Galilean refugees in a tight spot (Luke 9:51-62)

The writer of the oldest gospel, the gospel of Mark, has made an impressive attempt to dehistoricize the events that led to the coming into existence of Christianity. He antedated these events by four decades and simultaneously almost completely wiped out the war circumstances of Jesus’ life and activities. For historical research the gospel of Luke is an attractive writing in that its author partially reinstates the historical context that has been eliminated in Mark’s account. He does not do so by questioning or altering Mark’s chronology. On the contrary, Luke even adds an antedating element by introducing the Roman emperor Tiberius (term of office 14-37 CE) in relation with the activity of John the Baptist. However, Luke offers some subtle, disguised clues to the war circumstances of Jesus’ activity and the origins of Christianity. These war elements are mostly discernible in Luke’s extensive description of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, the so-called ‘travel narrative’, that is woven into the whole middle section of his gospel.

Below I will discuss Luke 9:51-62, one of these travel fragments. I am of the opinion that every sentence and phrase of this passage relates to the Jewish rebellion against the Romans and the flight of the defeated Galileans to Jerusalem. Before quoting and discussing this fragment, I will discuss briefly two sentences from contemporary authors that might chronologically precede the event described in Luke 9:51-62 (one from Josephus’s War and one from the gospel of Mark).

In his Vita and Jewish War Josephus mentions the revolutionary activities of Jesus son of Saphat several times. When the Romans recapture Tarichaeae, Josephus mentions Jesus son of Saphat for the last time (War III, 498): ‘Terror-struck by his [Titus’s] audacity, none of the defenders on the ramparts ventured to fight or offer resistance. Abandoning their posts, Jesus [son of Saphat] and his supporters fled across country, while the rest rushed down to the lake.’

The gospel of Mark points to the atmosphere of shock and terror which surrounds the start of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem (Mk 10:32) ‘And they were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; and they were in shock, and those who brought up the rear were terrified.’

In Luke 9:51-62 we find Jesus and the group under his command at the northern border of Samaria, the region that in peacetime was intensively crossed by the Galilean Jews on their most direct route to Judea. The Samaritans were well prepared to take care of large groups of Galileans on their way to and from the religious festivals in Jerusalem.

The fragment goes as follows: (51) When the days drew near for him to be received up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. (52) And he sent scouts ahead of him, who went and entered a village of the Samaritans, to make ready for him; (53) but the people would not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. (54) And when his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to bid fire come down from heaven and consume them?” (55) But he turned and rebuked them. (56) And they went to another village. (57) As they were going along the road, a man said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” (58) And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head.” (59) To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” (60) But he said to him, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” (61) Another said, “I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” (62) Jesus said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

Below I discuss some details of this passage:

  • The ‘aggeloi’ of verse 52
    These ‘aggeloi’ are traditionally translated as ‘messengers’, but because of the military context that becomes clear in verse 54 with the proposed use of burning arrows, I would translate term as ‘scouts’.
  • The ‘no crossing’ decision of the Samaritans because Jerusalem was the destination (verse 53)
    Contrary to the situation in peace time, during the rebellion, with its heavy ethnic tensions, the Samaritans blocked the passage out of ethnic hatred and because they didn’t want to offend their Roman friends by making obliging gestures towards the latters’ enemies, the rebellious Galileans. Therefore it is significant that the text explicitly mentions that the crossing is refused because the Galileans had chosen Jerusalem as their destination. By refusing the passage the Samaritans hindered the Galileans who wanted to troop together in Judea/Jerusalem.
  • Reprisals in verse 54
    The Galileans are at least armed with bow and arrow because fire coming down from heaven means that fire is falling from the sky. The captains proposed to set the hostile village on fire.
  • A new recruit in verse 57
    Somebody is joining the armed refugees unconditionally.
  • Homeless in verse 58
    The animals are better off than we: this is a warning to the man (or boy) who wants to join the forces that he will be homeless. Jesus makes clear that all the refugees share the same fate, the leader included.
  • There is no way back
    This is the subject of the last section of the story (verse 59-62), and it comprises two elements:
    • A member of the group wants to go and bury his father first. Maybe the death was natural, but considering the circumstances the father might have fallen in the battle of Tarichaeae shortly before. To bury the dead was a weighty duty for the Jews, so the impossibility to perform this duty means that the circumstances were highly exceptional. I am not going to discuss the meaning of ‘leave the dead to bury their own dead’ exhaustively here, but as the Greek word ‘nekros’ means ‘dead’ as well as ‘moribund’ these moribund ones could be the Romans because the rebels hoped to kill them in a following engagement. So this sentence might mean ‘let the Romans bury the dead’ or ‘let the Romans bury their own dead’.
  • The man who wants to go back to say goodbye gives the same impression. The war circumstances and the chaos at the recapture of Tarichaeae by the Romans have obstructed him from saying goodbye to his family, and he wants to do so yet. But he also is dissuaded from returning and looking back.
  • The last verse concludes this fragment with a radical tenor. To be fit for the kingdom of God means to be prepared to make great sacrifices first: not only homelessness but also poverty and struggle against the Romans. This is revolutionary language.

Starting from the remarks above I believe we can transcribe Luke 9:51-62 into overt historiography as follows: (51) Jerusalem is the destination of the fleeing Galilean rebels and their families. (52) Jesus son of Saphat sends scouts to the first (northernmost) Samaritan village to learn if the Samaritans will give the Galilean revolutionary fighters free passage through their territory. (53) The answer is negative: the Samaritans will not let pass the army / the refugees because they are on their way to go and defend Jerusalem. (54) Two captains propose to repay the uncooperative Samaritans with destruction of their village by fire from burning arrows. (55) With the Roman threat behind them, Jesus considers new hostilities with the Samaritans a bad idea and resolutely rejects the proposal. (56) The revolutionary army changes its route to the east (as we know from what follows). The north is excluded because they are expelled from there by the Romans, the south is now cut off by the Samaritans, and the western way through the coastland is not a realistic option either because this is Samaritan territory as well, and Caesarea, the most important city of that area is extremely hostile because of the high ethnic tension. (57) A man or boy joins the army of the rebels. (58) Jesus warns him that he will be homeless, and Jesus complains that he is homeless just like all of them. (59-60) Someone proposes to go and bury his father (who was killed in the battle of Tarichaeae?) Jesus son of Saphat dissuades him from doing so; the recruit gets the advice or is commanded to propagate the Zealot revolution instead. (61-62) Somebody else declares to be prepared to serve the revolutionary ideal after he has returned home to say goodbye to his loved ones. He also is advised not to do so: the way back is blocked irrevocably. Jesus son of Saphat ends with the image of the plowman who doesn’t look back. Anyone who lingers in the past (in this case probably the traumatizing recent past of the defeat at Tarichaeae) is not fit for war, which demands great sacrifices.

I believe this reconstruction comes close to the events of a mid-September day of the year 67 CE on the border of Galilea and Samaria.