Sunday, 13 December 2015

Simon Whom He Surnamed Peter - Part 2

For the next weeks, my Sunday postings will be a transcript of the book "Simon Whom He Surnamed Peter" by the Jersey historian, the Reverend G.R. Bailleine (1873 – 1966).

Most of Balleine's books are either currently in print - as for example his History of Jersey - or online in the form of PDF versions. This book is not, so this is something different. As well as being a Jersey historian, Balleine was also a priest in the Church of England, and Ministre Deservant at St Brelade's Church for a time.

What did educated Jersey clergy think in those days? This is a scholar study by a local clergyman who was also a historian, and one who had exception gifts in writing; few local historians can match his use of the English language to bring subjects alive. It shows also a scholar who was well acquainted with the best New Testament critics of his day, and who could also bring an independent turn of mind to the subject matter, sometimes surprisingly so.

The Faith of a Fisherman

WHEN Simon was twelve he left school and started work with the fishing-fleet. Before many years he was married. Oriental Jews married young: the Talmud later fixed eighteen as `the age for the wedding canopy', but many married earlier. Rabbi Hisda said: `If I surpass my colleagues, it is because I married at sixteen. If I had married at fourteen, I could have said to Satan, "An arrow in your eye!"' The famous Rabbi Ishmael taught that God waited till a man was twenty, asking, `When will he marry?' If at twenty he was still unmarried, He said, `Blasted be his bones!'

First came the formal betrothal in the presence of both the families, enlivened by much haggling about the price to be paid for the bride. Then the marriage, the lamp-light procession carrying the girl to her new home, followed by the wedding-supper. Jewish weddings in those days had no religious rites.

Simon was fortunate in the bride his parents had chosen for him. She made his home one in which Jesus often stayed. Later she shared her husband's missionary journeys and, if tradition is true, died a martyr's death.

We have no contemporary portrait of Simon. Portraits were forbidden to Jews. `Thou shalt not make the likeness of anything in heaven or earth.' Nevertheless we can form an idea of what he looked like. He would have had the swarthy skin of an Eastern Jew, and probably a Jewish nose, and half his weather-beaten face would be hidden behind his bushy beard. In build he was strong and muscular. No weakling could haul ashore the trawl-nets full of fish. We read of his dragging to the beach a net with 153 large fishes.

Unlike Paul, he never suffered from any `thorn in the flesh'. If he visited all the provinces mentioned in his First Epistle, in that tour he must have walked over 3,000 miles. A third-century portrait of him in the catacomb of Peter and Marcellinus in Rome shows a full, strong face with curly hair and a short, bristling beard, which may represent the tradition handed down of his appearance. It reappears again and again in statues, paintings, cameos, including the thirteenth-century bronze figure in St. Peter's, from which the toe has been kissed away by generations of pilgrims.

It was possibly when his parents died that Simon moved to Capernaum to the house of his wife's mother, and took his brother Andrew with him. The site of Capernaum is not certain, but it stood somewhere near the north-west corner of the lake. It was larger than Bethsaida. It had many tax-gatherers, whom Matthew could invite to his table. The mention of a centurion suggests a garrison. In its pride, Jesus said, it considered itself `lifted to Heaven'. But Simon's interest was the water. Every night he turned his back on the huddle of narrow streets and launched his boat out on the stormy freedom of the lake.

Fishing was the chief industry of the district. The lake was, and is, one of the world's richest fishing-grounds. One writer says, `We have seen shoals that cover an acre, so compact that one could scarcely throw a stone without striking several.' And for fish there was endless demand. Bread and fish, `loaves and fishes', were the staple food of Palestine. The north gate of Jerusalem was called the Fish Gate from the fish that poured through it from Galilee. And there was the export trade. When dried in the sun, pickled in brine, and packed in barrels, fish from the lake was exported to many distant cities.

Note 3 Wm. Christie of Aleppo in Dictionary of Christ and the Gospels.

So Simon prospered. He had a boat of his own, and not a small one. Later it often carried Jesus and all the Twelve. And, since the long drag-net needs two boats to tow it, he entered into partnership with a fisherman named Zebedee and his sons John and James. At sunset they put out to sea, stretching the net from boat to boat, one side kept on the surface by floats, the other sunk by weights. Then they rowed shorewards sweeping the fish before them, leapt overboard (chilly work in winter!), and hauled the net up on the beach, full of snapping cat-fish five feet long, carp large as salmon, wrasse whose spines cut the net to pieces, and the `small fishes' mentioned in the Gospels, which look and taste like sardines. And this process would be repeated often during the night.

One Gospel says that Simon worked naked, and commentators primly warn us not to take this literally. But, till Baedeker-bearing ladies made this impossible, Arab fishermen on the lake never wore clothes at work. Clothes are a nuisance to men who have to splash in and out of the water.

Such was Simon's life. Everyone on the waterside knew him, a self-reliant fellow, who would launch out into the gale when prudent men stayed ashore. `There goes Simon,' they said, `tempting Providence again.' He had his full share of the faults that dog a masterful spirit. He was too free with his oaths-even when a disciple, we read, `He began to curse and swear'-too ready to lay down the law and rebuke others, too sure of his own strength and his own wisdom, too quick to brag of what he had done and what he meant to do-later we shall hear him boasting, `We have left all and followed Thee,' and again, `I am ready to go with Thee to prison and to death'-yet with all his faults a likeable man and a good companion; and his work was no bad training for his future.

`Fishing,' writes J. B. Mayor, `is an occupation fitted beyond all others to call out energy, prompting fortitude, courage, and comradeship, a life of adventure and vicissitude.'

After six days' toil came the Sabbath. On Friday evening the fishing-boats were hauled up on the beach. When the trumpet from the synagogue roof proclaimed that the sun had set, for twenty-four hours the fish were safe. The largest shoals could frisk inshore securely. The Law said, `The seventh day is the Sabbath; in it thou shalt do no manner of work.' And every Jew obeyed. To Gentiles this seemed ridiculous. Seneca said, `To idle every seventh day is to lose a seventh of one's life.' Even Jesus criticized the trivialities that complicated Sabbath-keeping.

Yet this command enriched Jewish life with something of extra-ordinary value, a day of rest for all, for women as well as men, (for Sabbath meals were cooked on Friday and the dishes washed on Sunday) and a day which kept everyone in touch with God and the call of religion. A Jew regarded the Sabbath not as a burden but a boon. `Thou hast blessed us above all nations,' ran one ancient prayer, `by giving us Thy Holy Sabbath as a love-token.'

The chief events of the Sabbath were the synagogue services. During the Babylonian Captivity, when the Temple was in ruins, the Jews hired rooms, which they called synagogues, as make-shift places of worship. When they returned to Palestine and rebuilt the Temple, they did not drop these little meetings to which they had grown accustomed. Temple services were solemn and uplifting, but gave no opportunity for instruction or guidance in daily life. Informal gatherings for prayer and Bible-study supplemented these quite helpfully.

So by the first century, wherever there were Jews, there were synagogues. `Moses,' said James, `has his preachers in every city, for he is read in the synagogues every Sabbath'; and Philo confirms this, `Every Sabbath there stand open in every city thousands of schools of instruction.' Rome had nine synagogues. For Jerusalem the Babylonian Talmud records 394. Many, no doubt, were small rooms; but in Galilee most of the lakeside towns preferred large central synagogues. The Herods had made architecture fashionable, and people had begun to take a pride in their public buildings.

In the ruins called Tell Hum (which may be those of Capernaum) enough remains to show that the synagogue looked like a Greek temple. Standing on a raised terrace, its pillared portico led into a spacious hall, divided into three aisles by Corinthian columns. Its chief feature was the Ark, a canopied cupboard which contained the Scrolls of the Law. Beside it was a platform for the readers and a chair for the speaker. The benches were graded according to the worshippers' rank, and `the chief seats' were a coveted social distinction. For fishermen like Simon there were only mats on the l floor.

The services were conducted by laymen. The most important were on Friday night, when Sabbath began, and on Saturday morning. First, all recited the Shema, the national Confession of Faith, which began: `Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God. The Lord is One.' Then everyone turned towards Jerusalem, while an old man recited the Eighteen Benedictions, to each of which the people answered Amen. Next came the reading of a portion of the Law and one from the Prophets, each read first in Hebrew and then translated into Aramaic. Last of all came the Sermon. This often dealt merely with some technical detail in the Law - Should mint be included, when the crops were tithed? Since carrying burdens was forbidden on the Sabbath, was it lawful to wear a wig? To us this might seem trifling. But Simon did not think so. God's will must be done in its smallest details; so it was essential to know exactly what the Law required.

Sometimes, no doubt, preachers were dull and congregations nodded; but one word never failed to wake up the sleepers: Malkuth, the promised Kingdom, or rather Kingship, of God. It gripped Simon's mind. It changed his life. It sent him eventually to his death. So we must understand it. Its roots lay far back in the nation's history. No race has been more continuously unfortunate than the Jews. Through all the ages they have never known an unbroken century of freedom. In early days Moabites, Midianites, Ammonites, Edomites, Philistines overran them. David won a brief respite. But then a century of Syrian raids was followed by the Assyrian conquest. Then the Babylonians swept the remaining tribes into captivity. The tiny remnant who at last returned as vassals of Persia were savagely persecuted by Greek tyrants, and ultimately conquered by Rome.

This raised a religious problem. If Jehovah was the One True God, and if He was almighty, why were His people always ground under the heel of the Heathen? `We are a reproach to our neighbours, a derision to those round about us. Wherefore should the Heathen say, Where is now their God?' Jewish faith replied: `These trials are only temporary. A Golden Age is coming, when the Heathen will see how Jehovah rewards those who are loyal to Him.' Through all disasters the Jews clung frantically to their faith that one day they and their God would rule the world. `Jehovah shall reign over all the earth.' `All nations shall do Him service.'

Prophets drew pictures of that day. Some were wildly sensational: Jehovah would stand on the Mount of Olives; Palestine would become a plain; the only hill left would be Mount Zion, where Jerusalem would tower over all. Some were disgustingly bloodthirsty: `I will make Judah's chieftains like a torch among sheaves, that they may consume the Gentiles. They shall drink blood like wine and be drenched with it like the corners of the altar.' Some spoke of feasting, `Jehovah shall make a banquet of fat things, a banquet of mellow wine.' But other pictures were nobler: `Many nations shall say, Let us go to the House of the God of Jacob, and He will teach us His ways'; `The effect of righteousness shall be peace and quietness and confidence for ever.'

The idea was not wholly irrational. Such things had happened in history. The Persians had been little highland clans, numerically smaller than the Jews; yet they had overthrown Babylon and become rulers of the East. The Macedonians were an insignificant tribe among the Greek states with a land not half the size of Palestine; yet in twelve years they established an enormous empire. What Persians and Macedonians had done, surely the people of God could do with the power of Jehovah behind them!

But a leader was essential. Persia could have done nothing without Cyrus or Macedon without Alexander. So the hope of the Malkuth led to the hope of a Messiah. The word means `the Anointed'. Kings were anointed at their coronation, Priests at their consecration, and an expectation had arisen that God would send an anointed leader to be Captain of the Lord's Host.' The Book of Daniel, about 160 BC, had stirred up feverish interest in this. It proclaimed that God would set up `a Kingdom which shall never be destroyed. It shall break in pieces all Kingdoms, and it shall stand for ever.'

The Scribes discouraged over-much speculation on this subject. `Concentrate,' they said, `on obedience to the Law. That is the best way to hasten the coming of the Kingdom.' But the hope was too thrilling to be stifled. Apocalypses appeared full of fantastic pipe-dreams. The earth would yawn and swallow the Heathen! Every Jew would live to be a thousand and would beget a thousand children! In those days, when books were scarce, it is unlikely that Simon or his friends had read any of these; but their teaching spread through Galilee by word of mouth.

The Kingdom and the Messiah-these were the dominant thoughts in the creed of a man like Simon. When he saw graven images of the Heathen defiling the Holy Land, he would spit and long for the Malkuth to sweep them away. But he felt that nothing could be done till the Messiah came. When Judas of Galilee raised the cry, `No King but God!' Simon had been only a child; but later, when bands of Zealots in the mountains kept the flag of defiance flying in the face of the conqueror, Simon must often have wondered: Was he a coward to be catching fish, while others were dying for Israel? Patriotism said, `Go!' but Wisdom whispered: `Wait! Nothing can be done, till Messiah comes.' If Simon was ever convinced that the Messiah had appeared, nothing would hold him back.


1 As a title, the word Messiah first appears in Enoch in 70 B.C. In the New Testament the Messiah is called the Christ, because the Greek word for `anointed' is Christos.

2 The Jewish gesture of contempt: Deut. xxv. 9; Job xxx. 10

No comments: