Buried Coins: Jesus and the Parable of the Talents

Back in 2014, news broke that archaeologists digging near the Jerusalem–Tel Aviv Highway had uncovered a cache of ancient Jewish coins. The inscription and images on the 114 bronze coins allow us to date them precisely to AD 70—the exact year that the Romans conquered Jerusalem and destroyed the temple. In the midst of this turbulent time, a Jewish person saw fit to place the money in a small ceramic box and bury it for safekeeping.

“Evidently someone here feared the end was approaching and hid his property, perhaps in the hope of collecting it later when calm was restored to the region,” said one of the archaeologists involved in the excavations.

Readers of the Gospels will no doubt recall Jesus’ Parable of the Talents (Matt 25:14–30), in which a similar action occurs. In this context, a “talent” was a very large sum of money (not a special ability). The parable goes like this:

“For it is just like a man going on a journey. He called his own slaves and turned over his possessions to them. To one he gave five talents; to another, two; and to another, one—to each according to his own ability. Then he went on a journey. Immediately the man who had received five talents went, put them to work, and earned five more. In the same way the man with two earned two more. But the man who had received one talent went off, dug a hole in the ground, and hid his master’s money.

“After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. The man who had received five talents approached, presented five more talents, and said, ‘Master, you gave me five talents. Look, I’ve earned five more talents.’

“His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful slave! You were faithful over a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Share your master’s joy!’

“Then the man with two talents also approached. He said, ‘Master, you gave me two talents. Look, I’ve earned two more talents.’

“His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful slave! You were faithful over a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Share your master’s joy!’

“Then the man who had received one talent also approached and said, ‘Master, I know you. You’re a difficult man, reaping where you haven’t sown and gathering where you haven’t scattered seed. So I was afraid and went off and hid your talent in the ground. Look, you have what is yours.’

“But his master replied to him, ‘You evil, lazy slave! If you knew that I reap where I haven’t sown and gather where I haven’t scattered, then you should have deposited my money with the bankers. And when I returned I would have received my money back with interest.

“‘So take the talent from him and give it to the one who has 10 talents. For to everyone who has, more will be given, and he will have more than enough. But from the one who does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him. And throw this good-for-nothing slave into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’” (HCSB)

The third slave in the parable does basically the same thing the owner of these newly discovered bronze coins did: bury them in the ground. Evidently it must have been a reasonably common thing to do. What’s interesting, though, is that the owner of the bronze coins buried them in the context of war. He or she was living at a time when the Jewish nation was collapsing under the onslaught of Rome’s forces. Judea was falling! In the hope of surviving the calamity, the owner buried the coins in order to come back to them at a later time.

This action helps us understand Jesus’ Parable of the Talents a little better. The dynamic at work in the parable is not merely economic investment, but rather measures taken during a time of war. Let’s unpack this.

To begin with, let’s notice the context. The parable comes near the tense culmination of Jesus’ ministry in Matthew’s Gospel. On arriving in Jerusalem, Jesus clears the moneychangers out of the temple (Matt 21:12–13). He tells the Parable of the Wicked Tenants (Matt 21:33–46), in which he takes aim at the Jewish leaders, who also happened to be wealthy landowners. Jesus uses the way they would no doubt have treated recalcitrant tenants on their lands to describe what God would do to them because they were rejecting Jesus and plotting to kill him. Jesus also puts the leaders in their place when they try to trap him with the question of paying taxes to Caesar (Matt 22:15–22). In Roman-occupied Judea, the question of paying Roman taxes was an incendiary issue. But using a coin with Caesar’s image on it, Jesus beats the leadership at their own game. There are economic themes running throughout these incidents, and in all cases they point to the villainy of the nation’s leaders. They were sealing the fate of the nation.

Finally, Jesus launches a verbal attack on the leaders before he laments over the future of Jerusalem (Matt 23). Jesus unpacks this in Matthew 24, explaining that not one stone of the temple would remain upon another (Matt 24:2). The nation was heading for downfall under the current corrupt leadership, and the people would find themselves in dire circumstances.

The Parable of the Talents then comes after the Parable of the Ten Virgins (Matt 25:1–13). Both parables have the theme of acting now in preparation for what’s to come. And what is to come? The nation’s downfall.

It is not all dire news, however. Throughout the Gospel, Jesus has been gathering a new people of God around himself—a remnant whose faith in him will enable them to survive as the people of God beyond the downfall of the nation. These are people who repent in the face of the coming Kingdom of God (Matt 4:17). They listen to Jesus’ words and, as it were, build their house on a rock, rather than on sand (Matt 7:24–27). When the future storm comes to pound the nation, theirs is the house that will survive. The storm was the catastrophe of AD 70, in which the nation fell and its “house” (the temple) was left desolate (Matt 23:38).

In the Parable of the Talents, we are not told the reason why the master departs and leaves his property in the keeping of his slaves. If we removed the parable from its context, we might suppose he went on a business trip. But the whole surrounding context is one of doom. It is more in keeping with the tense atmosphere of this end of the Gospel if the master were actually heading away on affairs of state or a military endeavour. Notice that as soon as Jesus finishes the parable, he discusses the Son of Man coming in all his glory to judge the nations (Matt 25:31–32). There is a clear parallel here: just as the master comes to settle affairs with his slaves, so the Son of Man comes to judge the nations. In both cases, the master figure returns in triumph. By implication, his absence is a time of tension and uncertainty.

This helps explain the actions of the third slave in the Parable of the Talents. He buries the money allotted to him because this is what many did in a time of war. This is just what the ancient owner of the bronze coins discovered under the highway in Israel did as Jerusalem was falling to the Romans in AD 70—the very event Jesus had in mind.

The slave’s actions in the parable, however, are not just lazy, but also evil (Matt 25:26). Why? Because he evidently didn’t think his master would succeed in his endeavours and return. If he had thought so, he would have put the money allocated to him to good use for the sake of his master. The other two slaves in the parable evidently had confidence in their master’s return—enough to risk the danger of flaunting money in wartime.

Civilians in the ancient world often hid their resources to prevent harassment and pillage by soldiers. That these two slaves not only put the money to good use, but even made a return suggests not merely their economic savvy, but also their bravery and loyalty in the face of adverse circumstances.

The third slave, however, does no such thing. By burying the money, he tries to keep out of danger in the hope of riding out the current adversity, surviving his master, and then taking the money for himself. The master’s unexpected return, however, puts paid (excuse the pun!) to this servants plans, exposing him as a faithless coward. The master is not angry with this slave because he expected more money from the slave to feed his own greed. He is angry because the slave had been disloyal, lacking faith in his master and seeking to take advantage of his absence for personal gain.

In the larger context of the Gospel, this parable is an indictment on the Jewish leaders—those to whom much was given. They are characterised as disloyal towards God. They had turned the temple, a house of prayer, into a bandit’s lair (Matt 21:12–13), making money off the common person and turning worship into a weapon of oppression. They failed to show the fruit that was expected of them (Matt 21:18–22). They rejected Jesus, the master figure, in order to feather their own nests. This would, however, be a profitless endeavour, for it would end with their demise. Only those who placed their confidence in Jesus would survive the coming adversity and live to share their master’s joy.

We have no way of knowing whether the person who buried the money found under the highway in Israel was a master or a slave. Nonetheless, the cache of coins demonstrates the currency (excuse the pun again!) of the imagery Jesus used to decry the leadership of his day and foretell the calamitous events of AD 70—the very events that led the person to bury that money in the hope of returning some day to collect it.

Unfortunately, that person never returned.

BuriedCoins


This is an updated version of a post I wrote for another blog soon after the coin discovery was announced in 2014. The photo above appeared with the original news article.

Advertisements

Why did Jesus die?

Here’s a piece I wrote a few years ago, and which I’ve touched up slightly. In the lead up to Easter, I hope you find it informative and thought provoking.


I really enjoy the “rock opera” Jesus Christ Superstar by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice.¹ Despite its somewhat apocryphal take on the events leading up to Jesus’ death, one of the things it tries to do is explore the reasons why Jesus, about whom there was so much excitement, ended up dead on a Roman cross. In the climactic title song, Judas asks of Jesus,

Did you mean to die like that — was that a mistake?
Or did you know your messy death would be a record breaker?

There are a numbers of ways we could answer the question “Why did Jesus die?” On the historical level, we can say that Jesus was caught between the crunching gears of apocalyptic messianic expectation, Jewish temple politics, and Roman imperial intrigue. On the theological level, there is so much more to say.

On the Sunday before his death, Jesus entered Jerusalem riding a donkey to the frenzied cheers of his followers. It was a provocative messianic stunt, aimed at fulfilling the image of the returning Davidic King in Zechariah 9.9. And his followers were not blind to its significance. Their cry of ‘Hosanna in the highest!’ was not an exclamation of praise, the way it is often used today. Rather, it was a slogan. ‘Hosanna’ means ‘To the rescue!’ ‘In the highest’ does not refer to people’s praise reaching the highest heaven, but rather an urging of Jesus to reach for the highest echelons of power in his rescue of Israel. Here was the Davidic messiah coming to his royal capital to overthrow the current order, free his people, and establish the new Kingdom of God.

The following day, in a brash act prefiguring the end of the old order, Jesus marched into the temple complex and overturned the tables of the moneychangers and opened the pens holding sacrificial animals for sale. A small riot seems to have ensued. By doing this symbolic act, Jesus was clearly stating that he believed the temple and the authorities that ran it were no longer in favour with God. Time was rapidly running out — the time of judgement and the dawn of a new era were now imminent. Jesus was, in other words, playing the part of an apocalyptic prophet. And by claiming the right to bring the temple down and rebuild it, he was making a clear claim to be the rightful Davidic king of Israel—the son of David who builds the temple and establishes a permanent kingdom (cf. 2 Sam 7:11–13).

JerusalemTemple

Visualisation of the Jerusalem Temple. Credit: Courtesy of The Western Wall Heritage Foundation

To the Jewish authorities, for whom the temple was their institutional power base at the heart of Jewish identity, Jesus was dangerous. For the remainder of the week, they worked to arrest Jesus. After trying unsuccessfully to discredit him publicly, and fearing the incendiary riot that a public arrest would spark, they managed to arrest him on the sly by bribing Judas Iscariot, a member of Jesus’ inner circle—one of his twelve commissioners (i.e. ‘apostles’) responsible for the dissemination of Jesus’ claims and for gathering people around him. The arrest occurred at night, as Jesus and his other eleven commissioners were trapped in an olive grove in the Kidron Valley, just outside Jerusalem’s walls. Jesus gave himself up to his captors, and successfully pleaded for the release of his followers, who then abandoned him.

Jesus was taken under arrest, questioned and tried overnight. In fact, it was probably an illegal trial, since it was held during the midnight hours within the houses of former High Priest, Annas, and his son-in-law, the incumbent High Priest, Caiaphas. It seems that they tried to pin the charge of treason on Jesus by implicating him for threats against the temple, the institution that stood at the heart of Jewish identity and piety. This would be akin to charging someone today with a plot to blow up the White House. Given events earlier in the week, one would have thought it would be easy to implicate Jesus. However, the Gospels tell us that the witnesses brought forward could not agree, and therefore Jesus could not definitively be found guilty.

However, the High Priest, Caiaphas, used another strategy. He asked Jesus if he was the Son of God. In asking this, Caiaphas was probably not asking Jesus whether he believed he was the second person on the Trinity. Rather, he was asking Jesus whether he believed himself to be the messiah — the son of David who was to sit eternally on the throne of Israel, for the son of David in the Hebrew Bible was also seen as the ‘son of God’ (2 Samuel 7.14). Jesus’ response implied that he did believe this. But even more than this, Jesus appealed to the image of the Son of Man in Daniel 7 — an apocalyptic image of God’s chosen one who would bring about the end of the world order and establish God’s eternal kingdom. In the eyes of the authorities, this was an admission of revolutionary intent. Jesus was found guilty, given a beating, and sentenced to death.

Since the Jewish authorities at this time were unable to exact the death penalty (it had been revoked by Rome a few years earlier), Jesus was hurried off to the Roman Prefect, Pontius Pilate. If they wanted Jesus dead, they would have to ask Pilate to enact the death penalty.

Politically, Pilate was fighting battles on two fronts. On the one hand, Pilate was probably a protégé of Aelius Sejanus, who had been running the Roman Empire for a few years while the emperor, Tiberius Caesar, enjoyed a leisurely lifestyle on the Italian isle of Capri. However, in October, AD 31, Sejanus was executed for conspiracy against the emperor. Anyone connected to him was now also under suspicion. Pilate, therefore, would have had to watch his steps very closely to demonstrate unambiguously that he was loyal to Tiberius Caesar. On the other hand, though, Pilate had to maintain face and an air of authority over those he governed. In the years before Sejanus’ ignominious death, Pilate had thrown his weight around in various displays of power. Amongst those he needed to keep in check were the Jewish temple authorities. One of the ways he had managed to do so was to plunder the temple’s treasury for public works, and to keep the High Priest’s ceremonial garments under lock and key in the Antonia Fortress. These measures were belittling to the Jewish temple authorities and told them in no uncertain terms who was boss.

So, on the morning of Friday, April 3rd, AD 33, the Jewish authorities brought Jesus to Pilate to seek the death penalty for him. Normally, it would appear that the Jewish authorities were in the position of grovelling subordinates, and thus for Pilate to agree to the death penalty would simply be a show of his own authority. However, Pilate also had to contend for his own reputation now that he was in the spotlight after Sejanus’ death. He could not afford to show any weakness before those he governed, and acquiescing to their request could now be interpreted as just such a weakness. And yet, he could not be seen to be letting a potential revolutionary go free either. That would endanger his standing with the emperor. Accordingly, Pilate attempted to hand the decision over to someone else — to Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee and Perea, who was in Jerusalem at the time. However, the move backfired. Jesus was returned to Pilate, who now had to make a decision. Not wishing to imply that he was vulnerable or susceptible to weakness, Pilate himself questioned Jesus, flogged him in a display of Rome’s discipline, and was then on the verge of releasing him. Pilate seems to have been convinced that Jesus was harmless. Jesus had been separated from his followers, was unarmed, and did not really hold any human power. By thus overriding the request of the Jewish leaders for the death penalty, Pilate was stamping his authority over them.

However, Caiaphas and his comrades were not stupid. They now held the trump card. John’s Gospel tells us that the Jewish authorities said to Pilate, “If you release this man, you are not Caesar’s friend” (19.12). They were implying that if he were to release Jesus, Pilate would be letting an insurrectionist go free to destabilise one of the imperial provinces that Tiberius governed directly (as opposed to consular provinces, which were governed via the Roman Senate). This would implicate Pilate as a traitor to the emperor. To put it another way, the Jewish authorities were asking Pilate, “Whose skin do you want to save: this nuisance from Nazareth’s, or your own?”

Checkmate!

Pilate summarily ordered the execution of Jesus. He was led outside the city walls of Jerusalem with two other condemned criminals, stripped naked, and barbarically nailed to a cross where he was left to die a searingly painful death. The charge against him? Jesus of Nazareth: King of the Jews.

On the surface of things, it seems that Jesus was in the wrong place at the wrong time — a victim of circumstance, crushed by political machinations that were far bigger than he could humanly control. Some have pointed to the apocalyptic outlook that Jesus had, in wanting to draw the old order to a close and establish a new order, concluding that it was idealistic, unreal, and fraught with danger — that his beliefs and motivations just got him in too deep. Indeed, one can understand why most of his followers abandoned him and became so disillusioned by his death. He was an apparent failure. All the expectation surrounding him had come to nought, and like so many others before him, he fell foul of theauthorities and lost his life because of it.

But history also tells us something else. It tell us that not long after these events, Jesus’ followers—his eleven remaining ‘commissioners’ and other hangers-on—reassembled and began boldly proclaiming that on the Sunday after his death Jesus had emerged from his tomb alive again. And despite attempts to silence them by the very same authorities who had arrested Jesus and ensured his execution, they continued to proclaim the resurrection of their master. He had not been a failure. He had been a fulfiller. He had indeed brought the old era to an end and inaugurated a new one, but had done so in a way that no one had anticipated: through his death. The Acts of the Apostles tell us that on one occasion, after being reprimanded by the Jewish authorities, Jesus’ followers prayed to God affirming, “In this city, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the people of Israel, conspired against your holy servant, Jesus, whom you anointed, doing what your hand and your plan had predestined to take place” (Acts 4.27–28). This had been no accident of history. In fact, this was what God had been mobilising all of history towards: the death and resurrection of Jesus. It was a moment of supreme fulfilment. This was the central moment of human history that held significance for every man, woman, and child who has ever lived or ever will live. The final bell on the old order, characterised by sin, death, hate, hostility, and human failure, had sounded. The new era of forgiveness, life, love, peace, and reconciliation was now dawning. Jesus had not only met expectations, he far exceeded them.

So why did Jesus die? There are so many things we could say to unpack the significance of Jesus’ death and his resurrection. The Apostle Paul puts it succinctly well, though, in Romans 4.25: “He was handed over for our transgressions, and raised for the sake of our justification.” And our response? Paul again captures it well in Galatians 2.20: “The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

Related: Why the Tearing of the Temple Curtain is a Bad Thing


¹ This is not an endorsement of the ‘theology’ of Jesus Christ Superstar (in fact, I have major problems with some of it). It’s merely an acknowledgement that I enjoy it as a musical and thematic experience, just as someone might really enjoy a movie without endorsing all the action that occurs within it. Appreciation does not necessitate agreement.

There is a reason this terrible Friday is called ‘Good’

shadowofcrossOn the night Jesus was betrayed, he had dinner with his friends. But they would all abandon him later that night.

That same night, Jesus was trapped by his enemies, who wanted him dead. Having nowhere on earth to turn, he turned to God the Father. God didn’t come to his rescue.

Within hours, Jesus was violently hustled out of Jerusalem. He was nailed by the limbs to a cross—transfixed to a gibbet by hate and rejection.

And yet, as the shadow of death suffocated his life, he prayed for the forgiveness of those who harmed him.

And he was heard.

In the depths of human despair, when God seemed to be nowhere, yet God was acting to save. When screams of hate and betrayal seemed to drown out cries for love and reconciliation, God was listening. When God seemed callously absent, he was there in the One he had sent. At the moment Jesus seemed to have failed, he triumphed over all.

Things are not always as they seem.

There is a reason to celebrate the death of this man. There is a reason this terrible Friday is called ‘Good’.

‘Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again.’

Christians and the Law

This is an article I wrote originally for Southern Cross magazine, appearing in their November 2015 issue, and also at Moore College’s Think Tank blog.


As Christians we hold the Bible to be the Word of God. We acknowledge the Scriptures are ultimately God’s idea, and that he inspired the human authors to write them for the good of those who read them (2 Pet 1:20–21). We rightly acknowledge the Bible to be the ultimate authority for the Christian life. But this poses something of a challenge: How do we rightly interpret the Bible within a modern-day setting when it was not written by or to people in the modern day? How do we take these ancient words of authoritative revelation and apply them well to contemporary situations? As our society changes and seems increasingly keen to let go of Christian mores, this becomes an ever more pressing issue.

One of the particular challenges we face in this regard is the way we bring the laws of the Old Testament to bear on the church and society today. As we read the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible), we encounter laws about various aspects of life, and we often appeal to these in discussions about Christian behaviour and the ethics of society at large. We recount the Ten Commandments in our liturgy as a statement of God’s righteous standards. We hold some laws as binding today (e.g. not murdering), but relinquish others (e.g. prohibitions against eating certain foods). This can create a serious dilemma, because on the surface, it looks like an arbitrary approach—a purely selective retention of those laws that suit us, and the rejection of those that don’t. Indeed, this is how many caricature our handling of Scripture. Unfortunately, in many cases, they are right. We have not thought carefully enough about interpreting Old Testament laws to ensure that we do not do so arbitrarily. We must do justice to these laws as integral parts of God’s authoritative word to us, and that means having a rationale for how we interpret them.

ten-commandments-hebrewOne method popularly espoused is to divide the Law into three categories: (1) civil laws pertaining to the life of Israel as a national entity in ancient times; (2) ceremonial laws pertaining to how Israel worshipped God at the tabernacle or temple; and (3) moral laws that indicate the ethical standards God desires of people. Under this scheme, the civil and ceremonial laws are seen as no longer applicable to Christians, because they are fulfilled in Christ. The moral laws, though, do continue to have force, since God’s standards have not changed. It therefore takes Jesus’ fulfilment of the Old Testament and the high ethical standards of believers quite seriously.

There are a few problems with this approach, however. First, the Law itself does not make this kind of threefold distinction. The laws together constitute a singular whole. While we are still permitted to divide it up for the purposes of analysis, it becomes easy to take these divisions as absolute features of the Law, rather than useful tools. It’s a bit like treating a three-room house like three distinct houses. Second, the New Testament sees Jesus as the fulfilment of the Law in its entirety, not just two portions of it. And third, the Law is an all-or-nothing proposition. Paul’s interaction with the Gentile believers in Galatia demonstrates this. When the Judaizers came to Galatia and urged the Gentile believers to undergo circumcision in order to be part of the people of God, Paul reacted strongly. He told the Galatians that if they wanted to be characterised by observing the Law, they had to keep all the laws, not just portions of them (Gal 5:3). But this would be to no avail anyway, since no one can ultimately be justified through the Law (Gal 3:11). Nevertheless, Paul also affirms that when Christians walk in step with the Spirit who has been given to them (Gal 5:16, 25) and love their neighbours as themselves, they fulfil the entire Law—not just part of it (Gal 5:24). Carving the Law up into applicable and non-applicable slices simply does not do it justice.

So how should we approach the Law as Christians? The answer to that question would take many more pages than this article allows. Nevertheless, here are some principles and ideas that are vital ‘stakes in the ground’ when considering the place of the Law today.

Types of Laws

It’s useful to understand the nature of the laws we read in the Bible. There are two broad types of laws. The first are ‘apodictic’ laws, which plainly state what people must or must not do. The Ten Commandments (Deut 5:6–21) are the best examples of these. The second type are ‘casuistic’ laws. These don’t hand down a ‘do’ or a ‘do not’. Rather, they describe hypothetical cases and dispense advice on how these cases could be handled. From these cases, readers can derive principles that can be applied in other scenarios. This is important to realise, because casuistic laws are not exhaustive. They do not explore all the possible alternative situations that people might encounter. They are simply worked examples. It is easy to think that casuistic laws are simplistic, unjust, or have numerous loopholes. But this is to treat them as apodictic laws, or misunderstand them as exhaustive. Their hypothetical nature also means that understanding the ancient culture that provided the context for these laws is also invaluable. Without that context, it can be easy to misconstrue the intent of these laws.

The Old Covenant

God gave his laws to his ancient people, Israel. These laws were part of his old covenant, by which he established a particular kind of relationship: God was Israel’s ‘head of state’, and they were his national society within the land he gave them. The old covenant was about establishing and maintaining a nation, which is why laws were appropriate for ordering the covenant relationship. This is very different to our situation as Christians today. Jesus has established a new covenant in which we relate to God not as citizens towards a head of state, but as children towards a heavenly Father. We have become a family, which is why Christians relate to each other not merely as ‘neighbours’, but as ‘brothers and sisters’. While our relationships to God and each other still require order to function well, laws are actually an inappropriate means for this. A family that needs laws imposed on its relationships is not functioning in a healthy way. A family functions well when its members share an inherent identity that inextricably binds them to each other in love. Affection, more than duty, is what makes a family function well. A nation, however, requires a dutiful level of order. Understanding the different dynamics required in running a family and a nation gives us some leverage for understanding the rationale of some of the Old Testament laws, and how they may relate to us today.

The Purpose of the Law

The Law was not about saving a person unto eternal life. Rather, it was about enabling a person to be a good citizen of old covenant Israel within the land. The Apostle Paul, for example, could boast about being blameless with regards to the righteousness that comes from the Law (Phil 3:6). But this type of righteousness only allowed him to be a good ‘Hebrew of Hebrews’—a citizen of Israel, but not necessarily a citizen of heaven. This is why he counted such credentials loss for the sake of knowing Christ and having the righteousness that comes through faith in him (Phil 3:9). This is a new type of righteousness, which is apart from the Law, though the Law (and the prophets) testified to it (Rom 3:21). Only Christ is able to save unto eternal life. Christians are not under the old covenant, so we are not required to live as a national entity within a particular land. We are, instead, under the new covenant, which allows us to relate to God as our Father, regardless of our ethnicity. This means we must not impose the Old Testament Law on Christians today. It is not necessary for salvation or Christian identity. Only Christ is necessary for salvation.

Countercultural Love

hammurabi

A black basalt stele with the Code of Hammurabi.

Other cultures of the ancient Near East had law codes. The Code of Hammurabi from Babylon (c. 1750 BC) is one of the best known of these. Some laws in these codes bear a striking resemblance to those found in the Old Testament. The ‘law of retaliation’ is an example, whereby proportionate punishment is given for a crime: eye for eye, and tooth for tooth (cf. Exod 21:23–25). However, there are also some glaring differences. For example, Hammurabi’s code stipulates that no one must harbour an escaped slave, but must immediately return the slave to his master. On this front, however, God’s Law is profoundly countercultural. It stipulates that if an animal escapes from its owner, the person who finds it must do all in their power to return the animal (Deut 22:1–3). But if a slave escapes from his master, Israelites must not return the slave to his master, but allow him to live among them (Deut 23:15–16). In other words, the Law does not see slaves as property, but as human beings with an inherent right to personal freedom. This is why Israel was only ever to see slavery as a temporary measure for settling debts (Deut 15:12–15). When we consider the ancient world’s view of slaves as dispensable chattels, God’s Law is countercultural. It sows the seeds of compassion and dignity that would eventually inspire the likes of William Wilberforce to bring the institution of slavery to an end. The Law outlines Israel’s duties, but at its heart is love of neighbour. This should be a guiding principle in how we analyse it.

This countercultural aspect of the Law is not just about Israel being different to other nations for the sake of being different. As we’ve seen, Israel shared some laws in common with its neighbours. Rather, it is about establishing practices and policies that reflect the justice, righteousness, and love of God. The Law aims to treat people as persons in relationship with others. This is not the same as treating people individualistically—as singular units without reference to others. It is about promoting personhood and relational wellbeing. This is why it bids the powerful of society to use their power in loving service of the weak, usually characterised as the fatherless, the widow, and the migrant (e.g. Deut 10:18). In an ancient society that lacked many of the social and political infrastructures that we enjoy in the West today, this was a crucial message.

Same God, Different Context

The God who gave Israel the Law is the same God who has spoken and acted in Jesus Christ. We worship the same deity whom old covenant Israel worshipped (or, rather, should have worshipped). But while God himself has not changed, our understanding of God is, in fact, different to the understanding Israel had. In Old Testament times, God was still in the process of revealing himself. This is why he kept sending prophets to Israel, and why Israel had to keep adapting to this unfolding revelation. We, however, live after the completion of God’s revelation in Christ. The Law was not God’s final word—Christ was. Failing to take Christ into account is like interrupting God mid-sentence, and not letting him speak. It can be presumptuous and lead to misunderstanding.

So as we interpret the Old Testament Law, we must appreciate the difference in historical and theological context between Israel and ourselves. We must feel the difference between ‘BC’ and ‘AD’. Yet we must also recognise that God has not changed. This means we should be able to see a consistency between the Law given to Israel and what God requires of us today, but this consistency is situated in the character of God, not in the laws themselves. Although we (technically) no longer have the institution of slavery, the laws on slavery should still speak to us of a God who values human dignity and freedom, and which places people above economics. And while we are in a different salvation-historical context to old covenant Israel, there are some things that have not changed. For example, human nature is still the same. Our capacity for sin, our biological composition, and our personal limitations are unchanged. While our context may be different to old covenant Israel’s, our need for God and his revelation has not changed.

The change in historical and theological context demonstrates that the Law is not a timeless revelation. It was, rather, a revelation in history. Paul describes the Law as Israel’s tutor, put in place until Israel’s time of maturity and fulfilment arrived—the time of Christ (Gal 4:1–7). The Law is, therefore, not binding on Christians today as Law. But this does not mean the authority of God’s Law has expired. The Law remains the word of God as it ever was, for it still speaks to us of the God we worship, and of our forebears in the people of God. But it speaks to us today as prophecy and wisdom, rather than as Law. It testifies to the God whom we know today as our Father. It testifies to his righteousness, justice, and love. It provides us with the framework for understanding God’s dealings with his people in ages past, and in so doing, still provides us with wisdom on what is pleasing to God. The Law is like a tall tree whose shadow has moved through the day. It now casts a different shadow on a different landscape, but it is the same tree as it was in the morning. As such, we can affirm the truth of Paul’s words to Timothy when it comes to the Law: ‘All Scripture is breathed by God and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness, so that the person of God may be complete, equipped for every good work’ (2 Tim 3:16–17).

tree

What did Jesus look like?

This is a neat little piece of research by Joan E. Taylor for the ASOR (American School of Oriental Research) blog. To read the whole thing, you’ll have to sign up as a Friend of ASOR, which is free and painless—even a joy, if you’re into archaeology.You’ll generally only get a monthly notice for their blog. It’s worth it just for this blog article!

Here’s the link:

What did Jesus look like? – ASOR Blog.

Why did Jesus die?

For Good Friday, I’m reissuing a post I wrote a few years ago. And appropriately, this Good Friday (April 3rd) is exactly 1982 years to the day since the death of Jesus.


I really enjoy the ‘rock opera’ Jesus Christ Superstar by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice.¹ Despite its somewhat apocryphal take on the events leading up to Jesus’ death, one of the things it tries to do is explore the reasons why Jesus, about whom there was so much excitement, ended up dead on a Roman cross. In the climactic title song, Judas asks of Jesus,

Did you mean to die like that — was that a mistake?
Or did you know your messy death would be a record breaker?

There are a numbers of ways we could answer the question ‘Why did Jesus die?’ On the historical level, we can say that Jesus was caught between the crunching gears of apocalyptic messianic expectation, Jewish temple politics, and Roman imperial intrigue. On the theological level, there is so much more to say.

On the Sunday before his death, Jesus entered Jerusalem riding a donkey to the frenzied cheers of his followers. It was a provocative messianic stunt, aimed at fulfilling the image of the returning Davidic King in Zechariah 9.9. And his followers were not blind to its significance. Their cry of ‘Hosanna!’ was a slogan meaning ‘To the rescue!’ Here was the Davidic messiah coming to his royal capital to overthrow the current order, free his people, and establish the new Kingdom of God. The following day, in a brash act prefiguring the end of the old order, Jesus marched into the temple complex and overturned the tables of the moneychangers and opened the pens holding sacrificial animals for sale. A small riot seems to have ensued. By doing this symbolic act, Jesus was clearly stating that he believed the temple and the authorities that ran it were no longer in favour with God. Time was rapidly running out — the time of judgement and the dawn of a new era were now imminent. Jesus was, in other words, playing the part of an apocalyptic prophet.

For the remainder of the week, the temple authorities worked to arrest Jesus. After trying unsuccessfully to discredit him publicly, and fearing the incendiary riot that a public arrest would probably spark, they managed to arrest him on the sly by bribing Judas Iscariot, a member of Jesus’ inner circle. A summary Jewish trial ensued. In fact, it was probably an illegal trial, since it was held during the midnight hours within the house of the High Priest, Caiaphas. It seems that those present tried to pin the charge of treason on Jesus by implicating him for threats against the temple, the institution that stood at the heart of Jewish identity and piety. This would be akin to charging someone today with a plot to blow up the White House. Given events earlier in the week, one would have thought it would be easy to implicate Jesus. However, the Gospels tell us that the witnesses brought forward could not agree, and therefore Jesus could not definitively be found guilty. However, the High Priest, Caiaphas, used another strategy. He asked Jesus if he was the Son of God. In asking this, Caiaphas was probably not asking Jesus whether he believed he was the second person on the Trinity. Rather, he was asking Jesus whether he believed himself to be the messiah — the son of David who was to sit eternally on the throne of Israel, for the son of David in the Hebrew Bible was also seen as the ‘son of God’ (see 2 Samuel 7.14). Jesus’ response implied that he did believe this. But even more than this, Jesus appealed to the image of the Son of Man in Daniel 7 — an apocalyptic image of God’s chosen one who would bring about the end of the world order and establish God’s eternal kingdom. In the eyes of the authorities, this was an admission of revolutionary intent. Jesus was found guilty.

Since the Jewish authorities at this time were unable to exact the death penalty (it had been revoked by Rome a few decades earlier), Jesus was hurried off to the Roman Prefect, Pontius Pilate. Politically, Pilate was fighting battles on two fronts. On the one hand, Pilate was probably a protégé of Aelius Sejanus, who had been running the Roman Empire for a few years while the emperor, Tiberius Caesar, enjoyed a leisurely lifestyle on the Italian isle of Capri. However, in October, AD 31, Sejanus was executed for conspiracy against the emperor. Anyone connected to him was now also under suspicion. Pilate, therefore, would have had to watch his steps very closely to demonstrate unambiguously that he was loyal to Tiberius Caesar. On the other hand, though, Pilate had to maintain face and an air of authority over those he governed. In the years before Sejanus’ ignominious death, Pilate had thrown his weight around in various displays of power. Amongst those he needed to keep in check were the Jewish temple authorities. One of the ways he had managed to do so was to plunder the temple’s treasury for public works, and to keep the High Priest’s ceremonial garments under lock and key in the Antonia Fortress. These measures were belittling to the Jewish temple authorities and told them in no uncertain terms who was boss.

So, on the morning of Friday, April 3rd, AD 33, the Jewish authorities brought Jesus to Pilate to seek the death penalty for him. Normally, it would appear that the Jewish authorities were in the position of grovelling subordinates, and thus for Pilate to agree to the death penalty would simply be a show of his own authority. However, Pilate also had to contend for his own reputation now that he was in the spotlight after Sejanus’ death. He could not afford to show any weakness before those he governed, and acquiescing to their request could now be interpreted as just such a weakness. And yet, he could not be seen to be letting a potential revolutionary go free either. That would endanger his standing with the emperor. Accordingly, Pilate attempted to hand the decision over to someone else — to Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee and Perea, who was in Jerusalem at the time. However, the move backfired. Jesus was returned to Pilate, who now had to make a decision. Not wishing to imply that he was vulnerable or susceptible to weakness, Pilate himself questioned Jesus, flogged him in a display of Rome’s discipline, and was then on the verge of releasing him. By thus overriding the request of the Jewish leaders for the death penalty, Pilate was stamping his authority over them. However, Caiaphas and his comrades were not stupid. They now held the trump card. John’s Gospel tells us that the Jewish authorities said to Pilate, “If you release this man, you are not Caesar’s friend” (19.12). They were implying that if he were to release Jesus, Pilate would be letting an insurrectionist go free to destabilise one of the imperial provinces that Tiberius governed directly (as opposed to consular provinces, which were governed via the Roman Senate). This would implicate Pilate as a traitor to the emperor. To put it another way, the Jewish authorities were asking Pilate, “Whose skin do you want to save: this nuisance from Nazareth’s, or your own?”

Checkmate!

Pilate summarily ordered the execution of Jesus. He was led outside the city walls of Jerusalem with two other condemned criminals, and was barbarically nailed to a cross and left to die a searingly painful death. The charge against him? Jesus of Nazareth: King of the Jews.

On the surface of things, it seems that Jesus was in the wrong place at the wrong time — a victim of circumstance, crushed by political machinations that were far bigger than he could humanly control. Some have pointed to the apocalyptic outlook that Jesus had, in wanting to draw the old order to a close and establish a new order, concluding that it was idealistic, unreal, and fraught with danger — that his beliefs and motivations just got him in too deep. Indeed, one can understand why most of his followers abandoned him and became so disillusioned by his death. He was an apparent failure. All the expectation surrounding him had come to nought, and like so many others before him, he fell foul of theauthorities and lost his life because of it.

But history also tells us something else. It tell us that not long after these events, Jesus’ followers reassembled and began boldly proclaiming that on the Sunday after his death Jesus had emerged from his tomb alive again. And despite attempts to silence them by the very same authorities who had Jesus arrested and killed, they continued to proclaim the resurrection of their master. He had not been a failure. He had been a fulfiller. He had indeed brought the old era to an end and inaugurated a new one, but had done so in a way that no one had anticipated: through his death. The Acts of the Apostles tell us that on one occasion, after being reprimanded by the Jewish authorities, Jesus’ followers prayed to God affirming, “In this city, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the people of Israel, conspired against your holy servant,Jesus, whom you anointed, doing what your hand and your plan had predestined to take place” (Acts 4.27–28). This had been no accident of history. In fact, this was what God had been mobilising all of history towards: the death and resurrection of Jesus. It was a moment of supreme fulfilment. This was the central moment of human history that held significance for every man, woman, and child who has ever lived or ever will live. The final bell on the old order, characterised by sin, death, hate, hostility, and human failure, had sounded. The new era offorgiveness, life, love, peace, and reconciliation was now dawning. Jesus had not only met expectations, he far exceeded them.

So why did Jesus die? There are so many things we could say to unpack the significance of Jesus’ death and his resurrection. The Apostle Paul puts it succinctly well, though, in Romans 4.25: “He was handed over for our transgressions, and raised for the sake of our justification.” And our response? Paul again captures it well in Galatians 2.20: “The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

Related: Why the Tearing of the Temple Curtain is a Bad Thing


¹ This is not an endorsement of the ‘theology’ of Jesus Christ Superstar (in fact, I have major problems with some of it). It’s merely an acknowledgement that I enjoy it as a musical and thematic experience, just as someone might really enjoy a movie without endorsing all the action that occurs within it. Appreciation does not necessitate agreement.