This is really good:
Some thoughts inspired by a friend’s comment about Peter denying Jesus despite having seen his miracles:
Something we have to constantly keep in mind as we read the Gospels is that the story as we read it and the story as it appeared at the time to those living through it are two very different things.
C.S. Lewis once pointed out that something similar is true of the Old Testament in its original context and in a post–New Testament context, and noted how older Christian writers often failed to appreciate this point:
“Our ancestors seem to have read the Psalms and the rest of the Old Testament under the impression that the authors wrote with a pretty full understanding of Christian Theology; the main difference being that the Incarnation, which for us is something recorded, was for them something predicted. In particular, they seldom doubted that the old authors were, like ourselves, concerned with a life beyond death, that they feared damnation and hoped for eternal joy.” [Reflections on the Psalms]
As far as we know, no Old Testament writer, nor any Jew in Jesus’ day, had any notion of the invisible and unimaginable God becoming a human being, much less being crucified and raised from the dead. What hopes or expectations of a coming “messiah” existed were far more vague, shadowy and diverse than is widely imagined today; indeed, “the messiah” played a far smaller role in Second Temple era Jewish thought than readers of the Gospels might guess.
More important than “the messiah” in early Jewish thought was the idea of the “kingdom of God.” According to one version of this idea, Israel’s God would one day would soon reassert his dominion over all the Earth and all mankind, bringing the world to judgment in an apocalyptic upheaval or cosmic transformation. Israel would be liberated from the tyranny of foreign powers, and all the nations (goyim) would bend the knee to Israel’s God and turn to Israel to learn true wisdom and knowledge of God and of his holy law.
This would be the “kingdom of God,” and it was reasonable to think that a human king — a royal Davidic “messiah” or anointed/chosen one — would exercise dominion on God’s behalf. Likely enough this figure would also be a military leader who would play a key role in defeating God’s enemies — i.e., foreign powers, especially the Romans.
But this apocalyptic Davidic messiah was still a figure of limited importance, at least according to some Jewish sources which suppose him to be under the supervision and instruction of the priests who mediate God’s law to him. Other texts foresee *two* messiahs: a royal Davidic Messiah of Israel and a priestly Aaronic figure sometimes called the Prince of the Congregation. (Sometimes there was also a third figure, an eschatological prophet.)
The roles or identities of the Messiah of Israel and the Prince of the Congregation are not always distinct, and it may be that some had a notion of a chosen one who would be both priest and king. (I am unaware of any evidence that anyone foresaw a messiah who was at once priest, prophet and king, much less God in the flesh.)
At any rate, the idea of the kingdom of God came first, and the messiah was an implication or consequence of it. On a side note, where Mark and Luke report Jesus (and John the Baptist before him) proclaiming the coming “kingdom of God,” Matthew’s Gospel often gives the reverent circumlocution “kingdom of heaven” so as not to overuse the divine Name, but this means the same thing. Matthew does *not* mean heaven itself as we think of it, but heaven’s reign on Earth.
Thus, when John the Baptist began announcing the coming of the kingdom of God, and when after him Jesus took up this theme, it would have been understood by many if not all that they were announcing the imminent liberation of Israel from Romany tyranny, and this would widely have been understood, certainly by the Romans, as a heralding of insurrection and revolutionary war.
This is probably why Jesus was so secretive about his messianic status, why he bound everyone to secrecy, etc.: A self-proclaimed messiah was likely to wind up on a Roman cross — a means of execution reserved for certain particularly grave offenses including insurrection; the “bandits” with whom Jesus was crucified were probably suspected revolutionaries. A crucified messiah was a reliably debunked, falsified messiah. (This is one reason historians generally consider Jesus’ crucifixion to be among the most historically certain of his biographical details; it’s too humiliating to have been invented.)
Jesus went to some trouble not to get arrested prematurely, often keeping his movements secret. (Note the precautions he takes even during what we now call Holy Week, for instance not even telling his own disciples where they would celebrate the Passover, but sending two of them to meet a supporter who would lead them to the Upper Room. This was perhaps because he knew that if the location were known in advance among his disciples, including the one who would betray him, it would not long remain a secret from his enemies, and he would be arrested before celebrating that last supper which became the first Eucharistic liturgy.)
These ideas about the kingdom of God and the messiah are in evidence in the Gospels among Jesus’ followers and even among the Twelve. The one thing they did not expect was for Jesus to be arrested, tried and executed.
This might seem absurd; after all, he had *told* them, plainly and repeatedly, that this would happen — and that he would rise from the dead. But here’s the catch: He said so many weird and mysterious things — plucking out your right eye and severing your right hand; eating his flesh and drinking his blood; tearing down the temple and rebuilding it; letting the dead bury the dead; etc. — that this seemed to them one more incomprehensible metaphor:
“They seized upon that statement, discussing with one another what rising from the dead meant.” (Mark 9:10 NASB)
As late as Jesus’ arrest in Gethsemane, Peter still expected to fight for Jesus rather than watch him be arrested and crucified; he drew his sword and slashed at one of the crowd coming to take him. Surely the time for some great revelation of Jesus’ power over God’s enemies was at hand.
Peter had been there days earlier on the mountain when Jesus was transfigured in glory and spoke with Moses and Elijah. Perhaps now he would be transfigured again, would become like the glorious “son of man” described in Daniel 7, riding clouds of heavenly glory and claiming dominion over all nations and peoples, beginning with those who foolishly thought they could arrest him.
Imagine Peter’s cognitive dissonance when Jesus himself not only told him not to resist, but allowed himself to be taken away. What followed must have been a descent into unthinkable horror: Jesus the wonder-working prophet, Jesus the expeller of demons, Jesus whom Peter himself had dared to pronounce the messiah, was suddenly a helpless victim in the hands of Israel’s great adversary.
All their hopes were turning out like the followers of all the other would-be messiahs who had ended in shame and failure on Roman crosses. Instead of reigning at his side, the Twelve themselves might be crucified with him, and that would be the end of the story.
None of this excuses Peter denying Jesus, but it helps us understand the psychological state in which he did so.