Chapter 7: The Story: (I) Galilee

The Founder of Christianity
by C. H. Dodd

Chapter 7: The Story: (I) Galilee

Philip, a Galilean from Bethsaida, came across a friend somewhere in Transjordan, and proposed to introduce him to another Galilean who had made a great impression on him, "Jesus son of Joseph, from Nazareth." "Nazareth!" Nathanael exclaimed, "Can anything good come from Nazareth?" 2 The vivid little scene, whether or not it is strictly historical, places Jesus in his contemporary setting. The kind of environment in which he grew up can be described out of his own parables. Read with attention they yield a composite portrait of a whole community going about its daily affairs.3 Looking at the picture we may ask from what standpoint within this society it is observed. The answer is plain: it is that of the petit bourgeois, small farmer or independent craftsman, equally removed from the well-to-do and the "proletariat." To this class, we must conclude, the family of Jesus belonged. If at a later stage he was poor and homeless, this was a voluntary poverty, embraced for ideal ends. His most intimate associates, or at any rate those about whom we are told the most, were partners in a fishery business, owning their own boats and employing labor. Jesus himself, Mark says, was a carpenter; the son of a carpenter, says Matthew. Such crafts were normally hereditary. There is a parable about a son learning his trade by watching his father at work: "A son can do nothing on his own account, but only what he sees his father doing. What the father does, the son does in the same manner. For the father loves his son and shows him everything that he does himself" (all the secrets of the craft).4 It is perhaps not too bold to find here a reminiscence of the family workshop at Nazareth. There Jesus learned to be a "carpenter"; but the word in Greek (and in the native Aramaic of Galilee) had a wider meaning. His work included, for example, building operations. In one parable he depicts a scene in a carpenter’s shop, where two brothers are at work and one of them gets a speck of sawdust in his eye. In another he pillories the jerry-builder who scamps his foundations; and in yet another he notes the importance of drawing up an estimate before operations begin: "Would any of you think of building a tower without first sitting down and calculating the cost, to see whether he could afford to finish it?" The practical craftsman is speaking. Jesus was not only (as we have seen) an observer of the workaday scene; he had been busy in it himself. It should perhaps be added that to say he was a craftsman earning his living is not to say that he was uneducated. The level of literacy among the Jews was probably higher than in any comparable community within the Empire. And although superior persons in Jerusalem dismissed him as "this untrained man," he appears to have been quite capable of meeting scholars learned in the Scriptures upon their own ground.

How long he continued to work at his trade we do not know. The occasion for his breaking away seems clear: it was the appearance on the scene of John son of Zacharias, called the Baptist. This, according to Luke, was in the fifteenth year of the emperor Tiberius, AD. 28/29, and Jesus was about thirty years of age. This may be taken as a reasonable approximation, though the figures cannot be pressed too closely.

John the Baptist, says the Jewish historian Josephus, was "a good man who commanded the Jews to practice virtue and to be just to one another and devout towards God." 5 So he did, and his moral precepts, so far as they are (scantily) recorded, are practical and down to earth. But Josephus has made it all sound too tame. The impact that John made did not depend on trite exhortations to be good. This formidable ascetic, haunting the wilderness in his uncouth garments, revived the popular image of an inspired prophet, and like the ancient prophets he announced the impending judgment of God on a recreant people. The "Coming One," he said, would soon be here, a terrifying figure, like a woodman laying about him with his axe, like a winnower separating grain from chaff. Indeed (and it was this that gave John’s preaching its bite) he was here already, unknown, biding his time.6 At any moment the axe might fall. John’s mission was to warn anyone who would listen to "escape from the coming retribution." What was the way of escape? To confess their sins, "repent," and be baptized.

The rite of baptism, or immersion in water, was no innovation. Various kinds of ritual washings or bathings were widely practiced. The sectaries of Qumran had made them into an elaborate system. But John’s baptism was different. It was a single, unrepeatable act of initiation. It was more like the ritual bath which converts to Judaism had to take before they could be admitted into the holy people, as a sign that they were purified from the "uncleanness" of heathen ways. And now John urged born Jews, "children of Abraham," to undergo the same rite of purification, because in his view they needed it just as much. His task was, says Luke, "to prepare a people that shall be fit for the Lord." That was what he was doing when he urged moral reformation and baptized those who were ready to commit themselves to it. By immersing them in the river Jordan he marked them for future membership of the "people fit for the Lord." But baptism in water, he insisted, was only preparatory. The Coming One would "baptize with spirit and fire" -- a strongly emotive phrase which we need not try to spell out. Meanwhile they were to mend their ways and wait -- but not for long.

The response was remarkable. The official representatives of religion, it is true, looked askance, but masses of people of all sorts and conditions, from every part of Palestine, flocked to the banks of the Jordan, including, we are told, soldiers, tax-gatherers and prostitutes. Among the crowds was Jesus of Nazareth. What led him to take this step we are not told. If we have in mind his concern for the rise of a new people of God out of the confusions of contemporary Judaism, we can see that so far at least he would be in sympathy with the Baptist’s aims. We have noted how he valued solidarity with those whom he saw as potential members of the new Israel, however alienated they might be from the religious establishment. And here they were, pressing forward to commit themselves, by a public act, to just such potential membership. Without attempting to penetrate deeper, we can understand that he would be impelled to put himself alongside these pathetic crowds -- soldiers, tax-gatherers, prostitutes, and all -- who confessed their sins and wanted to belong to "a people fit for the Lord."

But at his baptism something happened which altered the current of his life. All four gospels offer some description, heavily weighted, as we have seen, with symbolism. We are entitled to infer that this was the moment at which Jesus accepted his vocation, For him, and not only for those who wrote about him, it was the act of God by which he was "anointed" for his mission.

It is not surprising to be told that the next step was a temporary withdrawal into solitude,7 The description which the gospels give of that time of withdrawal is, as we have seen, once again highly symbolic. What they are saying is that as Israel was put to the test in the wilderness, so the new Israel, in the person of its Messiah, was put to the test, and came through successfully where the old Israel had failed. Yet for Jesus it was, we may believe, the solution of a personal problem. How was his newly embraced vocation to be carried though, in a situation as full of menace as of opportunity? Some courses of action might suggest themselves with a plausible appeal. He might gain power by "doing homage to the devil," as it is here expressed, or, in realistic terms, exploiting the latent forces of violence to wrest from Rome the liberation of his people. Later, as we shall see, there was a moment when he might have been tempted to do so. Or he might captivate the multitude by an exhibition miracle (for example, said the devil, by throwing himself down from the parapet of the temple and challenging God to intervene). He was in fact later invited to do something of the kind, and refused. His mission was to be guided all through by principles which can be stated very simply, as they are stated here in the three replies to the devil’s suggestions. They are: implicit obedience to the will of God ("living on every word that God utters"), trust in God which asks no proof ("You shall not put the Lord your God to the test."), and a dedicated allegiance to him which excludes all lesser claims ("Do homage to the Lord your God and worship him alone."). Surveying the career of Jesus as it appears in the gospels, we can see that these were the keynotes of the whole.

The account of the "testing" could no doubt have been compiled retrospectively out of such a survey. But we have good reason to believe that Jesus had in fact faced his test and made his decision before ever he came out in public. In one of his parables he observes, "No one can break into a strong man’s house and make off with his goods unless he has first tied the strong man up; then he can ransack the house." The implication is not far to seek: he had himself tied the strong man up; he had cleared scores with the devil before his work began, and he could carry his campaign into the enemy’s country unhampered by any indecision or uncertainty about either his ends or his means. It is not at all incredible that he himself depicted the conflict and its issue in some such dramatic and symbolic form.

What followed? Mark, having briefly summarized the story of the "testing," takes a leap forward: "After John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee." But where was he in the meantime, and what was he doing? Mark did not know, or was not interested. Nor was Matthew, and Luke was not aware that there was any interval at all. John, however, reports that Jesus was for a time at work in Judaea, administering baptism to the people who came flocking to him, and this seems credible. Apparently he had decided that he could not do better for the time being than second the efforts of the Baptist and carry forward the work of preparation, waiting for a sign that it was the will of God for him to take a more decisive initiative. During this time he would appear to the public as an ally, or even a lieutenant, of the Baptist -- or perhaps a rival, and a successful one. This success, John hints, was unwelcome in some quarters: "A report now reached the Pharisees, ‘Jesus is winning and baptizing more disciples than John.’ When Jesus learnt this, he left Judaea and set out once more for Galilee." 9 It may be true that the suspicious interest which the authorities in Jerusalem were beginning to show was one consideration pointing to a new departure. But it is likely that the thing that decided him was, as Mark says, the arrest of John.

The Baptist, it appears, had gone a step too far in criticizing the irregular matrimonial arrangements of the local princeling, Herod Antipas, who thereupon clapped him in prison (at the fortress of Machaerus, Josephus tells us, near the Dead Sea), and there he was afterwards put to death. But Josephus also tells us something else: "Herod was terrified of John’s influence with the people. He feared it might lead to an uprising, for they all seemed ready to do anything at his instigation. So he thought it much better to forestall any subversive action he might take, and get rid of him." Without necessarily denying the motive of private pique that Mark alleges, we may be fairly sure that political considerations were not far from Herod’s mind. The gospel writers, understandably, tend to play down this aspect of the situation, but we ought always to keep in mind the chronic political instability which was an inseparable part of the background.

However that may be, the mission of John the Baptist was thus brought abruptly to a close, and this, it seems, was for Jesus the sign lie had been awaiting. The work of preparation was over. He came into Galilee proclaiming, "The time has come; the kingdom of God is upon you."

Galilee was to be the base of operations for the campaign which was now launched. How long it continued to be so we do not know. Nor does the silence of Matthew, Mark and Luke rule out the possibility, or even the likelihood, that the Galilean mission was from time to time interrupted by visits to Jerusalem. A point came later, at which there was a definite shift to the south, but at the start Galilee was the principal terrain. The movement of events cannot be reconstructed in detail; the necessary evidence is not available. But according to the general run of the gospel narratives Jesus was during this period engaged in three main types of activity, two of them arising out of his deliberate plan, the third forced upon him.

First, he was engaged upon a broad appeal to the public, by way of addresses in synagogues, preaching in the open air, teaching when he could find an audience willing to listen, and discussion with members of the public who wished to raise questions. The themes he dealt with we have already reviewed. His master aim was to make people aware of the presence of God as an urgent reality, and to induce them to give the appropriate response, so that they might become effectively members of the new people of God which was coming into being.

Secondly, he set himself to minister to human need by healing the sick in body or mind, by awaking faith in those who had lost hope or the courage to live, and by leading people, one by one, into a new life under the inspiration of a personal attachment to himself.

The two kinds of activity which we have noted -- the public appeal and the service to individuals in need -- run together. The spirit by which both are pervaded is nowhere more forcibly expressed than in one of the best known of the poetical utterances reported in the gospels:

Come to me, all whose work is hard, whose load

is heavy,

and I will give you relief.

Bend your necks to my yoke and learn from me,

for I am gentle and humble-hearted;

and your souls will find relief.

For my yoke is kindly, my load is light.10

The call is public, addressed to all who will hear; the response is necessarily made by individuals. The deep compassion that breathes through it is unmistakable, but no less strongly marked is the note of authority. Jesus lays a "yoke" on his followers; but it is his yoke, and unlike the "yoke of the commandments" of which the rabbis spoke, it is a "kindly" yoke. Paradoxically, the yoke and the load bring "relief" to burdened souls. Pursue the paradox, and it brings us somewhere near to the secret of what Jesus was doing.

The third kind of activity which bulks largely in the accounts of his work in Galilee is controversy. This was something which Jesus did not seek, at this stage. It was forced upon him. In the pursuit of his mission he found himself obliged not merely to neglect some of the finer points of current religious practice (such as fasting on the proper days) but also to break some of the rules which were thought necessary to safeguard the religion of the Law (such as those of Sabbath observance). Whether his actions did in fact amount to breaches of the Law in its true intention was arguable, and he did argue it. But they looked ill in one who set up as a religious teacher. Still more open to misconstruction was his evidently deliberate effort to cultivate friendly relations with classes of people from whom it was a point of honor to hold aloof. He risked incurring guilt by association. Not only so, he sometimes took upon himself to assure these people that their sins were forgiven, and that seemed unpardonable presumption, if not something worse. On all these points he was subject to criticism, and found it necessary to defend himself.

Added to all this, it seems, was an uneasy suspicion aroused by his remarkable healing powers. Evidently these could not be simply denied. If his critics were not prepared to admit that they betokened "the finger of God," there was (in their view) only one alternative. They challenged him to produce a sign from heaven to prove that his powers came from God, with the implication that if he failed to do so they would draw their own conclusions.11 He refused brusquely to do anything of the kind. The inference followed: "He drives out devils by the prince of devils"; in other words, he was a sorcerer. According to Jewish tradition (as we have seen) this was one of the charges on which he was condemned to death. In the gospels it appears rather as a "smear" than as a possible ground for criminal proceedings, but it was dangerous all the same.

A milder form of this "smear," perhaps, represented him as simply out of his mind, and his own relations either suspected that this was the truth or at least thought it wise to put him under some restraint until the ugly rumor should blow over. With this intention his mother and brothers tried to approach him. But he could not now submit to the claim of the family, though this claim was a binding one in Jewish society. When later on he gave the warning that anyone who joined him must "hate" father and mother, he knew what he was talking about. The new community which was forming around him must henceforth be his family: "Here are my mother and my brothers; whoever does the will of God is my brother, my sister, my mother." 12 As the breach with his relations foreshadows the tragic separation from his whole nation which was to be his fate, so his new "family" is the nucleus of the emerging people of God.

How soon the forces of opposition gathered against him it is difficult to say. It may be that the gospels, with their abridged and selective report, have made it look a swifter process than it really was. At any rate it is clear that his mission won a substantial measure of success, so far as success can be gauged by vast audiences, wide notoriety, and an excited following. But Jesus himself was less than satisfied with the response he got. At his home town, we are told, "he was taken aback by their want of faith." 13 "A prophet," he commented ruefully, "is without honor in his own country." 14 He bitterly lamented his failure in the Galilean towns where he was chiefly active, Capernaum, Bethsaida and Chorazin. What he missed in these towns was repentance, a change of heart, as at Nazareth he missed faith. Popularity, it seems, was his for the asking, but not faith, and not repentance, on anything like the scale he desired; and popularity, as we shall see, had its drawbacks.

Yet it was not all failure, by any means, even by the standards by which Jesus reckoned success; so much is clear. A considerable number of Galileans did respond and become disciples, in the sense that they adhered to him personally and were guided by his teaching, though not necessarily giving up their ordinary avocations to stay in his company. Out of this body an inner circle drew together. They accompanied Jesus on his journeys and put themselves at his disposal. At a certain stage of his mission he brought them into active service by sending them out to carry abroad his own message, "The kingdom of God is upon you." The intention seems to have been to face as many people as possible with the challenge inherent in that proclamation.

I have described it as a recruiting campaign; not of course that Jesus was persuading people to "join," or entering names in a list of members. But in a sense already explained he was recruiting for the new Israel. At the same time there was another movement bidding for support -- the national liberation movement of the Zealots. Its back had been broken, militarily, some years earlier, and it had gone underground. For the time it remained, so far as we know, without organization or leadership, but sporadic outbreaks proved that its force was far from spent. A favorable public for its propaganda was found in Galilee, and particularly among the humbler orders of the populace there. This was just the public to which Jesus at this time was appealing. Up to a point they seemed to speak the same language. The Zealots, as Josephus tells us, refused to recognize the Roman government because "they held God to be the only Governor and Master," and rather than acknowledge any man as master they endured indescribable sufferings. 15 This sounds not unlike the kingdom of God with its demand for exclusive loyalty. The two movements were likely to come into contact, perhaps into competition. And in fact one Zealot at least passed into the other camp and entered the inner circle of the disciples of Jesus.16 We may be sure that here were others with a Zealot background among the wider body of adherents. After the death of Jesus, so Luke relates, one of those who had followed him said wistfully, "We had been hoping that he was the man to liberate Israel." 17 It is likely that many others thought he might turn out to be the national liberator.

All this has to be kept in mind as we approach an episode in which, it would appear, the work of Jesus in Galilee found its culmination, and its virtual conclusion.18 The disciples whom he had sent out recruiting returned from their tour -- or perhaps from the latest of such tours -- with a gratifying success story. But it seems that Jesus was not altogether easy. He proposed that they should retire to "some lonely place where you can rest quietly." Perhaps the need for rest was not the only motive for temporary retirement. They took boat across the lake, only to find their purpose foiled. They were faced with a vast concourse gathered in the open country, to the estimated number of four or five thousand. Jesus saw the crowd, we are told, "like sheep without a shepherd," a leaderless mob without a clue. He had meant to avoid an encounter like this, at that moment. But when he saw them "his heart went out to them." So Mark, adding, "and he had much to teach them." We conceive him reasoning with them, explaining himself, and trying to get them to see what he stood for, all day until evening.

What happened then is one of the most puzzling stories in the gospels. It must have had an important place in the tradition, for not only is it reported in all four gospels, but two of them, Matthew and Mark, give duplicate accounts, differing unimportantly in detail. Briefly, we are told that Jesus fed the whole crowd on five loaves and two fishes (or alternatively on seven loaves and "a few" fishes). None of the attempts to make the story intelligible or credible by rationalizing it seem to carry conviction. But it may usefully be observed that the incident as it is presented to the reader is, primarily, not so much a miracle as a mystery. We are not told that they were "amazed," "astonished," or "dumbfounded" (which is the usual way of drawing attention to a miracle), but that "they had not understood." 19 John, after his manner, has appended a long discourse in which the mystery is expounded. The discourse is a series of variations on a theme; and the theme is drawn from the memory of that last supper at which Jesus broke bread for his disciples with the words, "This is my body" (which John gives, translating the Aramaic somewhat differently. as "The bread which I will give is my flesh"). He wishes us to see in the meal of the five thousand a prototype of the sacramental meal in which Jesus gave himself to his disciples, and which was perpetuated in the early church’s rite of the breaking of bread. In the earliest order of service for such an occasion one of the prayers runs, "Thou, almighty Master, didst create all things for thy name’s sake, and didst give food and drink, to men so that they might give thee thanks. But to us thou hast given spiritual food and drink and eternal life through thy Servant." 20 This is the meaning that John intended this story to convey to his readers, and in Mark too the form in which the crucial part of the proceedings is related is so like the language of his account of the last supper that a similar meaning is suggested.

But this does not necessarily dispose of the question, what was the place of this episode in the development of the mission on which Jesus was engaged. The gospels treat it as in some way symbolic of more than appears on the surface. It was a "sign," John says. From that it is an easy transition to the hypothesis that Jesus himself intended it as such. Nor is this at all a farfetched supposition. The Hebrew prophets who were his predecessors were accustomed to perform symbolic actions to reinforce their words -- "acted parables" as they are sometimes called. Jesus did the same upon occasion. What was there, then, in the event of that memorable day to give it a symbolic value? First of all, to break bread together is in all societies a token, and an instrument, of community. Secondly, we know that Jesus made use of the image of a feast to signify the blessings of the kingdom of God consummated in a world beyond this. He also hinted in parable that these blessings were even now available: "Come; everything is now ready," is the message that the host sends to his invited guests in one of his stories.21 We might fairly assume that a whole day’s teaching had not omitted the theme of the kingdom of God and its present reality. Luke in fact says that this was the subject of his teaching on this occasion. And when at the close of the day the feast was spread, it was not difficult to read in it the proclamation, "The kingdom of God is upon you. . . . Come; everything is now ready." Thirdly, Jesus was himself the host. "I did not come," he had said, "to invite virtuous people, but sinners," 22 -- and here he was doing it. The long day of teaching, culminating in the impressive symbolic action, may have been something like a last appeal to the Galileans to understand and embrace his true purpose. It failed, just as the mission to Nazareth had failed to evoke "faith," and the mission to Capernaum, Bethsaida, and Chorazin had failed to evoke "repentance."

The response was disconcerting. Jesus became "aware that they meant to come and seize him to proclaim him king." In that brief phrase John passes over what must have been a gravely critical situation. It was no less than an attempted rising against the government with Jesus as leader. If he had been a "Messiah" of the common sort it was a golden opportunity; but that sort of messiahship he had long ago rejected as a temptation of the devil. It remained to put an end to a situation which threatened to compromise his whole mission. First, the disciples must be isolated from dangerous contacts. He "compelled" them, Mark says (as if they were reluctant to leave the exciting scene), to take to the boat and cross the lake -- and that at nightfall and with a storm brewing. Then he used his remaining influence with the crowd to induce them to disperse peaceably, and retired in solitude to the hills.

So read, the narrative fits aptly into its place in the turbulent history of first-century Palestine. As the church moved outwards and made its appeal to wide circles in the Graeco-Roman world, who could not have cared less about the internal tensions of that distracted country, the political side of the story lost interest. It was forgotten except in one branch of the tradition, that followed by John. What remained was the memory of a sense of baffling mystery at the center of the whole transaction. The mystery concerned the action of Jesus in giving bread to the hungry crowd. Something about the way he gave it seemed to remove his action from the categories of everyday experience: "they did not understand about the loaves." It was one of the many question marks which (as the gospel credibly inform us) things that Jesus said and did imprinted on the minds of his followers. Only the remoter sequel would bring an answer to the question. The three earlier gospels get little further than a naive wonder that so little should have fed so many. John knows the answer at which the church arrived after much pondering in the light of later experience: "I am the bread of life." 23


1 In this and the following chapters I have essayed an outline, and an interpretation, of the course of events, so far as this may be inferred from data in the four gospels. Inevitably this is to some extent conjectural. Informed conjecture, a legitimate tool of the historian, is often an indispensable tool to the historian of antiquity. For the result I do not claim more than a degree -- as it seems to me a high degree -- of probability.

2 Philip and Nathanael: John 1. 45-46.

3 I have attempted to put together such a "portrait" out of the parables in The Authority of the Bible, pp. 147-152.

4A son learning his trade: John 5.19-20a. Basically, this is a picture from daily life, but John, after his manner, has made use of it to enforce a theological point.

5 Josephus Antiquities XVIII, v.2, §§ 116-119.

6 John 1.26. The other gospels do not make this point, but it was most probably a part of the Baptist’s message.

7 Mark 1. 12-13, Mutt. 4. 1-b. Luke 4.1-13.

8 Mark 3.27.

9 John 3. 22-24, 4. 1-2.

10 Matt. 11. 28-30.

11 Luke 11. 15-16. Luke has seen that the demand for a "sign" and the accusation of sorcery belong together; in the other gospels they are reported separately, Mark 3.22, 8.11. Matt. 12.24, 38, 16.1.

12 Mark 3.21,31.35.

13 Mark 6.6.

14 John 4.43, Mark 6.4, Matt. 13.57, Luke 4.24.

15 Josephus Antiquities XVIII, i. 6. § 23.

16 Mark 3.18.

17 Luke 24.21.

18 Mark 6. 30-44, 8. 1-10; Matt. 14. 13-21, 15. 32-39; Luke 19.10-17; John 6. 1-15.

19 Mark 6.52, 8. 27-58, 21.

20 Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, 10.3.

21 Luke 14.17.

22 Mark 2.17.

23 John 6.35.