August 21, 2009

12 Bodyguards at the Nazareth Synagogue

On the heels of my last post...

Without question, the Lord's primary practical purpose in selecting disciples was to train (teach, prepare, discipline) twelve of them for their upcoming mission as his apostles to the world. But along the way, they perform other duties as well. They ran errands (food in Sychar/Samaria, a lamb and a donkey in Jerusalem) or talked about doing so (facing the 5,000 at lunchtime). They most likely caught fish a whole lot more than two times.

As 'first-tour' recruits in Judea, they baptized, seemingly on their own initiative (most likely at Andrew's suggestion). Peter, for one, took strong initiative on numerous occasions and was not always shut down (the coin, the two swords). The more memorable rebukes of his worse contributions (building three shelters, denying the cross, attacking Malchus) actually demonstrates that Peter felt perfectly comfortable making bold suggestions at any time.

The others did too, just as boldly, although less individually by most accounts (calling down fire, forbidding the children). "Explain this parable", "Send her away" and "Tell us when" are all imperative statements. So the same Jesus who embraced his role as their Master was also perfectly comfortable following his trainees' commands, to some degree, if the action was appropriate.

The disciples' high level of ownership and empowerment means Jesus didn't have to instruct them to act as his bodyguards, for them to have done so. Their failed attempt to forbid the children suggests a more general practice. Yes, there were some times when the crowd pressed around Jesus, but there were others when the Lord seemed content letting his entourage act as his 'screen'. Although it certainly appears they kept that screen fairly porous at most times, by Jesus' own preference, the leading apostles were fiercely devoted to him. Given their desire to see him become King, they could not help but take initiative concerning his safety.

When the Sanhedrin finally took Jesus, they sent a cohort of armed troops to make sure they got past his apostles. Until the very moment Jesus called it off, Peter and Caiaphas were both expecting a fight. It was not the threat of dozens (or possibly hundreds - on which, see below*) of troops that scattered the Lord's men during that dark night. It was their Master's own shocking surrender.

Up to that night, Jesus' practice of fostering initiative among his apostles-in-training should emphasize for us that there were always twelve extra minds at work, wherever they went. There were twelve extra wills to contend with, if you wanted to get close to Jesus. And there were twelve extra sets of eyes looking over the Nazareth Synagogue [at his second homecoming, in the summer/autumn of 30 AD]. However those eyes did their looking - gently, firmly, harshly or severely - they most certainly would have said, Don't even think about it, if anyone in the crowd so much as stepped in their Master's direction with apparent intent to do harm.

Once again, the authorities over Jerusalem sent an armed cohort to get past these guys. By comparison, the small village community of Nazareth would have been unwise to attempt the same thing with no planning, and probably would not have been able to drag Jesus up the hill to the cliff if the disciples had been there on that occasion. These considerations add significant weight to the view from a harmonized chronology that Jesus' homecoming in Luke 4 was a completely separate occasion from that of Mark 6 and Matthew 13.

* If the cohort was indeed Roman, it did not have to be at full strength - up to 500, or according to some, possibly 1000 Legionaries. It does seem less likely that Caiaphas got Pilate to send so many men, but the numbers itself (perhaps somewhere in the low hundreds) are not inconceivable. If the soldiers literally besieged Gethsemane from all sides before moving in, it would have been a foolproof strategy for capturing Jesus. That might seem excessive to us, but Roman military tactics at this stage in the Empire tended heavily towards staging an overwhelming show of force to avoid any unnecessary fighting. Given recent events in Palestine, Pilate might have been far more likely to send one or two hundred than merely a few.

On the other hand, even if we imagine Jerusalem's leaders sent between fifteen and a hundred troops, that's still quite a statement. Jesus had eleven apostles on his side in the garden that night, plus one boy in a sheet, and perhaps several more followers as well. But even if the cohort came merely in equal numbers to the size of His entourage that night, we should be impressed with their respect for the apostles. Twelve, twenty or thirty armed military men, highly trained as a unit, should have easily taken down the same number of simple peasants. Practically, therefore, for our purposes here, the numbers are moot. Even at the smallest reasonable estimate, the authorities had taken the measure of these men for a year in Judea and a week in Jerusalem, and on that undoubtedly careful recognizance, they sent a cohort!

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