Yeshua’s Youth

Yeshua grew up in a devout Jewish family in the strongly religious region of Galilee.

Read Luke 2:40-52

At the beginning of Archelaus’ reign over Judea he was faced with sedition by some of the Pharisees, incensed at a despised Samaritan ruling over them, and crushed it with great severity.  This incited increasing anger and hatred among the general population, strengthening the hand of Bet Shammai and reinforcing their fear of all those associated with Rome.

Life in Galilee…

It was in the district of Galilee, under the Tetrarch Herod Antipas, that Yeshua grew up among this strongly religious and culturally conservative rural Jewish population. The name “Galilee” comes from the Hebrew word galil which means “circle” or “region”. The region of Galilee in the first century CE was encircled by Syro-Phoenicia stretching along the eastern Mediterranean coastline and northwards, by Gaulanitis to the north-east, by the Hellenistic settlements of Decapolis to the south-east, and by Samaria to the south which separated Galilee geographically from Judea.

Even though Galilee was encircled by Greek-speaking pagan cities, Scythopolis, Hippos, Caesarea, Philippi and Kadesh, and was under the authority of Greek-speaking rulers, most Galileans spoke Aramaic, or possibly Hebrew. Archaeologists have found only a few Greek inscriptions in the villages of upper Galilee, most being Aramaic/Hebrew, and there is little clear evidence Greek was spoken in the villages of lower Galilee. In first-century Galilee, Greek was mainly the language of those with political and administrative power. The evidence shows that it only made serious inroads in the second century CE, while Latin is virtually unattested in the region. In general, it seems that first-century Galilee was not as Hellenised as Judea, possibly because most Galileans were rural dwellers.

Herod the Great’s building programs had not reached into this area and it was without the Greco-Roman architecture prominent in other districts.  His son, Herod Antipas, focused on building up this district. He was not as cruel or capricious as his father or elder brother. He was an able leader and sought the good will of the Galileans so did not antagonise their sensibilities by building ostensibly Hellenistic or Roman structures. Antipas’ reign brought a period of peace and calm with no significant violent conflicts recorded between him and his subjects.  He completely rebuilt the city of Sepphoris, only 4 miles from Nazareth, where Yeshua grew up, and made it his capitol.  Galilee, however, remained without the common icons of Greco-Roman culture: no amphitheatre, no gymnasium, no stadium and no nymphaeum (large, elaborately decorated fountain).  The only public buildings were the synagogues.  Yet, while not forcing Hellenism on the independent and deeply religious Galileans, Antipas showed little interest in adopting their personal piety or living according to Torah


Jews were the only people in the ancient world who made educating your children a religious requirement.

Galilee surpassed even Judea in its schools of learning, and most of the famous rabbis of Yeshua’s day were from Galilee (Johnanan ben Zakkai, Hanina ben Doda, Abba Yose Holikufri, Zadok, Halaphta, and Hananian ben Teradyon).   Yet socially Galileans were considered simple rural folk who spoke a backward dialect.   Yeshua’s education in Judaism, like that of all children of pious Jewish families, began at home as a way of life, every aspect of which was governed by Torah and the increasing regulations that the Pharisees were adding to it.  At five years of age Yeshua would have joined the Bet Sefer (House of the Book) in the local synagogue, to begin his formal studies.  There the young children learned to read, write and memorise the Torah (first 5 books of the Bible) over the next five years.  It is contested whether girls also attended the Bet Sefer.  (1) (2) 

And the child grew and became strong; He was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was upon Him.    Luke 2:40 NIV

Schooling in 1st Century Judaism

All Jewish boys attended two levels of schooling in their local synagogue.  From ages 5 – 9 they attended Beit Sefer (House of the Book) and from 10 – 14yo they attended ‘Beit-Talmud’ (House of Learning).   Very different teaching styles were used for the two different age groups.

On the first day of Beit Sefer the teacher asked each student to lift up their slate. Then he put some honey on each slate. He then asked the children to lick off the honey from their slate. While they did, the teacher quoted from Psalm 119:103 “How sweet are thy words unto my taste! [yea, sweeter] than honey to my mouth!   The teacher or scribe read from the Torah in Hebrew, and when needed an interpreter, known as the meturganim (one skilled in languages), then shouted the scripture back in Aramaic so the children could repeat it in their spoken tongue.   Scripture was often chanted musically to help with memorisation.  The expression “the chirping of children” referred to what people heard when walking past the synagogue as the children were reciting their verses in song.  In eastern education repetition was the key to learning and these early years of schooling involved continual repetition as the words of the scripture had to be firmly implanted before the meaning could be explored.   Lessons took place every day of the week, including Shabbat (Sabbath –ie from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday), the difference being that no new material was presented on this day, they just repeated what they had been learning through the week.  As it was the Pharisees who had a passion for all the boys of the Jewish masses to be educated in Torah, they were the ones who organised and ran these Synagogue schools throughout Israel and the diaspora.

The next stage of Jewish education was ‘Beit-Talmud’ (House of Learning) for boys aged 10-14.  At home they were also learning their father’s trade during this time. In ‘Beit-Talmud’ Yeshua and his classmates memorised the rest of the Tanakh ( תַּנַ״ךְ, Hebrew Bible) and learnt the art of rhetorical debating of questions and answers, as they also begun studying the Mishna (Oral Law) and interpretations.  Instead of giving a rote answer that was simply learned as knowledge, the young Hebrew pre-teen had to give thought to the question and then answered the question with another question.  (3) (4) (5)

It was this training that prepared Yeshua for his visit to the temple for the “fulfilling of the commandments”when he was 12 years old.  After the destruction of the second temple in 70 A.D. this was replaced in Jewish culture with what we know today, the Bar Mitzvah – a formal ceremony where a Jewish boy, at the age of 13, transforms from a boy into a man, having the full religious rites and responsibilities of an adult male.   (6) (7) 

12yo Yeshua in the Temple…

His parents went every year to Jerusalem at the feast of the Passover. Luke 2:41-45 HNV

A pilgrimage from the Galilee to the Temple in Jerusalem was so expensive and time-consuming that many pious Jews did not make it every year, some only once in a lifetime.  Although Exodus 23:17, 34:23 and Deut 16:6 all command every Jewish male to appear before the Lord three times a year – for the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Passover), the Feast of Weeks (Pentecost) and the Feast of Booths (Sukkot), schools of Pharisees had re-interpreted the scriptures to mean that pilgrimage was associated with these festivals and ruled that “to appear” meant instead that when one made a pilgrimage they were to bring an “appearance” sacrifice to the Temple and not come empty handed (Mishnah, Hagigah 1:6)  (8) (9).    Joseph and Mary were both exceptionally devout in making this long pilgrimage every year, and it appears that they took the scriptures much more literally than the ‘sages’ of their day whose rulings are recorded in the Mishnah.

When he was twelve years old, they went up to Jerusalem according to the custom of the feast and when they had fulfilled the days, as they were returning, the boy Yeshua stayed behind in Jerusalem. Joseph and his mother didn’t know it, but supposing him to be in the company, they went a day’s journey, and they looked for him among their relatives and acquaintances. When they didn’t find him, they returned to Jerusalem, looking for him.      Luke 2:42-45 HNV

As Matthew 1:25 records, Joseph had no union with Mary until she gave birth to Yeshua.  Once Mary had gone through her ritual purification from childbirth and the associated bleeding, she and Joseph fulfilled the final part of their nissuin (wedding) – the consummation of their marriage.  From this point on they continued to fulfil the Biblical command to “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 1:28).  Scripture describes Yeshua as having four brothers – James, Joseph (Joses), Jude and Simon – and some sisters (Matthew 12:46-50 & 13:55-56; Mark 3:31 & 6:3; Luke 8:19; John 2:12 & 7:3; Acts 1:14; 1 Cor. 9:5; and Galatians 1:19).  It is possible that His family travelling to Jerusalem for this special occasion included up to six younger siblings on this occasion.  For Mary and Joseph to be focused on the care of the younger, more vulnerable, ones as they started travelling back home and assumed that the eldest was with the wider group of their relatives and neighbours would not have been unusual.  They had undertaken this journey for the last 12 years and Yeshua had never given them any cause for concern before.

It happened after three days they found him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the rabbis, both listening to them, and asking them questions.  All who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. Luke 2:46-47 HNV

There is intriguing speculation that Yeshua may have been talking with Hillel and/or Shammai during these three days in the temple, but it is more likely that it was with younger rabbis who had been trained by them.   They were clearly engaging in the rhetorical debate in which every Jewish boy was trained.   What was remarkable in these exchanges was not that Yeshua engaged in such debate, but the depth of understanding he demonstrated with the questions that he answered them with.  Also of note was that such discussions were more important to him, as a 12 year old, than all the attractions a large city like Jerusalem would have for a boy from rural Galilee.  When his parents eventually found him Yeshua’s response to his mother carried a strong sense of identity and divine mission even at this age:

He said to them, “Why were you looking for me? Didn’t you know that I must be in my Father’s house?”    Luke 2:49 HNV

Most Jewish young men continued working in their father’s trade to help support their family after their “fulfilling of the commandments” in Jerusalem. 

Tertiary Education in 1st Century Judaism

Only the most gifted scholars went on to ‘Beit Midrash’ (House of Study) after reaching 13-15 years of age, in order to train to become a scribe or rabbi.    To do so the young man needed to find a rabbi that he respected and request to become his תלמידם – talmid (disciple).  Rabbis did not usually go and seek out their own talmidim (disciples); they were few in numbers and their prestige and honour was such that ambitious young men came to them requesting admittance into their Beit Midrash.  It was important that the talmid follow the teachings of their particular rabbi because each rabbi carried different interpretations of the Tanakh ( תַּנַ״ךְ, Hebrew Bible) and Mishna (Oral Law).  If a rabbi thought that the prospective talmid was worthy of consideration, he would quiz him to see how committed he was, how well he knew the Tanakh and Mishna and how well he was able to put it to debate in line with the interpretations of that particular rabbi.  The testing was gruelling. Critical thinking and the art of answering questions with questions were heavily engaged.  

If the young man passed, and the rabbi thought he had it in him to become a scribe or a rabbi like himself, he was then told to “take my yoke upon you.”  Those were the words that every Jewish young man ambitious to enter into the Beth-Midrash longed to hear.  He was now accepted into higher education. To take his rabbi’s yoke meant the talmid (disciple) was willing to take on that rabbi’s interpretation of the Torah as his own, become his student in all aspects of life, and do all the work that was required ahead of him in learning how to live the Torah in the exact same way that his rabbi lived it. The young man was then obliged to leave his father, mother, synagogue, community, and family business to devote his life to following his rabbi – everywhere. Rabbis demanded honours of first rank, even surpassing those bestowed on parents.  If the rabbi travelled, his talmadim (disciples) travelled with him. Every detail of the rabbi’s life was copied, including his walk, talk, and mannerisms. The rabbi’s job was to teach his students along the way, testing them continuously, to become just like himself.  There is a prayer that comes from the Mishnah that says: “May you be covered in the dust of your rabbi,” meaning you followed your rabbi so closely that you get covered with the dust his sandals flung up as he walked, which was considered a great honour.  

Although we cannot categorically say that He did not, there is no evidence that Yeshua took this next step of formal education, even though His performance in the temple proved that He was eminently qualified to do so in terms of ability.   Yeshua may have felt that to commit to taking another rabbi’s yolk (interpretations) upon Himself as His own was not compatible with His mission of bringing a distinctly heavenly perspective to Torah.   There may also have been more earthly considerations.  We know from scripture that Yeshua had at least six siblings, all younger than himself.  The evidence of scripture also suggests that Mary’s husband, Joseph, had died before Yeshua began his ministry.  If Joseph died while Yeshua was a teenager, then as the oldest son He would have taken responsibility for His mother and younger siblings, providing for them until the youngest had finished their education and was able to provide for themselves, and then ensuring that His mother would have her needs cared for before He left to begin His ministry.   Doing this as His first priority, in honouring His father and mother, could have meant that Yeshua aged out of being eligible to study with a rabbi before he was relieved of this family responsibility.  What would have been considered in that society as unfortunate for a talented young man like Yeshua was in actuality part of the Father’s perfect plan for the Son to live and teach His own, and not another rabbi’s, interpretation of the scriptures. (4) (10)

Yeshua’s later teaching supports this:

And He said to them: “You have a fine way of setting aside the commandments of God in order to observe your own traditions!  For Moses said, “Honour your father and mother,’ and, ‘Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.’  But you say that if a man says to his father or mother: ‘Whatever help you might otherwise have received from me is ‘Corban’ (that is, devoted to God), then you no longer let him do anything for his father or mother.  Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down.”     Mark 7:9-13a NIV

Anti-Semitism and Hellenization …

There were many other currents in the surrounding society as Yeshua was growing up.  Anti-Semitism and Hellenization were clashing with traditional Judaism and the proselytization of their heathen neighbours even while the two dominant schools within pharisaic Judaism were engaged in increasingly bitter conflict with one another.  All of these were shaping the world that He was preparing to minister to.   

Anti-Semitism in the 1st Century

Anti-Semitism already had deep roots in the prevailing Greeco-Roman culture. History wars were continuing between Jews and Egyptians while culture wars raged between religious Jews and Hellenists. The political and philosophical concern for tolerance, sociability and co-operative citizenship was a central feature of the Hellenistic era as the founding of new cities, the new mobility of populations, and the cultural mixing among the civic elite created new ‘virtues’ and their corresponding vices.  Thus the Jewish virtue of remaining faithful to their God and culture, preserving themselves as a distinct people, was to Hellenistic thinking a terrible vice which Plato had designated as a sign of feral character.  The dominant culture of the time demanded mutual acceptance and respect for others’ gods and customs, along with reciprocal hospitality. These were considered the fundamental social virtues supported by the Stoic notions of a universal humanity.  They lay in stark contrast to the Pharisees’ Essenes’, Hasidim’s or Zealot’s way of life and teachings about the need to be separate from the gentiles, to worship only Yahweh as God, observe the Jewish dietary laws, refrain from participating in other’s religious practices and keep pure from intermarriage.  By Roman times the worst vice and most unpardonable sin in the eyes of the dominant culture was that committed by the Jews, wherever they were found throughout the empire, of social aloofness and failure to integrate into the pagan civic life of the rest of the population.  The Jews thus became the antitype of the values of tolerance and social reciprocity considered in Hellenism as necessary for the well-being of civilization as a whole. (11) (12)

Apion (25 BC – 48 AD), a Hellenized Egyptian grammarian, sophist, and commentator on Homer, rose to prominence in Alexandria.  He was renowned for his exceptional oratory skills, his vast knowledge, his ostentatious vanity and his bitter hatred for the Jews.  Apion was consciously part of a Graeco-Roman anti-Jewish intellectual tradition that had included Manetho, Posidonius, Apollonius Molon, Cicero, Horace, Hecataeus, Chaeremon, Lysimachus and Tacitus. Over the centuries a set of standard charges had been developed to lay at the door of the Jews.  These included that their ancestors were lowly, leprous and diseased slaves who ate animals that represented the gods and thus angered them, causing the Egyptians to drive them out of their country.  Jews were depicted as carriers of disease, physically, intellectually and culturally inferior, antisocial, and as atheists who denied the gods.  Circumcision was a constant subject for coarse jokes. Sabbath-observance described as an indulgence in idleness, only the upper classes of other peoples had any such indulgence.  Also causing particular angst with their neighbours was the Jewish attitude of superiority, social separation from non-Jews, rejection of all the pagan religions, proselytization and efforts to replace Greek and Roman laws with Jewish ones.   Apion was a master at inciting hatred for ‘the other’ and worked to rouse the fanaticism of the populace against the Jews by coming up with additional charges against them.  “Every year”, he said, “it was the practice of the Jews to get hold of some unfortunate Hellene, fatten him for the year and then to sacrifice him, partaking of his entrails and burying his body, while during these horrible rites they took a fearful oath of perpetual enmity to all other peoples”.   Under such influence the educated Roman regarded the Jew with a mixture of contempt and hatred, bitter that this despised race confronted him everywhere, with a religion so uncompromising as to form a wall of separation, and with rites so exclusive as to make them not only strangers but enemies. Yet still Romans were turning to Judaism in increasing numbers, even among the elites, and this aroused even greater fear and suspicion among the populist masses.  Apion’s orations roused the citizens of Alexandria to riot against the Jews, attacking individuals, homes and businesses. (13) (14) (15) (16) (11)

Philo Judaeus (25 BCE – 50 CE), a Hellenistic Jewish philosopher from one of the leading Jewish families in Alexander, also rose to prominence at this time.   When Apion led a delegation from Alexander to disparage the Jews to Caesar it was Philo who led the Jewish delegation to clear their name and seek Roman protection from the riots incited against them.  Philo is considered the epitome of how intellectual Jews of the Dispersion, isolated from Palestine and their native culture, allowed Hellenistic influences to shape their theology and philosophy.  He tried to fuse and harmonize ancient Greek philosophy and Judaism, using a composite of Jewish exegesis and the art of allegory he had learned from Stoic philosophy. Philo was thoroughly educated in Greek philosophy and culture with a superb knowledge of classical Greek literature. He had a deep reverence for Plato and referred to him as “the most holy Plato” (Prob.13). Philo’s philosophy represented contemporary Platonism which was its revised version incorporating Stoic doctrine and terminology, as well as elements of Aristotelian logic and ethics and Pythagorean ideas.  Philo put forward the teachings of Moses, as “the summit of philosophy” (Op. 8), and followed the earlier Hellenistic Jewish tradition of considering Moses to be the teacher of Pythagoras and of all Greek philosophers and lawgivers. For Philo, Greek philosophy was a natural development of the revelatory teachings of Moses.  

Philo attempted to achieve a twofold purpose through his writings:

  1. He endeavoured to justify the Jewish religion to the cultured people of Greco-Roman society. In view of the deterioration of pagan society and religion, he had a splendid opportunity to portray the Jewish faith as fulfilling ‘the desire of all nations.’
  2. He tried to show and persuade his strict coreligionists that Greek philosophy and learning were not actually hostile and opposed to the tenets of the Hebrew religion but that each stood for practically identical principles.

Philo thus adopted an eclectic viewpoint, one in which he blended the theological concepts of the Tanakh (Hebrew Scriptures) with Greek philosophical principles.   .   (17) (18) (19) (20)

Middot – Hillel’s Seven Rules for Biblical Interpretation

Such synthesis of scripture and Greek philosophy was abhorred in Judea.  The Tanakh was to be interpreted with reference to itself and the thinking of the great Jewish sages, not to Greek philosophy.  Hillel (60 BC – 10-20 AD?) established seven rules of biblical interpretation called middot (measures / norms). These rules aim at moving from peshat (literal sense) to remez (legally binding principle) for applying Torah to everyday live.  They were exemplified in the Tenach (Hebrew Scriptures) and, being the ‘norm’ for scriptural interpretation in Israel during NT times were used by both Yeshua and the NT writers. They did not, however, ensure unanimity of interpretation.  Hillel’s Seven Rules were:
1. Kal vachomer” (light and heavy / minor and major).  What applies to a less important case will certainly apply in a more important case.  A kal vahomer argument is often, but not always, signalled by a phrase like “how much more…”  Tenach examples include: Prov. 11:31, Jeremiah 12:5a, Jer. 12:5b, Deut. 31:27, 1 Sam. 23:3, Ezekiel 15:5 & Esther 9:12.  Examples of Yeshua’s use include: Mt. 6:26,30, Lk 11:13, Mt. 12:11-12, Jn 7:23, Mt. 10:25, Jn 15:18-20 and Jn 7:23.   Shaul (Paul) studied under Hillel’s grandson, Gamilel, and also frequently used kal vahomer (eg. Rom. 5:8-9, 10, 15, 17; 11:12, 24; 1Cor. 9:11-12, 12:22; 2Cor. 3:7-9, 11; Philippians 2:12; Philemon 1:16; Heb. 2:2-3; 9:13-14; 10:28-29; 12:9, 25.)  
2. Gezerah shavah” (equivalence of expressions).  If the same word occurs in two Biblical passages, then the law applying in the one should be applied to the other.  Tenakh example: By comparing 1 Samuel 1:10 to Judges 13:5 using the phrase “no razor shall touch his head” we may conclude that Samuel, like Samson, was a nazarite. This found far less use in the NT.  We have the opening of Mark’s gospel where he links Malachi (3:1) and Isaiah (40:3) through the shared term “way” (1:2-3) and Mat. 15:1-9 where Yeshua links Exo 20:12 & 21:17 about honouring father and mother.

3. Binyan ab mikathub echad” (building up a “family” from a single text). One explicit passage is used as a foundation or starting point so as to constitute a rule for all similar passages or cases.

4. Binyab ab mishene kethubim” (building up a “family” from two or more texts). A principle is established by relating two texts together: The principle can then be applied to other passages.  The writer of Hebrews uses these two in establishing principles for blood and showing the Messiah to be of a higher order than angels.

5. Kelal uferat” (the general and the specific).  A general principle may be restricted by a particularization of it in another verse – or, conversely, a particular rule may be extended into a general principle. A Tenach example: Genesis 1:27 makes the general statement that God created man. Genesis 2:7, 21 particularizes this by giving the details of the creation of Adam and Chava (Eve).
6. Kayotze bo mimekom akhar” (analogy made from another passage).  Two passages may seem to conflict until a third resolves the conflict. Examples from the Tenach: Lev 1:1 & Ex. 25:22 resolved by Num. 7:89; 2Sam. 24:9 & 1Chr. 21:5 resolved by 1Chr. 27:1.  In Romans Shaul (Paul) uses Gen. 15:6 to resolve Ps. 62:12 & Ps. 32:1-2.

7. Davar hilmad me’anino” (explanation obtained from context). The total context, not just the isolated statement must be considered for an accurate exegesis.

The men who penned the Brit Chadasha (New Testament) participated in the Hebraic thought pattern of the sages and rabbis of their time period in interpreting the Hebrew Scriptures.   From Hillel’s rules for interpretation we can see three fundamental principles in Torah hermeneutics: logic, analogy and comparison.  These were the underpinnings of all Tenach interpretation by the Jewish sages and Torah scholars, including Yeshua and the NT writers.  In contrast, Hellenistic thinking reduced everything to logical interpretation alone and so lost much of the richness of the Hebraic way of thinking and Torah understanding. (21) (22) (23) (24) (25) (26) (27)

Jewish evangelism …

This was also a time of Jewish proselytization.   The prophets during the exile had brought a greater emphasis on the reality that God is not just a tribal God of the Israelite nation but a universal God of all humanity.   With this emphasis on Judaism as a universal faith, formal proselytization developed, especially through the dominant Pharisaic school, Bet Hillel.  Jewish teachings and ways exerted a fascination among both the aristocracy and the common people of the Roman Empire and their proselytization was so successful that ten percent of the population became Jewish. (28)

Change in Leadership Over Judea…

After ruling for 10 years with a brutality rivalling that of his father, but without his father’s nation-building capacity, Archelaus was removed by the emperor Augustus in 6 A.D. and replaced by a Roman Prefect.  Ananias, son of Seth, was appointed by the Roman legate Quirinius as the first High Priest of the newly formed Roman province of Judaea that same year.  Ananias officially served as High Priest for ten years (6–15 CE), when at the age of 36 he was deposed by the procurator Gratus.  He remained as one of the nation’s most influential political and social individuals, aided greatly by the use of his five sons and his son-in-law Caiaphas as High Priests.  There are Talmudic references to the unworthiness of the High Priests during this period. (29) (30) (31)

Origins of Tax Collectors…

After the banishment of Archelaus, the Roman procurator, Coponius, attempted to directly tax the Jews and ordered a strict census for that purpose. B oth major pharisaic schools, Bet Hillel and Bet Shammai protested. They stigmatised the new measure as being so outrageous as to justify all schemes by which it might be evaded.   Both schools also promoted abhorrence of every Jew who was officially concerned in carrying it out – even their testimony before any Jewish court was deemed worthless.

Hatred of “the other”…

In this atmosphere of heightened discontent with Roman rule Judas of Galilee (son of Hezekiah whom Herod had executed) and Zadok, of the Shammai school, united in forging the Zealots into a significant political league whose objective was to oppose by every means the practice of Roman laws and exercise of Roman governance.  ‘Hatred of the other’, primarily directed at the Romans but broadened to include all Gentiles, gained the ascendency and with it Bet Shammai gained political ascendency over Bet Hillel.  Viewed through this lens, anyone who fraternized with Gentiles was compromising the purity of God’s people, corrupting the holy Torah and unworthy of any respect.   An incident is recorded of Hillel going up to the temple to offer a burnt offering and being accosted by several students of Shammai.   Rather than risk confrontation in the very Temple courtyard, Hillel offered a lie that they accepted and moved off (b.Betazh 20a).  These two houses of Pharisees grew so bitterly opposed to each other that even in public worship they would no longer unite under one roof. (32)

The Eighteen Articles and a Violent Shift of Power within the Pharisees

In order to build a sufficient fence around the Torah to maintain Jewish purity the Shammaites and Zealots proposed a more strict interpretation of the laws of purity and association.  Known as “The Eighteen Articles”, these measures included prohibiting the Jews from buying any article of food or drink from their heathen neighbours.  The Shammaites placed such significance of ritual purification of the hands before eating, after the manner of the priest’s purification before serving at the altar, that one who ate bread without engaging in this ritual washing of his hands was considered “as if he had sexual relations with a whore”.  It needs to be understood that for the Jews ritual purification was not about washing dirt off but was an additional ritual washing after the hands, or item, were physically clean in order to demonstrate one’s spiritual purity.  Another example of adding more stringent articles to the rules of ritual purity related to objects which had become ritually unclean.  Now even melting metal objects down and using the molten metal to make new objects was deemed to be insufficient to remove their ritual uncleanliness if they had been forged by a gentile. 

The Hillelites were not in agreement with such sharply defined exclusiveness or such rigidly applied ritual purity laws that would have the effect of splintering the people even more than they already were, to the point where even a Pharisees could not eat with other Pharisees.   They could see the detrimental economic effects of such trade restrictions and also the difficulties such would pose for continuing their proselytizing of the Gentiles if all contact with them was prohibited.

The Sanhedrin was basically a democratic body, so with both the Sadducees and the Hillelites against their new measures there was little chance of the Shammaites and Zealots getting them passed into Jewish law as things stood.   Eleazar ben Ananias conceived a plot to change the way things stood.  He invited the disciples of both schools of Pharisees (Hillel & Shammai) to meet at his house. Armed men were stationed at the door, and instructed to permit everyone to enter, but no one to leave. During the discussions that were carried on under these circumstances, many Hillelites are said to have been killed with swords and spears; and there and then the remainder adopted the Shammaites’ Eighteen Articles.  On account of the violence which attended those enactments, and because of the radicalism of the enactments themselves, the day on which the Shammaites thus triumphed over the Hillelites was later regarded as a day of misfortune (Tosef., Shab. i. 16 et seq.; Shab. 13a, 17a; Yer. Shab. i. 3c). 

Many of the measures had been repealed by the time Rabbi Judah HaNasi penned the Mishnah, but while the Shammaites retained the ascendancy (which now lasted until after the destruction of the second temple) these measures remained fixed in the Jewish law. It was now unlawful for the Jew even ‘to keep company, or come unto one of another nation.’  To quarrel with this was to find fault with “the law” and the religion which made one a Jew. 

With this increasing polarisation of society the radical centre of Bet Hillel had shrunk from a broad way that carried most of the people to an endangered narrow path, under threat from both Romans and Zealots.  When Hillel died, sometime between 10 and 20 AD, the leadership of Bet Hillel passed to his son, but the leadership of the Pharisees in the Sanhedrin was now firmly in the hands of the stringent separatist Shammai. (33) (34)

New Capital for Galilee…

In 18 AD, Antipas built the city of Tiberias to replace Sepphoris as his capital. He named it to honour the Roman Emperor who was his close friend and patron. The urban cities built by Antipas were cosmopolitan and opulent, and quite unlike the traditional towns of Galilee. Furthermore, the city of Tiberias had been built over a cemetery making it “unclean” for Jews.   Interestingly, the gospels never recount that Yeshua, a devout Jew, travelled to either Tiberias or Sepphoris, even though Sepphoris is only a few kilometres, and even visible, from the village of Nazareth where he spent his childhood. (1)

The stage was now set for this much needed reform to begin.  A reform that would be, as the Gospel of Matthew keeps reminding us, a fulfilling of God’s purposes for Israel.

Reference List

1. Galilee in the First Century CE. New Life. [Online] [Cited: 3rd Oct. 2016.]
2. Chancey, Mark A. How Jewish Was Jesus’ Galilee? s.l. : Biblical Archaelogy Society, 2008.
3. Stolebarger, Dan. Discipleship vs. Talmidim. Koinonia House. [Online] [Cited: 3rd Oct. 2016.]
4. Erickson, Joyce A. 2-Jesus as Rabbi-Jewish Roots. The Online Bible School. [Online] [Cited: 3rd Oct. 2016.]
5. Bivin, Roy B. Blizzard and David. Study Shows Jesus as Rabbi. Bible Scholars. [Online] [Cited: 3rd Oct. 2016.]
6. Rabbi and Talmidim. That the World May Know. [Online] [Cited: 18th Sept. 2016.] .
7. Bivin, Roy B. Blizzard and David. Study Shows Jesus as Rabbi. Bible Scholars – Question the Answers. [Online] May 2013. [Cited: 3rd Oct. 2016.]
8. Safrai, Shmuel. Pilgrimage in the Time of Jesus. Jerusalem Perspective. [Online] Sept/Oct 1989. [Cited: 3rd November 2019.]
9. Safrai, Chana. Jesus’ Devout Jewish Parents and their Child Prodigy. Jerusalem Perspective. [Online] [Cited: 3rd November 2019.]
10. Andrews, Samuel James. How Many Brothers and Sisters Did Jesus Have – The Life of our Lord on Earth. [Online] [Cited: 5th Aug 2019.]
11. Armin Lange, K.F.Diethard Römheld, Matthias Weigold. Judaism and Crisis: Crisis as a Catalyst in Jewish Cultural History. Oakville : Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2011.
12. Barclay, John M. G. Pauline Churches and Diaspora Jews.
13. Radl, Karl. Apion of Alexandria on the Jews (Part I). Semitic Controversies A Daily Blog About Jews and Judaism. [Online] 2nd Oct. 2012. [Cited: 2nd Oct. 2016.]
14. Kohler, Kaufmann. APION. Jewish Encyclopedia. [Online] 1906. [Cited: 2nd Oct. 2016.]
15. Edersheim, Alfred. The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. Grand Rapids, Ml: : Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 1886.
16. Emmanuel Kwaku Akyeampong, Henry Louis Gates. Dictionary of African Biography, Volume 6. New Tork : Oxford University Press, 2012.
17. Hillar, Marian. Philo of Alexandria (c. 20 B.C.E.—40 C.E.). Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. [Online] Center for Philosophy and Socinian Studies. [Cited: 3rd Oct. 2016.]
18. Kirby, Peter. Philo of Alexandria. Early Jewish Writings. [Online] [Cited: 3rd Oct. 2016.]
19. Mastin, Luke. By Individual Philosopher >Philo of Alexandria. The Basics of Philosophy. [Online] [Cited: 3rd Oct. 2016.]
20. Nash, Ronald. Was the New Testament Influenced by Philo? CRI. [Online] [Cited: 3rd Oct. 2016.]
21. DelHousaye, John. Hillel’s Seven Rules of Interpretation. Academia. [Online] [Cited: 3rd Oct. 2016.]
22. Louis Jacobs, David Derovan. HERMENEUTICS. Jewish Virtual Librry. [Online] [Cited: 3rd Oct. 2016.]
23. What are the seven middoth (Hillel’s rules for interpretation)? Biblical Hermeneutics. [Online] [Cited: 3rd Oct. 2016.]
24. The Seven Rules of Hillel, and the Thirteen Rules of Ishmael. Upper Biblical Studies for All. [Online] 6th Dec. 2013. [Cited: 3rd Oct. 2016.]
25. Chapter 10: Hillel’s Seven Principles of Bible Interpretation. [Online] [Cited: 3rd Oct. 2016.]
26. Trimm, Dr. James. The Seven Rules of Hillel. Nazarene Space. [Online] [Cited: 3rd Oct. 2016.]
27. Trimm, James. HHMI Newsgroup Archives. Hebraic Heritage Ministries International. [Online] 2011. [Cited: 3rd Oct. 2016.]
28. Apple, Rabbi Dr Raymond. Jewish attitudes to Gentiles in the First Century. OZ Torah. [Online] [Cited: 15th Nov. 2016.]
29. Greene, T.E. Timeline. Tegworlds Total Context. [Online] 2nd Feb. 2016. [Cited: 7th Sept. 2016.]
30. Biblical Archaelogy Society Staff. Herod’s Death, Jesus’ Birth and a Lunar Eclipse. Bible History Daily. [Online] 29th Nov. 2015. [Cited: 7th Sept. 2016.]
31. Jacobs, Rabbi Louis. High Priest Head of all priests had special rights and privileges. My Jewish Learning. [Online] [Cited: 5th Oct. 2016.]
32. Marcus Jastrow, S. Mendelsohn. Bet Hillel and Bet Shammai. Jewish Encyclopedia. [Online] 1906. [Cited: 9th Sept. 2016.]
33. Bugg, Rabbi Mikha’el (Michael). The Eighteen Measures, Part 2: Another Upper Room. Return of Benjamin. [Online] [Cited: 9th Sept. 2016.]
34. —. The Eighteen Measures, Part 3: The Measures and Ritual Purity. The Return of Benjamin. [Online] [Cited: 9th Sept 2016.]

In the comments section below share your thoughts on what you have read and answer some of the following questions…

* How did the Jewish school system prepare the people to hear Jesus’ message?
* In what ways is your schooling system like it was in Nazareth, and in what ways is it different? What impact do you think that has on the children’s learning, moral and spiritual development?
* Why were the people in Galilee, and especially in Nazareth looked down on?
* Why would God have chosen that place for Jesus to grow up?
* In what ways is your community like Nazareth, and in what ways is it different to Nazareth?
* Is there ‘hatred of the other’ in your community? If so, which people are hated, and how do you think Jesus would relate to them?

A Child Is Born

Adoration of the Shepherds 
by Dutch painter Matthias Stomer, 1632
Read Matthew 1 – 2 & Luke 1 – 2

Here is how the birth of Yeshua the Messiah (Jesus Christ) took place. When his mother Miryam (Mary) was engaged to Yosef (Joseph), before they were married, she was found to be pregnant from the Ruach HaKodesh (Holy Spirit) Matthew 1:18 CJB

There were three distinct stages to Jewish weddings during this time.  The first, shiddukhin, involved promise and negotiation of terms, while the second and third stages were wedding ceremonies celebrating a two-part process in getting married, kiddushin and nissuin.  Because marriage is covenantal, both components, kiddushin and nissuin, were initiated with the blessing over wine. (1)

Long before any wedding ceremony, the two families came together in שִׁדּוּכִין,   Shiddukhin (mutual commitment).   In Jewish law Shiddukhin was the mutual promise, generally between the parents of the young couple (older, previously married individuals could make the promise on their own behalf) to contract a marriage at some future time.  It was the preliminary arrangements prior to the legal betrothal and included formulation of the terms (tena’im) on which the marriage would take place.  If one party committed a breach of promise, i.e., by not marrying the other party, then penalties could be imposed but no divorce was required at this stage.  (2)

Betrothal Ceremony קידושין, Kiddushin (sanctification)

The first part of the process of getting married was the betrothal ceremony קידושין, Kiddushin (sanctification).  There are several parallels between this and our sanctification as the bride of Christ. Through this ceremony the bride becomes sanctified (set apart) to the groom.

Traditionally, in preparation for this betrothal ceremony, the bride (kallah) and groom (chatan) were separately immersed (baptised) in water for a ritual purification called the mikvah, which was symbolic of spiritual cleansing.

A Jewish mikvah

After the immersion, the couple entered the chuppah (marriage canopy) – symbolic of a new household being planned, to establish a binding contract by kichah, the “taking” of a woman by a man before two Jewish men appointed as witnesses.  As that phrase suggests, the man was the active agent in the ceremony while the woman was the silent recipient.  Yet she was not without agency as her consent was required for the marriage to be legal.  The man’s “taking” of the woman involved giving to her.  He declared a blessing over the wine that was to be shared to seal his covenant vows and then the bircat erusin (betrothal blessing), as he gave his bride a coin of stipulated value: “You are hereby betrothed unto me with this gift in accordance with the laws of Moses and Israel.”  The woman demonstrated her consent to marrying the man by accepting the money and drinking the wine.  In return for her consent the groom presented his bride with a ketubah (covenant), in which he recorded his binding obligations to her.  In Jewish law consent is required of both parties, but only the groom gives the contract, and only the bride receives it. (3)  (4)

Under the entered the chuppah (marriage canopy)

Once kiddushin was complete, the bride was betrothed and legally belonged to the groom.  The relationship created by kiddushin could only be dissolved by death or divorce, and any sexual relations outside of that relationship were subject to the laws of adultery and punishable by death (Deut. 22:23-24).  However, the spouses did not become physically intimate or live together during their time of betrothal, the mutual obligations created by the marital relationship did not take effect until about a year later when the final stage of the wedding ceremony, nisuin, was completed.  During their engagement the groom was to prepare a place for his bride, generally this was done by building an extra room for them onto his father’s house.  While the groom was doing this, his bride focused on her personal preparations: wedding garments, lamps, and all that was required to be ready when the groom’s father gave the word and he came to lift her up and take her to the wedding feast at his home.  It was during this time of her betrothal to Yosef that Miryam was found to be pregnant. (5)

Scandal in Nazareth…

Can you imagine the scandal in the little religiously conservative town of Nazareth when one of their teenage girls got pregnant during her betrothal?  “The law says she should be stoned!”  Everyone had thought Miryam (Mary) was a good and devout young woman who would make a suitable wife for the pious carpenter Yosef (Joseph), to whom she was engaged.  That was until they found out that she was pregnant.  Word travels quickly in a village. The whole town felt betrayed.  This was a close-knit community and their young women remained chaste.  How many people would believe a young woman’s defence that she had not been with a man but was impregnated by God Himself?  As far as they were concerned, Miryam had brought shame upon herself and upon them.   With her pregnancy the only proof needed of her guilt, the pressure mounted for Yosef to avenge his good name by having her stoned, but this righteous man would have none of that.

Her husband-to-be, Yosef, was a man who did what was right; so he made plans to break the engagement quietly, rather than put her to public shame.  But while he was thinking about this, an angel of ADONAI (the Lord) appeared to him in a dream and said,

“Yosef, son of David, do not be afraid to take Miryam home with you as your wife; for what has been conceived in her is from the Ruach HaKodesh (Holy Spirit).  She will give birth to a son, and you are to name him Yeshua, [which means `ADONAI saves,’] because he will save his people from their sins.” 

All this happened in order to fulfill what ADONAI had said through the prophet, 

“The virgin will conceive and bear a son, and they will call him `ImmanuEl.” (The name means, “God is with us.”) 

When Yosef awoke he did what the angel of ADONAI had told him to do — he took Miryam home to be his wife, but he did not have sexual relations with her until she had given birth to a son, and he named him Yeshua.   Matthew 1:19-25 CJB

נישואין Nissuin – Joseph took Mary home as his wife…

The final step in getting married was נישואין, Nissuin (to take, from naso, to lift up as in an elevation of status), the actual marriage.  At this time the groom, with much noise, fanfare and romance, carried his bride home to the place that he had prepared for her and the feast he had prepared for all their guests.  The couple would again stand under the chuppah (wedding canopy) while an officiant recited the seven marriage blessings.  The groom again recited a blessing over the wine (a symbol of joy) and they would both drink from the cup before retiring to the privacy of a room to consummate their marriage.  In contrast to kiddushin, the transformation of nissuin was accomplished in a private room.  Nissuin was not about giving promises in front of witnesses or establishing a legal bond in the community, but about fulfilling those promises through the couple’s togetherness in the hidden place, yichud.  As opposed to kiddushin, nissuin positively permits – indeed commands – sexual intercourse between bride and groom.   Once this was accomplished the wedding feast, seudah, might continue in great joy for days of feasting, music, dancing and celebrations. (6) (7)

After an angle of the Lord appeared to Yosef, not only did he refuse to seek revenge against Miryam, hestepped up to be Miryam’s protector and defender, taking her home to be his wife and thus covering her shame of being pregnant outside of wedlock.  Yosef undertook nissuin in carrying his bride home to be his wife but did not yet complete the process.  No doubt there were some tongues that would not be so easily quietened in their gossip and backbiting.  The snide remarks whispered condemnations and disparaging glances likely continued.  The transformation of nissuin was not yet accomplished.  Yosef had no sexual relations with Miryam until after Yeshua was born.  And so it was that Luke wrote of Miryam still in terms of being pledged to Yosef in marriage, because the marriage had not yet been consummated, even though they had celebrated both public ceremonies of marriage and were now living together as husband and wife in every other way.

To Bethlehem …

Mary & Joseph travel together to Bethlehem
Yosef took Miryam to Bethlehem with him

Now in those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world.  This was the first census to take place whilea Quirinius was governor ofb Syria. And everyone went to his own town to register.
So Joseph also went up from Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the City of David called Bethlehem, since he was from the house and line of David.  He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to him in marriage and was expecting a child.                     Luke 2:1-5
a Or ‘This was the census before’
b Or ‘governing in’

There was no legal requirement for Miryam to accompany Yosef to Bethlehem, but it provided the perfect opportunity to escape the bitter tongues and veiled threats to her “bastard child” from those in the village of Nazareth who were still scandalised by her presumed adultery while engaged.  Few would believe that a teenage girl had encountered God, and not a teenage boy.  The angel in Yosef’s dream had convinced him, but how many others remained unconvinced?  The only way for Yosef to protect Miryam was to take her with him to Bethlehem.  There she could simply be presented as his wife and all would rejoice at the impending birth of ‘their’ child.

It was a walk of about 130km and, for safety’s sake, would have been undertaken with others who also had to travel for the census.  The evidence suggests that they were planning this to be a permanent move, so they likely carried all their worldly possessions with them, particularly Yosef’s tools for his trade as a carpenter (builder). The walk included a particularly steep and rough climb from Jericho down in the Jordan valley, 258m below sea level, up the mountain range to Jerusalem, 754m above sea level, and then another 10km over the fertile limestone hills to the south of the city until they arrived at Bethlehem, another 30m higher, on a hilltop ridge near the edge of the Judean desert.

The Roman Census…

There were at least two Roman censuses towards the end of Herod’s reign – one in around 8 – 7 BC and one around 2 BC   (N.B. there is contention among historians over the exact year for almost everything during these ancient times – different sources give slightly different years).

The ancient Jewish historian, Josephus, recorded in Antiquities of the Jews, XVI, ix 3, that Caesar Augustus was furious with Herod in 8 BC and threatened to treat him no longer as a friend (“client” – collecting his own taxes and paying a tribute to Rome from them), but as a subject (subject to Roman taxation).  It has been suggested that Augustus, scandalized by Herod’s outrageous reputation and increasing madness, began the movement toward making Judea a prefecture in 8 BC, and part of that preparation was a registration of all citizens. Quirinius was a high official in central Asia Minor in 8 BC, and in charge of the army in Syria.

The second census, this one associated with an oath of allegiance, was ordered throughout the Roman Empire in preparation for Augustus’ silver jubilee in February, 2 BC.  This celebration marked the 25th anniversary of Augustus’ elevation to supreme power by the Senate and people of Rome. It was also the 750th anniversary of the founding of Rome. At this celebration, the Senate conferred upon him the title Pater Patriae (“Father of [his] Country”). The year before, Augustus sent out a decree requiring “the entire Roman people” throughout the empire to register their approval for the bestowal of this honour (T. Lewin, Fasti Sacri [1865] 135). This registration was required of all Roman citizens and others of distinguished rank among Rome’s client kingdoms such as Judea.  In Antiquites 17, Josephus mentions that at this time “all the people of the Jews gave assurance of their good will to Caesar, and to the king’s government.”  This suggests that the pharisaic school of Bet Hillel still held sway in the Sanhedrin at this time, with their middle path of honouring both God and their heathen rulers for the sake of their nation’s safety and freedom of religion. Josephus further records that there were six thousand Pharisees who refused to swear the oath.  We have already noted that the Shammaites would not bow to Roman rule. This becomes significant as the scene is prepared for Christ’s ministry. (8) (9) (10) (11) (12) (13)

In Bethlehem Christ is born…

Luke records that Yosef and Miryam travelled to Bethlehem (the City of David) because Yosef’s family came from this hilltop town where King David had also been born (Ruth 4:18-22 & 1 Samuel 1:12) and anointed as king (1 Samuel 16:1-13).   

While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born,and she gave birth to her firstborn, a Son. She wrapped Him in swaddling cloths and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn (κατάλυμα).  Luke 2:6-7 NIV

Yosef and Miryam had arrived in Bethlehem well before she was due to give birth.  They had been welcomed by Yosef’s family and community, taken up residence and started settling into community life when it came time for Miryam to give birth. κατάλυμα (‘kataluma’), the Greek word that is translated as “inn” here, is translated “guest room” everywhere else that it is used in scripture (Mark 14:14 & Luke 22:11).

Floorplan of a Jewish home

Significantly, the Arabic and Syriac versions of the New Testament, which reflect more of a Middle Eastern context, have never translated kataluma as meaning an inn, but instead as a guest room.  Furthermore, Luke elsewhere in his Gospel when referring to an actual inn (Luke 10:34) uses the Greek word pandokheion, not kataluma.  As Kenneth Bailey, a Middle Eastern and New Testament scholar points out, “This translation [of the word as ‘inn’] is a product of our Western heritage.” (14) 

Alternate floor plan of Jewish home

While Romans and other foreign travellers often stayed in roadside hostelries or ‘inns’, Jews stayed in the homes of relatives or other Jews when travelling so as to avoid contact with pagan foods and customs (see Leviticus 11:1-47).   Another reason for doubting that Yosef and Miriam sort shelter in an inn is that, for commercial reasons, these were situated on the major trading routes, and no such route passed through the little town of Bethlehem. Thus, no inn.  Most importantly, when Yosef returned to Bethlehem with Miriam he was honour bound to seek out his relatives and stay with them.  When a Jewish son returned to his village, the village of his fathers, it brought much joy and warm welcoming into the home of his relatives. (15)

Although there was some variation in floor plan, peasant houses in Yeshua’s day generally catered for the family’s livestock as well as the people, all under the one roof.   Often the family’s living area was just slightly raised from the area for their livestock.  Sometimes it was on a second story.   When they could afford it a guest room (kataluma) was added, either to the side or above the family’s quarters.  There was usually a manger (feeding trough) for the larger animals towards the end of the living room floor next to the lower level where the animals were kept.   The animals were brought in at dusk, then let out first thing in the morning and their area cleaned-out for use by the family during the rest of the day. (16)

Finding that there was no room left for them in Yosef’s family’s guest-room – it being already filled with other relatives who had earlier returned to Bethlehem for the Census – Yosef and Miryam would have been asked to share the family area next to where animals were normally kept.   Having them stay anywhere other than with Yosef’s family would have been unthinkable, regardless of how crowded the conditions there might be. (17) (18)

While they were living with Yosef’s relatives in Bethlehem the time came for Miryam’s baby to be born (Luke 2:6).   Birthing was woman’s business.  The midwife would have been called and all the female relatives gathered around to help with the delivery, while Yosef was sent off to a neighbour’s house with the men.  The midwife may have brought a birthing stool with her, otherwise one or two of the women would have performed the role of the birthing stool with Miryam on their lap, supported and held during the contractions, while the midwife sat on a low stool facing her to check on progress and catch the baby.  They may have used the ledge from the slightly raised living room to the lower animal area to provide the somewhat upright, somewhat seated position for birthing, with the midwife sitting on her low stool down in the animal area to monitor the baby’s progress and receive him into the world.  Other women would have been applying wet cloths, heating water, massaging and encouraging.   To make delivery easier, “all the ties and knots in a woman’s garments were undone and all doors in the house were opened wide.” (19)

After the umbilical cord was cut, the baby was washed with water and rubbed with finely ground salt, then warm olive oil was applied and he was powdered with pulverised myrtle leaves.  His limbs were then straightened “so they would grow properly” and he was wrapped firmly in swaddling bands.  Since there were no nappies, being swaddled like this would not last for long.   Right next to where Miryam gave birth was the manger, animal’s feed trough, with fresh soft hay, so when she had fed her new-born baby and held him, marvelling at this perfect new life, and Yosef had been brought back in and introduced to ‘his’ son, Miryam laid Yeshua in the manger.

An Angel Announces the Saviour’s Birth…

In the countryside nearby were some shepherds spending the night in the fields, guarding their flocks, when an angel of ADONAI appeared to them, and the Sh’khinah of ADONAI shone around them. They were terrified; but the angel said to them,
“Don’t be afraid, because I am here announcing to you Good News that will bring great joy to all the people. This very day, in the town of David, there was born for you a Deliverer who is the Messiah, the Lord. Here is how you will know: you will find a baby wrapped in cloth and lying in a feeding trough.”    Luke 2:8-12 CJB

Sheep grazing on the hills near Bethlehem

The “glory of the Lord” shone around the shepherds. This glory of the Lord is known in the Hebrew Scriptures as the Shechinah Glory and Ezekiel 8-11 describes it leaving the First Temple before the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem in 587/6 BC.  Nowhere in Scripture, nor in extra-biblical Jewish literature, is it stated that the glory of the Lord, His divine presence, filled the Second Temple as it had the Tabernacle (Ex. 40:34-35) and the First Temple (1K. 8:10-11; 2Chr. 5:13-14; 2Chr. 7:13).  Rather, Jewish sources such as the Tosefta made a point of its absence.  The Shechinah Glory had not been seen for over 580 years. It enveloped these fields on the night of the birth of the Lord Jesus, and those privileged to witness this glory were not the priests in the Temple at Jerusalem but the shepherds on watch in the fields at Migdal Edar, the Tower of the Flock.  No wonder they were terrified, for no one may see God and live (Exodus 20:33).

Migdal Edar was close to Bethlehem, on the road to Jerusalem.  The first time this landmark is mentioned in scripture is in the Genesis 35:16-21 account of Rachel dying during the birth of Israel’s twelfth son, whom she named Ben-oni “son of my sorrow”, but his father renamed him Benjamin “son of my right hand”.   After burying Rachel, “Israel moved on again and pitched his tent beyond Migdal Eder.”   This ancient watchtower had been used for centuries by shepherds watching out for any threat to their flocks; bandits, wild animals or marauding raiders.   Such towers were common in agricultural areas that lacked the protections of a city wall.

Yet, for many pious Jews at this time the ‘Tower of the Flock’ held a greater significance and expectation.   Micah, whose prophesies led to the anticipation that Messiah would be born in Bethlehem (see Matthew 2:5 with Micah 5:2), had also prophesied:

And you, O Tower of the Flock, the stronghold of the daughter of Zion, to you shall it come, even the former dominion shall come, the kingdom of the daughter of Jerusalem.  Micah 4-8

This had led to the belief that the announcement of the arrival of Messiah would come first to the Tower of the Flock.  Such was expressed in Targum Yonatan’s paraphrase of Genesis 35:23 and Micah 4:8 as: “He spread his tent beyond Migdol Eder, the place where King Messiah will reveal Himself at the end of days.”  

Targums are Jewish Aramaic translations of books of the Hebrew Bible. The targumic genre combines literal renderings of the biblical text with additional material, ranging in size from a word to several paragraphs. The additions provide important insights into ancient Jewish biblical interpretation. Targum Jonathan (Hebrew: תרגום יונתן בן עוזיאל), otherwise referred to as Targum Yonasan/Yonatan, is the official eastern (Babylonian) targum.   The Talmud attributes its authorship to Jonathan ben Uzziel, a pupil of Hillel the Elder. According to this source, it was composed by Jonathan b. Uzziel “from the mouths of Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi,” implying that it was based on traditions derived from the last prophets. 

These sheep, pastured so close to Jerusalem, were probably destined for sacrifices in the Temple – as long as they remained without blemish.   The Mishnah: Shekalim, Chapter Seven, Mishnah Four, makes specific reference to Migdol Eder (the tower of the flock):

Beasts which were found in Jerusalem as far as Migdal Eder and within the same distance in any direction: Males are [considered as] burnt-offerings; Females are [considered as] peace-offerings.  Rabbi Judah says: that which is fit for a pesach (Passover) offering, is [considered as] a pesach-offerings [when found] within thirty days before the pilgrimage [of Pesach]. 

The Mishnah or Mishna (/ˈmɪʃnə/; Hebrew: מִשְׁנָה, “study by repetition“, from the verb shanah שנה, or “to study and review”, also “secondary”) is the first major written collection of the Jewish oral traditions known as the “Oral Torah“.  Every aspect of how the Jews were to obey the Law (according to these Pharisees) was recorded in the Mishnah – it supplements, complements, clarifies and systematizes the commandments of the Torah. The Torah, for example, commands: “When you eat and are satisfied, give thanks to your God for the good land which He has given you” (Deut. 8:10). The Mishnah spells out specific blessings to be recited before and after each kind of food, and what to do if the wrong blessing is recited by mistake. It also extends the recitation of blessings to areas other than food, detailing blessings to be recited before and after the performance of commandments, blessings of praise and thanksgiving, even establishing a regular order of daily prayers.  The Mishnah was written after the time of Christ but it contained much of the Oral Law espoused by the Pharisees during his lifetime and helps us understand how many of the Jews were thinking during this time.  The Mishna comprises six major sections, or orders (sedarim), that contain 63 tractates (massekhtaot) in all.   Shekalim is the fourth tractate in the second order, Moed (Festivals), and so deals principally with matters connected to the Temple in Jerusalem and the temple taxes and offerings.

Those shepherds who first heard tidings of the Saviour’s birth, who first listened to angels’ praises, who beheld the glory of God, were watching flocks destined to be offered as sacrifices in the Temple, a temple that was a magnificent structure but lacked God’s Sh’khinah glory.  How many baby sheep had they seen come into the world and checked to ensure that they were male and without blemish so they could grow up to become Passover Lambs?  Now they were to witness that the Lamb of God had come into the world, the one who would be the sacrifice to end all sacrifices. (20) (21) (22) (23)

There is a teaching being propagated that these were no ordinary shepherds but were Levites and that they would take any ewes who were about to lamb into the ground floor of Tower of the Flock to give birth, and inspect the lambs when born and if they were fit to be a Passover sacrifice they would wrap them tightly in swaddling clothes and lay them in the mangers within the tower’s ground floor so that they would not struggle and inflict any blemishes upon themselves, and that this was actually the place of Jesus’ birth, the same place where the Passover lambs were born and swaddled, so the shepherds knew exactly where to go to find the Lamb of God and assess Him as fitting for sacrifice as God’s Passover Lamb. (24) (25) (26) (27) (28) (29) (30)   While this is a beautiful story to illustrate the spiritual truth of Jesus being born as the Lamb of God to pay the price for our sins, I can find no source material to support it.   Most often it seems to be drawn and exaggerated from the following oft-quoted passage from Alfred Edershiem’s classic “The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah” (Vol., I; Pg. 186 & 187) which makes no mention of birthing in the Tower or swaddling the lambs and placing them in Tower mangers:

And yet Jewish tradition may prove here both illustrative and helpful, that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem, was a settled conviction.  Equally so was the belief, that He was to be revealed from Migdal Eder, ‘the tower of the flock.’ This Migdal Eder was not the watchtower for the ordinary flocks which pastured on the barren sheepground beyond Bethlehem, but lay close to the town, on the road to Jerusalem. A passage in the Mishnah leads to the conclusion, that the flocks, which pastured there, were destined for Temple sacrifices, and, accordingly, that the shepherds, who watched over them, were not ordinary shepherds. 

Whether people around them thought of these shepherds as ordinary shepherds or special temple shepherds, God chose them for the extra-ordinary task of testifying to the appearance of His glory with the birth of His Son into this world.

Suddenly, along with the angel was a vast army from heaven praising God: 
“In the highest heaven, glory to God! And on earth, peace among people of good will!”    Luke 2:13-14 CJB

The angel’s declaration of Messiah’s birth in the ‘town of David’ (Bethlehem) had been accompanied by a manifestation of the glory of God and was now followed by the appearance of a multitude of the heavenly angel army proclaiming God’s glory and declaring peace.

No sooner had the angels left them and gone back into heaven than the shepherds said to one another,

“Let’s go over to Beit-Lechem (Bethlehem) and see this thing that has happened, that ADONAI has told us about.” 

Hurrying off, they came and found Miryam (Mary) and Yosef (Joseph), and the baby lying in the feeding trough.  Upon seeing this, they made known what they had been told about this child; and all who heard were amazed by what the shepherds said to them. 

Miryam treasured all these things and kept mulling them over in her heart. 

Meanwhile, the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for everything they had heard and seen; it had been just as they had been told.  Luke 2:15-20 CJB

It would not have been difficult for the shepherds to find out in which house a baby had just been born in this small town of Bethlehem.  Everyone knew everyone else’s business in such towns, and the joyous news of a birth would travel quickly indeed as an air of celebration filled the streets.  They arrived at the house during that brief interval of time when Yeshua was still wrapped in His swaddling cloths and lying in the manger – just as the angel had said. 

The shepherds were not the first people outside of Yosef and Miryam to see Yeshua after his birth, but they were the first to look upon Him as saviour, Messiah and Lord.   Their testimony of God’s glory and the angel’s proclamation concerning this baby impacted everyone who had been involved in, or heard of, the birth.   Now Miryam and her baby were surrounded by a whole community of people who knew that He was God’s promised Messiah on the testimony of the shepherds.  Gone was the guilt and shame that some in Nazareth had tried to put onto her, in Bethlehem they were honoured and exalted.

Yeshua circumcised…

Yeshua’s parents followed the Jewish law and customs of their time.  In obedience to the Biblical commandment (Gen. 21:4 & Lev. 12:3) they had Yeshua’s b’rit-milah (circumcision) on the eight day after his birth.  In accord with Jewish custom at that time they also had a public naming of their baby boy as part of the celebrations on this day.   All this would have been done in their local synagogue in Bethlehem, surrounded by Yosef’s family and neighbours.

When eight days were fulfilled for the circumcision of the child, his name was called Yeshua, which was given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.  Luke 2:21 HNV

Yeshua Presented in the Temple…

After another 33 days they travelled the 10km to the temple in Jerusalem for Miryam’s purification sacrifice (Lev. 12:1-8) and Yeshua’s presentation to the Lord and redemption payment to the priests as her first-born boy (Exodus 22:28-29, 34:19-20 & Num. 18:15-16).

When the days of their purification according to the Torah of Moses were fulfilled, they brought him up to Jerusalem, to present him to the Lord(as it is written in the Torah of the Lord, “Every male who opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord”), and to offer a sacrifice according to that which is said in the Torah of the Lord, “A pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.”   Luke 2:22-24 HNV

If Yosef had been planning to return to Nazareth after registering in Bethlehem for the Census, now would have been the time to do so.  They had fulfilled their duties in the temple following the birth of their first-born son, so the way was open for them to continue on the long walk back to Nazareth for Yosef to resume his business there.   They did not head back, but continued living in Bethlehem.   Maybe Yosef thought it best to stay here, were everyone honoured his wife and her baby boy, rather then return to the ignorant judgments of some in Nazareth.   Yosef, being a carpenter/builder, likely built an extra room onto his relative’s house during that time, so he and Miryam would have their own living quarters.  

There were various and diverse messianic expectations in the Jewish community at the time of Yeshua’s birth.  The more brutal Herod’s reign became, the more widespread and eager became the hopes and expectations for a Jewish Messiah to deliver the people from Herodian and Roman rule.  For some it was a wistful hope, for others it was intense, theologically charged and very detailed.  Those details varied within the different Jewish groups at the time.  Some who studied Daniel’s prophesies saw in them that they were in the age of the fourth beast and the time was near.  

There were mixed hopes, pre-conceived ideas and pre-built eschatologies.  And then there were those who walked with God and headed the voice of the Holy Spirit.

Behold, there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon. This man was righteous and devout, looking for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was on him.   It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he should not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.  He came in the Spirit into the temple. When the parents brought in the child, Yeshua, that they might do concerning him according to the requirement of the Torah, then he received him into his arms, and blessed God, and said,        

“Now You are releasing Your servant, Master, according to Your word, in peace; for my eyes have seen Your salvation, which You have prepared before the face of all peoples; a light for revelation to the nations, and the glory of Your people Israel.”

Joseph and his mother were marvelling at the things which were spoken concerning him and Simeon blessed them, and said to Miriam (Mary), His mother,

“Behold, this child is set for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and for a sign which is spoken against.  Yes, a sword will pierce through your own soul, that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.” 

There was one Hannah, a prophetess, the daughter of Penuel, of the tribe of Asher (she was of a great age, having lived with a husband seven years from her virginity, and she had been a widow for about eighty-four years), who didn’t depart from the temple, worshipping with fastings and petitions night and day. Coming up at that very hour, she gave thanks to the Lord, and spoke of Him to all those who were looking for redemption in Jerusalem.                   Luke 2:25-38 HNV

Magi Come a Long Way to Worship…

There was no single and uniform description of the messianic task.  Some considered the Messiah to be a purely natural in-history political leader (albeit more powerful than the Romans). Some considered the Messiah to be super-natural/super-angelic. Some considered him to be an after-history universal King/Son of God. Then there were some (notably the Sadducees who accepted only the Torah as inspired), who did not expect one at all.  Such variety, intensity and pervasiveness of messianic beliefs led to several different men during Herod’s reign rising up, making messianic claims and drawing a following. The expectation that most haunted King Herod and played on his paranoia was that of a descendant of King David who would conquer all who oppressed Israel and rule as king of the Jews.  If such a one was identified by the people, even as a baby, the masses might rebel against Herod and declare the infant their king. (31) (32)

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, asking,

“Where is the One who has been born King of the Jews? We saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.”      Matthew 2:1-2

Who Were the Magi?
Magi first appear in the historical record in the seventh century B.C.  They were priests of a monotheistic religion now known as Zoroastrainism and were considered “wise men” who observed the stars and interpreted dreams, signs and omens for the kings.   As there was, in the Eastern World View, no separation between the spiritual and the mathematical or scientific, Magi were expected to excel in both and use both together in advising their king.   According to Herodotus’ account they predicted that the Median king Astyages’ young grandson from his daughter’s marriage to a Persian would eventually rule all of Asia.  The boy grew up to be Cyrus, who led a revolt of Persians against Astyages and overcame the Medes, captured Babylon (who were at that time ruling over Judea) in 539 BC and built the largest empire the world had yet seen. It was during the first year under Persian rule that an elderly Daniel was thrown into the lion’s den and God’s deliverance of him lead to the decree that everyone reverence the God of Daniel.  It was also during this time that the Messianic revelation of Daniel 9 was given.  In 537 BC, 70 years after their captivity, following the Magi’s advice, Cyrus sent the Jews home to rebuild their temple in Jerusalem. 

It is widely believed that records of Daniel’s wisdom and prophesies were maintained and consulted by the Magi.  There were enough similarities between Zoroastrainism and Judaism for Daniel to be honoured as chief among the Magi and his prophesies to be highly regarded by them even though Daniel never compromised in his devotion to Yahweh.  Both were monotheistic religions that were founded on prophetic revelation and contained a good versus evil world view.  Most of all, Zoroastrainism, exalted the prophetic and Daniel had proven over and over to be the most accurate prophet they ever encountered, whose relationship with God was real and powerful.  This was a man whose words they were keen to weave into their traditions and expectations for the future.   Thus, the Gathas, the sacred hymns attributed to Zoroaster, speak of a future figure called the Saoshyant or “future benefactor” who will be sent by God (called Ahura Mazda by the Zoroasters) to lead righteousness to triumph over wickedness.  It appears that this group of Magi had high expectations that the time for the birth of this coming righteous one, who would be the king of the Jews, of Daniel’s people, was almost upon them and so had been scanning the heavens for a sign to confirm it.   

Both Greek and Parthian empires had exalted Magi to positions of prominence and political power.   The Parthians ruled from 247 BC to 224 AD, creating a vast empire that stretched from the Mediterranean in the west to India and China in the east.  In 53 BC Crassus, the Roman triumvir had invaded Parthia and been utterly defeated, and the Roman standards taken, a huge psychological blow for Rome.  Then, in 32 BC the Parthians had defeated Mark Antony and regained Armenia, bringing Rome to the negotiating table.  In 20 BC Augustus secured a peace agreement with the Parthian King, Phraates IV. 

While there was a diversity of religions within the Parthian Empire, Zoroastrianism was widespread, and Magi held prominent positions of influence and power.  So, having Magi from anywhere in that vast empire come to Jerusalem, which was part of the rival Roman Empire, and speak of a King who had been born whom they wanted to worship, raised all sorts of concerns for those in Jerusalem, not least Herod himself.  Fears stirred that the Magi might use this as some pretext to advise Phraates to break the agreement with Rome, and Jerusalem could become the epicentre of another great battle of empires, under attack from both sides.  Herod had established his reign over Jerusalem by laying siege and defeating the Parthian backed Antigonus in 37 BC, resulting in a mass slaughter of the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so was especially fearful that they were planning some form of revenge. (33) (34) (35) (36)  

When King Herod heard this, he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him.When he had assembled all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired where the Christ was to be born.    Matthew 2:3-4

This assembly of all the chief priests and scribes was likely the Sanhedrin, consisting of Sadducees (chief priests) and Pharisees (scribes).  The Pharisees in the Sanhedrin at this time were led by Hillel and included many from his school, as well as those from the school of Shammai.

“In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:
‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah, for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of My people Israel.’” Matthew 2:5-6

Interestingly, Matthew does not record them as quoting the scripture directly, but rather giving a Midrash (Jewish method of interpretation that brings out the meaning and application of the text) in answer to Herod’s question.  This midrash drew from two scriptures: Micah 5:2 (v.1 in Hebrew) “But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting.” KJV and 2 Samuel 5:2b “And the Lord said to you, ‘You will shepherd my people Israel, and you will become their ruler.’” NIV.   This Jewish understanding of where Messiah would be born is also reflected in the Jerusalem Talmud, Berakoth 5a, “The King Messiah… from where does he come forth?   From the royal city of Bethlehem in Judah.

Then Herod called the Magi secretly and learned from them the exact time the star had appeared.  And sending them to Bethlehem, he said:
“Go, search carefully for the Child, and when you find Him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship Him.” Matthew 2:7-8

We are not told the exact time the star appeared, and thus how long they had been travelling, but we are later told that Herod killed all the male children in Bethlehem and surrounding countryside from two years old and under “according to the date which he had learned from the magi.” (Matthew 2:16 AMP).  If the Magi had been travelling for two years since the star first appeared they likely had come from a great distance, possibly even from the far reaches of the Parthian Empire.  Some western traditions suggest they came from Persia, India and Babylonia.  ‘Revelation of the Magi’, a Syriac manuscript the earliest versions of which have been suggested to have been written in the mid-second century, numbers the Magi at 12 to several score of monk-like mystics from a far-off land called Shir (possibly China).  They had been travelling for long enough to have come from far away eastern China.  Others have suggested that the Magi came from the ancient kingdom of Sheba, located on the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, since that kingdom grew rich on three commodities: gold, frankincense and myrrh.  The Queen of Sheba had brought gifts of gold and spices when she came to pay homage to Solomon (1 Kings 10:2) and Yeshua refers to her in Matthew 12:42, saying that she brought gifts to Solomon, but “one greater than Solomon is here”, which has been interpreted to imply that officials from the same country had come to pay homage to Him.   Isaiah had declared “A multitude of campel shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall some.  They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.”  (Isaiah 60:6 NRS) To get to Jerusalem from Sheba the route passed through the kingdoms of Midianites and Ephah.  Ultimately, we don’t know how many Magi came to worship Yeshua, nor where they had travelled from.  We do know that they considered their quest for this new born king to be of utmost importance, that their arrival caused a great disturbance in Jerusalem and that they honoured Yeshua with three of the most expensive commodities of that era. (37) (38) (39) (34)

After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stood over the place where the Child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with great delight. Matthew 2:9-10

These Magi who came from the east had, when in their homeland, seen something different and significant in the heavens, “his” star “en te anatole” (Gk) which was a technical term used in Greek mathematical astrology to describe when a planet first ‘reappeared’ from being hidden by the sun’s brightness, as it rose above the eastern horizon just before the sun would appear (heliacal rising) and hide it once more in the bright glare of the sun as it rose in the morning sky.  As the planet gradually got further ahead of the sun over the ensuing weeks and months it would be seen earlier in the night and more towards the southern sky (for viewers in the norther hemisphere).  The Magi had interpreted what they saw in the sky as the omen they had been looking for to confirm that the righteous Jewish king they had been expecting and longing for had been born.  

There are many theories but no consensus or proof of what the Magi saw.  Some have suggested that it was a triple conjunction between Jupiter (known as the king of the planets) and Saturn – with the two planets coming close together in the sky three times over a short period, something that only happens about every 900 years.  Astronomer Michael Molnar contends that it was a pattern of movement in the skies that began with the heliacal rising of Jupiter on the morning of April 17th in 6 BC, followed at noon by its lunar occultation (hidden by the moon being in front of it) in the constellation of Aries and lasted until December 19th of 6 BC when Jupiter stopped moving to the west, stood still briefly, and began moving to the east (in comparison with the background stars). Others have suggested that it was the bright comet which appeared in the constellation of Capricorn and was recorded by Chinese astronomers in 5 BC.  Others suggest it was a nova, a new star, one of which was recorded in the northern constellation of Aquila in 4 BC by astronomers in the Far East. (40) (41)   Here is the first indication that the star the Magi had followed was not a natural star, for no normal star, or comet or conjunction of stars moves and then stands over a single house – they are too far away.   Thus, all attempts to date the Magi’s journey based on astronomical records could be futile. 

On coming to the house, they saw the Child with His mother Mary, and they fell down and worshiped Him. Then they opened their treasures and presented Him with gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh.

And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they withdrew to their country by another route.      Matthew 2:11-12 NIV

Seeking Refuge in Egypt…

This gave Yeshua’s family a bit of extra time in safety but would not be sufficient to protect them from Herod’s paranoia for long, he already knew too many details and would become enraged when he realised that the Magi had failed to conform to his murderous plans.  God uses different means to protect us from an untimely death, according to His infinite wisdom, plans and purposes.   Yosef was a simple carpenter, a godly man who walked his faith, but not a scholar.  He did not understand the necessary significance of taking his young family to Egypt so that his wife’s vulnerable young child would live out the fulfilment of their nation’s redemptive history in God – such would only be recognised in hindsight as inspired scholars reflected on their lives.  But there was one thing that Yosef did know how to do – recognise God’s voice and obey Him fully even when he could not understand much of what was happening or why. 

When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream.

“Get up!” he said. “Take the Child and His mother and flee to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the Child to kill Him.”

So he got up, took the Child and His mother by night, and withdrew to Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. This fulfilled what the Lord had spoken through the prophet:

“Out of Egypt I called my Son.”      Matthew 2:13-15 NIV

So it was that this family fled for their lives from their native land and sort refuge in a foreign nation – like so many other refugees have done.   Yosef was not given time to contemplate all the implications of what the angel was telling him.  The command was urgent, the action required was immediate.  Leave all the people he knew and loved in Bethlehem, leave everything he had been building there in his business and for his family.   Leave right then, in the middle of the night, without a word to anyone, because they would try to convince him to stay and telling them anything could put them in greater danger from Herod’s men.  Taking only what they could carry with no preparation time – and GO. With their gifts from the Magi this family was not destitute as the fled, but they were in need of a safe refuge from Herod’s impending decree.

Herod’s Bethlehem Slaughter…

When Herod saw that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was filled with rage. Sending orders, he put to death all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, according to the time he had learned from the Magi.    Matthew 2:16 NIV

Despite his own impending death, Herod was still desperately paranoid and trying to cling to power.   So when the Magi had told him of a new born king of the Jews, then failed to return to report on his identity and exact location, Herod ordered all the infants of Bethlehem murdered.   He did not want anyone to be able to say that the King of the Jews had somehow been missed in the massacre so ordered even those up to two years old to be slain.   Without warning Herod’s troops suddenly fell upon the tiny town of Bethlehem and carried out their gruesome task as desperate mothers wailed and fought and tried to hide their little boys. As Bethlehem at this time had a fairly small population this would have been a minor atrocity numerically compared with so many of Herod’s other mass-murders.  But to the families of those murdered infants it was catastrophic and many years before Jeremiah (Ch.31:15) had captured their pain:

Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:
‘A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.’    Matthew 2:17-18 NIV

It had been in giving birth to Benjamin that Rachel died, and was buried and her monument still stood not far out from Bethlehem.  The inhabitants of Bethlehem and surrounds were descendants of Benjamin, the tribe from which King David had come.  Rachel, the mother of them all, was representative of all the mothers weeping and refusing to be comforted. 

More massacres were to come.

Herod’s Death…

Herod wanted more than to remain king – he wanted a Herodian dynasty to rival the Hasmonean dynasty that he had replaced.  Herod divided his kingdom between three of his remaining sons and they began reigning under his authority as his health declined:

  • Archelaus – his eldest son by his fourth wife Malthace the Samaritan, received the lion’s share of the kingdom; Idumaea, Judea and Samaria, and the title of Ethnarch (“ruler of the people”).
  • Herod Antipas – another son of Malthace the Samaritan, became Tetrarch of Galilee and Perea.
  • Philip I – a son by his fifth wife Cleopatra of Jerusalem, became Tetrarch of the northern part of Herod’s kingdom, east of Galilee.
Map of Herod's Kingdom and how it was divided between his remaining sons

Herod was 70 years old at his death, which some historians have placed at 4 BC, and others at 1 BC. (37)   With the death of this tyrant several saw an opportunity to fight for their people, or for their own aggrandisement. The result was some very turbulent times, and thousand more deaths.

Both Josephus and the Roman historian, Tacitus, record that at Herod’s death, without waiting for Roman imperial decision, a certain Simon who had served in Herod’s court, usurped the title of king. He raised an army of followers and burnt down the royal palace at Jericho, plundering what was left in it. He also set fire to many other of Herod’s houses in several places of the country, utterly destroyed them, and permitted those that were with him to take what was left in them for a prey. The commander of Herod’s infantry, Gratus, with the backing of some Roman soldiers, chased after and defeated Simon. 

There were hopes of a new regime under Herod’s Roma appointed successor over Judea, Archelaus (who was then just 19). Some of the Pharisees stirred up the crowds assembled to demand that the new ruler punish those who had been favourites of Herod, and that the high priesthood should be given to a new incumbent. They also wanted their taxes reduced. Archelaus was terrified of open revolution, all the more so given the approach of Passover, when the city would be filled with outsiders from the countryside. Josephus wrote:

“But those that were seditious on account of those teachers of the law, irritated the people by the noise and clamours they used to encourage the people in their designs; so they made an assault upon the soldiers, and came up to them, and stoned the greatest part of them, although some of them ran away wounded, and their captain among them; and when they had thus done, they returned to the sacrifices which were already in their hands.”

Archelaus responded by sending out the whole army upon them, and slew three thousand men, then issued a proclamation cancelling the Passover feast. Similar disasters followed at Pentecost. “A countless multitude flocked in from Galilee, from Idumaea, from Jericho, and from Peraea beyond the Jordan, but it was the native population of Judea itself which, both in numbers and ardour, was pre-eminent.” The mob besieged the Roman garrison, leading to another bloody battle, in which the Jews were alarmingly undaunted by their Roman enemies.

According to Josephus: “at this time there were ten thousand other disorders in Judea, which were like tumults, because a great number put themselves into a warlike posture.”

Trouble also brewed in Galilee, and it centred around the city of Sepphoris, just an hour’s walk from Nazareth. Back in 47 BC, when Herod had been appointed by his father as Prefect to Galilee, his first act had been to capture and executed a Hasidim named Hezekiah who had been leading a band of rebels in attacking gentile outposts in Galilee. Now with Herod’s death, Hezekiah’s son, Judas, together with the Pharisee Zadok, headed a large number of Zealots in attacking the city of Sepphoris. Judas made an assault upon the Roman garrison, and seized all the weapons that were laid up in it, and with them armed every one of those that were with him, and carried away what money was left there. These Zealots did not only attack Roman soldiers, but also any Jews whom they considered to be in league with the Romans or not sufficiently devout in their Judaism. The Romans called for the governor of Syria, Varus, based in Antioch, to assist in crushing this rebellion. He brought a very substantial force of two legions, plus allied and auxiliary forces into Galilee, attacked the Zealots and retaliated by crucifying 2,000 Jews as a disincentive to such revolts.  (46)

Sepphoris was burned to the ground, and its inhabitants were sold into slavery. After Herod’s son, Herod Antipas was made tetrarch, or governor, he proclaimed the city’s new name to be Autocratoris, and rebuilt it as the “Ornament of the Galilee” (Josephus, Ant. 18.27). The new population was loyal to Rome.

Did those invading troops also plunder Nazareth as they continued marching down through Samaria towards Jerusalem? It is possible, Roman soldiers were not known to be very circumspect when reeking revenge. Although, it’s more secluded position, away from the main road south, may have afforded it some protection. Varus continued marching his army down through Samaria, stopping en route to burn Emmaus, a storm centre for Athronges’s rising. Athronges was another who tried to rise to power and remove Herod’s family from the throne over Israel. Like King David, Athronges had been a shepherd. He was a tall, strong man. Josephus wrote of him:

He had four brothers, who were tall men themselves, and were believed to be superior to others in the strength of their hands, and thereby were encouraged to aim at great things, and thought that strength of theirs would support them in retaining the kingdom. Each of these ruled over a band of men of their own (for those that got together to them were very numerous). They were every one of them also commanders; but when they came to fight, they were subordinate to him, and fought for him. After he had put a diadem about his head, he assembled a council to debate about what things should be done, and all things were done according to his pleasure. So, this man retained his power a great while; he was also called king, and had nothing to hinder him from doing what he pleased. Together with his brothers, he slew a great many of both of Roman and of the king’s forces, and managed matters with the like hatred to each of them. They fell upon the king’s soldiers because of the licentious conduct they had been allowed under Herod’s government; and they fell upon the Romans, because of the injuries they had so lately received from them.  Once, they attacked a Roman company at Emmaus, soldiers who were bringing grain and weapons to the army, and fell upon Arius, the centurion, who commanded the company, and shot forty of the best of his foot soldiers. The other Romans panicked after this slaughter, left their dead behind them, and were saved by Gratus, who came to their assistance with the king’s troops that he commanded. 

When Varus entered Jerusalem, Jewish leaders managed to cast most of the blame onto extremists and agitators, pledging allegiance once again to Rome, and thus saving their city from destruction.

Returning to Nazareth…

Yeshua’s family may not have been in Egypt for long before an angel of the Lord appeared again in a dream to Joseph, instructing him to return to Israel.  Their time as refugees had been relatively brief, but vital for the purposes of God.

After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt. 

“Get up!” he said. “Take the Child and His mother and go to the land of Israel, for those seeking the Child’s life are now dead.”

So Joseph got up, took the Child and His mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he learned that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee.   Matthew 2:19-22

It is interesting that each time God spoke to Joseph it was through an angel appearing in his dream.  Yet to Zechariah God spoke through an angel who appeared in the temple when he was burning incense in the Holy Place.  Mary, likewise, was awake and alert when the angel Gabriel came to Nazareth to give her God’s message.   He speaks to each of us in different ways, but the important thing is that we believe and obey Him when He speaks.

So, what was the prophetic significance of Yeshua going down to Egypt in his infancy and being called out of Egypt when he was still young?   Matthew 2:15 NIV states:   This fulfilled what the Lord had spoken through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”       Yeshua, even as an infant and through circumstances that this little boy had no control over, was fulfilling (was the fulfilment of) God’s redemptive historical purposes for His people Israel.   Matthew’s quote is from Hosea 11:1 “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.”   Here God is referring to the nation of Israel as His son whom He loved and called out of Egypt when it was “a child” nation that did not even know who to govern itself.  The following verses in Hosea speak of Israel’s failure to fulfil God’s purposes in calling them out of Egypt: “The more I called Israel, the further they went from me…  It was I who taught Ephraim to walk, taking them by the arms; but they did not realise it was I who healed them.”  So Yeshua, like Israel – or rather as a fulfilment of Israel – was taken down to Egypt as an infant and then called out of Egypt by God and into the Promised Land where He would fulfil Israel’s calling, in living as the obedient Son to the Father and blessing to all nations. (38) (39) (40)

The family’s time in Egypt was so brief that Luke could write:

When Joseph and Mary had done everything required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth.    Luke 2:39 NIV

Nazareth was a small village (possibly less than 200 people) built upon limestone rock, not far from mount Tabor and within sight of the city of Sepphoris. The country about it abounding in wheat and fruits of all kinds; wine, oil, and honey were produced there. Yet it was a place held in contempt by many Jews.

The ancient settlement of Nazareth was never large, since it had only one spring. It has been described as a rich and beautiful fiend in the midst of barren mountains. Nazareth was overshadowed by the city of Sepphoris, just 3.5 miles to the northwest, and the conflicts that had emanated from there. This whole region had been soaked in the smell of death as the roads were lined with thousands hanging rotting on Roman crosses.

Matthew makes an interesting claim that has perplexed commentators:

And he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, “He shall be called a Nazarene.”      Matthew 2:23 NKJV

Such an emphasis on fulfilled prophecy is prominent in Matthew, occurring over a dozen times in his Gospel.  In all of the four quotations before this one, Matthew either mentioned a prophet by name or said “the prophet” (singular) in connection with a quotation which can be easily found almost exactly as quoted.  

  1. All this happened in order to fulfill what ADONAI had said through the prophet, “The virgin will conceive and bear a son, and they will call him `ImmanuEl.” (The name means, “God is with us.”) Matthew 1:22-23 referring to Isaiah 7:14.
  2. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written: ‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah, for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of My people Israel.’” Matthew 2:6 referring to Micah 5:2 combined with 2 Samuel 5:2b .
  3. This fulfilled what the Lord had spoken through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my Son.” Matthew 2:15 referring to Hosea 11:1.
  4. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: ‘A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.’ Matthew 2:18 referring to Jeremiah 31:15.

Yet nowhere in the Hebrew Scriptures do we find the statement, “He shall be called a Nazarene”, so what was Matthew referring to?  Ray Pritz, who has taught at the Caspari Centre for Biblical and Jewish Studies, directed the Bible Society in Israel and been assigned to the Translations Department of the United Bible Societies, provides the following explanation:

The challenge is to find a scriptural prophecy or prophetic idea which yet maintains a connection with the town of Nazareth. One long-standing candidate has been Isaiah 11:1 which says, “A shoot will come forth from the stem of Jesse, and a branch from his roots will bear fruit.” The word for “branch” is נֵצֶר (netser), which contains the same three consonants that form the root of the name Nazareth.

When we look in the Targum at the Aramaic translation of this verse, we see that the verse was interpreted messianically: “There shall come forth a king from the sons of Jesse, and a Messiah will grow from the sons of his sons.” The Targum goes on to read the Messiah into verses 6 and 10. The first ten verses of this chapter of Isaiah were almost always interpreted in Jewish midrashic literature as referring to the Messiah.[7] One interesting baraita[8] shows disciples of Jesus using Isaiah 11:1 in arguing with the rabbis about the messiahship of Jesus.

An attractive feature of Isaiah 11:1 as the source for Matthew’s statement is that not only is the verse itself messianic, but it also can be connected to a broader messianic context. The idea of the Messiah as a branch is found elsewhere in the prophets, although using other words than netser for branch. So, for example, Isaiah 53:2 speaks of a יוֹנֵק (yonek, tender shoot) and a שֹׁרֶשׁ (shoresh, root) out of dry ground. In Jeremiah 23:5 we read: “Behold days are coming, says the LORD, when I will raise up a righteous צֶמַח (tsemakh, plant) for David, and a king will reign and will bring about justice and salvation in the land.” Tsemakh is also used of a messianic figure in Jeremiah 33:15 and Zechariah 3:8 (“my servant, the Branch”) and 6:12.

When Matthew says that in going to Nazareth, Jesus was fulfilling something spoken by “the prophets,” perhaps he intended to point to the one idea which most unifies the biblical prophets, the idea of the Messiah. Here, then, we have a solution to the puzzle of Matthew 2:23, which connects with “the prophets” while still linking to one prophetic verse that bears an etymological tie to the name of the town where Jesus went to live. (41)

Another possibility is that Matthew uses the word Nazarene in reference to a person who is “despised and rejected.” In the first century, Nazareth was a small, insignificant town about 55 miles north of Jerusalem, and it had a negative reputation among the Jews. Galilee was generally looked down upon by Judeans and the religious elite who resided in Jerusalem, and Nazareth of Galilee was especially despised (see John 1:46). If this was Matthew’s emphasis, the prophecies Matthew had in mind could include these two passages concerning the Messiah:

“But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by everyone, despised by the people. All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads” (Psalm 22:6–7).

It’s true that Nazarenes were “scorned by everyone,” and so one could see this messianic prophecy as an allusion to Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth.

“He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem” (Isaiah 53:3).

Again, in Jesus’ day, Nazarenes were “despised and rejected,” and so Isaiah’s prophecy could be viewed as an indirect reference to Jesus’ background as the supposed son of a carpenter from Nazareth.

If Psalm 22:6–7 and Isaiah 53:3 are the prophecies that Matthew had in mind, then the meaning of “He shall be called a Nazarene” is something akin to “He shall be despised and mocked by His own people.” Jesus not only identified with humanity by coming to our world; He also identified with the lowly of this world. His upbringing in an obscure and despised town served as an important part of His mission.

Reference List

1. Gordis, Rabbi Daniel. Nissuin: The Second of the Two Ceremonies. My Jewish Learning. [Online] [Cited: 2nd November 2019.]
2. Encyclopedia Judaica. Betrothal (Heb. Shiddukhin). Jewish Virtual Library. [Online] [Cited: 2nd November 2019.]
3. Lamm, Maurice. The Jewish Betrothal (Kiddushin). Chabad. [Online] [Cited: 2nd November 2019.]
4. —. The Jewish Nuptials (Nissuin). Chabad. [Online] [Cited: 2nd November 2019.]
5. Issues in Jewish Ethics – Marriage. Jewish Virtual Library. [Online] [Cited: 2nd November 2019.]
6. Messianic Bible. Ancient Jewish Wedding Customs and Yeshua’s Second Coming. The Messianic Prophecy Bible Project. [Online] [Cited: 2nd November 2019.]
7. Lamm, Maurice. The Jewish Marriage Ceremony “Accordig to the Laws of Moses and Israel”. Chabad. [Online] [Cited: 2nd November 2019.]
8. Kilmon, Jack. HISTORY AND THE NEW TESTAMENT. Works of the Scribe – The Scriptorium . [Online] [Cited: 16th Sept. 2016.]
9. Esposito, Lenny. Is Luke Wrong About the Time of Jesus’ Birth. Come Reason. [Online] [Cited: 15th Sept. 2016.]
10. Historical Evidence for Quirinius & the Census. Bible History. [Online] [Cited: 15th Sept. 2016.]
11. Pursiful, Darrell. When Was Jesus Born – The Census. Dr. Platypus Darrell J. Pursiful’s Bible and Faith Blog. [Online] [Cited: 15th Sept. 2016.]
12. Sarfati, Jonathan. The Census of Quirinius – Did Luke Get It Wrong? Creation Ministries International. [Online] 29th December 2011. [Cited: 15th Sept. 2016.]
13. Caesar, Steve. A Brief Comment on the Census in Luke 2. Biblical Archeology. [Online] [Cited: 15th Sept. 2016.]
14. Bailey, Kenneth. s.l. The Manger and the Inn: the Cultural Background of Luke 2:7.  : Bible and Spade, Fall 2007, Vol. P. 103.
15. Blincoe, Bob. A Clear View of Christmas. Bob Blincoe. [Online] 16th December 2010. [Cited: 30th October 2019.]
16. Taylor, Chris & Jenifer. The Birth of Jesus. The Bible Journey. [Online] [Cited: 29th Oct 2019.]
17. PhD, Kenneth Bailey. The Manger and the Inn. Bible Archaeology. [Online] 8th November 2008. [Cited: 29th October 2019.]
18. Chaffey, Tim. Born in a Barn (Stable)? Answers in Genesis. [Online] 30th November 2010. [Cited: 28th November 2019.]
19. Stern, Safrai . The Jewish Peoplr in the First Century. P. 765.
20. Simcha, Kehilat Kol. Let us Camp in Migdal Eder. Kol Simcha Messages. [Online] 16th November 2013. [Cited: 31st October 2019.]
21. Gill, John. Commentary Genesis 35:21. Study Light. [Online] 1999. [Cited: 31st October 2019.]
22. Clarke, Adam. Commentary Genesis 35:21. Study Light. [Online] 1832. [Cited: 31st October 2019.]
23. Buehler, Dr. Juergen. The Tower of the Flock. International Christian Embassy Jerusalem. [Online] 22nd November 2012. [Cited: 29th October 2019.]
24. Horn, Dr. Christine Van. The Tower of the Flock: The Christmas Story. s.l. : WestBow Press, 2017.
25. Pope, Johnny. Mary Had a Little Lamb. FaceBook. [Online] 16th December 2013. [Cited: 31st October 2019.]
26. McCracken, Charles E. Pinpointing Messiah’s Nativity. Charles E McCracken Ministries. [Online] [Cited: 31st October 2019.]
27. courage42day. A Lamb’s Tale and a Mysterious Tower. Mini Manna Moments. [Online] 19th December 2017. [Cited: 31st October 2019.]
28. Lenard, Joseph. Jesus’ Birth – The Case for Migdal Edar. Truth in Scripture. [Online] 21st January 2017. [Cited: 31st October 2019.]
29. —. Jesus’ Birth – The Significance of Migdal Edar. Truth in Scripture. [Online] 24th January 2017. [Cited: 29th October 2019.]
30. Cantor, Ron. Unlocking the Mystery of the Tower of the Flock. Messiah Mandate. [Online] 22nd December 2018. [Cited: 29th October 2019.]
31. Miller, Glenn. Messianic Expectations in 1st Century Judaism – Documentation From Non-Christian Sources. Christian Think Tank. [Online] 24th March 1996. [Cited: 15th Sept. 2016.]
32. chab123. Is Jesus Really the Messiah? Three Messianic Expectations at the Time of Jesus. Think Apologetics. [Online] 17th October 2014. [Cited: 15th Sept. 2016.]
33. Smith, Patrick Scott. Parthia (Empire). Ancient History Encyclopedia. [Online] 22nd July 2019. [Cited: 30th December 2019.]
34. Jones, Christopher. “Magi from the East”. Gates of Nineveh. [Online] 24th December 2011. [Cited: 30th December 2019.]
35. Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. Phraates IV King of Parthia. Encyclopedia Britannica. [Online] [Cited: 30th December 2019.]
36. —. Phraates V King of Parthia. Encyclopaedia Britannica. [Online] [Cited: 30th December 2019.]
37. Biblical Archaeology Society Staff. Bible Scholar Brent Landau Asks “Who Were the Magi?”. Biblical Archaelogy . [Online] [Cited: 30th December 2019.]
38. Landau, Brent. The Revelation of the Magi – A summary and introduction. Tony Burke. [Online] 20th June 2016. [Cited: 30th December 2019.]
39. Longenecker, Fr Dwight. Where Did the Wise Men Come From? Pathos. [Online] 5th January 2014. [Cited: 30th December 2019.]
40. Gill, Victoris. Star of Bethlehem: The astronomical explanations. BBC News. [Online] 23rd December 2012. [Cited: 31st December 2019.]
41. Weintraub, David. Can astronomy explain the biblical Star of Bethlehem? The Conversation. [Online] 24th December 2014. [Cited: 31st December 2019.]
42. GERTOUX, Gerard. Herod and Jesus: Historical and Archaeological Evidence. s.l. : PhD candidate in Archaeology and histroy of Ancient World, 2015.
43. DeYoung, Kevin. Out of Egypt I Called My Son. The Gospel Coalition. [Online] 9 December 2010. [Cited: 31st Aug 2019.]
44. About Bible Prophesy Editors. Did Matthew Misinterpret Hosea 11:1? About Bible Prophesy. [Online] [Cited: 31st Aug 2019.]
45. Yeulett, Paul. ‘Out of Egypt I called My son’. Banner of Truth. [Online] 21st Dec 2012. [Cited: 31st Aug 2019.]
46. Paul Anderson, Professor of Biblical and Quaker Studies, George Fox University. Can Any Good Thing Come From Nazareth? The Hometown of Jesus. Huffpost. [Online] 22 March 2017. [Cited: 29 March 2020.]
47. Pritz, Ray. “He Shall Be Called a Nazarene”. Jerusalem Perspective. [Online] 01 November 1991. [Cited: 5th November 2019.]

In the comments section below share your thoughts on what you have read and answer some of the following questions…

* What are the similarities and differences between a Jewish wedding in Jesus’ time and weddings in your culture?
* In what ways does the ancient Jewish wedding provide a picture of our relationship with Christ?
* What are the similarities and differences between peasant houses in Bethlehem and those in your area?
* When you return to your home village/area where are you expected to stay and what are you expected to do? How is this alike, or different to, Joseph’s situation when he arrived in Bethlehem?
* What are the birthing practices in your culture, and in what ways are they like or different to those in Joseph and Mary’s culture?
* If your people have suffered through war or violent attacks during your lifetime, what effects has that had on them?
* What can we learn about God’s ways from Jesus’ birth and early life?

Who Wrote Each of the Four Gospels 7 – The Witness of the Scriptures on John


What do the Scriptures tell us about the Author of John’s Gospel?

The Gospel according to John is not as anonymous as the other three Gospels.  In the last few verses of the Gospel its author identifies himself as “the disciple whom Jesus loved…the one who also had leaned back on His breast at the supper”.    Yet, even here he does not share his name with us.   John 19:25-27 tells us that Jesus gave this disciple responsibility for his mother Mary from the cross and that from then this disciple whom Jesus loved took Mary to his own home.   Church tradition has long held that “the disciple whom Jesus loved” was the apostle John.  So, what can we learn about John from the scriptures?

What do the Gospels tell us about the Apostle John?

John was the younger brother of James, they were sons of Salome and Zebedee.  Salome was one of the women who followed and served Jesus (Matthew 27:55-56 & Mark 15:40-41) and she may have been the sister of Jesus’ mother Mary (John 19:25), which could explain her boldness as “aunty Salome” in asking Jesus to favour her boys (Matthew 20:20-23).  Zebedee was a Galilean fisherman who also hired men for their fishing business.  They lived in Capernaum, on the Sea of Galilea, as did their fishing partners Simon Peter and his younger brother Andrew, who had been one of the first two disciples of John the Baptist to heed the Baptist’s words “behold the Lamb of God” and start following Jesus.  We first read about John and James encountering Jesus as they were in their boat with their father mending their fishing nets (Matthew 4:21-22, Mark 1:19-20).  Christ called them for follow Him so these two young men left everything and went after Him.  Then, in Mark 1:29 we read that they came out of the Capernaum synagogue with Jesus and entered the house of Simon Peter and Andrew where Peter’s mother-in-law was sick with a fever.  Luke 5:1-11 then reports another calling, this time in front of a multitude, and refers to James and John as partners with Simon Peter.  John is next mentioned in the choosing of the twelve apostles:

Now the names of the twelve apostles are these: first, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother; James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother  Matthew 10:2 NKJV

Simon, whom He gave the name Peter; James the son of Zebedee and John the brother of James, to whom He gave the name Boanerges, that is, “Sons of Thunder”   Mark 3:16-17 NKJV

He chose twelve whom He also named apostles: Simon, whom He also named Peter, and Andrew his brother; James and John; Philip and Bartholomew; Luke 6:13b-14 NKJV

In all of these John is mentioned in the second group of brothers, and after his older brother James.  There has been much speculation over the years as to what the designation “Sons of Thunder” might mean about James and John.   Perhaps it was in relation to their character as revealed when they offered to command fire to come down from heaven and consume the Samaritans who had refused to receive Jesus because He was on his way to Jerusalem (Luke 9:51-56).   Eager for a sign from heaven to justify themselves and vindicate their Master, these brothers were zealous and enthusiastic and had a high sense of what honour was due to Jesus, but they were slower to understand His heart of love even for His enemies.  Just before then John had declared that they had seen someone casting out demons in Jesus’ name and forbidden him because he was not one of them (Mark 9:38 & Luke 9:49).   It was important to young John that he was part of the “in group”, which he felt should be distinguished from “outsiders”.  Then there was the time when James and John tried to manipulate Jesus into giving them the positions sitting on His right hand and left hand in Glory (Mark 10:35-41).  Matthew 20:20-23 depicts their mother bringing them to Jesus to make this same request of Him, shortly before His Triumphal Entry.  In all of these incidences we see these two sons of Zebedee zealous and full of confidence in the power and authority of Christ while also attaching personal ambition to their dedication to Him.   This fits with the other evidences that they were young men, possibly in their mid to late teens, when Jesus called them.  Many scholars have concluded that John was the youngest of the apostles, possibly only 13-15yo when he was first called by Jesus. (44) (45) (46) (47) (48) (49)

The Gospels mention three significant incidences where Jesus only allows Peter, James and John to be present with him and witness the event.  The first is the raising of Jairus’ daughter (Mark 5:22-24 & 36-43; Luke 8:40-42 & 49-56).  The second is the transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-8; Mark 9:2-10 & Luke 9:28-36).  The third is in the garden of Gethsemane where Jesus asked them to watch with him but they kept falling asleep (Matthew 26:36-46; Mark 14:32-42).  Notably, the writer of the Gospel according to John does not bear witness to any of these three events in his Gospel, which would seem strange if John were the author.   The Transfiguration especially fits with the whole theme of this Gospel, and John was one of only three witnesses to it, yet this Gospel is the only one that makes no mention of it.

It was the two sets of brothers, Peter and Andrew, James and John, who asked Jesus privately “when will these things be and what will be the sign when all these things will be fulfilled” after Jesus prophesied that the temple would be destroyed and not one stone of it left upon another (Mark 13:1-4).   It was Peter and John, the oldest and youngest of the twelve, that Jesus sent to prepare the Passover (Luke 22:7-13).   The only other specific mention of John the apostle in the Gospels, and the only direct reference in this Gospel, is after Christ’s resurrection:

 Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of His disciples were together.  Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.”  They said to him, “We are going with you also.” John 21:2-3a NKJV

What does the book of Acts tell us about the apostle John?

The first mention of John in the book of Acts finds all the apostles together with Jesus’ family and female disciples in the upper room:

And when they had entered, they went up into the upper room where they were staying: Peter, James, John and Andrew; Philip and Thomas; Bartholomew and Matthew; James the son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot; and Judas the son of James.  These all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication, with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with His brothers.  Acts 1:13-14 NKJV

John the apostle is generally found teamed up with Peter as we go through the book of Acts, just as Jesus had sent them together to prepare the Passover.  Acts 3 tells the story of Peter and John going to the temple together at the hour of prayer, seeing the lame man and Peter bringing God’s healing to him in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, followed by Peter preaching to the multitudes who gathered.

Acts 4 sees Peter and John arrested and Peter boldly testifying before the Sanhedrin who: “saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated and untrained men, they marvelled.  And they realised that they had been with Jesus.” 

In Verse 19 Peter and John replied to them, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you more than to God, you judge.  For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard.”

Acts 8 tells of Peter and John being sent by the apostles in Jerusalem to Samaria to minister to the new believers there.  They prayed for these Samaritan believers to receive the Holy Spirit and laid hands on them.   The results were so powerful that Simon the sorcerer offered them money to give him that power and received a very strong rebuke from Peter.  On their way back to Jerusalem Peter and John preached the gospel in many villages of the Samaritans.

John is next mentioned by name some 12-14 years after Jesus’ resurrection when Herod killed his older brother James with the sword (Acts 12:1-2).

Any references to John in Paul’s writings?

Our last reference to John (apart from the Johannine writings) comes about 6 years later, so John would likely be around 35yo now.  In Galatians 2 Paul writes about going up to Jerusalem to resolve the question of circumcision of Gentile believers (see also Acts 15) and states in verse 9: “and when James, Cephas, and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that had been given me, they gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised.”   The ‘James’ that Paul is referring to in this verse is not John’s older brother who had been killed with the sword, but James the brother of Jesus who had also been a leader in the church since its earliest days despite not being one of the 12 apostles.

Summary of what we know about the Apostle John…

In summary, John is introduced to us as an apprentice in his father’s fishing business, 13-15yo when Jesus first calls him.  He is the younger brother of James and the two of them are always mentioned together until near the end of Jesus’ ministry when He sends John with Peter to prepare the Passover for their last meal before He is crucified.  John’s mother, Salome, also travels with Jesus, possible as much to keep an eye on her boys as to learn from Jesus.  She certainly demonstrates high ambitions for them which she mixes with her faith in Jesus as Messiah and ruler of the Kingdom of Heaven.   Her presence also suggests that John is the youngest of her children as Salome would not be so free to travel with them if she had younger children still at home.   John was zealous and enthusiastic, loved the miraculous and had a high sense of what honour was due to Jesus.   It was important to young John to be important and part of the “in group” which was clearly distinguished from others whom he did not view as sufficiently following Jesus.  John was close to Jesus and one of only three disciples whom Jesus allowed to be with Him when He was transfigured, when He raised Jairus’ daughter from the dead and during his passion in the garden of Gethsemane.  Towards the end of Jesus’ ministry and throughout the book of Acts we see John maturing and coming into his own, becoming less dependent on his older brother and faithfully stewarding increasing responsibilities.

What does the Fourth Gospel tell us about it’s Author?

What can we learn about the author of the fourth Gospel from what we find written within it?   From John 21:20-24 we learn that the author was a man and described himself as “the disciple whom Jesus loved, who also had leaned on His breast at the supper”.  It is this closeness to Jesus which has led many to surmise that the author must be one of Christ’s “inner circle”, the three apostles who were allowed with Jesus for the transfiguration, the raising of Jarius’ daughter and Christ’s passion in the garden.   Since Peter motioned to this disciple whom Jesus loved to get him to ask Jesus who was going to betray him (John 13:23-24) the author could not be the apostle Peter and the apostle James was killed by Herod before this gospel was written, so that leaves the apostle John as the author of this gospel.   Scholars who support this view also see the author (either as “the disciple whom Jesus loved” or “another disciple”) as being consistently paired with Peter in the latter part of this gospel (John 13:34-24; 18:15-16, 20:2-9, 21:1-8 & 15-23) even as John is paired with Peter in the book of Acts. (50) This gospel was clearly written by an intimate eye-witness and who could be closer to Jesus than the young apostle John?

We also see in John 21:20-24 that the author refers to himself in the third person, as was not unusual in first-century historiographical practice, even when saying that he was the one who wrote these things down.  The only time the author uses a personal pronoun for himself is in the very last verse of the Gospel, and here he indicates that what he has written is just a small amount of what he knows Jesus to have done:

And there are also many other things that Jesus did, which if they were written one by one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.  Amen.   John 21:25 NKJV

How the author met Jesus…

Let’s start at the beginning of the fourth gospel and see what we can learn about this “disciple whom Jesus loved”.  In John 1:19-51 the author provides us with a report which does not directly describe Jesus’ baptism, it appears that he was not there at that time, but provides an eye-witness account, not mentioned in the other gospels, of the Jewish religious leaders sending priests and Levites from Jerusalem to Bethany beyond the Jordan (“Bethabara” in some versions) to question the baptiser “who are you?”  John the Baptist’s father, Zacharias, had been a priest (Luke 1:5-7) so many of them would have known John growing up as the son of this respected elderly priest.  Some of the priests may have been his childhood friends.  The Baptist’s response to their every question was to testify about Jesus.  As there is no description of any of the actions of John the Baptist before these priests arrived, not even his baptism of Jesus, it is likely that the author was one of the priests or Levites who was sent by the Jewish leadership (high priest) to question the Baptist.  This would suggest that at least one of them was impacted by the Baptist’s sermons, really took his words to heart and was baptised by him.

The next day Jesus returned from his forty days in the Judean wilderness and the Baptist pointed him out as the person he had been talking about in answering the priest’s questions and described what had taken place when he had baptised Jesus.   John’s words were sinking in because the following day when the Baptist pointed Jesus out to two of his disciples “Behold the Lamb of God!” they started following Him.  One of these disciples was Andrew, who would become one of the 12 apostles, and the other remains anonymous.   Many have postulated that this anonymous disciple is the author of this Gospel.   Could one of the priests or Levites sent by the High Priest and Sanhedrin to find out what John had to say about himself have become a disciple of John’s so quickly?   If so, this fits with the anonymous “other disciple” in John 18:15-16 being sufficiently known to the high priest to be able to tell the servant who kept the door to his courtyard to let his friend Peter in. 

Only this fourth Gospel gives the details of Andrew, and an unnamed disciple, being the first to follow Jesus, then Andrew bringing his big brother Simon (Peter) to Jesus, followed the next day by Jesus calling Philip, who found Nathanael, as he started heading back to Galilee.  

Going with Jesus to the wedding in Cana, then Jerusalem for Passover…

The author went with Jesus, Andrew, Simon Peter, Philip and Nathanael (and the unnamed disciple, if this person is not the author) to the wedding in Cana of Galilee, and then down to Capernaum with Jesus’ mother and brothers as well, before returning to Jerusalem for the Passover, cleansing the temple and doing many signs (John 2:13-23).   The author was privy to Jesus’ night-time conversation with Nicodemus, away from all the crowds (John 3:1-21).   If he was one of the Levites and priests who were sent by the leaders in Jerusalem to question John the Baptist, then he would likely have invited Jesus to stay in his house in (or near) Jerusalem, a house that would be known to the rulers of the Jews like Nicodemus.

Baptising with Jesus then the woman at the well…

Next, this author describes Jesus going with these early disciples and baptising people in Judea while John had moved to Aeon near Salim to continue baptising (John 3:22-36).  From there the author describes in detail Jesus going back up to Galilee, but via the city of Sychar in Samaria where he talks with the woman at the well (John 4:1-42). 

With Jesus to Cana, then silence…

After going to Cana of Galilee, the author describes Jesus’ long distance healing of the nobleman’s son in Capernaum (John 4:45-54) but mentions nothing of Jesus’ following ministry in Galilee, nor his travels to Capernaum, nor calling of Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John from their fishing boats or Matthew from his tax collector’s booth, nor any of the preaching in synagogues or subsequent miracles and healings that He performed (Matthew 4:13-25, 8:2-4 & 14-17, 9:2-17; Mark 1:14-2:22; Luke 4:16-5:39).  

Map of Jesus' and John's early ministry travels

With Jesus in Jerusalem for a feast of the Jews…

It is as though the author returned to Jerusalem from Cana and did not see Jesus again until He returned to Jerusalem for another “feast of the Jews” (John 5:1).    According to the Torah, God commanded the Israelites:

Three times a year shall all your men appear before the Lord your God in the place that God will choose [the Temple in Jerusalem], on the festivals of Pesah (Passover – early spring), Shavuot (the Feast of Weeks – seven weeks after Passover, at the time of the late spring harvest), and Sukkot (the Festival of Booths – mid-autumn).”    Deuteronomy 16:16

It is unclear which of these festivals Jesus was attending this time, but again only the fourth Gospel writer tells us anything about Jesus’ time in Jerusalem for this festival and he describes the events, the healing of a man at the pool of Bethesda on the Sabbath and the resulting controversy,  in a lot of detail (John: 5:2-47).  

The first three Gospels continue with their narrative of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee, including many parables and miracles (Matthew5:1-14:12; Mark 2:23-6:29; Luke 6:1-9:9), and the setting aside of 12 of his disciples and sending them out to be apostles, while the fourth Gospel remains silent on all of this Galilean activity.   Then John the Baptist is beheaded (Matthew 14:1-13) and word reaches Jesus even as the apostles returned from their mission and reported back what they had done and taught (Mark 6:30-31; Luke 9:10) even as the next Passover was approaching (John 6:4).  

With Jesus as Passover approaches…

Passover (Pesach) falls on the first full moon of Spring.  The author of the fourth Gospel is the one who keeps us informed about the relationship of events to the Jewish festivals.  Now we find him together with the others as Jesus takes them by boat to the shore near the city of Bethsaida in Galilee (Luke 9:10) and up a mountain (John 6:3) to a deserted but lush grassy place after the winter rains (Mark 6:31).  There the only miracle Jesus performed that is recorded in all four Gospels took place, the feeding of the 5,000.  

Close to Philip & Andrew…

Only the author of the fourth Gospel gives us the details that Jesus asked Philip, the one of the 12 who lived in Bethsaida; “Where shall we buy bread, that these may eat?”  Philip was overwhelmed with the cost involved but Andrew, Simon Peter’s younger brother, brought the lad with the loaves and fish to Jesus in response.  If the anonymous disciple who first followed Jesus with Andrew was the author of this Gospel it appears that they continued to have a close relationship such that the author paid special attention to, and had high regard for, Andrew’s expressions of faith.  This is seen again, after the Triumphal Entry, when the author of this fourth Gospel informs us about some Gentiles (Greeks) who had gone up to worship in Jerusalem at Passover and asked Philip (who had a Greek name) if they could see Jesus, who told Andrew (who also had a Greek name) and they both passed on the request to Jesus (John 12:20-22).   

With Jesus in the Capernaum synagogue…

From the narrative continuing on from the feeding of the 5,000 the author was just as likely one of the people who followed Jesus and the disciples to Capernaum the next day as one of the disciples in the boat that night who saw Christ walking on the water (John 6:15-59).  The author joined the multitude who listened to Jesus as He taught in the Capernaum synagogue and stayed, as did the 12, when many of Jesus’ other disciples became offended at His words and walked away (John 6:60-70). 

With Jesus to Jerusalem for the Feast of Tabernacles…

We read nothing more from this author for another six months, when the Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkot) is at hand.  He mentions nothing of Jesus’ ministry trips beyond the lands of the Jews to Gennesaret, Tyre and Sidon, through the region of the Decapolis and skirting the Sea of Galilee back through Jewish territory across to Bethsaida and out again to Caesarea Philippi, and up a high mountain for the transfiguration before returning through Galilee to Capernaum.  All this author mentions about that whole time was: “after these things Jesus walked in Galilee; for He did not want to walk in Judea because the Jews sort to kill Him.”  (John 7:1)  

Herod Antipas, who had just beheaded John the Baptist, ruled over both Perea and Galilee so this was a significant example that Jesus was setting for His disciples of responding to threats by taking the gospel further afield – in this case to the territories of Phoenicia, Ituraea, Syria, Batanea, Auranitis (Trachonitis) and the Decapolis, and yet the author of this gospel writes only that Jesus did not walk in Judea, He was not seen in Jerusalem during this time.   To read where Jesus was seen and what He was doing there we need to study the other three gospel accounts.

John 7:2-3 is very interesting as this Gospel author writes of Jesus’ brothers contending that His disciples were in Judea so He should go there to show them the works that He was doing.  The apostles were with Jesus in Capernaum of Galilee but his brothers are telling him to go to Jerusalem so His disciples can see what He’s doing.   Did Jesus have disciples who were based in Judea as well as those who were based in Galilee?  This fourth Gospel is the only one to record that Jesus did not accompany his brothers to Sukkot (the week-long Feast of Tabernacles) in Jerusalem, but travelled after them to attend secretly.   This would have greatly affected those disciples who were waiting eagerly for Jesus in Jerusalem, but not the disciples and apostles travelling with Him and engrossed in His teaching every day.

It is from Luke that we learn Jesus travelled through Samaria on His way to Jerusalem and one of the Samaritan villages refused to welcome Him because He was determined to go to Jerusalem for the Feast so James and John offered to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them as Elijah had called it down to consume the sacrifice on Mt Carmel but Jesus rebuked them and simply went to another village who would welcome Him (Luke 9:51-56).   Taking this route which most of the Jews avoided because they would not associate with Samaritans also helped keep Jesus hidden from the other pilgrims headed from Galilee to Jerusalem for the Feast.   

Jesus was not seen by the crowds in Jerusalem until about the middle of the Feast when He went into the temple and started teaching the people (John 7:4-14).   This Gospel’s author then provides us with a detailed account of Jesus’ teaching and the crowd’s responses on that day (John 7:15-36) and again on the last day including Nicodemus’ defence of Christ in the Sanhedrin (John 7:37-53).  The seventh day of Sukkot is known as Hoshana Rabbah which is considered to be the day of the final sealing of judgment on which God opens the Books of Life and Death.   

It was in the Temple, in Jerusalem, the following day that the scribes and Pharisees brought a woman caught in adultery to Jesus.   This Gospel author records Jesus continuing to teach in the Temple until, on a Sabbath day some religious leaders took up stones to throw at him because He had answered them by declaring: “before Abraham was, I AM”, then denounced Him for “not keeping the Sabbath” when he healed a blind man by spitting on the ground and making clay with the saliva then anointing a blind man’s eyes with that clay and telling him to wash in the pool of Siloam (John 8:1-9:41).   Jesus teaches in the temple about His upcoming death and resurrection (John 10:1-21) then vanishes once more from this Gospel until the next Jewish Festival in Jerusalem.     Whereas Matthew, Mark and Luke provide us with descriptions of Jesus’ teachings and works in the Galilee region, and on His expeditions into neighbouring lands, it is this author who recounts Jesus’ teachings and works in Jerusalem during the Jewish Feasts. 

Silent on the 70…

It is Luke again who tells us of Jesus appointing another seventy (some versions have seventy-two) and apostéllō (sending) them two by two with authority to heal the sick and proclaim the kingdom of God in every city and place where He himself was about to go (Luke 10:1-24).    After they returned with joy and amazement that even the demons were subject to them in His name, Jesus began going to each of the places that the seventy have just been, teaching as he went.  In Bethany He stayed with Martha and Mary, teaching in their house (Luke 10:38-42).   It is 63 days from the seventh day of the autumn Sukkot until the beginning of the eight day winter Feast of Dedication (Hanukkah – which was instituted after Judas Maccabeus recaptured Jerusalem, cleansed and rededicated the Temple to God) and Luke provides us with Jesus’ teaching during that time as He travelled to those places that He had sent the other seventy to in a circuit that brought him back to Jerusalem (Luke 11:1-13:35).

With Jesus in Jerusalem for Hanakkah

Once again it is the author of the Fourth Gospel who tells us the time of year and Jewish religious occasion – this time it was winter and Jesus was returning to Jerusalem for the Feast of Dedication (Hanakkah).    Again, this author picks up the story when Jesus enters Jerusalem and describes His interactions in the Temple (John 10:22-39).  

Luke 14:1-24 picks up on Jesus’ interactions outside the temple – with His disciples in the house of one of the rulers of the Pharisees (a member of the Sanhedrin) on the Sabbath.   As Jesus left Jerusalem Luke notes that great multitudes went with Him (Luke 14:25), but it appears that the author of the fourth Gospel was not among them although he does tell us exactly where they travelled to – Bethany beyond the Jordan where John had baptised Jesus and first proclaimed Him.  Matthew 19:1-12, Mark 10:1-12 and Luke 14:26 – 17:10 share with us what Jesus taught through this time and the fourth Gospel author declares: “many believed in Him there”, beyond the Jordan.

Close to Mary, Martha & Lazarus…

Interestingly, the fourth Gospel’s author was confident that those he was writing for had already heard about Mary anointing Jesus’ feet with fragrant oil and wiping them with her hair.   Even though he had not got to that part of the story yet the author helps his readers understand which Martha and Mary he is writing about by recounting that incident before it has taken place in his narrative (John 11:1-2).   Could the author have been the person whom Mary and Martha sent to Jesus with the news of their brother’s illness?   Some have contended that the author, the disciple whom Jesus loved, was Lazarus as he is the only man specifically referred to as being loved by Jesus (51) (52) (53) (54) (55) (56) (57) (58):

“Lord, behold, he whom You love is sick.”    John 11:3 NKJV      

Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. John 11:5 NKJV

Then the Jews said, “See how He loved him!”    John 11:36 NKJV

This author provides us with a very detailed description of the raising of Lazarus (John 11:1-46), an event which the other Gospels omit, and how that related to the plot to kill Jesus (John 11:47-53).   The author notes that Jesus goes from that area into the country near the wilderness, to a city called Ephraim, and then has nothing more to add until the next feast, the spring feast of Passover, is near (John 11:54-55).  

Jesus’ final journey to Jerusalem…

Luke 17:11 picks it up from there with a verse that makes little sense unless we realise that the starting point is the city of Ephraim:

Now it happened as He went to Jerusalem that He passed through the midst of Samaria and Galilee.      Luke 17:11 NKJV

All four Gospels are now focused on this final journey to Jerusalem where Christ will be crucified, the culmination of everything that has taken place thus far.   So Luke describes Jesus’ final missionary journey through Samaria and Galilee as going to Jerusalem.  On the way Jesus cleansed 10 lepers, blessed the little children, and continued teaching all who followed Him and explaining what was going to happen to Him this time in Jerusalem (Matthew 19:13-20:19, Mark 10:13-10:34 & Luke 17:12-18:34).  

As they are heading down the Jordan Valley with all the pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem for the Passover, Jesus confides in the twelve that He will be betrayed, condemned and handed over to the Gentiles who will mock and scourge and crucify Him and then on the third day He will rise again (Matthew 20:17-19, Mark 10:32-34 & Luke 18:31-33).  In what appears to be about the worst timing in history, James and John then took Jesus aside (with their mother), to ask for the top positions in His kingdom – to sit on His right hand and left (Matthew 20:20-23 & Mark 10:35-40).   Luke helps us understand this by writing about the twelve’s reaction to Jesus telling them how he was going to suffer and die:

But they understood none of these things; this saying was hidden from them, and they did not know the things which were spoken.  Luke 18:34 NKJV

Then coming up out of the Jordan Valley and through Jericho, Jesus stopped for Zacchaeus and to heal two blind men, one of whom was Bartimaeus, before continuing on to Bethpage and Bethany (Matthew 20:29-21:1, Mark 10:46 – 11:1 & Luke 17:12-19:29).  

Focus on Jerusalem and Bethany…

The fourth Gospel omits everything from when Jesus left Bethany for Ephraim until Passover drew near and he records the attitudes of those in Jerusalem, particularly the Sanhedrin, wondering if Jesus would come for the feast and giving orders that they be notified if anyone sees Him so that they could seize Him.    Again this Gospel writer appears to be based in or near Jerusalem and privy to the discussions of the Jewish pilgrims who were already in the temple, and to the religious leaders.

Then it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, many went up from the country to Jerusalem for their ceremonial cleansing before the Passover.  They kept looking for Jesus, and as they stood in the temple area they asked one another, “What do you think?  Isn’t He coming to the Feast at all?”
But the chief priests and Pharisees had given orders that if anyone found out where Jesus was, he should report it so that they might arrest Him.  John 11:55-57 NIV  

While it made little difference to those travelling with Jesus how many days before Passover He arrived in Bethany, to those waiting for Him it was of prime importance and so this author records it:  

Then, six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus was who had been dead, whom He had raised from the dead. John 12:1-2 NKJV

The Passover began at sunset on Nissan 14, so six days before this would bring us to Nissan 8.   It was a steep, rugged 21 km (13 mile) walk along the main road up the range from Jericho, ‘the City of Palms’, to Bethany. Mathew 20:29-34 lets us know what we would have expected – that a large crowd followed Jesus out of Jericho.  It was about a six hour walk to Jerusalem, where most of the pilgrims would be lodging (59) (60). 

Preparing for Passover…

While it is the miracles in Jericho that the synoptic gospels focus on, the fourth gospel writer begins with the pilgrims already in Jerusalem and then turns to Jesus’ arrival in Bethany and the reception He received there, with a dinner given in Jesus’ honour where Lazarus reclined at the table with Him, Martha served and Mary sat at Jesus’ feet and poured very expensive perfume on them, which Judas objected to (John 12:2-8), and the large crowd who came to see both Jesus and Lazarus whom He had raised (John 12:9-11).

All four Gospels record the Triumphal Entry (Matthew 21:1-11, Mark 11:1-11, Luke 19:28-40 & John 12:12-22), which John places in “the next day” after the crowds came to see Jesus and Lazarus in Bethany.  The fourth Gospel appears to lack the insider knowledge of the other three that Jesus sent two of his disciples (possible not two of the twelve because none of the Gospel’s name them) with specific instructions for getting the donkey and her colt but adds the local knowledge that the people who had witnessed Him raising Lazarus from the dead were telling everyone so the crowd and excitement kept growing and:

The Pharisees therefore said among themselves, “You see that you are accomplishing nothing.  Look, the world has gone after Him!”    John 12:19 NKJV  

Only the fourth gospel author tells us what Jesus said in the Temple on this day of His Triumphal entry, 10th Nissan – the day the Jews are to choose their Passover lamb and take it home to care for it until the time of its sacrifice (John 12:23-36), but he tells us nothing of Jesus’ other trips to Jerusalem; the cursing of the fig tree and cleansing of the Temple on the following day nor Christ’s teachings in the Temple on the 11th & 12th Nissan.  Matthew devotes the most words to such: Matthew 21:12-16 & 18-46, 22:1-25:46.  Mark devotes two chapters, Mark 11:12-18 & 20-44, 12:1-13:2.  Luke 19:45-21:4 are devoted to these accounts of Jesus’ final temple teachings. Those three also note that Jesus returned to Bethany each night (Matthew 21:17, Mark 11:19, Luke 21:37-38).  Interestingly, the fourth Gospel author gives us much less detail about Jesus’ teachings in the temple this time than the other three and only he does not mention Jesus cleansing the temple this time or travelling back and forth from Bethany to the Temple in Jerusalem each day.  Only Matthew 26:6-13 and Mark 14:3-9 tell us of the Monday 12th Nissan meal at the home of Simon the leper that was interrupted by a woman coming to Jesus and anointing His head with expensive fragrant oil.  Matthew 24:3-51, Mark 13:3-37 and Luke 21:7-38 all share with us from Jesus private session on the Mount of Olives with Peter, James, John and Andrew, but the fourth Gospel author again omits this significant time that John had with Jesus.

Washing the disciple’s feet…

At last, on the night of 13th Nissan (remember that in Hebrew reckoning the evening of each day comes before the morning of that date) the author of the fourth Gospel re-joins us to share something significant, and something that the other three mention nothing of (John 13:1-14:31).  A supper before the Feast of Passover, probably in Bethany, where Jesus washes His disciple’s feet, the disciple whom Jesus loves reclines on His bosom and at Peter’s urging asks which one of them will betray Jesus who responds by giving a morsel to Judas whom Satan enters as he goes out.  Matthew 26:14-16, Mark 14:10-11 & Luke 22:3-4 pickup at this point, noting that Judas went to the chief priests to ask what they were willing to give him for delivering Jesus to them in the absence of the multitude, while the author of the fourth Gospel focuses on what Jesus shared with His followers after Judas had left that night until they left from the place where they had shared the meal (John 14:31).

Jesus’ final teachings…

The author of the fourth gospel then gives us three more chapters (John 15, 16 & 17) of Jesus’ final teachings are prayers for them on 13th Nissan, before the Passover – possibly the next morning – before becoming silent on the Passover meal that Peter and John followed Jesus’ prophetic instructions to begin preparing that afternoon for Jesus to share with the twelve once evening had come and it was 14th Nissan and the lamb they had chosen on 10th had been sacrificed and Peter and John had carried it back to the assigned place, roasted it on a wooden rotatory over a fire, and purchased unleavened bread and bitter herbs from the many stores in Jerusalem catering to the pilgrims flooding the city (Matthew 26:19-30, Mark 14:16-26 & Luke 22:13-39).  There Jesus instituted one of the most important sacraments of the church, communion, but the author of the fourth gospel provides us with not witness to this.

In the Garden…

We next hear the author of the fourth Gospel he states “When Jesus had (in the Greek) ‘légō’ (originally, “lay down to sleep,” and later used of “laying an argument to rest,” i.e. bringing a message to closure) … so: “When Jesus had brought His teachings to a closure”, ie not a moment too soon, Jesus would not go to the place of His arrest until He had told His disciples everything He needed to before His sufferings, “He went forth with His disciples over the ravine of the Kidron, where there was a garden…” that Judas also knew because Jesus had often met there with His disciples.  

All four gospels note Jesus entering this garden and Judas leading an armed contingent from the chief priests.  Mark 14:51-52 presents us with what appear to be strange verses, yet they provide us with the evidence that it was not only the eleven remaining apostles who had been with Jesus in the Garden, others of His followers also knew He met there and had come in the hope of receiving more teachings from Him.   Passover was a special and formal celebration and everyone who attended with Jesus would have dressed appropriately for it and so come into the Garden fully dressed.  But it was late when they entered the Garden, and there were some followers who had watching and waiting for His crossing over the Kidron ravine.  It sounds like one young man had gone to bed and was asleep when he heard the excited call “Jesus is coming”, wrapped his sheet around him and hurried out (possibly almost dragged out by an older brother) to see what Jesus had for them this night.   It is possible that the author of the fourth gospel was among the disciples who were not part of the last supper but knew where to find Jesus when that was finished.

Here we come to another distinction between the first three Gospel accounts and the fourth.  The first three clearly state that Jesus ate the Passover with His disciples as their last supper together, which would have been at the beginning of 14th Nissan (as each Jewish day began when the sun went down on the previous day), but the fourth gospel writer is equally clear in stating that the Passover sacrifice for the nation of Israel did not happen until the time of Jesus’ death the following afternoon, which would be around 3pm on 14th Nissan.   One thing that we have seen already during the Hasmonaean dynasty is that different Jewish groups interpreted many of the Torah rules for the feasts in different ways.   One of the contentions was over the proper time for the slaughter and consumption of the Passover sacrifice.    The instructions in Exodus 12:6 state: “And you shall keep it until the fourteenth day of the same month, then the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel is to kill it at twilight.”  There was (and in some circles still is) much contention over that word “twilight”, which in Hebrew is:   עֶרֶב ereb; which can be translated as evening, night, sunset, twilight, or ‘between the evenings’.   The Essenes and others contended that the sacrifice was to be made as soon as the sun set and 14th Nissan began so that it would all be consumed on the night of 14th Nissan in line with verse 8: “they shall eat the flesh that same night, roasted with fire, and they shall eat it with unleavened bread and bitter herbs.”   The most powerful groups of the Pharisees and priests, however, interpreted it to mean that the Passover sacrifice should be sacrificed at the end of 14th Nissan – between 3-6pm and then eaten that night (therefor on 15th Nissan) as the beginning of the Feast of Unleavened Bread.   If the author of the fourth gospel were a priest it would be understandable that his focus would be on the time set for the priesthood to formally make the sacrifice for the nation and then attend to all the pilgrim’s sacrifices lined up for them to be slaughtered in the temple and then taken away to be cooked and eaten that night.  So John 18:28-19:15 states of the priests accusing Jesus: “they themselves did not enter the Praetorium so that they would not be defiled and might eat the Passover…”.

The disciple whom Jesus loved…

We have returned to where we began this search – the scriptures in the fourth gospel referring to “the disciple whom Jesus loved.”   The first of these was in John 13, after Jesus had washed His disciple’s feet and:

There was reclining on Jesus’ bosom one of the disciples, whom Jesus loved”. 

Our next reference to him does not use that same term “disciple whom Jesus loved”, but just refers to him as “another disciple”.   So it may not be the same person, although the characteristics do fit everything else we have learned about him through his eyewitness account of Jesus’ life in this fourth gospel.

Simon Peter and another disciple were following Jesus.  Because this disciple was known to the High Priest, he went with Jesus into the High Priest’s courtyard, but Peter had to wait outside at the door.  The other disciple, who was known to the High Priest, came back, spoke to the girl on duty there and brought Peter in.     John 18:15-16 NIV

Now, before the cross, we see our next reference to him:

“When Jesus saw His mother and the disciple whom He loved standing nearby, He said to his mother, “Dear woman, here is your son.” And to the disciple, “Here is your mother.”  From that time on, this disciple took her into his home.”  John 19:26-27 NIV

Witness to Jesus’ death and burial…

Then, in now characteristic style, this disciple gives us details pertaining to priests (Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus were both members of the Sanhedrin who had not consented to their ruling against Jesus) and the rules of the Jewish feast days:

Then the Jews, because it was the day of preparation, so that the bodies would not remain on the cross on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was a high day), asked Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away. So the soldiers came, and broke the legs of the first man and of the other who was crucified with Him; but coming to Jesus, when they saw that He was already dead, they did not break His legs. But one of the soldiers pierced His side with a spear, and immediately blood and water came out. And he who has seen has testified, and his testimony is true; and he knows that he is telling the truth, so that you also may believe. For these things came to pass to fulfill the Scripture, “NOT A BONE OF HIM SHALL BE BROKEN.” And again another Scripture says, “THEY SHALL LOOK ON HIM WHOM THEY PIERCED.”

After these things Joseph of Arimathea, being a disciple of Jesus, but a secret one for fear of the Jews, asked Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus; and Pilate granted permission. So he came and took away His body. Nicodemus, who had first come to Him by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds weight. So they took the body of Jesus and bound it in linen wrappings with the spices, as is the burial custom of the Jews. 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. Therefore because of the Jewish day of preparation, since the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.     John 19:31-42 NASV

Resurrection First Fruits…

Only the fourth Gospel makes reference to Christ needing to be presented to the Father as the First Fruits Offering on the day of His resurrection, which was the first Sunday after Passover and thus the day of the First Fruits Offering, the first stalk of ripe grain from the upcoming harvest being waved before God in the Temple:

Jesus said to her, “Stop clinging to Me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to My brethren and say to them, ‘I ascend to My Father and your Father, and My God and your God. ‘”        John 20:17 NASV

Resurected Jesus at See of Galilee…

After specifying Thomas as the one of the twelve who was the last to believe that Jesus had indeed been resurrected but proclaimed upon seeing Him “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:19-29), John then goes on to describe the last incident where the “disciple whom Jesus loved” is featured:

After these things Jesus manifested Himself again to the disciples at the Sea of Tiberias, and He manifested Himself in this way. Simon Peter, and Thomas called Didymus, and Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, and the sons of Zebedee, and two others of His disciples were together. Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” … …
So Jesus said to them, “Children, you do not have any fish, do you?”
They answered Him, “No.”
And He said to them, “Cast the net on the right-hand side of the boat and you will find a catch.”
So they cast, and then they were not able to haul it in because of the great number of fish.
Therefore that disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord.” …

So when they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “… … when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands and someone else will gird you, and bring you where you do not wish to go.”
Now this He said, signifying by what kind of death he would glorify God…

Peter, turning around, saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them; the one who also had leaned back on His bosom at the supper and said, “Lord, who is the one who betrays You?”
So Peter seeing him said to Jesus, “Lord, and what about this man?”
Jesus said to him, “If I want him to remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow Me!”

Therefore this saying went out among the brethren that that disciple would not die; yet Jesus did not say to him that he would not die, but only, “If I want him to remain until I come, what is that to you?”
This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and wrote these things, and we know that his testimony is true. John 21:1-24


So, was this disciple whom Jesus loved John the son of Zebedee or one of the two unnamed “others of His disciples” who had followed Jesus’ direction to meet Him in Galilee and agreed to go fishing with Peter while they were waiting for Him?   Church tradition holds that it was John, and thus the Gospel has been labelled.  Many scholars argue that John just left out the bits about most of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee and the last supper because he wrote after the other three Gospels had been accepted and they covered those events sufficiently for him to feel no need to write about them, after all, the author did state that if everything Jesus did was written down the world would not be able to contain the books, and besides, it had to be one of Jesus’ “inner circle” who got selected for special assignments with Him – Peter, James and John.   

Some have contended that the author was Lazarus, because he is the only man specifically referred to as one whom Jesus loved (John 11:3&36) and the term “disciple whom Jesus loved” was only used after Lazarus’ resurrection and description as reclining at the table with Jesus (John 12:2). 

Some have contended that it was Jesus’ younger half-brother James because it would not be right for Him to place His mother into the care of someone outside the family when He had siblings with family responsibility for her. 

Some have suggested John Mark (the author of Mark) was the author because he was related to the Levite Barnabas and so would have been known to the high priest. 

Some argue that it was Thomas, because he had known to ask to see the spear wound in Jesus’ side and of all the apostles, only the beloved disciple had been at the cross to see that wound inflicted.  

Others have suggested that it is the man that early church father Papias (via Eusebius) referred to as “John the Elder”, and that he was a priest from Jerusalem (Polycrates’ references John wearing the sacerdotal plate in Eusebius, ‘Church History’, 5.24.2-3) and also the author of the Johannine letters, as both 2 John and 3 John state that they are from “the Elder”.

What we do know is that the author of the fourth Gospel was an eye-witness who had followed Jesus since John the Baptist proclaimed Him to be “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29), referred to himself as “the one whom Jesus loved“, and was closely tied to Jerusalem and the activities of the priesthood.

Reference List

44. Got Questions. How Old Were Jesus’ Disciples? Got Questions. [Online] [Cited: 12th Sept 2019.]
45. Thiessen, Rick. How Old Were the Disciples? Ask Anything. [Online] 18th April 2017. [Cited: 12th Sept 2019.]
46. Hyndman, Rob J. How old were the disciples of Jesus when they joined him? Bible Q – Bible questions answered. [Online] 5th Nov 2011. [Cited: 12th Sept 2019.]
47. Kirkpatrick, David Paul. Jesus’ Bachelors – The Disciples Were Most Likely Under the Age of Eighteen. David Paul Kirkpatrick’s Living In The Metaverse. [Online] 25th March 2013. [Cited: 12th Sept 2019.]
48. Cary, Otis & Frank. How Old Were Christ’s Disciples? 1, Chicargo : The University of Chicargo Press, July 1917, The Biblical World, Vol. 50, pp. 3-12.
49. Wallace, Jack. About how old was the Apostle John during Jesus’ earthly ministry? Quora. [Online] 27th Mar 2018. [Cited: 16th Sept 2019.]
50. Köstenberger, Andreas. Who Wrote John’s Gospel. Biblical Foundations. [Online] February 2008. [Cited: 23rd Sept 2019.]
51. Miller, Matthew Scott. 4 Reasons Lazarus, not John, may be the Author of the Fourth Gospel. Logos Made Flesh. [Online] 12th June 2012. [Cited: 24th Sept 2019.]
52. Witherington, Ben. Was Lazarus the Beloved Disciple? Ben Witherington Blogspot. [Online] 29th Jan 2007. [Cited: 24th Sept 2019.]
53. Rudnick, Alan. Lazarus, not John, was the Disciple whom Jesus loved. Alan Rudnick. [Online] 13th April 2017. [Cited: 24th Sept 2019.]
54. Phillips, J. The Disciple Whom Jesus Loved, Fifth Edition. The Disciple Whom Jesus Loved. [Online] 2011. [Cited: 24th Sept 2019.]
55. Jones, Edgar. Authorship of the Fourth Gospel. Voice of Jesus. [Online] [Cited: 24th Sept 2019.]
56. Curtis, David B. Gospel of John – Authorship. Berean Bible Church. [Online] 2016. [Cited: 24th Sept 2019.]
57. Dunne, John Anthony. Lazarus & The Fourth Gospel: Did John Write John? The Two Cities. [Online] 27th Sept 2011. [Cited: 24th Sept 2019.]
58. Kroll, David. Did John Write the Fourth Gospel? Theological Perspectives. [Online] [Cited: 24th Sept 2019.]
59. Edersheim, Alfred. In Jericho and at Bethany – Jericho – a Guest with Zacchæus – the Healing of Blind Bartimæus – the Plot at Jerusalem – at Bethany. The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. [Online] [Cited: 6th Oct 2019.]
60. Andrews. Arrival at Bethany. The Life of Our Lord Upon the Earth – Part VI. [Online] [Cited: 6th Oct 2019.]
61. Biblical Hermeneutics. Stack Exchange. [Online] [Cited: 17th Oct. 2016.]

Who Wrote Each of the Four Gospels 6 – The Witness of the Scriptures on Matthew


What do the Scriptures tell us about the Author of Matthew’s Gospel?

Church tradition holds that the apostle Matthew (also called Levi) wrote this Gospel for a Hebrew audience, and originally wrote his account in Hebrew (Aramaic).  So, let’s see what we can learn about Matthew from the scriptures to discover whether that confirms or conflicts with the church tradition.  

Matthew, like Jesus and all his twelve apostles, was a Hebrew, a Jew.  His parents had given him a Jewish name, “Matthew” comes from the Hebrew, mattija – meaning, “the gift of the Lord”.  This is suggestive of a conservative, religious family.  His other name “Levi”, is suggestive of someone from the priestly tribe of Levi.  His father, Alphaeus, is named in Mark so was probably a respected member of the Jewish community.  Also like the other apostles, Matthew was living in the traditional and religious region of Galilee and would have received the traditional Jewish schooling of five years in the Bet Sefer (House of the Book) learning to read, write and memorise the Torah, then graduated to the ‘Beit-Talmud’ (House of Learning) where he would have memorised the rest of the Tanakh (Hebrew Scriptures), learnt the art of rhetorical debating and begun studying the Pharisees’ Oral Law and interpretations.    

Here are the Gospel accounts of his calling:

As Jesus went on from there, He saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. ‘Follow me,’ He told him, and Matthew got up and followed Him.  And it happened that as He was reclining at the table in the house, behold many tax-gathers and sinners came and were dining with Jesus and His disciples.    Matthew 9:9-10 NASB

As He passed by, He saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax office, and He said to him, “Follow me!”  And he arose and followed Him.  And it came about that He was reclining at the table in his house, and many tax-gathers and sinners were dining with Jesus and His disciples; for there were many of them and they were following Him.     Mark 2:14-15 NASB

After this, Jesus went out and saw a tax-gatherer named Levi sitting in the tax office, and He said to him, “Follow me.”  And he left everything behind, and rose and began to follow Him.  And Levi gave a big reception for Him in his house; and there was a great crowd of tax-gatherers and other people who were reclining at the table with them.   Luke 5:27–28 NASB

Jesus was heading out from Capernaum, a large Jewish village on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee.  He was probably following an important trading route – the road which passed through Capernaum from Damascus to the seaports of Phoenicia, when he saw Matthew collecting taxes.   The term “tax collector” or “tax-gatherer” is from the Greek word “telones” and some versions of the Bible translate it as “publican.”   Telones were essentially customs officers who charged a tax on all imports and exports and were renowned for their ingenuity in inventing taxes on everything; crossing rivers, entering or leaving a town, travelling on a road, admission to markets, taxes on axels, wheels, pack animals, pedestrians and anything else they could think of.  The tax offices for “receipt of custom” were at city gates, on public roads and on bridges.  The telone could walk up to any traveller on any road within his district and ask them to unload all their goods and open all packages so they could be valued by him and taxed on that value.  Many scholars believe that the customs raised at Capernaum went into the treasury of Herod Antipas, apart from the amounts kept by the telones for their income.     The dominant school of Pharisees in Jesus’ day were separatists and would not lower themselves to have anything to do with a tax collector, whom they saw as no better than a Gentile, defiled by their constant contact with the heathen which would have necessitated fluency in the Greek language, and regarded as traitors and apostates.  To them the tax collector was irredeemable, excluded from all religious fellowship including the Temple and Synagogue, unfit to be a witness in any Jewish court and their money considered tainted such that it defiled anyone who accepted it.  (27) (28) (29) (30) (31) (32)

Could a despised tax-collector, considered unredeemable and unfit to be a court witness, become the author of the Gospel that was most frequently quoted by the early church fathers?  Matthew would be the least likely person for the early church to name as author if they were just looking for the name of one of the apostles to attach to this Gospel to give it credibility, as some have proposed. 

As a member of the priestly tribe Matthew would likely be well educated in Jewish law. (33)   It appears that at some stage during his teens Matthew rebelled against the strict separatist Judaism that he had been taught in order to follow a more financially prosperous path.  Maybe his rebellion was sparked by what he saw as hypocrisy in his teachers and religious leaders – fifteen of the twenty denunciations of hypocrites in the gospels come from Matthew’s Gospel.   Like many a young person, Matthew had not rejected God just the hypocrisy that he saw in his religious leaders.  When he saw Jesus totally without hypocrisy Matthew was willing to give up everything to follow him.   He was intelligent, excelled in maths, could keep ordered accounts and records, had been trained in a shorthand to record people’s statements verbatim, and knew Greek well enough to ingratiate himself to the Romans in charge of revenue collections.  The price he paid for this was the derision of many and being ostracised from his community, but so many were ostracised from the religious Jewish community at this time that they formed their own communities of outcast ones.  Matthew had no difficulty attracting a large crowd of these to the dinner he held for Jesus (Luke 5:29).

It is interesting that in the Gospel according to Matthew there is no mention of Matthew until after the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), Jesus’ stilling the wind and waves, sending the legion of demons into the herd of swine, and forgiving and healing the man who was paralysed.  Mark and Luke’s gospels both introduce Matthew (Levi) earlier in the narration but all three accounts place Matthew’s calling directly after Jesus proving that He had the authority to forgive sins by healing the man who was paralysed.  Christ’s authority to forgive sins is the essential pre-requisite for His calling a tax collector to follow Him.   Almost a third of Matthew’s Gospel is written about events which happened prior to any indication in it that Matthew had encountered Jesus.   As one who had close contact with all travellers, Matthew probably heard many of the stories of the miracles that Jesus was doing and it could be that he was part of the crowd for some of these earlier events, particularly the Sermon on the Mount, was drawn to Jesus’ teaching and took meticulous notes but never thought that Jesus would accept one such as him for a disciple.   That would explain Matthew’s immediate response to Jesus’ call.

The only other time that Matthew is named in any of the gospels is when Jesus chose twelve of his disciples and named them apostles (Matthew 10:1-4,  Mark 3:13-19, Luke 6:12-16) then sent them out to the lost sheep of Israel to preach, heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers and cast out demons (Matthew 10:5-8).   Matthew is not named again until the twelve are listed once more in Acts 1:13.  He is specified nowhere else in scripture, although it is clear that he continued faithfully following Jesus with the other apostles and then testifying to his resurrection after Pentecost.

Some sceptical scholars have argued that Matthew could not be the author of this Gospel because the writer never identifies himself with Matthew the tax collector, or with anyone else in the text.  There are no instances of “I”, “me”, “we” or “us” anywhere in the Gospel according to Matthew, everything is written in the third person.   Bart Erhman and others argue that this precludes Matthew, or anyone who walked with Jesus, from being the author of this Gospel.  It was not, however, uncommon for ancient auto-biographers to write in the third person about themselves; Xenophon, Josephus and Julius Caesar all did so.  Therefor it is plausible for the author of this Gospel to also write in the third person when referring to himself, so this does not preclude Matthew from being that author.  (34)

Another objection raised by sceptical scholars is that Jesus’ followers were unlearned and therefore could not have written such high quality works.  Matthew’s Gospel is the one that focuses most strongly on Jesus being the fulfilment of the Jewish scriptures and contains the most quotes thereof so some have argued:  “If the Gospel of Matthew was written by a tax collector, the gospel couldn’t have such intimate knowledge of the Law—because tax collectors were religious outsiders”.  (25)   It appears that such scholars think that the disciples both started off ignorant of their own religion and never learnt anything more after Jesus called them as teenagers or young men.   Although some experts have concluded that literacy rates in the Greco-Roman world were seldom been more than 20 percent (35) (36), in 59 BC Julius Caesar established a daily newspaper Acta Diurna which was distributed throughout the Roman Empire and was continued on by subsequent rulers, suggesting sufficient literacy among the populace to have a social impact. (37)  It should also be noted that the Jewish people were a people “of the Book”, they highly valued literacy even for the ‘common man’ as it enabled one to read from the holy scriptures in the Synagogue and every Synagogue in every village had a number of different people each week read to the congregation from the Torah and Prophets.   Having grown up in this the apostles then had three years of intensive training with Jesus and it gave them a love for learning and for the Word as we can see in Acts 6:2,4.  The original expression used here for “give ourselves continually” is very emphatic.   It denotes intense and persevering steadfast application to a thing, unwearied effort in it.   While most commentaries focus on the proclamation of the Word, such also requires prayerful study of the scriptures.   The evidence suggests that the 12 apostles, 11 after James was killed by Herod, remained based in Jerusalem – the centre of Jewish religious life and debate – for around twenty years after the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, until after the Acts 15 council in Jerusalem.  Two decades in the epicentre of Jewish thought and debate, steadfastly applying themselves to prayerfully studying and reflecting and preaching under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and debating with the most learned of their Jewish counterparts who did not see Jesus as the fulfilment of the scriptures read every Saturday in their Synagogues and proclaimed daily in the Temple.   Such would have produced a very deep and thorough understanding of the Hebrew Scriptures.

There are other clues to the author of this Gospel in its style and content.  It is the most unequivocally Hebrew of the four Gospels, most focused on the scribes and Pharisees, and has a greater focus on money than the other Gospels.

The Gospel according to Matthew is clearly written by a Jew and for other Jews to show them that Jesus is the fulfilment of the Law and God’s promised Messiah.  He quotes the Hebrew scriptures over sixty times, more than twice as many times as any other Gospel author, and refers to Hebrew prophecies of Christ’s virgin birth (Isaiah 7:14) in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2), His return from Egypt after the death of Herod (Hosea 11:1), His ministry to the Gentiles (Isaiah 9:1-2; 60:1-3), His miraculous healings of both body and soul (Isaiah 53:4), His speaking in parables (Psalm 78:2), and His triumphal entry into Jerusalem (Zechariah 9:9).  Matthew both uniquely depicts Jesus affirming the importance of the law (Matt. 5:17-20) and contrasts Jesus’ interpretation of the law with that of the Pharisees “you have heard that it was said… … But I say unto you… …”  He refers to but does not explain Jewish customs (unlike Mark who provides explanations for a Gentile audience).  He emphasis Jesus’ role as ‘Son of David’ and provides his genealogy back to Abraham.  He also directly responds to the Jewish leader’s initial objections to the narrative about Jesus, such as claims that the empty tomb was from his disciples stealing the body (Matthew 28:11-15).   This focus on writing for Jewish believers has led some scholars to agree with church tradition that Matthew’s Gospel was written very early in the history of the church, possibly even in response to the first scattering of believers mentioned in Acts 8:1, when they would have been separated from the apostles’ direct testimony of all that Jesus taught and did.   (38)  (39) (40) (33) (41)

The author of the Gospel according to Matthew shows a greater focus on the scribes and Pharisees than the authors of the other Gospels.  In Matthew scribes and Pharisees are mentioned a combined 54 times, compared with 42 in Luke, 33 in Mark and 20 in John.   This is consistent with someone who grew up under their training then rebelled against it and suffered their shunning.

Matthew’s Gospel references money 44 times, compared with Luke’s 22 times and Mark’s 6 times.  This author is the only one to record payment of Jesus’ and Peter’s temple tax to the tax collector in Capernaum (Matthew 17:24-27).  He is also the only one to record the parable of the payment of the vineyard workers, and accurately states the rate for a day’s wages at that time (Matthew 20:1-6).  It is the only Gospel that records anything about the Pharisees swearing by the gold in the temple (Matthew 23:16-17) and attaches more specific monetary detail to Jesus’ directions about taking nothing with them (compare Matthew 10:9, Mark 6:8 and Luke 9:3).   Such detail with regard to monetary matters is also consistent with the author being a former tax-collector.  (42) (39)  (38) (41) (34) (40)

The church tradition that Matthew’s Gospel was originally written in Hebrew (Aramaic) fits well with it being composed for early Jewish believers but not, according to scholars, with the way the earliest copies that we have of it are written in the Greek.  The fluid Greek of the Gospel suggests that, in its current form, it was first written in Greek and not translated from Aramaic (43). Nevertheless, Matthew may well have originally recorded Jesus’ sayings and actions in his native Aramaic and shared these with others before formally writing his account of Jesus’ life in Greek for the Jewish diaspora living in a Greek speaking world.

While we do not have sufficient evidence to prove that the former tax-collector turned apostle, Matthew, penned the Gospel attributed to him, what we do know collaborates this church tradition.   (25)

Reference List

25. ZA Blog. Who Wrote the Gospels and How Do We Know for Sure? Zondervan Academic. [Online] 20 Sept 2017. [Cited: 5th Sept 2019.]
26. International Bible Society. Introduction to NIV Study Bible 1 Peter. Biblica. [Online] [Cited: 5th Sept 2019.]
27. Bible History. Tax Collectors – First Century. Bible History. [Online] [Cited: 7th Sept 2019.]
28. —. Tax Collectors Overview. Bible History. [Online] [Cited: 7th Sept 2019.]
29. —. The Name Tax Collector. Bible History. [Online] [Cited: 7th Sept 2019.]
30. Edersheim, Alfred. The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. s.l. : Hendrickson Publishers, 1992 (first published 1883). 0943575834.
31. Bible History. Brief History About the Tax Collectors. Bible History. [Online] [Cited: 7th Sept 2019.]
32. —. The Customs of Tax Collectors. Bible History. [Online] [Cited: 7th Sept 2019.]
33. Mead, Aaron. Who Wrote the Gospel according to Matthew? Aaron Mead Writer, Theologian, Philosopher. [Online] 10th Aug 2018. [Cited: 8th Sept 2019.]
34. Manning, Erik. Did Matthew Write the Gospel of Matthew. Is Jesus Alive. [Online] [Cited: 7th Sept 2019.]
35. Harris, H.V. Ancient Literacy. s.l. : Harvard University Press, 1989.
36. Literacy in the Roman World. Routledge. [Online] [Cited: 16th Sept 2019.]
37. Wright, Brian J. Ancient Rome’s Daily News Publication With Some ikely Implications For Early Christian Studies. 1, 2016, Tyndale Bulletin, Vol. 67, pp. 145-160.
38. The International Bible Scoiety. Matthew – Introductionfrom the NIV Study bible. Biblica. [Online] [Cited: 7th Sept 2019.]
39. Chilton, Brian. Who Wrote the Gospel of Matthew? Cross Examined. [Online] 11th June 2017. [Cited: 7th Sept 2019.]
40. Got Questions. Gospel of Matthew. Got Questions Miistries. [Online] [Cited: 7th Sept 2019.]
41. Hamilton, Seraphim. Matthew: Date and Authorship. Orthodox Christianity. [Online] 2nd March 2016. [Cited: 7th Sept 2019.]
42. Nelson, Ryan. Who Was Matthew the Apostle? The Beginner’s Guide. Overview Bible. [Online] 1st April 2019. [Cited: 7th Sept 2019.]
43. Hagner, Donald A. Word Biblical Commentary Matthew 1-13, Volume 33A. Michigan : Zondervan, 2015. 978-0-310-52098-3.

Who Wrote Each of the Four Gospels 5 – The Witness of the Scriptures on Mark


What do the Scriptures tell us about the Author of Mark’s Gospel?

The universal and unanimous church tradition is that Mark authored this Gospel as a collection of Peter’s teachings as one of the twelve appointed witnesses to all that Jesus taught and did.

And the elder used to say this, Mark became Peter’s interpreter and wrote accurately all that he remembered, not, indeed, in order, of the things said and done by the Lord. For he had not heard the Lord, nor had followed him, but later on, followed Peter, who used to give teaching as necessity demanded but not making, as it were, an arrangement of the Lord’s oracles, so that Mark did nothing wrong in thus writing down single points as he remembered them. For to one thing he gave attention, to leave out nothing of what he had heard and to make no false statements in them.    Papias of Hierapolis (60-130AD)

There is nothing in the scriptures which contradicts this tradition and some attributes of the Gospel which support it.  This Gospel focuses on the events that Peter was part of and tends not to include other information, like the birth narrative, that Peter had not directly witnessed.  It has the fast paced narration of someone with an engaging preaching style.  It is not necessarily in chronological order but more like a collection of different narrations than one single story.  It contains explanations of Jewish customs and uses some Latin terms, suggesting that the intended audience was not only the Jews that Peter’s ministry had focused on.  This would fit with someone who had also ministered with Paul and so had in mind both Jewish and Gentile readers.  (24) (25)

Does what we know of John Mark from the rest of scripture fit with him having a close relationship with Peter and having authored this Gospel to convey Peter’s testimony of Christ?     We first learn of John Mark in Acts 12:12.  His mother Mary owned a house in Jerusalem that had been frequented by Peter the apostle.  Many gathered together in this house for prayer. When Peter had been miraculously released from prison by an angel he came first to this house to let the brethren praying there know of his release and instruct them: “Go, tell these things to James and to the brethren”, indicating a hand over of responsibility as he had to leave Jerusalem for a time.  Clearly there had been a close relationship between John Mark’s family and the apostle Peter from the earliest days of the church and Mark probably got to hear Peter tell the same stories again and again as he recounted his journey with Jesus.  Mark may have travelled with Peter to Antioch and then stayed there with his cousin Barnabas when Peter moved on to encourage the other scattered believers.

In Acts 13:5 Mark joins Barnabas and Saul as their assistant on their first missionary journey from Antioch, but left them in Perga to return to Jerusalem where his mother lived (Acts 13:13).  That is a long way for a young man to travel by himself and it is likely that he was joining others from that city in their journey to Jerusalem.  We know that Peter was back living in Jerusalem by Acts 15 – could Mark have left Barnabas and Paul to travel back there with Peter?  In Acts 15:36-41 we note that Mark travelled with Barnabas and Paul back to Antioch after the Jerusalem Council, and Barnabas wants to take him with them as they do a return trip to see how the new believers in every city are doing, but Paul refuses to allow Mark to join them on this missionary journey because of his leaving them last time so they split up and Barnabas takes Mark to Cyprus to encourage the brethren there. Over the next few years that rift was healed and Paul came to greatly appreciate Mark and his ministry.  By the time Paul writes Colossians (about 10 years later) he is referring to Mark as his fellow worker for the kingdom of God and a comfort to him (Col. 4:10-11), and instructs the believers at Colossae to welcome Mark if he goes to them.  Then in 2 Timothy 4:11 Paul instructs Timothy: “Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry.”  Peter records Mark being with him when he wrote 1 Peter 5:13, which was after Paul wrote Colossians, and refers to Mark as “my son”.  Mark has a long and close association with Peter, from times in his mother’s house until the latter years of Peter’s life.   He was also closely associated with Paul and his mission to the gentiles.  Everything that we know about Mark fits with the church tradition of him having written the Gospel bearing his name, and having done so from Peter’s perspective as one who walked with Jesus and witnessed what He said and did.  (25) (26)

Reference List

24. —. The Gospel of Mark. Blue Letter Bible. [Online] [Cited: 5th Sept 2019.]
25. ZA Blog. Who Wrote the Gospels and How Do We Know for Sure? Zondervan Academic. [Online] 20 Sept 2017. [Cited: 5th Sept 2019.]
26. International Bible Society. Introduction to NIV Study Bible 1 Peter. Biblica. [Online] [Cited: 5th Sept 2019.]

Who Wrote Each of the Four Gospels 4 – The Witness of the Scriptures on Luke


What do the Scriptures tell us about the Author of Luke’s Gospel?

We will examine the Gospel attributed to Luke first because he provides us with the most information to begin our search.  The prologue offers our first hint:

Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the Word.  Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught. Luke 1:1-4 NIV

Our next clue is found in the prologue of Acts, where we discover that the same person authored both books:

In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and teach until the day he was taken up to heaved, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles He had chosen.     Acts 1:1-2 NIV

Then, in Acts 16 we find the author of the book joining Paul in Troas and continuing with him on his journey to Macedonia. 

 After they had come to Mysia, they tried to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit did . not permit them. So passing by Mysia, they came down to Troas.  And a vision appeared to Paul in the night.  A man from Macedonia stood and pleaded with him, saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.”  Now after he had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go to Macedonia, concluding that the Lord had called us to preach the gospel to them.       Acts 16:7-10 NIV

These “we” and “us” passages continue to be interwoven through Acts 16:11-17; 20:5-15; 21:1-18; and 27:1-28:16.  The author stayed in Philippi of Macedonia when Paul and Silas were expelled (Acts 16:38-40) and then re-joined Paul when his group returned through Macedonia on their way to Jerusalem: “These men, going ahead, waited for us at Troas. But we sailed away from Philippi…” (Acts 20:5-6). 

As they travelled the Holy Spirit kept testifying that chains and tribulations lay ahead for Paul, the Jews in Jerusalem would bind him and deliver him over to the Romans.  On his third day back in Jerusalem Paul was seized, dragged out of the temple, beaten, rescued from the mob by a Roman commander and held in their barracks.   Soon Paul was sent to Caesarea, where he remained imprisoned for two years (Acts 21:26-25:12).

Map of Paul's journey from Jerusalem to Caesarea

It was likely during these two years that the author did his research and wrote his gospel account.  After Paul had appealed to Caesar the author travelled with him to Rome (Acts 27:1-28:16) and finished his account by writing that “Paul dwelt two whole years in his own rented house, and received all who came to him, preaching the kingdom of God and teaching the things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ with all confidence, no one forbidding him.”

This also provides us with a timeframe for the writing of Luke and Acts, as clearly the Gospel account was written first and Acts was written before the destruction of the temple in 70 AD, before Nero’s persecutions in the mid-60s, before the martyrdoms of James, Paul and Peter and before the Jewish wars against the Romans which began in 66 AD. (19)  This would give us a likely time-frame for the writing of Luke as somewhere in the late 50s.  Paul’s 2 year Caesarean imprisonment has been placed somewhere between 56 and 60AD. (20) (21) (22) (23) That a third of the book of Acts is focused on Paul’s imprisonments in Caesarea and Rome is not surprising for a book written by someone who had travelled to Jerusalem with Paul and stayed with him throughout this ordeal.

For our next clue as to who may have written Luke and Acts we look to the letters that Paul wrote during his two year confinement in Rome: Philippians; Colossians; Philemon; and Ephesians.  Does Paul mention anyone in these letters who may have been this author who had travelled with him from Jerusalem to Rome and stayed with him during his Roman confinement?

PHILIPPIANS (Philipi is the city in Macedonia where the Acts narrative appears to suggest that its author spent several years between Paul’s visits to this area (Acts 16:40 – Acts 20:5) – this should be a top contender for naming the author).  Philippians begins with a greeting from Paul and Timothy (Phil. 1:1), states that the Philippians know Timothy’s proven character as someone who sincerely cares for their spiritual wellbeing and expresses Paul’s plan to send Timothy to them as soon as Paul knows the results of his trial (Phil. 2:19-24).  Paul also wrote about Epaphroditus, whom the Philippians had recently sent to minister to Paul’s needs in Rome and who Paul was sending back to them with this letter (Phil. 2:25-30 & 4:18).  The only others mentioned as being in Rome were “the brethren who are with me” which included “those who are of Caesar’s household.”  It would seem from Philippians that either the author of Acts was Timothy, or he was not with Paul when this letter was penned.

COLOSSIANS (Colossae was a city in Asia Minor, about 160km from Ephesus, that had been impacted by the gospel during Paul’s more than two year ministry in Ephesus through a convert named Epaphras).   Again this letter begins with a greeting from Paul and Timothy (Col. 1:1).  Tychicus and Onesimus were with Paul and going to take this epistle to the Colossians (Col. 4:7-9).  Aristarchus is described as being a fellow prisoner, he was one of the Jewish believers from Thessalonica in Mascedonia who had accompanied Paul to Jerusalem (Acts 20:4) and then on to Rome (Acts 27:2).  The two other Jewish believers with Paul are listed as Mark the cousin of Barnabas and Jesus who was called Justice.  The gentile believers whom Paul then mentions being with him are Epaphras (from Colossae), Luke the physician and Demas.

The epistle to PHILEMON also opens with a greeting from Paul and Timothy.  Paul writes concerning Onesimus, whom he had led to Christ while imprisoned and who was to be carrying his letters to the Colossians and to Philemon. Paul also sends greetings from Epaphras (who was to travel with Onesimus back to Colossi), Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke whom he describes as fellow labourers.  

It is suggested that EPHESIANS is the last letter that Paul sent during his first imprisonment in Rome, and it is the only one who’s initial greeting does not include Timothy with Paul.  Aristarchus is not mentioned either, even though he had been one of Paul’s travelling companions during his second visit to Ephesus which lasted for two years.  He may have been either released or executed before this time.  The author of Luke and Acts had remained in Philippi when Paul was in Ephesus and so may not have been known to the Ephesians and therefore not mentioned by Paul.  In fact the only person Paul mentions being with him in this letter is Tychicus who is to carry the epistle to them. 

So, from those listed as being with Paul in Rome are there any who could have been the author of Luke and Acts?  The first of those listed is Timothy, Paul’s closest companion, but he could not be the author because he is recorded as ministering with Paul and Silas in Berea, Athens and Corinth during the time that the author was staying in Philippi.  Timothy had also accompanied Paul to Jerusalem but had gone ahead of Paul and the author to Troas (Acts 20:4-6).  

The next person we read about having been in Rome with Paul is the trusted Tychicus, whom Paul would appoint to help guide different churches and who had accompanied Paul to Jerusalem but, like Timothy and others, had gone ahead of Paul and the author to Troas. 

Next is Onesimus, from Colossae, but he had only come to faith in Christ during Paul’s imprisonment in Rome so could not be the Acts author. 

Aristarchus is our next contender, a Jewish believer from Thessalonica who had also accompanied Paul to Jerusalem but gone ahead of Paul and the author to Troas and in Acts 27:2 the author writes: “Aristarchus, a Macedonian of Thessalonica was with us”, so Artistarchus was someone separate to the author. 

Mark the cousin of Barnabas was next listed, he had started out with Barnabas and Saul on their first missionary journey (Acts 12:25) but left them in Perga of Pamphylia to return to Jerusalem (Acts 13:13).  Mark was referred to by the author as part of “they” (Acts 13:6 & 13) and so was not the author of Acts and Luke.  

Jesus Justice was mentioned next, and all we know about him is that he was another Jewish believer who proved to be a comfort to Paul during his first imprisonment in Rome – so he is not ruled out.  

Epaphras, who took the gospel to Colossae, Laodicea and Hierapolis after having learned it from Paul in Ephesus and who contended powerfully for the believers in prayer, is listed next.   It appears that Epaphras travelled to Rome to support the imprisoned Paul but had not been part of the original party that took the gifts to Jerusalem and therefor was not the author. 

The last two are Demas and Luke. Both are mentioned by name in two of Paul’s letters penned during his first imprisonment in Rome: Colossians 4:14 “Our dear friend Luke, the doctor, and Demas send greetings” and Philemon 1:24 …”Demas and Luke, my fellow labourers”; and in 2 Timothy 4:10-11, which scholars think Paul wrote towards the deadly end of a second imprisonment in Rome.   In 2 Timothy the two are contrasted – Demas having forsaken Paul and Luke being the only one with him.  

Was Luke likely to have written the Gospel according to Luke and Acts of the Apostles as church tradition has attested?  The earliest manuscript that has been found of the Gospel, dated 200 AD, ascribes the work to Luke; as did Irenaeus, writing in 180 AD, and the Muratorian fragment from 170 AD.  While it appears strange that Luke was not included in Paul’s greeting to the Philippians that is not sufficient reason to rule him out.  It would not contradict anything in the scriptures for Luke to be the author and his being a gentile born physician is also suggestive of one having an extensive classical education which would fit with the style of writing in these manuscripts which is that of the traditional Greek histography.  

The other support for this is the specific medical terminology the author uses in both books.   In Luke 13:11-13, Jesus heals a crippled woman and the Greek words Luke uses both to describe her condition (sugkuptousa) and the exact manner of Jesus’ healing (apolelusaianorthothe) are medical terms.  In Luke 14:1–4, Jesus heals a man with dropsy and uses a word to describe the man in this passage that’s found nowhere else in the Bible: hudropikos. While this passage is the only place this word appears in the Bible, it’s a precise medical term frequently used in other texts—namely, the works of the renowned Greek physician, Hippocrates.  The use of medically-accurate phrases and descriptions continues in Acts, such as Acts 28:8–9, where the writer uses puretois kai dusenterio sunechomenon to describe a man’s exact medical condition (“suffering from fever and dysentery”).

The Gospel according to Luke was likely written by an educated gentile who travelled with Paul to Jerusalem and “carefully investigated everything from the beginning” in seeking to “write an orderly account” of the life and teachings of Jesus.  Unlike Matthew, Luke makes few references to Old Testament quotes and explains Jewish traditions, in addition to being attentive to emphasizing that the Gospel message is addressed to all peoples, including gentiles.   While not conclusive, the evidence from within the scriptures is supportive of the church tradition that Dr Luke did write the Gospel attributed to him, along with the book of Acts.    Together they account for 27.5% of the New Testament, the largest contribution by a single author.

Luke is reported to be a native of Antioch in Syria.  Acts 11:19-26 tells us that some of those who fled Jerusalem after the stoning of Stephen travelled as far as Antioch and preached the Lord Jesus to both Jews and Gentiles and a great number believed and turned to the Lord so the church in Jerusalem sent Barnabas to them who in turn sort out Saul to help with teaching these new believers.   It is possible that Luke was one of these early Gentile believers.   He was well educated and may have been drawn o God and started attending a synagogue, worshipping and learning about Judaism before he first heard the Gospel.  He writes as one who was painstakingly learning about all the different practices of the Jewish faith rather than one born into it and Paul refers to him as one of his fellow labourers who is not “of the circumcision” (Colossians 4:10-14).   After Peter miraculously escaped from Herod (Acts 12:1-17) and left Jerusalem he likely also spent some time teaching in Antioch, and throughout Asia Minor.  So Luke may have sat under Peter’s teaching in Antioch and heard his eye-witness accounts of what Jesus did.

We first read about Luke joining in one of Paul’s missionary journeys in Acts 16:8-10 after Paul, Silas and Timothy came to Troas in Cilicia.   The scriptures give no indication of when or why Luke travelled to Troas but indications are that there was a Christian community in this port city of more than 50,000 people long before Paul reached there, so it is possible that Luke had been part of a missionary team (maybe even with Peter) to this strategic city.  Luke was obviously known to Paul and accompanied them to Philippi where he stayed after Paul and Silas were expelled from the city and travelled on to Thessalonica.

Like us, Luke never had the opportunity to meet Jesus in the flesh, but understood what Paul was preaching sufficiently to know that he did not want to just be a disciple of Paul, he wanted to find out everything he could about Jesus whom Paul preached in order to truly be a disciple of Christ.   

Luke took every opportunity to learn from those who had been with Jesus and to read the accounts of Christ’s life that started circulating around the churches.   So, when Paul was leading a delegation back to Jerusalem with gifts for the Jewish believers, Luke leapt at the chance to meet and learn from the eyewitnesses among them, to walk the paths that Jesus had walked and see the places where he had been. 

Luke reports that when they arrived in Jerusalem “the brethren received us gladly”.  Now he could begin to seek out Jesus’ family members, and ask them all the questions burning within him.  The next day Paul took them to meet Jesus’ brother James – this was the introduction that Luke had been hoping and praying for, there was so much he wanted to learn from James and his mother about every aspect of Jesus’ life. 

Luke had read all the accounts that were circulating at that time, but he wanted to hear it for himself from those who were there, and there were questions he had which were not addressed in the accounts that he had read. 

Nine days after Paul had introduced the delegates to the church in Jerusalem he was attacked in the temple and imprisoned by the Romans for the ensuing riot.  Luke, being a gentile, was not in the temple with Paul and so is not caught up in the riot.   For the next two years of Paul’s imprisonment in the Judean town of Caesarea, Luke had opportunity to seek out and interview Jesus’ mother and brothers, researching every aspect of Jesus’ life to put together a detailed account from conception to ascension.  Because of the danger they were all in this would have been much more difficult without that introduction to the eldest brother James. 

Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the Word.  Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught. Luke 1:1-4 NIV

Reference List

19. Staudinger, Hugo. The Trustworthiness of the Gospels. Edinburgh : The Handsel Press, 1981.
20. Timeline of the Apostolic Era. The Hesitant Prize Fighter. [Online] 15th July 2014. [Cited: 14th Sept 2019.]
21. Paul Imprisoned Two Years at Caesarea. Bible History . [Online] [Cited: 14th Sept 2019.]
22. Paul in Caesarea. The Bible Journey. [Online] [Cited: 14th Sept 2019.]
23. Blue Letter Bible. Timeline of the Apostle Paul. Blue Letter Bible. [Online] [Cited: 14th Sept 2019.]

Who Wrote Each of the Four Gospels 3 – The Witness of the Scriptures



The authors of the four Gospels maintain their anonymity throughout their accounts of the life of Christ.   They write as journalists or biographers recording events rather than as active participants describing their involvement in these events.   The Gospels focus on their subject – Jesus Christ – and how people are reacting to Him, with the author fading into the background.   The Gospel writer’s demonstrated attitude mirrored that of John the Baptist: “He must increase, but I must decrease.” (John 3:30 JKV)

Many scholars argue that the opening line of the Gospel of Mark probably also functioned as the original title of the text and the inspiration for establishing euaggelion (a Greek word meaning “good news”) as a new literary genre of books that record the words and deeds of Jesus Christ:

The beginning of the gospel (euaggelion) of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.         Mark 1:1 KJV

This original text-title of Mark can be compared with those of other ancient texts in which the opening lines served as titles.  Herodotus’ Histories, for example, begins with the following line which probably served as the title of the text:

This is the exposition of the history of Herodotus…

A major difference between the Gospel of Mark and Herodotus’ Histories is that the opening line of Mark does not name the text’s author, but instead attributes the gospel to Jesus Christ.   We see this same total focus on Jesus with no thought of trying to get personal recognition for their work in the openings of the Gospel that has been attributed to Matthew and that attributed to John:

The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of.    Abraham.    Matthew 1:1 KJV

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.        John 1:1 NIV

Despite the anonymity of the writing there is still evidence within each gospel as to who their author might be.   Over the next four blogs we will examine that evidence of scripture to see whether it supports, or contradicts, the church tradition with regard to each of the four Gospel accounts.

Who Wrote Each of the Four Gospels 2 – The Witness of Church Tradition


The testimony of church tradition is strong and unanimous for the three synoptic Gospel accounts – Matthew, Mark, and Luke are the only names attached to them in any of the writings we have from the early church fathers.  There is no evidence of any author in the first centuries of the church ever attributing any of these Gospels to anyone other than Matthew, Mark and Luke.  Only Gaius (just after 200 AD) gives us any different name for any of the gospels and that is only for the Gospel of John when disputing its authenticity. (6)  

However, the church fathers who alluded to, or quoted passages from, the Gospels during the first century after their composition did so without attributing an author’s name to the texts they were citing.  The focus of the primitive church was not on the identity of the authors of the Gospels but on the truth of Jesus whom they had written about.   Would we expect anything less than such from them? 

Ignatius, overseer of Antioch in Syria, (50-107 AD) wrote influential letters and in them quoted from 8 books in our NT, including the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, but did not refer to any of these texts by their given title.  The Didache (50-120 AD) quotes the Lord’s Prayer from Matthew, attributing these verses to “His (Jesus’) Gospel”, again without mentioning the author.  The Epistle of Barnabas (80-120 AD) also quotes from the Gospel of Matthew as a written document but does not attach Matthew’s name to it. Polycarp, Greek overseer of Smyrna (70-155 AD) in his writings quoted from 17 books in our NT, including the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, but likewise did not refer to any of these texts by their given title.   It has thus been suggested that the four Gospels were likely each originally referred to under the title το ευαγγελιον Ιησου Χριστου (“The Gospel of Jesus Christ”), with the construction κατα (“according to”) added later to distinguish individual gospels by their designated names.

Justin Martyr (100-165 AD) was an early Christian apologist, most of whose works have been lost to the passage of time but three remain and in these he quotes from each of the four Gospels but without naming their specific authors.  Instead Justin uses the terms “memoirs of the apostles” 15 times and “gospel” 3 times.   In the single passage where he uses both terms (1 Apol. 66:3) Justin states: “The apostles in the memoirs which have come from them, which are called gospels, have transmitted that the Lord had commanded…”  

The four Gospels were clearly acknowledged as faithfully conveying the testimony of the 12 apostles appointed to bear witness to Jesus’ life from the time of John’s baptism (Acts 1:21-22).   Justin’s description of how the Gospels are used in the early second century church has them given the same standing as the writings of the OT prophets:

On the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things.

The names of the individual four authors of these Gospels were not as important in the early days as the descriptions of them as being “memoirs of the apostles”.  The faithful witness these four Gospels carried was considered so important that they had been painstakingly copied and circulated in the 1st and 2nd century church as it kept growing and spreading around the world, and used as an essential part of the service in sharing the truth about Jesus’ life, ministry, death and resurrection. 

The earliest reference we have that appears to name the authors of any of the Gospels is from Papias, overseer of Hieropolis, in Asia Minor (60-130 AD).  Towards the end of his life Papias wrote a work in five books, Logion Kyriakon Exegesis (Explanation of the Sayings of the Lord) of which all but some excerpts found in later writings have been lost to the passage of time.   The two authors who quoted Papias were Irenaeus, overseer of Lyon (130-202 AD), and early church historian Eusebius of Caesarea (260-340 AD). 

Irenaeus recorded Papias as having written this preface to his works:

I used to inquire about what Andrew or Peter had said, or Philip or Thomas or James or John or Matthew, or any other of the Lord’s disciples, and what Aristion and John the Elder, disciples of the Lord, were saying.  For books to read are not as useful to me as the living voice sounding out clearly up to the present day in the persons of their authors.

Since early times there has been dispute over whether ‘John the Elder’ mentioned here was the apostle John or some other John in the early church as he is cited separately from ‘John’ in the list of members of the twelve apostles.  This ‘Elder’ is frequently referenced in what has been preserved of Papias’ writings.  

Irenaeus is recorded as having been a disciple of Polycarp who was a disciple of the apostle John, and he described Papias as “an ancient man, who was a hearer of John, and a friend of Polycarp”.  (7) (8) (9) (10)

It is in Eusebius’ (260-340 AD) writings that we have the records of what Papias wrote concerning Mark and Matthew’s texts (11):

The Elder also said this, “Mark, being the interpreter of Peter, whatsoever he remembered he wrote accurately, but not however in the order that these things were spoken or done by our Lord. For he neither heard the Lord, nor followed him, but afterwards, as I said, he was with Peter, who did not make a complete [or ordered] account of the Lord’s logia, but constructed his teachings according to chreiai [concise self-contained teachings]. So Mark did nothing wrong in writing down single matters as he remembered them, for he gave special attention to one thing, of not passing by anything he heard, and not falsifying anything in these matters.”     Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 3.39.15

Concerning Matthew these other things were said, “Therefore, Matthew set in order the logia (“divine oracles”) in a Hebrew dialect, and each interpreted them, as he was able.”   Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 3.39.15-16.

These writings appear to express what were well established church traditions by the early second century, particularly regarding Mark authoring a gospel from the teachings of the apostle Peter.  

The ‘Muratorian Fragment’, the oldest known list of New Testament books, includes the phrase: “very recently, in our times, in the city of Rome, while overseer Pius… was occupying the chair of the church of the city of Rome”, which would place it just after Pius led the church in Rome (142 – 157 AD).   The first part of the document is missing, hence the term ‘Fragment’, but what we have provides a lot of detail of the early church tradition for the authorship of Luke and John:

. . . at which nevertheless he was present, and so he placed [them in his narrative].   The third book of the Gospel is that according to Luke.  Luke, the well-known physician, after the ascension of Christ, when Paul had taken with him as one zealous for the law, composed it in his own name, according to [the general] belief.  Yet he himself had not seen the Lord in the flesh; and therefore, as he was able to ascertain events, so indeed he begins to tell the story from the birth of John.  The fourth of the Gospels is that of John, [one] of the disciples.  To his fellow disciples and bishops, who had been urging him [to write], he said, ‘Fast with me from today to three days, and what  will be revealed to each one let us tell it to one another.’ In the same night it was revealed to Andrew, [one] of the apostles, that John should write down all things in his own name while all of them should review it. And so, though various  elements may be taught in the individual books of the Gospels, nevertheless this makes no difference to the faith of believers, since by the one sovereign Spirit all things have been declared in all [the Gospels]: concerning the nativity, concerning the passion, concerning the resurrection, concerning life with his disciples,  and concerning his twofold coming; the first in lowliness when he was despised, which has taken place,  the second glorious in royal power, which is still in the future. What marvel is it then, if John so consistently mentions these particular points also in his Epistles, saying about himself, ‘What we have seen with our eyes and heard with our ears and our hands have handled, these things we have written to you? For in this way he professes [himself] to be not only an eye-witness and hearer, but also a writer of all the marvelous deeds of the Lord, in their order… (12) (13)

By the late second century, 180 AD, we have Irenaeus of France, in his Against Heresies (3.1.1), articulating the church tradition for the authorship of all four Gospels:

Matthew also issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect, while Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome, and laying the foundation of the Church.  After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, did also hand down to us in writing what had been preached by Peter.  Luke also, the companion of Paul, recorded in a book the Gospel preached by him.  Afterwards, John, the disciple of the Lord, who also leaned upon His breast, did himself publish a Gospel during his residence at Ephesus in Asia.

From the title of this work we can see why Irenaeus felt a need to identify the authors of the four Gospel accounts that from earliest times had been accepted as accurately conveying the eye-witness testimony of the apostles.  Many other “gospels” were now being written, often in the names of apostles or those who had been close to Jesus – eg the “gospel of Judas” written around 130-170 AD and the “gospel of Thomas” written around 140 AD – these were being used to spread heresies (untruths about who Jesus is and what He did and taught) and contained both historical and geographical errors.  Christianity, like Judaism, is a historical religion – founded upon events that had taken place and therefor very particular about keeping accurate records of those events and rejecting false accounts. 

Tertullian, a Christian lawyer and church leader in Carthage, in his work Against Marcion (4.2 & 4.5), 200 AD, affirmed this church tradition:

We lay it down as our first position, that the evangelical Testament has apostles for its authors, to whom was assigned by the Lord Himself this office of publishing the gospel… Of the apostles, therefore, John and Matthew first instil faith into us; while the apostolic men, Luke and Mark renew it afterwards.  These all start with the same principles of faith, so far as relates to the one only God and creator and His Christ, how that He was born of the Virgin, and came to fulfil the law and the prophets…The same authority of the apostolic churches will afford evidence to the other Gospels also, which we possess equally through their means, and according to their usage.  I mean the Gospels of John and Matthew while that which Mark published may be affirmed to be Peter’s whose interpreter Mark was.  For even Luke’s form of the Gospel men usually ascribe to Paul.  And it may well seem that the works which disciples publish belong to their masters.”

There is however, according to several scholars, one dissident voice preserved, the early 3rd century Roman presbyter Gaius has been interpreted as having attributed both the Gospel of John and Revelation to the authorship of the gnostic Cerinthus (Epiphanius Panarion 51.3.1-2).  (14) (15) (16)  Not all accept this analysis of Gaius’ writings. (17)

In 245 AD the Christian scholar Origen again confirmed the established church tradition:

Concerning the four Gospels which alone are uncontroverted in the Church of God under heaven, I have by tradition that the Gospel according to Matthew, who was at one time a tax collector and afterwards an Apostle of Jesus Christ, was written first and that he composed it in the Hebrew tongue and published it for the converts from Judaism.  The second written was that according to Mark, who wrote it according to the instruction of Peter, who, in his General Epistle, acknowledged him as a son, saying, “The church that is in Babylon, elect together with you, salutes you and so does Mark my son.” And third, was that according to Luke, the Gospel commended by Paul, which he composed for the converts from the Gentiles.  Last of all, is that according to John.”   (18)

Reference List

6. Stewart, Don. Who Wrote the Four Gospels? Blue Letter Bible. [Online] [Cited: 31st Aug 2019.]
7. Chapman, John. Papias. Early Christian Writings. [Online] [Cited: 31st Aug 2019.]
8. Got Questions Ministries. Who was Papias of Hierapolis? God Questions Ministries. [Online] [Cited: 31st Aug 2019.]
9. American Bible Society. Papias of Hierapolis. Bible Resources. [Online] [Cited: 31st Aug 2019.]
10. Wingren, Gustaf. Saint Irenaeus bishop of Lyon. Encyclopedia Britannica. [Online] [Cited: 31st Aug 2019.]
11. Lovell, Graham. Papias on Mark and Matthew. New Testament – A Historian’s Perspective. [Online] 25th May 2012. [Cited: 31st Aug 2019.]
12. Metzger, Bruce. The Cannon of the New Testament. Oxford : Clarendon Press, 1987.
13. Marlowe, Michael D. The Muratorian Fragment. Bible Research. [Online] 2012. [Cited: 9th Sept 2019.]
14. Manor, T. Scott. Exonerating Gaius of Rome. BRILL. [Online] 2016. [Cited: 4th Sept 2019.]
15. Biblical Training Library. Gaius. Biblical Training. [Online] [Cited: 4th Sept 2019.]
16. Hall, Stuart George. Doctrine and Practice in the Early Church. s.l. : Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1992.
17. Hill, Charles E. Gaius of Rome and the Johanine Controversy. Oxford Scholarship. [Online] January 2005. [Cited: 4th Sept 2019.]
18. Jones, Ron. Early Church Fathers on the Authorship of NT Gospels. Academia. [Online] [Cited: 2nd Sept 2019.]

Who Wrote Each of the Four Gospels 1 – Introduction

On the most important level the answer to this question is both simple and profound:

 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.       2 Timothy 3:16 NIV

While this verse was originally referring to the Tanakh (OT Scriptures), it is also applicable to all the NT Scriptures.  That is what the whole process of canonisation was about – determining which texts were undeniably God-breathed.   That is why the other ancient texts that claim to be a gospel according to Thomas, or Judas, or Mary or whomever, were never included in the Bible – in their earliest years they were found to have false stories included in them and so were not accepted by the early church as having been God-breathed.

On the human level it is more difficult to determine conclusively who God used to write each of the four Gospels for us, despite the names attached to their titles.   This is not a questioning of the authority or historic reliability of the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life.  In keeping with the practices of their Jewish culture, Jesus’ disciples took great care to memorise His teachings and deeds so as to pass these on faithfully to others and correct any misunderstandings.  During their lifetimes these accounts were written down, meticulously copied and circulated to the groups of believers in every city, where they were read as part of the worship services.  All the evidence supports the view that the four Gospels were based on high quality eye witness testimony with incredible accuracy of detail, and these have been reliably preserved for us.  This is in stark contrast to the other “gospels” which were written later and rejected by the early church as lacking authenticity and accuracy, and can even now be shown to lack the historical details inherent in accurate accounts of Jewish life during the time of Christ.   From a purely historical point of view we can have confidence in the accuracy of what we read about Jesus’ life and words in the four Gospels.  Regardless of who the human authors of each of these four accounts are, they provide us with verifiable eye-witness testimony.     (1) (2) (3) (4)

So, what does it matter who wrote each account of Jesus’ life?   God used each author’s individual personality and life experience in His inspiration of the scriptures.   With the Gospels, He used four different authors to give us four different perspectives.  The more we learn about each author the more we can understand their perspective and the richer picture we get of those aspects of our Lord’s life and ministry.   The scriptures are like a very detailed and multifaceted ancient treasure, the more different angles we view them from the more we see the richness of their beauty.

The original texts were written on scrolls without titles, verse/chapter numbers, or footnotes.  As we saw when looking at the development of the Tanakh (OT), the Hebrew titles that have been added to the first 5 books of the Bible (“In the beginning”, “Names”, “And he called”, “In the desert” and “Words”) are totally different to the titles for these books which were added in our Bibles (which come from the Septuagint – first Greek translation), but the inspired scriptures are the same in both.  It is not the titles that are inspired, but the text of the books.  Unlike most of the other books in the New Testament, which included the author’s name in the text of the book (most often in the prologue), none of the authors of the four Gospel accounts penned their name in what they wrote.   Each one chose to give an anonymous account of the life of Jesus.  To them the important thing was not that they had been the one to write this account of the earthly life of Jesus but that the focus be on Jesus whose life they were recounting for us. (5)

With this apparent early anonymity there has been much conjecture among Biblical scholars as to who wrote each Gospel.  The importance of this is that it affects the lens we view the Gospels through and how we understand the relationships portrayed in them. 

We have two main sources of information that we can examine in attempting to determine who authored the gospel accounts of Jesus’ life: Church Tradition and the Scriptures. 

Reference List

1. Moreland, JP. Scaling the Secular City. s.l. : Baker and Baker Academic division of Baker Publishig Group, 2007.
2. Williams, Peter J. New Evidence the Gospels were Based on Eyewitness Accounts. Be Thinking. [Online] [Cited: 2019 Sept 2019.]
3. Knowing God. Why You Can Believe the Bible. Every Student. [Online] [Cited: 4th Sept 2019.]
4. Pitre, Brant. The Case fo Jesus: The biblical and Historical Evidence for Christ. New York : Crown Publishing, 2016. 9780770435486.
5. Ehrman, Bart. Why Are the Gospels Anonymous? The Bart Ehrman Blog. [Online] [Cited: 4th Sept 2019.]

The Apostolic Reformation Begins ~ Jesus (Yeshua) as a Jewish Reformer

In Section 2 we take an in-depth look at Yeshua’s life in the context of this culture which we have seen develop in the centuries leading up to His birth.

As we have seen, there were many wonderful, and many problematic, ways in which Judaism had been developing.  Through it all the expectation of a coming Messiah and messianic age had continued growing in the general population.  Those who had been counting knew that it was getting close to Daniel’s 69th ‘seven’, during which Messiah would be revealed.  

They needed deliverance from Roman occupation, and Hellenising influences, which clashed with maintaining the purity of the Jewish people and their religious practice.  Not long before they had needed deliverance from self-rule, which had degenerated under the Hasmonaean dynasty into such bitter conflict that all sides had called for Roman intervention.   Yet still there were many who glorified in the Maccabean revolt and engaged in guerrilla warfare, seeking to re-live such a victory in their day and hoping that their courage in battle would induce Messiah to come to their rescue and supernaturally destroy the Roman army and all heathens in the way of establishing their glorious kingdom.  

Messianic hopes and expectations were many and varied.   The religious practice of much of the population was fervent and genuine.  The wall the Pharisees were building around the Torah was becoming ever higher and thicker and governed every conceivable aspect of devout Jewish life.   These were a people in need of seeing the reality of their God.

In Section 2 we take an in-depth look at Yeshua‘s life in the context of this culture which we have seen develop in the centuries leading up to His birth.

As with all Bible studies and commentaries, what is presented here is not infallible, that designation belongs to scripture alone. While every effort has been made through years of research to present as accurate an account as possible, there are many things that we do not know and many areas that even the best Bible scholars, and historians, disagree on. If you disagree with anything written in these blogs please feel free to do so, but don’t dismiss what I have written until you have first searched the scriptures afresh to see what God has to say on it – then please share with us what He reveals to you through His word. The purpose of this work is not to establish doctrine, a standard by which other works are judged, but to provide a perspective that broadens and deepens your understanding of Yeshua HaMashiach (Jesus Messiah / the anointed one) so as to grow in your love for Him, in your discipleship of Him, and in your effectiveness in discipling others in Christ Jesus.

As language is an essential part of culture, names will often be written in their original Hebrew (along with the English translations that most of us are more familiar with).

We also have a grouping of seven blogs (in the section ‘INTERLUDE‘) on the authors of each of the four gospel accounts. Again, the purpose of studying such is to help deepen our understanding and appreciation of our wonderful Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.

Now to “A Child is Born“…