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But a much more interesting chain of evidence connects Lydda with the history of the founding of the Church. It is in connection with Lydda and its tribunal, which is declared to have been capable of pronouncing sentence of death, that our blessed Lord and the Virgin Mother are introduced in certain Talmudical passages, though with studiously and blasphemously altered names. The statements are, in their present form, whether from ignorance, design, or in consequence of successive alterations, confused, and they mix up different events and persons in Gospel history; among other things representing our Lord as condemned at Lydda. *
* May there not perhaps be some historical foundation even for this statement? Could the secret gathering of "the chief priests and Pharisees," mentioned in John 11:47, have taken place in Lydda (compare vers. 54, 55)? Was it there, that Judas "communed with the chief priests and captains, how he might betray Him unto them?" There were at any rate obvious reasons for avoiding Jerusalem in all preliminary measures against Jesus; and we know that, while the Temple stood, Lydda was the only place out of Jerusalem which may be called a seat of the Rabbinical party.
But there can be no reasonable question that they refer to our blessed Lord and His condemnation for supposed blasphemy and seduction of the people, and that they at least indicate a close connection between Lydda and the founding of Christianity. It is a curious confirmation of the gospel history, that the death of Christ is there described as having taken place "on the eve of the Passover," remarkably bearing out not only the date of that event as gathered from the synoptical gospels, but showing that the Rabbis at least knew nothing of those Jewish scruples and difficulties, by which modern Gentile writers have tried to prove the impossibility of Christ's condemnation on the Passover night. It has already been stated that, after the destruction of Jerusalem, many and most celebrated Rabbis chose Lydda for their residence. But the second century witnessed a great change. The inhabitants of Lydda are now charged with pride, ignorance, and neglect of their religion. The Midrash (Esther 1:3) has it, that there were "ten measures of wretchedness in the world. Nine of those belong to Lod, the tenth to all the rest of the world." Lydda was the last place in Judaea to which, after their migration into Galilee, the Rabbis resorted to fix the commencement of the month. Jewish legend has it, that they were met by the "evil eye," which caused their death. There may, perhaps, be an allegorical allusion in this. Certain it is, that, at the time, Lydda was the seat of a most flourishing Christian Church, and had its bishop. Indeed, a learned Jewish writer has connected the changed Jewish feeling towards Lod with the spread of Christianity. Lydda must have been a very beautiful and a very busy place. The Talmud speaks in exaggerated terms of the honey of its dates (Cheth. iii. a), and the Mishnah (Baba M. iv. 3) refers to its merchants as a numerous class, although their honesty is not extolled. *
* The Mishnah discusses how much profit a merchant is allowed to take on an article, and within what period a purchaser, who finds himself imposed upon, may return his purchase. The merchants of Lydda are certainly not placed in this discussion in the most advantageous light.
Near Lydda, eastwards, was the village of Chephar Tabi. We might be tempted to derive from it the name of Tabitha (Acts 9:36), if it were not that the names Tabi and Tabitha had been so common at the time in Palestine. There can be no question of the situation of Joppa, the modern Jaffa, where Peter saw the vision which opened the door of the Church to the Gentiles. Many Rabbis are mentioned in connection with Joppa. The town was destroyed by Vespasian. There is a curious legend in the Midrash to the effect that Joppa was not overwhelmed by the deluge. Could this have been an attempt to insinuate the preservation and migration of men to distant parts of the earth? The exact location of Emmaus, for ever sacred to us by the manifestation of the Savior to the two disciples (Luke 24:13), is matter of controversy. On the whole, the weight of evidence still inclines to the traditional site. *
* Modern writers mostly identify it with the present Kulonieh, colonia, deriving the name from the circumstance that it was colonised by Roman soldiers. Lieut. Conder suggests the modern Khamasa, about eight miles from Jerusalem, as the site of Emmaus.
If so, it had a considerable Jewish population, although it was also occupied by a Roman garrison. Its climate and waters were celebrated, as also its market-place. It is specially interesting to find that among the patrician Jewish families belonging to the laity, who took part in the instrumental music of the Temple, two- -those of Pegarim and Zippariah--were from Emmaus, and also that the priesthood were wont to intermarry with the wealthy Hebrews of that place (Er. ii. 4). Gaza, on whose "desert" road Philip preached to and baptized the Ethiopian eunuch, counted not fewer than eight heathen temples, besides an idol-shrine just outside the city. Still Jews were allowed to reside there, probably on account of its important market. Only two names yet remain to be mentioned, but those of the deepest and most solemn interest. Bethlehem, the birthplace of our Lord, and Jerusalem, where He was crucified. It deserves notice, that the answer which the Sanhedrists of old gave to the inquiries of Herod (Matt 2:5) is equally returned in many Talmudical passages, and with the same reference to Micah 5:2. It may therefore be regarded as a settled point that, according to the Jewish fathers, Messiah, the Son of David, was to be born in Bethlehem of Judah. But there is one passage in the Mishnah which throws such peculiar light on the Gospel narrative, that it will be best to give it in its entirety. We know that, on the night in which our Savior was born, the angels' message came to those who probably alone of all in or near Bethlehem were "keeping watch." For, close by Bethlehem, on the road to Jerusalem, was a tower, known as Migdal Eder, the "watch-tower of the flock." For here was the station where shepherd watched their flocks destined for sacrifices in the Temple. So well known was this, that if animals were found as far from Jerusalem as Migdal Eder, and within that circuit on every side, the males were offered as burnt- offerings, the females as peace-offerings. *
* Formerly those who found such animals had out of their own means to supply the necessary drink-offerings. But as this induced some not to bring the animals to the Temple, it was afterwards decreed to supply the cost of the drink-offerings from the Temple treasury (Shek. vii. 5).
R. Jehudah adds: "If suited for Passover sacrifices, then they are Passover sacrifices, provided it be not more than thirty days before the feast" (Shekal. vii 4; compare also Jer. Kid. ii. 9). It seems of deepest significance, almost like the fulfilment of type, that those shepherds who first heard tidings of the Savior's birth, who first listened to angels' praises, were watching flocks destined to be offered as sacrifices in the Temple. There was the type, and here the reality. At all times Bethlehem was among "the least" in Judah--so small that the Rabbis do not even refer to it in detail. The small village-inn was over-crowded, and the guests from Nazareth found shelter only in the stable, * whose manger became the cradle of the King of Israel.
* In Echa R. 72 a, there is a tradition that the Messiah was to be born "in the Castle Arba of Bethlehem Judah." Caspari quotes this in confirmation that the present castellated monastery, in the cave of which is the traditional site of our Lord's birth, marks the real spot. In the East such caves were often used as stables.
It was here that those who tended the sacrificial flocks, heaven- directed, found the Divine Babe--significantly the first to see Him, to believe, and to adore. But this is not all. It is when we remember, that presently these shepherds would be in the Temple, and meet those who came thither to worship and to sacrifice, that we perceive the full significance of what otherwise would have seemed scarcely worth while noticing in connection with humble shepherds: "And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child. And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds" (Luke 2:17,18). Moreover, we can understand the wonderful impression made on those in the courts of the Temple, as, while they selected their sacrifices, the shepherds told the devout of the speedy fulfilment of all these types in what they had themselves seen and heard in that night of wonders; how eager, curious crowds might gather around to discuss, to wonder, perhaps to mock; how the heart of "just and devout" old Simeon would be gladdened within him, in expectation of the near realisation of a life's hopes and prayers; and how aged Anna, and they who like her "looked for redemption in Israel," would lift up their heads, since their salvation was drawing nigh. Thus the shepherds would be the most effectual heralds of the Messiah in the Temple, and both Simeon and Anna be prepared for the time when the infant Savior would be presented in the sanctuary. But there is yet another verse which, as we may suggest, would find a fuller explanation in the fact that these shepherds tended the Temple flocks. When in Luke 2:20 we read that "the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God," the meaning in that connection * seems somewhat difficult till we realise that, after bringing their flocks to the Temple, they would return to their own homes, and carry with them, joyfully and gratefully, tidings of the great salvation.
* Compare here verses 17, 18, which in point of time precede verse 20. The term diagnorizo, rendered in the Authorised Version "make known abroad," and by Wahl "ultro citroque narro," does not seem exhausted by the idea of conversation with the party in the "stable," or with any whom they might meet in "the field."
Lastly, without entering into controversy, the passage from the Mishnah above quoted in great measure disposes of the objection against the traditional date of our Lord's birth, derived from the supposed fact, that the rains of December would prevent the flocks being kept all night "in the field." For, in the first place, these were flocks on their way to Jerusalem, and not regularly pasturing in the open at that season. And, secondly, the Mishnah evidently contemplates their being thus in the open thirty days before the Passover, or in the month of February, during which the average rainfall is quite the largest in the year. *
* The average rainfall in Jerusalem for eight years amounts to fourteen inches in December, thirteen in January, and sixteen in February (Barclay, City of the Great King, p. 428).
"Ten measures of beauty," say the Rabbis, "hath God bestowed upon the world, and nine of these fall to the lot of Jerusalem"--and again, "A city, the fame of which has gone out from one end of the world to the other" (Ber. 38). "Thine, O Lord, is the greatness, the power, the glory, and eternity." This--explains the Talmud--"is Jerusalem." In opposition to her rival Alexandria, which was designated "the little," Jerusalem was called "the great." It almost reminds one of the title "eternal city," given to Rome, when we find the Rabbis speaking of Jerusalem as the "eternal house." Similarly, if a common proverb has it, that "all roads lead to Rome," it was a Jewish saying, "All coins come from Jerusalem." This is not the place to describe the city in its appearance and glory (for this compare the two first chapters of my volume on The Temple: Its Ministry and Services). But one almost feels as if, on such a subject, one could understand, if not condone, the manifest exaggerations of the Rabbis. Indeed, there are indications that they scarcely expected their statements to be taken literally. Thus, when the number of its synagogues is mentioned as 460 or 480, it is explained that the latter number is the numerical equivalent of the word "full" in Isaiah 1:21 ("it was full of judgment"). It is more interesting to know, that we find in the Talmud express mention of "the Synagogue of the Alexandrians," referred to in Acts 6:9--another important confirmation, if such were needed, of the accuracy of St. Luke's narratives. Of the hospitality of the inhabitants of Jerusalem accounts are given, which we can scarcely regard as much exaggerated; for the city was not reckoned to belong to any tribe in particular; it was to be considered as equally the home of all. Its houses were to be neither hired nor let, but freely thrown open to every brother. Nor did any one among the countless thousands who thronged it at feast-times ever lack room. A curtain hung before the entrance of a house intimated, that there was still room for guests; a table spread in front of it, that its board was still at their disposal. And, if it was impossible to accommodate within the walls of Jerusalem proper the vast crowds which resorted to the city, there can be no doubt that for sacred purpose Bethany and Bethphage were reckoned as within the circle of Jerusalem. It calls forth peculiar sensations, when we read in these Jewish records of Bethany and Bethphage as specially celebrated for their hospitality to pilgrim- guests, for it wakes the sacred memories of our Lord's sojourn with the holy family of Bethany, and especially of His last stay there and of His royal entrance into Jerusalem.
In truth, every effort was used to make Jerusalem truly a city of delight. Its police and sanitary regulations were more perfect than in any modern city; the arrangements such as to keep the pilgrim free to give his heart and mind to sacred subjects. If, after all, "the townspeople," as they were called, were regarded as somewhat proud and supercilious, it was something to be a citizen of Jerushalaimah, as the Jerusalemites preferred to write its name. Their constant intercourse with strangers gave them a knowledge of men and of the world. The smartness and cleverness of the young people formed a theme of admiration to their more shy and awkward country relatives. There was also a grandeur in their bearing--almost luxury; and an amount of delicacy, tact, and tenderness, which appeared in all their public dealings. Among a people whose wit and cleverness are proverbial, it was no mean praise to be renowned for these qualities. In short, Jerusalem was the ideal of the Jew, in whatever land of exile he might tarry. Her rich men would lavish fortunes on the support of Jewish learning, the promotion of piety, or the support of the national cause. Thus one of them would, when he found the price of sacrifices exceedingly high, introduce into the Temple-court the requisite animals at his own cost, to render the service possible for the poor. Or on another occasion he would offer to furnish the city for twenty-one months with certain provisions in her struggle against Rome. In the streets of Jerusalem men from the most distant countries met, speaking every variety of language and dialect. Jews and Greeks, Roman soldiers and Galilean peasants, Pharisees, Sadducees, and white-robed Essenes, busy merchants and students of abstruse theology, mingled, a motley crowd, in the narrow streets of the city of palaces. But over all the Temple, rising above the city, seemed to fling its shadow and its glory. Each morning the threefold blast of the priests' trumpets wakened the city with a call to prayer; each evening the same blasts closed the working day, as with sounds from heaven. Turn where you might, everywhere the holy buildings were in view, now with the smoke of sacrifices curling over the courts, or again with solemn stillness resting upon the sacred hills. It was the Temple which gave its character to Jerusalem, and which decided its fate. There is a remarkable passage in the Talmud, which, remembering that the time to which it refers was in all probability the very year in which our Lord died on the cross, reads like an unwilling confirmation of the Gospel narrative: "Forty years before the destruction of the Temple, its doors opened of their own accord. Jochanan, * the son of Saccai, rebuked them, saying: O Temple, why openest thou of thine own accord? Ah! I perceive that thine end is at hand; for it is written (Zech 11:1): 'Open thy doors, O Lebanon, that the fire may devour thy cedars'" (Yoma 39 b). "And, behold, the veil of the Temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom" (Matt 27:51)--blessed be God, not merely in announcement of coming judgment, but henceforth to lay open unto all the way into the Holiest of All.