Part of the Rightly Understanding God’s Word series by Craig S. Keener.
As appearing in Pneuma Review Winter 2005.
Examples of Using Cultural Background continued from Fall 2004.
7. The Kingdom Prayer in Matthew 6:9-13
Many pagans added up as many names of their deities as possible, reminding the deities of all their sacrifices and how the deities were therefore obligated in some sense to answer them. Jesus, however, says that we should predicate our prayers instead on the relationship our heavenly Father has given us with himself: we can cry out to him because he is our Father (Matt 6:7-9).
Jesus used some things in his culture, which was already full of biblical knowledge. Jesus here adapts a common synagogue prayer, that went something like this: “Our Father in heaven, exalted and hallowed be your great and glorious name, and may your kingdom come speedily and soon…” Jewish people expected a time when God’s name would be “hallowed,” or shown to be holy, among all peoples. For Jewish people, there was a sense in which God reigns in the present, but when they prayed for the coming of God’s kingdom they were praying for him to rule unchallenged over all the earth and his will to be done on earth just as it is in heaven. Jesus therefore taught his disciples to pray for God’s reign to come soon, when God’s name would be universally honored.
To ask God for “daily bread” recalls how God provided bread each day for Israel in the wilderness; God is still our provider. To ask God to forgive our “debts” would stir a familiar image for many of Jesus’ hearers. Poor peasants had to borrow much money to sow their crops, and Jesus’ contemporaries understood that our sins were debts before God. To ask God not to “lead us into temptation” probably recalls a Jewish synagogue prayer of the day which asked God to preserve people from sinning. If so, the prayer might mean not, “Let us not be tested,” but rather, “Do not let us fail the test” (compare 26:41, 45).
8. Enemy Soldiers Torture and Mock Jesus in Matthew 27:27-34
Over six hundred Roman soldiers were staying at the Fortress Antonia and at Pilate’s palace (which once belonged to Herod the Great). Not recognizing that the true king of Israel and humanity stood before them, they mocked him as a pretend king. Roman soldiers were known for abusing and taunting prisoners; one ancient form of mockery was to dress someone as a king. Since soldiers wore red robes, they probably used a faded soldier’s cloak to imitate the purple robe of earlier Greek rulers. People venerating such rulers would kneel before them, as here. Military floggings often used bamboo canes, so the soldiers may have had one available they could use as a mock king’s scepter. “Hail!” was the standard salute people gave to the Roman Emperor.
Spitting on a person was one of the most grievous insults a person could offer, and Jewish people considered the spittle of non-Jews particularly unclean. Romans stripped their captives naked—especially shameful for Palestinian Jews; then they hanged the convict publicly.
Normally the condemned person was to carry the horizontal beam (Latin patibulum) of the cross himself, out to the site where the upright stake (Latin palus) awaited him; but Jesus’ back had been too severely scourged beforehand for him to do this (27:26). Such scourgings often left the flesh of the person’s back hanging down in bloody strips, sometimes left his bones showing, and sometimes led to the person’s death from shock and blood loss. Thus the soldiers had to draft Simon of Cyrene to carry the crossbeam. Cyrene, a large city in what is now Libya in North Africa, had a large Jewish community (perhaps one quarter of the city) which no doubt included local converts. Like multitudes of foreign Jews and converts, Simon had come to Jerusalem for the feast. Roman soldiers could “impress” any person into service to carry things for them. Despite Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 16:24, the soldiers had to draft a bystander to do what Jesus’ disciples proved unwilling to do.
Crucifixion was the most shameful and painful form of execution known in the Roman world. Unable to privately excrete his wastes the dying person would excrete them publicly. Sometimes soldiers tied the condemned person to the cross; at other times they nailed them, as with Jesus. The dying man thus could not swat away insects attracted to his bloodied back or other wounds. Crucifixion victims sometimes took three days to finish dying.
The women of Jerusalem prepared a pain-killing potion of drugged wine for condemned men to drink; Jesus refused it (cf. 26:29). The myrrh-mixed wine of Mark 15:23, a delicacy and possibly an external pain reliever, becomes wine mixed with gall in Matthew; cf. Ps. 69:21 and the similarity between the Aramaic word for “myrrh” and Hebrew for “gall.” Even without myrrh, wine itself was a painkiller (Prov 31:6-7). But Jesus refused it. Though we forsook him and fled when he needed us most, he came to bear our pain, and chose to bear it in full measure. Such is God’s love for us all.
9. Adultery and Murder in Mark 6:17-29
Herod Antipas’s affair with his sister-in-law Herodias, whom he had by this time married, was widely known. Indeed, the affair had led him to plan to divorce his first wife, whose father, a king, later went to war with Herod because of this insult and defeated him. John’s denunciation of the affair as unlawful (Lev. 20:21) challenged Herod’s sexual immorality, but Herod Antipas could have perceived it as a political threat, given the political ramifications that later led to a major military defeat. (The ancient Jewish historian Josephus claims that many viewed Herod’s humiliation in the war as divine judgment for him executing John the Baptist.)