Category Archives: Historical Jesus

Who invented Christianity?

Was Christianity as we know it an invention of Paul? I will leave for another discussion the extent of Paul’s knowledge of Jesus and his teachings. In my forthcoming novel “Becoming Christ,” I explore (among other things) Jesus in the context of his mission, and how elevated claims about his person were likely to have been an integral part of his mission.
Logically we start with one of the most incontrovertible facts about Jesus, his execution as King of the Jews, that is to say, he was crucified as an insurrectionist. Nothing in any tradition suggests in the final days, Jesus did anything to evade this fate. On the contrary, the evidence indicates that he was aware that something like this would happen, and well in advance. What forces led Jesus to acquiesce to such a fate?

We can safely infer from Jesus’ fate that insurgency was a problem in Judea at the time of Jesus. After the death of the Baptist, Jesus was the only prominent figure upon whom potential insurgents might pin their hopes. As Jesus contends with other groups in the diverse Judaism of his times–Pharisees, Sadducees, priests–I suggest he also contended with insurgents. His message of love of enemies and forgiveness was in sharp contrast to theirs. It may have been that they were determined to put him at the head of their army. Unable to dissuade the insurgents, he sets about to abort their movement. Jesus concentrates his entire mission into the person of himself, so that if he is eliminated the insurgency collapses. He accepts this fate to avoid the catastrophe that would inevitably ensue from a massive insurgency. Strike the shepherd and the sheep will scatter. It is better from one man to die than that the entire country be lost.

Making elevated claims about himself also draws a line between Jesus and the scribes and Pharisees. The scribes and Pharisees were literate groups while Jesus’ followers were largely illiterate.  If Jesus was the embodiment of his message, then his followers had direct access to that message without the intervention of the literate elite. His group could set a separate path from the Pharisaic movement.

If elevated claims were already part of Jesus’ mission, this allows for a continuity with the message about him after his death. If Jesus’ followers built a church on Jesus and his mission, then Jesus laid down the foundation for them.

Jesus and the zealots

Many contend that Judas the son of Ezekias (Hezekiah) who led the uprising centered in Sepphoris around the time of the death of Herod the Great (Jewish Antiquities 17:271-272) and Judas the Galilean, who led the resistance to the census under Quirinius (JA 18:4f) were the same person. The claim seems to rest primarily on the fact that they had the same name, ignoring how common the name Judas (Judah) was among Jews (Judeans) at that time. The first argument against this claim is that Josephus does not link the two. The second Judas is identified by his city of origin, Gamala, and not by any famous father. The former Judas has royal aspirations. The latter Judas considers paying tribute to Rome a form of slavery and contend that God is their only Ruler and Lord (JA 18: 23). This position is hardly amenable to one who himself wants to be king. It is more favorable to the arrangement during much of the Hasmonean era when the High Priest governed and there was no king, an arrangement that Josephus himself favors.
Identifying the two Judases is convenient, but unsupported.

Why does this matter? Those who saw Jesus as the messiah seem to be more in the tradition of the son of Ezekias. This could be a sentiment especially prominent in the backwaters of Galilee. Josephus links Judas the Galilean, whose uprising was not in Galilee but in Jerusalem, with a group of Pharisees, with what he calls the Fourth Philosophy, and eventually with the Zealot Party of the rebellion of 66 CE.  To me the Fourth Philosophy does not resemble the Jesus movement, cf. JA 18:23-25.

Project of historical Jesus research

At one of the #SBL sessions last week, a colleague said he does #historicalJesus research because he wants to #makeJesusRelevant. I protested this. If the project is to make Jesus relevant, then you get the #CheGuevara Jesus or the #spiritualButNotReligious Jesus or something else that Jesus clearly was not. As a consumer and producer of historical fiction I want to bridge the strangeness of the past and make that strange and different world come alive. I challenged the historical Jesus researchers to do this.
As John Meier says, nothing ages quicker than relevance.

Lamb of God

If Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, he takes away irregularity or inadvertent transgression or omission, but not necessarily the deliberate sin. Such faults require a ewe lamb or a she-goat. See Lev. 5:1-6, compare Lev. 5:17-18. Actual transgressions require a ram.

Jesus as poor (illiterate) Galilean peasant

Aslan repeatedly calls Jesus a poor Galilean peasant in what clearly is a condescending tone. He argues that Jesus was illiterate (pp. 34-36). Craig Evans [“Jewish Scripture and the Literacy of Jesus,” From Biblical Criticism to Biblical Faith, Mercer University Press, 2007, pp. 46-54] argues persuasively for the literacy of Jesus. He points out the rhetorical device commonly used by Jesus: What is in scriptures, how do you read them? This would be a curious device for an illiterate to use. Perhaps Aslan overlooks this because he largely ignores the role of Jesus as teacher.
[As for dismissing him as a poor peasant, Mullah Omar was born of landless peasants from the Urozgan province of Afghanistan. Yet by the time he was in his mid- to late 30’s he was de facto head of the Afghan state. He could speak Arabic and had gotten enough education to become a mullah in a village near Kandahar. (The Wikipedia article on Mullah Omar cites Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower, 2006 and various Reuters articles for this information.) Sometimes we dismiss poor peasants at our peril.]

Aslan may doubt the authenticity of passages that portray Jesus as a rabbi. This is because of a series of cumulative assumptions he makes. Jesus is from a very small town–he puts it at 100 families. Therefore Aslan assumes that it had “no roads, no public buildings. There is no synagogue” p. 25.  Yet there has been little archeological work in Nazareth (“Is Jesus’ Hometown (Nazareth) a Myth?” Joseph M. Holden Ph.D.). So that it had no synagogue is speculation. Aslan further speculates that if it had no synagogue, Jesus had no formal education and further speculates that he is therefore illiterate. Therefore he uses a series of cumulative assumptions to overrule actual evidence. If Jesus was illiterate, the rabbis would not have engaged him in learned dialogue.

On the other hand, Aslan admits that Jesus probably spent a great part of his carpenter career rebuilding the cosmopolitan city of Sepphoris, an hour’s walk from Nazareth. (This makes Aslan’s portrayal of Jesus as a peasant rather than a carpenter puzzling at best.) Is it more speculative to think that an extremely devout Joseph might have dropped Jesus off at a rabbinical school in Sepphoris and then picked him up after work, at least until his eldest son had proper training in the Law? This speculation has the added value of explaining the evidence of Jesus discussing the Law with the rabbis.