The Pokey Finger of God

meditations on religion and culture

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July 19th, 2008 · No Comments · christianity, history

Philip occupies a rather unusual corner of the canon. On the one hand, he’s one of the first people Jesus recruits[1] and he’s shown recruiting other apostles[2] as well as bringing the to Samaria[3]. On the other hand, he’s very much a bit part: he does not appear as a significant actor in the passion play, and the Synoptics almost completely ignore him.

John plays Philip up quite a bit. We get four significant scenes with the man and we get to see a number of very interesting details, both about Philip, but also about the character of Jesus Christ. Again — this is a character that is merely listed as “present” in the other three Gospels and mentioned a few times[4] in Acts. To have him frame the presentation of Christ to the world in John is really quite significant.

When we first meet Philip[5], Jesus has made a special trip to Galilee to call upon him. Philip turns around and Calls upon Nathanael, about whom discussion will later ensue. The next time[6], Philip is serving in some capacity as treasurer when time came for Jesus to ask how they would pay for enough bread to feed the crowds that followed them. This prefaced the miracle of the loaves and fishes.

Philip is the advocate sought out by a gaggle of [7] who seek out the Christ. Philip informs Andrew and both inform Jesus… who then gives a speech predicting his death before he hides himself from the crowd[8].

Finally, we get the confrontation between Philip and Jesus[9]. The scene is a component of the Passion sequence, right after Christ has announced to his Apostles that he will soon be gone. Some of the Apostles basically ask Christ for a few extra answers before he goes: Peter, Philip, Thomas, and Judas Iscariot. Jesus upbraids them all.

It is not at all clear that the Philip in Acts is the same man as the one in John. Other than three brief mentions in Acts[10], the scene in Acts 8 is Philip’s one major part. Acts 6:5 mentions a Philip (the Evangelist[11] )being named as a traveling witness, designated in charge of recruiting more disciples. And we’re told that after the persecutions began in Jerusalem, Philip went down to Samaria and began his ministry there.

He met a receptive audience and soon had the crowds in a frenzy. We’re told that a local prestidigitator was able to whip up the crowds pretty good, but once he heard Philip’s message, he, too, was immediately baptised[12]. Philip does so well, Peter and John go down to Samaria to do the laying-on of hands trick, which apparently this Philip wasn’t savvy to[13].

After returning to Jerusalem, he rides in a carriage with an Ethiopian eunuch on his way to Gaza and converts him on the spot. They stop at a random watering hole for a quickie baptism, following which Philip is snatched up physically by God and placed in another city[14]. I don’t know of a single similar episode anywhere in the to compare with this singular miracle.

So, who was Philip, anyway? We’re told twice by John that Philip was from Bethsaida. This meagre fishing port on the north end of the Sea of Galilee was enlarged and renamed by Philip the Tetrarch, Herod the Great’s son by Cleopatra of Jerusalem. Philip the Terarch built a pagan temple in his capitol city, Caesarea Philippi at the source of the Jordan River,  to rule the regions of southwestern Syria and the Lebonese mountains he controlled[15].

Mark & Matthew helpfully tell us about Philip the Tetrarch in the context of the story of the death of John the Baptist.

For Herod himself had sent and had John arrested and bound in prison on account of Herodias, the wife of his brother Philip, because he had married her.[16]

Unfortunately, Philip the Tetrarch was married[17], not to his niece, but to her daughter, Salome, who danced for Herod and demanded the head of John the Baptist on a platter[18]. Luke provides us with a more complete political picture, but speaks of John being in prison, without mentioning his demise. John says nothing about the Baptist’s demise.

Naturally, there is no one drawing this out in detail in the canon, but let’s put together what we do have. We have at least three Philips here: the Apostle of John, the Evangelist of Acts, and the Tetrarch of the Synoptics. Although a casual reading might connect the apostle to the evangelist, it seems more likely that the Apostle was the Tetrarch, and that the evangelist was a second-generation Greek follower.

First, both the Apostle and the Tetrarch had a known connection to Bethsaida. Second, Philip was the one Jesus asked about paying for bread for a multitude, so maybe he had some cash. Third, when a group of Greeks from Bethsaida come to worship, they seek out Philip — a known ambassador of their kind.

An argument that the Evangelist was not the Apostle was the fact that real Apostles had to be called in to bring down the Holy Spirit. Presumably, Philip the Apostle had undergone the same training and experiences as had the other Apostles, and so should have been able to baptise with the Holy Spirit. Also, if the Evangelist was also the Tetrarch, it would make little sense to evangelize in Samaria, when the Tetrarch’s lands were to the east.

And then there’s the Bartholemew problem. The lists of Apostles in the Gospels come in specific sets. The order is presumed to be that in which Jesus called them. In the Synoptics, Philip is always paired with Bartholemew[19]. John does not provide lists of apostles, nor does he mention Bartholemew. Modern readers connect Bartholemew with Nathanael in John, since Philip calls him to become an apostle[20] in that book.

If Nathanael is, in fact, the surname for our Bart, then those two facts together constitute the better part of what information we have about either. If one attempts to extract a Hebrew base from this Hellenized name, you get something that resembles bar Ptolemy, perhaps implying that Nathanael is a son of the Ptolemy family, and thus local royalty. Working from the premise that the Apostle Philip was also the Tetrarch, it makes a lot of sense that his buddy would be a prince. We know that Philip the Tetrarch was the son of a certain “Cleopatra of Jerusalem”, who may have a connection to the more famous Cleo in Egypt — the last of the Ptolemaic kings there! If so, there’s reason to anticipate that Nathanael was also a cousin.

The last references to Philip in the book of Acts have him meandering off to Caesarea[21], and then having Paul and entourage arriving at his house there to find he had four virgin priestess daughters. Since we know the tetrarch died childless in his capitol, Caesarea Philippi, before Paul’s ministry began, we can safely rule out any identity relationship between the Tetrarch and the Evangelist.

Does it make sense that a Roman governor would be wandering around with some freak local cult? Actually, in that time and place, it made a lot of sense. Everybody was doing it, including government officialdom. Does it make sense that Philip the Tetrarch would fall in with Jesus? I guess that depends on whether he saw Jesus as the true descendant of the god he worshipped.

The final nudge of “evidence” is an observation I’ve made that really famous people need no introduction. The Bible goes into radical gyrations to describe who some people are, and for others, they simply drop the name and move on.  It’s very likely that these names had certain cache from their local impact. If you’re referring to someone who’s not quite really famous, you include their home city, or what tribe they’re from. Case in point: “Cleopatra of Jerusalem”, Philip’s mum, is clearly distinguished from that more famous Cleopatra from the previous generation.

“Philip”, however, was a deadly common Greek name. So you can really go to Bethsaida and ask for “Philip” and everyone knows who you’re talking about? Oh, you mean the governor, Philip? And it’s not like this Philip hasn’t been mentioned in the earlier material, but again, it was common at the time.

What we do know about Philip the Tetrarch is that he lived in an area largely devoid of Jews. Instead, he lived in the land of the Bedouin. The one reference I have[22] that even begins to describe his character[23] suggests that he was a populist leader who traveled frequently around his domains. Someone such as this might have felt the weight of rulership very lightly, and may have had a great deal of time to expend on chasing Messiahs around.

From a more strictly minimalist perspective, we might postulate that Philip represented an older school, perhaps one derived directly from the Baptist, that the early church wished to co-opt. In Philip, along with Andrew and Simon Peter, it seems Christ (in the form of the Church) made a concerted effort to recruit away some of Bethsaida’s best and brightest from the school of John the Baptist.

Continuing, we could ease the need to directly connect Philip the Tetrarch with Jesus of Nazareth by saying that, for the stories, Philip represented the developing Christian communities in the Romanized areas northeast of the Sea of Galilee (that is, in Ituraea). One thing this could mean is that the early communities in Ituraea that did exist were tied in with groups similar to that of John the Baptist’s, or perhaps even to John the Baptist’s school.

What does it mean that the first apostles of Christ hail from Bethsaida[24]? What claim to authenticity was being made here as regards the followers of John the Baptist[25]? Did the John the Baptist community represent another set of Hebraic traditions, or were they a competing cult with a unique theology? What part does the Ituraean community play in its development? Alas, we may never know. But we can guess that the representatives from these communities had a hand in the establishment of the mythos of the Roman Catholic Church.

  1. John 1:43
  2. John 1:45-46
  3. Acts 8:5-17
  4. plus his big scene in Acts 8
  5. John 1:43-51
  6. John 6:5-7
  7. John 12:21-22
  8. John 12-36
  9. John 14:8-9
  10. Acts 1:13, Acts 6:5, and Acts 21:8
  11. Is this the same as the one in Acts 21:8 ?
  12. Acts 8:13
  13. Acts 8:16
  14. Acts 8:40 — To Azotus, the next town north of Gaza on the Western Mediterranean coast
  15. from 4-34CE
  16. Mark 6:17, see also Matt 14:3
  18. Mark 6:25
  19. Matt 10:3, Mark 3:18, Luke 6:14
  20. John 1:45-48
  21. Acts 8:40
  23. beyond Josephus, naturally
  24. probably the largest city in Ituraea
  25. who is clearly shown in the Bible as having another, competing group of disciples

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