In reading the gospels, there is a whole cast of characters whose lives interweave and intersect with Jesus’s life and ministry. Friend or foe, each of them have a story to tell us if we understand their role in the 1st century Palestine.
At the time of Jesus, the Jewish nation had been conquered by Rome; it was occupied by Roman troops and governed by rulers appointed by the Roman emperor. A crushing burden of taxes was imposed upon the people. The taxes included: a pool tax (the same amount for every person), a tax on personal property, a tax on land (10% of all grain plus 20% of wine and fruit–or its equivalent in money), duties on all exports and imports, duties on goods sold in towns, and tolls for the use of roads and bridges.
The Romans auctioned off the right to collect these taxes to individuals who then overcharged the people for a profit. When a Jew took the job of collecting taxes, he was considered a traitor to his people as well as a cheat and extortioner. Thus tax collectors (or publicans) were hated outcasts in their own land.
The Pharisees were a Jewish sect in existence during the time of Jesus and the early years of Christianity. Historically, their roots went back to the fourth or third centuries B.C.; they were well established by 167 B.C.
The Pharisees believed that they could obtain righteousness through strict observance of the Mosaic law and all the hundreds of rabbinical interpretations of that law. They had great influence over the people and all public worship was conducted according to their injunctions. However, the Pharisees became known for strict observance of minute details of ritual and behavior. They so burdened the people with trifling rules that the inward spirit of the law was lost in its outward observance.
The Pharisees held in contempt and shunned those who did not follow their strict rules. They considered such people to be unclean and unrighteous and, therefore, a danger to the Pharisees’ holy and perfect condition. This contempt for others was the basis for the Pharisees’ complaint that Jesus associated with tax collectors and sinners.
The Sacrificial System
The Jewish religion included the offering of sacrifices that had been ordained by God and explained to Moses at the tabernacle during the wilderness sojourn. Chapters 1-7 of Leviticus delineate the sacrifices. Different sacrifices were prescribed for various purposes. In general they served as an outward expression of gratitude to God and as a means of recognition and acceptance of God’s grace and favor. Sacrifice was part of the covenant duty and implied the surrender of a person’s life to God.
Animals and grain were sacrificed on many occasions and for many reasons, such as atonement for sin, thanksgiving, and as a return of part of God’s bounty. Sacrifices took place in the temple in Jerusalem and were a central feature of the worship and life of the people.
The Old Testament prophets repeatedly called the people to be more concerned with the love of God as shown in acts of justice and mercy than with the ritual sacrifices of the temple.
After the temple was destroyed in A.D. 70, the sacrificial system ceased to exist in Judaism.
The Meaning of Law – Rabbis, Priests, & Scribes
The word law is used in the Bible in a number of senses. Paul uses law in the Epistle to the Romans, contrasting it with faith as the means of justification by God. Here law refers to the last four books of the Pentateuch, the body of legislation that governed Israel under its covenant with Yahweh. The law was considered to be the will of God, revealed and mediated through Moses. It included the Ten Commandments; the Judgments, which stipulated the social relationships among the Israelites; and the Ordinances, which directed Israel’s worship.
Keeping the Torah (the law) was Israel’s duty under the covenant God made with them. God’s part of the covenant was the constant care and protection of Israel. The rabbis referred to the Torah as the “yoke of the law.” By this they meant that the law was the way that a person was helped to abide by God’s will. In its best sense, this meant the willing assumption of a believer of the life style that went with obeying God’s will as it had been revealed to Israel. Keeping the Torah reflected a life of willing submission and service to God. There is an old story about a rabbi who was asked, “What is the reward for keeping the Torah?” His reply was: “Keeping the Torah.”
It was the function of the priests, and later of the scribes, to give Torah (instruction) to the people as the will of God. Over the years, hundreds of regulations concerning the minutest detail of people’s lives, and especially as to the keeping of the Sabbath, were derived from the Torah as the law was applied to new situations throughout the centuries. The Pharisees considered these regulations as important as the Mosaic law.
It was the heavy burden of such regulation that Jesus condemned in Matthew 23:1-7. The poor especially found the law to be a burden, for they were unable to earn their living and also abide by all the rules and make all the required sacrifices. This is the significance of Jesus’ statement that “My yoke is easy”; it is uncomplicated and straightforward, unlike the yoke of the law.
To use Paul’s words, the people of Israel were “justified” or “made righteous” by perfect obedience to the law. Yet scripture showed that no one could perfectly keep the law. This was Paul’s point when he wrote that the law served to reveal the utter sinfulness of all humanity. Paul stressed, and Christian doctrine has held, that the law was a temporary divine administration to be in effect only until Christ came. It was both preceded by and followed by grace, by justification through faith rather than through “works of the law.”
When Christians refer to the “yoke of Christ” or to “the Cross,” they are using these phrases in much the same way that the rabbis meant the yoke of the law. That is, taking the yoke of Jesus indicates a willing submission to Christ as Lord and an acceptance of a life style appropriate to one who is a member of the kingdom of God.
The Twelve Apostles
The word disciple means “a follower or one who learns from another.” The number of disciples that Jesus had during his ministry is uncertain, varying from 70 to 500. The word apostle means “one who is sent.” It is particularly applied to the twelve disciples of Jesus who were sent out to preach and who founded the Christian Church. The names of the apostles can be found in Matthew 10:2-4, Mark 3:16-19, Luke 6:14-16, and Acts 1:13. The list varies in some details but many people reconcile the discrepancies by saying that Thaddeus or Lebbaeus and Jude are the same person and that Simon the Cananaean is Simon the Zealot.
Peter, also called Simon, Simon Peter, and Cephas
Peter, the name given by Jesus, means rock. Peter was chief of the apostles and their leader from the day of the resurrection onward. He was a Galilean fisherman who was married and had a family. He had the typical Galilean temperament–quick-tempered, impulsive, emotional, and loyal. His human frailties have endeared him to Christians down through the centuries.
He was spokesman for the other apostles during the ministry of Jesus and asked the questions that others did not ask. He preached the first Christian sermon on the day of Pentecost and was the leader of the early Christian Church. By tradition he is said to have been crucified head down in Rome during the persecution under Nero. The Gospel of Mark is based on the teachings of Peter.
John, son of Zebedee
John and his brother James were called Sons of Thunder (Boanerges). This title apparently related to their hot tempers. They were fishermen in Galilee, and John was Peter’s partner in the fishing business. John, James, and Peter made up the inner circle of the apostles and were often taken by Jesus to events that the others did not see. John may have been the Beloved Disciple. He was active in founding the Church and was always mentioned in company with Peter, but with Peter as spokesman. John was the authority for the Gospel of John, which may have been written by his disciples. By tradition he was exiled on Patmos and died at about the age of 100 in Ephesus.
James, the son of Zebedee
James was the brother of John and always appears with him in the Bible. He was a member of the inner circle, along with Peter and John. He was active in founding the Church in Jerusalem and was the first apostle to be martyred. The account of this is found in Acts 12:1-2; he was beheaded by a sword. James is the patron saint of Spain, where, according to legend, he traveled.
Andrew, the brother of Peter
Andrew was the first person to follow Jesus, the first who was called. He, too, was a fisherman and displayed many of the characteristics of the typical Galilean. He was selfless and did not need to be in the inner circle. By tradition he was crucified in Patros in Greece on an x-shaped cross. Such a cross is given the name of St. Andrew’s Cross. He is the patron saint of Russia, Greece, and Scotland.
Thomas, also called Didymus; both names mean the Twin
From scripture it can be seen that Thomas was courageous, that he was often bewildered, and that he was the one who doubted that Jesus had indeed risen from the dead. Once he saw Jesus in his resurrected body, Thomas became one of the strongest of the apostles. He was a missionary in the areas of the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf and, according to legend, founded the Christian Church in India, where he is said to have been martyred.
Matthew, son of Alphaeus (also referred to as Levi)
Matthew was a tax collector in Capernaum who responded immediately when Jesus called him. His first act after being called was to give a feast for Jesus and his disciples, inviting his friends (who also were tax collectors and sinners). This shocked the Pharisees. Matthew was apparently the brother of James (son of Alphaeus), although they were probably estranged until they both became disciples of Jesus. Matthew may have written in Hebrew some of the sayings of Jesus; however, some sources do not believe him to be the evangelist Matthew. The apostle Matthew was martyred.
James, the son of Alphaeus
James was probably Matthew’s brother. He may have been a Zealot, a member of an intensely nationalistic and patriotic band of Jews whose aim was to overthrow the Roman control of their country. James was a missionary to Persia and was crucified there.
Thaddeus (Lebbaeus or Judas, the brother of James)
Thaddeus was probably a Zealot also. He was a missionary and by tradition was killed by arrows on Mount Ararat.
The apostle Philip probably is not the same Philip as reported in Acts 6 and 8. Philip came from Bethsaida and is thought to have been a fisherman. We know little about him except that he brought Nathaniel to Christ. Philip was also the one who asked Jesus to “show us the Father.” This resulted in Jesus’ answer: “He who has seen me has seen the Father.” Philip was a missionary to Asia and was, according to legend, martyred by being hung upside down in the city of Hierapolis.
Bartholomew was not a first name but a surname meaning Son of Tholmai or Ptolemy. This fact has given rise to the theory that the Bartholomew of the synoptic gospels was the same person as Nathaniel who appears in the Gospel of John. Legend has it that Bartholomew was of noble birth, possibly even of royal birth. He was a missionary to India, Armenia, and Phrygia. Tradition has it that he was flayed alive and then crucified in India.
Simon the Cananaean (or Simon the Zealot)
Simon was a Zealot and was deeply involved in insurrections against the Romans. According to legend, Simon was a missionary to Egypt, Africa, and even Britain. He died a martyr.
Judas was a nationalist and probably a Zealot. He was not a Galilean. He was the keeper of the common purse of the disciples of Jesus, thus showing that he was trusted by the group. It would also appear that he had a place of honor at the Last Supper because the conversation Jesus had with him did not include the other apostles.
Much speculation has been made concerning Judas’s motive for betraying Jesus. The most probable is that he was angered because Jesus refused to be king, the type of Messiah that Judas wanted and expected. Or he may have betrayed Jesus in an attempt to force Jesus’ hand. The possibility that Judas betrayed for greed is not widely accepted because he received only 30 pieces of silver.
It should also be noted that Judas did not testify against Jesus at his trial. After the crucifixion Judas, in deep remorse, attempted to return the 30 pieces of silver to the high priest. He then committed suicide. After the ascension of Jesus, the apostles chose, by lot, Matthias to replace Judas in their band of twelve.
Living the Good News is a lectionary-based curriculum published by Morehouse Education Resources, a division of Church Publishing Incorporated.