This really fresh (read-anytime) Lent and Easter book brings you right alongside the young Jesus in his pilgrimages to Jerusalem. Bryan has an academic’s knowledge, a mentor’s enthusiasm and the helpful accessibility of a tour guide.
Publisher: SPCK / 102pp + notes
Like theology’s poster boy Tom Wright, David Bryan has spent half his career in academia and half in pastoral ministry, which comes out in his head-and-heart approach to investigating the early influences on Jesus and how they worked out in his teaching.
Having been to Israel, he brings his first-hand experience of the journeys that Jesus’ family made and reflects on what it was like for the young boy from a backwater Nazareth as he made the journey to Jerusalem, which was not as straightforwardly Jewish as we might think.
In the section on his home, Bryan asks whether Jesus lived in a cave and why he was known as Jesus of Nazareth, when he was born in Bethlehem and based his ministry in Capernaum. While these may not seem directly relevant questions for us to ask in the 21st century, it sets the scene for the journey that follows.
Every year, Jesus’ family attended the Passover festival in Jerusalem, having to make the week-long journey via one of two routes and, “neither can be described as a stroll in the park or a ramble in the countryside.”
The shorter route via Samaria was rife with the tension between Jews and Samaritans, which is well known from gospel texts and stories like the Good Samaritan (what – a good Samaritan??). Bryan digs deeper into how those tensions arose.
The longer journey took them via the cities of the Decapolis, “close in geographical terms; in terms of culture, a far apart as Athens and Jerusalem.” Scythopolis would have had links to the wine god Dionysius and probably a temple to Zeus, as well as unclean food – not the sort of detail that comes out in the gospels’ brief mentions of the area, but part of a fascinating set of background snippets from Bryan. The culture was exaggerated by Herod Antipas’ political manoeuvrings, which would have left Jesus’ family smelling “the rot of unacceptable compromise.”
Bryan brings out the lushness of Jericho, set amidst a barren moonscape, and reminds us of the perilous route from there to Jerusalem, laced with brigands, leaving us wondering whether that had anything to do with a couple of swords being handy at the last supper.
His personal recollections of taking a Roman Road past a military site, while travelling towards the outline of Lincoln Cathedral is a good link to Jesus travelling towards Jerusalem; and if his description of the Temple as “significantly larger than the new Wembley Stadium" means little outside the UK, anyone can understand that, "the massive complex was the largest in the Roman Empire.”
And while he digs historical references from all over, this is no dry work – he also includes an account of the Roman fart that led to the deaths of over 20,000 Jews!
Bryan’s third section – Jesus’ challenge – asks what influences led to Jesus saying, ‘Love your enemies,’ suggesting that several gospel encounters –such as with the Syro-Phoenician woman – changed Jesus’ understanding of his Jewish boundaries, even during his ministry.
Bryan does all this while including photographs, quotes and questions for discussion or reflection. He also suggests sensory links as wide apart as Queen’s “Rain Must Fall,” poems, classic art, and films like The Miracle Maker.
For me, the big attraction of this book is the easy-going way that Bryan sprinkles facts and questions throughout it, which add much colour and understanding to our reading of the gospels. That has to be a vey good thing.