All posts by Tom

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.

Jesus and the rabbis

Where does Jesus fit into the rabbinical schools of his time? In the dialogues that have a rabbinical structure, he overwhelmingly comes out with a position similar to the House of Hillel. However, Hillel did not expect a messiah (Babylonian Talmud: Tractate Sanhedrin, Folio 99a). With its radical ideas of national purity, it would seem that the House of Shammai would be much more interested in a messiah who would drive the impure from the land and establish a kingdom where everyone would follow the Law.

The line of David

During the Hasamonean period, there is no apparent concern that the Hasamonean kings were not of the line of David. Later Herod the Great took pains to establish ties to the Hasamoneans by marriage, since they were considered royal, and his own ancestry was questionable. This according to Josephus, The Jewish War.

How did the concern about a Davidic king get revived?

Exploring context as a key to understanding Jesus

Virtually all the information we have about Jesus comes from the New Testament. Every word that might reveal something about Jesus has been analyzed extensively. But words have different meanings in different contexts. For example, if you say “This president has to go,” it means something quite different if you say it in a coffeehouse in Columbus, Ohio or in an angry crowd in a country that hasn’t seen a free election in 30 years.

Was the context of Jesus multicultural? Was it torn by class divisions? The fact that people were looking for a messiah suggests deep dissatisfaction with the current order. Who was dissatisfied and why? Were other groups more accommodating to the current order? If so, how did the internal divisions in the society play out? How did Jesus and his mission fit into this dynamic?