Biblical Studies (NT)/IV. OTHER IMPORTANT PEOPLE
IV. Other Important People
Matthew writes, “This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: his mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit” (Mt 1:18). When Joseph discovered that Mary was pregnant, he decided to quietly break off their engagement. However, an angel appeared to him in a dream and told him that Mary had not been unfaithful, but that the child was conceived through the power of the Holy Spirit. He should go ahead and marry her and call the child “Jesus” (Mt 1:21).
After Jesus’ birth, Joseph was warned by an angel in a dream: “Arise, take the young child and his mother, flee to Egypt and stay there until I bring you word; for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him” (Mt 2:13). Once again, Joseph did as the angel instructed and he departed to Egypt, where he stayed until the angel came yet a third time to tell him that Herod was dead. He then brought the family to Nazareth of Galilee, which is where Jesus grew up.
Matthew quotes the townspeople of Nazareth as saying in response to Jesus’ words and deeds: “Is this not the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And his brothers James, Joses, Simon, and Judas? And his sisters, are they not all with us?” (Mt 13:55-56). From this, we can deduce that Joseph and Mary had a large family. There was Jesus plus four other boys mentioned by name. We do not know how many girls there were, but the phrase “…are they not all with us?” indicates at least three. Therefore, including Jesus, Joseph and Mary had at least eight children. As a carpenter, Joseph was not a rich man, but he was of noble blood, being able to trace his ancestry back to King David. It is probable that Joseph died before Jesus was crucified, because on the cross, Jesus commended Mary into John’s care.
Mary, Mother of Jesus
According to the gospels, Mary became pregnant with Jesus while still a virgin, hence the commonly used epithet, the “Virgin Mary.” There is a tradition that says that Mary was always a virgin, but the Bible tells us that Joseph and Mary did have a normal relationship after the birth of Jesus. Matthew writes, “He (Joseph) did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son” (Mt 1:24-25).
According to custom, Mary had probably been betrothed to Joseph as a teenager through an arrangement made by her parents. It is possible that Joseph was older than she was, especially since he was no longer alive at the time of the crucifixion, thirty-three years later. Like Joseph, Mary was told by an angel, in this case Gabriel, about the child she was about to have. Even though the Bible says, “She was troubled at his saying” (Lk 1:29), her simple reply testified to her humility: “Behold the maidservant of the Lord. Let it be to me according to your word” (Lk 1:38).
While Jesus was growing up, it seems that Joseph and Mary had a normal parent-child relationship with him. This is illustrated by an incident which occurred when they took him up to Jerusalem when he was twelve years old. After their traveling party had left, Jesus stayed behind without their knowledge. When Joseph and Mary found out, they were frantic with worry, just as any normal parents would be. When they finally found him, Mary scolded him, saying, “Son, why have you treated us like this? your father and I have been anxiously searching for you!” (Lk 2:48).
After this time, very little is said of Mary, although she is mentioned later in a revealing incident where she and Jesus’ brothers were trying to get to Jesus through the crowd. Jesus’ response seems to indicate that being his mother in the flesh did not give her any special spiritual advantages. Matthew writes, “Someone said to him, ‘Look, your mother and your brothers are standing outside, seeking to speak with you.’ But he answered and said to the one who told him, ‘Who is my mother and who are my brothers?’ And he stretched out his hand toward his disciples and said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father who is in heaven is my brother and sister and mother’” (Mt 12:47-50). Mary was also present when Jesus was crucified. It is hard to imagine her grief as she beheld her son dying on the cross, after he had been cruelly beaten and mocked. The last we hear of her is in Acts after the Ascension, where she is mentioned as being with the disciples in prayer (Acts 1:14).
The Wise Men from the East
Matthew writes, “Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is he who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East and have come to worship him’” (Mt 2:1-2). Unfortunately, apart from what the Bible tells us, that these men were from the east and that they were wise, we know nothing else about them. It has been suggested that they were from such diverse places as India, Persia, and Arabia, and that they might have been astrologers, but all of these are speculation. The popular legend that there were three of them arose because the Bible mentions three types of gifts which were offered by them to the infant Messiah: “gold, frankincense, and myrrh” (Mt 2:11). We know by the plural term “men” that there were more than one, but the Bible does not say that there were three. There may have been only two, or there may have been more than three. Similarly, while the nature of the gifts implies that they were rich, there is no evidence to suggest that they were kings, as one tradition says.
King Herod the Great
Herod the Great was given authority over Palestine by the Roman government, and he ruled from 37 B.C. to 4 B.C. He liked to be thought of as a Jew, though his ancestry was Edomite. (Edom was the mountainous area southeast of Judea.) He was a great builder whose most notable achievement was the temple in Jerusalem. An indication of its grandeur is found in the remark of one of the disciples to Jesus concerning it: “Teacher, see what manner of stones and what buildings are here!” (Mk 13:1). In Who’s Who in the Bible (Bonanza, 1980), Ronald Brownrigg writes, “Herod was a clever politician, consistently backed by the Romans, and an efficient but unpredictable ruler, absolutely unscrupulous where his own interests and security were involved, and absolutely merciless when he felt his own safety was threatened. He executed one of his wives and two of his sons.”
Herod was greatly troubled by the question of the wise men from the East: “Where is he who has been born King of the Jews?” (Mt 2:2). If such a child existed, then Herod reasoned that the child would be a threat to his throne. He consulted the priests and scribes and asked them where, according to the scriptures, the Messiah was to be born. In response, they quoted a passage from the prophet Micah, which said that he would be born in Bethlehem. Herod then took the extraordinary step of commanding that all babies under the age of two in the region of Bethlehem be put to death. Fortunately, Joseph had already fled with Mary and the baby Jesus to safety in Egypt. How odd it is that Herod should believe the prophecies concerning the Messiah, yet try to destroy him at his coming.
King Herod Antipas
After the death of Herod the Great, his kingdom was divided between his three sons. Herod Antipas took control of Galilee in 4 B.C. and remained in power until A.D. 39. His kingdom was in two parts, Galilee and Perea, which were separated by the western part of the Decapolis. However, these areas were all part of the Roman Empire and it can be assumed that Herod and his entourage had free passage between the two halves of his kingdom. Since Jesus grew up in Galilee, he must have been well acquainted with the politics of the Herodians (i.e. Herod and his supporters).
When the Jewish leaders, who did not have authority to execute a person without the Roman governor's consent, asked Pilate for permission to execute Jesus, Pilate decided to speak to Jesus in person. On learning that Jesus was a Galilean, Pilate sent him to Herod Antipas, since Herod had authority over Galilee and was visiting Jerusalem at the time, presumably for the Passover festival, which was a major event in the Jewish calendar. The description of the incident gives us the impression that Herod was a vain and foolish man. His only interest in Jesus was that he wanted to see him perform a miracle. Finding that he was not to be entertained, Herod mocked Jesus and sent him back to Pilate.
John the Baptist
In approximately 26 A.D., just before the beginning of Jesus’ recorded ministry, “John came baptizing in the wilderness and preaching the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins” (Mk 1:4). The birth of John the Baptist, like the birth of Jesus, had been foretold by the angel Gabriel in an apparition at the altar to his father Zacharias, a priest. This birth was all the more remarkable because Zacharias and his wife Elizabeth were both old and Elizabeth was unable to have children. John was a cousin of Jesus, and was about six months older than him.
The gospels tell us that the coming of John the Baptist was also in fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. Matthew says: "In those days, John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, and saying, 'Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!' For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah, saying, 'The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord.'" (Mt 3:1-3; cf. Is 40:3).
By our standards, John was an odd character. He lived in the wilderness in the region around the Jordan River, where he baptized. He wore camel skins and ate locusts and wild honey. Nevertheless, he was respected so much that, according to Luke, “All reasoned in their hearts about John, whether he was the Christ or not” (Lk 3:15), and he was universally considered to be a great prophet. People came to him from all over Judea and the regions around the Jordan to be baptized and confess their sins.
About a year after he baptized Jesus, John was thrown into prison for criticizing King Herod Antipas. Among other things which were contrary to the teachings of Moses, the king had married his sister-in-law. The woman in question, Herodias, wanted John to be executed, but Herod would not allow it because he believed John to be a prophet, and he listened to John gladly. However, some time later, Herodias’ daughter danced for Herod and he was so pleased that he promised her on oath anything she wanted, up to half his kingdom. Her mother prompted her to ask for John’s head on a platter. Herod was “exceedingly sorry,” but because an oath was considered binding, he was not able to refuse, and he ordered that the girl’s wish be granted. It is an indication of Herod’s feelings about John that later on, when he heard of Jesus’ miracles, he was convinced that John had come back from the dead in the form of Jesus. In a glowing tribute to John, Jesus said, “Among those born of women, there has not risen one greater than John the Baptist” (Mt 11:11).
During his early Judean ministry, Jesus was paid a clandestine visit by a Pharisee named Nicodemus. Nicodemus was a member of the Sanhedrin, a group of seventy religious and political leaders who together formed the most powerful group in Israel outside of the ruling Roman forces. His standing in the community was reflected in Jesus’ reply to his questions: “Are you the teacher of Israel and do not know these things?” (Jn 3:10). As a result of his status, Nicodemus was cautious in approaching Jesus. He was impressed by him, but not to the point where he wanted to risk his reputation by being associated with him, for Jesus was perceived as a threat by the Jewish establishment. Therefore, Nicodemus approached Jesus secretly at night and questioned him about his teachings.
Nicodemus had been taught that to be a descendant of Abraham was enough to guarantee him eternal life, but Jesus told him that a person must be born again to enter the kingdom of God. The birth of the flesh is only the first step. It is necessary to be born of the Spirit also. It was also to Nicodemus that Jesus spoke the famous words: “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (Jn 3:16).
Despite his initial prudence, Nicodemus is later seen defending Jesus before the rest of the Sanhedrin. When the rulers wanted to arrest Jesus without a just cause, Nicodemus said, “Does our law judge a man before it hears him and knows what he is doing?” (Jn 7:51). But the rest of the council merely scoffed at him.
Jesus must have had a profound impression on Nicodemus, for we see him one last time, at the scene of the crucifixion, risking his reputation by caring for Jesus’ body. Joseph of Arimathea had received permission from Pilate to take away the body after Jesus had been crucified. John writes, “Nicodemus, who at first came to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds. Then they took the body of Jesus, and bound it in strips of linen with the spices, as the custom of the Jews is to bury. Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb in which no one had yet been laid. So there they laid Jesus” (Jn 19:39-42).
Mary Magdalene is reported to have become a follower of Jesus after he cast seven demons out of her. She must have become a close disciple, for the Bible says that she was one of several women who were in Jesus’ party as he traveled with the twelve apostles in Galilee. She evidently was not poor, for Matthew writes that she was one of many who provided material support for Jesus. Her name indicates that she was from the town of Magdala, a commercial center on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee.
Because Jesus cast seven demons out of her, many people have assumed that she was an immoral woman, and she has been portrayed sometimes as a prostitute. This, however, is speculation, and it cannot be confirmed by scripture or external evidence. It has also been suggested in some quarters that Jesus had a romantic involvement with her, but again, there is no evidence in support of this. She was, according to the gospels, present at the crucifixion and also when Jesus was placed in the tomb. On the third day after the crucifixion, she returned to the tomb with some other women to anoint Jesus’ body with spices, as was the custom. However, when they arrived, they did not find Jesus, but an angel, who told them that he had risen and instructed them to tell the disciples. Matthew writes, “As they went to tell his disciples, behold, Jesus met them, saying, ‘Rejoice!’ And they came and held him by the feet and worshipped him. Then Jesus said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brethren to go to Galilee, and there they will see me’” (Mt 28:9-10).
Mary, Martha, and Lazarus
While Lazarus and his sisters, Mary and Martha, were not among the twelve apostles, they were very close to Jesus. John writes, “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus” (Jn 11:5). Additionally, when Lazarus fell ill, Mary and Martha sent a message to Jesus, saying, “Lord, behold, he whom you love is sick” (Jn 11:3). Their home was at Bethany, a town just a few miles to the east of Jerusalem which Jesus visited on numerous occasions. It is thought that he stayed with them when he was there. Jesus was in Perea near the Jordan River when he received a message that Lazarus was sick. However, Jesus’ remarks indicate that he knew that Lazarus was either dying or already dead. Nevertheless, he waited for two days before returning to Bethany. The Bible tells us that when he arrived there and met Mary and Martha, he wept: “Then the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!’” (Jn 11:36). By this time, Lazarus had been dead for four days, yet Jesus ordered the stone rolled away from the entrance to the tomb. Then he called to Lazarus to come out. John writes, “He who had died came out bound hand and foot with grave clothes, and his face was wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Loose him, and let him go’” (Jn 11:44). The image of Lazarus coming out of the tomb struggling with his grave clothes is both joyful and comical.
It seems that Mary, Martha, and Lazarus had resided in Galilee before moving to Bethany, unless they were wealthy enough to have two residences, for Jesus dined at their home while he was in Galilee. It was there that Martha had complained to Jesus about her sister because she chose to sit with Jesus rather than help with the preparations. Jesus gently scolded Martha for worrying too much and attaching more importance to the preparations than to the company of her honored guest.
Again, Mary was the cause for complaint when Jesus was dining with them in Bethany, about a week before his crucifixion, but this time the source of the complaint was Judas Iscariot. Mary had poured an extravagant amount of costly fragrant oil on Jesus’ feet, then wiped his feet with her hair. Judas complained that the money for the oil could have been used to feed the poor, but John’s gospel says that his real concern was for himself, for he was the treasurer and used to make personal use of the money. Jesus replied with words that they would not fully understand until a week later: “Let her alone. She has kept this for the day of my burial. For the poor you have with you always, but me you do not have always” (Jn 12:7-8). Jesus added that wherever the Gospel is preached, Mary’s good deed would be told as a memorial to her (Mk 14:9).
Pontius Pilate was fifth in the line of governors that Rome appointed after Archelaus, Herod the Great’s son, was deposed in Judea. He was appointed by the emperor Tiberius in 26 A.D. and remained in power until 36 A.D., when he was removed from office because of his unfair treatment of rebellious Samaritans. While Jerusalem was the cultural and religious center of the Jewish people, Pilate made his home at cosmopolitan Caesarea Maritima on the Mediterranean coast. The city’s harbor and royal palace, built on the orders of Herod, made it an ideal location for the governor’s residence.
Pilate’s rule is known to have been brutal at times, yet in allowing the crucifixion of Jesus, he was not so much acting on his own will as giving in to outside pressure, “for he knew that the chief priests had delivered him because of envy” (Mk 15:10). The chief priests had accused Jesus of treason against Rome in order to manipulate Pilate into having to deal with him. This was necessary because they did not have the authority to condemn somebody to death without Pilate’s consent. Pilate, however, was clearly unimpressed by the charges brought against Jesus and probably would have set him free, except that the chief priests and elders had incited the crowd and he was afraid that there would be a riot. Matthew writes, “When Pilate saw that he could not prevail at all, but rather that a tumult was rising, he took water and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, ‘I am innocent of the blood of this just person. You see to it’” (Mt 27:24).
The Pharisees and the Sadducees
Outside of the Roman occupying forces, the Pharisees and the Sadducees were the most powerful groups in Israel at the time of Christ. The Pharisees were the “people’s party” and enjoyed widespread support among the general population, while the Sadducees were wealthy and elitist. The office of the high priest, Israel’s most powerful political position at that time, was traditionally held by a Sadducee, which exemplifies the fact that politics and religion were closely related. In the New Testament, both Pharisees and Sadducees are consistently shown in a negative light, being responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus and the persecution of the early disciples.
Outside of the New Testament, the ancient Jewish historian, Josephus (37 - ca. 100 A.D.), is one of our best sources of information about the Pharisees and Sadducees. From him, we learn some of their distinguishing characteristics. For example, the two groups had different understandings of the nature of scripture and tradition. The Sadducees believed that the Torah (the first five books of the Bible, or the books of Moses, also known as the Pentateuch) is the only reliable source for doctrine and practice, but the Pharisees accepted not only the other scriptures, but many oral and written traditions as well. Josephus says:
- The Pharisees have delivered to the people a great many observances by succession from their fathers, which are not written in the law of Moses. It is for that reason that the Sadducees reject them, and say that we are to esteem those observances to be obligatory which are in the written word, but are not to observe what are derived from the tradition of our forefathers. It is concerning these things that great disputes and differences have arisen among them, while the Sadducees are able to persuade none but the rich, and have not the populace obsequious to them, but the Pharisees have the multitude on their side. (Antiquities 8:10:6)
Although the Sadducees were no friend to Jesus, they were in agreement with him concerning these traditions of the Pharisees, for Jesus upbraided the Pharisees by applying the words of the prophet Isaiah to them: “In vain they worship [God], teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Mt 15:9).
On the other hand, the Pharisees were more aligned with Jesus concerning the resurrection, in which they believed. The Sadducees, by contrast, believed that “souls die with the bodies” (Ant. 18:1:4). Knowing that Jesus taught the resurrection, the Sadducees sought to trap him by asking him a question about it that they believed he would not be able to answer. (For the passage in question, see Mt 22:23-33). Jesus, who from all appearances had an expert knowledge of the scriptures, instantly perceived the trap, and prefaced his answer with an observation: “You are mistaken, not knowing the scriptures nor the power of God” (Mt 22:29). The resurrection was also a major point of contention later on with the apostles. Luke writes that on one occasion when Peter and John were speaking to the people, “the Sadducees came upon them, being greatly disturbed that they taught the people and preached through Jesus the resurrection from the dead” (Acts 4:1-2). The objection was not merely that the disciples preached Jesus, but more specifically that they preached the resurrection. Again, the issue arises when Paul is brought to trial for preaching in the temple. Realizing that a mere statement of innocence would mean nothing, he resorted to a ruse: “When Paul perceived that one part were Sadducees and the other Pharisees, he cried out in the council, ‘Men and brethren, I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee; concerning the hope and resurrection of the dead I am being judged!’” (Acts 23:6). The ploy worked beautifully. The proceedings were so completely disrupted by the intensity of the ensuing argument that the Roman commander put an end to the trial.
The Sadducees’ were also distinguished in their rejection of the idea that there are places of reward and punishment to which people go when they die. According to Josephus, they “suppose that God is not concerned in our doing or not doing what is evil. They say that to do what is good, or what is evil, is a person’s own choice, and that the one or the other belongs so to every one, that they may act as they please. They also take away the belief of the immortal duration of the soul, and the punishments and rewards in Hades” (Wars of the Jews 2:8:14). The Sadducees taught that you suffer in this world because you are sinful. Conversely, if you prosper, you must be a righteous person. The Sadducees’ wealth was evidence of their righteousness, because God only blesses the righteous. We receive our punishments and rewards here and now in this life, for there is no afterlife.
One thing that the Pharisees and Sadducees had in common was that both groups saw Jesus as a threat. According to John:
- The chief priests and the Pharisees gathered a council and said, ‘What shall we do? For this man works many signs. If we let him alone like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and nation.’ And one of them, Caiaphas, being high priest that year [and a Sadducee], said to them, ‘You know nothing at all, nor do you consider that it is expedient for us that one man should die for the people, and not that the whole nation should perish.’ Then from that day on, they plotted to put [Jesus] to death.” (Jn 11:47-50, 53)
Jesus referred to the Pharisees and Sadducees as “hypocrites” (Mt 16:3) and warned his disciples to “beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees” (Mt 16:6). The disciples initially thought Jesus was talking about bread, but he clarified his meaning for them, so that “they understood that he did not tell them to beware of the leaven of bread, but of the doctrine of the Pharisees and Sadducees” (Mt 16:12). Both parties appeared to be more interested in discrediting Jesus than in discovering the truth about him. Perhaps this is because the people were “astonished” by Jesus’ teaching, for he taught them “as one that had authority” (Mk 1:22).
With the Jewish revolt and subsequent destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., the system which enabled the existence of the Pharisees and Sadducees was shattered. As political entities, they were no longer relevant. Jerusalem as a religious, political, and commercial center had been destroyed and the Romans no longer had any interest in mediators which had proved incapable of stemming the tide of Jewish nationalism. The Sadducees ceased to exist, while the Pharisees gradually transformed themselves into Rabbinic Judaism, which became the foundation for the mainstream Judaism with which we are familiar today.
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