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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

Jesus and the New Testament.


It might be expected that an introduction to the NT would open with an account of Jesus rather than delay the subject to the end. After all, directly or obliquely, Jesus is the subject of most of the NT books, and is the most significant factor in their ever having been written at all. There are, however, good reasons for the roundabout approach to the heart of the matter. For, despite all his prominence, Jesus is in the NT a figure to be approached with caution. For one thing, much depends on the reader's interest: whether, for example, you are keen to find out about the facts and circumstances of Jesus' life, personality, and teaching, or about the origins and terms of faith in him. There is a well-grounded distinction between Jesus as a figure of early first-century Jewish history and Jesus as the object of devotion and faith, presupposed by all the NT writers; with the resurrection (that most difficult of phenomena to pin down) as the hinge between the two.


It is a basic truth that, whatever the claims and the appearances, Jesus is never encountered ‘neat’ in the NT. Apart from the fact that the gospels are unlikely to be the work of stenographers who hung on Jesus' every word and of adherents who witnessed his every act, those brief books have all the inevitable distortion that goes with selectivity; moreover, it is apparent that the selectivity was not unprincipled or merely random. It worked by way of filters, some obvious, others more hypothetical, by which material was affected on its way into the gospels we read. We have already referred to the frequently ignored filter of translation of speech from Aramaic into Greek. It is accompanied by the equally frequently ignored filter by which the material moves from an originally uneducated Galilean and rural setting to more sophisticated urban settings, in Syria, Asia Minor, or elsewhere, where much vital original colouring must have been invisible. Sometimes the provision of new colouring is obvious enough: the well-known example of the tile-roofed Hellenistic town house described in Luke's version of the healing of the paralytic ( 5:19 ; contrast the Palestinian house in Mk 2:4 ). For all we know, there are many details, large and small, in the gospels that are both harder to spot and more significant for the general picture than that.


Equally important as a distorting factor is the effect of developing convictions and attitudes in the church in the years following Jesus' lifetime. Some instances have proved devastating in their results, above all the way the gospels (increasingly as one succeeds another) place responsibility for Jesus' death on Jewish heads (on all Jewish heads, Mt 27:25 ), with Pontius Pilate as their pliable but scarcely guilty accomplice (Mt 27:24; Lk 23:22 ). There is good reason to suppose that this is unlikely to represent the truth of the matter and that it reflects instead the increasing tension between Christians and (other) Jews, as the former were virtually compelled to define themselves over against the latter. Historically, the probability is that, at a time of governmental nervousness in a Jerusalem crowded for Passover, the Roman authorities combined with the Jewish priestly aristocracy who administered the Temple to remove one whom they perceived to be a possible occasion of civil disorder. His execution was, after all, by the Roman method in such cases, that is crucifixion (Rivkin 1984; Brown 1994 ).


But this is only the most spectacular instance of a pervasive principle, often hard to identify with assurance. Take, for example, the matter of Jesus' attitude to the Jewish Law. Did he simply take it for granted as the air he breathed, perhaps taking one side or another on subjects of current dispute, but not stepping outside the limits, as currently seen, of legitimate debate? His society did not, it seems, operate under a rigid orthodoxy and there was much diversity of interpretation about such matters as sabbath observance and tithing of produce. Or did he go beyond such bounds, offering a radical critique of the Law's very foundations? If so, it is puzzling that none of the gospels offers this as the reason for his final condemnation (though he is attacked for it in the course of the story, e.g. Mk 3:1–6 ). But the gospels differ in their presentation of Jesus' teaching on this subject in the course of his ministry.


In brief, Mark depicts him as radical, marginalizing food taboos and the priority of sabbath observance ( 7:19; 2:23–3:6 ) and down-playing the sacrificial system in favour of an ethic of active love ( 12:28–34 ); while John shows him superseding the Law in his own person as the medium of God's disclosure to his people ( 1:17; 2:21; 7:37–8 ). Matthew, by contrast, has Jesus endorse and intensify the requirements of the Law ( 5:17–20; 23:23 ), while he takes a humane view on certain currently disputed issues ( 12:1–14; 19:1–9 ; adapting Mark). And Luke places his attitude somewhere between Mark and Matthew, rather in the spirit of the compromise he shows the Jerusalem church arriving at later in the light of substantial Gentile conversions to the church (Acts 15 ). It is hard to avoid the conclusion that all these presentations have been affected by the diverse resolutions of this problem, both pressing and practical in the first decades of the Christian movement, that were adopted in various different quarters of the church.


Moreover, all the evangelists were writing after the shock of Paul's strong stand on this very matter, releasing Gentile converts from the adoption of the key marks of Jewish identity—sabbath observance, food laws, and circumcision—and thereby implicitly placing allegiance to Christ as the sole identity marker for all Christians. It appears that the whole subject remained contentious for some time, with a variety of positions being taken (though it remains a puzzle that neither radical nor conservative presentations in the gospels refer to the matter of circumcision on whose irrelevance Paul was so insistent, as Galatians in particular demonstrates). The upshot of all this is that we really cannot tell with certainty exactly what Jesus himself taught or practised, and scholarly opinion remains divided. Careful analyses of crucial sayings, fitting them plausibly into the setting of his time and place, always remain open to alternative interpretations which see them as reflections of the particular evangelists' views (Harvey 1982; Sanders 1993 ).


Jesus is obscured too by the fact that, by the time the gospels were written, interest in the sheer preservation of his words and ideas was overshadowed by his being the object of faith—and by the consequent need to make a case for that faith, which saw him not simply as a figure of the past who had once revealed God and his saving purposes and whose death and resurrection had given new insight into those purposes or marked their realization; but as the present heavenly Lord who enjoyed supreme triumph as God's co-regent and would soon return in the public display of that reality.


The scriptural text that seemed best to epitomize that faith was ‘The Lord said unto my Lord, Sit at my right hand, till I make your enemies your footstool’ (Ps 110:1 ). This text is quoted more widely across the gamut of NT authors than any other—closely followed by ‘Thou art my son, this day I have begotten thee’ (Ps 2:7 ), less precise but not dissimilar in import. It is impossible to believe that this faith failed to colour the memory of Jesus' earthly life, even if there had been in the churches a strongly archival sense, or, more likely, a reverence for Jesus' words and the stories of his deeds, which could stand alongside that faith: argument ranges back and forth on the balance of effect of these various aspects of the situation (Gerhardsson 1961; Stanton 1974; Meier 1991 ).


The faith in Jesus which prevents the gospels being neutral records (whatever that might mean) was largely articulated by means of material drawn from Judaism, and especially from the old Scriptures. This was partly for purposes of Christian self-understanding (to what other medium could the first Christians practically turn?) and partly for purposes of self-definition in relation to (other) Jews who did not share their assessment of Jesus and adherence to him. But this appeal to Scripture, which pervades the gospels, makes yet another screen between us and the realities of Jesus' historical life. It is an interpretative tool that was certainly used, in one form or another, by all schools of thought in the early church, but, when it comes to the gospels, we are faced with the question of whether Jesus himself initiated the process—as in the depiction that is before us. Did he not, inevitably, interpret his own mission and person in scriptural terms? If so, to which models did he appeal? And to what extent did the amplifying of this mode of thought in the church, as evidenced in the gospels and elsewhere, merely build upon his foundations and continue along lines he laid down, as distinct from moving along altogether more ambitious paths? For example, when the Gospel of John views Jesus under the image of God's pre-existent Word, his co-partner in the work of creation itself ( 1:1–18 ), thus drawing on a symbol current in Judaism (e.g. Ps 33:6; Wis 9:1 ), there is nothing to suggest that Jesus himself made use of that category of thought. It is quite otherwise with Jewish terms such as Messiah, son of God, or son of man. These appear on his lips or are inseparable from the tradition about him. None of them is easy to interpret, and if Jesus used them, it is as likely that they received, by the very fact of their application to him if not from his explicit teaching, twists of sense, perhaps to the extent of sheer paradox, that were novel. Jesus was, after all, on any showing a most un-messianic Messiah, given the nationalistic associations of the term—if indeed he did make any such claim. And the same would be true even if in reality the claim derives from his followers after his lifetime rather than from himself.


None of this caution, this indirectness, is designed to say that the gospels merely obscure the figure of Jesus or tell us nothing of value about him. There are certain features of his life and teaching that not only come across loud and clear but were less than wholly welcome in the early church—and would not therefore have survived if the church, like a traumatized individual, simply eliminated that which it no longer approved of or no longer served its purposes. We have seen that the renunciatory teachings of Jesus the Galilean charismatic preacher were toned down or repackaged quite rapidly in the more settled life of the urban churches. Yet we see them prominently displayed in the first three gospels. Much has been made (Hengel 1981 ) of the saying in Mt 8:22 (‘Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead’), advocating, in the name of the extreme urgency of God's call and of his kingdom, a stance of provocative immorality by the standards of virtually any culture and soon abandoned in the family ethic of the church, as Eph 6:4 demonstrates. It is these harder, more uncomfortable elements in the story of Jesus which, however they may sometimes visibly, as one evangelist modifies another, have been modified by the church, speak most powerfully for the tenacity and authority of Jesus' vision, simply because it was his (Harvey 1990 ).


A promising line of enquiry begins by bypassing the gospels altogether. We know when and where Jesus lived: what then can we learn from a knowledge of the times derived from other sources, such as archaeology and histories of the period? We have already made reference to evidence of this kind: the Qumran sect and the Dead Sea scrolls left by them (Vermes 1977, 1995 ); the probabilities about the circumstances of Jesus' death; the mixed culture of Galilee with its peasant countryside and Hellenistic cities. But can this approach bring us nearer to a realistic view of Jesus himself, at any rate to a view of his role in the society of his time—what sort of part he played, how he may have fitted into its structure and been perceived (Finegan 1992; Stanton 1995 )?


This more detached and wider-ranging approach does not yield unquestioned results, but many would agree that it places Jesus in a category of persons recognizable in the period (Vermes 1973 ). In traditional terms, such persons have affinities with the prophets of former centuries, men who stood out from the prevailing religious culture and social system, declaring the will of God and the imminence of his judgement. More sociologically, we can refer to them as charismatics, that is people whose message threatens to turn the world upside down, challenging conventional values—even those whose morality seems unimpeachable—and looking towards an order of things where life is lived at a new level of righteousness and God is all in all. Such people rarely get much of a hearing: often their day is brief or they are snuffed out by authorities who feel endangered by them. First-century Galilee, somewhat removed from the centre of power in Jerusalem and probably unstable in its rural economy, spawned several such figures, most of them leaving practically no trace. John Baptist had more identifiable effects: he comes into the story of Jesus, and the late first-century Jewish historian Josephus (like Mark and Matthew but in somewhat different terms) tells of his execution for his righteous meddling in the affairs of the great ones in the land—a classic prophet's predicament. Moreover (and somewhat mysteriously), like Jesus, he gave rise to a group of followers who, according to Acts 18:24–19:6 , had spread to Ephesus in the later years of the century—thereafter they fade from view.


Much of the broad picture of Jesus in the gospels coheres with this identification of his social role: the radical, shocking teaching about ties to family and property; the call to ‘follow’ that brooks no delay, no appeal to prudence; the ready challenge to established religious groups, even the most pious, for their routines and their self-satisfaction; the challenge to central authority—if that is how we are to construe the incident in the Temple (Mk 11:15–17 ) which probably precipitated the perception of Jesus as a breacher of the peace and his speedy elimination; above all, the sense of the imminent realization of God's rule.


However, other readings are possible and win some support, even within the method we have been describing. The picture of Jesus as charismatic leader or prophet, once put forward, seems obvious: it makes best sense of the most basic recognition of modern scholarship—that Jesus was a Jew of his time. It brings it into sharp focus and takes us behind some of the other characterizations of Jesus (for example, as the heavenly one come to earth) that soon came to dominate Christian accounts of him (Rom 1:3; Gal 4:4 ). But it does less than justice to certain other aspects of the gospel material: such as the teaching about there being no need for anxiety, no need for complexity of lifestyle (Mt 6:25–34 ); or the picture of Jesus and his followers as a band of brothers espousing freedom and simplicity of life under God's heaven, somewhat after the manner of modern opters-out from society. Jesus' common meals with his followers (specially emphasized in Luke) were then the central symbol of this lifestyle, focused on the present.


This is a distinctly non-apocalyptic picture of Jesus and, in terms of Jewish heritage, seems to owe more to some facets of Jewish ‘wisdom’ tradition, with its provision for moral life here and now. But its associations and provenance may lie more in the teaching of Cynic philosophers who adopted values of this kind and whose influence had perhaps penetrated into northern Palestine. The straightforward view is of course, that Jesus himself sensed a directness and simplicity of filial relationship with God—it was his stance in daily life (‘father’ e.g. Mt 6:7–14 ). Alternatively, this picture may represent one style among others of church reflection on Jesus, as the tradition about him was exposed to the variegated culture of the Graeco-Roman world (Crossan 1991; 1994 ).


This discussion started, somewhat negatively, under the injunction to approach the figure of Jesus with caution: the nature of our evidence, literary and circumstantial, dictates it. But (to repeat) it would be a mistake to let caution lead to the conclusion that Jesus is a mere enigma, lost in the mists of time or a welter of church obfuscation of whatever clarity there might otherwise have been. As we have seen, some features are unmistakable and their strength shines through. But the equally unmistakable effects of church interpretation of various kinds are there in the gospels, and they lead us to our final topic: Jesus as the object of faith.


If we had only the letters of Paul, we should think that all that really mattered about Jesus' career was his death and resurrection: that is, its importance centred almost wholly on a period of some forty-eight hours—and if more than that, then what followed it (his heavenly rule and presence in his adherents) was more notable than what preceded it. That is the earliest Christian perspective of which we have evidence.


How different it is from the picture we get from the gospels. There, though the death and resurrection are plainly the climax of the narrative and occupy a disproportionate place from a purely biographical point of view, these elements are nevertheless parts of a much greater whole. To put it more succinctly, they form the end of a story, where in Paul they acted much more as the inauguration of a continuing state of affairs. It is not wholly satisfying simply to point out that these are different genres of writing and so naturally differ in their perspective. After all, none of these writers was compelled to write as he did, and each wrote in a particular way because, presumably, it reflected the ‘shape’ of his convictions about Jesus.


The two perspectives meet, however, precisely in the death and resurrection, and the latter in particular may be seen as the junction between them (Evans 1970; Marxsen 1970 ). Luke's two-volume work (Gospel and Acts) comes nearest to meeting the need to unite Jesus' life before the resurrection and the life of the church after it—though even this narrative probably ends before the time of writing, and so, like the gospels, looks back from the Christian present to an (albeit longer) normative history. On the other hand, though the gospels do indeed describe a past that culminates in Jesus' death and resurrection, they are nevertheless imbued with a present faith in the living Christ who, in his heavenly rule, may still be said to inspire his people and even to dwell in and among them: perhaps especially in Mark and John, the backdrop is that of Jesus' past life but he addresses the present of the gospels' readers. So much is this the case that, as we have seen, we must be alert to the effects of this factor as we read the gospels with a view to discovering simply what happened and how things were in Jesus' lifetime.


To take a small example, but significant for that very reason (and capable of being paralleled almost limitlessly): Mk 9:40 (‘Whoever is not against us is for us’) suggests that Jesus urged on his followers an open, expansive attitude to possible supporters and deflects them from any narrowness or the erection of barriers and the application of tests. This is, in the words of the church poster, a case of ‘All welcome’. But Mt 12:30 (‘He who is not with me is against me’) reflects the precise opposite. Jesus makes stringent demands on potential followers and there is no easy entry to their company: adhering is sharply distinguished from remaining outside. The boundary wall is high. Must we not see here the effects of two different outlooks in different parts of the early church, both equally comprehensible, but contrasting in their policies—and far-reaching in their twin visions of Christian life? It does not take much imagination to see that the two statements betoken two very different ways of believing in Jesus' significance and the scope of his work, as they also may be seen as the founts of two different traditions in Christian life down to our own day. The gospels, accounts of the pre-resurrection life of Jesus, then reflect the faith of the post-resurrection church, in small ways as in great. These considerations go some way to mitigate the contrast that we drew between the perspectives of Paul and the gospels.


From another point of view, we may indeed say that these writings—and indeed almost all the NT books (the Letter of James is a strange exception)—testify to a remarkably homogeneous faith in the centrality of Jesus as the agent of God's saving purpose. True, they differ in certain respects, in emphasis and terminology, but the unanimity is striking. To return to the obvious: it is this common conviction about Jesus as the one who ‘makes all the difference’ that holds together the early Christian movement, and so the NT as its literary deposit—whatever other factors loomed large in its life and whatever the problems to which it had to attend.


Yet we may observe interesting variations of resonance even in the use of certain terms to express this conviction about Jesus. For example, many early Christian writers speak of him as ‘son of God’. But what associations did this expression have for them? It is not, after all, an expression that simply comes out of the blue: it has numerous antecedents in Judaism, and without recognizable resonances it could scarcely have been used at all in its new context. In Paul, the earliest writer to use it, it is not altogether clear what is in mind, for he gives it multiple applications. In Rom 9:4 , it receives one of its traditional applications, to Israel as a people (cf. Ex 4:22; Hos 11:1 ); in Gal 3:26 and Rom 8:14 , it denotes Christian believers—a usage paralleled in Jewish wisdom writing (Wis 2:18 ), where it is applied to righteous servants of God. Yet clearly, for Paul, this application to Christians is now closely related (but exactly how?) to its central use for Jesus himself; just as God's ‘fatherhood’ of Jesus is related to their right to claim that same fatherhood (Gal 4:4–6; Rom 8:14–17 ). Paul perhaps comes nearest to showing his mind in Rom 8:32 , where he appeals to the giving by Abraham of his son Isaac to death (narrowly averted, Gen 22 ) as a parallel to God's giving of Jesus: ‘God did not spare his only son’ (cf. Gen 22:16 ). That model of sonship splendidly and appropriately illuminates the death of Jesus and is an important ingredient in the quest for scriptural texts that could put that otherwise catastrophic event, as far as the hopes of Jesus' followers were concerned, in a positive light. Here was a case where the giving of a son by a father was the seed of total good—the establishing of the people of Israel (Byrne 1979 ).


The same model may play a part in the Markan story of Jesus' baptism, where his sonship is announced by God himself: the word ‘beloved’ in 1:11 is the Septuagint's repeated adjective for Isaac in Gen 22 . But here, in what is for Mark the crucial opening scene, establishing Jesus' identity, it is joined with the words of Ps 2:7 , ‘Thou art my son’, probably seen as messianic in import in the Jewish background upon which Mark draws.


In Matthew and Luke, Jesus' sonship is for the first time linked to his conception and birth, but even here the focus is not on physiology but on scriptural texts and models which are seen to foreshadow Jesus and to authenticate his role. In Matthew, for example, Isa 7:14 plays a crucial role (cf. 1:23 ). In Luke, the whole narrative of chs. 1 and 2 is couched in language that echoes the old stories of providential births, such as those of Isaac, Samson or Samuel.


In John, the sonship of Jesus in relation to God is taken further still. Partly by way of its associations with other terms and models, it now describes a relationship that does not begin at Jesus' baptism or conception, but exists from all eternity. Jesus' relationship with God, as Father, is, for the Gospel of John, anchored at that most fundamental level. From the vantage point of this climax in the development of the model (soon to be taken up in a more philosophical idiom), we can see how Jesus' representation of God comes to be seen in more and more extensive terms, until it operates on the scale of the cosmos itself.


This example of development and of many-sidedness could be paralleled for other expressions and ideas in which the Christians of the NT period clothed their belief in Jesus. Typically, it is based on a variety of scriptural passages, each pointing to its own associations and concepts. Typically too, even within the narrow temporal confines of the NT period, it is neither static nor universal. It is symptomatic of the explosion of symbolic energy which so imaginatively produced the new devotion that saw in Jesus the key to everything.

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