Cost of Discipleship
Most scholars agree that the first
followers of The Way (whom we casually call Christians, even though they
almost certainly did not think of themselves a as such) often had a hard
time from their fellow Hebrews.
This is reflected - although probably somewhat exaggeratedly - in parts of
the gospels and in the various accounts of the Acts of the Apostles where
Christians, and particularly Paul, were attacked or imprisoned because
they spoke of Jesus as the Messiah (Christos in Greek).
The conflict between the old Hebrews and the new Hebrews probably arose
because the religious authorities thought that the Christians were
In the years before the gospels were written, Palestine had been torn
apart by war. Between 66 and 70 fanatical Hebrews rebelled against the
ruling Roman Empire. It took the Roman army some four years to subdue the
rebels. After so great and damaging a social upset, the ruling authorities
would not have been open to disturbances.
The Acts of the Apostles (written by the author of Luke's Gospel) tells
us something of the conflict between Hebrews and Christians in the two or
so decades after the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70.
Chapter 4 of the Acts relates how the preaching of Peter and John
annoys some Sadducees
... because the two apostles were teaching the people how Jesus had
risen from death ... so they arrested them and put them in jail ...
Haled before the Hebrew leaders, the apostles are let off provided they
do not speak or teach about Jesus. More persecution follows, and Stephen
is stoned to death by an angry mob. John and James are put to death by
order of Herod Agrippa I, who also jails Peter. In the latter part of Acts
the focus moves to Paul, who himself eventually falls foul of the Hebrew
religious leaders (Acts 21.27ff).
A substantial number of scholars today have concluded that similar,
though earlier, difficulties with the Hebrew authorities are reflected by
passages in the gospels.
The latter are not meant to be histories. Nor were they written as
consecutive events, the way a modern biography would generally be
conceived. Rather, the gospels were intended to present what Jesus meant
to early Christian communities. That is, they are more about theology than
In addition, the gospel authors did not approach their sources as
would a historian today. There is a wide consensus that (a) they used
verbal and written sources but they (b) fitted them together in their own
schemes, each intended to convey a particular overall message about Jesus.
Many think that the conflict between Jesus and the scholars and
Pharisees reported in the gospels reflects this early Hebrew-Christian
conflict rather than actual events in which Jesus was involved (though he
may have had brushes with some opponents).
This might appear strange to us today. But in the first century,
writers thought nothing of "inventing" events or putting words into the
mouths of their characters. In that sense, neither history nor biography
had yet been invented.
A good example is John's Gospel. The long, verbatim speeches by Jesus
are, the vast majority of scholars now agree, theological reflections on
the meaning of Jesus to the Gospel's author.
The earliest strands of Christian tradition recognise the cost of
discipleship. Jesus associates his followers with denial and suffering on
the cross (Mark 8.34; Matthew 16.24; Luke 9.23). Because it's unlikely
that anyone could be sure prior to the event, many think the reference
here to the cross indicates a date after the crucifixion. Nevertheless,
this does indicate that the cross became symbol of discipleship very early
on in the life of Christian communities.
This is the context of Luke 9.58, Matthew 8.20 and
Thomas 86.1-2. Christians may have to face the penalty of some degree of
exclusion from their communities and find themselves without a "home". The
difficulties many early Christians were having make it more likely that
sayings such as this about the cost of discipleship would have been
But why the saying about burying the dead in the next
verse in both Matthew and Luke? A potential follower pleads that he must
first bury his father before taking on Christian obligations. What's so
striking about a saying a social duty such as a burial should not take
priority over Christian discipleship?
For the ordinary Roman, burial was an important
indicator of one's social status. A son who failed to bury and honour his
dead father would have been considered in dereliction of duty by everyone
around him. He would have felt great personal shame.
Certain criminals were refused burial - a significant
social statement. Tacitus, the Roman historian, recalls a certain
Pomponius Labeo who committed suicide rather than face trial and risk not
being properly buried if found guilty. If he had been condemned, his
entire estate would have been forfeited. His family would have suffered
The situation of a Hebrew who was refused burial was
somewhat more severe. Such a fate was thought of as the result of God's
curse. A dead body was a strong source of ritual contamination, so
the Hebrew dead were buried quickly and carefully. Not even a criminal was
denied burial in the Jewish tradition.
These simple passages reflect the cost of discipleship
to early Christian communities. The conflict built up, and as Christianity
gradually moved out of the Hebrew faith into the Greek and Roman
communities, the antagonisms became gradually exaggerated and
We can conclude that as early as the beginning of the
second century, when John's Gospel was probably written, what we today
call anti-Semitism was already a theme in traditional accounts of the
crucifixion of Jesus.