Minister’s Letter March 2017

Dear friends,

On Sunday mornings we have been reflecting on the life of Jesus. We have considered the theological context of his ministry that ‘the word (who) was with God and was God, became flesh and made his dwelling among us’ (i.e. God the Son became human in the life of Jesus of Nazareth). Yet there is also a cultural context to his ministry, which helps us to make sense of him and the world in which he lived.

Judaism, the religious context into which Jesus was born, was as complicated then as it is today and the gospels give us some insight into this. Throughout His ministry, Jesus’ main opponents were the Pharisees. The Pharisees became the guardians of the Old Testament law, after the Jerusalem temple was liberated from the Greeks in 167 BC. Over the years, they developed an oral law in addition to the written law of the Old Testament. By the time Jesus of Nazareth was exercising his ministry, the Pharisees had evolved into different schools, some of which were liberal while other were more conservative. These schools debated the finer points of the Jewish law, particularly on the issues of ritual purity and observation of the Sabbath. Before becoming a Christian, the apostle Paul had been a Pharisee and came from the school of Gamaliel [Acts 22:3]. The Sadducees were often from well to do families of the Jewish elite and their views differed significantly from the Pharisees; Sadducees had no oral law and didn’t believe in the resurrection of the dead. The ruling Jewish Council (the Sanhedrin) was made up of members of these two groups. There was third group within Judaism known as the Essenes who were to be found in the dessert at Qumran, but they also inhabited cities in small numbers. The Essenes believed in regular ritual bathing as part of their cultic practice and the Dead Sea Scrolls are religious writings attributed to them, which have made a huge contribution to modern Biblical scholarship. It is also worth noting that there were also Zealots, who wanted to rise up and liberate Palestine from its Roman occupiers by force if necessary.

So why does it help for us as Christians to understand Jesus’ world? It might be interesting, but what does it contribute to our faith and commitment to Christ?

Firstly, grasping the complexity of the New Testament world helps us to see where Jesus ministry fits in the first century. We can understand just how threatened the Pharisees felt by his ministry. When Jesus spoke about the kingdom, he reinterpreted the Old Testament law, by challenging people’s attitudes towards it. Rather than the law solely be practised outwardly, what really mattered was how an individual responded inwardly, with the human heart. The great tragedy is that the Pharisees were genuine in their efforts but completely misguided in their practice.

Secondly, greater insight into Jesus’ opponents and their context in a land occupied by the Romans help us to understand, in human terms, what led them to conspire against him and resulted in his cruel death as common criminal on a cross.

Thirdly, the Dead Sea scrolls have cast some light on the canonical gospels. For example there are some manuscript fragments that use light and darkness imagery in a similar way to the gospel of John. Similarly, the literary nature of some of the later Gnostic gospels (found in Egypt about the same time as the first set Dead Sea scrolls were discovered in the Judean desert), give us a good reference point to understand the genre of the canonical gospels, the material that they contain and what the gospel writers are trying to tell us about Jesus of Nazareth.

Let me commend to you N.T. Wright’s book ‘Simply Jesus‘, which paints a very clear picture of the world in which Jesus lived. Deepening your understanding of Jesus’ world will help the gospel to set down deep roots in your heart and give you a greater appreciation of the saviours work.

Your minister and friend