Chapter 4, Notes

Map of Galilee with Capernaum

Capernaum in Galilee

Chapter 4 brings Matthew to Capernaum, the lakeside village on the road between Caesarea and Damascus where he will charge import and export taxes on goods moving between the provinces of Palestine and Syria.

Capernaum is far removed from Roman city life. The unsophisticated and largely illiterate peasant farmers, herders and fishermen wish to get on with their lives without being bothered by the Romans and their taxes. Matthew meets some of the fishermen: the large and impetuous Simon who is nicknamed Peter (“the Rock”) and his more thoughtful brother Andrew, later getting to know James and his garrulous teenage brother John as well.

The view of life from Capernaum is that expressed in the Gospels: this is a land of hard work and primitive living conditions, of unthinking religiosity where wonders and miracles are longed for and accepted, and where the Romans are barely mentioned.

It is a land that the western Occupation forces neither understand nor care about, and can therefore prove fertile territory for resistance.

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The Transfiguration – just a bloody meeting

The Transfiguration is one of those classic iconic and apparently pointless events in the gospels. Jesus is up a mountain with a couple of the disciples, and Moses and Elijah show up to talk with him. Jesus’ clothes shine brightly (that’s the Transfiguration) and Peter in his spontaneous fashion suggests building tabernacles (tents or huts) for them. A voice from the clouds is interpreted as saying “This is my beloved son, listen to him.”

Another unjustifiably airy-fairy Jesus story

Paintings have developed a tradition to show Jesus and the other two floating around in the air. Is there any textual justification for this? None. (Aside: This is exactly how myths develop: one person hears a story, wants it to be dramatic, fleshes the untold details out in their own mind, and then adds them as fact when they present the story – without even realizing they’re making changes.) Changes regarding a hero’s story tend to exaggerate and glorify, so you can discount some of the frills. But there’s probably a commonsense basis for the story.

Here’s how I tell it in “The Gospel According to the Romans”. First, it’s nighttime, full moon, but overcast. They go up into the mountain without Jesus telling them why. Then he tells them to hold back and goes alone into a clearing, where two Zealot leaders named (or code-named) Moses and Elijah come out and discuss their plans for the attempt to take over the Temple at Passover. (These disciples aren’t privy to this; they were the fishermen Simon Peter, James and John, not the Zealots Judas and Simon Zealotes.)

The full moon comes out from behind the clouds, and catches Jesus’ face and his white robes, making them shine dramatically. There is a roll of thunder. You can make thunder say whatever you want it to say – Eliot records it speaking Sanskrit in The Wasteland. Simon Peter babbles, not untypically.

Going back down the mountain, Jesus tells the disciples not to tell anyone about this until they’ve seen a man raised from the dead. In other words, not until he has done his Lazarus trick (which they don’t know anything about) which will be right before Passover at Jerusalem. At that point it won’t matter if anything they’ve heard gets out, the uprising to take control of the Temple will be about to happen anyway, and it will be too late for the Roman Legion to stop it…

So, what do you think? Plausible? Or you prefer the floating-around-in-the-air version?

The Miracles, 3 – Walking on the Water

Here’s the story (Matthew 14: 22-33): the fishermen are headed for home at the end of the night, and it’s stormy, and they can’t see where they’re going. Jesus comes walking out to them on the water – Peter jumps over the side to be with him, starts to sink, and Jesus pulls him up.

Jesus walking on the water, the impetuous Peter failing again

The text gives the impression that they were well out from shore, maybe a mile, who knows. But there’s no real context for the story, as usual – no perspective, and no resolution.

The question is always whether we can find an explanation that allows for basic truth in the story (even if it’s been hyped and spun a little, or misremembered or misunderstood) without contradicting the known laws of the universe.

Consider: did Peter now walk the mile back to shore with Jesus? Or did Jesus carry him? Or did one or both get back in the boat, and they sailed in? None of these are mentioned… because none of these needed to happen.

The “sea” in the story is the Sea of Galilee, a lake 10 miles wide. Capernaum, where the fishermen lived, is naturally on this lake. The lakeshore there is low and gently sloping, part beach and part marsh. The beach is mostly rock, some sand, the water is shallow for a fair distance. Let’s assume that then, as now, people protected their boats from storms coming up the lake by building a ‘mole’, a wall of loose rocks not necessarily higher than the lake level, out into the lake.

It’s still dark, the boat’s coming in to shore in a storm, the fishermen can’t see where the beach is, let alone the mole. Jesus comes walking out on the mole to help. Peter jumps over the side of the boat onto the mole, but then loses his footing and falls in (the water may only have been a couple of feet deep), and Jesus helps him up. Then they help guide the boat to the beach, and drag it up.

Years later, when young followers who never met Jesus are asking Peter for stories about what it was like working with him, they get told a slightly exaggerated version. They get, naturally, a fisherman’s story.