Jesus' Earliest Recorded Ministry
Autumn, 30 AD

 

"This is the one I meant when I said, 'A man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me'" (John 1:30).

Jesus' early ministry is recorded solely in John's Gospel, and it shows that his teaching quickly appealed to the common people. It is during this time that Jesus called his first disciples; he also made it clear that the message of salvation extended beyond the Jewish nation to all people.

At the beginning of one day's activity, John the Baptist was standing with two of his disciples...


"When he saw Jesus passing by, he said, "Look, the Lamb of God!" When the two disciples heard him say this, they followed Jesus" (John 1:36-37).


One of the disciples is identified as Andrew (John 1:40); the other is unnamed, but some commentaries assert that it is the Gospel author John himself. They asked Jesus where he was staying and he replied, "come and you will see." They spent the day with him, then Andrew told his brother Simon that he had "found the Messiah (that is, the Christ)."

Jesus promptly renamed Simon, Cephas, Aramaic meaning "stone," translated into Greek as Petros or Peter ("stone" or "rock"). Afterward, Jesus called Philip who, like Andrew and Peter, was from Bethsaida, on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee, just east of the Jordan River inlet, and in the Gentile region ruled by Herod Philip (Bethsaida is scheduled later on our itinerary).

Philip then found Nathanael from Cana, not far from Nazareth, telling him that he, too, had found the Messiah, to which Nathanael cynically replied: "Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?" (John 1:46)

A slightly different version of the calling of Jesus' first disciples is told by the synoptic Gospels, this from Matthew:


"As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. 'Come, follow me,' Jesus said, "and I will make you fishers of men.' At once they left their nets and followed him. Going on from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John. They were in a boat with their father Zebedee, preparing their nets. Jesus called them, and immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him" (Matthew 4:18-22).



Jesus begins his ministry in Galilee while John continues his baptism ministry in the Jordan valley


After his baptism in the Jordan River and his temptation in the desert region of Judea, Jesus took his ministry to Galilee. Meanwhile, John the Baptist continued his baptism ministry in the Jordan River valley, at "Aenon near Salim, because there was plenty of water, and people were constantly coming to be baptized. (This was before John was put in prison)." (John 3:23)


Aenon near Salim


The precise location of Aenon (meaning "double spring") near Salim (meaning "peace") has long been debated, but it was likely midway between Judea and Galilee where ample springs flowed into the Jordan River. According to early church historian Eusebius (in his Onomasticon, written about 295 AD), Salim was 8 miles south of Scythopolis (the modern archaeological site of Beit She'an; Old Testament Beth Shan, 20 miles south of the Sea of Galilee). This would place Aenon near Tell er-Ridgha, a region of numerous springs, which fits the description in John 3:23 as having "plenty of water." Another possible location for Aenon is in a broad open valley called Wadi Farah, west of the Jordan and northeast of Nablus (Old Testament Shechem).

Aenon near Salim area

(Above) the area of Salim (photo from BiblePlaces.com)


John the Baptist testifies about Jesus



"An argument developed between some of John's disciples and a certain Jew over the matter of ceremonial washing. They came to John and said to him, 'Rabbi, that man who was with you on the other side of the Jordan the one you testified about well, he is baptizing, and everyone is going to him.' To this John replied, 'A man can receive only what is given him from heaven. You yourselves can testify that I said, 'I am not the Christ but am sent ahead of him'" (John 3:25-28).



Jesus leaves for Galilee



"The Pharisees heard that Jesus was gaining and baptizing more disciples than John, although in fact it was not Jesus who baptized, but his disciples. When the Lord learned of this, he left Judea and went back once more to Galilee" (John 4: 1-4).



Jesus' journey from Judea to Galilee


On his return to his home region of Galilee from the densely wooded valley of the Jordan River, Jesus intentionally took an indirect route, following ancient roads west, then north through the highlands of Samaria, a region of great historical irony. This was not the first time that Jesus had taken this old high road which Abraham had long ago followed with his family and flocks. While the land was some of the most fertile and historically rich in Israel, for millennia it had been linked with some the darkest moments in the nation's past. Here, following the disintegration of the United Kingdom of David and Solomon, the rebellious king Jeroboam I of Israel erected golden calf shrines at opposite ends of his kingdom, one at Dan in the extreme north, another at Bethel in the green central highlands to the south (not far from Jerusalem). The region became known for its idolatry and pagan culture, especially under king Ahab and his Baal-worshiping wife, Jezebel. Here, where the twelve Hebrew tribes had gathered for a reaffirmation of the covenant at Shechem, and where the Ark of the Covenant stood for 400 years at Shiloh, the land became so spiritually contemptible that the more orthodox Jews would go out of the way when traveling between Judea and Galilee, taking the longer, less direct route through the Jordan River Valley.

Traveling on foot across much of the Holy Land in the course of his ministry, Jesus became as familiar with the countryside as with the people. Then as now, it was a rugged land, with hills and valleys that challenged travelers. It was often a lonely land, with few inhabitants outside the cities and farming villages where most of the population lived. Even today the rolling landscape near Jerusalem seems little different from the way it looked when Jesus journeyed along the dusty road between the Holy City and Galilee.

Plain of Lebonah Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal with Nablus in the valley between

(Above left) the Plain of Lebonah, between Shiloh and Shechem on the Jerusalem-Shechem road; (Above right) view from the east looking toward Mount Gerizim (left) and Mount Ebal (right), with the modern Palestinian city of Nablus in the east-west valley between.

Nablus and Mount GrizimAs Jesus and his disciples walked along the broad, hot (it was springtime) valley floor north of the Ascent of Lebonah (north of Jerusalem), they could see the low-lying hills to the east and the gradually rising heights to the west. Then Mounts Gerizim and Ebal came into view. Soon, they came to Sychar, a small village at the southwestern foot of Mount Ebal, in the vicinity of ancient Shechem. Here, where two important routes came together, Jesus sat down alone by Jacob's Well, weary from his journey, while his disciples went into town to buy food. About noon (the "sixth hour"), a Samaritan woman came to draw water from the well.

(Right) Mount Gerizim rising above modern Nablus, the site of the Samaritan temple which was destroyed in the 2nd century BC by the Hasmonean ruler John Hyrcanus in an attempt to force the return of the Samaritans to mainstream Judaism. The Samaritans believe it is the spot were Abraham prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac and where the original Ten Commandments were buried.

Jesus asked her: "Will you give me a drink?" The Samaritan woman said to him, "You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?" (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, "If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water." "Sir," the woman said, "you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his flocks and herds?" Jesus answered, "Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life." The woman said to him, "Sir, give me this water so that I won't get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water." He told her, "Go, call your husband and come back." "I have no husband," she replied. Jesus said to her, "You are right when you say you have no husband. The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true." "Sir," the woman said, "I can see that you are a prophet" (John 4:7-19).

Pointing out Mount Gerizim (above right) towering above them, the woman said: "Our fathers worshiped on this mountain; and you say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship." In the lavender haze of the early afternoon, Jesus stared up at Mount Gerizim, where the Samaritans regarded as half-breeds by the Jews had built a temple of their own after the Jews returning from the Babylonian exile rejected the Samaritans' offer to help rebuild the Jerusalem Temple. Nearby also was the tomb of the patriarch Joseph. Looking beyond both the sacredness of Mount Gerizim to the Samaritans and the sacredness of the Jerusalem Temple to the Jews, Jesus replied, "true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth."


"The woman said, 'I know that Messiah (called Christ) is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.' Then Jesus declared, 'I who speak to you am he'" (John 4:25).


The woman in this account had three problems. First, she was a Samaritan. Jews and Samaritans did not intermingle. According to 1st century AD Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, the Samaritans were of mixed heritage, a product of intermarriage between those Israelites of the Northern Kingdom left behind after the Assyrian conquest in the 8th century BC and the "pagan" settlers brought in by the Assyrians. Modern historical research has shown this was a spurious account of Samaritan origins, but it reflects a common opinion existing from the end of the Babylonian Exile into Jesus' day. The Jews looked down upon the Samaritans and considered them to be of questionable origins. Second, this woman was ritually unclean because she was living in adultery. Third, cultural custom, still practiced in some parts of the Middle East, forbade a man speaking to any woman in public unless she was his wife. To Jesus, none of this mattered. He accepted a drink from her, and by doing so he was offering friendship to one who was beyond friendship. Furthermore, he went a step farther, offering her eternal life, which she happily accepted. Later, in John 4, we read:


"Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman's testimony, 'He told me everything I ever did.' So when the Samaritans came to him, they urged him to stay with them, and he stayed two days. And because of his words many more became believers. They said to the woman, 'We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Savior of the world'" (John 4:39-42).


The amazing thing about this story is that Jesus revealed himself as the Messiah not to his family nor to his disciples or even to his fellow Jews, but to a despised woman of a despised sect!


In the footsteps of Jesus...


Prior to embarking on this pilgrimage, one of our expressed goals was to visit those sites connected with Jesus' ministry located in the troubled region of Palestine or the "West Bank." While two of those places, Bethlehem and Jericho, are normally included in tour packages, Nablus, a city with a tradition of impassioned resistance to Israeli occupation, is not. Quoting from the guidebook stuffed in my backpack: "The city is not called Jabal al-Nar (Hill of Fire) for nothing...its citizens fought the Turks, the British and the Jordanians and were wholly consumed by the intifada." Because of this reputation, few travelers make their way there. So, as we approach the city this day, we find ourselves a bit apprehensive. Nevertheless, we have come here in hopes of visiting two places, the mysterious "Sychar," and "Jacob's Well," both mentioned only in John's Gospel. But first, a short history lesson from our guide as our bus approaches the city along Road 60:


"Nablus," he related, "was founded in 72 AD, two years after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, by the Roman general (later emperor), Titus, 1 1/2 miles west of the site of ancient Shechem. In honor of his father, the emperor Vespasian, he called his new city Flavia Neapolis Flavia derived from Titus' family name, while Neapolis is a combination of the Greek nea "new" and polis "city." Centuries later, in 636 AD Neapolis was occupied by the Arabs. The city's name became corrupted to Nablus (there is no "p" sound in Arabic)."


Some scholars have viewed the Sychar of John's Gospel as an alternate form of Shechem, while others have identified Sychar with a village now called Askar, located at the eastern end of modern NablusRight, remains of a gate at Tell Balata, the site of ancient Shechem in the modern city of Nablus.

A few miles from the Nablus city center and about 500 yards east of Tell Balata the site of ancient Shechem we arrive at a subterranean Greek Orthodox shrine enclosing what is believed to be Jacob's Well, and where Jesus met the Samaritan woman in John 4 and revealed to her that he was the long expected Messiah.


Jacob's Well


The well is on an unmarked road (later we found out it was called Zut Road), across from the Belata refugee camp. Before stepping off the bus, our guide gently cautioned us to make sure we are dressed modestly. Then he continued with more background information:


"Around the year 380 AD a cruciform church was built over the well, but it was destroyed in one of the Samaritan revolts of 484 or 529. Subsequently rebuilt by Justinian, this second Byzantine era church was still standing in the 720s, and possibly into the early 9th century. The Crusaders rebuilt it in the 12th century AD but, from the 15th century onward, it fell into ruin. In 1885 the Greek Orthodox acquired the site and, in 1903, began restorations. Their efforts were halted in 1927 by particularly bad earthquake. However, as you will soon see, work has resumed with the intent of finally completing the church. So, keep a sharp eye out for construction debris."


Roofless Crusader-era church (below left) over the site of "Jacob's Well" (photo taken November 1999, when construction had resumed with the intent of finally completing the church). There was no well to be seen! We were directed to a pair of white-painted concrete buildings resembling guard stations. They cover 19-step passages leading 19 feet below ground level to a chapel, where we see the well itself, which is set within an elaborate arched chamber hung with lamps (below right) typical of any Greek Orthodox shrine. The well, we were told, is 115 feet deep and it is 89 feet to water level. The upper 13 feet of stonework belongs to a later time, while the balance is believed to be original. We aren't allowed to shoot photos; instead we have to purchase post cards.

Unfinished church over Jacob's Well Crypt with Jacob's Well
Completed Church over Jacob's well Interior Jacob's well church

(Above left and right) exterior and interior views of the finally completed church.

The church reconstruction project was spearheaded by Abuna ("Father") Justinus, a well-respected Greek Orthodox priest in Nablus.

Jewish, Samaritan, Christian and Muslim traditions all associate the well with Jacob. Though the well is not specifically mentioned in the Old Testament, Genesis (33:18-20) states:


After Jacob came from Paddan Aram, he arrived safely at the city of Shechem in Canaan and camped within sight of the city. 19 For a hundred pieces of silver, he bought from the sons of Hamor, the father of Shechem, the plot of ground where he pitched his tent. There he set up an altar and called it El Elohe Israel."


Jacob's Well does appear by name in the gospel of John (4:5-6), where it is recorded that Jesus "came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob's well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about the sixth hour."

For a couple of dollars an attendant drew water from the well and ladled it into small bottles, marked "Jacob's Well," as keepsakes for each member of the group (right).

Small jug inscribed with Jacob's well in black lettering


The Samaritans


Everyone's heard of the Samaritans, mostly from Jesus' parable of the "Good Samaritan," but few know who they are.

Strictly speaking, a Samaritan was an inhabitant of the city of Samaria, the third and last capital of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, founded by Omri in in the 9th century BC and located about 42 miles north of Jerusalem. But the term was applied to all the people of the Northern Kingdom.

The Samaritans were among those who remained after the Assyrians conquered the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 722-721 BC, and deported its leading citizens into exile. But, the Jews of the rival Kingdom of Judah came to view the Samaritans as, at best, half-breeds who had intermarried with those pagan colonists settled in the region by the Assyrians. In truth, the Samaritans were simply an offshoot of early Judaism, and they attempted to maintain the worship of Yahweh at Shechem. Their faith is epitomized by five tenants:

Forbidden to participate in Temple rituals since the time of Ezra at the end of the Babylonian Exile (6th century BC), the Samaritans erected their own temple on Mount Gerizim in accordance with their version of the Tenth Commandment which decrees: "On Mount Gerizim (you shall) build there an altar to the Lord your God." Our main reference is Flavius Josephus who stated that the Samaritan leader Sanballat, built a replica of the Temple in Jerusalem on Mount Gerizim. He further offers a touching tale of romance to explain Sanballat's building project: His daughter Nicaso married Manasseh, brother of the high priest in Jerusalem, and when Menasseh was expelled for marrying outside the faith, his new father-in-law built him a temple of his own up north. But there was a practical basis for Sanballat's action too: He and the Jewish leader Nehemiah were involved in a power struggle. Sanballat figured that if he built a religious center for ritual sacrifice on Gerizim, it would draw people away from Jerusalem and increase his political influence (see Antiquities of the Jews, book 11, chapter 8:2).

With the building of the Samaritan temple the animosity between the Jews and the Samaritans became actual racial hatred. For Jews, a phrase like "Good Samaritan" would have been an oxymoron. The Samaritans considered their own temple on Gerizim to be superior to that at Jerusalem. Even after its destruction by the Hasmonean ruler John Hyrcanus (134-104 BC), the Samaritans continued to direct there worship toward Mount Gerizim.

Around the time of Jesus, the Samaritans were persecuted by Pontius Pilate and it was this incident that prompted his removal from office in 36 AD, after ten years in power. He seized a number of Samaritans who had assembled on Mount Gerizim as a result of a rumor that sacred vessels from the tabernacle had been hidden there by Moses. Pilate had some the ringleaders executed and the Samaritans complained to Vitellius, governor of Syria and Pilate's superior. The charges against Pilate where, according to a letter quoted by Philo: "corruptibility, violence, robberies, ill-treatment of the people, grievances, continuous executions without even the form of a trial, endless and intolerable cruelties." Vitellius ordered Pilate to answer to the emperor. But, before Pilate reached Rome, the reigning emperor, Tiberius, had died. The outcome of the affair is unknown. According to Christian tradition, Pilate and his wife were later converted to Christianity and martyred. However, the 4th-century AD church historian Eusebius recorded a report that Pilate committed suicide. Paul Maier, in his book "Pontius Pilate" expresses the theory that he simply retired and lived out the remainder of his life on a government pension.

During the Middle Ages there were tens of thousands of Samaritans, but, around the turn of the century there were only about 100. However, their numbers increased when Samaritan men married Jewish women who became Samaritans. Today, there are two communities, each numbering about 300: one in the district of Haret es Samira in the western part of Nablus, and another in Holon, south of Tel Aviv. Samaritan tradition says their people were the tribes of Ephraim and Menasseh, who stayed behind in Israel when the other eight tribes of the northern kingdom were exiled to Assyria around 720 BC. Many events that Jews associate with Jerusalem, Samaritans connect to Mount Gerizim. They believe that it was the place chosen by God and the navel of the earth; it existed before the Creation and will continue to the end of the world. According to Samaritan tradition, Adam was fashioned out of the mountain's dust and Abel built the first altar there. The Samaritans further hold that Mount Gerizim was the true mountain in the "region of Moriah" where Abraham set up an altar and prepared to sacrifice Isaac, not the Temple Mount in Jerusalem as held by the Jews of Judah. In later times their synagogues faced Mount Gerizim rather than Jerusalem. They say that Joshua built the first Tabernacle on the hill and that the split with the Jews began when two priestly brothers built an alternative Tabernacle at Shiloh. When the Taheb, the messiah, comes, he will reveal the location of the cave where the implements used in the tabernacle have been hidden, though the Samaritans don't dream of the structure being rebuilt.

Samaritan priests Roasting the passover lamb

(Above left) modern Samaritan Passover celebration (high priest in blue); (Above right) roasting the Passover lambs.

Each year, the Samaritan community moves to houses below the summit of Mount Gerizim for the six weeks of Passover. With the high priest, who lives in Nablus, presiding, lambs are sacrificed in strict conformity with the Mosaic injunctions in Exodus 12:2-11. During questioning by a journalist, the sect's high priest in Nablus spoke of their desperate poverty. "Our young people cannot afford to marry. I fear that we can only diminish. But at Passover, we keep God's command in the ancient way." When asked if the Samaritans still expect a Messiah, he said softly, "We wait, we wait."

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