Preaching, relocating, gathering students.

by K.W. Leslie, 17 June

When Jesus started preaching the gospel in the Galilee.

Mark 1.14-20 • Matthew 4.12-22 • Luke 4.14-15, 5.1-11

I’ll admit right now: Whenever bible scholars try to sync up the gospels, we’re guessing. They’re educated guesses, but still guesses. The authors didn’t expect we’d ever try to line ’em up; some might’ve assumed there weren’t other gospels, or that theirs superseded all others. But we wanna tell Jesus’s story comprehensively, so sometimes we do. I don’t know whether the events I’m writing about here, come right after Jesus healing the prince’s son. But it kinda works, so it’s the order I’ll go in.

At some point, John the baptist got hauled off to prison, ’cause he pissed off the Galilee’s ruler, Antipas Herod.

Luke 3.19-20 KWL
19 Quarter-king Antipas Herod, embarrassed by John
about his brother’s wife Herodia, and everything evil Herod did,
20 shut up John in prison, adding this to everything.

The gospels eventually get into what became of John; it’s not pretty. But as soon as John went into the clink, Jesus took up John’s charge and began proclaiming the good news of God’s kingdom.

Mark 1.14-15 KWL
14 After John’s arrest, Jesus went into the Galilee preaching God’s gospel, 15 saying this:
“The time has been fulfilled. God’s kingdom has come near.
Repent! Believe in the gospel!”
Matthew 4.12-17 KWL
12 Hearing John was arrested, Jesus went back to the Galilee.
13 Leaving Nazareth, coming to Kfar Nahum, he settled by the sea.
On the border of Zebulún and Naftalí, 14 so he could fulfill the prophet Isaiah’s word, saying,
15 “Land of Zebulún, land of Naftalí,
on the sea road, beyond Jordan, the Galilee of gentiles:
16 The people sitting in the dark see a great light.
To those sitting in the place of death’s shadow, light rises to them.” Is 9.1-2
17 From then on, Jesus began to preach and say,
“Repent: Heaven’s kingdom has come near!”
Luke 4.14-15 KWL
14 Jesus went back into the Galilee with the Spirit’s power.
Rumor went out across the whole region about him.
15 Revered by all, Jesus taught in their synagogues.

The gospel of Christ Jesus is summed up in Mark 1.15: “The time has been fulfilled. God’s kingdom has come near.” With Messiah—who’d be Jesus—as its king.

Yet you might notice a whole lot of folks who supposedly preach “the gospel” don’t preach that. Instead they quote John 3.16: God loved the world, sent us his son, and those who believe in him get eternal life. They claim that’s the gospel. It’s not. Getting saved is how we get into the kingdom. But the full gospel is what we have now that we’re in God’s kingdom. We get access to our inheritance.

And that’s why so many evangelists only proclaim a partial gospel. Some of ’em don’t believe we have access to our inheritance. Some of ’em are mighty uncomfortable with everything God’s kingdom entails.

In many Christians’ minds, we don’t get the kingdom till Jesus returns. And if the Left Behind fans are to be believed, that day will always be seven years from now. Good luck catching up with it. For many others, the kingdom’s been pushed away into the neverland of “heaven.” We only encounter it after we die.

Either way, it’s not in reach. Christians don’t live in expectation or preparation of it. We don’t tap its power. We don’t really repent, turn away from our pagan lifestyles, and work on producing good fruit: We don’t figure we’ve anything to reform for. The gospel’s been hobbled.

I go on about the kingdom in my article on it. Read it if you wanna know what Jesus really meant by his kingdom. Many of us Christians are proclaiming it. ’Cause it’s really good news.

The geography of the Galilean sea. (North’s about 20 degrees to the left, ’cause the map’s going for that 3D effect.) “Capernaum” is at the top of the lake, just below Korazin, which is about 5 kilometers away. Carl G. Rasmussen, Zondervan Atlas of the Bible, detail

Kfar Nahum.

Jesus’s place of birth was Bethlehem, but he was raised in Nazareth, which is why he’s still “Jesus of Nazareth” or “Jesus the Nazarene.” But in Matthew 4.13 he relocated to Kafarnaúm/“Kfar Nahum,” Latin Capharnaum. In most bibles this’d be “Capernaum,” following the way John Wycliffe rendered it. But khafár is Hebrew for village, and its shortened version “kfar” is sorta like “-ville.” We’ve no idea if it has any direct connection with the prophet Nahum of Elqoš, Na 1.1 a town which was probably in Syria; or even the governor Nehemiah bar Khakalyáh, Ne 1.1 ’cause “Nehemiah” is really just “Nahum” with a “Yah” for YHWH at the end. Probably neither. The locals could’ve named their town for these biblical celebrities, but then again they could’ve named it for any guy named Nahum. The founder, perhaps. Jesus even had an ancestor named Nahum. Lk 3.25

Archeologists identified the ruins of Tel Hǔm, found on the north shore of “the Galilean sea,” Lake Gennesarét (today’s Lake Tiberias), as Kfar Nahum. The Franciscans took possession of it in the 1890s, and sponsored excavations since. They’ve built a memorial over a site local custom claims is Simon Peter’s house. It seems the town was occupied by as many as 1,500 people, and was occupied till the 900s.

The ruins of Kfar Nahum, dating from the Roman Empire.
Now just imagine these were full houses instead of floor plans. David Shankbone, Wikimedia Commons

Many Christians assume Jesus never had a house, nor owned a home or any property—pointing out how Jesus once stated the Son of Man had no place to lay his head. Lk 9.58 But that’s about when Jesus was traveling. When he was home in Kfar Nahum, he lived somewhere. And rabbis either had their own houses, or they lived with family. Some Christians claim Jesus lived with his students, but that’s a 19th-century American custom, not a first-century Jewish one. Pharisees considered it inappropriate for people who weren’t family to live together. Visit, sure; live with, no. And though Jesus ignored a lot of Pharisee customs, the gospels mention their objections—but living with unrelated people wasn’t one of them.

So I think it reasonable to assume Jesus did live with family: His uncle Zavdi (KJV “Zebedee”) and his aunt Salomé Mk 15.40, 16.1 —his mother’s sister. These happened to be the parents of two of his students, James and John. Mk 1.19 If Jesus didn’t have enough of an income to afford his own home, he must’ve lived with them. They weren’t poor; fishermen made really good money, and Zavdi could afford employees. Mk 1.20 They’d have space for him. And possibly a nice tile roof for vandals to later break through and lower a paraplegic through. Lk 5.19

Your average first-century Galilean spent most of their lives outside. Work was outdoors. Cooking, meals, laundry, chores—even bathing and sex (done in privacy, but still)—were outdoors. You went indoors to sleep, and to dodge harsh weather. So houses were small: Usually two rooms. There was the outer room, a living room where guests and animals might stay. There was the inner room, the bedroom where the family slept. Bigger or richer families might have more inner rooms, to house relatives or valuables. Or even an upper room, to host guests.

These houses were made of the primary building material in Israel: Stone. Stones are everywhere. They’d either cut blocks and carefully place them, or use uncut rocks, held together with clay, mortar, or concrete. The roof would either be wooden slats with mud and straw thatching, or—especially if you wanted to use your roof as a deck, or build a second floor—stone, clay, or adobe tiles.

Kfar Nahum was a fishing village. Popular culture assumes these fishermen were poor. Hardly. The Roman Empire’s most popular condiment—way more popular than ketchup or mustard today—was garum, a fermented fish sauce. Romans put it on everything. It was made from freshwater fish, which never were all that common—and Lake Tiberias, the lake of the Galilee, was one of the few sources of freshwater fish in the Empire. Demand for the fish was high enough for Galilean fishermen to make really good money, even with high taxes. And they could afford to part with their adult children as they followed a rabbi around the country. Jesus’s students from the fishing business only became poor once they stopped working—and gave up everything to follow Jesus. Mt 19.27

Since it was at the north of the lake, it wasn’t all that convenient or central a location. Two reasons I figure Jesus chose it as his base of operations anyway: Family, of course. And it had a synagogue whose president, Jairus, Mk 5.22 let him teach there. (The limestone synagogue you’ll see in Kfar Nahum’s ruins today is a Christian synagogue, dating from the late 300s, but built on top of the place Jesus taught.) If you drum up as much controversy as Jesus did, you need a sympathetic synagogue president in your corner, and Jesus definitely had that after he raised Jairus’s daughter from the dead. Mk 5.35-43

Gathering students.

John described Jesus gathering his first four students in Bethany-beyond-Jordan: Andrew, Simon, Philip, and Nathanael. Jn 1.40-51 (As I said in that article, some folks assume John was among ’em, but the text doesn’t say so.) But in Kfar Nahum, Jesus again gathered four students: Andrew and Simon again, plus his cousins James and John.

Mark 1.16-20 KWL
16 Passing by the Galilean sea, Jesus saw Simon,
and Simon’s brother Andrew, casting a net into the sea: They were fishers.
17 Jesus told them, “Follow me! I’ll make you fishers of people.”
18 Quickly abandoning the nets, they followed him.
19 Going on a little, Jesus saw James bar Zavdi, his brother John,
and those in the boat mending nets.
20 Quickly he called them, and they abandoned their father Zavdi
in the boat with the employees, and went away after Jesus.
Matthew 4.18-22 KWL
18 Walking by the Galilean sea, Jesus saw two brothers,
Simon called Peter, and Andrew his brother, throwing a net into the sea: They were fishers.
19 Jesus told them, “Follow me! I’ll make you fishers of people.”
20 Quickly abandoning the nets, they followed him.
21 Going on from there, Jesus saw two brothers, James bar Zavdi and his brother John,
in the boat with their father Zavdi, mending their nets.
He called them. 22 Quickly abandoning the boat and their father,
they followed Jesus.

Most teachings I’ve heard about this passage make it appear as if the kids’ response to Jesus’s call was a spontaneous reaction to his powerful, Christlike charisma. Maybe some supernatural might in his voice, maybe some special winsome way in which he called them. Something miraculous which drew ’em to immediately, even hypnotically, quit their jobs and follow a stranger. Which is hogwash. All of ’em already knew who he was.

The prophet John had already told Andrew that Jesus was the Lamb of God, the one who’d come after him. Jn 1.29-31 They already understood—they all understood—this meant Messiah. The King of Israel, the one who’s gonna conquer the world and establish God’s kingdom in it. If Messiah comes looking for you and says, “Follow me!” what’re you gonna do? Right: You jump off the boat and follow.

I explained in that previous article how most Christian art and movies tend to depict these guys like they were contemporaries of Jesus, if not older. That’d make ’em too old to become talmidím, Pharisee students under a rabbi. People married young, had kids young; by Jesus’s age (figure mid-thirties) they’d be grandparents. And Jesus wasn’t training grandparents. He trained young men, between the ages of 12 and 20. Teenagers. That’s why they act like teenagers so often, why Jesus kept calling ’em “children” Mk 10.24, Jn 13.33, 21.5 and griping about “this generation.” Mk 8.12, Lk 7.31, 11.51 That’s why they could drop their careers easily, and follow him. They were at the age kids followed a rabbi and got their secondary education.

I already mentioned they weren’t poor. And if you were ever worried they might be, Luke’s version of this story includes the fact Jesus decidedly took care of any financial concerns.

Luke 5.1-11 KWL
1 This happened when the crowds pressed on Jesus to listen to God’s word:
He was standing by Lake Kinneret, 2 and saw two boats run aground by the lake.
The fishermen had left them and were cleaning the nets.
3 Jesus entered one of the boats, which was Simon’s.
He asked Simon to put the boat out a little ways from the land.
Sitting in the boat, he taught the crowds.
4 When Jesus stopped speaking, he told Simon, “Bring us out to the deep.
Let down your nets for a catch.”
5 In reply Simon said, “Captain, we caught nothing after working all night.
But on your word, I’ll let down the nets.”
6 Doing this, a multitude of many fish were caught; their net broke.
7 They signaled to their partners in the other boat, who came to rescue them;
who came and filled both boats till they were sinking.
8 Seeing this, Simon Peter fell on his knees before Jesus,
saying, “Leave me: I’m a sinful man, Master.”
9 For they, and all with them, were seized up in shock over the catch of fish they had.
10 Likewise James and John bar Zavdi, who were fellows of Simon.
Jesus told Simon, “No fear. From now on, you’ll catch people.”
11 Pulling the boats onto the land, they left everything and followed Jesus.

Galilean fishing boats weren’t huge; they were small enough for two men to drag onto the shore. But Jesus filled two of them to the point of sinking, with thousands of dollars’ worth of fish. If they ever doubted they could afford to follow Jesus, that doubt was gone.

Simon Peter later pointed out how they gave up everything for Jesus. And in reply, Jesus pointed out those who leave things and people for his sake, in the kingdom, get it back a hundredfold. Plus eternal life. Mt 19.28-29 Sounds neat? Sure. Are we always gonna get the verification of two boatloads of fish? Not always; for some of us it takes great faith. Or even small faith. Either way, God can work with our faith, and grow it.

Did these kids expect they’d become revolutionaries in Messiah’s army? Maybe. Remember, not everybody understood what Messiah was about. Jesus would have to train them—and sometimes they’d be spectacularly dense, ’cause the kingdom he taught is radically different from the political monster they had in mind. It’s not far different from a lot of Christians who assume now that we’re following Jesus, we’re gonna get stuff. Material goods. Power. Sometimes in the guise of a mansion in heaven; sometimes in the guise of self-righteousness and political might. If we’re really following Jesus, he’ll disabuse us of all these short-sighted notions.

But you remember how things were in the beginning: As new Christians, we naïvely expected everything would be sunshine, lollipops, rainbows, and ponies. We had no clue. Neither did Jesus’s students. They learned better. (Hopefully so did we.)