The Life of Jesus : A Brief Assessment
Introductory Comment: The following essay is an adaptation of the concluding section of my book Jesus After Two Thousand Years: What He Really Said and Did (London: SCM Press, 2000 and Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 2001), pp. 686-693. Based on a translation from the original German by Dr. John Bowden, to whom I am duly grateful, the present text represents a revision I have made in collaboration with Tom Hall, whose diligent efforts are especially appreciated in view of his strong disagreement with several of my key conclusions. While the book remains a useful compendium for quick reference or for detailed study, the present brief sketch aims to transform the authentic words and actions of Jesus into a readable narrative.
Since the images people use in their speech reflect their surroundings, it is clear that Jesus came from a small agricultural village. The world of his parables is a rural one. Jesus is familiar with the sower in the field,1 the shepherd with his herd,2 the birds of the sky3 and the lilies of the field.4 Even the mustard plant, commonly considered a weed in the garden, becomes for this peripatetic provincial an image of the in-breaking kingdom of God.5
Jesus grew up in a family of five brothers and at least two sisters in the Galilean village of Nazareth. He was probably the oldest. His mother tongue was Aramaic, but he likely gained some proficiency in colloquial Greek. He learned the woodworker’s craft from his father. Like most of his contemporaries, he could not read or write, but was able to obtain a considerable religious education in the local synagogue. At Sabbath services and on other occasions he acquired by word of mouth parts of the Torah, prophetic teachings and predictions, and exciting stories which surely included the narratives about Elijah and Elisha – the prophets whose miraculous deeds inspired a good deal of contemporary popular piety.
The limitations imposed by his environment become apparent when we contrast his situation with that of his close contemporary, the apostle Paul. That Paul came not from a village but a city is likewise indicated by his habitual images. His letters portray city life – with the stalls of traders,6 a tutor holding the hands of his little charges on the way to school,7 and a solemn triumphal procession moving through the streets.8 Paul often takes his imagery from warfare,9 and even soldiers’ trumpets provide him with a comparison.10 Similarly, his arguments employ parallels from the legal sphere,11 the theatre12 and athletic competitions.13 Jesus probably never visited a theatre or an arena, though he may have found work in the city of Sepphoris, a center of Greek culture only about three miles from Nazareth.
Unlike Jesus, Paul was highly literate, having received both a Jewish and a Greek education. And though his mother tongue was Greek, he had a good command of Aramaic. Roman citizenship endowed him with numerous privileges. By origin and education Paul was as thoroughly cosmopolitan as Jesus was provincial. Had they ever met, social barriers would have discouraged communication, and at any rate they might well have had little to share. Paul would probably have chuckled at the country bumpkin from Galilee, or he might simply have shrugged his shoulders. Jesus’ reaction to Paul would probably not have been any warmer. In any case he would hardly have understood Paul’s pedantic theological demonstrations, for scholarly exegesis of commandments, prophets, and scriptures with all its nice distinctions were not to his taste.
And yet the two shared important assumptions and goals. Jesus and Paul were committed Jews, proud and eager to serve the one God who had created heaven and earth and chosen Israel. Both acted in the certainty that their God had destined Jerusalem to be the center of the earth. Here the “Savior” would come at the end of days; and here divinely ordained sacrifices were offered and great festivals like Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacles established the consecrated unity of the cycles of seasons and years. It should also be noted that both Jesus and Paul displayed the gift of exorcism, and that both considered themselves to have struggled successfully against Satan.
Every life is affected by special features that range from inborn traits to culturally acquired beliefs and values to the workings of sheer chance. In Paul’s case, for example, an illness that tormented him to the end of his life evidently made him particularly susceptible to ecstatic experiences. He hints at this when he speaks about the thorn in the flesh, or the angel of Satan which – of course at God’s bidding – keeps pummeling him.14 Jesus suffered from an even harsher affliction, a blot on his reputation that originated with his mother; for apparently this, her first-born child, had been fathered in dubious circumstances. In our earliest written source he is contemptuously labeled “son of Mary,”15 and Matthew’s birth story recognizes the lack of a father and immediately introduces the Holy Spirit as a begetter.16 Not only that, but in his genealogy of the Messiah, Matthew mitigates the charge of immoral behavior by including four female ancestors with questionable or immoral associations17 – women whose notoriety had clearly not deterred God from his plan to raise up Jesus, the son of Mary, to be the Messiah and Son of God.
But that is a carefully constructed theological interpretation; the often harsh facts of life are not always so pretty, and Jesus came to feel this to an increasing extent. From the very first, no doubt, people in his hometown of Nazareth either shunned or attacked him as a bastard without a proper father. Hence the taunt “son of Mary.” His later adoption by Joseph – long before he rose to public notice – did not remove the stigma of being regarded as the son of a prostitute. It is hardly unreasonable to suppose that his later acceptance of those who were despised as sinners and outcasts reflects his own bitter experience of blameless rejection. Such a sense of alienation may also account for his difficult relationship to his own biological family. Following the evidently early death of his adoptive father, he would normally have been expected, as the oldest son, to assume responsibility for the family, especially his mother. But the sources tell another story. For Jesus the fourth commandment appears to have had little attraction; he chose the way of radical separation.
However, insults and inclinations are not in themselves enough to give rise to a movement. There must be other motivations from other people. In Jesus’ case, the key stimulus was the figure of John the Baptist.
John was one of a long line of Jewish prophets who called for repentance in the face of the imminent day of God. Yet like other prophets, he mitigated the threat of judgment with the promise of forgiveness for all those who repented and accepted his baptism. This guarantee of escaping God’s wrath gave his message great appeal and led numerous Jews to come to him beside the Jordan. Among them was Jesus the Galilean who, burdened with a nagging sense of unfulfillment, had come south and found at least temporary relief in the circle around John the Baptist. Here was a new kind of family – one very different from his biological family, and more spiritually nurturing. Now he belonged to a group of ascetics whose only obedience was to God and whose gratitude for this one final opportunity for repentance was palpable and genuine.
Clearly this eccentric prophet in the Jordan wilderness and his followers worried and indeed challenged the members of the priestly aristocracy in Jerusalem. What was this nondescript agitator trying to do with his obvious parody of the Twelve Tribes crossing the river under Joshua and the establishment of the pure desert religion of the Tabernacle in the land? Had not the supervision, administration and execution of the sacrifices that brought about atonement long since been entrusted to them alone by God? But as long as the temple was not in immediate danger, they tried to ignore the exotic Baptist sect by the Jordan. Anyway, Roman oppression had produced an abundance of “inspired” prophets with all sorts of messages – messianic and otherwise. But they could not forever overlook the fact that John was dangerous. As people began to understand – and perhaps even concur in – his implied charge of temple corruption, things would heat up for the authorities. Worse yet, his preaching had unsettling political implications, since their jurisdiction depended on collaboration with Rome; and John was preaching the rule of God, not Caesar. Indeed, Herod Antipas, the ruler of the area in which Jesus lived, soon recognized the underlying political radicalism, and had John summarily executed as a messianic pretender.
It is not clear how long Jesus remained in the Baptist’s company, but the rivalry between the disciples of Jesus and those of John shows that Jesus must have already gone his own way before the Baptist’s death. That defection must not be seen as a break with Jewish tradition; rather it resulted from Jesus’ re-focusing of John’s preaching. This new dispensation evolved from three sources. First, Jesus was uncomfortable with John’s fundamentally ascetic attitude. Second, this aversion stemmed in considerable measure from his powerful experience of the kingdom of God that was realized in meals at which all were welcome. Third, he discovered a gift for healing, and found in it an overwhelming experience – one he also associated with the presence of God.
We can no longer claim to be completely clear about the substantive or chronological connection between these three points, but it is important to note that none of the three characteristics is ever attributed to John. Clearly they mark a turning point in Jesus’ spiritual development. However, two or possibly three similarities between them seem rooted in the Baptist’s religious convictions. First, Jesus shared with John an unshakable commitment to following and expounding the will of God. Second, like John he remained unmarried, as did also the apostle Paul. This point is all the more worth noting since it was considered the religious obligation of every male Jew to father descendants. Third, Jesus may have shared with John the expectation of an imminent final judgment, though this point depends more on interpretation than on solid evidence.