Tomorrow night at Wingate University, 5pm, join us if you are in the area. For those who can not be there you can read some of the ideas I will present here: “What Kind of a Jew Was Jesus?” and download my handout here.
Tomorrow night at Wingate University, 5pm, join us if you are in the area. For those who can not be there you can read some of the ideas I will present here: “What Kind of a Jew Was Jesus?” and download my handout here.
In my post on “That Other King of the Jews,” I stressed my own conviction that Jesus of Nazareth thought of himself as much more than a teacher, prophet, or healer, but rather that he understood himself to be nothing less than the “one to come,” the Davidic Messiah or King of Israel. For most Christians such a messianic claim by Jesus is self-evident since it lies at the heart of all of our Gospel accounts, which are, as Mark puts things: “The good news of Jesus Christ the Son of God.”
In contrast, many of my academic colleagues in the field of Christian origins would argue that the identification of Jesus as the Jewish Messiah was one put on Jesus by his followers after his death, as part of their recovery of faith following the unanticipated shock of his crucifixion, not something he claimed himself. According to this understanding the scene in Mark where Jesus is confessed as Christ or Messiah by Peter is projected back into the life of Jesus, implying that he both anticipated his death and understood himself in the role of a “suffering Messiah”:
And Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi. And on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they told him, “John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets.” And he asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Christ.” And he strictly charged them to tell no one about him. And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again (Mark 8:27-31).
I have no doubt that various theological interpretations of Jesus were retrospectively projected back on him in our New Testament gospels. I have written extensively on that process of theological “overlay” on this blog over the years. In fact, in my recent book, Paul and Jesus: How the Apostle Transformed Christianity, I explain that all four of our gospels are essentially post-Pauline productions, fundamentally reflecting Paul’s understanding of the “gospel.” However, my own study of the history of “Messianism,” including messiah figures both ancient and modern, I am convinced that the gospels preserve for us a pattern of what I call “Messianic self-identity,” that is applicable to Jesus. In other words, I think we can trace in our sources elements of Jesus’ own messianic self-consciousness.
In this post I want to to consider what I call the “textual dynamics of messianic self-identity.” I realize that is a mouthful but bear with me here, as this subject is quite fascinating and I think we can see some light on this issue if we take all our evidence into account, both ancient and modern.
Running through the various layers and strata of the New Testament Gospel traditions is a complex set of Messianic titles or designations against which the careers of both John the Baptizer and Jesus of Nazareth are tagged and evaluated. In the climatic exchange at Caesarea Philippi, the Markan Jesus puts it most bluntly–“Who do people say that I am?” (Mark 8:27). The possibilities subsequently enumerated appear earlier in Mark, when Herod Antipas hears of the “powers” at work in the career of Jesus and rumor has it that he might be John the Baptizer “raised from the dead,” or Elijah, or one of the prophets of old (Mark 6:14-17). Each of these possibilities are implicitly rejected by Mark as Peter makes his definitive, though at this point, misguided declaration: “You are the Messiah” (see Mark 1:1 where the reader is clued into the mystery of who Jesus is: Jesus Christ [Son of God]). On trial before the high priest, the question is put even more directly: “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” Jesus answers “I am” but then couples his affirmation with the added declaration: “You will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming with the clouds of heaven” (presumably based on a combined reading of Dan 7:13-14, Psalm 110 and possibly Psalm 2). Earlier, when Jesus is glorified on the high mountain, just following Peter’s declaration, the disciples ask, in response to their experience of the “kingdom of God coming with power”–“Why then do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?” (Mark 9:11). Jesus implies that the recently executed John the Baptizer is indeed the Elijah to come (based on Malachi 4:5), but was rejected and killed based on what was “written of him” (Mark 9:13).
Similarly, in John’s Gospel, the Baptizer is asked by the Jerusalem religious establishment, “Who are you?” with the suggested possibilities: the Messiah, Elijah, or “the Prophet.” John denies all three and declares himself “the Voice of one crying in the desert,” based on Isaiah 40:3.
Even more striking is the question in the Q source that the imprisoned Baptizer puts to Jesus shortly before his beheading-“Are you the one, or are we to wait for another?” (Luke 7:20). In a closely related Q pericope John is declared to be not merely a prophet, but “more than a prophet,” and indeed the Malachi “Messenger” (Malak) whom, as Deutero-Isaiah’s “Voice crying in the desert,” is to “prepare the way of Yahweh” (Luke 7:26-27). This singular and resolute designation, “the one,” implies a cluster of speculative Messianic interpretations of prophetic texts, echoed in strangely parallel ways to Qumran materials, see my post here (e.g. 4Q521, 4Q174, et al.).
What we find then, within these multi-layered Gospel traditions is a whole set of textual “categories” with potential “candidates” measured against the reported career patterns, or “contexts” of a given figure-in this case the work, and particularly the deaths, of both John the Baptizer and Jesus.
For over a hundred years now these materials have presented scholars of the New Testament with a classic form of the proverbial “chicken or the egg” question. Do our Gospel traditions import and impose these textual categories onto the figures of John and Jesus, long after their deaths, as a kind of exegetical or “scribal” enterprise to explain and justify the shocking and wholly unexpected facts of their deaths–the beheading of John and the crucifixion of Jesus. Or is it remotely possible, or even probable, that figures such as John, Jesus, or for that matter, a whole host of late 2nd Temple Jewish Palestinian “messiah” figures might have “anticipated” their suffering and death as part of their mission? The Dead Sea Scrolls give us insight into the life and times of the unnamed “Teacher of Righteousness.” Josephus mentions a string of messianic figures, besides Jesus, including Judas the Galilean, Athronges, Simon the Perean, “the Samaritan,” Theudas, and “the Egyptian.” I would argue that these and others might well have derived their self-identity and also a self-propelled “career pattern” based on a reading of prophetic “messianic” texts.
The vast majority of critical historians dealing with Christian Origins have taken the former position, put so succinctly by Rudolf Bultmann over a generation ago: the scene of Peter’s confession is an Easter story projected backward into Jesus’ lifetime (Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament, I: 26). That Jesus himself ever claimed to be the Messiah is considered unlikely, and that he might have resolutely marched to an anticipated ordeal of suffering, and possible death, is categorized as theological apologetics, or perhaps worse, sensationalist romance (e.g., Hugh Schonfield, The Passover Plot). In contrast Albert Schweitzer concludes his Quest for the Historical Jesus with the intriguing conclusion:
The Baptist appears and cries: ‘Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.’ Soon after that comes Jesus, and in the knowledge that he is the coming Son of Man lays hold of the wheel of the world to set it moving on that last revolution which is to bring all ordinary history to a close. It refuses to turn, and he throws himself upon it and is crushed.
The so-called “third Quest” for the historical Jesus seems hopelessly halted between two opinions (e.g. Crossan, Borg, and Funk vs. Wright, Ehrman, and Fredriksen). The problem is clearly one of method, as we are always working, it seems, though a double veil–that of our own psychology, trying to probe the inaccessible inner psychology of Jesus himself–and that, through the medium of a complex of layered texts, all of which are to a large degree theological, tendentious, apologetic, and propagandistic. Despite prodigious effort and a plethora of sophisticated historical-critical studies published in the past ten years, it seems that by and large we end up with the “Jesus” of our individual methodological presuppositions. Indeed, one wonders, at the opening of the 21st century, whether Bultmann’s cautionary assertion that we could know next to nothing about the “Jesus of history” and everything about the “Christ of faith” has come back to haunt us.
In 1999 I was given two pre-publication book manuscripts to evaluate, one by Michael Wise, The First Messiah: Investigating the Savior Before Christ, the other by Israel Knohl, The Messiah Before Jesus. As it turned out, both of these scholars, working completely independently, the one completely unaware of the other, had come up with a strikingly similar thesis. Both Wise and Knohl put forth the argument, based on their reading and evaluation of the autobiographical nature of portions of the Thanksgiving Hymns (1QHodayot) and associated texts from Cave 4 (especially 4Q491 “Self-Glorification Hymn”), that the author of these materials had closely identified his mission, role, calling, and career in the light of the Servant Songs of Isaiah, the “Seventy Weeks Prophecy” of Daniel 9, and various Psalms. In other words, what we have documented in the Qumran texts are the textual dynamics of what I am calling “messianic self-identity,” by the leader of the 1st century B.C.E. Qumran community.
Although Wise and Knohl have their sharp differences, both with regard to the dating, as well as the identity of the mysterious Teacher of the community, both of them argue that the ways in which their figure self-consciously appropriates these prophetic texts puts the question of the self-understanding of Jesus in a new light. The point is not merely that somewhere, once upon a time, someone combined the standard messianic texts regarding glorification (Isa 11, Micah 5, and others) with the notion of rejection, suffering, and death (Servant Songs, Daniel, and the Psalms)–but rather that since it happened once, it might happen again. The case is actually much stronger, especially as set forth by Knohl, namely, that Jesus himself, as well as his earliest followers, rose out of the kind of messianic, apocalyptic way of thinking that has its closest parallels in the Qumran materials. In other words, the Jesus movement is best understood, as Robert Eisenman has put it, as a 1st century C.E. revival of at least one branch of the “messianic movement in Palestine” that flourished in the 1st century B.C.E.
To quote Bultman again:
Of course the attempt is made to carry the idea of the suffering Son of Man into Jesus’ own outlook by assuming that Jesus regarded himself as Deutero-Isaiah’s Servant of God who suffers and dies for the sinner, and fused together the two ideas Son of Man and the Servant of God into the single figure of the suffering, dying and rising Son of Man. At the very outset, the misgivings which must be raised as to the historicity of the predictions of the passion speak against this attempt. In addition, the tradition of Jesus’ sayings reveals no trace of consciousness on his part of being the Servant of God of Isaiah 53. The messianic interpretation of Isaiah 53 was discovered in the Christian Chruch and even in it not immediately (Theology of the New Testament I: 31.).
This point, shared by the vast majority of scholars doing critical-historical Jesus research, bears a careful reconsideration in the light of the arguments of Wise and Knohl. It is surely possible, and maybe even probable, that Jesus himself appropriated a cluster of prophetic texts in this messianic manner, and the composite he came up with included the notions of rejection, suffering, and death, as well as the more common elements of exaltation and glorification.
My own study of the messianic self-identity of two contemporary Messiahs, namely David Koresh (1993 i nWaco, TX) and Moses Guibbory (1926 in Jerusalem), has both reinforced and clarified the unfolding textual dynamics of such an autobiographical enterprise. The kind of prophetic, or potentially prophetic texts that most readily lend themselves to such a personalized interpretation are those in which the autobiographical “first person” style sets the stage for “third person,” pesher like interpretation. For example, the “I” of Isaiah 48:16; 49:1-7; 50:4-6; 61:1-4 can be combined with the narrative pattern of texts such as Isaiah 42:1-9; 52:13-53:12; Psalm 2 and 110, and Micah 5:2-4.
Draw near to me, hear this: from the beginning I have not spoken in secret, from the time it came to be I have been there. And now the Lord YHVH has sent me and his Spirit (Isaiah 48:16).
Listen to me, O coastlands, and hearken, you peoples from afar. Yahweh called me from the womb, from the body of my mother he named my name. He made my mouth like a sharp sword, in the shadow of his hand he hid me; he made me a polished arrow, in his quiver he hid me away. And he said to me, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.” But I said, “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity; yet surely my right is with Yahweh, and my recompense with my God.” And now Yahweh says, who formed me from the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him, and that Israel might be gathered to him, for I am honored in the eyes of the Yahweh, and my God has become my strength–he says: “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the preserved of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” Thus says Yahweh the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One, to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nation, the servant of rulers: “Kings shall see and arise; princes, and they shall prostrate themselves; because of Yahweh, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you (Isaiah 49:1-7).
The Lord Yahweh has given me the tongue of those who are taught, that I may know how to sustain with a word him that is weary. Morning by morning he wakens, he wakens my ear to hear as those who are taught. The Lord Yahweh has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I turned not backward. I gave my back to the smiters, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I hid not my face from shame and spitting (Isaiah 54:4-6).
There is no denying that our earliest Passion Narrative, now reflected in the Gospel of Mark, clearly builds up the career of Jesus based on a set of prophetic texts such as Zechariah 9:9. Accordingly, the precise historicity of individual episodes remains in dispute. Did Jesus ride into Jerusalem on a colt, or does Mark create this scene based on the prophetic text? However, this uncertainty should by no means lead us to conclude that the inner dynamics of messianic self-identity, based on key prophetic texts and contexts, is unlikely in the case of Jesus of Nazareth.
What really stirs this apocalyptic messianic “pot” of stew is the combination of subjective inward experience and objective, external, historical fact. In other words, the messianic candidate comes to the text to inform his or her self-understanding, as well as launch a messianic career, while at the same time external events, such as Pilate delivering Jesus to be crucified, elucidate the “true” meaning of the texts. This is the heart and core of the pesher method of interpretation as seen in, say, the Habakkuk Pesher (1QpHab). The “chastisement of the Teacher of Righeousness” (IV.10) and the suffering and faith of the followers (VIII. 1-3) both inform inner self-understanding and reinforce, or even “orchestrate,” external events.
Most common in this complex of categories, candidates, and contexts is the notion of a kind of “realized eschatology,” to borrow a phrase from C. H. Dodd. In other words, the hard reality of history is mediated by the imaginative projection of communal or individual self-understanding. The full confirmation of prophetic fulfillment is always “at hand,” just out of reach, but the serendipitous and fortuitous nature of events, as well as the self-conscious activities of the leader and the group, work together to construct a convincing picture. Although the texts themselves act powerfully in this mix, it is the utter conviction of the candidate, set in these historical contexts, that furnishes the apologetic power. With such dynamics at work we truly have “the makings of a Messiah” in ways that can be documented down through history, even into our own time.
Then they arrayed him in scarlet, and when they had plaited it they invested him with a victor’s wreath made of thorn, and saluted him with, “Hail! King of the Jews!” (Mark 15:18).
According to the gospel of Mark, when Jesus is on trial before the Roman Prefect Pontius Pilate he was asked if he claimed to be the “King of the Jews,” and his ambiguous answer was “You have said so,” which might be translated “as you say.” (Mark 15:2). Pilate then refers to Jesus as “the King of the Jews,” apparently echoing back a charge of Jesus’ enemies, that he claimed to be a “king” (Mark 15:9, 12).1 Later that morning when the Roman cohort of soldiers gathered inside the Praetorium2 to beat and mock their new prisoner, draping him with a purple robe and crowning him with a victor’s wreath of thorns, they saluted him, “Hail! King of the Jews!” (Mark 15:18). Finally, the placard upon which was written the charge against him, placed over his head on the cross, read “The King of the Jews” (Mark 15:26).3
What few Bible readers realize is that the claim to be “King of the Jews” was a highly charged political act of sedition or lese-majesty, considered a capital crime in Roman Law4. Robert Eisler in his classic work The Messiah Jesus and John the Baptist (1931) as well as S. F. Brandon, Jesus and the Zealots (1967) have thoroughly explored these political dimensions5
The emperor Augustus gave Herod the title King of the Jews and his connections with Rome and the emperor Augustus and his court were extraordinary.6 Throughout his long reign he desperately, but abortively, wanted to establish some kind of “dynasty” or royal line, as evidenced by his marriage to the Hashmonean princess Miriame. So obsessed was he with genealogical records that Josephus reports that he had the archives at Sepphoris destroyed lest any rivals challenge his pedigree or put forth their own. His son, Herod Antipas, tried much the same, seeking to forge royal connections through marriage and building his magnificent capital at Sepphoris, just a stone’s throw the northwest of the tiny village of Nazareth. Meanwhile, in Rome, Octavian, as the emperor Augustus, also sought to establish a dynastic line of succession by his adoption of Tiberius not long before his death. It seems that “Dynasties” were in the air in the 1st century CE Roman world.
I have collected books on Herod the Great for 30 years now and I find him endlessly fascinating and alluring as an historical figure, but much more so as a study in contrasts with that other “King of the Jews,” Jesus of Nazareth, crucified in 30 CE at Passover as a potential insurrectionist and heir to the royal throne of David. Unlike many of my colleagues in the area of Christian Origins who see Jesus as a healer, prophet-like figure, or teacher (all of which he surely was!), I have not the slightest doubt that he laid claim to the royal Davidic lineage and understood himself as the legitimate King of Israel or “messiah.” 7 In my book, The Jesus Dynasty, I try to lay out the full implications of this understanding, one I consider key to recovering the “historical Jesus.” ((If you have never read this book, published in 2006, I recommend it, modestly but highly! See http://jesusdynasty.com))
Our earliest source for Jesus as a Davidic “Royal” comes from Paul (Romans 1:3). Indeed, I believe that the Davidic messianic claims for Jesus are an essential factor for any interpretation of the figure of Jesus in his own time and context. I am convinced the Messianic self-identity of Jesus opens up a world of understanding of both of the man and his movement, and that without it any interpretation of the historical Jesus fundamentally fails. I have always been a bit puzzled as when I have been asked–but why would you think Jesus thought himself to be of Davidic lineage, when my question would be the opposite–how could he have possibly viewed himself otherwise, given what we know of the movement, its beliefs, and its history? Teachers, prophets, and charismatic healers are one thing, but the coming of the “Messiahs of Aaron and Israel” was at the heart of Jewish expectations of the future under the rule of a succession of Herodian rulers who were considered to be corrupt in illegitimate kings. (See my unpublished paper here on the “Two Messiahs” concept).
I am further convinced that part and parcel of the Davidic lineage idea was that one was part of a dynasty, made up of brothers and sons. And this is what we find in the Jesus movement as James, the brother of Jesus, becomes his successor, and Simon, another brother (some say cousin but of the same royal lineage), takes the leadership at the death of James. Yose, Jesus second brother after James, has apparently died by the time of the death of James in 62 CE or he would have likely been next in line. All of this evidence fits “hand-in-glove” with what we find in the “Jesus family tomb” at Talpiot. (See my overview “The Case for A ‘Jesus Family Tomb in East Talpiot: A Comprehensive Summary of the Evidence.” )
We known the splendor with which Herod was buried from the account in Josephus and the ruins of the Herodium, especially the more recent discoveries of my friend, the late Ehud Netzer. Jesus, in contrast, was crucified as a criminal and hastily and temporarily placed in a rock-hewn tomb near the place where he died. Joseph of Arimathea, who had taken charge of his burial, likely provided a more permanent tomb for Jesus, and perhaps for the rest of his family, shortly thereafter, see my exposition on this here. Like other Rabbis and teachers of the time we can expect the followers of this “Branch of David,” would have made sure he and his family were well taken care of, in death as in life. The elaborately decorated sarcophagus of Herod stands in sharp contrast to the plain undecorated ossuary of Jesus son of Joseph of the Talpiot tomb. That the Jesus of the tomb also has a son named Judah makes the entire Dynasty concept all the more dynamic.
Several years ago, standing in the parking lot of the condominium complex overlooking the Talpiot Jesus family tomb I suddenly realized, looking to the south, that the Herodium, which became Herod the Great’s fortress Tomb, was clearly visible in the distance. I thought to myself–how appropriate! The two men called “King of the Jews,” but for very different reasons and in very different contexts, buried within sight of one another!
Such a claim would be considered the capital crime of lese majesty under Roman law, see Tacitus, Annals 4. 70; 6.7 ↩
John has a significantly expanded version of this trial scene in Mark that seems to be more theologically reflective than “historical,” see John 18:28-19:21 ↩
See Tacitus, Annals 4. 70; 6.7 ↩
See my arguments in this regard in the article “Are You the One? The Textual Dynamics of Messianic Self-Identity,” in “Knowing the End from the Beginning: The Prophetic, the Apocalyptic, and their Relationships,” edited by Lester L. Grabbe and Robert D. Haak, Journal for the Study of the Pseudepigrapha Supplement (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2004), pp. 180-191. ↩
Cry aloud to God our strength, raise a shout to the God of Jacob.
This evening at sundown the Jewish holiday popularly known as Rosh HaShanah begins. Literally, rosh ha-Shanah means “head of the year.” It is commonly included on our secular calendars today as one of the “Jewish Holidays,” along with Passover and Yom Kippur, and is widely known as the “Jewish New Year.” Surprisingly though, on the Jewish calendar it is the 1st day of the seventh month, not the first day of the first month–so how could it mark a new year?
In biblical times, and on the Jewish calendar today, the “months” are lunar months, marked by the appearance of the “new moon,” 12 or 13 times in a solar year of 365.25 days. Judaism has two ways of marking the beginning of a year. The term “year” in Hebrew, shanah/שׁנה, is related to a verbal root meaning “to change” or “to turn.” Accordingly, one can refer to the “turning” of a year. The seasonal New Year is the first day of the first month, as Exodus 12: 1 puts it:
This Moon/month shall be to you the beginning (rosh, lit. “head”) of months.”
I suppose one could call it the original or primary “Rosh HaShanah,” as it comes with the beginning of the Spring and is therefore tied to the barley harvest and its seasonal ripening. That day is very significant in biblical and Jewish history as many events have taken place on Nisan 1st–the biblical New Year, marking times of “new beginnings” (Exodus 40:2; 2 Chronicles 29:17; Ezra 7:9; 10:17).
The “Jewish New Year” that most are familiar with today falls on the 1st day of the 7th lunar month–in the fall of the year. It marks the beginning or “turning” of different kind of year, one that in ancient times had to do with certain calculations regarding the Jubilee, the redemption of bond-servants, and so forth. It is kind of an “legal” New Year, much like our July and Oct “fiscal years” in our society today. It has to do with “accounting.”
In the Torah itself this holy day is never called Rosh HaShanah. Rather it gets a different name–Yom Teru’ah, that is “day of the blast.” Teru’ah/תרועה in Hebrew refers to raising up a loud noise, whether the shout of a human voice, such as a battle cry, or the piercing sound of a shofar or “trumpet” as a call of assembly or alarm–much like our modern concept of a siren. Thus some Christian groups that keep this day refer to it as the “feast of Trumpets,” though that phrase never occurs in the Hebrew Bible.
There is, however, an association of this day with a “trumpet,” or more properly, a “shofar,” in Psalm 81, coupled with the word teru’ah or “shout.”
Cry aloud to God our strength, raise a shout to the God of Jacob.
Lift up a song, and give out a timbrel, a pleasant harp with psaltery.
Blow in the month a shofar, in the new moon, at the day of our festival,
For a statute to Israel it is, an ordinance of the God of Jacob.
A testimony on Joseph He hath placed it, in his going forth over the land of Egypt (Psalm 81:2-6).
But what does it mean? The instructions in Leviticus 23, where all the biblical festivals and sabbaths of the Jewish calendar are amazingly sparse give no reason or meaning to the day. There one is simply told:
Speak to the people of Israel, saying, “In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe a day of solemn rest, memorial of teru’ah, a holy convocation (Leviticus 23:24).
This is quite literally a “commemoration” announced by a blasting sound–whether of shouting or that of a shofar. The best clues to the ancient meaning of this day are found in Psalm 80 & 81. The connection here to the tribe of Joseph is quite interesting. Judaism has connected the sound of the shofar as a call to the Tribes to gather as well as a call to all humanity to awaken. It comes to be associated with judgment and resurrection of the dead. Paul writes that the return of Jesus in the clouds of heaven and the resurrection of the dead will commence with the “sound of the trumpet of God” or “the last trumpet” (1 Thessalonians 4:16; 1 Corinthians 15:52). In the gospel of Matthew the “elect” or chosen ones, which would make up a kind of “true Israel,” are gathered at the end of days by the sound of a “loud trumpet” (Matthew 24:31).
Since this day of Teru’ah comes ten days before Yom Kippur, the solemn day of “covering” or atonement, the blast of the shofar has come to mean a call to introspection and judgment. The “ten days of awe,” between the two festivals are a time when the world stands in judgment and the doors of repentance are open. The rabbis emphasize that whereas Passover, which falls in the first month of the Jewish calendar celebrates the freedom of Israel from slavery in Egypt, this “Day of the memorial Blast,” that falls in the seventh month, is a call to all humankind to stand before God in judgment, and thus is much more universal in scope.
The discovery of a rare gold coin bearing the image of the Roman Emperor Nero at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte’s archaeological excavations on Mount Zion in Jerusalem, has just been announced by the archaeologists in charge of the project, Drs. Shimon Gibson, James Tabor, and Rafael Lewis.
“The coin is exceptional,” said Gibson, “because this is the first time that a coin of this kind has turned up in Jerusalem in a scientific dig. Coins of this type are usually only found in private collections, where we don’t have clear evidence as to place of origin.”
The gold coin (aureus) bears the bare-headed portrait of the young Nero as Caesar. The lettering around the edge of the coin reads: NERO CAESAR AVG IMP. On the reverse of the coin is a depiction of an oak wreath containing the letters “EX S C,” with the surrounding inscription “PONTIF MAX TR P III.” Importantly, these inscriptions help to work out the date when the coin was struck as 56/57 AD. Identification of the coin was made by the historian and numismatist, Dr. David Jacobson from London.
The coin dates to a little more than a decade before the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD, and was found in rubble material outside the ruins of the 1st Century Jewish villas the team has been excavating. The team has hypothesized that the large houses may have belonged to wealthy members of the priestly caste, and it may have come from one of their stores of wealth.
“The coin probably came from one of the rich 2000-year old Jewish dwellings which the UNC Charlotte team have been uncovering at the site,” said Gibson. “These belonged to the priestly and aristocratic quarter located in the Upper City of Jerusalem. Finds include the well-preserved rooms of a very large mansion, a Jewish ritual pool (mikveh) and a bathroom, both with their ceilings intact.”
This mansion and other like it, were utterly destroyed by Titus and the Roman legions, when Jerusalem was razed to the ground. It is likely, owing to the intrinsic value of the gold coin, it was hidden away ahead of the destruction of the city, and was missed by the marauding and looting Roman soldiers.
“It’s a valuable piece of personal property and wouldn’t have been cast away like rubbish or casually dropped. It’s conceivable that it ended up outside these structures in the chaos that happened as this area was destroyed.”
The image of Nero is significant in that it shows the presence of the Roman occupation and provides a clear late date for the occupation of the residences. There is no historical evidence that Nero ever visited Jerusalem. Tabor pointed out that the coin is dated “to the same year of St. Paul’s last visit to Jerusalem, which resulted in his arrest (on the charge of taking Gentiles into the Temple) and incarceration in Caesarea.” Last of the Julio-Claudian line, Nero was Roman emperor for fourteen years (54-68 AD). He had the reputation for being a tyrant, and some believed he was responsible for the devastating fire of 64 AD, which resulted in the burning of much of Rome.
The archaeological project has brought to light many other significant finds during the 2016 summer season, and work at the site will be resumed next year.
I recently wrote a post titled “Do Historians Exclude the Supernatural?” Here I want to explore a related issue that one often hears from a variety of circles also having to do with methods of the academic study of religions–how scholars evaluate ancient texts–and here I will particularly focus on my own work on the historical Jesus.
When it comes to a critical reading of our New Testament gospels and other related texts one can get the impression that scholars end up rather arbitrarily “picking and choosing” whatever they want–especially in trying to construct their portraits of the “historical Jesus.” In other words, as Albert Schweitzer cautioned long ago, all too often historians seem to come up with a Jesus made in their own image, so that texts and traditions they favor are retained whereas those they disfavor are discarded as unreliable. In fact, I would argue that more often quite the opposite is the case. Many of those who claim simply to “take the Bible as it is,” without any critical discernment of sources, traditions, and historical contexts actually end up as the ones who quite arbitrarily fall into this trap of subjectively “picking and choosing.”
For example, we have two very different versions of the so-called Beatitudes–Matthew 5:1-12 and Luke 6:20-26. The same is the case for the Lord’s Prayer–compare Matthew 6:9-13 and Luke 11:2-4. Matthew’s version is by far the one best known, most often quoted, and clearly favored by most Christians–but what about Luke’s alternative version? How and why is it different and what can we make of those differences? Why do we have differing versions of many of Jesus’ teachings and sayings in Matthew and Luke that are not in Mark–this is the “double tradition” that most scholars refer to as Q. Rather than picking ones “favorite” version, and using it arbitrarily for ones own purposes, what critical scholars attempt to do is analytically account for the various strands of tradition, carefully comparing the similarities and differences, in an effort to get at why our traditions differ, when and where they originated, and which might more reliably go back to Jesus himself–if such can be determined. I often tell my students, a critical reading of our sources means a careful reading, with great attention to differences and details. Many of those who claim that they simply “take the Bible as it is,” in fact have never carefully read the very texts they claim to honor and are blissfully unaware of the important differences in our various sources.
As an illustration take a look at my post on the various differing accounts of the discovery of Jesus’ empty tomb following his crucifixion, “How Faith in Jesus’ Resurrection Originated and Developed.” Rather than arbitrarily choosing the one I liked best, I tried to arrange them in their most likely chronological order and to account for the differences in terms of the obvious rewriting and overwriting of earlier sources by later ones.
So how do historians go about doing their work? What methods and principles do they value and seek to follow?
To begin with, historians do not privilege any texts, be they in or out of the Bible, as inherently reliable based on a view of divine inspiration. This method immediately separates historical work from theological work, in that theology, at least traditional Christian theology, begins with the assumption that the texts of the Bible are inspired and thus at some level “true” or at least “more true” than other writings of the time. For the historian there is a sense in which all texts are created equal and are therefore examined with the same methods of analysis. That does not mean, however, that some are not considered more accurate historically than others. For example, when it comes to reliable history or teaching of Jesus most scholars would not give as much weight to the Gospel of Thomas as the Gospel of Mark. Often this has to do as much with dating and chronology as to whether a text is “in” the New Testament or not. Thomas, like the newly published Gospel of Judas, dates from the late 2nd or early 3rd century whereas Mark seems to have been written around 70 CE–within forty years of Jesus’ lifetime.
Older is not always better, but when we have a text as old as Mark, we surely want to give it the priority that it deserves. And we can show how Mark becomes the narrative core or basis for both Matthew and Luke, who “overwrite” and “rewrite” it with their own interests in mind. This does not mean, necessarily, that anything from Matthew’s and Luke’s “rewritten Mark” has no historical value, but it does allow us to account for how and when the various differences arose, and often we can trace them to particular emphases or interests of the authors. For example, Luke consistently removes, time and time again, the motif, so dominant in Mark, of the failure of the disciples. Those sections of Mark are simply missing in Luke–he purposely and consistently takes them out (e.g. Mark 8:32-33; 10:35-40; 14:32-50).
It is also possible that the “double tradition” in Matthew and Luke, that most scholars refer to as Q, might well predate even Mark. It appears to be an early collection of the teachings of Jesus with a minimum of narrative material. Chronology is not everything, but at least in the beginning we want to try to arrange our sources as much as possible in a chronological fashion, thus when it comes to Jesus we have: the Q source, Mark, Matthew, Luke, the “Signs source,” John, the letter of James, the Didache, fragments of the Gospel of Peter, fragments of “Hebrew Matthew” and the gospel of Thomas, even though scholars might disagree as to their precise dating. Surprisingly, to many, the letters of Paul are earlier than any of these gospel materials and one of our latest sources, which is mistakenly taken by many as the most foundational text for the development of the early Christian movement, is the book of Acts.
It is also important to try and detect the kind of editorial development that goes on in such a trajectory of texts. It is not always strictly chronological, but often it is. On the whole we can see, within the early Christian tradition, a tendency to make Jesus more divine and less human, to downplay the role of John the Baptist, and to mute or mitigate the role of James and the family of Jesus. What we try to do is to take all our sources and compare them side by side and then to draw conclusions, as much as we can, as to what is most likely closer to Jesus and what might be a later development.
To take just a few examples, Matthew uses Mark as a source and he consistently “edits” him at crucial points. In Mark 10:17-18 a man says to Jesus “Good teacher, what do I do to inherit eternal life?” and Jesus rebukes him replying, “Why do you call me good, there is One who is good, God.” Matthew comes to that story and alters Jesus’ answer to read: “Why do you ask me about the good.” Here you can see that given Matthew’s more divine view of Jesus, he finds the wording of Mark troubling and freely edits it. When it comes to Q there are times when the Hebrew version of Matthew appears to be less edited than the Greek versions in either Matthew or Luke. A prime example is Matthew 11:11 (Luke 7:28) where Jesus declares that “among those born of women there is none greater than John.” This startling statement stands unqualified in the Hebrew version of Matthew preserved by Ibn Shaprut, whereas in Greek, both Luke and Matthew have the qualifying addition: “but nonetheless, the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.” I am convinced that the latter is an editorial gloss that was added to soften the shocking implication that John the Baptist is then greater than Jesus. In such a case we often give the more difficult, or the more “primitive” reading more weight than what appears to be a later addition. The issue of Jesus being baptized by John is one of the clearest examples one can find of the unfolding tendency to elevate Jesus above John. Mark offers a straight account of John Baptizing Jesus, Matthew adds the lines in which John objects to doing this since Jesus is greater, Luke reports Jesus’ baptism and implies John did it, but never directly says so, and John drops the entire narrative account entirely. Most of us are convinced that this kind of evidence can not be dismissed as chance and it should not be ignored but carefully analyzed.
This entire process can appear to a casual reader as “picking and choosing” at will, but it is in fact a carefully worked out process. In my book, The Jesus Dynasty, I try to bring the reader into the methods of analysis I employ so as to make clear why certain texts and traditions are thought to be more historically reliable while others are seen as secondary. In our book, The Jesus Discovery, coauthored with Simcha Jacobovici, that process continues. The book begins with our new archaeological discoveries at the Talpiot tomb but it is much more than that, with two thirds of the book devoted to a careful and critical analysis of a set of related issues–who was Mary Magadelene? What about the accounts of the “empty tomb”? What role did James the brother of Jesus play in early Christianity? How do Paul’s letters contribute historically to our understanding of Jesus?–as well as many others.
What we historians attempt is not a perfect lab science–if such a thing exists–but there is a method to what might appear to some to be “madness.” I want to invite my readers into the process of critical evaluation and reflection; the same process that I use with my students and that is commonly followed in advanced courses in universities when one deals with the historical Jesus. Once one carefully works through the arguments presented in both The Jesus Dynasty and more recently in The Jesus Discovery, I think one might find that what seems at first glance to be “picking and choosing” is actually a rather careful methodological attempt to sort through the sources in a responsible historical manner.
It has become almost axiomatic to assume that any responsible “quest for the historical Jesus” will value the Synoptic gospels–particularly Mark–as primary and more historically reliable in contrast to the gospel of John, which is viewed as secondary, and thus much more theological than historical.1 Although there has been a growing recognition of the heavily theological nature of Mark, Matthew, and Luke–including the so-called Q or “Sayings” source–the general result has been a favoring of Mark over John.
I studied in the 1970s at the University of Chicago with the late Norman Perrin who advanced the recognition of the theological elements of Mark, to a new level.2 Krister Stendahl (The School of St Matthew 1954), Anthony Saldarini (Matthew’s Jewish-Christian Community 1994), Hans Conzelman (The Theology of St. Luke, 1961) and a host of others have done the same for Matthew and Luke. The result has been the recognition that none of our gospel writers are composing history per se, and all are expressing their individual theologies–particularly their Christology–as a first priority in the ways they cast the Jesus story.
The recognition of the stark differences between the Synoptics and John is implicitly recognized in the early Church. Clement of Alexandria writes that “John, last of all, conscious that the outward facts had been set forth in the Gospels [i.e. Matthew, Mark, and Luke], was urged on by his disciples, and, divinely moved by the Spirit, composed a spiritual Gospel” (Eusebius, Church History 6.14.7). Although there is no doubting that John’s gospel is heavily theological in a more overt way than is obviously apparent in Mark and the Synoptics, it would be incorrect to conclude that it is of no value in contributing to our “quest for the historical Jesus.” In recent years there has been an enormous amount of scholarly work done on John and its contributions to historical Jesus studies–so much so that one might refer to this trend as a kind of “rehabilitation” of the gospel of John.3
John is a very complex book with several layers of tradition embedded therein to give us the version we have now. Scholars have identified an earlier “Signs Source” that runs through the whole (1:19-12:50). There is an appended “Epilogue” in chapter 21 that rather strangely continues the story after the clear and definitive ending of 20:30-31. There is mysterious role of the unnamed “disciple whom Jesus loves,”whom I have identified as James the brother of Jesus, who appears to be named as an eyewitness source in John 21:24. Chapters 6-10 and 14-17 are quite literally filled, with page after page, of extended “red letter” Dialogues and Monologues attributed to Jesus. This material is starkly different in both style and content in contrast to the teachings and sayings of Jesus in the Synoptics. In the gospel of John Jesus never speaks in parables, offers short maxims or sayings, or focuses his work around exorcisms and preaching the “Kingdom of God” as in the Synoptics. Jimmy Dunn has convincingly argued that the style and vocabulary of Jesus’ speaking in John is that of the writer of the letter of 1 John–not of the historical Jesus.4
What I have concluded over the past few decades in my own work on the historical Jesus is that John is an invaluable resource, especially in matters of chronology and geography. For a start, see the simple handout I use in my classes on “Narrative Movement in the Gospel of John.” ((See, for example, my article “Wadi el-Yabis and the Elijah “Wadi Cherith” traditions in Relationship to John and Jesus in the Gospel of John,” and James Strange, “John and the Geography of Palestine.” I have also found that the material John uniquely provides often correlates in remarkable ways with recent archaeological evidence in both Jerusalem and the Galilee. In my own work I have used John exclusively or primarily in several areas of investigation including the Suba cave at Ein Kerem, “A Jesus Hideout in Jordan,” “The Last Supper and Passover,” “Locating Golgotha,” the “Burial of Jesus,” and the judgment seat of Pontius Pilate–to name a few.
What I propose to do in future posts is to offer a series of correlations between the basic materials found in John and the text of Mark on a wide variety of topics. Stay tuned for some interesting and new insights.
The Jesus Seminar lists this as one of its “Seven Pillars” of scholarly wisdom, see Robert Funk, The Five Gospels: What Did Jesus Really Say? The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus (San Francisco: HarperOne, 1993): 2-4. ↩
See his contrasting breakdown and analysis in James D. G. Dunn, The Evidence for Jesus (Philadelphia, Westminster Press, 1989): 30-45. ↩
It has become common to read the Gospel of John, with its theology of Christ as the heavenly Messiah, its attitudes toward the Torah, and its “othering” reference to “the Jews,” as elements of an emerging anti-Judaic, or even anti-Semitic, stage of the developing Jesus movement. Years ago James McGrath published a most informative article in this regard that I only recently read. It is particularly valuable for its citations to the various discussions of this topic. I am sure James would find ways he would want to update it today but I found it most helpful and I want to recommend it to my readers. It is fortunately available on-line:
“Jewish Christianity” has been a category notoriously difficult to define–given its inherent complexities and the subsequent developments of various forms of Judaism as well as Christianity in the post-70 CE period. McGrath’s article and its conclusion is well worth considering:
Given the diversity in both first century Judaism and in early Christianity, it would be reasonable to presume that there was also a certain amount of diversity in jewish Christianity. One corollary of this is that there is no need to force John into a set mould: John could differ from a given definition of Jewish Christianity in one or more areas, and yet possibly still be rightly classed as a Jewish Christian work in some sense. Yet what is striking is the fact that it is possible to read and understand John quite naturally as containing precisely those features which have been singled out by many scholars as distinctively Jewish Christian: adoptionist Christology, Torah observance, and a continuing Jewish or Israelite selfidentity. Although there is still work to be done in this area, it would seem reasonable to conclude that, in light of the evidence we have surveyed and the many other indicators of Jewish influence on and Jewish elements in John’s Gospel, the burden of proof rests on those who seek to deny a Jewish/Jewish-Christian setting for the Fourth Evangelist’s community and Gospel.
Legendary stories of gods fathering humans, so common in Greco-Roman culture, may well have contributed to accounts of Jesus’ miraculous birth in Matthew and Luke but I would suggest an alternative. I am convinced that the idea of Jesus’ birth from a virgin–without a human father–implicitly goes back to the apostle Paul.
Christians regularly affirm that Jesus was “conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary.” This faith is embedded as a cornerstone of all the major Christian creeds and is recited by hundreds of millions each week. Surprisingly, the gospel of Mark has no account of the birth of Jesus. It opens with Jesus as an adult, traveling from Nazareth down to the Jordan River to be baptized by John. Since Mark is our earliest gospel the question arises–what is the origin of the idea of Jesus’ virgin birth? When and where did it originate?
In contrast to Mark both Matthew and Luke give us different versions of the “Christmas story,” but they both agree on the source of Mary’s pregnancy. In Matthew’s account Joseph had a dream shortly after finding out about the pregnancy. In this dream an angel told him that her pregnancy was “by a holy spirit” and that he was to go ahead with the marriage regardless. He was to name her child Jesus. By marrying a pregnant woman who carried a child that was not his, and legally naming that child, he was in effect “adopting” Jesus as his legal son. The phrase “by a holy spirit” implies that the pregnancy came from the agency of God’s spirit but falls short of saying, outright, that God was the father of Jesus in the sense that, say, Zeus was said to be the father of Hercules by his seduction of his mother, Alkmene. In that sense the account is different from those miraculous birth stories so common in Greco-Roman mythology.
Nonetheless, scholars who question the literal truth of Matthew and Luke’s birth stories have suggested that they are a way of affirming the divine nature of Jesus as “Son of God” by giving him an extraordinary supernatural birth. This idea of humans being fathered by gods is quite common in Greco-Roman culture. There was a whole host of heroes who were said to be the product of a union between their mother and a god–Plato, Empedocles, Hercules, Pythagoras, Alexander the Great and even Caesar Augustus. In text after text we find the idea of the divine man (theios aner/θεῖος ἀνήρ) whose supernatural birth, ability to perform miracles, and extraordinary death separate him from the ordinary world of mortals. For a sample of these texts see “Divine Men, Heroes, and Gods.” These heroes are not “eternal” gods, like Zeus or Jupiter. They are mortal human beings who have been exalted to a heavenly state of immortal life. In the time of Jesus their temples and shrines filled every city and province of the Roman Empire. It is easy to imagine that early Christians who believed Jesus was every bit as exalted and heavenly as any of the Greek and Roman heroes and gods would appropriate this way of relating the story of his birth. It was a way of affirming that Jesus was both human and divine. Modern interpreters who view the stories in this way usually maintain that Joseph was likely the father and that these supernatural accounts were invented later by Jesus’ followers to honor Jesus and to promote his exalted status in a manner common to that culture.
These legendary stories from Greco-Roman culture may well have contributed to accounts of Jesus’ miraculous birth in Matthew and Luke but I would suggest an alternative. I am convinced that the idea of Jesus’ birth from a virgin–without a human father–implicitly goes back to the apostle Paul. Paul’s letters date several decades before our New Testament gospels and it is Paul’s understanding of Jesus as the pre-existent, divine, Son of God, that lays the conceptual groundwork for our Christmas stories. ((For a possible identification of the biological father of Jesus see “The Jesus ‘Son of Pantera’ Traditions.”
Paul never explicitly refers to Jesus’ virgin birth nor does he ever name either Mary or Joseph. What he does affirm is that Jesus pre-existed before his human birth and subsequently gave up his divine glory through his birth as a human being. He writes that Jesus “though existing in the form of God” emptied himself and took on human form, “being made in the likeness of humankind” (Philippians 2:6-7). He says further “though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9). He is likely referring here, metaphorically, to the “riches” of Jesus’ pre-existence with God, since we have no evidence Jesus came from a wealthy family background. Paul also writes “In the fullness of time God sent forth his Son, made of a woman …” (Galatians 4:4). Although this verse is often translated “born of a woman,” Paul avoids the Greek verb gennao (γεννάω), which means “to beget, to give birth to,” referring to either the mother or the father. The implication of these texts is that Jesus’ mother was merely the human receptacle for bringing Jesus into the world. It is not a far step from these ideas about Jesus’ pre-existence to the notion of Jesus as the first-begotten Son of God–eliminating any necessity for a human father. Paul’s entire message centers on a divine not a human Jesus–both before his birth and after his death. For Paul he is the pre-existent Son of God, crucified, but now raised to sit at the right hand of God. Like the Christian creeds that jump from Jesus’ birth to his death and resurrection in single phrase, entirely skipping over his life, Paul paves the way for a confessional understanding of what it means to be a Christian. As Bultmann once put it, it is the “thatness” of the Gospel which interested Paul–that he was born of a woman, he died, that he rose, that he is coming again–with nothing inbetween.
The Jewish followers of Jesus later known as the Ebionites (see my previous post here) by the Orthodox Church Fathers, rejected Paul, used a version of Matthew in Hebrew that did not contain the account of the virgin birth in our present chapter 2 of the Greek text, and followed James the brother of Jesus in observing the Torah. It is difficult to imagine the virgin birth idea arising within these original Jewish circles whereas the perspectives of Paul lend themselves so easily to such mythology.
An alternative way of thinking about being a Christian is preserved in the gospel of Mark–our earliest narrative account of the career of Jesus. Mark mentions neither Jesus’ birth, nor any resurrection appearances on Easter morning (according to our earliest manuscripts that end with chapter 16:8). For discussion of the implications of this abrupt ending see my previous post, “The Strange Ending of Mark and Why it Makes all the Difference.” When a would-be follower addresses Jesus as “Good Teacher,” Jesus sharply rebukes him with the retort: “Why do you call me good, there is One who is good, God” (Mark 10:17-18). Mark emphasizes the suffering of Jesus on the cross, but only as a call to others to also “take up a cross” and thus give their lives as servants to others. In Mark Jesus defines true religion as loving God and loving ones neighbor, in contrast to all systems of religion. His version of the Jesus story is surely one that should not be forgotten despite the ubiquitous triumph of Paul’s theology.
The investigative task of the ancient historian is by definition an interpretive one and no interpretation is without predisposition or even prejudgment stemming from known or unknown proclivities of both a personal and contextual nature. Add to this the paucity of our incomplete evidence, whether textual or material, and there is no wonder we hardly ever agree on anything of consequence. Nonetheless careful argument based on logical analysis and best evidence remains our only path. ((James D. Tabor to his students regarding the “methods” of the academy, and more specifically that of the ancient historian. ))
One of the most frequent responses I get to my work as a historian of religions, particularly in my dealings with Jesus, Paul, and the development of early “Christianities” is the objection that I “exclude the miraculous” as a valid part of the investigation. The idea seems to be that “secular historians” prejudge evidence and are accordingly biased in that they will not allow even the possibility of the miraculous as part of ones historical inquiry. If historians ask the questions: what do we know and how do we know it–how is it that we claim to “know” from the start that miracles do not happen and that supernatural explanations for various developments are to be rejected? As Darrel Bock put things, reviewing my book, The Jesus Dynasty for Christianity Today: “James Tabor’s historical assumptions that reject God’s activity on Earth force him into odd arguments to explain the birth of Christianity.”
For Bock and others these assumptions essentially result in “explaining away the New Testament” to use his words. Bock is referring particularly to my observation that historians assume that all humans have two biological parents, that dead bodies don’t rise, and that humans do not bodily ascend to heaven. Oddly enough, I maintain, along with most historians, that the “odd arguments” are characteristic of those who take the assertions that Jesus had no human father or that he walked out of his tomb and ascended bodily into the clouds of heaven as literal scientific statements of fact. Whether I reject “God’s activity on Earth” is a much more complex matter that I will deal with in another context, but what about this charge that secular historians are biased against the supernatural?
My training at the University of Chicago was that of a historian, not a theologian or even a “Biblical Scholar” as such. My Ph.D. was not from the Divinity School but in the Division of Humanities. I worked broadly in the area study of “Ancient Mediterranean Religions and Culture” and more specifically within ancient Judaism and early Christianity. My teachers were primarily Jonathan Z. Smith and Robert M. Grant. What I reflected in The Jesus Dynasty and in all of my academic work (my full CV here), are the methods and approaches generally employed by most qualified scholars who work in these areas.
Doing the work of an historian is not “hard” science in the purest sense of the term, but none of us in the field would want it to be understood as “art” either, at least not in some wholly subjective way. There is no doubt that historians often differ in their conclusions in important ways, and that “interpretation” of the data, how it is finally weighed and processed, is indeed a somewhat subjective process. When it comes to Jesus, as Albert Schweitzer pointed out long ago, historians all to often have “looked into the long well of history” and seen their own reflection staring back at them. In other words, when they come up with a so-called “historical Jesus” fashioned almost wholly by their own imaginations and biased desires.
When my students retreat to some historical conclusion that I or others have reached, with the easy retort “but that is just your interpretation,” I encourage them to go beyond that kind of reductionism. History is not mere subjective interpretation, even if it involves such. Ideally it is based on arguments and evidence and in the end a good historian wants to be persuasive. It is rare that historical conclusions close out any possible alternative interpretations, but the goal is to set forth, in the open court of reasoned argument and evidence, a compelling “case” for whatever one is dealing with. Even when we disagree we end up stating “why” we don’t find this or that argument convincing, or what we find weak in the assumptions of one with whom we differ.
As for sources, nothing is excluded and everything can be evaluated as long as it offers us some reasonable way to reconstruct the past. Historians love and welcome evidence. That is what we live on and we crave any new materials that can shed more light on what we know. But even our best sources, particularly the literary ones, are remarkably tendentious. Modern standards of argument and objectivity were unknown to ancient writers. Writing was more often than not a blatant attempt at propaganda and apologetics, and all the more so when it came to competing systems of religious understanding. Recognition of those factors is a vital part of every historian’s method. If we want to “use” Josephus we also have to give attention to what we know of him as a person, as a writer, what his tendencies are, what his competence was, and so forth. It is the same with the Gospels, with Eusebius, and with all the ancient texts and material evidence that we have at our disposal. It is also the case that for many important questions related to Jesus and his movement we simply do not have good evidence and probably never will. As thankful as we are for what we have, whether textual or archaeological or myth or tradition, in the end we have to face our own limitations.
Determining what Jesus said, or what he did, given the obvious theologically motivated editing and “mythmaking” that goes on even in our core New Testament gospels is a methodologically challenging project upon which none of us wholly agree. For example, we know virtually nothing about the so-called “lost years of Jesus,” and thus are left to speculate about his childhood and early adult life until about age 30 (assuming we even trust Luke, our single source, about his age when he joined John the Baptizer). Our attempts are educated guesses and creative reconstructions. Most of us are quite sure that the reports of the various so-called “Infancy Gospels” that have Jesus as a child magically turning clay birds into real ones or jumping off the roof of a building unharmed are less than historical. They are late, legendary, and fabulistic to the extreme. It is doubtful that such sources contain any useful historical information at all. I cannot prove that Jesus and his brothers worked with their father Joseph in the building trades in nearby Sepphoris, but I think it is a likely possibility, given what we know (see Mark 6:3). In contrast, the assertions that Jesus traveled as a child with his uncle Joseph of Arimathea to Britain, or that he studied in Egypt or in India, are based upon legendary materials far removed in time and place from his world. It is the same with the question of whether or not Jesus was married or had children. For years I agreed with most of my colleagues that the possibilities of this appear to be slight but over the past five years, in looking at the new evidence from the Talpiot tombs, as well as reviewing all the arguments, I have become convinced otherwise. A recent reviewer of our new book, The Jesus Discovery, has asserted on this point that “The claim that the Gnostic Gospels are a good source on Jesus being married to Mary Magdalene, for instance, is just breathtakingly silly — they were written incredibly late and reflect a particular theology/religious perspective–not history.” I have to disagree here and clearly, the reviewer, Raphael Magarik, is completely unaware of the solid scholarship on Mary Magdalene by fine scholars such as the late Jane Schaberg, April DeConick, Karen King, Ann Graham Brock, Margaret Starbird or a host of others. But more important he seems not to have read very carefully the arguments I review in the book that I think are actually quite persuasive.
The public has been geared to think of the suppression of evidence, usually with the Roman Catholic church being the culprit, but such grand “conspiratorial” theories have little basis in fact. What is most characteristic of early Christianity, or more properly, “Christianites,” is a competing diversity of “parties and politics,” each propagating its own vision of the significance of the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. All sorts of interpretations are offered of Jesus, but the question finally comes down to how convincing a given argument is to other historians who work in the field and deal with the same sources and materials. But even “consensus” is no guarantor of final truth. Sometimes a minority view, in time, can prove to be true, and often pioneers in any area of history are castigated or rejected by colleagues when they initially put forth their theses.
Even a subject as seemingly straightforward as the claim in the Gospels that Jesus was raised bodily from the dead and ascended to heaven is one that is “textually bound” by what our sources actually say or don’t say–and the work of the historian is to interpret these texts as objectively as possible. See for example my methods on this very topic in my essay, “How Faith in Jesus’ Resurrection Originated and Developed: An Old New Hypothesis.”
As far as the subjects of the miraculous and the supernatural, historians of religions remain observers. The fact is we do not exclude religious experience in investigating the past–far from it. We actually embrace it most readily. What people believe or claim to have experienced becomes a vital part of our evidence. We can note that Mark reported that Jesus walked on water or raised the dead or met his disciples in Galilee after his death, and then we date and evaluate Mark as a source, just as we note the miracles that Philostratus claims for his contemporary hero Apollonius of Tyana, or that the story that Zeus fathered Hercules or that Romulus was taken bodily into heaven (see these and other texts here). Most scholars in the field would say that Jesus practiced “exorcism,” and healed the sick, which was seen as a releasing one afflicted from Satanic power, but what that implies about the reality of the demonic world goes beyond our historical methods. We know enough about human psychology and our modern controversies regarding psychic phenomenon to realize the complexities of drawing such conclusions. History and theology/faith do part ways in some of these areas but I tell my students often: “Good history is never the enemy of proper faith.” It is easy to hold that “God” can do anything, and thus argue for the acceptance of a male baby being born without male sperm, or reports of a corpse rising after two or three days and ascending bodily into heaven, but such claims are not the purview of historians and they run contrary to our human experience and a more rational scientific understanding of birth and death. Historians likewise deal with “beliefs” about the afterlife and the unseen world beyond, but without asserting the historical reality of these notions or realms. We can evaluate what people claimed, what they believed, what they reported, and that all becomes part of the data, but to then say, “A miracle happened” or this or that “prophet” was truly hearing from God, as opposed to another who was utterly false prophecy, goes beyond our accessible methods. I don’t want to oversimplify things here and I realize that the question of “faith” and “history” and the assumptions modern historians make in terms of a so-called “materialistic” worldview can be challenged, even philosophically. But for the most part historians are willing to leave the “mystery” in, but in terms of advocating this or that view of the so-called “supernatural,” as an explanation, they properly, in my view, remain wary.
We will probably never know with absolute certainty who Jesus’ father was, or what happened to the body of Jesus, or whether Paul “really” talked with Jesus after his death, but I prefer the “odd arguments” of the historian in investigating those matters, however inconclusive and speculative, to the dogmatic assertions of theology that are problematic from a scientific point of view.