The Logos in Greek and Jewish literature

JOHN 1 John's theology of the Word (Greek logos) is rooted in the Old Testament but also addresses pressing philosophical concerns in the Greek world. The phrase "In the beginning was the Word" (in 1:1) obviously echoes Genesis 1, which records that God created simply by speaking (e.g., "Let there be light" in v. 3).That is, God created by means of his word. There can he little doubt that this is the primary background to the use of logos in John 1: God's word brought the universe into orderly existence. The Jewish Targums' echo this understanding of the divine Word. They frequently employ the term memra (derived from the Aramaic word for"speak") to describe God's creative activity,and this may have contributed to the language we find in John 1.

The word logos, however, also had a rich tradition in Greek thought.While logos can be a very general term, meaning simply "word, account, explanation or thing," the philosopher Heraclitus (c. 535-475 B.C.) used it in the sense of an ordering principle for the uni-verse. Thus, the logos is the divine logic that gives order to the universe. Heraclitus appears to have associated it with fire and to have linked it with reason within human beings. This sense of logos was most fully developed by the Stoics, who taught that the universe was permeated with the logos that gave order and rationality to all things. ln late Stoicism this logos could be equated with pneuma,"spirit," a kind of compound of fire and air, permeated by reason. There was a logos within each individual person (i.e., human reason) and a logos that pervaded the universe (i.e.,the rationality that governs the world). By extension, the logos within human beings enabled them to move in harmony with the logos of the universe. Those who were governed by passions and emotions, however, were thought to have turned away from the universal logos and to have become bestial in their behavior. This concept provided the basis for the Stoic ethical system.

What did John mean by describing Jesus as the logos? As noted above, the link to Genesis 1 is central; the logos is the one by whom "all things were made" (v.3)—that is, Christ. But there may be a secondary application of the term that would speak to the educated Greek reader. Christ in his person is the Logos. The truth, the guiding principle of the universe and of the soul of every person, is not a mere abstraction of theoretical "rationality," but a person. By this person, the Logos, the individual may attain harmony with God and his creation.

Cana of Galilee

JOHN 2 John is the only New Testament writer who mentioned Cana of Galilee,and he only hinted at its location.The fact that Jesus' family had friends or relatives and were able to attend a wedding there suggests that Cana was not too far from Nazareth) In addition, John 4:46-54 implies that the trip from Cana to Capernaum required somewhat more than a half-day's journey.

Christian pilgrims have long associated Cana with the village of Kefr Kenna, located about 4 miles (6.5 km) northeast of Nazareth (see"Map 9"). This is probably incorrect, notwithstanding the presence there of churches claiming to preserve the tradition of the miracle at the wedding. Today most scholars agree that Khirbet Qana, located about 9 miles (14.5 km) north of Nazareth and just north of the Beit Netofa Valley, is the more likely candidate (although both Kefr Kenna and Khirbet Qana meet the requirements of John's Gospel).

Excavation at Khirbet Qana began in 1998. Remains have been found from the Neolithic period through to the modern period, but most physical evidence (pottery, coins and housing remains) dates from the Roman through the Byzantine periods. Remains of what could have been a first-century synagogue (although this has not yet been firmly established) have also been found, along with a miqveh (a pool for Jewish ritual cleansing). Cisterns held water for the village since there appears to have been no aqueduct.; John 2:6 mentions that water was stored in large stone jars.Archaeology is not likely to provide decisive proof that Khirbet Qana was Cana of Galilee, but even the prospect of uncovering artifacts there that existed when Jesus worked his first miracle is profoundly exciting.

The Samaritan temple on Mount Gerizim

John 4. The rift between the Samaritans ,and the Judeans dates from an early period. According to 2 Kings 17 the Samaritans were the descendants of Mesopotamian peoples who were forcibly settled in the lands of northern Israel by the king of Assyria in the wake of the exile of 722 B.C. They combined the worship of Yahweh with idolatrous practices. The construction of a Samaritan temple to Yahweh on Mount Gerizim and the establishment of a rival, hereditary priesthood dates from the fourth century B.C. Josephus reported that the high priest Manasseh was threatened with expulsion from Jerusalem on account of his foreign wife, Nikaso, the daughter of the Samaritan Sanballat. Sanballat in turn promised to preserve the priesthood for Manasseh, to appoint him as governor over his lands and to build a tern-* similar to that in Jerusalem on Mount Gerizim, provided Manasseh would remain with his daughter (Josephus, Antiquities, 11.8.2)

The Samaritans, however, viewed themselves as the faithful descendants of Israel and saw the Judeans as apostate. They accepted only the Pentateuch as Scripture; in their version Mount Gerizim is described as the chosen place for the sanctuary (Dt 1119— 30; din 4:20). The history of the temple site at Mount Gerizim is full of turmoil:

    • From the time of the building of the Samaritan temple (often dated to 388 B.c.), Samaria functioned as a temple-state under the leadership of its own priestly aristocracy.

    • During a period of Greek domination, the Samaritan temple was renamed as the temple of Zeus, the Friend of Strangers (2Mc 6:2).

    • After the Maccabean success the Samaritan temple was attacked and destroyed by the Hasmonean priest-king John Hyr-canus in 128 B.c. (Antiquities, 13). This act sealed a permanent rift between the two communities and to a large extent underlies the hostility between Jews and Samaritans reflected in the New Testament (v.9).

    • Emperor Hadrian built another temple to Zeus there (fifth century A.D.).

    • The Christian emperor Justinian constructed a church on this spot (sixth century), which was later destroyed by Arabs (seventh century). .

Archaeologists have uncovered remains from Justinian's church, Hadrian's temple and the temple John Hyrcanus destroyed. The words of the woman at the well reflect Samaritan devotion to this site.

The Samaritans, like the Jews, expected a Messiah to come. They revered Moses as the true prophet and, based upon Deuteronomy 18, cherished hopes that a prophet like Moses would one day restore both themselves and their sanctuary. They described this Messianic figure as the Restorer. A Samaritan document called the Memar Morgan, though written in the fourth century A.D., contains earlier Samaritan traditions. It states,"Let the Restorer come safely and sacrifice a true offering.The Restorer will come in peace and reveal the truth and will purify the world and establish the heads of the people as they once were" (Memar Morgan, 2:33,70,180). The Samaritan woman reflected this expectation when she declared, "I know that Messiah ... is coming.When he comes, he will explain everything to us" (v. 25). Jesus' reply was, as was frequently the case, understated:" who speak to you am he" (v. 26).

The Pool of Bethesda in Jerusalem

JOHN 5 The pool at Bethesda was a familiar locale among the Jews of Jerusalem. It was mentioned, for example, in Qumran's Copper Scroll as the "place of poured out water.", It was located near what are now the ruins of the basilica of Saint Anne to the north of the temple mount. The "pool" was actually two pools surrounded by four porticoes, with a fifth portico situated between them. The surface area of the enclosed water was over 3.10 square miles (5 sq km).

Coupled with the elegant porticoes, the pools must have been an impressive sight. While the lavish complex of John's day likely dated to the reign of Herod the Great,' the pools were probably in use before that and may have been the site of an intermittent spring. The connection between the pool and the healing process is attested not only by the fourth Gospel but also by archaeological remains indicating that the Romans also sought healing there after taking over Jerusalem in approximately A.D.135.

There is some controversy about the translation "Sheep Gate" in John 5:2. Early Christian tradition understands this to refer to the"Sheep Pool" rather than to the"Sheep Gate"; both translations are possible, but the historical evidence for the latter is not as strong. Eusebius noted that the waters of the pool were reddish in color and that some supposed this was because the entrails of the sacrificial animals were washed is more likely that the red coloring was a simple factor of geology and that the pools had been built to provide an opportunity for ritual cleansing for visitors to the temple.


JOHN 6 Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great and the tetrarch of Galilee (Mt 14:1; Lk 3:19), founded the city of Tiberias (see "Map 9") around A.D. 20. The city was named in honor of the Roman emperor Tiberius, who ruled from A.D. 14-37.2 Ancient Tiberias was located on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee 2 miles (3.2 km) south of Magdala and one mile north of the hot springs at Hammath. The site is commonly identified with a place called Khirbet Qunaytirah, which is actually north of modern Tiberias.

A large number of tombs discovered there during the initial stages of its construction were cleared away and new buildings erected over them, but this act rendered the city unclean for pious Jews (cf. Nu 19:16). As a result Herod was forced to populate the town with a mixture of Galileans, foreigners and freed slaves. According to Josephus, a continual settlement of the city was ensured through land and housing grants, as well as through the emancipation of great numbers of slaves who were freed with the obligation to live there (Josephus,Antiquities,18,2.3).

Antipas built the city according to the Hellenistic-Roman conventions of his time, including within it a stadium, forum, public baths and a lavish royal palace adorned with animal statuary, which was offensive to Jews.Tiberias was thus a city that was thoroughly Gentile in atmosphere. But Antipas also constructed a large synagogue to accommodate its Jewish inhabitants.5 As Tiberias grew in importance as both an urban and an administrative center, the Sea of Galilee became known as the Sea of Tiberias (in 6:1;21:1).

The Samaritans

JOHN 8 The Samaritans believed themselves to be the descendants of the northern tribes, who had been exiled in 722 B.C. by Assyria) In 2 Kings 17, however, the Samaritans are described as a mixed group, composed at least partly of pagans whom the king of Assyria had brought into the land from other nations. In Ezra 4 the Samaritans appear as troublemakers for the Jews who were seeking to reestablish themselves and their temple in the land following their return from exile. This group did not identify itself with Samaria so much as with Mount Gerizim, near Shechem, which its members claimed was the place God had chosen for his sanctuary (see Dt 12:5,11,21,26; 14:24-25; 16:6; 17:8; 18:6;26:2). They believed that Israel had become apostate as soon as the sanctuary had been moved away from Shechem, during the time of Eli, the priest. The Samaritans rejected Jerusalem's special place in God's plans, and the ongoing tension regarding the proper place for the sanctuary of God is evident in John 4:20. Samaritans believed in the God of Israel, acknowledged Moses as his prophet and the Pentateuch as his revelation, and looked forward to the day when he would send the "prophet like [Moses]," as he had promised (Dt 18:18).They did not accept or acknowledge any Old Testament writings beyond the Pentateuch as canonical.

The Jewish high priest and ruler John Hyr-canus destroyed the Samaritan sanctuary on Mount Gerizim in 128 B.c., and tensions between Jews and Samaritans remained high throughout the first century A.D. Samaritans scattered bones in the Jerusalem temple during Passover in A.D. 6-7 and in A.D. 52 massacred a group of Galilean pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem (Josephus,Antiquities,20.6.1 and Wars, 2.12.3).Typically Jews would avoid passing through Samaria when traveling between Judea and Galilee.The Jewish accusation against Jesus that he was a Samaritan and therefore demon-possessed is consistent with the strong anti-Samaritan sentiment that motivated the destruction of their sanctuary;Jewish writings from this time (such as Sir 50:25 —26,Jubilees 30:5-6 and the Testament of Levi 7:2)4 attest to this hostility (see also Jn 4:7-9). Samaritans were considered apostates and idolaters (based in part on Ge 35:4) and were viewed as more likely than Jews to be demonized. Jesus, however, apparently regarded the Samaritans as a genuine, albeit misguided, subgroup of the covenant people.

The Pool of Siloam

JOHN 9 The water of the Pool of Siloam in Jerusalem was regarded as sacred. According to rabbinic tradition, during the celebration of the Feast of Booths water was drawn from the pool into a golden vessel and carried in procession to the temple (cf. in 7).1 Jesus instructed the man born blind to wash in this same pool (9:1-7), although it was Jesus—the source of "living water" (7:38)— who did the healing.

The question of where the Pool of Siloam was located has been examined on the basis of reports from the Bible, Josephus,

ancient pilgrims and archaeological findings.There were actually two pools.The first, the "Lower" or older "Pool of Shiloah" (cf. Isa 8:6; 22:9-11) collected water from the Gihon Spring, east of the city, via a short channel. The second, or "Upper" Pool, also received water from the Gihon Spring, but it came through an underground tunnel that had been cut through rock by King Hezekiah around 701 B.c.2 Hezekiah strategically situated the Upper Pool within the city walls to serve as a secure water supply. The Lower Pool would have been located outside the city of his day. There is some dispute about which pool, the Upper or the Lower, was the "Siloam Pool" of Jesus' day, although it was probably the Upper Pool. Today the Upper Pool is known as the Siloam Pool, while the Lower Pool is dry.

Bethany and the other side of the Jordan

JOHN 10 After a particularly difficult ex-change with the Jews, Jesus escaped to the area on the eastern side of the Jordan River,"to the place where John had been baptizing"' (in 10:40). The name of this location is given in 1:28 in the NIV as "Bethany on the other side of the Jordan." Early pilgrims claimed that a place called Sapsaphas, north of the Dead Sea and east of the Jordan River, was the site at which Jesus was baptized and that a church there was dedicated to John the Baptist. Interestingly, the pilgrims also identified a hill in this vicinity as the point from which Elijah had been taken up to heaven in a chariot of fire (2Ki 2:1-14), perhaps mistakenly associating the first Elijah with John the Baptist, who was commonly called the second Elijah (Mt 11:14; 17:11-13; Lk 1:17).A place called Beth-abara (a possible variant name for Bethany) is shown on the sixth-century mosaic Madaba map, where it is labeled"Ainon (spring) where now is Sapsaphas."

Ancient Sapsaphas has been identified as Wadi el-Kharrar, a small riverbed slightly over 1 mile (1.6 km) long, 5 miles (8 km) north of the Dead Sea. Investigations there have located "Elijah's hill" at Tell el-Kharrar at the beginning of the wadi, about 1 mile from the Jordan River. Excavations at the hill have revealed three churches, three caves and three baptismal pools from the Roman and Byzantine periods. Approximately 330 yards (302 m) from the Jordan River there is indeed a church, identified by the excavators as the Church of Saint John the Baptist that was mentioned by the early pilgrims —the traditional site of Jesus' baptism (in 1:29-34).

Other scholars have suggested that the term "Bethany" is rather to be identified with the region of Batanea in the northern Transjordan. This suggests that Bethany ("Bethany beyond Jordan" ) on the other side of the Jordan" was a region, not a town. Some Jewish writings attest to possible linguistic links between the names Bethany and Batanea. In the generations immediately preceding Jesus' birth, pious Jewish sects moved into this area, many of whom were anticipating the coming of God's Anointed One from the north.2 That John the Baptist could have begun his ministry among or have been associated with one or more of these groups is not unreasonable.

The rabbis, teaching steps at the southern wall excavations

JOHN 10 Those who came to worship at the temple of Herod approached from the southern precinct of Jerusalem., Various routes converged into a large, stone-paved plaza under the shadow of an imposing southern retaining wall that was crowned with the rising spires of the royal portico (Lk 4:9; Josephus, Antiquities, 15.11.5). The plaza contained a number of ritual baths and served both as a significant center of public life and as a gathering place for the swelling crowds who made their way up to Jerusalem during the pilgrimage festivals., Massive stairways rose from the plaza toward two arched gates built into the southern wall.

The largest of these monumental staircases was uncovered in 1968 and has been restored to much of its original splendor. It measures 215 feet (157 m) wide and rises some 22 feet (6.7 m) via 30 steps of trimmed and smoothed stone paving blocks. The width and spacing of the steps has led some to conjecture that the stairways were built to correspond to the rhythmic patterns that characterize the Psalms of Ascent (i.e., Ps 120-134). From these steps teachers could address those who had assembled in the Plata; it is probable that Jesus taught from this vantage point, even though the Gospels explicitly refer only to his teaching from the Porticoes standing on the temple mount itself On 10:23).

Bethany and the tomb of Lazarus

JOHN 11 The home of Lazarus and his sisters, Mary and Martha, was in Bethany, about 2 miles (3.2 km) from Jerusalem on the eastern slope of the Mount of Olives (in 11:1,18; according to 1:19--28, there was another Bethany "on the other side of the Jordan," where John the Baptist ministered)) The Bethany of Lazarus is to-day called el-Azariyeh, a name that preserves its association with Lazarus. Because of the dose relationship between Jesus and the family of Lazarus, Jesus made Bethany the base of his Jerusalem ministry during Passion Week (Mk 11:11).

Excavations carried out by the Franciscans at Bethany have uncovered the remains of Christian churches dating back to the fourth century A.D. Of particular interest is the tomb of Lazarus. Eusebius remarked that Lazarus's tomb was a pilgrimage site during his day, and the presumed site remains so today.The tomb has been modified: Its original entrance was on the east, but now it is entered from the north side. Although it is impossible to verify that this is in fact the tomb of Lazarus, the tradition for this site is very old and should not be regarded as particularly suspect.

Perfumes and Anointing Oils

JOHN 12 For several reasons people in the indent world devoted great attention to the use of fragrances, perfumes and anointing oils:

    • They were keenly aware of the presence and suggestive powers of odors. Perfumes ad a cosmetic function and served as an aphrodisiac (e.g., SS 1:12 — 13), but there was so a kind of sacred perfume formula that is to be used only on Israel's priests and actuary objects (Ex 30:22-33).

    • Oils served a hygienic purpose prior to invention of soap and shampoo (e.g., )inting the scalp with oils killed head lice).

    • Oils were used medicinally. Greek physi-is regularly massaged patients and athletes with oil, and James 5:14 recommends anointing the sick with oil.

    • Perfumes and spices were used for special purposes,such as for embalming the dead (Jn 19:39-40).

Most perfumes originated from plant sources. Examples include frankincense, myrrh, nard, saffron, aloes and calamus. Since none of these spices and fragrances were indigenous to the region of the Holy Land, they had to be imported from Arabia, Iran, India and elsewhere.These perfumes were therefore extravagantly expensive, as John 12:3-5 suggests. The primary source of oil was the olive tree, which was widely cultivated throughout the Mediterranean world. In Greco-Roman times oils were scented with the fragrances of narcissus, cinnamon, saffron and other plants, and people regularly anointed themselves after a bath. Fragrances were obtained in a variety of ways, depending upon the nature of the plant source (be it a root, flower, bark secretion, etc.), but often the raw material was either distilled or in some way pressed or crushed. The attention the New Testament gives to these ointments reflects something of the values of the culture of that time.


JOHN 13 The triclinium (plural triclinia) was the dining room in a Roman house. Some of the finest examples of triclinia have been excavated at Pompeii in the houses identified with Menander, Pansa, Castor and Pollux and the Golden Cupids., In wealthier homes the walls of triclinia were often adorned with ornate frescoes of mythological or pastoral scenes.The room was typically placed such that it afforded a view of the garden, creating a scenic backdrop for the dining experience. It had an oblong shape and featured long couches placed along three of its walls; hence its name. The couch frames were usually made of wood with bronze adornments. Leather straps criss-crossed the open bottoms of the frames and supported stuffed cushions. The diners reclined on their left sides, freeing their right hands to take food from the low table in the center of the room.

The traditional Roman dinner party (convivium) involved nine guests, with three persons apiece on each of three couches. These would be arranged in three sides of a square, with entertainment taking place in the open space. Since multiple diners occupied each couch, each person would place his or her head close to the table and then angle the rest of the body away. The bodies of the diners, then, overlapped, with the head of one diner situated next to the chest of the adjacent guest (their feet were angled back and away from the table). Fm this reason, according to the historian Pliny, one diner was said to lie "in the bosom" of the other.The historian Livy recorded that a type of hierarchy developed in this reclining system.The inferior person's head lay near the torso of the superior.

By New Testament times many Jews had adopted the Roman style of dining.2 The account of the Last Supper in John 13 sug-gests that Jesus and the disciples were following this custom in a modified form.The Last Supper was not a convivium meal but a Passover, and there had to be room for all of Jesus' inner circle of 12.3 There was, of course, no entertainment, and so it may have been the case that four couches were arranged around a central table. The 13 diners were reclining as they ate, and John is said to have been leaning against the breast of Jesus, who was naturally in the position of a superior. John's position next to Jesus suggests that he was Jesus' closest friend, which is indeed implied in the narrative (v.23).

Non-biblical sources for the historical Jesus

JOHN 15 Christian readers often wonder whether there are references to Jesus outside the New Testament. Although some opponents of Christianity, dismissing the New Testament, contend that there is little or no real evidence that Jesus ever lived, some verification does in fact exist from both Jewish and Roman sources.A few rabbinical texts have survived,as well as an important passage from the ancient Jewish historian Josephus.

One rabbinical text from the Babylonian Talmud is especially significant. This passage, called b. Sanhedrin 43a, asserts that Jesus was"hanged" on Passover eve for being a sorcerer and enticer to apostasy, but that prior to his execution the Jewish officials had waited 40 days for someone to bring forward evidence in his defense. This contradicts the New Testament account but does affirm Jesus' existence, his condemnation by Jewish officials and his execution at the time of the Passover.

A Josephus text known as the "Testimonium Flavianum" is found in Antiquities, 18.63— 64. (Antiquities was completed in A.D. 93, less than 60 years after Jesus' crucifixion.) Describing the days of Pontius Pilate, it states:

At this time Jesus, a wise man (if it is appropriate to call him a man), appeared. For he was a worker of incredible deeds, a teacher of men who happily receive the truth, and he drew to himself many Jews—and many Greeks, too.This man was the Christ. And when Pilate had executed him at the instigation of the leading men among us, those who had first loved him did not give up. For he appeared to them on the third day alive again (the divine prophets had spoken concerning him of these and countless other wonders). And to this day the tribe of "Christians" (named after him) has not vanished.

Controversy surrounds the Testimonium because of its confessional tone, with some scholars arguing that it was an interpolation by a later Christian scribe. However, in Antiquities, 20.200 Josephus described the martyrdom of James, whom he identified simply as"the brother of Jesus,called Christ."Such a passing reference to Jesus suggests either that he felt Jesus needed no introduction or that Josephus himself had already introduced him to the reader.

There are several references to Christians and indirectly to Jesus in Roman literature.Two are particularly important:

    • Suetonius, in Claudius 25.4 of The Lives of the Caesars (C. A.D. 120), described riots among the Jews at Rome during the reign of Claudius in A.o.49. He stated that these riots were instigated by "Chrestus,"which numerous scholars suggest to be a garbled version of "Christ." The Roman authorities in 49 could easily have misunderstood the cause of Jewish upheavals in their city.lf Jews had rioted because of the presence of Christians among them, Romans seeking to make sense of the troubles could have jumped to the conclusion that someone named "Chrestus" was at the center of it. Local authorities in Rome at this very early stage of Christian history would have possessed little knowledge of this new religion or of the degree of discord it had already created among the Jews. It is worth noting that this expulsion of Jews from Rome is also mentioned in Acts 18:2.

    • The Roman historian Tacitus, writing in approximately A.D. 115, mentioned Christians in Annals, 15.44. Although he regarded Christianity as a superstition, he nevertheless made clear that Nero had wrongly implicated Christians as scapegoats for the fires at Rome in A.D. 64.' Of the term"Christian," he stated, "The author of this name, Christ,suffered the ultimate penalty at the hands of the procurator Pontius Pilate during the imperium of Tiberius."That Jesus was crucified during the reign of Tiberius (A.D. 14-37) is also indicated in the New Testament.

To put the issue in perspective, it is important to realize in general how scanty evidence of any kind from the ancient world actually is. Many persons and episodes from ancient history would be unknown to us except for mention in a single historical document or inscription,and there are significant gaps in our knowledge. All things considered, the evidence for the historical Jesus in ancient sources, to say nothing of the New Testament and the Christian church, is ample.

John Rylands Papyrus (p52)

JOHN 18 The John Rylands papyrus (p52) is the oldest copy yet discovered of any portion of the New Testament, dating back to the first half of the second century A.D. A tiny fragment of a codex (a leaf-form text, like a modern book, in contrast to a scroll) of the Gospel of John, it contains parts of John 18:31-33 on one side and verses 37-38 on the other.' It was acquired in Egypt in 1920 and now resides in the John Rylands Library in Manchester, England.

Despite its tiny size (less than 3.5 in. [9 cm] from top to bottom), this papyrus fragment is highly significant. It testifies that by the first half of the second century the Gospel of John was already being read in Egypt, far from Ephesus in Asia Minor, the most likely place of its composition.2 It seems unlikely that John's Gospel could have been composed much later than the end of the first century, since it would have taken time for it to have been accepted and disseminated so far from its place of origin.The manuscript of which p52 is a fragment may have been copied within 25 to 30 years of the composition of the Gospel itself. If we take into account that in some pieces of Greek or Latin literature the oldest manuscript available is dated to over a thousand years after the composition of the original text, that is in reality an extremely short period of time. An enormous number of Greek New Testament texts exist, and they give us good reason to be confident that the New Testament we read today accurately reflects what was in the original manuscripts.


JOHN 19 In the ancient world crucifixion was seen as a particularly disgraceful and grievous form of execution. Assyrian battle reliefs depict a precursor to crucifixion—impaling victims on poles outside the walls of conquered cities.The Persians made widespread use of crucifixion, although sometimes the crucifixion took place only after the victim had been executed by other means (Herodotus, Histories, 3.125.2-3). There are also reports that crucifixion was used by peoples as varied as the Assyrians, Scythians, Celts, Germans, Britons and inhabitants of India, although the reliability of some of these accounts is questionable. Common to most of these cultures was the perspective that crucifixion was a form of execution reserved for the worst offenders, as well as for slaves.

The practice of crucifixion became widespread under Alexander the Great (356-323 8.C.).1 It became the common form of execution for traitors, defeated armies and rebellious slaves. Later, under the Roman Empire, only non-citizens, lower class Romans and violent offenders could be crucified., The only possible exceptions were in cases of high treason or desertion during wartime. Slaves were particularly vulnerable to the imposition of crucifixion. Latin literature reflects the dread slaves felt at the prospect of this fate., It was officially accepted as the most painful and disgraceful form of capital punishment, more so than decapitation, being thrown to wild animals or even being burned alive. For these reasons this heinous penalty was often imposed upon foreigners who were seen as threats to Roman rule.

There are also accounts of crucifixion being practiced among Jews. Josephus wrote that the Sadducean high priest Alexander Janneus (in office from 103 to 76 B.c.) committed the following atrocity against his enemies, the Pharisees:"While dining in a conspicuous place with his concubines, he commanded that about 800 of them be crucified,and while they were still alive before their eyes he had the throats of their children and wives cut" (Josephus, Antiquities,13.14.2).4

Victims were often scourged or otherwise tortured prior to crucifixion. Crucifixions were carried out on either a single vertical stake or on a vertical stake with a crossbeam near or on its top. Sometimes blocks were attached to the stake as a seat, footrest or both. Depending upon the presence of these blocks,the victim might linger,alive,for up to three days.The blocks allowed a victim to rest some of his weight, increasing the chance of breathing and proper circulation.Without the blocks a victim's weight would rest totally upon his arms, which were attached to the crosspiece by ropes, nails or both.This would prohibit breathing and circulation and lead to both brain and heart failure. To end the torture, a victim's legs could be broken, after which death would quickly follow. Often-times the charge against the guilty party would be written out and nailed to the cross above his head. As a deterrent to would-be rebels and criminals, crucifixions were usually carried out in highly visible locations.

During Jesus' lifetime crucifixion was used by the Romans to exercise and gruesomely display their authority over others. This tortuous execution was viewed by the Jews as a cursed form of death. Deuteronomy 21:23 states that "anyone who is hung on a tree is under God's curse."Documents discovered at Qumran reveal that many Jews of Jesus' time applied this text to Roman crucifixion.This perspective of crucifixion demonstrates why the apostle Paul wrote that the cross of Christ was"a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles" (1Co 1:23).Who would have imagined that the Holy One of God would voluntarily take upon himself the curse that should have been ours? This emblem of shame has thus become the symbol of our salvation.

Constantine and Queen Helena's Role in Preserving Holy Sites

JOHN 19 The path of Christian pilgrimage and its appointed sites took distinctive shape during the fourth century A.D. (the early Byzantine period), through the influence and direct involvement of Queen Helena and her son Constantine the Great. Flavia lulia Helena was born in A.D. 248 in Bithynia. She married Constantius Chlorus and gave birth to the future emperor, Constantine the Great, in A.D.273.

After Constantine's conversion to Christianity, he embarked upon an ambitious building program to adorn sacred sites. His most significant accomplishment was the discovery and excavation of the (probable) site of Jesus' burial.' According to Eusebius, the entire area had been covered with debris and converted into a pagan shrine. Constantine ordered the area to be cleared and purified. He then sponsored the construction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in A.D. 326 to mark the place of Jesus' suffering. Eusebius reported Constantine's aim as having been the construction of the most beautiful structure in the entire empire (Life of Constantine, 3.31).

During this same year Helena traveled to the eastern provinces and spent an appreciable amount of time touring the Holy Land. Under imperial sponsorship she dedicated two important churches:the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem, to mark the cave where Christ was thought to have been born,3 and the Church of Ascension on the Mount of Olives to indicate the place of his ascension (Life of Constantine, 3.42).4 Whether these sites are indeed the places where Jesus was born and buried are open to debate. Later legendary accounts also attribute to Helena the discovery of the actual cross upon which Jesus was crucified and of the titulus, the plaque announcing the charge against him: "JESUS OF NAZARETH, THE KING OF THE JEWS" (in 19:19).

Can John's Gospel be trusted?

JOHN 20 There are obvious and striking differences between the Gospel of John and the Synoptic Gospels (Mt, Mk and Lk). These include:

    • John contains no narrative parables, no account of the transfiguration, no record of the Lord's Supper, no mention of Jesus' temptation and no report of Jesus casting out demons.

    • John includes a vast amount of material not found in the synoptic tradition, such as the records of extended conversations with Nicodemus,the Samaritan woman and the disciples, as well as of significant miracles (e.g., the turning of water into wine and the resurrection of Lazarus).

    • John recounts an extensive Judean ministry for Jesus, including several visits to Jerusalem, whereas the Synoptic Gospels focus on his Galilean ministry.

    • Certain features of John's presentation also raise chronological difficulties for understanding Jesus' action in the temple (Jn 2) and the precise sequence of events during Passion Week.

    • Perhaps most significant, notable stylistic differences emerge between John's Jesus, who discourses poetically on themes of light, life, witness and truth, and the synoptic Jesus, who argues forcefully and consistently on the theme of the kingdom of God.

The accumulation of these differences has generated speculation regarding the historical reliability of this document as a testimony concerning Jesus (20:31). There are, however, significant reasons for believing John to be historically accurate:

    • In any attempt to assess the reliability of John, pride of place should be given to John's own testimony about the nature of his literary endeavor.John alone among the Gospels provides an explicit statement of purpose (see vv. 30-31). This purpose statement reflects the writer's intention to present selective accounts of Jesus' ministry, aimed at persuading the reader that Jesus of Nazareth really is the promised Messiah. The apostle was well aware that Jesus did many other things, commenting at the close of his Gospel account, "If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written" (21:25). Many of the apparent Johannine omissions are thus essentially acknowledged by John and, therefore, are not to be considered as evidence against historicity.

    • No other Gospel addresses the theme of truth as frequently as John's. He used a series of signs and a parade of witnesses to reinforce the main thesis of his work. The trustworthiness of these witnesses, including John's own explicit claim to have been an eyewitness (19:35), is integral to his purpose and should remind the reader that accuracy was deeply important to this apostle and author.

    • This concern for accurate reporting is reflected in the exact recording of numbers (2:20; 21:11); the translation of foreign terms (1:38,41; 20:16); and the precise depictions of persons, places and customs (2:6;4:20; 5:2;19:40).

    • A close reading of John reveals numerous agreements with the Synoptic Gospels, in terms both of broad themes and of specific details.

Modern readers of John are wise to refrain both from over-stating the apparent contradictions and from excessive efforts at harmonizing John with the other Gospels. John successfully accomplished his stated aim: to present an eloquent, accurate and persuasive testimony that Jesus is indeed the Messiah, the Son of God (20:31).