from jesus to christ - the first christians

The Historical Jesus

Scholar Claudia Setzer explores the discoveries and controversies of the present 1990's quest, comparing it to earlier intense periods of inquiry into Jesus' life.

by Setzer, Claudia Tikkun
July 17, 1995 No. 4, Vol. 10; Pg. 73

When Pope John Paul II made his historic visit to the Rome synagogue in 1986, he wore the crucifix that is part of his daily costume. Some Jews in the Israeli press complained about the inappropriateness of the cross in a ceremony intended to improve Jewish-Christian relations. What is a symbol to Christians of God's love for the world is for Jews a reminder of persecution. Jesus, like the crucifix on which he hangs, is a symbol in the classic sense of the word, an empty vessel we can fill with our own multiple meanings.

The images of Jesus throughout history are as varied as the people who have embraced him-the Son of God, the Divine Word by whom the world was created, the Passover sacrifice on behalf of the people, the Suffering Servant who takes on the sins of the world, the new High Priest, or more recently, Jesus the intellectual genius, the liberator of the oppressed, or the feminist. Each group and generation sees in Jesus a reflection of itself.

hat is the connection between these personae and the historical Jesus, the flesh-and-blood preacher of ancient Israel executed by the Romans? Not much, scholars have often said. "There is nothing more negative than the result of the critical study of the life of Jesus," said Albert Schweitzer, a key figure in the early "quest for the historical Jesus." Yet, as we approach the beginning of the twenty-first century, a new pursuit for information about the historical Jesus is energizing scholars and lay people alike.

Christians are sometimes puzzled and hurt by the allergic reaction of many Jews to Jesus -- even to the mention of his name. But the energy is not really to Jesus the person, about whom Jews (like everyone else), know very little, but to his appropriation by the church and the oppression of Jews in his name.

Yet Jews have also been fascinated by Jesus. When Jews began to think about their own history, they had to consider him as part of it. Sporadic references to Jesus in the Talmud are less than complimentary. The host of nineteenth-century scholars who investigated Jesus included the Jewish historians Heinrich Graetz and Abraham Geiger. The British Jew Claude Montefiore wrote a two-volume commentary on the Synoptic gospels in the early part of this century, and What A Jew Thinks about Jesus, published in 1935. The Lithuanian Jew Joseph Klausner wrote Jesus of Nazareth in Hebrew in 1922. Translated into several languages, it is still the best-know book on Jesus by a Jew and is quoted approvingly in John Meier's widely praised 1994 volume on Jesus. More recently, other Jews have written on Jesus, including Samuel Samuel, Geza Vermes, Jacob Neusner, and Paula Fredriksen.

Jewish writers typically separated Jesus the Jew from the Christianity that incorporated him, approving of the former but disliking the latter. They have often characterized him as simply another Jewish holy man, unexceptional beyond his later public-relations image, or so unlike Jewish expectations of a Messiah as to make his lack of acceptance by most early Jews utterly unsurprising. The present generation draws a bold line between Jesus the Jew and Christianity's picture of him. Just as earlier generations of scholars often separated Jesus from his Judaism, present-day scholars, Jewish and Christian, distance him from the Christianity that claimed him.

The last few years have seen an explosion of books on the historical Jesus.

A recent browse in my local seminary bookstore turned up seven books on Jesus published in 1994. The second volume of John Meier's trilogy on the historical Jesus, A Marginal Jew, more than 1,000 pages in length, was already sold out. Last year, two scholars, a Jew and a Christian, packed an auditorium at Fordham University with their topic, "the Jewishness of Jesus" The April 1995 issue of Theology Today is devoted to this scholarly debate.

Popular works, such as Barbara Thiering's fanciful Jesus the Man or A.N. Wilson's idiosyncratic Jesus drew much publicity, but had no impact on the scholarly world. A number of Wilson's innovations are commonplace to scholars, and the speculative reconstructions Thiering and Wilson offer are not grounded in responsible methodology or common sense.

But even the more sober works have found a popular audience. Meier's book, even with its copious footnotes, is a case in point. John Dominic Crossan recently published Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, a more popular and readable version of his densely-packed scholarly work, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant, but the original itself sold more than 50,000 copies. Marcus Borg, in frequent demand as a lecturer, recently published a popular work, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, which stems from his scholarly work, Jesus, A New Vision. Last year, HarperCollins and the Trinity Institute sponsored a discussion between Borg, Crossan, and another Jesus scholar, Burton Mack, that was broadcast to churches and colleges across the country.

Both the church and academia have gotten along successfully without the historical Jesus for centuries. The historical Jesus, the human being who walked the roads of ancient Israel, gathered disciples, and was executed by the Romans, is often contrasted with the "Christ of faith," a supra-historical figure whose presence in the world enlivens and nourishes Christian communities. The latter has always been far more important for most Christians.

Why is there so much attention now to the person of Jesus? Is it part of our interest in people's private stories, an impulse that multiplies talk shows and sells People magazine? Is it our need to humanize our heroes to make them more accessible? Is it part of the search for roots, and our desire to reclaim our pasts in a way that contributes meaning to our present? Is it simply part of humankind's enduring interest in religion, which takes many forms, but never really fades? The answer is probably a bit of each.

In fact, the current wave of books constitutes a third quest for the historical Jesus. The first largely Protestant quest -- from the late eighteenth to the late nineteenth century -- breathed the air of the Enlightenment, presenting Jesus in utterly rational terms, explaining his miracles as natural phenomena, and depicting him as a teacher of timeless wisdom. It came to a close with Albert Schweitzer's book, The Quest for the Historical Jesus, published in 1906. He concluded that the historical Jesus must be a "stranger and an enigma." The Jesus designed by nineteenth-century rationalists never had any existence. Furthermore, what little we could know about this Jesus was irrelevant to theology. Jesus means something to our world because a mighty spiritual force streams forth from Him and flows through our time also," wrote Schweitzer, "This fact can neither be shaken nor confirmed by any historical discovery." The current generation of Jesus researchers have similarly bracketed questions of theology.

The second quest was centered in Germany in the 1950s and 60s, led by Ernst Kasemann and others who were influenced by and in reaction to the towering New Testament scholar Rudolf Bultmann, who argued that most the Gospel accounts of Jesus' life grew out of the mythos of the early church. These scholars argued that Christian theology could not be cut off from history and developed a set of criteria for deciding what is historical in the gospels. Although their existentialist theology now seems dated, many of their rules for assessing historicity continue to be utilized, for example by the current "Jesus Seminar," a group of scholars re-examining the synoptic traditions and particularly the sayings of Jesus. They have produced The Five Gospels, a work that evaluates the four canonical gospels and the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas for authentic sayings of Jesus.

Despite how often the question of recovering the Jesus of history has been declared hopeless, it has nevertheless generated a vast literature. What distinguishes the latest crop of Jesus scholars from their predecessors is that they understand Jesus within the context of Jews and Judaism in the first century. Whereas some scholars in the past may have talked about the Jewish background" of the New Testament as if it were a mere backdrop to Christianity, or talked about "late Judaism" as if Judaism, on its last legs in the first century, was superseded by Christianity, no serious New Testament researcher today speaks of "the Jesus movement" or Jesus himself as outside the orbit of first-century Judaism. Books that explore the Jewishness of Jesus include Geza Vermes's Jesus the Jew, Jesus and the World of Judaism, and The Religion of Jesus the Jew and E.P. Sanders's Jesus and Judaism and The Historical Figure of Jesus. While every generation has produced scholars like George Foot Moore, who understood Jesus within the Judaism of his time, they were exceptional. Now they are the norm. Further, we have a more nuanced view of the variety of Judaisms in the first century and where Jesus and his followers might have fit in.

This generation also has access to more materials. The Dead Sea Scrolls, only recently available to a wide range of scholars, do not mention Jesus, but they do illuminate a brand of apocalyptic thought and expectation alive in the first century. The urgency of the impending apocalypse that John the Baptist and Jesus preached has been muted by 2,000 years of church history, but the Dead Sea Scrolls remind us that many expected the end of the world would be violent and imminent.

In addition to the information from the Qumran materials, recent archaeological finds correspond to details of the Gospel stories of Jesus. The skeleton of a crucified man was discovered in Israel on Giv'at ha Mivtar. His ankle bones were pierced and his legs broken, giving evidence of the nature of Roman crucifixion. In 1990, archaeologists discovered an ossuary containing the bones of Joseph Caiaphas, the high priest who interrogated Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew and is mentioned in the Gospels of Luke and John.

The current scholars draw upon many disciplines, borrowing anthropological and sociological methods. For example, Crossan relies on some of the insights of anthropology to illumine agrarian peasant Mediterranean society, Richard Horsley and others use sociological data to understand Jesus as a radical political figure responding to economic and political persecution.

A number of different portraits of Jesus have emerged. Marcus Borg portrays Jesus as a religious ecstatic, a teacher of wisdom and a social prophet, focused on the present. "Jesus' relation to the Spirit was the source of everything that he was", Borg claims. Burton Mack describes Jesus as a Jewish Cynic, a popular sage who shocked people into understanding with his sharp and disturbing sayings. Like Borg, he sees Jesus as focused on the present state of the world, a dispenser of timeless truths. Crossan pictures him as a preacher of radical egalitarianism, addressing a peasant society suffering in political and economic straits, offering a message of healing: "You are healed healers, so take the kingdom to others, for I am not its patron and you are not its brokers. It is, was, and always will be available to any who want it."

An essential point of Crossan and others' thought is that Jesus was not preaching himself and his own aggrandizement, but preaching God's kingdom. E.P. Sanders agrees, but shifts the emphasis to the future. He sees Jesus as an eschatological prophet, a figure who prepared the people for the coming of God's kingdom, which God would bring in the future. John Meier combines present and future, suggesting Jesus is an eschatological teacher who sees God's kingly rule as already present, but not yet complete, in his ministry. God's plan to establish His rule over His people has yet to come to fullness.

As these scholars further hone their theories, certain issues dominate the emerging picture of the historical Jesus:

  • Jesus preached the kingdom of God, not himself.

    In some way God would act in history (or was now acting) to effect a change in society as they knew it. Whether this would be at some future time (Sanders) or already present in his ministry (Borg, Crossan, Mack) or as a dynamic drama in its first stage, so both present and future (Meier) Jesus preached God's power to effect a reversal of values and the emergence of a just society.

    This kingdom is about God, not Jesus himself, and is on earth. It addresses two main concerns of peasants: bread and death. "They have too much of the second and too little of the first," quips Crossan.

  • Jesus is a Jew, and the early kingdom movement'-the expectation of God's earthly rule and Israel's liberation from foreign oppression-is not the founding of a religion called Christianity but a thoroughly Jewish phenomenon. Unfortunately, we know relatively little of the Judaism of the first century, and much of what we do know derives from the New Testament.
  • The historical Jesus and the Jesus of the early church bear little resemblance to one another. Even more tenuous is the connection between the historical Jesus and later Christianity. Contemporary Jesus scholars seem to agree one can be a good Christian without knowing a bit about this Jesus of history. The flesh-and-blood Jesus in the late '20s of the first century gave way to the reconstructed and interpreted Jesus of the gospels in the 70s and '80s and was superseded by the "Christ of faith" of the later church. When believers speak of their faith in Jesus, it is this last figure to which they refer.
  • The emphasis on Jesus' divinity has often eclipsed his humanity. Many church controversies focused on creedal issues, such as Jesus' relation to the Father. From the nineteenth century on, much scholarly debate has swirled around such supernatural elements of the Jesus story as the virgin birth and the resurrection. Sanders notes the recent surge of interest in "Mary's hymen and Jesus' corpse. "Yet the human Jesus leaves hints of having been very human indeed: a colorful sort, more given to feasting than fasting and hanging around with disreputable types of which his family probably disapproved.
  • John the Baptist exerted tremendous influence over Jesus and his message. While contemporary scholars would acknowledge that the relation with the Baptist is one of the most likely authentic pieces of the gospel traditions (since the evangelists seem a trifle embarrassed by it, they probably didn't invent it), Meier develops the idea that Jesus was probably part of the Baptist's early circle and his fiery apocalyptic theology was a constant in Jesus' own ministry. When Jesus left the circle of the Baptist to start his own ministry, he seems to have taken some of the Baptist's followers with him.
  • Jesus' view of himself differed widely from the early church's. Whether he saw himself as the Messiah is debatable, but he almost certainly did not see himself as divine. As Bork puts it, "If one of Jesus' disciples had spoken of him with the words of the Nicene Creed, one can only imagine him saying, 'What?' Sanders poignantly remarks that Jesus may have died a disappointed man. The earliest gospel reports his final cry from the cross to be one of utter despair: "My God, my God why have you forsaken me?" Whether historical or not, we cannot be sure, but it points to the element of tragedy in his death.
  • His followers, and even a non-believer like the Jewish historian Josephus, recall Jesus as a healer, exorcist, and miracle worker. Interestingly, his detractors neither call him a fraud, nor say the miracles were faked, but attribute his powers to Satan or demons.
  • Except for a few of the women, the bulk of Jesus' followers abandoned him at the time of his death. Nor did his family seem to support him during his ministry. At one point (Mark 3:20-2 1), they think he is possessed.
  • Remarkably, Jesus' death did not mark the end of his movement. His followers continued to believe in his message of God's Kingdom. "The juice was not turned off," remarks Crossan.

Other apocalyptic leaders have arisen throughout the course of Jewish history. Bar Kochba and Sabbatai Sevi, for example, drew significant numbers of loyal followers. But their apparent failures to bring their transformative vision to reality led to the end of their movements. When Jesus' followers, probably in hiding somewhere, heard he was dead, it did not spell the end of his group. Somehow, hope persisted and was transmuted into a force that changed history. Anyone who looks at maps of established churches in the late first, second, and third centuries cannot help but marvel at the rapid spread of Christianity. The persistence and extraordinary growth of Jesus' following after his death is the miracle on which to focus, claims Crossan, not the resurrection. Indeed, the transformation of some disappointed messianists into a dynamic movement is one of the fascinating stories of history.

When someone asked Franz Rosenzweig what Jews thought about Jesus, he answered simply, "They don't. " But in regard to the historical Jesus, the same thing could be said about Christians. Whether Whitney Houston thanks Jesus as her Lord and personal savior at the Grammy Awards, or the Pope invokes his name in daily private prayer, it is the "Christ of faith" whose continuing and powerful presence makes a difference in people's lives. The charismatic preacher of first-century Palestine remains in the shadows.

Yet the movement of the historical Jesus to center stage is good news for Jews and Christians in their relations with each other. Effectively dislodged from the church, Jesus becomes more Jewish. Jews find it less threatening to think and talk about him. Graetz and Geiger understood Jesus as part of Jewish history. As contemporary Jews wrestle with their history, they ought to consider the question of Jesus' historical place in that story.

Most Jews back away from the Christ of the church, the crucified Lord, but do not mind claiming the Jesus of history, the preacher of ancient Palestine, as their own. With the burden of later Christian theology and organized Christianity removed, they can do this with some comfort. We may then move beyond old issues of Jewish pain and Christian guilt, finding points of intersection, even if not the same conclusions.

Reprinted from TIKKUN MAGAZINE, A BI-MONTHLY JEWISH CRITIQUE OF POLITICS, CULTURE, AND SOCIETY. Information and subscriptions are available from TIKKUN, 26 Fell Street, San Francisco, CA 94102, or by calling 1-800-395-7753.

symposium . jesus' many faces . a portrait of jesus' world . storytellers . first christians . why did christianity succeed?
maps, archaeology & sources . discussion . bible history quiz . behind the scenes
teachers' guide . viewers' guide . press reaction .  tapes, transcripts & events

published april 1998

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