Jesus: The Outline

After spending the greater part of my academic life trying to persuade people that the New Testament is chock full of myths, I’m at the point where it might be useful to say what I think isn’t one.

The Bultmann era was edged in the hypocrisy of subverting and redesigning myth to save the gospel. It was quickly supplanted by the pan-Gnostics who in turn got hijacked by a dozen different modes of discourse theory, and several ill-fated new quests that assured us that the footprints they were tracking were not, as it seemed, going around in a circle. Naturally, no “Jesus” emerged from any of this and understandably the fact that none did greatly encouraged the amateurs to speculate that there was nothing down the hole in the first place.

My semi-sincere New Year’s resolution for 2013 is to be nicer to the mythicists, because their conclusions are not their fault. After all, they are simply piecing together the stammering indecision, deconstruction, conspiracy-theories, and half-baked analogies of a hundred years of uncongealed scholarship. When a senior professor of New Testament studies at Harvard touts a shred of gnostic papyrus as showing that Jesus may have been married without so much as a nod to the weird provenance of the scrap, who can blame amateurs for coming to less absurd conclusions?

The problem with all of this isn’t that we don’t have ingredients for assessing the “Jesus Puzzle.” It’s that too many adventurous souls, using what we have, are calling their work a cake when it isn’t even a recipe.

I am going out on a limb, this last day of 2012, unprotected by footnotes, to offer a few paragraphs on what I think the gospels tell us that we can be relatively sure is “true.” I have been persuaded by a few friends to lay all of this out in a book at the end of this year, so I will. With any luck, it will be shorter and easier to read than any of the books I have read on the subject in the last two decades. Think of this as a preview; I’ll save persuasion, argument and evidence for later.

Jesus of Nazareth was born toward the beginning of the common era to a peasant woman named Miriam. He was from the region known as the Galilee (ha-Galel: Josh. 20.7), and according to an early but dubious tradition from “Nazareth.” But the tradition soon lost track of the ascription and seems to have used a place name for an imperfectly understood epithet based on the common Hebrew word נֵ֫צֶר or branch. No one knows what Jesus is supposed to have been a branch of, but the two likeliest prospects are of the sect associated with John the Baptist or the sect associated with Judas of Galilee.

The true identity of his father is unknown, and both the Joseph-tradition and the ben-Panthera (Jewish polemical) tradition are flimsy attempts, respectively, to provide cover and to attack the shadowy circumstances of his origin. Later elaborations of this tendency will be found in the efforts to insist on the virginity of Mary and an appeal to prophetic tradition.

By far, in making sense of the synoptic gospels, the likeliest scenario is that Jesus was taken by his mother to Jerusalem as a boy, a tradition preserved in the unlikely and legendary story of the journey to Jerusalem in Luke 2.42-51. While in no sense “liberal,” Jerusalem was populous and rustic scandals could be glossed over. As a teenager, he probably found work in the building projects associated with the reign of the Herodians. He listened to apocalyptic preaching and became an ardent opponent of the Roman occupation of Palestine.

He commenced his own preaching career in Jerusalem and retreated to the Galilee during the sporadic but increasingly intense crackdowns on tax revolts and anti-government agitation that extended from Judas the Galilean to Theudas. (6 CE-46CE) where he began to find followers and build a small movement.

That this movement was a crashing failure in the outposts of the province is hardly surprising, since the iron fist of Rome affected city-dwellers in ways hardly imagineable outside Jerusalem. In his “home town,” the message of Jesus was largely irrelevant.

In specific ways, the political message of Jesus seems identical to the person described by Josephus (Ant. 18.1) as Judas of Galilee, who opposed the tax structure imposed on the Jews following the census of Quirinius mentioned by both Luke and Josephus. The geographical coordinates of Jesus and Judas coincide in important and suggestive ways.

According to the synoptic gospels, the “journey” of Jesus to Jerusalem was a one-off event. According to the Fourth gospel, Jesus moved between the Galilee and Jerusalem, a more likely pattern for someone suspected of political agitation and holding reformist views about religion. The gospel writers, beginning with Mark, have substituted the conceit of a royal Davidic procession for the real scurrying between the villages of the Gaililee and the parlous environment of Jerusalem that seems to have characterized Jesus’ career. The journey saga, Mark’s invention, and the passion sequence following it are highly ritualized and the former is almost without historical merit, a fact inadvertently relayed even by Mark in his inability to explain the “crowds” waiting for Jesus on his arrival.

On one of his preaching ventures, accompanied by the followers who had come to believe he was a deliverer (perhaps believing it himself) Jesus was arrested, accused of fomenting rebellion against Roman rule, and (possibly) with the capitulation of Jewish leaders, executed.

Like Judas and “Theudas” (whose tradition is botched in the New Testament sources) Jesus used apocalyptic utterances and threats as political cover. The early Christians would do the same thing in the Book of Revelation, probably written before the end of the first century. The securest parts of the Jesus-tradition therefore are the apocalyptic sections of the gospels such as Mark 13, though these have been repeatedly altered to conform to the changing expectations and beliefs of the community Jesus left behind.

The “displaced tradition” of Jesus’ attack on the temple cult in John 2 (which violates the Markan chronology, if it knows it) comes closest to giving us an accurate picture of how Jesus was remembered by the earliest community, as a prophet, trouble-maker, and critic of the religious regime of the Pharisees and priests.

That community was unalterably changed by two events: the destruction of the Temple, which eviscerated apocalyptic of its historical power, and the preaching of Paul, which deprived Jesus of his historical context and turned him into a mixed-messianic figure. To the extent that Jesus used the apocalytic genre, he used it as a ritual curse and not as a prophecy of messianic return or redemption.

In Jerusalem, Jesus was remembered as a charismatic outlaw. A tradition, such as the Judas [Iscariot]-tradition, while partly legendary (including the name) is entirely plausible from the standpoint of Roman tactics. It was a snare, or a set-up, that tradition recasts as betrayal. The legal process against Jesus needed witnesses; the self-contradictory gospel insistence that “no one could be found” to testify against him suggests that the Romans conducted his trial with dispatch. It would have been handled by a magistrate and not by the governor of the province.

The Jewish trials, completely legendary, are based on the need to establish Jesus’ messianic credentials and (later) to point a finger away from the Roman process.

As to his teaching, certain elements seem secure. Rather than a raw political apocalypticism such as we find in the preaching of John the Baptist, known to be an enemy of the Herodians, Jesus seems to be a typical purist member of “the fourth sect,” the religious group Josephus associates with the final troubles leading to the wars of 66-70. The tradition of the destruction of Jerusalem (forecast in the crucifixion scene) may be a metaphorical way of associating Jesus with these troubles in an honorary way, though the more direct evidence comes in stray passages such as Mark 13.2 and its rationalizations. These “threats” are primarily “cosmopolitan” issues that were more intense in Jerusalem than the provinces, making a “Galilean” provenance for Jesus, or his inexperience (a one week acquaintance!) of the city, implausible.

This model unfortunately requires us to leave to one side features of Jesus’ message that are often regarded as essential–especially the injunction to “love” one’s enemies. Jesus does not display any of these characteristics in his remembered controversies with members of other sects, so there is no reason to suppose he would have encouraged others to display them to total strangers. In this respect, the controversy stories, though not in every detail, are the best indicators of what the “personality” of Jesus may have been like.

By the same token, certain elements of his teaching–the critical agenda that flows from a general distaste for ritual, the irrelevance of social caste, suspicion of priestcraft and law, the meaning of sin and the “power” of God–are fairly represented.

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9 thoughts on “Jesus: The Outline

  1. As you know, developing a narrative, writing the story as it probably was, requires judgements and decisions. I find it difficult to accept judgments that say things like the apocalyptic is most likely authentic but we can’t take the teaching episodes as such. Others can equally argue that story vignettes (such as the prodigal son, the parable of the sower, etc.), are memorable and quite likely to quickly become part of an relatively stable and accurate oral history. One discredits these stories whilst the other credits them.

    I can’t help but remember the adage that we all look down the well and see our own faces. I would be more impressed with someone who looked down the well and came up with a face that we wouldn’t have expected them to. Isn’t the face you see what you expect to see?

    I say this as I have worked cross-culturally and I have come to realise that the personality of Jesus is different from what I (as a kiwi) could have ever envisaged, as he thinks and acts in a milieu that is remarkably foreign to mine. But I don’t think the actions that you speak of match up with the apocalyptic in the manner that you seem to infer. Socio-rhetorical criticism is beginning to explore this. I would recommend caution on talking about his personality out of cultural context

  2. I would love to see Dr. Hoffmann address the concepts of myths and legends in his new book if he doesn’t mind. I have seen Evangelicals appeal to the late classicist A.N. Sherwin-White in their attempts to prove that the gospels are myth-free and practically devoid of any legends. Further, what I have seen from the likes of radical scholars (Bob Price and Dick Carrier) in response is very unimpressive. Dr. Hoffmann writes that he has spent much of his academic life “trying to persuade people that the New Testament is chock full of myths”. That’s good but I am not sure what scholars mean by “myths” or “legends”. Is there a technical definition for “myth” that is agreed upon by the majority of anthropologists, classicists, historians, and other scholars? How about “legend”?

    Other than this, I look forward to reading Dr. Hoffmann’s book! I encourage him to keep up the good work!

    Matthew

  3. Joe: On the hopeful note set by your response to my comment: A viable solution to the “Jesus Puzzle”, plus your comment elsewhere: “I can see why Betz thinks as he does about the Sermon on the Mount”, I presume to offer the following which I feel is basic to a meaningful understanding of why we know so little about the real Jesus.
    Our most certain sufficient historical evidence for knowledge of Jesus, who he was and what he said, rests “solely on the basis of the original and originating faith and witness of the apostles”. (Schubert M. Ogden). Over against this basic fact of the history of religions, one must take account of The FATEFUL HISTORICAL MISTAKE which took place in the earliest apostolic period 30 CE-65 CE at the very beginning of post-Easter Jesus traditions, thus creating the “Jesus Puzzle”. During this period there were two distinctly different movements standing in deepest adversarial relationship. The first the Jerusalem Jesus Movement from which is derived our primary source containing this apostolic witness. This was soon followed by a Hellenists Christ myth movement introducing the notions of messiah and salvific effects of Jesus’ death. Paul, first as persecutor, then converting to this group, adopted its notions, which became the source of his Christ of faith myth (the arch enemy of the Jesus movement). In taking his kerygma to the Gentile world, meeting with ready success, it became Gentile Christianity in Antioch in 70 CE, as known above all from the writings of the NT, the scriptural source for orthodox Christianity. Under these Gentile conditions some 40 years later, the writings of the NT took place, mistakenly to be named the official canon, the apostolic witness to Jesus. Only since the 80’s have certain of our top NT scholars under the force of present historical methods and knowledge come to a real objective historical understanding of this mistake, not only to say none of the writings of the NT are apostolic witness to Jesus, but to understand the how and the why of this fateful mistake. This is a human mistake, one of those ultimate mistakes related to humanities abiding difficulty with its ultimate issue of God-man relationship, which bears testimony to unknowing mankind’s pervasive fallible mistake prone history – mankind’s fateful propensity to develop “eyes that cannot see”, forming “tinted glasses” which limit vision to sense perceived reality,
    A brief history of this fateful mistake: In this apostolic period, 30 CE – 65 CE, there were two movements each with its own interpretation of the significance of the Jesus event, marking them in the strongest adversarial relationship. Chronologically the first, the Jerusalem Jesus Movement which began (within weeks) with the key disciples, having fled to their native Galilee, overcome with grief and utter disillusionment , emboldened by Peter’s and others vision (some form of extrasensory cognition), at high risk, returning to Jerusalem, purposing to again take up the teaching of their revered Master. This was soon followed by a group of Hellenist Jews hearing talk of Jesus rising from the dead (as the visions began to be so interpreted), with their traditions of dying and rising gods, together with Jewish animal sacrificial rites, taking up the sense perceived (not revelation) notion that the significance of Jesus was the salvific effects of his death and resurrection which abrogated the Torah. This was in effect treason for temple authorities. The Acts story (reading from a historical perspective over against authorial intent) of the stoning of Stephen, the leader of this Hellenist group, seems to reference a put-down by temple authorities of some kind of anti-Torah demonstration. Just here Paul is introduced, named as a participant holding the garments of those casting the stones. Next we have Paul telling of his “vision” on the road to Damascus, to where this Hellenist group fled, as persecutor, then converting to this group with their Christ myth beliefs. It was from this group that Paul received his Christ myth kerygma, to become Gentile Christianity as known above all from the writings of the New Testament, the letters of Paul, the Gospels, as well as the later writings of the New Testament, the source for orthodox Christianity. In taking his Christ kerygma to the Gentile world meeting with ready success, becoming the winners in the struggle for dominance, they could declare the Jerusalem Jesus Movement heresy to effectively remove it from the pages of history. Only because Matthew included the Q material, which contained the Sermon on the Mount, do we have an alternative source which contains our sole original and originating faith and witness of the apostles, our most certain source of knowledge of the real Jesus. (See “Essays on the Sermon on the Mount” by Hans Dieter Betz).

    Joe: On the hopeful note set by your response to my comment: A viable solution to the “Jesus Puzzle”, plus your comment elsewhere: “I can see why Betz thinks as he does about the Sermon on the Mount”, I presume to offer the following which I feel is basic to a meaningful understanding of why we know so little about the real Jesus.
    Our most certain sufficient historical evidence for knowledge of Jesus, who he was and what he said, rests “solely on the basis of the original and originating faith and witness of the apostles”. (Schubert M. Ogden). Over against this basic fact of the history of religions, one must take account of The FATEFUL HISTORICAL MISTAKE which took place in the earliest apostolic period 30 CE-65 CE at the very beginning of post-Easter Jesus traditions, thus creating the “Jesus Puzzle”. During this period there were two distinctly different movements standing in deepest adversarial relationship. The first the Jerusalem Jesus Movement from which is derived our primary source containing this apostolic witness. This was soon followed by a Hellenists Christ myth movement introducing the notions of messiah and salvific effects of Jesus’ death. Paul, first as persecutor, then converting to this group, adopted its notions, which became the source of his Christ of faith myth (the arch enemy of the Jesus movement). In taking his kerygma to the Gentile world, meeting with ready success, it became Gentile Christianity in Antioch in 70 CE, as known above all from the writings of the NT, the scriptural source for orthodox Christianity. Under these Gentile conditions some 40 years later, the writings of the NT took place, mistakenly to be named the official canon, the apostolic witness to Jesus. Only since the 80’s have certain of our top NT scholars under the force of present historical methods and knowledge come to a real objective historical understanding of this mistake, not only to say none of the writings of the NT are apostolic witness to Jesus, but to understand the how and the why of this fateful mistake. This is a human mistake, one of those ultimate mistakes related to humanities abiding difficulty with its ultimate issue of God-man relationship, which bears testimony to unknowing mankind’s pervasive fallible mistake prone history – mankind’s fateful propensity to develop “eyes that cannot see”, forming “tinted glasses” which limit vision to sense perceived reality,
    A brief history of this fateful mistake: In this apostolic period, 30 CE – 65 CE, there were two movements each with its own interpretation of the significance of the Jesus event, marking them in the strongest adversarial relationship. Chronologically the first, the Jerusalem Jesus Movement which began (within weeks) with the key disciples, having fled to their native Galilee, overcome with grief and utter disillusionment , emboldened by Peter’s and others vision (some form of extrasensory cognition), at high risk, returning to Jerusalem, purposing to again take up the teaching of their revered Master. This was soon followed by a group of Hellenist Jews hearing talk of Jesus rising from the dead (as the visions began to be so interpreted), with their traditions of dying and rising gods, together with Jewish animal sacrificial rites, taking up the sense perceived (not revelation) notion that the significance of Jesus was the salvific effects of his death and resurrection which abrogated the Torah. This was in effect treason for temple authorities. The Acts story (reading from a historical perspective over against authorial intent) of the stoning of Stephen, the leader of this Hellenist group, seems to reference a put-down by temple authorities of some kind of anti-Torah demonstration. Just here Paul is introduced, named as a participant holding the garments of those casting the stones. Next we have Paul telling of his “vision” on the road to Damascus, to where this Hellenist group fled, as persecutor, then converting to this group with their Christ myth beliefs. It was from this group that Paul received his Christ myth kerygma, to become Gentile Christianity as known above all from the writings of the New Testament, the letters of Paul, the Gospels, as well as the later writings of the New Testament, the source for orthodox Christianity. In taking his Christ kerygma to the Gentile world meeting with ready success, becoming the winners in the struggle for dominance, they could declare the Jerusalem Jesus Movement heresy to effectively remove it from the pages of history. Only because Matthew included the Q material, which contained the Sermon on the Mount, do we have an alternative source which contains our sole original and originating faith and witness of the apostles, our most certain source of knowledge of the real Jesus. (See “Essays on the Sermon on the Mount” by Hans Dieter Betz).

  4. You suggest that the gospels use Nazara/Nazaret/Nazareth “as a place name for an imperfectly understood epithet based on the common Hebrew word or branch”.

    The place does seem to have been verbally based on the epithet (Nazoraios, Nazarenos); however, the origin (and meaning) of the latter is unclear.

    Do you make this philological connection with ‘netser’ via Isaiah 11.1? (I’ve also seen Zechariah 6.12 used, but not explained.) And isn’t a correlation in the Greek with an ‘imperfectly understood’ ‘naziraion’ (LXX Judges 13:7) somewhat stronger than any with netser?

    • I am not getting into the possibilities in this space, much as I’d like to, as it forms part of a larger treatment in the book. Sorry. But as a general comment: You can start with Matthew’s attempt to reconcile the two theories in Mt 2.23.

      και ελθων κατωκησεν εις πολιν λεγομενην
      ναζαρετ οπως πληρωθη το ρηθεν δια των
      προφητων οτι ναζωραιος κληθησεται (Westcott & Hort edi.)

      The problem is that the word play doesn’t really mean anything in Greek and Matthew may or may not be playing with LXX parallels. But why would Matthew want to examine puns on nazir and nasir when he doesn’t actually quote from a verse that uses either? Goulder (1974) makes the same point. There is an off chance that Matthew is responding to a term used derisively of Jesus, ממזר , mamzer, which means bastard. Matthew is certainly aware of such polemic on the Jewish side, but there are clear problems with seeing mamzer and nazir as homonyms. The older view–that Matthew is trying to cover up the embarrassing fact that Jesus was from a cow town in the boondocks is increasingly untenable, and recall that only Matthew sees the location as problematical (cf. Luke 2.4) and in need of explanation. There is a slim advantage in thinking that Matthew was denying the strict use of the word נזיר of Jesus since his followers, if they were ever vow-takers, increasingly strayed from that path. More to the point, the Nazareth “problem” has no bearing on the historicity question since its primary location is in the two birth stories, the details of which are in conflict, and which are widely agreed to be later legendary additions anyway. In one way or another, the word Nazarene probably has something to do with geneaology or lineage, or with legitimacy. Luke 24.5 says that Tertullus uses the term Nazarenes to mean Christians, but the later history is sketchy and eventually both the term Nazarenes, as in Hebrew notzrim is pejorative. The Roman practice (cf. Julian) was to refer to the cult as Galileans, not Nazarenes.

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