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Chapter 10

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Chapter summary

Chapter 10

The Historical Jesus

Chapter Summary:

This chapter marks the turn from a literary study of the Gospels to a historical inquiry. Rather than focusing on the Gospel writers' beliefs about Jesus, we begin an exploration of the "historical Jesus:" what can we be relatively certain that he said and did?

Problems with Sources
Most historians agree that in order to reconstruct the life of a person from antiquity, they need a number of sources that can be dated close to the events they narrate. Ideally, these sources would be independent of one another and would not contradict each other. In addition, historians look for texts that are internally consistent and are not biased towards their subject matter. Since our investigations thus far have shown that there are disagreements between the Gospel accounts, and that they are biased, we should look at non-Christian sources to corroborate our evidence.

Jesus is not mentioned by any pagan writer in the first century. The first helpful pieces of information from pagan literature about Jesus' life come from Tacitus, a Roman historian writing around 115 C.E. Tacitus says that Pontius Pilate executed Jesus. In addition, Jesus is mentioned in Josephus' Antiquities of the Jews, a first-century Jewish text. Josephus says that Jesus was a teacher and a "doer of startling deeds" who had Jewish and Gentile followers. Josephus reports that the Jewish leaders accused Jesus and Pilate condemned him to the cross. In this passage, Josephus also states that Jesus was the messiah. Since Josephus never converted to Christianity, and since his works were copied and transmitted by Christians, we can be relatively sure that this "confession" was a later Christian insertion.

Since the non-Christian sources give us little helpful information, we must rely on Christian texts. As we have seen, the non-canonical Gospels are late and usually rely on earlier materials. Thus, they are of little use to historians seeking the historical Jesus. We might expect that Paul, the earliest New Testament author, would be a good source of information about the historical Jesus, but, in fact, Paul says surprisingly little about Jesus' life. Thus, historians must return to the New Testament Gospels for information about the historical Jesus.

Using our Sources
The earlier the better: Historians agree that sources closest to the events they narrate have a greater likelihood of containing historically reliable material because they have undergone fewer revisions in oral tradition. Our earliest sources, and, thus, those that historians favor, are Mark, Q, M, and L. Historians also suggest that passages reflecting a highly developed Christology are most likely the product of later traditions. Finally, passages that clearly slant the material toward the author's interests are suspect.

  • The more the better: It is better to have a number of independent witnesses to an event. That is, a stronger case for historical reliability can be made if a saying or event is mentioned by two or more authors who did not know or use each other's work
  • The more it works against the bias the better: The Criterion of Dissimilarity suggests that if a tradition goes against what a Christian author was likely to write or believe, it is most likely historically reliable. The assumption of this criterion is that Christians were not likely to invent stories that disagreed with their beliefs.
  • The more contextually credible the better: If a saying or deed of Jesus cannot plausibly be placed within a first-century Palestinian Jewish context, then it is probably not historically reliable.

Jewish Apocalypticism
One of the worldviews held by many Jews in the first-century is called "apocalypticism" (literally, "revealing" or "unveiling). The Jews were confronted with a long history of foreign rule, a history that raised many questions: if God had given the land to the Jews, why did a seemingly unending line of foreign powers rule over it? Why were the Jews suffering under these foreign regimes? One explanation that held sway for a long time was that the Jews' suffering was punishment for wrongdoing. For apocalypticists, however, this answer did not reflect the Jews' circumstances. The answer, according to apocalypticists, was that there were evil forces bent on destroying God's faithful people. They affirmed that God was ultimately in control, but he had temporarily relinquished power to evil forces. The time was coming, however, when God would regain control of the world, reward the righteous, and punish the wicked.

Jewish apocalypticists were dualists: they believed in evil and good, Satan and God, death and life. These were cosmic powers with which humans had to ally themselves. They believed that the suffering of the righteous would not subside until God broke into history and established his kingdom. For those who remained faithful, though, there was the promise of vindication. Finally, and most importantly, all of this would happen soon.

Jesus in his Apocalyptic Context
Many of the earliest sources we have for Jesus' life depict him as a Jewish apocalypticist. As such, he proclaimed the imminent end of the present age, which would entail the judgment of the world by the Son of Man, the destruction of evil, and the coming of the Kingdom of God. In addition, he taught that the Jews must repent and return to God.

Whether or not these earliest sources record a historically accurate portrayal of Jesus is the subject of much scholarly debate. Most scholars, however, agree that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet. If we analyze the Jesus traditions according to the criteria for determining the historical accuracy of a tradition as outlined above (the age and number of sources, their independence, their coherence with Christian belief, and their contextual credibility), we see that this portrayal of Jesus passes our criteria. The earliest sources for Jesus' life, teachings, and death (Mark, Q, M, and L) show him as an apocalypticist. These sources, moreover, are independent of one another. Many of the stories that show Jesus as an apocalypticist pass the criterion of dissimilarity, and all of them are contextually credible (we have already seen that apocalypticism was a part of several Jewish sects).

The Beginning and End as Keys to the Middle
Perhaps the most compelling reason to view Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet is the line of apocalypticism that precedes and follows him. Jesus associated with John the Baptist whose ministry was apocalyptic, and we know that the earliest Christian churches were formed on the expectation of the imminent coming kingdom of God. The only connection between John and the later Christian community is Jesus. It was Jesus' apocalypticism, first influenced by John the Baptist, that was the source of apocalypticism in the early church.

The Apocalyptic Deeds of Jesus
Christian descriptions of events leading up to Jesus' crucifixion also contribute to a portrayal of Jesus as an apocalypticist. If Jesus had been just a Jewish reformer, there would be no reason for Roman authorities to notice him. If his message was subversive, however, if he prophesied the downfall of the present regime and the coming of a new kingdom, there would, indeed, be reason to kill him.

Although the Romans crucified Jesus, the Gospels indicate that it was done at the instigation of the Jewish leaders. Jesus not only preached the coming of God's kingdom, when he entered the Temple and wreaked havoc, he denounced the Temple authorities, proclaiming that God's temple had been corrupted and was inhabited by a den of thieves. Some scholars suggest that the cleansing of the Temple should be interpreted as an enacted parable: by turning over the tables, Jesus may have been predicting the destruction of the Temple that would occur when the kingdom of God came to earth.

Yet another literary indication of Jesus' apocalyptic deeds is his association with twelve disciples. Twelve is a symbolic number in Jewish tradition, a symbol of the twelve tribes of Israel. The tradition of the twelve may reflect the expectation of a new kingdom that would once again unify God's people. In addition, Jesus' association with outcasts is fitting because he taught that the outcasts of this world would occupy a prominent place in the coming kingdom.

Jesus' reported healings are also indicative of his apocalyptic ministry. Exorcisms, for instance, illustrate the victory of good over evil: this triumph revealed that the Kingdom of God, in which there would be no suffering or sickness, was entering into the world.

The Apocalyptic Teachings of Jesus
A number of Jesus' sayings refer to the imminent coming of the Son of Man, the day of judgment, the importance of repentance and preparation, and the kingdom of God. Taking into account the criterion of dissimilarity (the Gospel writers would have made it clear that Jesus referred to himself as the Son of Man), it is likely that Jesus did not equate himself with the cosmic Son of Man, but, instead, expected that this figure described in Daniel would soon come to judge the world.

The Apocalyptic Death of Jesus
Jesus took his apocalyptic message to the heart of Judaism-to the Jerusalem Temple- during Passover, a time when a large number of Jews were available to hear his teachings. At Jesus' last supper with the disciples, he interpreted his death as bringing forgiveness of sins. Although this was a Christian teaching and, thus, does not pass the criterion of dissimilarity, it does show the apocalyptic implications of Jesus' death. It is likely that Jesus anticipated Jewish reaction to his teachings and was not surprised when he was arrested.

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