The Life of Jesus

By Harris Franklin Rall

Chapter 1


Jesus and the Kingdom of God

The thought of the kingdom of God is one of the greatest ideas that has ever stirred the hearts of men. Science tells us how the worlds came into being, and how the flaming suns shall some time turn cold. History records the rise and fall of nations, the migrations of peoples and their endless struggles. But when we ask what all this means, science and history have no answer. Nor is that answer easy to find elsewhere. The world seems a tangle of happenings, a ceaseless strife of good and evil that goes nowhere and means nothing.

Long years ago the prophets of Israel faced this same question and gave their answer. They saw the same evil and the same struggle, but they declared that a day of Jehovah was coming, a day in which the evil should be overthrown and the good should triumph. Out of their vision has come the Christian thought of the kingdom of God upon earth. It is the conviction that history has a meaning, that it is being shaped by the purpose of God. Slowly, through ages of ignorance and strife that are not yet past, men have been coming to see God and to know his will. Slowly God has been lifting men into fellowship with himself and by his Spirit dwelling in the world has been making over human relations and institutions. The final goal of all this is the kingdom of God, the rule of peace and righteousness of which we see the beginnings.

We are to study the life of Jesus as a part of this great world-movement of the Kingdom. We are to ask not simply what Jesus did and what he said, but how his life counted in forwarding this movement. All this makes it plain that we cannot study the life of Jesus as though it stood alone. Unique though he was, Jesus did not stand apart. First, he belongs to the past, to the history of his own people; he builds upon what has gone before, especially on the prophets, and declares that all this is fulfilled in him. Second, he belongs to the world of his own day, the world of Roman law and Grecian speech and Jewish life. If we are to understand the life of Jesus, we must study the world to which he came and in which he did his work. To this study the first chapters will be given.

The Two Centuries Before Christ

Every one knows that it is necessary to study the Old Testament in order to understand the New, but few realize how important it is to study the period between the Old and the New. Turn over the pages of the Gospels and see the picture of Jewish life reflected there. Here are certain classes and parties that are referred to: Pharisees, scribes, Sadducees, Zealots. The temple is still here, but the center is now the synagogue. We find a strong interest in certain religious ideas: heaven, hell, resurrection, judgment, future life, demons, angels. Now turn back to the Old Testament and search for these names and ideas. They are almost wholly lacking. The period between the Old and New Testaments has sometimes been called the "four centuries of silence." That is a great error. This was not a time of silence, but one of momentous changes in which God was working among men and speaking to them. The last of the Old Testament writings reach down to the second century before Christ instead of the fourth. Strictly speaking, indeed, our subject should be ''The Two Centuries Before Christ."

Our Sources of Information.—There are a number of writings from which we may learn about this interesting period. (1) The book of Daniel gives us a picture of the hopes that stirred men's hearts at this time. (2) Outside the Bible we turn to the so-called Jewish Apocrypha, especially the First and Second Maccabees. The Apocrypha are Jewish writings not included by Protestants in the sacred canon, though Luther's Bible and the Anglican Church both include them as a kind of appendix to the Old Testament to be read "for example of life and instruction of manners." (3) Besides the Apocrypha we have certain other Jewish writings known as Pseudepigrapha, written in the time from 200 B. C. to 100 A. D. These writings are mainly apocalypses, or "revelations,^' picturing the future deliverance which Jehovah is to bring. (4) Finally we have the works of the Jewish historian, Josephus.

The Storey of the Maccabees

Hellenizing the East. —The story of the Maccabees is one of the most thrilling chapters in the history of man's fight for freedom. Nearly 350 years before Christ Alexander of Macedon had started to conquer the world. But this general was not simply interested in conquest of arms. He wanted Greek culture to rule; he wanted the people of the East to receive the language of Greece, its customs, its religion. The work went on after his death, and everywhere with success. The Jews did not escape this influence. Those that were scattered abroad naturally learned the Greek tongue and the Old Testament was translated into that language. Palestine itself felt the movement. But it was not simply a question of language; it was a question whether the Jews should give up their ancient faith for the new customs and ideas. There were not a few who were ready to do this, and they included prominent and influential people, the wealthy and aristocratic sections with many of the priests. To these men it seemed the way to favor with the ruling powers, the door to position and fortune.

Palestine was at this time under Syria, one of the divisions into which Alexander's empire had fallen, and Antiochus Epiphanes had just come to Syria's throne, B. C. 175. Energetic, ambitious, arrogant, ruthless, his great ambition was to Hellenize his whole realm. He found a ready helper in the high priest Jason, a renegade who had supplanted his own brother, the pious Onias, by the simple means of offering Antiochus a hundred and fifty thousand dollars for this office. This Jason pushed the work of Hellenizing. "He eagerly established a Greek place of exercise under the citadel itself; and caused the noblest of the young men to wear a Greek cap. And thus there was an extreme of Greek fashions, and an advance of an alien religion, by reason of the exceeding profaneness of Jason, that ungodly man and no high priest; so that the priests had no more any zeal for the service of the altar: but despising the sanctuary, and neglecting the sacrifices, they hastened to enjoy that which was unlawfully provided in the palaestra, after the summons of the discus; making of no account the honors of their fathers, and thinking the glories of the Greeks best of all.'' (2 Maccabees 4. 12-15.)

The Persecution of the Jews. —For centuries the leaders of Israel had fought to preserve her faith and to keep it pure from the contaminating influences of the lower religions around about her. Now it seemed as though that faith was to be lost in the mixture of low ideals and superstitious practices which were soon to be the common life of the Greek-Roman world. Her leaders, the priests, were faithless. The king was using every influence to bring about the change. Then suddenly the tide turned. Antiochus himself was the cause. The progress had been too slow and so he began to use force. Jerusalem was seized in the year 168. The sacred altar was torn down and an altar reared to Zeus, upon which swine's flesh was sacrificed, while soldiers and harlots filled the holy place. Then the persecution began. There was to be no observance of the Sabbath, no circumcision, no sacrifice to Jehovah, nor might any one have in his home a copy of the Law. Those who did these things or who refused to sacrifice to the pagan gods were to be put to death. Many fell away, but many were faithful. The hour of persecution became the hour of the greatest revival that Judaism had seen. Men and women went gladly to their death rather than prove false to their faith. Others were stirred by their examples. The story of these martyrdoms deserves a place in history beside those of the early church and of the Christians of Armenia and China in our day.

The Maccabees. —At first there was no resistance and no leadership. A thousand were slain at one time because they would not fight when attacked on the Sabbath. Then came forth a group of remarkable leaders, the aged priest Mattathias and his five sons. One of these sons, Judas, proved himself a general of highest ability. He was known as Maccabeus, "the hammerer," and from him the family took its name, the Maccabees. With astonishing courage and skill they fought the Syrian armies, stirring their followers with the summons to trust in the God who had delivered their fathers. In three years the worship in the temple was reestablished. For something less than a century Israel regained political independence, after which she became subject to the new power from the West, the Roman empire. But she had saved the faith of the prophets and had won for all time the right of freedom of worship according to that faith. Persecutions in abundance the Jews have suffered since then, but that freedom they have never lost.

The Book of Daniel

Jewish Apocalypses. —The spirit and the hope that stirred the Jews at this time are well shown to us by the book of Daniel. This book is an apocalypse, a form of writing which was very common in the last two centuries before Christ and the next century following. The Jewish apocalypses all have the same general method of giving their message through visions and using all manner of pictures and symbols. They were written in times of oppression and distress. Their authors were men of piety and faith. Their purpose was to encourage the people by showing them that, despite oppression, God was still watching over his own, that the nations were all in God's hands, whose kingdom at its fixed time would surely be established. Feeling that they were writing in the spirit of the great men of the past, these men set forth their messages under such names as those of Enoch, Moses, Solomon, and Daniel.

The Message of Daniel. —The book of Daniel, probably written within a few years after the desecration of the temple and before the worship was reestablished, was of great influence in these years; its faith and courage and loyalty to Jehovah represent the spirit that stirred the Jews to such heroic deeds. The first six chapters of Daniel give us the familiar stories which have charmed us and stirred us from childhood on. The second half is made up of the visions. In a great picture the author sets forth in chapter seven under the form of four beasts the four great kingdoms of Babylonia, Persia, Media, and Greece. Then at last God comes in judgment, "the ancient of days," bringing in the last kingdom, which is given to "one like unto a son of man." "Son of man" was a phrase used later as a name for the Messiah; here it seems to refer to Israel, as indicated by verse 27: "And the kingdom and the dominion, and the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven, shall be given to the people of the saints of the Most High: his kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and all dominions shall serve and obey him." The little horn of chapter eight refers to Antiochus, and chapter 11. 21-45 describes the reign and the death of this king.

The Canon

More important than the political events, though closely connected with them, were the changes that took place in the religious life and institutions of the Jews. Only one of these can be taken up in this lesson, and that is the forming of the canon. By the canon we mean the list of writings declared to be sacred, for the Jews the Old Testament, for us the Old Testament and the New.

The Three Books. —The Jews had three such collections which formed their canon, and these were not all placed upon the same plane. First came the Law, comprising the first five books of the Bible. It was under Nehemiah and Ezra that this was solemnly adopted by the people. This Book of the Law was the most sacred to the Jews, and compared by them to the Holy of holies. Next came the Prophets, which they compared to the holy place. This collection included all the prophets as we know them excepting Daniel, together with the earlier historical books, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings. Though these books had long been read and honored, it was probably not until B. C. 200 that they were gathered into a definite and authoritative collection. The last collection, containing all the other books, is called the "Writings." This was compared with the temple court. These writings were first gathered together during the Maccabean period (about 150) . In trying to destroy the books of the Law, Antiochus simply made the Jews feel the value of their sacred writings the more, and so they began collecting these other writings which were not already gathered together in the Law or the Prophets. This work was not finally completed until long after, for even after the time of our Lord the Jewish rabbis disputed whether writings like Ecclesiastes and the Song of Solomon should be included. These three collections formed the Bible of Jesus, as they form part of our Bible to-day, and for their preservation many a Jew laid down his life in the dark days of Antiochus.


Read carefully the selections from Maccabees given below and Daniel 7. If time permits, look through the book of Daniel, and note the lessons that it would bring to the Jews at such a time. The Apocrypha can be bought in the American Standard Revision, either separately or bound in one volume with the Bible. 2 Maccabees 5, 6, and 7 give a graphic picture of persecutions and heroism. The more sober and connected history is given in 1 Maccabees. Read as much as you can of these. It will help us to understand the people with whom Jesus lived and worked, if we realize that these writings were known to all and read by all.

Good maps are of the greatest value in study.1 Each class should have a set of maps of its own. Refer to these or to the maps which may be in your own Bible. Look at a map of the ancient world. Notice how small Palestine is, yet how important its location. Can you understand why these great kingdoms fought for it? Note where the armies would have to march from Assyria to Egypt, or from Macedonia to Egypt.

Make a list of Jewish names, institutions, and ideas which appear in the New Testament and are lacking in the Old.

What New Testament book was written, like Daniel, to give encouragement in a period of persecution by picturing the future triumph of the Kingdom?

Name some other wars that have been waged for liberty of thought and faith and life. How does the Maccabean struggle compare with them in importance for later ages?

The Story of the Maccabees

In those days came there forth out of Israel transgressors of the law, and persuaded many, saying. Let us go and make a covenant with the Gentiles that are round about us; for since we were parted from them many evils have befallen us. . . . And they built a place of exercise in Jerusalem according to the laws of the Gentiles; and they made themselves uncircumcised, and forsook the holy covenant, and joined themselves to the Gentiles, and sold themselves to do evil. . . . And king Antiochus wrote to his whole kingdom, that all should be one people, and that each should forsake his own laws. And all the nations agreed according to the word of the king; and many of Israel consented to his worship, and sacrificed to the idols, and profaned the sabbath. . . . And on the fifteenth day of Chislev, in the hundred and forty and fifth year, they builded an abomination of desolation upon the altar, and in the cities of Judah on every side they builded idol altars. And at the doors of the houses and in the streets they burned incense. And they rent in pieces the books of the law which they found, and set them on fire. And wheresoever was found with any a book of the covenant, and if any consented to the law, the king's sentence delivered him to death. . . . And on the five and twentieth day of the month they sacrificed upon the idol altar, which was upon the altar of God. And the women that had circumcised their children they put to death according to the commandment. And they hanged their babies about their necks, and destroyed their houses, and them that had circumcised them (1 Maccabees 1. 11,14, 15, 41-43, 54-57, 59-61).

In those days rose up Mattathias the son of John, the son of Simeon, a priest of the sons of Joarib, from Jerusalem, and he dwelt at Modin. And he had five sons, John, who was sur-named Gaddis; Simon, who was called Thassi; Judas, who was called Maccabseus; Eleazar, who was called Avaran; Jonathan, who was called Apphus. . . . Then were gathered together unto them a company of Hasidseans, mighty men of Israel, every one that offered himself willingly for the law. And all they that fled from the evils were added to them, and became a stay unto them. And they mustered a host, and smote sinners in their anger, and lawless men in their wrath: and the rest fled to the Gentiles for safety. And Mattathias and his friends went round about, and pulled down the altars; and they circumcised by force the children that were uncircumcised, as many as they found in the coasts of Israel (1 Maccabees 2. 1-5, 42-46).

Eleazar, one of the principal scribes, a man already well stricken in years, and of a noble countenance, was compelled to open his mouth to eat swine's flesh. But he, welcoming death with renown rather than life with pollution, advanced of his own accord to the instrument of torture. . . . But they that had the charge of that forbidden sacrificial feast took the man aside, for the acquaintance which of old times they had with him, and privately besought him to bring flesh of his own providing, such as was befitting for him to use, and to make as if he did eat of the flesh from the sacrifice, as had been commanded by the king. ... It becometh not our years to dissemble, said he, that through this many of the young should suppose that Eleazar, the man of fourscore years and ten, had gone over unto an alien religion; and so they, by reason of my dissimulation, and for the sake of this brief and momentary life, should be led astray because of me, and thus I get to myself a pollution and a stain of mine old age. ... By manfully parting with my life now, I will show myself worthy of mine old age, and leave behind a noble ensample to the young to die willingly and nobly a glorious death for the reverend and holy laws (2 Maccabees 6. 18, 19, 21, 24, 25, 27, 28)


1) Maps. The best maps available aro a revised and condensed edition of the Historical Maps for Bible Students (wall maps), edited by Professor Charles Kent, Ph.D., of Yale University, and Albert Alonzo Madsen, Ph.D. Seven maps. Price, complete, $5, prepaid. The Methodist Book Concern. 1. The Sinaitic Peninsula with Palestine to the north, and a portion of the Nile and its delta to the southwest. 2. Palestine during the period when the Israelites were finding permanent homes in eastern and western Palestine. .3. Palestine during the time of the united Hebrew kingdom. 4. Palestine after the exile and during the days of the restored Jewish community and of the later Maccabean kingdom. 5. Palestine in the time of Christ. 6. Roman empire during the first Christian century and all the important provinces that figure in early church history. 7. The lands of the civilized world, including the valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates, the Syrian coast, and a portion of the Nile valley.