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The Oxford History of the Biblical World An in-depth chaptered work by leading scholars providing a chronological overview of the history of biblical times.

Charismatic Prophets, Teachers, and Visionaries

The community responsible for the Qumran scrolls was by no means the only group of first-century Jews with messianic expectations. Numerous, and quite diverse, portraits of the Messiah and the messianic age flourished: for some Jews, the savior would be a human warrior; for others, an angel; for others, the age to come would be inaugurated not by a savior figure but directly by divine command. Apparently, many Jews did not expect a messiah at all. Still others may have seen divine agency manifested by charismatic prophets, reformers, and teachers. One such figure was John the Baptist.

A popular figure in the early part of the first century CE, John the Baptist was one of a number of Jewish reformers who attracted disciples and crowds, and consequently the attention of local authorities, both Jewish and Roman. Although the Gospels suggest that Herod Antipas was coerced by Herodias's daughter into decapitating John, it is more likely that the tetrarch recognized John's threat to his authority and, following his father's practice, executed someone who challenged his rule. To be a religious leader during the Second Temple period was thus, as epitomized by John, also to be a political figure.

Jesus and his followers may be placed in the context of various reformist groups—Pharisees, Qumran covenanters, urban Essenes, political revolutionaries, and John the Baptist, whose follower Jesus appears to have been at one time. The Gospels indicate that Jesus had much in common with various other charismatic teachers, healers, and sages of the period. All sought to live the way God intended, but they emphasized different lifestyles, interpretations of scriptures, relations to the occupying Roman government, and views of the Temple.

Jesus was probably born during the reign of Augustus (27 BCE–14 CE). The Gospels of Matthew and Luke indicate, through quite different stories, that he was born in Bethlehem, conforming with Micah 5.2 , but all four Gospels also identify him as being from Nazareth in Galilee. Consequently, more skeptical readers suggest that the birth in Bethlehem is a “theological truth” rather than a historically accurate statement. The evangelists recount that as the result of his healings and teachings Jesus gathered a crowd substantial enough to worry the Jewish officials responsible for maintaining peace with Rome. At some point in his ministry, he engaged in an incident in the Temple (Mark 11.15–19; John 2.13–22 ) that brought him to the attention of the Sadducaic authorities, as well as of Roman officials who took an equal interest in maintaining peace. He was executed by crucifixion as a Roman criminal on the orders of Pontius Pilate, the governor from 26 to 36, during the reign of Tiberius (14–37). Some of his followers proclaimed that after three days he was raised from the dead.

Aside from these few conclusions, neither the chronology nor the central message of Jesus' preaching nor the reason for his crucifixion can be given with certainty. The sources for his life, principally the Gospels but also other writings from inside and outside the Christian communities, lead to various reconstructions. Nor can he be securely located in a single social class (peasant, artisan, retainer), cultural environment (urban, rural; Galilee or Jerusalem), or even religious orientation (conservative, liberal). Jesus has been viewed, by followers and detractors, historians and theologians, in diverse roles: a Jewish reformer anticipating the end of the world and the beginning of the reign of God; a Hellenistically inclined Cynic-sage seeking to subvert conventional expectations; a Pharisaic interpreter of biblical law; a proponent of the Temple and of ritual practice; an opponent of the Temple and ritual practice (both conclusions can follow from how one interprets the “cleansing”); a revolutionary preaching a kingdom to replace that of Rome; a pietist who sought peaceful coexistence with the occupation forces; a sexual ascetic; a glutton and a drunkard; a proponent of family values; an underminer of precisely those values and the instituter of a new family connected not biologically but by faith. As Albert Schweitzer observed nearly a century ago, portraits of Jesus often reveal as much, if not more, about the painter as about the subject of the painting.

Compounding these problems in constructing a biography of Jesus is the nature of the sources themselves. First, we lack any autographs—that is, the original manuscripts—of the Gospels. The documents we have today are composites based on various ancient manuscript traditions. Both the ancient texts and the modern translations of them represent various philological, historical, aesthetic, and ideological judgments. Second, while Jesus' native language was Aramaic, the Gospel texts are written in Greek. Jesus may have been bilingual, but it is more likely that the Gospels derive from collections of teaching material translated from Aramaic. Third, although Jesus lived during the early part of the first century CE, and although stories about him circulated both during his lifetime and after his crucifixion, the Gospels date from the second half of the century.

Moreover, the evangelists are addressing the concerns of the early Christian communities, most likely outside Palestine. Theological statements written by passionate believers rather than unbiased outsiders' recollections, the Gospels present, each in its own way, the story of Jesus adapted to meet the needs of the diverse Christian groups in the early years of the church. Theology and history need not be mutually exclusive, but even so how we read the stories of Jesus preserved from antiquity will to a great extent be determined by our own religious orientation. If we believe that the Gospels recount events exactly as they are recorded, then little reconstruction needs to be done: Jesus disrupted Temple activities once at the beginning of his ministry (John) and again at the end (Matthew, Mark, and Luke); he delivered the same talks on more than one occasion (the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew's Gospel; the Sermon on the Plain in Luke's); and so forth. But different pictures emerge if we see the Gospels as the stories told by Jesus' followers to aid the church in its mission to both Jews and Gentiles, as it was rejected or persecuted by representatives from those groups, as it sought its own place in the world and its relation to the traditions of Israel.

Two examples illustrate the difficulty of historically reconstructing the story of Jesus. First, to a great extent, the Gospel accounts are garbed in the images of the Hebrew scriptures. The way his story has been told, what has been preserved, is influenced by the way those early Christians read their Bibles. For example, the crucifixion scene in Mark echoes Psalm 22 , almost verse for verse. The infancy material, temptation scenes, and location of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew recollect the story of Moses from his birth to the Exodus to the wandering in the wilderness to the Sinai theophany. Second, the Gospels in various ways present Jesus in conflict with his contemporaries, identified either simply as “the Jews” (or “the Judeans”—the Greek term is the same) as the Gospel of John puts it, or with Pharisees, Sadducees, high priests, and others. Regardless of the episode, from controversies over practice to the events of Jesus' final days in Jerusalem, these Jewish figures almost invariably appear at best as completely misguided, usually as malevolent, and even as children of the devil (John 8.44 ). If we recognize that the Gospels come from groups who define themselves in opposition to the thriving Jewish communities who identify themselves as “true Israel,” who have their own program of scriptural interpretation to support that self-designation, and who in turn reject the Christian proclamation, we can also recognize that the Pharisees and Sadducees of the Gospels are less objective portraits than caricatures. One might compare the portraits of contemporary political parties as painted by their bitterest enemies.

Just as individuals bring different experiences to their studies of literature and history, just as they interpret events variously, so too did the “proclaimers of the good news,” the “evangelists” who composed the Gospels. The Christian canon has four Gospels, and each provides a different picture of its central character. According to early tradition, Mark was the interpreter of Peter, and Luke of Paul, while Matthew and John were members of Jesus' inner group of disciples. Yet not only do the Gospels themselves not make these claims, but the names Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were assigned only later to the texts. Moreover, the Gospels themselves present differing views of the course of Jesus' mission, the names of his disciples, the content and style of his preaching, the events surrounding his birth, and the date of his death. Although this diversity shows the richness of the early tradition (one might compare, for example, the different accounts of creation and the Flood in Genesis, or of the monarchy in the Deuteronomic History and Chronicles), it also creates problems for historians.

The four canonical Gospels are not the only texts about Jesus that have come down to us from antiquity. Some scholars argue as relevant to the historical Jesus such texts as the Gospel of Thomas, a collection of sayings many of which resemble material in the Synoptic Gospels; the Gospel of Peter, a fragmentary text containing the trial of Jesus, the crucifixion, and the beginnings of a resurrection account; and even a text whose antiquity is debated, the “Secret Gospel of Mark,” which depicts a shamanlike Jesus who practices esoteric initiation rites.

The value of non-Christian sources is likewise debated. In discussing Pilate's rule, Josephus notes:

About this time there appeared Jesus, a wise man, if one should even call him a man. For he was a doer of striking deeds and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He gained a following both among many Jews and among many of the Greeks. He was the Messiah [Greek christos]. When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by leading men among us, had condemned him to be crucified, those who had in the first place come to love him did not give up their affection for him. On the third day he appeared to them, living again, for the prophets of God had prophesied these and countless other marvelous things about him. And the tribe of Christians, so called after him, still to this day has not disappeared. (Antiquities 18.3.3)

Not surprisingly, this statement has provoked much controversy. Of the three surviving manuscripts of the Antiquities in Greek, the earliest dates to the eleventh century, and all are preserved by the church. Thus, some suspect that the monks engaged in editorial elaboration. Supporting this view are three other factors: the tenth-century version of the Christian Arab Agapius lacks this testimony (of course, later Muslim copyists may have omitted it); unlike other comments of Josephus on early Christian leaders, this passage is not cited by the church fathers prior to the fourth century; and nowhere else, including in his autobiography, does Josephus indicate any Christian confessionalism. Finally, even if we assign the entire passage to Josephus, we still cannot account it as independent testimony, since Josephus is recounting the information second- or even thirdhand.

Rabbinic sources are even further removed from the historical Jesus. The Babylonian Talmud, a product dating several hundred years after the first century CE, reports: “On the eve of Passover they hanged Yeshu of Nazareth. And the herald went before him forty days, saying, ‘Yeshu of Nazareth is going forth to be stoned, since he has practiced sorcery and cheated, and led people astray. Let everyone knowing anything in his defense come and plead for him.’ But they found no one in his defense, and they hanged him on the eve of Passover” (Sanhedrin 43a). The composite nature of the material (stoning and hanging are both mentioned) and the date of the text, which is from the time of Christian ascendancy and attendant persecution of the Jews, suggest that this is less an independent witness than a product of Jewish reflection on church teaching.

Given the problems with these outside sources for reconstructing the life of Jesus, scholars turn primarily to the canon, and specifically to the first three Gospels. The accounts of Matthew, Mark, and Luke—called “Synoptic” since “seen together” they present a generally similar chronology and description of Jesus' life—highlight the proclamation of the “kingdom of God” through parables and healings. Mark, usually viewed as the earliest of the canonical Gospels, is dated by most biblical scholars to sometime around the First Revolt against Rome, either immediately before or just after 70 CE. Matthew and Luke, which appear to use Mark as a source, are dated toward the end of the first century. Matthew and Luke are also seen as having used additional traditional material, both shared and independently. Most scholars suggest that Matthew and Luke used, along with Mark, another text comprised mostly of sayings attributed to Jesus; this collection, known as Q (from the German word Quelle, meaning “source”), accounts for material Matthew and Luke both contain but Mark lacks, such as the Beatitudes (Matt. 5.3–12; Luke 6.21–26 ; the form was well known in both Jewish and Gentile sources) and the “Lord's Prayer” (Matt. 6.9–13; Luke 11.2–4 ). Matthew alone provides such material as Jesus' statement that divorce is permitted in cases of unchastity and the description of Pilate washing his hands. Luke alone offers the well-known parables of the good Samaritan and the prodigal son.

Some scholars do not agree with this reconstruction of the interrelationship of the Synoptic Gospels. They argue instead that Matthew was the first Gospel, that Luke expanded on Matthew, and that Mark is a conflation of Matthew and Luke. Consequently, the dating of the sources differs, the sayings source, Q, disappears, and the reconstruction of Jesus' own life and teaching necessarily changes. Thus, even within studies of the Synoptic Gospels, scholars do not see eye to eye; the picture of Jesus therefore remains blurry.

Offering a substantially different vision of Jesus is the Gospel of John. Here Jesus speaks more about himself than the kingdom of God. He identifies himself as the true vine; the bread of life; the way, the truth, and the life; and he teaches primarily by means of extended speeches rather than short parables or pithy sayings. And even the Synoptics offer distinct portraits: Matthew has Jesus' earthly mission restricted to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt. 15.24; see also 10.5–6 ) and emphasizing obedience to and preservation of biblical law. Mark, however, opens the mission to Gentiles and suggests the abrogation of the dietary regulations mandated by the Torah. And Luke, whose work is supplemented by a second volume called Acts of the Apostles, emphasizes Jesus' innocence in the eyes of Rome. As for chronology, all four Gospels begin Jesus' public career with an encounter with John the Baptist. The Synoptics then depict teaching and healing activities in Galilee, a trip to Jerusalem marked by an incident in the Temple, and crucifixion on the first day of the Passover holiday. John, however, locates the Temple incident very early in Jesus' career, depicts several trips to Jerusalem, and dates the crucifixion to the “day of preparation,” at the time that the lambs for the Passover meal were being sacrificed in the Temple.

In current Jesus research, some view Jesus as a reformer prophet in the tradition of Jeremiah or the Teacher of Righteousness known from the Dead Sea Scrolls, and perhaps John the Baptist. They see him as exhorting the fellow Jews with whom he comes in contact to strengthen their adherence to traditional practices and beliefs even as they await the inbreaking of the rule of God. Other scholars, however, see Jesus more as a sage interested less in the end of the world and the rituals of Judaism than in the creation of a new community. This Jesus advocates solidarity with peasants and open-table fellowship, with an attendant disregard for biblical dietary regulations. Anything in the Gospels that suggests apocalyptic warning or division between those to be saved and those to be damned is by this interpretation usually assigned not to Jesus but to his early followers, who are reacting against the rejection of their original message. Equally debated are questions of Jesus' own messianic self-consciousness. Did he think he was the messiah, and if so, what sort—political/Davidic, eschatological, or social? Did he anticipate or plan his death? Did he anticipate his return from the dead? Was there a resurrection?

How we interpret Jesus' message in turn influences how we view the lives of his earliest followers in Jerusalem and Galilee. For example, when they prayed (probably originally in Aramaic) what has come to be translated as “Give us this day our daily bread,” were they asking for the bread of the heavenly kingdom and thus the end of the world, or were they asking for shared food, or both? When they spoke of not serving both God and mammon (Aramaic for “wealth”), were they speaking from a position of poverty or of riches? Did they take a this-worldly focus and add an emphasis on the end of the world, or did they take an apocalyptic message and deemphasize it once the end did not follow directly upon the cross? Or was there some of both?

Similarly problematic is the attempt to determine how Jesus' earliest followers viewed him. Considering the number of messianic views prevalent in first-century Jewish culture, Jesus would have evoked a variety of responses, even from those who knew him. Some saw him as a political figure who would liberate the land from the Romans; some perhaps saw him as a priest who would restore the Temple; some saw him as a prophet and others as a sage; still others saw in him the promised return of Elijah or the new Moses. Some first-century Jews may well have regarded Jesus as a divine figure (for example, Wisdom incarnate), others as a human being divinely anointed. Thus, even in the proclamation of Jesus as “Messiah,” one still needs to ask what that term connotes.

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