Jesus In History

Given the historical orientation of modern scholarship, it is not surprising that a vast amount of learned effort has been—and still is—applied to the identifying of the history behind the Gospels and the historical context of Jesus' life (Schweitzer 1910). That over the years so many quite different and even contradictory accounts of these matters have been put forward is due in part to the sparseness and uncertainty of evidence concerning the ancient world, partly to the large faith-investment of many investigators that has often coloured their judgement, and partly to legitimate differences of opinion about the extent to which the Gospels are conditioned by the time of their writing as well as by good tradition about the lifetime of Jesus itself. However, though on many matters wide differences of view remain, recent years have seen considerable narrowing of the limits within which the truth is likely to lie—and some elimination of confessionalism in determining the line to be taken. Differences of view are less likely now than formerly to be dictated by a scholar's background in Judaism or in Catholic or Protestant Christianity.

It would of course be erroneous to suppose that those who at the beginning and indeed down the centuries have come to faith in Jesus have done so after the dispassionate consideration of the evidence, now the object of such attention. The absence of that kind of consideration may deter modern people from taking their testimony seriously and making the effort to look at the matter in their way—and perhaps lead to a dismissal of them as the victims of credulity or superstition, however sublime or heroic the expression of their faith may have been. But the point for us is that, at least in present-day Western society, such consideration is widely felt to be mandatory, at any rate as a step in the right direction. Belief may or may not follow, but at least this essential hurdle must be surmounted. While many now find some such feeling to be inevitable and desirable, we should recognize that in the past it has played little part. Once we have seen this, we may be less surprised by some of the styles of faith that have been held and refrain from blaming those holding them for wilfully ignoring 'the facts' or viewing them through distorting lenses. It may be another matter now when publicly available evidence or angles of vision are neglected and ignored when found threatening or inconvenient.

A preliminary step is to acquire as clear a picture as possible of the Palestine of Jesus' lifetime—and indeed of the wider Roman and Hellenistic context of which Palestine was a small part. Such a picture provides a framework of institutions and social and economic realities within which Jesus belonged (Theissen 1986; Freyne 1988). It would prevent the ascription to him of ideas and modes of action which were simply not then available and reveal the likely influences and reactions to various groups and opinions then active. For example, archaeological discovery and the reappraisal of various literary sources have confirmed that in the period before the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE, the failure of the Jewish revolt against Roman power, and the subsequent establishing of a tighter rabbinic hegemony over Judaism, Hellenistic culture and Greek language had made considerable inroads into Palestine, especially in urban life. This is clear from the prevalence of inscriptions on burial urns and elsewhere in Greek, and from the remains of Greek-style theatres in towns like Sepphoris, a few miles from the village of Nazareth, the home of Jesus. (The town is, incidentally, never referred to in the Gospels, revealing how patchy is our most direct source of evidence for Jesus and how subject to the vagaries of surviving tradition where there was no particular interest in mere biographical completeness.) Even letters probably from the hand of Bar Kokhba, leader of the later Jewish rebellion (132-5 CE), are written in Greek, which he apparently found a more congenial medium for writing than Aramaic or Hebrew, the native Semitic tongues (Meyers and Strange 1981).

More than any other single influence, the discovery (and then gradual publication) of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the years following the Second World War have given a fillip to the whole subject of the Judaism of the turn of the eras (Vermes 1977). Everything seemed to go into the melting pot, for here was the literary fruit of a virtually unknown, but plainly highly significant Jewish group, belonging to but in sharp reaction against the world of the Jerusalem Temple and its ruling priesthood. Against this background, other groups like the Pharisees needed to be reassessed (who exactly were they and what precisely did they stand for?), and the movement around Jesus came up for comparison. It became customary not only to look for points of similarity and distinction, but to see earliest Christianity as a reform movement within Judaism—and so to debate the criteria for identifying its becoming detached from Judaism: thus raising in another form our earlier question of Jesus' real innovatory role (Dunn 1992).

While this increase of information about first-century Palestine is greatly to be welcomed, as is the sharper and more confident understanding which it makes possible, our knowledge remains relatively meagre and there can be disagreement about quite central matters, for example, what precisely were the Pharisees' main tenets or how economically deprived and then how discontented were the peasants of Galilee in Jesus' day? A judgement on these matters can have a major influence on our ability to 'place' Jesus: for example with regard to controversy with groups like the Pharisees (Sanders

1985) or in relation to a possible political or socially revolutionary thrust to his teaching (Bammel and Moule 1984).

Uncertainty about aspects of the historical setting combines with uncertainty about the degree to which the Gospels reflect the circumstances of their writing, as well as those of Jesus himself, to surround the quest for 'the facts' about Jesus with difficulty. This does not deter many scholars and others from entering on the task of writing lives of Jesus or accounts of his teaching and significance. Each will adopt a policy which seems promising to the author concerned, and many are likely to achieve a measure of success. A feature of recent years has been the degree of convergence despite different starting points and methods.

For example, on the basis of knowledge of the social and religious possibilities in first-century Palestine, Jesus may be put in the category of 'apocalyptic prophet'. Leaving aside later doctrinal formulations and the then fashionable appreciations of Jesus as a sublime moral teacher, a number of writers turned to this identification at the beginning of this century (Schweitzer 1910), and increased knowledge of the Jewish setting has not undermined its fundamental correctness. Jesus was a figure preaching an imminent cosmic crisis, God's supreme intervention to save his own, called by Jesus to rally to God's cause. That was the heart of his purpose and remained the best assessment of him, whatever view was taken of other, more timeless elements in the teaching ascribed to him and whatever reconstruction was made of his fatal relations with authority. That teaching might be seen as moral provision for the interim period before the crisis, or as evidence that Jesus bore also the character of a traditional teacher of 'wisdom' and saw no discrepancy with his more urgent message, or indeed as owing less to Jesus than to the creative activity of the later first-century churches for whom the sense of imminent crisis had faded and who needed guidance (as from the Master's lips) for their everyday problems.

Jesus' death has been seen as the unsurprising result of his own political agenda: he was something of a religious freedom-fighter, moved by the acute poverty of the Galilean peasantry, anticipating some aspects of the later Jewish rebellion against the Romans in 66 CE (Brandon 1967). Or else, more convincingly, as evidence of the extreme nervousness of Jewish and Roman authorities, acting in collusion to neutralize all possible powder kegs, and so fearing Jesus' forthright message (Rivkin 1984). Or, in particular, as provoked by his demonstration in the Temple (Mark 11:15-19)—whatever precisely it signified, the various evangelists interpret it differently—rather than, as the Gospels seem to imply, by his challenges to the Jewish Law, by sabbath healings especially. Here Jesus' behaviour and teaching seem not to be beyond the range of contemporary Jewish debate, and certainly not grounds for a death sentence, and their presentation may well be coloured by the rift between Church and synagogue by the time of the Gospels' writing (Sanders 1985).

A modification of the 'apocalyptic prophet' identification of Jesus draws on sociological analysis: he was a charismatic figure, in the technical sense of one who revolutionizes existing values and thought-patterns, bringing about the rejection of accepted life-styles and institutions (Hengel 1981). This approach focuses on traditions such as Jesus' injunction to a would-be follower to abandon family responsibility even to the extent of neglecting the fundamental duty to bury his father—so urgent is the call of God (Matt. 8:21-2); and on the strong theme that discipleship involves the quitting of both family and property (Mark 10:17-31). It is generally felt that the authenticity of this material is assured by the speedy abandonment of insistence on such requirements in the developing churches: especially in urban centres, householders of some affluence were virtually a necessity for the establishment and support of church life (Theissen 1982); and emphasis soon came to be laid on the fostering of the Christian family (Eph. 5:22-6:4).

Another (and broader) way of building on knowledge of the first-century setting is to use it to establish the boundaries within which the historical truth about Jesus is likely to lie (Harvey 1982). It is a matter of constructing a profile of Jesus by way of congruity with Jewish customs, legal procedures, messianic beliefs and other religious ideas. Along these lines it may be possible to claim a high degree of accuracy for the Gospel record, without denying the obvious effects of later reflection. Or else attention may concentrate on the persistence and frequency with which particular sayings and themes are to be found in the tradition about Jesus, whether in the Gospels or other early Christian literature, and this may help us to see the main thrusts of Jesus' teaching (Crossan 1992)—for example his openness to the outcast and marginalized of his society and in his espousing of accessible table-fellowship, pushing aside conventional frontiers of race, gender and social type.

It is possible to set Jesus so naturally in the context of his times that, whatever the subsequent effect of his life, he merges into his background-perhaps as a typical 'holy man' of the period (Vermes 1977). Valuable as this approach is, it can leave a hard historical question: how then was Jesus' legacy so utterly different from any of his Jewish contemporary teachers? It is scarcely credible that belief in his resurrection can be made to account for all of it, with his life and teaching not particularly remarkable. It was after all the resurrection of Jesus that was involved, that of a person with memorable characteristics which, with whatever development, were religiously significant in their own right.

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