Monday, April 20, 2009

Blind and Lame (John 5, John 9)

Two of Jesus' miraculous signs, the healing of the lame man in John 5 and the healing of the blind man in John 9, come into sharper focus when we place them next to each other. The set of remarkable similarities and striking differences between the two scenes suggests that John wants us to flip back and forth between these pages. Let's start with the similarities. Both:

Have had many years of suffering
Are singled out by Jesus for healing
Are healed in association with a pool in Jerusalem
Are healed on the Sabbath, resulting in controversy
Talk to the Pharisees about the healing
Are sought out by Jesus after the healing
Healings result in a discourse by Jesus about his identity (John 5:17-47, 9:35-10:30)

But there are some significant differences as well:

The lame man hopes to be healed at a well-known healing pool (Bethzatha), but Jesus heals him by declaration; the blind man is sent for healing to a pool not known for healing (Siloam). Siloam was known as the source of the water used in the water ceremony at the Feast of Tabernacles. This is the same ceremony at which Jesus had declared himself to be the source of living water (John 7:37-39). In one healing, Jesus rejects a superstitious (or at least manipulative) method of healing; in the second, Jesus reminds us that he is the source of living water.

When the lame man talks to the Pharisees, John subtly portrays it as a betrayal by a spiritually dim man. When the blind man talks to the Pharisees, John portrays it as an act of belief, courage and even cleverness. Jesus has no reason to be at the trial, because the blind man capably uses all the sorts of arguments that Jesus would use to prove that Jesus must be from God.

When Jesus seeks out the lame man, he warns him about his sin (John 5:14). But when Jesus seeks out the blind man, he reveals his identity as the Son of Man, (John 9:35-39); he defends the blind man as one who truly sees (John 9:39-41); and even hints that the blind man is one of his true sheep, who hears the voice of the Shepherd (John 10:4-5, 27).

Jesus' warning to the lame man, "Don't sin any more, so that nothing worse may happen to you," affirms his agreement with the Jewish belief that some suffering results from sin. But when Jesus sees the blind man, he reveals something new: "Neither this man nor his father sinned; he was born blind so that the works of God might be revealed in him" (John 9:3). Jesus reminds us that suffering is not necessarily because of something but for something.

Both healing scenes are an opportunity for John to reveal something about Jesus. In John 5, Jesus teaches that he can give life to whomever he wishes (as he picked out the lame man) - both now and on the last day. In John 9-10, Jesus is revealed as the source of light and the good shepherd, in contrast to the leaders of Jerusalem.

The sharpest contrast between the two scenes is about discipleship. The lame man is uncertain if he wants healing, has no recognition of who heals him, and informs the Pharisees as soon as he knows who broke the Sabbath by healing him. There is no evidence that he believes or comes closer to belief. In contrast, the blind man begins the scene as an innocent man. At Jesus' command, he leaves his begging post and walks across town to Siloam (surely an act of faith for a blind man). Before he ever sees Jesus, he testifies in defense of Jesus, refuses to back down, is labelled a disciple of Jesus by Jesus' enemies, and suffers rejection. When he learns more about Jesus, he believes even more, and worships Jesus (John 9:38).

The picture: Healing of the Blind Man, by Duccio di Buoninsegna, ca. 1308.

Monday, April 13, 2009

The Rolling Stone

Question: How do we know the stone [on Jesus’ tomb] was too heavy for anyone to roll away? How did they get it there in the first place? (posted by Anonymous, 4-13-09)

Many tombs in first-century Israel were blocked by a stone, either square or round. Rolling stone tombs have a large disk-shaped rock door that rolls in a stone slot, usually sloped downward. Rolling stones recovered by archeologists are 4-6 feet across and a foot thick, and weighed a ton or more (my calculation, but seems to match the estimates given by others). They were thus very hard to open, but easy to close. Presumably several men would roll the stone up the slot and wedge it in place when the tomb was needed, and then it could be easily closed by removing the wedge. Such tombs were designed to hold entire families, so they needed to be reopened occasionally. In between openings, they were often sealed with clay, although Jesus’ tomb probably had not yet been sealed in this fashion. Rolling stone tombs were mainly used by wealthy families, matching the gospels’ account that Jesus was placed in tomb space donated by Sanhedrin member Joseph of Arimathea.

Matthew and Mark record that the stone was too big for the three women to move (see Mark 16:1-5) and that it was "very large." One later Christian document says that twenty men were needed to roll away the stone, but this is probably exaggeration.

Why does the weight of the stone matter? In the past few centuries, skeptics have claimed that Jesus was not really dead (also an unlikely claim), and that he awoke in the tomb and rolled away the stone. Others have claimed that the women stole the body. The size of the stone makes both claims historically unlikely.

If you watch these video clips of resurrection expert William Lane Craig, you can hear why such conspiracy theories are not accepted by reputable historians. Even more important, Craig correctly points out that almost all Jesus scholars, whether they are Christians or not, agree that Jesus really died, that his tomb was found empty, and that the disciples had some experience that convinced them that Jesus was alive.

Nerd note on the weight of the stone: Archeological records list rolling stone size as radius 0.7-0.8 m and width 0.3-0.4 m. That produces a volume of about 0.5 cubic meters (pi*r^2 *w). Workable stone such as granite weighs about 2500 kg (5500 lbs) per cubic meter, giving a weight of at least 2750 lbs.

The picture: Another rolling stone tomb outside Jerusalem. Jesus' tomb was covered by the Church of the Holy Sepulchre centuries ago, and the opening was destroyed.

Roman Soldiers at the Tomb

Question: How do we know Roman guards were posted at [Jesus’] tomb? Why would the Romans put guards there? (from Anonymous, posted 4-13-09)

This is an important question, since it serves as part of the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. First, let me highly recommend a series of video clips from one of the best experts on the resurrection of Jesus, William Lane Craig. If you want the short version, just look at this clip, but I encourage you to watch the whole playlist (I tried to post one of the clips on this blog, but Blogger does not support their format).

How do we know that Roman guards were posted at the tomb? First, because Matthew records it (see Matt 27:62-66, 28:11-15). The chief priests had heard at least one claim that Jesus would rise from the dead, so they asked Pilate to post a Roman guard contingent to prevent the disciples from tampering with the evidence. Although some people might discount Matthew's testimony, it is important to remember that most historical facts are based on single documents, often not even based on eyewitness. In this case, Matthew is a document based on eyewitness accounts written within 30 to 40 years of the event; and both Matthew and Luke reveal evidence that they relied on documents even closer to the date of the resurrection.

Second, Matthew's claim is historically plausible. Some of the biggest political problems in first-century Israel were violent uprisings backed by messianic claims (at least eleven occasions from AD 6-140). The chief priests and the Roman governor had to quell these movements quickly to avoid civil disorder or open war (see John 11:47-53). On one occasion, Pilate sent cavalry to attack a Samaritan messiah-figure and his followers who were trying to dig up their lost temple artifacts. This event proves that the Roman government would use force to deal with religious beliefs.

The Roman government in Judea was on alert every Passover because of political and religious tensions - after all, Passover celebrated God’s rescue of Israel from Gentile oppressors. Every Passover, the Roman governor left the Roman regional capital in Caesarea Maritima and brought a cohort of soldiers to Jerusalem to deal with potential problems.

By this period in Pilate's career, he also had to try to placate the Jewish authorities. Jewish leaders had complained to the emperor about Pilate, and the emperor had warned Pilate that he would be removed if there were further incidents. So it makes sense that Pilate would accede to the request of the chief priests to guard the tomb.

The picture: The Resurrection, from a Chinese Bible from the 1800s. Note the soldiers with Chinese weapons and the seal on the tomb door.