THE REV. KNOW IT ALL’S “GUIDE TO READING THE BIBLE, THAT BIG BOOK ON THE COFFEE TABLE.” Part 9
THE HOUSE OF DAVID, or FAMILIES; EVERYBODY’S GOT ONE
Back in episode 7, I mentioned the brothers of the Lord and who they might have been. Whoever they were, they seem to have been very important in the early Church and rather difficult. Five hundred years before the birth of Christ, the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem and took the surviving members of the royal House of David into exile. When the Persians conquered Babylon a few years later, they let the Jews go back to Judea. A few members of the royal family of David returned to Jerusalem. Zerubabel, a prince of the house of David, (Haggai 1:1) who was the grandson of king Jehoiachin of Judah was appointed governor of Judea by the Persians. He led the first group of 42,000 Jews back to Judea from Babylon around 530 BC. He also laid the foundation of the Second Temple in Jerusalem not long after.
It seems that much of the family of David stayed in Babylon, preferring not to return to the dangerous pile of rocks that Jerusalem had become. Some of the family of David who had returned to the Holy Land skedaddled back to Babylon when the Maccabees took over around 160 BC. The Judean community had become settled and prosperous in Babylon, which was in effect, the New York of its time, though I suppose you still couldn’t get good “deli” there. Pastrami had not even been invented!
Life was good in Babylon. A descendant of the royal House of David was always formally installed as “exilarch” which means “leader of the exiles.” In fact, there was always an exilarch in charge of the sizable Jewish community of Babylon until perhaps 1000 years (yes, one thousand) AFTER Christ!! They knew a good gig when they found one. After 2,550 years in Babylon, (the ruins of which are in modern Iraq) the Jews have finally been driven out and most emigrated to the state of Israel. There are now about 7 or 8 Babylonian Jews still living in Iraq. Thus the Babylonian exile is over, almost.
Things started getting even more interesting around 150BC when groups like the Essenes rejected the Maccabees' claims to the monarchy and the high priesthood. The Essenes and those like them started to fume about the coming of the Messiah, how he would straighten everything out and purify the priesthood and the monarchy and the temple and put those Maccabees and their Roman and Greek friends in their place. This meant something to the Davidic family still in exile in Babylon: job opportunities!
Along with the Messiah, born of the royal House of David, the opportunities for boodle, as they call it in Chicago, would be numerous! It seems that some of the family of David returned to two little towns Little Shoot (Nazareth in Hebrew/Aramaic) and Star-ville (Kochaba in Hebrew/Aramaic) the first on the west side of the Jordan and the other on the east. The names seem to refer to Messianic prophecies, “a shoot will spring form Jesse” (Is.11:1) and “a star will rise from Judah” (Numbers 24.17)
Little Shoot wasn’t much to write home about. It was a town of about 200 threadbare aristocrats, who lived mostly in caves, (cool in summer warm in winter, really very nice). This is why Nathaniel, when told about Jesus said “What good can come out of Little Shoot (Nazareth)!?!” (John, 1:46) Joseph of the House of David and his wife Mary, also of the royal House of David seem to have settled down there after spending time abroad. And there, among his many cousins, aunts, uncles, in-laws etc., they raised their boy, Yeshu, (spelled “Jesus” in Greek) and an amazing child He most certainly was.
He was an odd one. He never married; there were after all certain questions about His suitability, and then at the age of thirty He left home and started hanging around with odd people, like that cousin, Yochanan the Baptist down near the Dead Sea. Soon He was back and had left the family construction business. He was working as a rabbi and had accumulated some followers. There was a buzz in town about him possibly being the Messiah. Why not? He was, after all, a member of the family and most certainly descended from David on both sides. There was even talk of miracles! I imagine his relatives were thinking about government jobs after the revolution. That upstart Herod and his clan! They would have to go! Not descendants of David, not even really Jewish!
There is an interesting document called the Gospel to the Hebrews. It is very ancient, and was respected by many early authors, though it didn’t become part of the canon of Scriptures. It talks about the brothers of the Lord, “Behold, the mother of the Lord and his brothers were saying to him: John the Baptist is baptizing for the remission of sins. Let us also be baptized by him. But he said to them: How have I sinned, that I should go and be baptized by him? Unless perchance this that I have just said is ignorance.” Why, pray tell, would Jesus’ relatives have wanted Him to go get baptized? There is another interesting verse in the canonical Gospel according to John, the seventh chapter. Jesus’ brothers are urging him to go down to the feast of Booths saying, “Show Yourself to the world.” (John 7:4) I suspect they were anxious for the revolution. Jesus had a different revolution in mind.
At first they seemed to be big backers of Jesus and his messiah-ship. But, as it became clear that He is not about to declare their kind of revolution, they seemed less anxious for Him to be traveling about embarrassing them. “Then He went home and the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. When His family heard it, they went out to restrain Him, for people were saying, ‘He has gone out of His mind.’” (Mark 3:20-21)
Jesus' kindred seemed a little ambivalent about Him. In St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, the risen Jesus appears first to the Twelve, among whom there was a James, or perhaps two, and then to his kinsman (brother?) James. Seeing cousin Jesus risen from the dead seems to have convinced James and the rest of the family because James eventually became the first bishop of Jerusalem. He was finally stoned to death around 63AD.
After his death, Simeon, son of Cleophas also called the brother of the Lord in Matthew 13:55), succeeded him. He was bishop at the time of the Roman siege but escaped with the rest of the Jewish Christian community to Pella east of the Jordan river, having been warned by the Lord (Luke 21:20)and by people in the Church who had the prophetic gifts. Bishop Simeon was crucified by the Romans around 106AD and was apparently succeeded by relatives of Jesus until Bishop Judah Kyriacos, a name which means “Judah, who belongs to the Lord” was killed during a riot in Jerusalem, in 133. That was toward the beginning of the Bar Kochba revolt which declared Simon Bar Kochba Messiah.
Any one who claimed Jesus as the Messiah was killed or expelled from the territory held by the rebels. The revolt ended with the expulsion of the Jews from Jerusalem until our own times. With the death of Judah Kyriacos, the line of bishops descended from the House of David ended as did the Jewish Church of Jerusalem. From that point on, it was clear that Christianity was not a movement among the Jews, but a universal Church claiming to be the true and spiritual Jerusalem, led by the spiritual heirs of Peter and the Twelve.
But before then, it seems that there was a role played by those who claimed kinship to the Lord, and there seems perhaps to have been some question about who should be running things, Jesus relatives or His disciples. I suspect that’s why St. Paul has issues with “apostles” (1Cor. 9:1)and with those who “came from James” (Gal.:12), but never with Peter and the others of the Twelve. (Gal.2:9) The “Brothers of the Lord" were a very distinct group called the “Desposyni” (a Greek word, as I’m sure you guessed, meaning, the family of the master). It seems that they traveled accompanied by their wives and managed to make their presence known. (1Cor.9:5)
What seems to be a dispute between Peter and Paul really is nothing more than Paul urging Peter to be the authority that Jesus had called him to be. It’s as if Paul is telling Peter that he, not James had been given charge of the Church throughout the world. Jesus had established a universal summons to all humanity, not just a sect to be controlled by the family of the founder.
I really think that this fundamental dispute regarding the nature of the Church is the problem that created the New Testament Canon. Paul’s letter for the most part and even the Gospels, were written against the backdrop of a Davidic family feud. Also, wouldn’t Zerubabel be a fine name for a new-born?
So here is Bible reading principle # 10 THE BIBLE IS ABOUT PEOPLE, NOT PLASTER SAINTS.
Next Week: IT’S ALL GREEK TO ME, AND I DON’T READ GREEK