When it comes to understanding the gospels, one of the most helpful assertions I ever heard was that the evangelists were gathering and compiling all the narrative fragments about Jesus floating around in the first century. That is, they were seeking to preserve all the fragments of knowledge about Jesus’s life. Unfortunately, I do not recall where I heard this first, but it has nonetheless proved helpful for me to think on. This notion adds a dimension of reality that explanations of “inspiration” as “transcribing” often remove; the Christian Scriptures never claim to be word-for-word revelations from God but are instead deeply human writings, inspired by the Spirit. That the evangelists were trying to save the tradition—writing down oral traditions, for example—makes the gospels infinitely more interesting to me. This fragment-saving theory allows Source Q, for example, to seem more plausible while at the same time stripping Q of its sometimes-perceived threats against inspiration. Now, what the claim of compiling traditions has done for my understanding of the gospels, Jim Martin’s book Jesus: A Pilgrimage has done for my understanding of Jesus.
In my experience, we Christians all-too-often create a static Jesus that only does a few things while on earth and then is crucified “to save us from our sins.” But, as Fr. James Martin points out, such an understanding fails to capture Jesus as “fully human and fully divine.” By combining four genres—travelogue, memoir, biblical exegesis, and historical Jesus research—Jesus: A Pilgrimage portrays Jesus as human and divine in a comprehensively helpful way that perhaps no previous book has. Martin notes that both the humanness and divinity of Jesus cause problems for some, each for their own reasons. (The humanness of Jesus, as displayed in Jesus’s occasional grief, occasional sharpness of word, occasional tiredness, occasional joyfulness, can unsettle us; the divinity of Jesus, as displayed in his miracles, his power over demons, his resurrection, can scandalize our modern minds.) But, as Martin says, “humanity and divinity are both part of Jesus’s story. Omit one or the other . . . and it’s not Jesus we’re talking about any longer. It’s our own creation” (4–5).
So Martin begins his book with an account of his preparations for a pilgrimage to the Holy Land with his friend George. Martin’s account of his pilgrimage, woven throughout the book, makes very real the stories he connects with in the gospels. One of my favorite chapters was the one in which he visits Jericho, where Jesus heals blind Bartimaeus and meets with short-in-stature Zacchaeus. Martin tells about his and George’s journey to Jericho via taxi with their driver Aziz, who suggests they take a “very short ride” to Herodium in the Judean desert. That side trip turned into a several hour journey itself, and after leaving, Aziz decided to take them to St. George of Koziba Monastery, “located in the Valley of the Shadow of Death,” as well (292). The monastery, perched on the side of a canyon wall, was another hot and perilous hike away. After this second detour, they arrived in Jericho. As the old saying goes, getting there is half the fun, and that is reflected time and again in Martin’s travel narratives. Here, they saw two ancient cites simply because an enthusiastic taxi driver wanted to show them the beauty of his land.
Martin notes that his ride with Aziz helped him realize the difficulty Jesus and his disciples would have had as they traveled through the desert. The gospels simply say that they go from place to place, not, as Martin jokes, that they “walked in the blistering desert heat, over miles of dusty earth, without water. And James and John, the sons of Zebedee, almost fainted” (294). His journey to Jericho also made Martin understand why Jesus might have have traveled at night.
The story of Bartimaeus itself shows how Martin weaves more traditional memoir into his book; “[i]t was also one of the first Gospel stories I had through about deeply,” writes Martin, describing a time when he was in Bible study with seriously ill hospital patients.
One week a former Catholic sister, named Julie, with a wicked thick Boston accent, introduced the week’s reading. “Today weah going to read about Bah-timaeus,” she said. “From the Aramaic word Bah, meaning ‘son of,’ and Timaeus. Bah-timaeus.”
Julie asked a question: “What would it be like to be like Bartimaeus?”
Martin explains how she made the text meaningful to all gathered.
Beggars were a common sight in Jesus’s day. What was uncommon was what Bartimaeus says. When he hears that Jeus of Nazareth is passing by, he cries out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Bartimaeus is not asking for money, but something deeper. The blind man also uses Jesus’s royal title, which means that he can fully see what few others do. Once again in Mark, the Messianic Secret of Jesus’s identity is known to those who “see” better than everyone else, including those who have been with Jesus all along.
Jesus asks Bartimaeus what Bartimaeus wants him to do for him. Bartimaeus says, “Let me see again.” And Jesus says that the man’s faith has made him well. Martin notes that “[n]o physical touch is needed; Jesus’s word is sufficient” (297).
Bartimaeus follows Jesus, becoming an itenerate disciple. Here, Martin brings in biblical scholarship, citing Gerhard Lohfink, who says that “there were many ways of following Jesus and [Lohfink] points to people like Martha and Mary . . . who remained at home and most likely provided hospitality for Jesus.” Martin continues, saying that
Lohfink calls these stay-at-home disciples “resident adherents.” Also important were “occasional helpers,” people such as Joseph of Arimathea, who crucially helps Jesus and his followers in the wake of the Crucifixion, by begging Pontius Pilate for the body. There are many ways of “following” (297–298).
This allows a glimpse into one of the things I found especially helpful, namely, that the disciples would have known/had rapport with Jesus. Above I cite the notion of a “static Jesus” who only does a few things and then dies “so that we can go to heaven.” That static-Jesus model is greatly unhelpful for understanding Jesus. Here, Martin allows us to glimpse Jesus’s deep humanity. Jesus was a teacher who had disciples and who traveled around teaching. Bartimaeus likely would have stayed with Jesus, gotten to know him, and carried on his teachings after the Resurrection. So too, Mary and Martha and even Joseph of Arimathea. Previously, I had never thought about the fact that Joseph of Arimathea knew Jesus. The Gospel of John calls Joseph “a disciple of Jesus” (19:38); Mark tells us he “was also himself waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God” (15:43). I had always envisioned Joseph as a charitable guy who wanted to give Jesus a decent burial. But, thinking of him as someone who had learned from Jesus and who knew Jesus makes him less a “charitable guy,” more a friend with with means to give him a decent burial. Here Jesus’s humanity is deeply seen in his relationship with his disciples and in their admiration for him.
Also in Jericho, Jesus dines with Zacchaeus, who Luke calls the “chief tax collector” as well as a “rich” man (19:2) and who goes to great lengths to see Jesus—he climbs a tree. Jesus rewards Zacchaeus’s desire by inviting himself to Zacchaeus’s house for dinner. While talking to the Lord, Zacchaeus says, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much” (19:8). Here, “salvation” comes to Zacchaeus’s house because Zacchaeus has chosen to deal honestly and distribute his wealth to those from whom he’d stolen it.
Martin skillfully points out that these two stories at Jericho involve sight. Bartimaeus, who is blind, sees that Jesus is Lord while still in his physical blindness. Zacchaeus, who has his vision but is too short to see Jesus pass by, “goes out on a limb for Jesus, risking his dignity to see the Master.” Martin adds that “Luke says, ‘[Zacchaeus] was trying to see who Jesus was.’ What a wonderful line! Weren’t the disciples? Aren’t we all?” (303). Zacchaeus has a desire to see, and when he takes action to see, Jesus invites himself into his life. Once that happens, salvation enters Zacchaeus’s life, and Zacchaeus embraces the gospel of Jesus.
The book is filled with such skillful weaving of travel, memoir, and scholarship. And it’s so illuminating for the reader.
Martin’s chapter on Parables has an especially beautiful paragraph. Leading up to it, he recounts seeing a shepherd chasing a lone sheep while his other sheep stayed up on a hillside. “How stupid! I thought. He’s leaving behind the whole flock for that one sheep. Then something dawned on me, and I laughed out loud. It was the Parable of the Lost Sheep in action!” (203). He also mentions the Parable of the Lost Coin and the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Then the beautiful paragraph:
God’s mercy is relentless, like the woman who sweeps all day looking for a single coin. It is ridiculous, like the shepherd who leaves the other ninety-nine sheep for just one. Most of all, God’s mercy is joyful, like the father rejoicing in love and compassion. During those times when it seems that it’s hard to forgive or that other will mock us for forgiveness, it helps to remember how lavish God is with his forgiveness of us. Remembering this may make it easier for us to be prodigal with our own mercy. And rather than finding ourselves afraid to look foolish or weak, we may forget ourselves and find ourselves running to embrace the other (219).
One more story that struck me happened while Martin was in Jerusalem. He had been to visit the traditional site of the Last Supper. But he had also found a small room near the traditional site with a sign that said “The Room of the Washing of the Feet.” After paying to enter, Martin was shown “a cistern in the floor” with “the water that Jesus used during the Last Supper” (344). The site turned out to be a fake, a tourist trap. But Martin was able to make the most of it. He said,
[T]hat fake site led to some real emotions. When I plunged my hands into the cold water, I thought of a friend who during theology studies wrote his master’s thesis on Jesus’s washing the feet of the disciples. At the time I though, The washing of the feet? What an odd topic. What about the Last Supper, the institution of the Eucharist, which is more important? But the longer I live the more I wonder how different the church would be if we spent as much time thinking about the Washing of the Feet as we do about Transubstantiation (345).
How different indeed.
These two examples show, again, how Martin’s experiences on pilgrimage make him more aware of the realities around him (and us) now. The book is filled with such lived wisdom.
And that lived wisdom makes me want to visit the Holy Land again. My one pilgrimage was hardly done in the spirit of pilgrimage; mine was a four day visit to friends in Tel Aviv with day trips to Jerusalem and Galilee. The highlight of that trip was stopping at the Mount of the Beatitudes, where I saw a nun feeding a cat outside the church grounds. “Blessed are the pure in heart.” Martin’s book should be required reading for pilgrims to Israel-Palestine; it makes the life and ministry of Jesus vivid and itself serves as a apt travel guide. But even to those of us who cannot make the trip in the foreseeable future, I cannot recommend Jesus: A Pilgrimage highly enough.