 in the parallels, that the headlines or summary of John the Baptist ministry was that of teaching and urging repentance because of the imminent arrival of the Kingdom of God along with the forgiveness of sins. Interestingly, the Jewish historian, Josephus, collaborates this in his overview, included in page 217 of Jesus and the Gospels of John, the Baptist’s ministries and collaborates as well the understanding that it was not the baptism that created the forgiveness of sins but the repentance and the baptism symbolized this act of repentance.
The fourth Gospel on the other hand, of what we have already seen in a previous lecture, focuses strictly on the role of John the Baptist as a witness or one who testifies to who Jesus is, and intriguingly while includes more information in his opening chapter about the ministry of John than any of the synoptics does at the beginning of their descriptions of Jesus’ public ministry. While talking all around the event of Jesus baptism, the actual baptism, itself, is never narrated. It is speculative but has been argued with some plausibility that this in conjunction with the identical phenomenon on the last night of Jesus’ life where John has much fully narrated but never actually narrates the institution of the ordinance of the Eucharist or Holy Communion. That perhaps, John’s community at the end of the 1st century was already being surrounded by those who were overly ritualizing or institutionalizing or sacramentalizing the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper as if they created regeneration in and of themselves, and so plays down their role as not narrating explicitly the precedence in Jesus’ life for the rituals.
As Jesus begins to emerge in the four Gospels as an adult, it’s the four Gospels which must choose the historical overlap both in John 1 and in 3 where we have the famous account of John’s disciples coming to him lamenting that Jesus was attracting greater crowds on the other side of the Jordan but John’s humble and appropriate response was that John must decrease while Jesus increases with respect to significant and popularity and role in God’s unfolding drama of salvation. With respect to the synoptics, the baptism of Jesus by John is narrative and is undoubtedly the central event during this period of overlap of Jesus and John. Of Jesus emerging as it were, out of John’s orbit, even with the older dissimilarity criterion that focused only on the distinctive with Judaism and Christianity, the baptism of Jesus by John would have been one of the most secure data from the synoptic database. Because early Christians which would scarcely have invented Jesus submitting to participating in a ritual that was designed to symbolize forgiveness of sin as they came to believe in Jesus as the sinless and divine Messiah. But unlike all the various ritual purifications and even proselyte baptisms that Judaism already knew, here was a ritual that John was now applying to all Jews, however upstanding, however a part of the religious elite and then only because of this larger practice that Jesus even appeared for baptism. It seems unlikely that any conventional Jew would have invented this larger radical call to repentance and symbolizing it by a baptism on the part of an entire nation.
Finally, if we turn to Jesus without John, as already noted in our third supplementary lecture, where we looked at eighteen slides associated with either infancy narratives or John the Baptist and the very early days of Jesus’ public ministry, one might have expected Jesus’ baptism and commissioning replete with a heavenly voice, echoing the combination of Psalm 2:7 and Isaiah 42:1 denoting Jesus as the Messianic and suffering servant that his grand public ministry should begin at once with all the initial echoers. We read in both, Matthew 4:1 and Luke 4:1 that the Spirit drove Jesus into the Judean wilderness to be tested by the devil, an appropriate interplay of the Spirit of God’s sovereignty over all things that occur, including what the devil is allowed to do. But the devil as the one, and never God, who is responsible as the more immediate agent of temptation unless as happens else, the New Testament describes that temptation simply coming from human agents by itself.
In Jesus’ case, the temptations are clearly designed to test Jesus’s resolve to carry out a Messianic mission that was largely unexpected combinating of suffering and death, rather than the triumphant use of his divine power which each of the three temptations illustrates. It’s interesting how often throughout the ages, people have become followers of Jesus only to find that in some significant way, difficulties in their lives increase whether through persecution or rejection by family and friends or whether by the ‘coincidental’ timing of other things that had been going well in their lives, now falling apart for a time. This should not cause surprise; if indeed Jesus had to be tested, one can expect that similar patterns may recur if not immediately, sooner or later, but surprisingly often, it is sooner rather than later for his followers. If this surprises the modern day Christian, it may be, because he or she has heard only a truncated Gospel or a one-sided presentation of what appears to be a more natural blessing of Christian living and not the potential hardships.
The final point of this slide about John and Jesus labelled ‘Transitions’, reminds us, under the heading of Jesus without John. From this point on as we gather together the other bits and pieces that talk about John and or compare Jesus’ ministry with John earlier ministry, the major theme that seems to run to these scattered passages is indeed the contrast between the two men in the nature of their teaching. However much, Jesus initially may have appeared similar to John in his message, not least because both preached the imminent arrival of the Kingdom of God. The little parable of the children in the marketplace in Matthew 11:16-19 and Luke 7:31-35 shows the striking contrast that the two came to be characterized with. John is said to come, neither eating or drinking, obviously not literally or absolutely but reflecting an ascetic austere stern desert life style concomitant with his call to repentance on the part of the nation while Jesus is characterized as a gluten and a drunkard and labelled more accurately as a friend of tax collectors and sinners. He was willing to party though without being any evidence of actually breaking boundaries that would lead to sin. He is ready to celebrate a table and banquet with the outcast and the notorious sinners of his society but also with the view to leading them toward repentance. It’s worth reflecting today, which portrait John’s or Jesus’s more naturally associates to the evangelical church even by those who characterize us, though clearly both strands are needed at different times in the Christian life; it could be said that we are perceived to be more like a forerunner than Messiah whose behavior we are called to more directly imitate, and perhaps there is an imbalance there that needs to be redressed.