Chapter 6, Notes

If you want to have a fresh think about who Jesus was, you can’t start with him. He is too well-known to be introduced right away, because all the preconceptions and associations about him will dominate the picture.

Magdala on the Sea of Galilee, 1900 AD.

Magdala on the Sea of Galilee, 1900 AD

It is necessary (even if it slows down the narrative) to bring the context to life first, and then slide him into that context. That means giving a sense of the Roman Occupation of Palestine, which had been going on for 100 years by the time of the Gospels.

We have to start with Pontius Pilate and the rulership of the province; what the Romanized cities looked like; how the military presence kept the province from rebellion… and what the whole Occupation felt like, the normal day-to-day existence of people in one of the less important provinces of the Empire.

After that, we need to look at the fault-lines between the occupiers and the occupied, and consider the extent to which the Occupation is or is not impacting the daily lives of the locals. So we move to a small farming and fishing town on the shore of the Sea of Galilee in the interior, Capernaum. Get a sense of what their life is like, and how much they interact with or avoid the Romans. This has taken the novel as far as Chapter 6, with the hostile interactions between Romans and Galileans, and the first rumors of some “Teacher”, some “Rabbi”, who gets a lot of respect from the local people.

Now we can prepare to bring Jesus into the story and consider how he acts and talks – because now we have a basic understanding of the environment in which he lives.

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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.

Where were the Gadarene Swine?

The Gadarene Swine slaughter took place in the countryside around Gadara. This was one of the semi-autonomous Ten Cities (the Decapolis), in the Roman-controlled area mostly east of the River Jordan. Gadara was almost certainly at the place now called Umm Qais.

Gadara (Umm Qais), with the Sea of Galilee and, right, the Golan Heights

In the panorama we have Umm Qais in the foreground, the Sea of Galilee in the background, and the Golan Heights on the right. The gospels say that the pigs rushed over the cliff into the sea and were killed. It is not possible today to find a location on the east of the Sea of Galilee where such a fall is possible – there is a margin of flat land between the Sea and the Golan Heights, and the heights of Umm Qais are even further away.

One possibility is that the lake level may have been higher. But more likely the lake that the pigs fell into wasn’t the Sea of Galilee, but some other lake in the area.

The southern end of the Golan Heights is near vertical in places – you can see the road switchbacking down in the photo. Driving down it you will pass wrecked vehicles suspended halfway in the vertical ravines beside you. And at the bottom is a small lake.

So I suggest that the south end of the Golan Heights is the place where a herd of 2,000 pigs were kept for the Legio X Fretensis, and that Jesus and his followers chased them over the cliffs that are just to the left of that zigzag road in the picture. There may be other equally steep cliffs on the ridge of Umm Qais itself – but maybe you don’t want to have that many pigs on your doorstep. They’d be perfectly safe just across the valley, wouldn’t they? Unless some Jew came along with a chip on his shoulder about pigs and Romans…

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.