Skip to: Site Menu | Main content

From Jesus to Christ.
The Origins of the New Testament Images of Jesus.

          Debate on who was Jesus of Nazareth continues at a roiling pitch, and consensus - even on issues so basic as what constitutes evidence and how to construe it - seems a distant hope.

Second Edition, Yale University Press Nota Bene Series. 2000.

By Paula Fredriksen
William Goodwin Aurelio
Professor of the Appreciation of Scripture
Boston University School of Theology
 
INTRODUCTION to the New Edition

    Who was Jesus of Nazareth? How did he fit into his native religious context, late Second Temple Judaism? Why does such a manifestly Jewish religious figure end up dying a political, Roman death? Does the unarguable fact that some of his close disciples were convinced that God had raised Jesus from the dead stand in any meaningful relation to the message he proclaimed during his lifetime? How does the itinerant mission of an Aramaic-speaking Galilean Jew relate to the triumphant cosmic agent whose imminent apocalyptic return was so blazingly announced, within twenty years of his crucifixion, by his apostle, Paul? And how does any of this account for the momentous shift in the make-up of the movement, from almost exclusively Jewish to increasingly Gentile, to which Paul’s letters, mid-first century, already attest?

    Over the past fifteen years a seemingly unending flood of works considering these questions has inundated scholars, students and the nonspecialist reading public alike. Paperbacks proliferate as the range of portraits of Jesus broadens. In recent scholarship, Jesus has been imagined and presented as a type of first-century shaman figure; as a Cynic-sort of wandering wise man; as a visionary radical and social reformer preaching egalitarian ethics to the destitute; as a Galilean regionalist alienated from the elitism of Judean religious conventions (like Temple and Torah); as a champion of national liberation and, on the contrary, as its opponent and critic — on and on1. All these figures are presented with rigorous academic argument and methodology; all are defended with appeals to the ancient data. Debate continues at a roiling pitch, and consensus — even on issues so basic as what constitutes evidence and how to construe it — seems a distant hope.

    Reconstructions of the historical figure of Jesus currently seem polarized around two basic interpretive options: Jesus as a teacher of (some sort of) ethics, or Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet of God’s coming Kingdom2. Advocates of the first position tend to privilege the sayings traditions in the Gospels as premier evidence for understanding Jesus; advocates of the second, specifically those sayings about the coming Kingdom of God (attested not only by the evangelists but also by Paul), and the actions attributed to Jesus during his mission. Applying new methods from other fields (social and cultural anthropology, political science, comparative literature) to the early Christian material, scholars have widened the scope of the search as the effort to understand Jesus in turn involves efforts to understand his context. We now see the quests for the historical John the Baptist (Prophetic? Anti-Temple? For or against traditional construals of purity?), the historical Galilee (urbanized and Hellenized? Temple-oriented or cosmopolitan? With a thin crust of the wealthy exploiting huge masses of the destitute, or with a healthy mix of farming and marketing within a generally well-fed village culture?), and the historical Temple (object of peasant resentment, preserve of the priestly elites, hotbed of nationalism, home base of a quisling aristocracy?)3.

    In From Jesus to Christ, I touched only lightly on many of these issues. I chose instead to stay focused on the differences in the New Testament’s portrayals of Jesus. To account for their variety and growth, I attempted to reconstruct the Christian movement’s varying adjustments to its unanticipated circumstances: Time’s continuation, the Kingdom’s delay, decreasing success among Jews, increasing — indeed, surprising — success among former pagans. The formative context for the growth of the movement’s different images of Jesus, traced in the evidence from Paul’s letters through the Gospels and Acts, was "too many Gentiles, too few Jews, and no End in sight" (p. 169; for the full reconstruction, pp. 142-176). The historical Jesus himself, in consequence, played almost a cameo role in my study. At the center of the book, like the slim neck of an hourglass, stood my sole chapter specifically on Jesus of Nazareth, a scant four pages long (pp. 127-130). All my sifting through the later Christian traditions had made him that much more elusive.

    But the people who read my book, who took my classes or wrote me letters or invited me to speak, would not let me stay off the hook. The sweep of subsequent Christian tradition, important as it was for understanding the shape of the New Testament evidence, was finally not as important to them as the historical figure of Jesus himself. Time and again — in the classroom; before church or synagogue groups of all different denominations; together with communities engaged in interfaith dialogue; in front of nonspecialist audiences either directly or via the television camera — I was driven back onto the effort to construct an historically coherent image of the figure whose Jewish life and Roman death stand at the source of Christianity.

    Six years after Yale brought out From Jesus to Christ, I went to Jerusalem for 1994-1995 to teach in the religion department at the Hebrew University. I was well into a new project on Augustine and Judaism; I had finally managed, so I thought, to free myself intellectually from the tar baby of Jesus scholarship. Two events then conspired to prove me wrong. First, I received an invitation to deliver a plenary address on current work on the historical Jesus at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion/ Society of Biblical Literature. This plunged me into an intensive spell of reading and rereading the works of my colleagues that had appeared since I had written mine. My exclusive concentration allowed me to see patterns in their scholarship that, in turn, had me rethinking my own. Second, my friend Oded Irshai of the Hebrew University’s Department of Jewish History volunteered to take me on a walk through Herod’s Jerusalem. He may have meant it as a one-time offer, but did not protest my interpreting it as a standing invitation. No matter where in the old Jewish Quarter we’d start off from, we would always end up at the south-side excavations, looking up at the massive stones circumventing the mount where once the Second Temple had stood. The physical experience of standing in that place got me rethinking my earlier work, too.

    The end result, perhaps, was inevitable: I too have added yet one more book to the growing pile on the historical Jesus. Working on Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews (Knopf, 1999) created for me a critical promontory from which I could survey recent scholarship, critique my own, and see afresh the problems of evidence and argument that shape the field. Consequently, I have changed my mind on several issues since publishing From Jesus to Christ. When Yale decided to reprint the book, my editor Chuck Grench generously offered me the chance to write a new introduction, explaining what I now think and why. What follows here, then, are my thoughts on the field as I now see it, as well as my pentimento.

II.

    Who wrote the Gospels, Jews or Gentiles? No one knows, though scholars, on the basis of internal evidence, will venture various "ethnic" identifications. Though I was uncertain, in From Jesus to Christ I worked with an operating assumption that at least Mark and Luke were Gentiles. The author of Matthew is universally regarded as Jewish; for the last thirty or so years, especially after the influential work of Louis Martyn4, so also the author of John. Arguments for Luke can go either way, and second-century ecclesiastical tradition holds that the author was a gentile companion of Paul’s. The author’s fluency with the Septuagint, however, combined with the probable date of composition (late first century) incline me now to suppose that he, too, was a Jew: The Bible was a bulky collection of books — scrolls, actually — that would not have been circulating or easily accessible outside of a synagogue context in this early period.

    What about Mark? Again, any answer is speculative. Ancient church tradition identifies the author as a Gentile, a companion of Peter’s in Rome. Many modern scholars likewise identify him as Gentile: he demonstrates little of the familiarity with Jewish traditions and scriptures that Luke and Matthew so conspicuously display, nor does he evince close (if hostile) relations with local synagogue communities in the way that John does. On this I have changed my mind: I had said that Mark was a Gentile; I now think that he, too, was a Jew. If Mark were a Jew, one colleague has observed to me, he was an extremely ignorant one. True. Ignorance of course is no respecter of persons or ethnic groups, and not everyone in the early movement could have Paul’s education. But the very early date of the Gospel’s composition (some time, I still think, shortly post-70), its scriptural underpinnings (evident especially in the Passion narrative), and the stimulus to compose given (again, I still think) by the Temple’s recent destruction all incline me to suspect that its author, too, was Jewish.

    Why does it matter? In part, because the implied social and religious location of the author gives us a jumping-off point for speculations about his community -- whether it, too, were Jewish, Gentile, or some mix — and thus for speculations on what they might have understood when hearing the Gospel. And such considerations can help when evaluating recent arguments made by some scholars that Jesus rejected and taught against the biblical laws of purity. A Jewish audience, for example, would have a more concrete understanding of Mark’s Jesus’ command to the cured leper to "go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded" (Mk 1:44): the order would evoke for them the rituals of purification prescribed in Leviticus 145, and would also conjure the (now destroyed) Temple in Jerusalem, where such offerings had been made.

    Of course, any ancient audience, whether Jewish or even completely Gentile, would have understood that Mark’s Jesus, by evoking a situation calling for offerings and a priest, alluded to an etiquette of purification6. Sacrifice requires proximity to an altar, and such proximity (that is, to any god’s altar) universally required (some sort of) preparatory purification: a brief preceding period of sexual abstinence, for example, and/or some sort of immersion or other ablution. Nobody in antiquity did the equivalent of park-the-car-and-run-into-the-sanctuary. But Jewish hearers — Matthew’s certainly; Luke’s and John’s probably; and I think also Mark’s — would have specific associations through their biblical culture with what this would have entailed, as would those Gentile hearers ("God-fearers") who had been associated with the synagogue. Accordingly, the attitude of the author toward Jewish scripture generally and the biblical purity laws in particular, as well as the significance of his depiction of Jesus on these same points, is more complex than a straightforward "anti-purity" interpretation will allow.

    What was Jesus’ Galilee like? On this point current interpretive debate roars, not least of all because of the important role played by social theory, economics, and comparative methods in interpreting the various data, literary and archaeological. The hope of such an approach is that, by using theory, we can wring more information from our data. If we know from studies of millenarianism in other cultures, for example, that perceived economic deprivation contributes to the mentality of the movement, we could have an interpretive grid on which to map the social realities of ancient Galilee. On this view, Jesus' audience, to the degree that they received his message of the impending Kingdom, would have been or felt themselves to be economically or socially deprived, too; hence his particular appeal to the disenfranchised — the sinner, the toll collector, the prostitute, and the poor. Or, if aristocratic empires run on the systematic and ruthless exploitation of their peasants, and the Roman Empire had exactly this sort of class structure, then peasants within the Empire — all peasants, not just Jewish ones— must have been exploited too. In this reconstruction, Jesus when speaking to (Galilean) peasants would address not just the poor, but the powerless and destitute. Or, if the texts and institutions of a Great Tradition — in Jesus' culture and period, literacy, sacrifices, knowledge of Torah, or access to the Temple-- rest with an identifiable elite (aristocratic priests, scribes and Pharisees), those disempowered by this structure will combat their oppression with subversive counter-traditions that are naturally not as visible in our data, because texts and Temple are remnants from the elites. On this construction, Jesus as peasant teacher would have spoken and acted in ways subversive of the Great Tradition's institutions. And his followers would have responded because they, too, felt alienated -- by the Temple, for example, or the laws of purity, or by literate scribal traditions when their own -- the "little" tradition -- were popular and oral, and so on7.

    The method we use, in other words, by organizing our sparse data according to its criteria, holds out the promise of helping us perceive motives or meanings or social dynamics that are disguised, only implied, or perhaps otherwise invisible in the record once our positive evidence runs out. The method's application serves to provides a 'plot' by which we can organize our data into a story: the attractions of Jesus' message, or the reasons for his execution, can accordingly be explained by appeal to the method's criteria of meaning — class antagonism, hostility between a subversive peasant teacher and the representatives of the Great Tradition (priests, Pharisees), and so on. Theory-informed history has explanatory elegance.

    The danger, of course, is that, absent positive evidence, we have little way to test the conclusions the method offers us. If theory organizes data to begin with, arguments for its validation can easily start running in circles. Before bringing on Melanesian cargo-cults or nineteenth-century Sicilian bandits, then, we need first to have a long hard look at Josephus, whose writings provide us with descriptions of the Galilee both political and social. And, as E.P. Sanders has tirelessly pointed out, what Josephus does not say matters as much as what he does8. The Galilee in Jesus’ lifetime was ruled by Antipas, one of Herod’s sons. Unlike his brother Archelaus to the south, Antipas enjoyed a long and quiet reign from 4 BCE to 39 CE — virtually the whole period of Jesus’ life. Jews, not Romans, ran the Galilee. Had the people been near starvation, oppressed by outrageous taxes, or had Antipas flagrantly violated Jewish Law, we would hear the rumble in Josephus. But he says nothing, whether about riots, religious antagonisms or discontent rising to active unrest. No Roman troops were called in from Syria to protect their client Antipas from turmoil at home. Josephus speaks rather of the fertility of the Galilee and of its numerous prosperous villages(BJ 3.43).

    Without the lens of imported interdisciplinary methods, then, it’s hard to see economic deprivation and political oppression as an operative context for Jesus’ mission. A Roman presence was virtually non-existent in Jesus’ Galilee, which was administered by a Jewish ruler. And while, then as now, nobody much likes paying taxes, we have no evidence of Galileans feeling crushed under a heavy tax burden.

    In light of all this, I repent of my summary paragraph on the political, economic and religious environment of Jesus’ Galilee on p. 93. People may indeed have rebelled "time and time again" in the course of the first century, but in Jesus’ neighborhood during his lifetime, they did not. Why, then, did I describe the Galilee, as I did? In part because of what I turn to when looking for explanation. Like many modern people, I tend to see social and economic factors as more "real" than — and in that sense somehow fundamentally causative of — religious ideas. That millenarianism flourishes in situations of economic deprivation has been gospel at least since Friedrich Engels wrote his essay comparing early Christian gatherings to contemporary workers’ cells.

    Were I writing this paragraph now, I would be more cautious. We have so many texts other than, for example, the Gospels, Paul’s letters, and the Dead Sea Scrolls that speak of the coming of God’s kingdom, but for which we have very little clue of social context: Must we presuppose a generalized, universal sense of disempowerment for these anonymous communities, too? On what basis other than the assumptions of a theory of relative deprivation? Any theory so universalized soon loses its explanatory value. Economic or political reductionism — like its first-century equivalent, allegorical interpretation — simply takes the terms we have from one context and translates them into its own frame of reference, giving them a new, and more congenial, meaning, one that says more about the method of interpretation and the orientation of the interpreter than about the data it supposedly interprets.

    "The historian meets the gap between himself and others at its most sharp and uncompromising," Peter Brown has observed. "The dead are irreducible."9 Ancient people in general, ancient Jews in particular, lived in a world radically different from our own, a world where leprosy and death defiled, where ashes and water made clean, and where one drew near the altar of God with purifications, blood offerings, and awe. To approach them, we need to reimagine their universe, not project our categories of meaning onto them. The past we construct from our theories is accessible and meaningful to us, because our world is the source of the interpretive criteria. When drawing on theory, we run the risk of obscuring rather than interpreting the past of our ancient subjects. Better, then, to try to hear what they seemed to think was important, to acknowledge how different from us they were, than to reconfigure them to fit our categories of meaning. The fear of false familiarity is the beginning of historical wisdom.

    I incline now to see the message of biblical redemption itself as the fundamental factor shaping Jesus’ mission and his supporters’ response to him. Both he and they exist as points along an arc that stretches roughly from the Maccabees to the Mishna, which passes from the prophecies of Daniel through the letters of Paul, from the later books of the classical prophets -- Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel -- in the Jewish canon to the Book of Revelation, which concludes the New Testament. It is the arc of a biblical perspective on God and history that scholars have labeled apocalyptic eschatology: the belief that God is good, that he will not countenance evil indefinitely, that in the End he will act to restore and redeem. This is what binds Jesus together with his predecessors (like the Baptizer), his supporters, and his later apostles (like Paul). No sketch of the economic conditions of the Galilee can have a sufficient or convincing explanatory effect on all the data — in Paul, in the Gospels, in Josephus, in the pseudepigrapha, in the archaeological record — in the way that these biblical apocalyptic commitments do.

    The coins of the moneychangers. Describing how the Temple operated in Jesus’ day, I wrote, "Pilgrims, coming from all parts, brought various currency; and moneychangers, doubtless for a charge, converted these to the Temple’s standard coinage, which bore no offensive images" (p. 112). This statement is true, but not in the way I intended when I wrote it. Like everyone else, I "knew" that the Temple’s coins, like the Temple’s worship, had to be aniconic, and this presumption stands behind my sentence above. No offensive images marred the Temple’s standard coinage, but this was because the image that the coins did display — the head of the god Melkart, a Tyrian deity, on one surface and a Ptolemaic eagle on the other — evidently gave no offense10. The Tyrian shekel was the Temple’s coin of choice for centuries, in part for the eminently practical reason that its silver content was high and stable. Supposed aniconism was never at issue. This whole construction about imageless coins is a case of New Testament scholars, unfamiliar with the real estate of Second Temple Judaism but very familiar with the Ten Commandments, imagining what should have been the case11.

    Markan Chronology and the Temple Tantrum. During my bout of intensive reading for my 1994 plenary address, I was startled to note a single area of scholarly consensus. No matter how at odds with each other’s constructions of Jesus, my colleagues, to a man, inclined to draw on the chronology of Mark, with its narrative of Jesus traveling one-way from the Galilee to Judea, to Jerusalem for Passover in his first and only trip to the city during his mission. Shortly after arriving in Jerusalem, Jesus becomes the target of fatal priestly hostility, which ultimately leads him to Pilate, and the cross. What had happened? Here the consensus was clear, and it too drew directly on Mark. Jesus, by scattering the money changers and turning over the tables of "those who sold," had enacted a prophecy of the Temple’s coming destruction. In so doing, he moved himself into the cross-hairs of the priests.

    I had held these views myself, and present them in From Jesus to Christ (pp. 111-122, 129). While in Jerusalem, however, my confidence in this reconstruction began seriously to erode. The first reason was from evidence internal to New Testament texts. Paul, who knew at least several of the original disciples of Jesus and who himself speaks with authority on coming Kingdom and thus Christ’s return, never mentions such a prophecy at all when he reviews the signs of the End. How could he not have known it? If he had, how could he not have used it?

    Also, the Synoptic evangelists themselves, who otherwise unabashedly present Jesus predicting the Temple’s destruction — "Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down!" Mk 13:1 and parr.) — did not understand Jesus’ gesture in the Temple as such a prophecy. For them, as also for John, his action represents his repudiation of the way the Temple was run. If Jesus by this gesture (wrongly and anachronistically interpreted in church tradition as the "cleansing of the Temple") had intended to prophesy the Temple’s coming destruction, why did the evangelists — and especially Mark, for whom the Temple’s destruction is such a major theme — not understand it in this way? And if the gesture were so opaque and confusing to them, how meaningful could it have been to those contemporaries of Jesus at the Temple, who saw him act? And if the gesture’s meaning, and hence its effect on the crowd, were so uncertain, how worried need the priests have been about Jesus, his message, and his action?12

    Further, since 1988 I have learned more about the Temple, both from studying E.P. Sanders’ Judaism: Practice and Belief, and from my time in Israel. Sanders provides approximate measurements that give a sense of the sheer size of the place: the total circumference of the outermost wall ran to almost 9/10ths of a mile; twelve soccer fields, including stands, could be fit in; when necessary (as during the pilgrimage festivals, especially Passover) it could accommodate as many as 400,000 worshipers.13

    I have trouble visualizing space from numbers. It was not until I started walking around the Temple Mount that I began to understand how huge the Temple area — specifically its outermost court, around the perimeter of which, beneath the protection from sun or storm offered by the stoa or the Royal Portico, "those who sold" could be found — must have been. Its very size shrank the significance of Jesus’ putative action, and prompted the question: If Jesus had made such a gesture, how many would have seen it? Those in his retinue and those standing immediately around him. But how many, in the congestion and confusion of that holiday crowd, could have seen what was happening even, say, twenty feet away? Fifty feet? The effect of Jesus' gesture at eye-level would have been muffled, swallowed up by the sheer press of pilgrims. How worried, then, need the priests have been?

    Finally, my confidence in the historicity of the scene in the Temple and its role in bringing Jesus to his death steadily diminished as I contemplated two of the few virtually indisputable facts that we have from the earliest movement. The first concerns his death. Jesus of Nazareth was crucified. His manner of death implies a context. Crucifixion was a mode of execution that Rome reserved particularly for political insurrectionists. If Jesus died on a cross, then he died in a situation where Pilate was concerned about the effect that Jesus and his message might have had on the crowds massed in Jerusalem that Passover. But this inference runs head-on into a second, equally undisputed fact about the earliest Christian movement: though Jesus died as an insurrectionist, none of his followers did.14

    If Pilate, whether mistakenly or not, had truly considered Jesus guilty of spear-heading a seditious movement, more than just Jesus would have died. That fact that Jesus alone was killed suggests that Pilate knew perfectly well that he posed no political threat. But then that raises the more fundamental question: If Pilate knew Jesus were politically innocent, why crucifixion at all? If the prefect — or, as the Gospels depict, the priests — simply wanted Jesus dead, no public execution was necessary. They could have killed him by easier means. And the same Gospels’ insistence on Jesus’ very popularity that Passover (the priests resolve to have him killed, says Mark, "but not during the feast, lest there be a tumult of the people" 14:2) makes the choice of a public execution that much more mysterious.

    These two anomalous facts — Jesus was crucified; those closest to him were left alone — compelled me to reevaluate both the traditions preserved in the New Testament canon and the various portraits of Jesus offered by current scholarship. The sort of chronology implied in the Gospel of John — currently out of favor in most academic reconstructions — emerged (to my surprise) as the key to resolving the dilemma posed by the facts of Jesus’ execution and his disciples’ survival. Only multiple trips to Jerusalem, such as John portrays, could explain how Pilate knew with such certainty that Jesus was politically harmless: so the disciples survived. And only what the pilgrim crowd thought about Jesus — not what Jesus thought about himself — can explain Pilate’s use of crucifixion. The necessary dependence on the gesture at the Temple to explain Jesus’ death, hardwired into any reconstruction that keeps to the outlines of Mark’s presentation of Jesus’ mission, diminished accordingly.

    Undoubtably such a story circulated about Jesus: we have it attested in both Mark and John15 — though, significantly, not in Paul.16 But why would the story have started, if Jesus had not performed such an act? Absent evidence, speculations abound: I offer mine, briefly, here. I now incline to see the story of Jesus’ action in the Temple as a post-70 tradition, which harnessed the shock of the Temple’s destruction in such a way that it reinforced Christian belief. Jesus had disapproved of the Temple anyway (Mk 11); he predicted its destruction (Mk 13); what matters is the resurrection (Jn 2); its destruction means that the Kingdom, coupled with Jesus’ return, is at hand. When they see the Temple destroyed, Mark’s Jesus confides to his community, they will know that God "has already shortened the days," and that "this generation" — the generation straddling both Jesus’ lifetime and the Jewish War — "will not pass away before all these things take place" (Mk 13:29).

III.

 

    Much of what I said in From Jesus to Christ I still hold: the connectedness of the movement throughout its different phases, from Jesus through Paul to the evangelists; the way that Paul and the different evangelists deal with the delay of the Kingdom; the link Mark forges between the Second Coming and the destruction of the Temple. If I had to name what I think was its most important contribution to the debates about Jesus and earliest Christianity, I would single out my reconstruction of the mission in the Diaspora, and why it accommodated Gentiles from the beginning without requiring their conversion to Judaism.

    The "Law-free" mission to the Gentiles has long been viewed in New Testament scholarship as the particular, even revolutionary contribution of Pau to the early movement. Some scholars attribute the idea’s ultimate source to the "Hellenists," those shadowy Greek-speaking Jews resident in Jerusalem, represented by Stephen, whose story fills the opening of Acts. Others see the Gentiles’ reception into "the people of God" without the requirement of circumcision and Torah-observance (in brief, conversion to Judaism) as the implicit but logical extension of Jesus’ own message (even where he’s presented as quoting Leviticus!) to love the neighbor: Loving neighbors, even enemies, must mean loving Gentiles too.

    But the roots of the first-century Law-free mission are not Christian, nor even Jewish-Christian. They are specifically Jewish. They grew in the soil of apocalyptic eschatology. The belief that, at the End of Days when God revealed himself in glory, Gentiles would repudiate their idols and as Gentiles (that is, without converting to Judaism) acknowledge and worship the true God together with Israel is native to ancient Judaism itself. This theme of the inclusion of Gentiles in God’s Kingdom — a theme sounded in the classical prophets, various pseudepigrapha, the New Testament evidence, and later synagogue prayer (the Alenu) — coheres closely with the other data attesting to the apocalyptic commitments of the first Christian generation. Inclusion, not conversion. The first Christians realized socially what other Jews (if they thought about the question at all) may have only anticipated sometime off in an unknown future, because Christians believed that they lived already in an eschatological hour, in a brief final caesura is history between Christ’s resurrection and his return, when he would establish the Kingdom of his father. Some members of the movement, such as Paul, took the inclusion of Gentiles in the ekklesia as their mandate. Christian Gentiles are incorporated not because they are like "righteous Gentiles" — a theoretical but quotidian rabbinic category for Gentiles who do not worship idols — but because they are, within these earliest, spirit-filled communities, eschatological Gentiles, Gentiles who have repudiated their native traditions (or who had better! See Paul’s remarks, 1 Cor 5:11) because they have been adopted into God’s people through his Son (e.g., Rom 8, esp. v. 15).17

    Gentiles qua Gentiles are included in the earliest movement, from the time it began encountering interested Gentiles, because the earliest movement was Jewish and apocalyptic. The Bible thinks big — it begins Genesis with the creation of the universe, and gets to the calling of Abraham only in Genesis 12 — and apocalyptic thought tends to make biblical Big Thoughts bigger. More than Israel would be redeemed: So would the Gentiles. So too would the dead, even those who, despite Moses, had stayed in Egypt; even those who were lost in Assyria (Isaiah 27:12-13). If God could and would redeem Israel from exile, he could likewise redeem the Gentiles from their idolatry. After all, they were his children too. "Is God the God of the Jews only? Is he not also the God of the nations also? Yes, of the nations also, since God is one" (Rom 3:29-30) — the fundamental principle of Torah (cf. 3:31). The ultimate redemption of the nations along with Israel is native to this stratum of Jewish religious thinking. It is, as Paul urges, simply the application to salvation history of the foundational principle of the Sh’ma.

IV.

 

    How the field of historical Jesus research will develop in the future is hard to say. Just when all the reasonable (and even some unreasonable) interpretive options seem exhausted, another book comes along. Will all this work result in some net gain, some new insight, some improved understanding? I don’t know, but I hope so, particularly with regard to two related issues: the Christian study of Judaism, and the relation of theology to history.

    To the first point first. A notable characteristic of the current phase of the quest of the historical Jesus is the degree to which it draws upon the accomplishments in history, historiography and archaeology that have marked the past half-century of Jewish Studies. The more we know about Second Temple Judaism, the more we know, if not about Jesus directly, then about his native religious context. No serious work on Jesus places him outside that context. And yet that continues to be the effect of many scholarly descriptions of the Judaism of Jesus’ time. In too many "reconstructions," Judaism still functions as Jesus’ contrasting backdrop; his contemporaries, as some sort of moral inverse of Jesus himself. Thus: Jesus was egalitarian; his contemporaries affirmed hierarchy. Jesus was kind to women, or the poor, or the ill; his contemporaries scorned them. Jesus focused on ethics; they, on ritual. He preached and lived a politics of compassion; they practiced and enforced a politics of purity. Jesus taught a love of neighbor that extended naturally across ethnic or racial or national boundaries; they were consumed with nationalism and a concern for racial purity. No wonder he taught against them; no wonder they wanted him dead.

    Some scholars will soften the effect of such descriptions of Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries by insisting that they intend no value judgment by them. One group was simply hierarchical, oppressive, patriarchal, exclusionary and sexist, the other, egalitarian, inclusive and compassionate: Nothing pejorative intended! Or they will insist that Jesus criticized these contemporaries as an insider, a committed Jew: to see him as anti-Jewish when such criticism is intra-Jewish misconstrues his situation. By extension, these "reconstructions" of Jesus’ contemporaries are not anti-Jewish, either: they simply clarify what Jesus meant to say.18

    These sorts of tendentious descriptions of the "Judaism" from which Jesus supposedly sought to deliver his compatriots sets up a familiar comparison. Jesus, and by extension Christianity, was "good"; the Judaism of Jesus’ contemporaries — and especially of his opponents (the scribes, or the Pharisees, or the priests) was "bad." In effect if not intent, such descriptions perpetuate the long Christian tradition of scholarly anti-Judaism. I suppose it is a mark of progress that most of the currently-offered derogatory descriptions of Judaism are at least introduced with disclaimers of negative intent.

    But surely it is past time to put such characterizations — caricatures, really — to rest. They are both anachronistic and invidious, and as such, untenable both historically and morally. "Explaining" Jesus’ mission and the shape of subsequent Christianity by imagining Jews and Judaism as somehow their opposites usually provides a glimpse only at the idealized politics of the scholar writing. It also fails to address the single most secure fact we have about Jesus’ life: his death. No amount of intra-Jewish religious contention explains the crucifixion. The more the historical Jesus is truly seen as a Jew of his own time, the less this opposition of what he supposedly stood for to what the rest of his people supposedly valued will be able to pass as historical explanation.

    This brings me to my second point, on the relationship of theology and history. Many of the nonspecialist Christian readers of From Jesus to Christ have expressed their unease to me about the theological consequences of the quest for the historical Jesus. They felt that a Jewish Jesus leaves the modern believer with no place, theologically, to go. It seems a high price to pay for the benefit of critical thinking.

    Critical thought can make the familiar strange; or — to rephrase this observation in perhaps more appealing language — it refreshes one’s reading of traditional material, making the old, the familiar, new. This intellectual exercise is the necessary first step to encountering the historical figure of Jesus. I repeat: The fear of false familiarity is the beginning of historical wisdom. Insist that Jesus make immediate sense to us, and the past hardens into a mirror, a reflecting surface that will reveal only ourselves. Acknowledging, indeed being unafraid of, the huge distance between us and Jesus — as between us and any ancient person — and our texts can become windows, not mirrors. We peer through them to glimpse, however imperfectly, the human realities that ultimately stand behind them.

    What then might we see? If we look for Jesus, we will see the human being that even the stilted metaphysics of ancient high theology insisted had to be there. The attempt calls for a certain kind of religious courage, because it means decoupling history from theology, and allowing each with integrity to do their respective work. History requires the acknowledgment of difference and the priority of ancient context. This means that, if we start in search of the historical Jesus of Nazareth, then the person we seek will stand with his back to us, his face toward the faces of his own generation. They, not we, were his concern, the audience for his message. He was obliged to be intelligible not to us, but to them.

    But if modern believers require that Jesus be morally intelligible and religiously relevant to them, then it is to them that the necessary work of creative reinterpretation falls. Such a project is not historical (the critical construction of an ancient figure) but theological (the generation of contemporary meaning within particular religious communities). Multiple and conflicting theological claims inevitably result, as various as the different churches that stand behind them. For all their fundamental identity, in their details, nonetheless, the Catholic Jesus will be different from the Methodist Jesus will be different from the Armenian Apostolic Jesus will be different from the Lutheran Jesus. Not because the historical Jesus of Nazareth was likewise manifold, but because different traditions of meaning stand behind and inform these different modern communities. Historical research can only strive to reconstruct what Jesus meant, that is, to his other early first-century contemporaries — sympathizers, admirers, opponents, enemies. Theological creativity must strive to construct what Jesus means, now, to those who gather in his name. The two enterprises are related but distinct.

    In this sense, the modern Christian tolerance of doctrinal difference between churches, its principled ecumenicalism, is a good emotional and ethical model for tolerating historical difference, too. Keeping the distinctions between ancient persons and modern ones in view can prevent the use of false history as a kind of empirical prop for modern theological commitments (e.g., Jesus the anti-Temple agitator endorsing modern egalitarianism). History interprets the past. Theology reinterprets, not the past, but religious tradition. This theological reinterpretation should neither be mistaken for, nor presented as, historical description. And the reverse also is true: historical description cannot provide theological meaning.

    It was on a related point that I originally concluded From Jesus to Christ: "Bad history will result in bad theology, the subtle Docetism of anachronism," (p. 215). Might good history, then, result in good theology? (And what would that be?) Again, I don’t know. But I hope so.


1.Jesus the Shaman: Stevan L. Davies, Jesus the Healer (1995); Jesus the Cynic: Gerald F. Downing, Christ and the Cynics: Jesus and Other Radical Preachers in First-Century Tradition (1988), also Cynics and Christian Origins (1992); Burton Mack, A Myth of Innocence: Mark and Christian Origins (1988); Jesus the radical peasant reformer, especially John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus (1991) and Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (1994); Jesus the anti-Temple, anti-purity agitator, Marcus Borg, Jesus in Contemporary Scholarship (1994); specifically as an alienated Galilean regionalist and social bandit, Richard Horsley, Jesus and the Spiral of Violence (1987), and, for Jesus’ context, Galilee: History, Politics, People (1995); Jesus as champion of a new post-Torah anti-nationalist Judaism, N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God (1996).

2. The academic genealogy of the apocalyptic Jesus can be traced from Johannes Weiss and Albert Schweitzer in the 19th century to E.P. Sanders, Jesus and Judaism (1985) and The Historical Figure of Jesus (1993). I place myself within this stemma. John P. Meier’s huge, comprehensive and authoritative study, A Marginal Jew — which weighs in so far at well over 1600 pages distributed over his first two volumes (1991 and 1994) with more on the way — also presents Jesus in the apocalyptic, prophetic mode. Two recent briefer studies in this vein: Dale Allison, Jesus of Nazareth: Millenarian Prophet (1998) and Bart Ehrman, Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium (1999). For a review of some of the major works on the historical Jesus to 1994, see my article,"What You See is What You Get: Context and Content in Current Work on the Historical Jesus," Theology Today 52.1 (1995) 75-97.

3. Two recent examinations of John the Baptist are by Joan Taylor, The Immerser: John the Baptist within Second Temple Judaism (1997) and John Meier in Marginal Jew, vol. 2, pp.19-233. On Jesus’ Galilee: Horsley, Galilee; Sean Freyne, Galilee from Alexander the Great to Hadrian (1980) and Galilee, Jesus and the Gospels (1988); and Eric Meyers, "Jesus in his Galilean Context," Archaeology and the Galilee, ed. Douglas R. Edwards and C. Thomas McCollough (1997). The Temple looms large in the various reconstructions of Crossan, Borg, Wright, because all three define Jesus’ mission as anti-Temple. For an historical consideration of the Temple within late Second Temple Judaism, Sanders, Judaism: Practice and Belief, 63 BCE - 66 CE (1992).

4. History and Theology in the Fourth Gospel (1968); The Gospel of John in Christian History (1978).

5. There is no need to postulate a high level of education for the audience to be able to make these associations. Familiarity with the first five books of the Bible was the reason for the weekly convocations of Jews (the "synagogue") on the Sabbath both in the land of Israel and in the Diaspora. "For from early generations Moses has had in every city those who preach him," says James, Jesus’ brother, in Acts, "for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues," (Acts 15:21). Especially in diaspora synagogues, interested Gentiles would be present and could hear the Torah too.

6.The universality of purification practices in all ancient Mediterranean religions, not just Judaism, represents another huge complication if one wants to see Jesus as somehow opposing the Biblical purity laws: he would be incoherent not only to his Jewish hearers, but to any ancient person. On Jewish purity laws see now Jonathan Klawans, Impurity and Immorality in Ancient Judaism (2000); as these relate specifically to Jesus, my discussion in Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews (1999), pp. 197-214.

7. On Jesus’ Galilean hearers as destitute, esp. Crossan; on Galileans as preserving Israelite "little tradition" and thus resenting and resisting Judean "great tradition," esp. Horsley; cf. My discussion of the historical Galilee and how to look for it, Jesus of Nazareth, pp. 159-84.

8. See his review of the alternating periods of peace and domestic strife in Judaism, pp. 36-42; on Antipas and Jesus’ Galilee, Historical Figure, pp. 20-22.

9. Brown alludes here to the fourth/fifth centuries, but what he says is equally valuable for work in any historical period. The rest of this passage repays attention. Brown continues: "The men and women of the Late Roman Empire lived out their lives in their own way; they have left us stark evidence of this, without having given a thought to our delicate sensibilities, without having worried for a moment whether their hopes and fears ran counter to the common-sense of men of the twentieth century. In short, saved by the passing of fifteen hundred years from the need to reassure us, they could appear exactly as they were — every bit as odd as we are, as problematical, as difficult of access. To explore such people with sympathy, with trained insight, and with a large measure of common cunning, is to appreciate whast one of the greatest of them [scil. Augustine] said: ‘Grande profundum est ipse homo. . . Man is a vast deep. . . the hairs on his head are more easily numbered than are his feelings, and the movements of his heart,’" Religion and Society in the Age of St Augustine (1972), p. 20f.

10. See Peter Richardson’s discussion and review of the data in "Why Turn the Tables? Jesus’ Protest in the Temple Precincts," Society of Biblical Literature Seminar Papers (1992) 507-23. Richardson argues that Melkart’s image did offend Jesus.

11. Richardson points out as one example among the many available, M. Borg, Jesus: The New Vision (1987), p. 174.

12. The Gospel of John presents what is recognizably the same scene, but within an entirely different narrative chronology. John’s Jesus causes the scene in the Temple at the beginning of mission. He criticizes "those who sold" for turning the Temple into a "house of trade" (2:16). Finally, John interprets the gesture as a kind of disguised Passion prediction ("‘Destroy this Temple, and in three days I will raise it up,’ . . . but he spoke of the temple of his body" vv.19,21). John’s Jesus is in Jerusalem more often than in the Galilee, and this incident does not serve, as it does in the Synoptics, as the trip-switch for the Passion.

13. Sanders, Judaism, pp. 47-145. See esp. his chart comparing the measurements of the Temple with Salisbury cathedral and Temple Emanuel in New York, p. 67.

14. Sanders considers these questions in his closing discussion in Jesus and Judaism, pp. 294-340. They drive my reconstruction in Jesus of Nazareth; see pp. 8-11.

15. If John used Mark, this is no mystery. If his account is independent of Mark’s, then we have an instance of multiple attestation, which usually enhances the probable historicity of a reported event. See my discussion in Jesus of Nazareth, pp. 225-34.

16. I had noted this problem already in From Jesus to Christ, p. 172f.

18. I expanded this argument with full notes in "Judaism, the Circumcision of Gentiles, and Apocalyptic Hope: Another Look at Galatians 1 and 2," Journal of Theological Studies 42 (1991) 532-64. Now see also Scot McKnight, A Light Among the Gentiles (1991) and Martin Goodman, Mission or Conversion? (1994).

18. See my discussion of Borg, Crossan and Wright on these issues in "What You See is What you Get," pp. 83f., 86-91, 94-97.