Thesis: Portrait of the Historical Jesus

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¶ … search for the historical Jesus: An elusive quest

Jesus was a historical figure and teacher much like the philosopher Socrates. Jesus used methods of oral interrogation and preaching, rather than writing, to spread his word. Regardless of one's personal, theological beliefs, there is compelling evidence outside the New Testament and in pagan and non-Christian Jewish writings that the teachings of a real person named Jesus elicited a great deal of controversy. Historian Robert E. Van Voorst writes that the fact that even hostile non- Christians "uniformly" speak of Jesus as a historical figure provides particularly compelling evidence as to the fact that a man named Jesus lived and taught in the ancient Middle East (Van Voorst 217). After looking at the evidence, however, as a believer, Van Voorst writes: "We are left for both the main lines and the details about Jesus' life and teaching with the New Testament" (Van Voorst 217).

While on the surface, this seems like a reasonable statement, given the ratio of information on Jesus in histories such as Josephus vs. The gospel accounts, the question then arises which Jesus, in which gospels, is the real Jesus? The angry Jesus of Mark or Matthew who cries out "My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?" (Mark 15:34; Matthew 27:46). Or is the real, historical Jesus the Jesus who says "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do' in Luke? (Luke 23:34). Why confine the evidence about the 'real Jesus' to the stories of the gospels and the epistles about Jesus to the New Testament alone? Many of Jesus' other followers wrote gospels, such as the Gospel of Thomas, later deemed heretical. Cannot these provide an equally complete picture of the evidence as to what constituted Jesus' ministry?

What emerges from the historical accounts and canonical and non-canonical gospels is that Jesus was controversial figure amongst both the Romans and his fellow Jews. Jesus died in by a painful and ignominious method: he was executed by being crucified, the punishment for sedition, according to the Roman law. Many individuals during this period were killed in this fashion. Jesus' followers had to make sense of their teacher's life and legacy, dealing with a body of wisdom passed down through an unstable oral tradition, and the fact that their leader had been killed rather than lived to clarify his wisdom. Many of Jesus' followers recorded his sayings, as manifest in the constructed Q. Gospel, which reflects the fact that there is a great deal of consistency regarding certain statements of Jesus between all of the gospels and accounts of his life.

The gospels were an attempt to tell and retell Jesus' story to illuminate various aspects of his ministry. As manifest in the canonical and non-canonical gospels still extant as well as in fragmented form, different individuals found different aspects of Jesus' teachings to be significant, even people who lived during the same era, relatively recently after Jesus' demise. Paul's angry epistles about Christians doing the 'wrong thing' while attempting to follow Jesus indicate that the historical Jesus, in ancient Israel, was a contested figure amongst believers trying to live a Christian life in his name. The greater the distance in time between the authors and the life of the historical Jesus, the more the author's contemporary history affects his or her accounts. In writing about Jesus, the author is also writing about the current era, and the author's own personal, theological and political concerns. The common tendency of authors to assume the name of contemporaries of the figures whose lives they were chronicling, like that of the apostles, further problematizes the issue of authorship for modern readers approaching these texts, who may be inclined to take the claimed authorship of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John at face value, even though pseudonymous authorship and taking on the names of a teacher's student or famous follower was common during the ancient era.

There is always great distance between the perception of the reader, encountering the text, and how the text was fashioned in real time. The reader perceives the text as an extant record written 'in time,' even though most historians believe this is not the case. The postmodern concept of unstable authorship is not new, of course, and the notion that when we look at another person, we are looking at ourselves may be true regarding literary as well as religious texts. But the highly fraught emotions with which many Christians and non-Christians approach the quest for the historical Jesus makes viewing gospel accounts in context even more difficult. What made these authors write the gospels in the first place? Why did Jesus not write if he intended his ministry to be written? Jesus' legacy, to some extent, grows murkier rather than clear upon extended analysis of outside works and words.

According to historian and theologian James Charlesworth, to understand Jesus it is essential that Jesus is placed in his political context of Second Temple Judaism. For example, the elaborate infancy gospels in Matthew and Luke might be rooted in the fact that Jesus' birth and background may have been in doubt. Jesus' opponents may have alleged he could not really prove his Jewish heritage and legitimacy through his maternal ancestry. But this relatively esoteric notion of purity laws and lineage also demonstrates another difficulty in finding 'the real Jesus,' namely that the obsessions and preoccupations of Jews of this era were different from ours religious concerns today. In his examination of Jesus' central message, Charlesworth stresses passages when Jesus talks about the lack of necessity for laws of religious purity. This is why in the most 'Jewish' of all the gospels, the Gospel of Matthew, which outlines Jesus' connection to the Davidic line of kings as well as the infancy gospel of Jesus' threat to Herod's authority, Jesus says: "Not that which entereth into the mouth defileth the man; but that which proceedeth out of the mouth, this defileth the man." (Matthew 15:12). Jesus' words challenged the authority of the Pharisees to interpret the Torah. But how much of this philosophy is Jesus, and how much is Matthew's? Matthew may have been preoccupied with the effects of the laws of kashrut more than Jesus. The question of the need for Christians to keep Mosaic Law was clearly contentious and possibly a way that Jesus or his followers challenged the dominant political leadership.

But Paul, in his Epistle to the Galatians, offered another reason that Christians do not have to keep kosher, namely that the law was necessary to keep people 'good' before the coming of Jesus. According to Paul, Jesus' sacrifice on the cross canceled out the need for the law. "Those who want to make a good impression outwardly are trying to compel you to be circumcised. The only reason they do this is to avoid being persecuted for the cross of Christ. Not even those who are circumcised obey the law, yet they want you to be circumcised that they may boast about your flesh. May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is a new creation" (Galatians 6:12).

Richard a Horsley's work Jesus and Empire, criticizes some literary and historical conceptualizations of Jesus-in-context because they leave out a crucial component of Near Eastern lives. Actions such as the driving out of money-changers from the Temple and teaching that the poor were more blessed than the wealthy posed a challenge to the dominant ruling powers of his day, the "Herodian kings and Jerusalem high-priestly families" who were collaborating with Roman occupation to advance their own self-interest (Horsley 38). Jesus posited himself as the defender of "a common life of cooperation and egalitarian political-economic relations" of peasants (Horsley 125). By looking at Jesus with our own mindset that separates church from state, the fact that the two were synonymous in ancient Israel is forgotten. Focusing on Jesus' sayings in isolation, and by stressing the Near Eastern archeological excavations of piecemeal texts ultimately depoliticizes Jesus. This is not simply bad history, but also bad politics, says Horsley. Horsley believes that seeing Jesus as someone who speaks out of historical, political time has enabled current political and religious movements to read their own causes into the words and actions of Jesus, effectively creating a new empire, and using Jesus' words as justification. It must not be forgotten, for example, that the author of the Book of Revelations was writing to an audience that either hoped or feared for an apocalypse after the fall of Rome, not with an eye upon the current political situation.

Of course, more conservative Biblical historians might counter that Horsley has his own political agenda. Yet so did the authors and historians chronicling not just Jesus' life, but the era itself. To gain 'the real' picture of the politics, history, and theological… [END OF PREVIEW]

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