The Group Affiliations the Apostles Had and What It Might Mean for Us

When I look at American expressions of Christianity today, I wonder if we demonstrate the right way to follow Jesus.

Oil painting illustrating Jesus Christ and his disciples on a meadow

I have spent some time lately considering the various influential groups of people in the time of Jesus and the orientation of those groups toward Jesus. I have wondered why Jesus seemed to pick on the Pharisees more than the other, groups, especially since they seemed most aligned with him and had most in common with him.

As I researched and thought about the various groups of Jewish influencers in the First Century in relation to Jesus, I began to think about the apostles, and their connections to these groups. I am always mining for insight as I read Scripture, and today my mind turns toward the relationship of the twelve apostles to those same groups of First Century, Jewish influencers.

We don’t know much about the background of the twelve disciples, except that most of them were “common” men of humble means and many were of uncertain group identity. One disciple was identified with the Zealots (Simon, the Zealot, also known as Simon the Canaanite). Matthew, the tax collector, might have been Herodian (or may have been viewed as one).

We really don’t know about the group affiliation of the other disciples, at least not from the explicit text. They seem to have been more ordinary people with no distinct association with particular groups. They did not seem to be closely associated with any of the five groups Jewish leadership groups in First Century Judea.

Even Simon, who is known as the Zealot, would have left his group behind to follow Jesus. Just as Matthew left behind his livelihood (tax collection) to follow Jesus and Simon (Peter) and Andrew dropped their fishing nets to follow Jesus. It’s no stretch, therefore, to imagine that Simon, the Zealot, would have similarly “dropped” or left behind his affiliation with the Zealots to follow Jesus.

In fact, the theme of leaving behind your group seems to run throughout the teaching and example of Jesus. Jesus said, “[E]veryone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life.” (Matt. 19:29)

He called Peter and Andrew and James and John away from their profession of fishing. He called Matthew, the tax collector, away from his profession. I think it’s fair to assume that Jesus called Simon, the Zealot, away from the Zealots to follow him.

The theme of leaving behind family, livelihood and group identity runs deep in Scripture, all the way back to Abram (as Abraham was known) when God called Abram to leave his country, his people and his father’s household and go to the land God would show him. (Gen. 12:1)

Hebrews 11 commends Abraham for the example of faith demonstrated in leaving behind the familiarity of all the things that typically identify people and their place in the world at God’s call. Abraham and all the people of faith commended in Hebrews 11 demonstrated that kind of faith that made them “aliens and strangers on earth”.

Jesus called the rich young ruler to walk away from his wealth. (Matt. 19:16-30) Jesus told Nicodemus, the Pharisees, that he would have to be born again to see the kingdom of God. (John 3:3)

The kingdom of God is something I have been mulling over for many weeks, and months. It’s a theme I have written about often lately, as it has occupied a prominent place in my meditations lately.

The five main groups of Jewish influencers in the First Century had one thing in common – they were operating on a spectrum of relationship to the political structures and religious structures in their world. They were invested and embedded and entrenched into their positions, and identities, people with whom they affiliated.

Along comes Jesus, and he calls people “out of the world”. (John 15:18-19) Jesus calls people to leave their lives, and identities, and associations behind to follow him.

We don’t know much about the backgrounds and affiliations of the twelve disciples, perhaps, because they did just that. They left those things behind to follow Jesus. They became known, simply, as disciples of Jesus, Christ followers.

I am interested in these things because of what it means for us. If we would be disciples of Jesus and Christ followers, how do these things translate to our lives in the 21s Century?

Continue reading “The Group Affiliations the Apostles Had and What It Might Mean for Us”

Jesus Among the Religious and Political Groups of His Time

This is a companion piece to the last article I wrote and published: Why Did Jesus Pick on the Pharisees So Much? The former article was inspired by 40 years of observation that Jesus was harshly critical of the Pharisees. His treatment of them virtually jumped off the pages at me when I first read the Gospels in college.

The Pharisees, though, were only one of the influential groups of Jews in First Century Judea. We see some evidence of Jesus rubbing shoulders with the other groups, but not nearly as much as Jesus engaged the Pharisees.

We might be tempted to assume that the Pharisees were particularly wicked and sinful – far more, perhaps, than the other groups Jesus encountered, but that isn’t so. Jesus was most like the Pharisees, and they were most like him, in their theological leanings and in the social circles in which they operated.

For that reason, I focused in my last article on the question: why was he so harsh towards them? I could have asked: why didn’t he pick on the other groups more?

In this article, I will explore the other groups and the difference between them and the Pharisees. I will send a little time pondering Jesus and the twelve apostles in relation to these groups and, perhaps, provide some insight as it strikes me.

First Century Judea was broadly possessed by two groups: the Jews, of course, and the Romans. The Jews had long lived in this land that God promised their ancestor, Abraham, and the Romans were the newcomers, the recent conquerors in a long line of challengers to the Jewish occupation of the land.

The five Jewish groups represent a spectrum of relational attitudes towards the Romans and each other in their religious and not-so-religious observances, lifestyles and attitudes. I will tackle them in order of their relationship to the Romans and their religious orientation.

Continue reading “Jesus Among the Religious and Political Groups of His Time”

Herod, Mikvehs and the Religion Disconnect

Religion is often disconnected from the spiritual reality of the existence of God and who God is as revealed in Scripture.

Ruins of King Herod’s fortified palace Machaeros, Jordan, Middle East.

A recent article on the discovery in 2016 of the mikveh uncovered at the site of King Herod’s palace at Machaerus on the eastern shore of the Dead Sea in modern Jordan got me thinking about a theme I have been contemplating for some time.[1] That theme is the disconnection between religious ritual and spiritual reality.

21st Century people might call that “disconnect” hypocrisy in the process of dismissing all religions and spiritual truth. That modern tendency to discount all religion in that way, and especially Christianity, reflects a lack of understanding that bothers me when I hear it. The recent discovery reminds why I feel this way.

Digging into the history of King Herod, the palace at Machaerus and the mikveh that was recently discovered there sheds some light on the subject and reminds me that there is much more than meets the modern eye. And, in some fundamental ways, nothing has really changed from then to now, and yet everything has changed at the same time.

Before we get into the meat of the matter, I should explain that a mikveh is a small pool or bath used in ritual purification. Thus, the discovery of a mikveh in King Herod’s palace indicates that the royal inhabitants engaged in the Hebrew purification ritual that was instructed in the Old Testament (the Torah).[2]

Of course, the instructions in the Torah were traditionally understood as religious in nature, though the ritual cleansing in mivka’ot (plural of mikveh) might be seen through the lens of modern science as good hygiene. The purification rite that were instructed would have inhibited the spread of contagious diseases and infection. But for them, with no understanding of modern hygiene, health and medicine, these practices were purely religious in nature.

With that in mind, what then is the significance of the discovery? How does it shed light on the disconnect between religious practice and spiritual reality? What is the nuance that modern people often miss in discounting everything they lump together as “religion”?

Continue reading “Herod, Mikvehs and the Religion Disconnect”

Remembering Palmyra: a Call to Enter Through the Narrow Gate

The destruction of the ancient ruin of Palmyra is a war crime, but we risk a greater loss.

The Palmyran Valley and Oasis
The Palmyran Valley and Oasis by Steve Murray

Sometimes things we read in the news hit close to home, even from halfway around the world in an ancient, foreign land. A friend from college has a personal connection to the ruins of the temple in the Palmyra Valley of Syria. He visited there and took the photos I have published in this blog with his permission. He describes the Valley, sitting about 125 miles north-east of Damascus, Syria, in the desert, as it appears above, “a welcome relief after weeks, months on the road” for the people traveling the Silk Road from the east.

The “peaceful place… filled with memories” was no longer peaceful and filled with pleasant memories when I began this piece. I started this blog article years ago, when ISIS was at it’s public height. I don’t know how things stand today. The news has moved on, leaving whatever ravages that continue and desolation that remains out of the pubic eye.

“‘Among the great cities of antiquity, Palmyra is comparable only to Petra in Jordan, Angkor Wat in Cambodia, and the Athenian Acropolis in Greece,’ argues GW Bowersock, professor emeritus of ancient history at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.””(quoted in Isis’s Destruction Of Palmyra: ‘The Heart Has Been Ripped Out of the City’ by Stuart Jeffries in the Guardian Sept. 2, 2015)

In light of fond reminiscences of a peaceful time, relationships developed between disparate brothers and sisters who shared good will and the historic significance of this desert oasis along the ancient Silk Road, the utter sadness and ache of the loss of the ruins is deep and vacuous. And more so now that my part of world has largely forgotten the devastation that exploded in front of the world’s eyes just a few short years ago.

Palmyra’s Baalshamin temple ‘blown up by IS’, read the headlines in Britain. Another British headline grimly pronounced, ISIS behead archaeologist who wouldn’t give up priceless artifacts for terrorists to loot and destroy.

In the Atlantic, the headline read with finality, An Ancient Temple in Palmyra Is Destroyed. “Reports of the site’s destruction come just days after the Islamic State killed Khaled Asaad, an 82-year-old Syrian expert on Palmyra who refused to divulge the location of artifacts despised by the militant group [and coveted for the booty they would bring]. Asaad had run Palmyra’s antiquities department for 50 years.”

“The taking of the historic city of Palmyra by Islamic State represents ‘the fall of a civilisation’, according to Syria’s antiquities chief Maamoun Abdulkarim. Speaking to Reuters today, he said: ‘Human, civilized society has lost the battle against barbarism. I have lost all hope.’” (Mark Woods Christian Today Contributing Editor 21 May 2015)

Temple at Palmyra
Temple at Palmyra by Steve Murray

Barbaric, incomprehensible, brutal, evil, criminal, atrocity …. Words fall short. No regard for history, culture, art, life …. The ISIS militants did not even have regard for their own lives, and the wrought unspeakable destruction and the taking of precious life in the Venice of the Sands.

Christians, humanists, peaceful Muslims, people of all stripes condemn what ISIS has done. The destruction of the ancient ruin of Palmyra is a war crime. The killing of Khaled al-Assad, the curator and protector of the Palmyran antiquities, is an atrocity of the worst order. He gave his life to protect those beautiful, ancient ruins…, but the ruins were destroyed with him. The various reactions to the crime and atrocity are understandable and expected.

The worldwide reports emphasized a common theme: the harsh clash of religious fundamentalism with civilized society is characterized by destruction and violence. “ISIS did not merely blast apart old stones—it attacked the very foundations of pluralistic society.” (The Rubble of Palmyra by Leon Wieseltier in the Atlantic Sept. 4, 2015). Indeed, ISIS displayed the worst of religion – the worst of humanity.

The destruction of ancient historical artifacts and buildings is nothing new, of course.

“In this iconoclasm – literally, the destruction of religious icons and other images or monuments for religious or political motives – Isis has its place in a rich history of destruction. Moses reduced the Golden Calf, made from Israelites’ golden earrings, to dust. Centuries later, the 93 carved relief sculptures of the life and miracles of the Virgin Mary in Ely Cathedral’s lady chapel, were hacked off during the Reformation. In between Moses and the mutilation of Ely was something called the Iconoclastic controversy in the history of the Eastern or Byzantine Christian church. Between AD 726 and 843, the then emperors of Byzantium believed icons were not only a reversion to the pagan idolatry of the ancient Greeks and Romans, but that their existence was the chief obstacle to the conversion to Christianity of Jews and Muslims, to both of whom the image was anathema. Iconoclasm, then, is by no means only an Islamic thing.” (quoted in Isis’s Destruction Of Palmyra: ‘The Heart Has Been Ripped Out of the City’ by Stuart Jeffries in the Guardian Sept. 2, 2015)

www.yourmiddleeast.com 660 x 390
www.yourmiddleeast.com

As we reel in sadness and righteous anger (something the irreligious seem to have learned well from the religious in recent times) over the destruction of such significant ancient preserves, there is a greater loss.  Ross Burns, adjunct professor of ancient history at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, whose life is devoted to the preservation, study and appreciation of antiquity, appropriately recognized,

“[T]here are more important considerations in Syria in 2015 than the preservation of ancient monuments. ‘The physical damage to monuments has to be assessed against the scale of the human tragedy….’” (Id.)

Continue reading “Remembering Palmyra: a Call to Enter Through the Narrow Gate”

A Cosmic Wrench in Our Power Grid

Thoughts on scientific, technological and moral advancement and religion.


The podcast, Unbelievable, with host, Justin Brierley, is becoming a favorite food for thought. I just listened to Steven Pinker vs Nick Spencer: Have science, reason & humanism replaced faith? Pinker is an atheist professor of Psychology from Harvard, and Spencer is billed as a member of “the Christian think tank, Theos”. The subject was “Pinker’s recent book ‘Enlightenment Now’, addressing his claim that science, reason and humanism are the drivers of progress in the world, not religion”.

As with most of the episodes I have listened to, this one was a very civil and respectful “debate”, really more of a dialogue, on the respective points of view. This civility and respect sets Unbelievable apart from more reactive “discussions” of controversial topics.

In this particular discussion, the focus was on Pinker’s optimistic view of humanism bolstered by science and technology echoing the familiar theme that we are progressing as a species as we free ourselves from religion with the aid of science and technology carrying us forward. Pinker minimizes the influence of religion on the enlightenment and the sudden advancement of science that accompanied it, while Spencer argued that the influence of religion is what fundamentally motivated and shaped those movements.

Spencer agreed with much that Pinker says about the progress of modern man, though he disagrees that science has shaped the moral advances we have experienced. He says that the value of the individual and sanctity of human rights is at heart a religious concept. He even points out that Pinker has to resort to the religious term, sacred, to describe these concepts as some evidence of the religious influence.

I have long toyed with the notion that we are not as advanced, morally, as we think ourselves. The 20th Century was the bloodiest of all centuries. Characteristic of the 20th Century was the genocidal bloodshed and cruelty of the atheist regimes under Stalin, Mao Tse Tung, Pol Pot and others. Some would add Hitler to the hit list of atheist genocidal despots, but that point is often argued, with religionists foisting Hitler on the atheists, and the atheists pushing him back on the religionists.

Hitler is somewhat of an enigma, generating an almost religious following marked by a personality that modeled a religion-like fervor. Pinker and Spencer debated whether Hitler was influenced by Darwinism, with Pinker countering that Hitler despised Darwin.

Though the truth of Hitler’s motivations my remain a mystery, and despite the unprecedented genocides perpetuated in the 20th Century, Spencer agreed with Pinker that we have progressed morally into the 21st Century. We generally exhibit a higher morality, however you slice it, (at least in the western world) in modern times than ever before, and this higher morality tracks scientific and technological progress.

As the two men carried on the conversation about the relative influences of religion and scientific and technological advancement on that progress, some thoughts occurred to me that I hadn’t considered before. I would agree with Spencer that religion (principally Judeo-Christian principles in the west) has largely carried us to this place where, ironically, we are finding no more need of God.

This perspective, also, flows from those same Judeo-Christian roots that holds out human pride as the principal problem (sin) of humankind. Having achieved a degree of independence and comfort through the advancement of technology, we believe “can do this” on our own (to paraphrase the testosterone influenced enthusiasm of my former teenage boys).

Continue reading “A Cosmic Wrench in Our Power Grid”