Threshold Thursday

Recently I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about whom I’m writing for. Is it me? Well, of course it is, at least in the first instance. I’m very much of CS Lewis’ philosophy when it comes to writing: I write the sort of things I would have wanted to read or know as a kid or younger adult.

However, there’s an aspect of my writing that is not me. At the end of the day I want to communicate to the widest possible audience. So I make sacrifices to achieve that goal.

Lately, as I’ve struggled to communicate the concept of ‘show, don’t tell’ to many writers who reject the idea, I’ve looked more deeply at the way Scripture writers told their stories. I’ve tried to see how they responded to the taste of their age and the target audience of the day.

So because today is the Thursday before Easter, I’d like to take a specific look at the story of Jesus in front of Annas and Caiaphas as told one of my heroes: a man who used numerical literary technique so exquisitely he raised it to an artform, an author who fused number and word design in ways that bubble with humour. But he also faced a complex problem that I’m glad I don’t: he wrote in Greek to communicate a Hebrew understanding of the world. Writing to Gentiles in their own language, he nonetheless wanted to convey to the Jews of the time the message that Jesus really is the Messiah.

John, the son of Zebedee, was clearly presented with a unique challenge.  How he responded is quite surprising: to me, it’s clear he selected his information so that the story of Jesus’ trial was told with specific reference to doors. 

Yes, doors.

Possibly you’ve never noticed them. So I’m going to point them out. In fact, John was so focussed on doors and words related to them that he occasionally offered us some really awkward constructions. Check out the words in bold: Simon Peter was following Jesus, and so was another disciple. Now that disciple was known to the high priest, and entered with Jesus into the court of the high priest, but Peter was standing at the door outside. So the other disciple, who was known to the high priest, went out and spoke to the doorkeeper, and brought Peter in. (John 18:15-16)

It would be so much simpler if we had a name instead of ‘the other disciple, who was known to the high priest’. Many commentators believe the ‘other disciple’ was John himself and this is his rather inelegant attempt at humility. However, I don’t believe that needs to be the case at all. The disciple could have been anyone, male or female, close or distant. In my view, John simply didn’t want to mix his metaphors by mentioning a disciple whose name was not about a doorway.

He was consistent and almost intense in his single-mindedness.

John’s case was on two levels. One is a simple surface narrative, the other is hidden in the Hebrew nuances behind the Greek words. All of those names, phrases and words in bold in the following passage refer, in direct or indirect ways, to the threshold or cornerstone covenant which governed the entrances and exits of every Hebrew dwelling.

So the Roman cohort… arrested Jesus and bound Him, and led Him to Annas first; for he was father-in-law of Caiaphas, who was high priest that year. Now Caiaphas was the one who had advised the Jews that it was expedient for one man to die on behalf of the people. Simon Peter was following Jesus, and so was another disciple. Now that disciple… entered with Jesus… but Peter was standing at the door outside. So the other disciple… spoke to the doorkeeper, and brought Peter in.  Then the slave-girl who kept the door said to Peter, ‘You are not also one of this man’s disciples, are you?’ He said, ‘I am not.’ Now the slaves… were standing there, having made a charcoal fire, for it was cold… and Peter was also with them… The high priest then questioned Jesus about His disciples, and about His teaching… one of the officers standing nearby struck Jesus… So Annas sent Him bound to Caiaphas the high priest.

Now Simon Peter was standing and warming himself. So they said to him, ‘You are not also one of His disciples, are you?’ He denied it, and said, ‘I am not.’ One of the slaves of the high priest, being a relative of the one whose ear Peter cut off, said, ‘Did I not see you in the garden with Him?’ Peter then denied it again, and immediately a rooster crowed.

Then they led Jesus from Caiaphas into the Praetorium, and it was early; and they themselves did not enter into the Praetorium so that they would not be defiled, but might eat the Passover. (John 18:12-28 NAS)

Some of the words and phrases are very surprising at first sight.  Let’s track them by beginning with the last one: Passover (or Pesach).  

Well over a century ago, Henry Clay Trumball pointed out that the traditional interpretation of the blood painted on the doorposts at the first Passover is almost certainly wrong.  It was not to ward off the Angel of Death; rather it was a long-standing sign of hospitality. It meant: ‘We’ve killed a lamb and prepared a feast – you are welcome to our home. As you pass over the blood which has dripped down onto the cornerstone at the threshold, we come into a mutual obligation.  We are now each other’s covenant defenders.’ 

Now normally this agreement between host and guest lasted only for the visit, but when it involves God, it ascends to a whole new level. (If, for whatever reason the guest refused the hospitality, he would trample on the threshold stone. This was a most grievous insult. The failure of the host to defend the guest was also a serious offence and the stories in Scripture involving threshold covenant violation are amongst the most gruesome of all.)

The cornerstone or threshold stone onto which the sacrificial blood dripped from the lintel was a wide basin-like receptacle called a ‘caph’. It is the root of the names Cephas and Caiaphas, two of the principal characters in this account of John’s.  Cephas is the name Jesus gave Simon when he proclaimed Him as the Messiah – Peter comes from its Greek cognate.

Later, by natural association, ‘caph’ became the word for doorkeeper as well as linked to words like ‘kaphar’, atonement, reconciliation, forgiveness which is used in the famous cornerstone passage of Isaiah 28:16-18.  Other words to come from it are ‘kopher’, the price of a life, ransom, bribe (see Caiaphas’ words about the expediency of one man giving his life for the people and also recall the money offered to Judas), ‘kaph’, palm frond, palm of a hand (some versions, such as the KJV, specify Jesus was struck by the palm of a hand), ‘kapporeth’, mercy-seat, place of atonement (say no more!), ‘kaphash’, trample. Related words are ‘caphad’, wailing, lamentation (what Peter does later), ‘caphaq’, slap, strike (what the officer does), ‘cepheq’, mock, scorn (what the soldiers do).

In fact, there’s heaps more allusions but this is enough to make a start. Well, maybe I’ll mention just one more: Annas comes from the word for grace which is connected to a word for dedication. This word for dedication is used for the ceremony of attaching a memorial to a doorway to commemorate God’s cornerstone covenant with His people, commanded in Deuteronomy 6:9.

Now from a Greek point of view John’s story shows a travesty of justice: the condemnation of an innocent man.

Underlying it is a very different point of view, one portraying a much greater tragedy: the violation of a covenant. Step by step, John took his Jewish readers through the issues involved.  They would have recalled exemplars throughout Scripture and instantly got the point we miss: just as the city of Sodom was destroyed and the tribe of Benjamin was all but annihilated because of a single violation of a threshold covenant, so follow the dire consequences for the nation.

Annas fluffed the moment of grace and dedication, Caiaphas muffed the welcome and proclamation of the Messiah, Cephas (Peter) got that bit right but then stumbled on the true threshold – but Cephas is also the one who provides us with hope.

John is telling not just a story about a threshold covenant but about name covenants as well. And in the duplication of Cephas and Caiaphas (yes, ‘kephel’, doubling is another ‘caph’-related word), we see not only choice writ large, but what might-have-been. The name ‘Caiaphas’ suggests that it was this high priest’s destiny to recognise and announce the Messiah. Instead he chose to make the Messiah’s life the price of safety for the nation. That too fits his name but in a very negative way. Cephas, on the other hand, steps up from stumbling into restoration.

Twelve months ago, I wasn’t aware such a thing as a threshold covenant existed, let alone the impact it can have. The learning curve in the last year has felt as if it has gone straight up the side of a cliff.

I’ve discovered several things:

  1. Any threshold requires a sacrifice. That’s their nature from time immemorial.
  2. Most of us are stuck at the threshold, unable to go through the door which opens into our destiny. We are subject to various degrees of constriction and wasting.
  3. Many of us sacrifice ourselves at the threshold.

And this brings me back to writing.

If we have to make a sacrifice to get our writing out, what should it be? There are some writers willing to sacrifice an overt Christian message to ensure a book’s entry into the trade market. Not an option for me, though it’s something I’ve seriously considered in the past, so I understand it. There are some writers willing to sacrifice the book’s entry into the market to preserve their own style. This is a sacrifice on the threshold that I don’t understand. Or maybe I do. It’s far too easy to be unwittingly complicit with the spirits of constriction and wasting at the threshold, to affirm with our heads but deny with our hearts that ‘Jesus is Lord’.

Even Cephas needed restoring. How much more do we?


  1. Alison Collins

    There must be a clue in what you said about the first passover. How do we make a covenant with the guest (Jesus) instead of the gatekeeper? Interesting that Peter gets in by speaking to the doorkeeper, and then has a difficult time. Was there any other way for him to get in? Do you think maybe we might be missing our side of defending God/the gospel somehow, and trying to defend ourselves instead? I don’t know.


    • I think this is a very complex question. In some respects, Peter has a difficult time before getting in, and it only got worse.

      The only thing I’m sure about here is that I don’t know much and am on a constant journey of discovery with respect to doors and thresholds. One very interesting sidelight to this is that the “shield” of faith, mentioned in Ephesians 6, is thureos from the Greek word for door, ultimately from the concept of a door stop or door stone. This is the only instance of thureos in the Bible: we have nothing to compare it with. Therefore, it’s difficult to know if it’s just a reference to a shield or whether it is intended to have the resonance of the threshold stone with all its Passover connotations.

  2. Anne, this is a wonderful post! However, I feel that while Mr. Trumball made an important observation about the meaning of blood on the doorposts and lintel in their normal usage, this didn’t tell the whole truth about these things for the Passover. His emphasis removed the ultimate teaching: when the blood was applied and then perceived, the Angel of Death did pass over those households because of it. I don’t understand his limiting of the meaning(s) of the applied blood — so important!

    So enjoyed this post though! The importance of the hospitality shown by blood on the doorposts and lintel makes what happened in Judges all the more horrible, as you say. She was thrust outdoors, abused, and crawled back, pleaded at that door, lay dying, wasn’t admitted…Terrible.

    • Hi Maria

      Mr Trumball did indeed speak of the Angel of Death but to point out that, when the angel saw the blood, he knew that God had been welcomed into the house and was its covenant defender. Therefore it passed by, rather than passed over. It is his contention that the original term Pesach or Passover refers to the “pass over of God” – that is God passing over the blood on the threshold stone, an action that traditionally meant an acceptance of the welcome offered and the feast prepared. It also meant that both host and guest were now in relationship, a covenantal relationship at that.

      This is consistent with Middle Eastern practice, even to the present day. And not just the Middle East. The massacre at Glencoe is one of just many slaughters which occurred in the history of Scotland but this one is particularly renowned because it involves the failure to honour the obligations of hospitality encoded in a threshold covenant.

      Going back to “Pesach”, it is said to mean leap, spring or pass over. It makes more sense with these alternative meanings that the original meaning of Passover is consistent with stepping over something, rather than passing by something and avoiding it.

      As a covenantal welcome, it is connected to the tradition of “carrying a bride across the threshold”. It is like a pass over: you are welcome to this house and I promise to defend you until death do us part.

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