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.