How much do you and I know about Jesus? How much of it is really the truth about him?
The obvious answer is that we know more about him than most ancient figures, because we have quite a few accounts of his life and teachings. But everyone seems to read them differently.
In my previous post, Which Jesus did you worship this Christmas? I outlined a number of alternative depictions of Jesus common today, and suggested we should be wary of fully embracing any of these pictures of Jesus, for they all seem to be slanted in some way.
So can we know the real Jesus?
Start with the historians ….
If we try to understand Jesus using twenty first century western thinking, we will miss many nuances and aspects that would have been clear to his hearers. So the starting point must be to learn as much as we can from those who have immersed themselves in first century Jewish language, religion and culture.
Historians and New Testament scholars of course have their own biases and viewpoints. They may be christians, Jews, atheists or agnostics; they may be conservative and cautious or radical and speculative. But if we find facts and understandings that they generally all share, we can know this is a good basis to begin to understand Jesus.
…. but don’t stop there
But few of us are going to be happy with just the consensus facts about the historical Jesus, and each of us will likely respond in some way to the basic facts, drawing some conclusions from those facts that others may disagree with. Christians believe he was son of God and choose to worship and follow him, Jews are more likely to think he was a faithful Jew who has been misinterpreted, while atheists may see him as merely another person in history.
But if we start with agreed historical facts, we can be surer our conclusions and beliefs are on safer ground, and we will be better able to discuss the more contentious issues of faith with some common ground.
A secular historical understanding of Jesus
There are many books written about this, even more websites I guess. But I want to start with the summary by Aussie atheist and amateur historian, Tim O’Neill. Tim recently published an excellent blog post (Jesus the apocalyptic prophet) on the historical evidence about who Jesus was. I find it ironic that an atheist has taken more pains to understand the historical Jesus than many christians have.
Tim’s post covers the following matters, which I generally believe are a fair reflection of the current understanding of secular historical scholars.
Chosen people but not free
The Jews believed themselves to be God’s chosen people living in the Promised Land, yet Israel had been occupied foreign powers for centuries, with Romans in control at the time of Jesus. This led to high hopes among many Jews that God’s Messiah or king would come in the end times to reverse the roles of the Romans and Jews and usher in a new age of the kingdom of God.
Jesus fulfilled some of these expectations
Jesus’ message was of the kingdom of God coming with him, with complete and cataclysmic fulfilment coming soon, in the present generation, with the destruction of the Jerusalem temple which was the centre of Jewish worship, and the replacement of the ruling priestly leaders with new leaders chosen by Jesus. Caesar would no longer be Lord because Jesus was the new king.
There would be a reversal of values, with the first becoming last and the last first, and judgment for those who didn’t respond to God’s action in Jesus.
The ministry of Jesus
Jesus saw his healings and exorcisms as a display of Messianic power and a foretaste of the coming kingdom of God. Likewise his ethical teaching and parables set out the values of the kingdom and urged his hearers to get on board before it was too late.
Many, but not all, scholars believe Jesus foresaw his death and believed it would be redemptive for the nation of Israel.
A sceptical conclusion
Tim’s summary also contains some conclusions of more sceptical scholars, that Jesus expected all this to happen shortly after his death. For example, in Mark 13 Jesus outlines a whole bunch of trials and violent events, classic “end times” prophecies, and concludes (Mark 13:30) with “Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.”
Tim points out that later christian writings (for example the Gospels of Luke and John, which are generally believed to have been written a decade or two later than Mark) interpret these apocalyptic sayings in a slightly different way, that makes Jesus more of a saviour than a change agent, a viewpoint held by most christians today.
So from this perspective, Jesus’ predictions of the end of the old world order and the coming of a physical kingdom of God were mistaken, they didn’t happen, and the early christians slowly modified their understanding to fit. But of course, this conclusion is interpretation, and isn’t the only way the events can be seen.
We can also see this in Tim’s choice of scholars in his reference list – Bart Ehrman, Dale Allison, Paula Fredriksen and EP Sanders, all on the more sceptical end of New Testament scholarship, as you might expect since Tim was writing for fellow atheists. But if we read equally eminent scholars with a different viewpoint, e.g. NT Wright, Richard Bauckham, Larry Hurtado and Craig Evans, we can get a different interpretation.
So was Jesus an apocalyptic prophet?
Tim and the scholars he quotes are clearly correct (in my view) that people of his day would have seen Jesus that way. He ticked all the boxes of their expectations, and many would have been keen for him to be successful. Even the religious leaders who opposed him would have seen him in this way, but from their privileged perspective he was a trouble-maker who would only bring more grief on their nation.
But the evidence seems to me to point to him being more than that.
Jesus confounded many expectations and disappointed many
Most faithful Jews passionately wanted to see Israel freed from the Roman yoke, and they knew this could be a violent process. But time and time again Jesus refused this interpretation of his Messianic role.
When Jesus announced his mission in Luke 4:16-21, he quoted from Isaiah about his ministry of restoration, and omitted a part of the Isaiah passage that speaks of “the day of vengeance of our God”. He stops short of a long section in Isaiah that details how Gentiles will serve the Jews in those days. That, Kenneth Bailey argues, is why Jesus’ hearers ended up angry with him.
Some would argue that this incident is an invention by Luke, but Bailey shows how the story has strong Jewish roots and is consistent with Jesus’ message throughout the gospels that his Messianic mission was not the restoration of Israel to some long-gone and somewhat imaginary glory days, but caring for the poor, the blind, the broken-hearted and the suffering.
Another incident (Matthew 11:1-6, also Luke 7:18-23) reinforces this understanding. John the Baptist sends messengers to Jesus to ask if he is the Messiah, and Jesus responds by pointing out how he is healing the sick and proclaiming good news to the poor – again, no mention of restoration of Israel, just restoration of poor and suffering people.
The miraculous feeding of 5,000 people is one of the few incidents recorded in all four gospels. In Mark, Jesus “immediately” sends his disciples away afterwards while he dismisses the crowd (Mark 6:45) without explaining why, but John adds the fact that the crowd wanted to make Jesus king (John 6:14-15), obviously wanting to make him a different type of Messiah than Jesus intended, so he sidestepped their enthusiastic aims.
Jesus’ teaching was characterised by the importance of forgiveness, non-violence and even love for enemies (see, for example, the Sermon on the Mount, especially Matthew 5:43-48). Other non-violent sayings include not resisting the Roman occupiers (e.g. Matthew 5:38-41 and Mark 12:13-17), and “those who live by the sword will die by the sword” (Matthew 26:52). This doesn’t easily fit with the violent apocalyptic view of Jesus. (There are also several places where Paul too omits violent sections from Old Testament passages he quotes.)
A good Jew wouldn’t claim divinity for himself, that would be blasphemy. But why should we assume that Jesus, of all people, was a good Jew? It seems clear to me that he evaded such expectations and did many things that a “good Jew” wouldn’t do.
While it seems that Jesus was very reticent about his identity, there are hints of him seeing himself as more than just a prophet.
He said his teachings had greater authority than the Old Testament Law which Jews believed was given by God himself – for example his teaching on divorce (Matthew 5:31-32 & Mark 10:2-12).
His claims to be able to forgive sins on God’s behalf, outside of the temple system (Mark 2:1-12), imply divine authority.
“Son of God” was not a divine title to first century Jews, but Jesus saw himself as uniquely God’s son. He taught his disciples to pray “Our Father” but he always called God “My Father” when he prayed, and he claimed special intimacy with God (Matthew 11:27: “All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.”).
Jesus was well known as a healer and exorcist, and both Jesus and his hearers saw his power to heal as a sign of divine authority: “But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” (Luke 11:20). This doesn’t in itself imply divinity, but together these sayings are very suggestive.
Perhaps Jesus was right, just not what we might expect
It has been clear to me for several decades, as I have read the New Testament, that there was a development over time in the early christians’ understanding of Jesus. While he was on earth, Jesus was very guarded in many of his claims about himself, especially any claims to divinity, and his followers seem to be struggling to understand his mission and who he was.
Larry Hurtado has made a particular study of the changes in the early christians’ beliefs about Jesus, showing (I think successfully) that very soon after his death that they began to worship Jesus and pray to him alongside God. It would have been a stretch for faithful Jews to see Jesus as divine, but over several decades they eventually came to this conclusion. You can see some evidence of this change or growth in understanding by reading the speeches in Acts and the perspective of the different gospels culminating in the “high christology” of John. It took several centuries for the doctrine of the trinity to be worked out.
So what if this was God’s plan all along?
Perhaps God planned for there to be developments in christian understanding after his death, as is predicted in John 16:13 and other places where the Holy Spirit is promised. Good teachers and parents know that children and even adult learners need to be taken slowly along paths to innovative or revolutionary ideas. And we can see God doing the same thing in both Testaments, of a gradual unfolding revelation that was never fully understood at the time, and which often just hinted at what was to come, but which became clear eventually.
So on this view, Jesus’ direct teaching showed he was not the violent apocalyptic prophet of popular expectation, and he gave enough hints to show that he had more authority than a mere human.
All viewpoints have their difficulties
Granted all the above, we can see that the standard Protestant evangelical Jesus whose sole mission was to die to rescue sinners from hell doesn’t stand up to the evidence. I believe that view is at least partly true, but the historians have shown that Jesus was certainly more than just that.
The liberal social justice activist and totally loving Jesus also doesn’t fit all the evidence. The apocalyptic passages show Jesus to be tougher and more disturbing of the peace than that.
But I think the view of Jesus as failed apocalyptic prophet also misses a lot of the evidence outlined above. It is (I suggest) a correct view as far as it goes, but Jesus was more complex and cryptic than that.
So I believe out starting point must be to recognise that:
- Jesus was seen as an apocalyptic prophet in his day, quite likely the Messiah, and that is our starting point ….
- He did bring a new ethic of care for the poor and suffering that turned some ethical teachings of his day on their head ….
- But he also pointed in his teachings and practices to something more, a mission from God that transcended both of those perspectives. The kingdom of God was indeed established in his ministry, and it was indeed revolutionary, but not in the way that many expected.
- The early church, especially Paul and the gospel writers, began to understand Jesus in a new way from the time they had resurrection visions, and we can believe that the Holy Spirit guided them to a fuller understanding. Some of the modern evangelical doctrine about Jesus can be justified here, but much of it cannot easily be justified.
From this starting point, we may see that Jesus’ main mission was to bring in the kingdom of God. That kingdom is both personal and social, both spiritual and ethical. It involves both personal salvation and subversion of the existing world order. Jesus calls us to make disciples (people who are committed to him and his teachings) and offers us forgiveness when we fall short.
Resolving the difficulties
Whichever view we adopt, we have apparent anomalies to resolve. I have pointed out some of the anomalies in other viewpoints, so now I’d better try to address some of the anomalies in the composite viewpoint I am suggesting.
What did Jesus expect in the near future?
I believe both believers and sceptics have missed some of the complexity and subtelty in jesus’ teachings about the future:
- Jesus used apocalyptic language of violent disturbance on earth and even in the skies. For example, quoting Isaiah, he talks of the sun being darkened and stars falling from the sky (Mark 13:24-25), classic “end times” language. Yet just a few weeks later in Acts 2, Peter quotes a similar apparently end times passage, but says it was being fulfilled than with the coming of the Holy Spirit and the preaching about Jesus. There is clearly symbolism here that doesn’t necessarily imply a cataclysmic end to all things.
- In Mark 13:7-8 he talks of wars and other calamities often taken as end times signs, but says quite clearly that this isn’t the end at all, but the “beginning of birth pains” only.
- In the same passage (Mark 13:10) he says “the gospel must first be preached to all nations”, clearly something that wasn’t going to happen in the immediate future.
So we can see that Jesus expected calamity for Israel and the temple, but a long period before everything would be fulfilled.
Finally, we have to try to understand this statement at the end of the Mark 13 sayings: “when you see these things happening, you know that it is near, right at the door. Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.” (Mark 13:29-30)
My guess is that Jesus is most often not describing events, but ongoing situations. The troubles would start in that very generation in Jerusalem, and would continue through all generations for some of his followers, until his return.
Although I believe Jesus was the unique son of God, I don’t believe he was all-knowing. He was a man of his times with a brain the same size as the rest of us. Philippians 2:7 says he “emptied himself” or “made himself nothing”, suggesting to me that there were some things he knew, and some things he didn’t.
So I don’t think he knew the future in detail, and I don’t think he predicted it in detail. As always, his saying are cryptic and able to be taken in more than one way. So I think this interpretation of his painting a broad picture of the future for all followers fits best with his normal manner of speaking.
Moving on ….
I don’t pretend that I have given answers to every question. But I believe I have shown that:
- We need to better understand the historical situation and meaning of Jesus’ sayings and actions before we express belief, or disbelief, in him. In particular, modern christianity needs to go back to the historical Jesus and re-build our faith.
- There is more than one way to see Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet. The more sceptical of the secular historians do us an important service by giving us facts about his life that people of all beliefs should start from, but the evidence says to me that we can and should believe more about him than that minimum.
I hope, whoever you are, that you read Tim’s post, check out some of the references below, read a few of the books on the topic, and pray that God will lead you to a more complete understanding of Jesus.
- Jesus the apocalyptic prophet. Tim O’Neill on History for Atheists.
- Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes. Kenneth Bailey. Reviewed here.
- Jesus: a very short introduction. Richard Bauckham.
- Jesus of Nazareth: An independent historian’s account of his life and teaching. Maurice Casey.
- Jesus – son of God? on this website.
- The “Prince of Peace” or the God of War? Jesus as Nonviolent Messiah. Simon Joseph.
Photo: Detail from Apsis mosaic of Santa Pudenziana, Rome, by Welleschik. Wikipedia Creative Commons.