In the New Testament there are a number of purportedly unexpected features which critics have long pointed to as circumstantial evidence suggesting that belief in Yeshua as the Jewish Messiah was not a reasonable or intelligent belief in the world of 1st century C.E. Judaism. Interestingly, academic research and new archeological discoveries over the past century have consistently shown that, in truth, most of the events of the New Testament were not particularly surprising to people of that era, nor out of step with the Jewish traditions and expectations of the time.
In fact, about the only unique aspect of the gospel message was probably the uniqueness of Yeshua himself – the combination of roles and traits that were startlingly united in one person. This might be the only genuine surprise in the entire gospel story. This observation will be used as a starting point for the next few articles examining an often overlooked aspect of the Gospel stories, which revolves around the question: Why did the Galilee play such a prominent role in the life and acts of Yeshua, particularly at the beginning and end of his ministry on earth? Was this deliberate or was it a matter of circumstance?
These questions spring from the surprising number of New Testament passages from all four of the Gospel accounts which make it clear that the region of the Galilee held a special significance immediately following Yeshua’s baptism by Yochanan the Immerser (John the Baptist). Much of Yeshua’s early teaching career, including several key scenes of the revelation of his identity, and his reappearance after the resurrection, all took place in this same greater Galilee region. But first we need to review a basic concept that has been observed several times in the course of Torah Class lessons, namely the ancient Hebrew people’s cyclical view of their history, which I like to refer to as the pendulum of history.
THE PENDULUM OF HISTORY
The Hebrew people from time immemorial have understood Biblical history to have a certain cyclical pattern. Abraham was miraculously called by God out of Ur of the Chaldees in the region of Iraq. He moved down through Syria, Canaan, the Negev and briefly visited Egypt before returning to the land of Canaan where he had been instructed to dwell. The pendulum swung and, because of a famine his descendents under Jacob the patriarch migrated to Egypt and were enslaved there for hundreds of years. Then the pendulum swung back and the Israelites were miraculously delivered by God from Pharaoh and led back to Canaan, where they were again instructed to settle and live in obedience to God, just as he had instructed Abraham their forefather. They failed to do so, and after hundreds of years the pendulum swung back to where it had started and they were forced into exile in Babylon – where the whole story had begun – as punishment for their disobedience.
After 70 years in Babylon the pendulum swung back and they were granted release by the Persians, who had conquered the Babylonians. A portion of the Hebrews returned to Canaan and rebuilt their Temple as directed by the latter prophets in yet another attempt to follow the Lord and dwell where He had instructed them to. For a little over 600 years this reestablished presence in the land of their inheritance was modestly successful, though throughout most of this time they remained vassals to the various ruling empires. At the end of this lengthy period of semi-obedient existence in the land of their inheritance Messiah Yeshua came, taught, was killed, was resurrected, and ascended to heaven. Forty years later in 70 C.E., in accordance with Yeshua’s prophecy, the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed.
From 132-135 C.E the Jews rebelled against the Romans again. This may have been partially inspired by anticipation of divine assistance based on the passage of 70 years since the Second Temple’s destruction – 70 was a biblically significant number, associated with the length of time between the destruction of the First Temple and its reconstruction under Cyrus. This Jewish rebellion was led by the Messianic Zealot Shimon Bar Kochba and was brutally crushed by the Romans. The crushing Roman defeat began in the early years in the northern part of Israel and eventually reached Jerusalem, which was leveled. All Jews were expelled from Jerusalem and the surrounding region and Jerusalem was rebuilt as a pagan city, Aelia Capitolina. The Hebrew people would live as exiles for the better part of the subsequent two millennia and within a century of the destruction Hebrew was on the wane as a living language. They had been scattered as if by dynamite throughout the region. But just as both of their historical destructions, leading to scattering and exile, had come from the north, likewise the Hebrews held a strong belief that their deliverance would ultimately come from the north as well.
These historical cycles described (and clumsily illustrated) above were seen by the Hebrews of Yeshua’s time as a pattern for what was to come, and this expectation included their ultimate deliverance. This was expected to come through some kind of apocalyptic figure, a messiah (or messiahs, if you lived at Qumran), a second Moses, a prophet or a second Elijah etc. Despite the various expectations cast upon this figure or figures, several traditions were fairly clear. Not all of these expectations were recorded and expounded specifically in the texts that have survived and ultimately been passed down to us. The existence, however, of many of these assumptions and beliefs is frequently implicit in many of the writings from the Second Temple Period. A profound and fascinating example of this is found in the ancient, often completely overlooked expectation that the remainder of the exiles would be gathered and the final act of divine redemption would play itself out on the stage of the eastern Galilee and the “wilderness of Damascus.” This area spreads out from the plains of Megiddo on the west (the site associated with the future battle of Armageddon), northeast to Damascus, and south to the area of the Jordan where Elijah lived and John the Baptist preached repentance.
This geographical area on the edge of the desert was the scene of a number of illuminating events in Biblical history including Abraham’s subjugation of the kings of the region whom he pursued and destroyed as far as
Damascus, his presentation of the tenth of all he had to Melchizedek, several of Elijah and Elisha’s most defining deeds, and the ministry of John the Immerser (scholars consider the northern site associated with his ministry as the more plausible) all of which took place in this region. In ancient times it was expected and understood that the redemption of the people of God would begin in Galilee, just as their downfalls to both the Assyrian and Roman Empires had begun in this same region. This redemption would proceed and would ultimately culminate in Jerusalem, just as their downfalls had concluded there. A central (and evidently controversial, even in Yeshua’s day) notion was the belief that the messiah would appear in this same region of Galilee to initiate the redemption of God’s people.
To Be Continued…
Author: E. A. Knapp