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The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies Provides a comprehensive survey of Biblical scholarship in a variety of disciplines.

Life and Teaching of Jesus

1.1 Social, Political, and Economic Setting of the Life of Jesus

Ongoing archaeological and social-scientific work in Galilee has underscored the strongly Judaic character of this region, notwithstanding significant Graeco-Roman populations in certain cities and centres. The development of major cities at Tiberias, which is located on the west bank of Lake Gennesaret, and Sepphoris, which is about four miles north-west of Nazareth, where Jesus grew up, and the discovery of impressive Graeco-Roman architecture and artefacts, have led some scholars to exaggerate the extent of the Hellenization of Galilee. Accordingly, some have suggested that the Jewish people of Galilee were for the most part not strict in the observance of their faith, and that Graeco-Roman philosophies, including Cynicism, were influential even among the Jewish population. It has even been suggested that Jesus himself came under the influence of Cynic teaching, perhaps emanating from nearby Sepphoris.

However, the archaeological data do not bear out this interpretation, especially in reference to Sepphoris. Among the faunal remains that date before 70 CE archaeologists have found virtually no pig bones, which is inexplicable if we are to imagine the presence of a significant non-Jewish population. In contrast, after 70 CE and after a sizeable growth in the non-Jewish population, pig bones come to represent 30 per cent of the faunal remains. Over 100 fragments of stone vessels have been unearthed so far, again pointing to a Jewish population concerned with ritual purity (cf. John 2: 6). Consistent with this concern is the presence of many miqvaoth, or ritual bathing-pools. Coins minted at Sepphoris during this period do not depict the image of the Roman emperor or pagan deities (as was common in the coinage of this time). By contrast, in the second century coins were minted at Sepphoris bearing the images of the emperors Trajan (98–117 CE) and Antoninus Pius (138–161 CE) and the deities Tyche and the Capitoline triad. Indeed, in the reign of Antoninus Pius the city adopted the name Diocaesarea, in honour of Zeus (Dio) and the Roman emperor (Caesar). The discovery of a Hebrew ostracon and several lamp fragments bearing the image of the menorah (the seven-branched candelabra) and dating from the first century CE, along with the absence of structures typically present in a Graeco-Roman city (such as pagan temples, gymnasium, odeum, nymphaeum, or shrines and statues), lead to the firm conclusion that Sepphoris in Jesus' day was a thoroughly Jewish city. Finally, the distribution of Jewish and non-Jewish pottery in Galilee lends additional support to this conclusion. Whereas non-Jews purchased Jewish pottery, the Jews of Galilee did not purchase and make use of pottery manufactured by non-Jews. Accordingly, Jewish pottery that dates prior to 70 CE is found in Jewish and non-Jewish sectors in and around Galilee, whereas non-Jewish pottery is limited to the non-Jewish sectors. These patterns of distribution strongly suggest that the Jewish people of Galilee were scrupulous in their observance of Jewish purity laws.

The political dominance of Galilee (and Israel as a whole) by Rome and its client rulers, the Herodians, constitutes the essential background of Jesus' life and teaching in general, especially his announcement of the in-breaking rule of God. Proclamation of the ‘kingdom of God’ would have been viewed by contemporaries as a direct challenge to Roman authority, in which the Roman emperor was viewed as ‘son of God’ and the ‘beginning’, or first cause, of all good for the inhabited earth (e.g. OGIS no. 458. 40–2 (birthday of Augustus); P Oxy. 1021. 10 (accession of Nero)). The incipit of the Marcan Gospel, admittedly part of the evangelist's apologetic and evangelistic strategy, none the less captures the essence of Jesus' challenge to Rome: ‘The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the son of God’ (Mark 1: 1). The proclamation of the rule of God amounted to a call to the end of the political establishment.

Resentment of this political dominance sometimes led to insurrection, in Galilee and in Judaea and neighbouring territories. Josephus catalogues a number of Jewish men who in one way or another attempted to exert leadership. Although it is debated, some of these men may have thought of themselves as Davidic successors, perhaps even possessing messianic qualifications. Popular prophets also appeared on the scene, including John the Baptizer, whose actions at the River Jordan were concerned with Israel's redemption.

Literary and archaeological evidence suggests that in the early decades of the first century Galilee was for the most part prosperous. Its economic base was primarily agrarian. Writing from first-hand observation, Josephus describes the soil as rich, supporting various crops and orchards (BJ 3. 3. 2 §§42–3), with the result that Galilee boasted more than 200 villages and small cities (Vit. 45, §235). Although Josephus exaggerates the fecundity of the land and the size of the populations of the villages and cities, other sources, including archaeological excavations, provide general, if somewhat more modest, corroboration. Some of the most important excavations include those at Capernaum, Sepphoris, Tiberias, Caesarea Maritima, Bethsaida, Nazareth, and Cana of Galilee.

Ongoing archaeological work in Nazareth has revealed surprising evidence of stone masonry and viticulture. Although the extent of archaeological investigation thus far is quite limited (owing to the fact that modern Nazareth is a large, inhabited city), all indications at present suggest that Nazareth of late antiquity—in close proximity to a major highway linking Caesarea Maritima in the west to Tiberias in the east—was an active and productive centre, whose inhabitants would in all probability have had no need to seek employment in outlying areas. Portraits of Nazareth as a sleepy, isolated village are the stuff of pious imagination and hagiography, not critical study.

Lake Gennesaret (or popularly the Sea of Galilee), some 13 miles in length (north to south) and 3 to 7 miles wide, is situated about 700 feet below sea level. In the time of Jesus the lake supported (and still supports) a thriving fishing industry (cf. Strabo, Geog. 16. 2; Pliny, HN 5. 15; Josephus, BJ 3. 10. 7, §§506–8; Mark 1: 16–20 parr.; Luke 5: 1–10; John 21: 1–11). A network of roads encouraged a modicum of commerce, especially in the case of pottery, whose production was limited to areas that possessed sufficient amounts of appropriate clay. Most of the pottery in use in Galilee was produced at Kefar Shikhin, near Sepphoris, and Kefar Hananyah, situated near the centre of Galilee.

These archaeological and geographical considerations are consistent with literary sources, which suggest that most economic activity in Israel in this period of time was agrarian, centred on the production of food, and domestic, based largely on the labour of the family. Most families owned small parcels of land, which produced vegetables, grain, grapes, and olives. Some facilities, such as presses and mills, were shared by clusters of families or by whole villages. There was some commercial farming, supported by landless peasants and labourers. Most families produced their own clothing, shoes, and furniture, though there was trade, and some men and women were artisans and tradesmen. Jesus himself was called a ‘carpenter’ (tekton) or ‘son of a carpenter’ (Mark 6: 3; Matt. 13: 55). There were also professionals and retainers, such as priests, physicians, scribes, stewards, and collectors (at various ranks) of tolls and taxes. There were also persons who filled various offices of authority. These included magistrates, judges, and various Roman officers, including the governor (who in Jesus’ time served at the rank of praefectus) and centurions.

Questions of education and literacy are also important. The evidence is compelling that Jesus was formed in the context of Israel's historic faith, as mediated by the Scriptures, as read and interpreted in the synagogue. Jesus was conversant with Israel's great story and fully embraced the redemptive vision of the prophets. His message, ‘the kingdom of God has drawn near’ (Mark 1: 14–15), is derived from Isaiah (e.g. 40: 9: ‘behold your God’; 52: 7: ‘your God reigns’), as paraphrased in the Aramaic Targum: ‘The kingdom of your God is revealed!’ Jesus prayed the prayers of the synagogue, again probably in Aramaic. The closest parallel to the well-known Lord's Prayer (Matt. 6: 9–13 = Luke 11: 2–4: ‘Our Father in heaven, may your name be sanctified, may your kingdom come…’) is the Aramaic prayer called the Qaddish: ‘May his name be magnified and sanctified…and may he establish his kingdom in your lifetime…’. These observations in turn support the widely held opinion that Jesus' mother tongue was Aramaic, the language that had dominated the eastern Mediterranean for centuries.

The evidence also strongly suggests that Jesus frequented the synagogue, and that he was Torah-observant, even if his understanding of the oral law was significantly different from the understanding of others, such as the Pharisees. The Gospels portray Jesus as frequently debating the meaning of Scripture or the legitimacy of various aspects of the oral law. How well versed in Scripture was Jesus? Could he read? The evangelists assume that Jesus in fact could read (as seen, for example, in Luke 4: 16–30).

Although there is no unambiguous evidence for the literacy of Jesus, there is considerable contextual and circumstantial evidence that suggests that in all probability he was literate. According to the Shema‘, which all Torah-observant Jews were expected to recite daily, parents were to teach their children Torah (cf. Deut. 4: 9; 6: 7; 11: 19; 31: 12–13; 2 Chr. 17: 7–9; Eccles. 12: 9), even to adorn their doorposts with the Shema‘ (Deut. 6: 9; 11: 20). According to Philo and Josephus, approximate contemporaries of Jesus, Jewish parents taught their children Torah and how to read it (cf. Philo, Leg. 31, §210; Josephus, Ap. 1. 12, §60; 2. 25 §204). Josephus declares that ‘most men, so far from living in accordance with their own laws, hardly know what they are.…But, should anyone of our nation be questioned about the laws, he would repeat them all more readily than his own name. The result, then, of our thorough grounding in the laws from the first dawn of intelligence is that we have them, as it were, engraved on our souls’ (cf. Ap. 2. 18, §§176, 178). Apart from the obvious exaggeration, this claim may not be too wide of the truth, for Augustine claims that Seneca made a similar remark: ‘The Jews, however, are aware of the origin and meaning of their rites. The greater part of (other) people go through a ritual not knowing why they do so’ (De civ. D. 6. 11).

The probability that Jesus was literate is supported, if not confirmed, by his recognition as ‘Rabbi’ (e.g. Mark 9: 5; 11: 21; 14: 45) or its Greek equivalent ‘teacher’ (e.g. Mark 4: 38; 5: 35; 9: 17). Jesus refers to himself in this manner, and is called such by supporters, opponents, and non-partisans. Although prior to 70 CE the designation ‘Rabbi’ is informal, even vague, and lacks the later connotations of formal training and ordination, which obtain sometime after the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, it is very probable that at least a limited literacy was assumed.

The simplest explanation of the data we have is a literate Jesus, a Jesus who could read the Hebrew Scriptures, could paraphrase and interpret them in Aramaic, and could do so in a manner that indicated his familiarity with current interpretive tendencies in both popular circles (as in the synagogues) and in professional, even élite circles (as seen in debates with scribes, ruling priests, and elders). Of course, to conclude that Jesus was literate is not necessarily to conclude that Jesus had received formal scribal training. The data do not suggest this. Jesus' innovative, experiential approach to Scripture and to Jewish faith seems to suggest the contrary.

It should also be mentioned that there is compelling evidence for the existence of synagogue buildings in the time of Jesus, where the faithful could gather (as the Greek word synagogē means), to read and interpret Scripture, sing Psalms, pray, and socialize. The evidence for these buildings is seen in Josephus (cf. BJ 2. 285–9; 7. 44; AJ 19. 305) and in Philo (cf. Prob. 81–2), as well as in the Theodotos inscription (CIJ no. 1404), found in Jerusalem, which thanks various persons for donating money for the building of the synagogue, and in the Berenike synagogue inscription from Cyrene (SEG XVII 823), which dates to the year 56 CE. Moreover, the ruins of a synagogue at Jericho have been dated to the first century BCE, and the old basalt foundation beneath the newer limestone synagogue at Capernaum probably also dates from the first century BCE.

It was in the context of village life, in the vicinity of Sepphoris, that Jesus participated in the activities of the synagogue, hearing Scripture read and interpreted, and hearing and saying prayers. It was in this context that Jesus' religious consciousness took shape, and it is in the light of this context that his preaching and activities should be studied.

1.2 The Teaching and Activity of Jesus

The admission in the Gospels that Jesus was baptized by John is one of the most certain data of the tradition (cf. Mark 1: 9–11; Matt. 3: 13–17; Luke 3: 21–2; John 1: 29–34). It suggests that Jesus was for a time a disciple of John. There are important indications that this was the case. Jesus' proclamation of the kingdom of God (Mark 1: 14–15) may very well have emerged from an eschatological understanding of Isaiah 40 held in common with John, for the latter apparently appealed to Isa. 40: 3 (‘prepare the way of the Lord’) while the former appealed to Isa. 40: 9 in the Aramaic (‘the kingdom of your God is revealed’). John spoke of ‘these stones’, which may have alluded to the twelve stones (= twelve tribes of Israel) placed by the River Jordan by Joshua, on the occasion of entry into the Promised Land (cf. Josh. 4). Jesus' appointment of twelve apostles (Mark 3: 14; 6: 30; Matt. 19: 28; Luke 22: 28–30) may very well have held a similar meaning. Lastly, Jesus' implicit claim to be the one ‘mightier’ than the ‘strong man’ (i.e. Satan) in Mark 3: 23–7 in all probability answers John's anticipation of the coming of one ‘mightier’ than himself (Mark 1: 7). These points of coherence between Jesus and John suggest that the latter played an important role in the formation of the former.

Jesus' proclamation that ‘the kingdom of God has arrived’ is to be understood, as mentioned above, in reference to the Aramaic paraphrase. ‘Kingdom’ (basileia/malkuth) refers to God's rule or power. That is, the rule of oppressive humans (such as the Romans, the Herodians, or even the priestly aristocrats of Jerusalem) has come to an end; the rule of God is now at hand.

Jesus began this proclamation in Galilee, preaching in synagogues, in private homes, and out in the open countryside. His proclamation was accompanied by exorcisms and healings, which would have been viewed by his contemporaries not only as fulfilment of prophecy (as in Isa. 35: 5–6; 61: 1–2), but as tangible evidence that the power of God was truly present in Jesus. Accordingly, Jesus affirms, in the context of controversy over the source of his exorcistic power: ‘But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you’ (Luke 11: 20; cf. Matt. 12: 28).

It was Jesus' success as a healer and exorcist, as much as his proclamation, that attracted crowds. The discovery and analysis of hundreds of skeletons and skeletal remains have told us much about the health and longevity of the people in Palestine in late antiquity. It gives us pause to discover that in a typical two- or three-generation burial crypt, more than half of the skeletons are of children. Indeed, in some cases two-thirds of the remains are of children. It needs to be pointed out, too, that most of these excavated tombs belonged to the affluent—that is, to those who had access to sufficient food, clothing, shelter, and physicians. From data such as these, some historical anthropologists have speculated that on any given day as many as one-fourth of the population in Jesus' time was ill, injured, or in need of medical attention. This grim speculation gives new meaning to the Gospels' notice of pressing crowds (e.g. Mark 3: 10; 4: 1; 5: 27–8).

Jesus' success in exorcism and healing evidently also provided important messianic confirmation for him and his disciples. His allusion to Isaiah 61 and to other words and phrases from Isaiah, in response to the sceptical question of the imprisoned Baptist (Matt. 11: 2–6 // Luke 7: 18–23), is almost certainly a messianic affirmation. We can say this now because of the discovery of 4Q521, which appeals to the same Isaianic words and phrases, speaking of the Messiah in the context of healing and proclaiming good news.

The parallels between 4Q521 and Jesus' exchange with John strongly suggest that Jesus did indeed see himself in messianic terms, though precisely how his messianism was defined is not certain. After Easter, his followers proclaimed Jesus Messiah of Israel. This widespread, even unanimous, tradition supports this conclusion. How this conviction altered the message of Jesus will be considered below.

Jesus also summed up his proclamation as the ‘good news’ (euaggelion/besorah) of the arrival of God's rule (cf. Isa. 40: 9; 52: 7; 61: 1). Although repentance was required (Mark 1: 15; 6: 12; Matt. 11: 20; Luke 5: 32; 13: 3, 5; 15: 7), as it had been in John's preaching (Mark 1: 4; Matt. 3: 8), Jesus proclaimed God's forgiveness and called on his contemporaries to forgive one another (Mark 2: 10; 11: 25; Matt. 6: 12; 18: 21, 35; Luke 6: 37). Indeed, Jesus even claimed to have heavenly authority to forgive sins (Mark 2: 5, 10).

Jesus' association with ‘sinners’, who presumably had repented and been assured of their forgiveness (outside priestly and scribal conventions), not surprisingly occasioned criticism (Mark 2: 15–17; Matt. 18–19 // Luke 7: 33–5). This association with sinners, as part of the teaching on forgiveness, formed an important component of early Christian ethics. Although Jesus did not teach the abrogation of the Jewish Law, the practice of forgiveness apart from the conventions of priest and temple, and the willingness to associate freely with those accordingly forgiven, created a theological and ethical matrix that would later facilitate Christianity's movement away from Jewish faith and practice, as they were emerging in the first century.

1.3 The Death of Jesus

Jesus' death was the result of his entry into Jerusalem, where he threatened the ruling priestly establishment. Jesus' controversial teachings regarding sabbath, purity, and forgiveness seem to have played little or no role in his arrest and execution.

Jesus' entry was probably guided by and interpreted in the light of passages from Zechariah and Psalm 118, evidently as nuanced in the setting of the Aramaic-speaking synagogue (Mark 11: 1–11; cf. Zech. 9: 9; Ps. 118: 25–6). These Scriptures continue to play a role in Passion Week, with Jesus forbidding commercial traffic in the temple precincts (Mark 11: 15–18; cf. Zech. 14: 20–1), identifying himself as the stone rejected by the builders (Mark 12: 10–12; cf. Ps. 118: 22–3), and as the shepherd struck down by God (Mark 14: 26–7; cf. Zech. 13: 7). The words of institution probably also allude to Zechariah (Mark 14: 24; cf. Zech. 9: 11). Although it is true that the later evangelists, especially Matthew, embellish these allusions, sometimes upgrading them to formal quotations (as at Matt. 21: 4–5; John 12: 14–15), their allusive presence in Mark suggests that they were part of the earliest tradition, and probably derived from the words and actions of Jesus himself.

Whether Jesus anticipated his death and resurrection remains an item of debate. His anticipation of death seems probable, for the violent fate of John the Baptist surely impressed itself on Jesus (Mark 6: 14–29; 9: 13). What is more compelling is the scene in Gethsemane, in which the frightened Jesus falls on his face, begging God to take away the cup of suffering (Mark 14: 33–6). This is not the stuff of pious fiction or dogma. Indeed, it stands in stark contrast to the serene Jesus portrayed in John 17.

Of course, if Jesus anticipated his death, it is probable that he attempted to find meaning in it. The words of institution should be interpreted in this light. In the shedding of his blood, Jesus finds guarantee of the covenant and the kingdom of God (Mark 14: 22–5). Luke's addition of ‘new’, as in ‘the new covenant’ (Luke 22: 20), is redactional, to be sure, but it probably correctly captures the sense of Jesus' words. The ‘new covenant’ hearkens back to the promise of Jer. 31: 31. The new covenant cannot be established until the blood of God's Son, Israel's Messiah, is shed.

The idea of the saving benefit of a righteous man's death is hardly unusual in the Jewish world, or in the Mediterranean world in general, for that matter. There are several expressions of the belief that the death of the righteous will benefit, or even save, God's people (e.g. 1 Macc. 6: 44; 4 Macc. 1: 11; 17: 21–2; 18: 3–4; T. Moses 9–10; Ps.-Philo, Bib. Ant. 18: 5). Among the most important are traditions associated with the torture and death of the Maccabean martyrs.

If our living Lord is angry for a little while, to rebuke and discipline us, he will again be reconciled with his own servants…I, like my brothers, give up body and life for the laws of our fathers, appealing to God to show mercy soon to our nature…and through me and my brothers to bring to an end the wrath of the Almighty which has justly fallen on our whole nation. (2 Macc. 7: 33, 37–8, emphasis added)

Similarly, Jesus believed that God was angry with his people for having rejected his message. We see this in Jesus' weeping over the city (Luke 19: 41–4; Matt. 23: 37–9 = Luke 13: 34–5) and in his ominous allusion to the shepherd in Zech. 13: 7.

If Jesus did anticipate his death, did he anticipate his resurrection as well? Had he not anticipated it, it would have been very strange, for pious Jews very much believed in the resurrection (Dan. 12: 1–3; 1 Enoch 22–7; 92–105; Jubilees 23: 11–31; 4 Macc. 7: 3; 4 Ezra 7: 26–42; 2 Bar. 21: 23; 30: 2–5; Josephus, BJ 2. 8. 11, §154; 2. 8. 14, §§165–6; AJ 18. 1. 3–5, §§14, 16, 18). One is reminded of the seven martyred sons and their mother, several of whom expressed their firmest conviction of the resurrection (2 Macc. 7: 14, 23, 29; cf. 4 Macc. 8–17). Would Jesus have faced death and then, having earlier affirmed his belief in the resurrection (Mark 12: 18–27), have expressed no faith in his own vindication? Surely not. It seems probable that Jesus would have reassured his disciples (and himself) with a confident prediction of his resurrection.

The words of Jesus, ‘after three days rise again’ (Mark 8: 31) and—in the other gospels—‘on the third day’ (Matt. 16: 21; Luke 9: 22; cf. 1 Cor. 15: 4), probably allude to the oracle of Hosea that promised the renewal of Israel: ‘After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will raise us up, that we may live before him’ (6: 2), though, again, as refracted through the Aramaic tradition: ‘He will revive us in the days of consolations that will come; on the day of the resurrection of the dead he will raise us up and we shall live before him’ (Tg. Hos. 6: 2, with italicized portion indicating differences in the Aramaic). Not only has the text been paraphrased to give expression to the resurrection (which was not the original meaning of the underlying Hebrew), it has also taken on a messianic nuance with the words ‘in the days of consolations’ (cf. Tg. 2 Sam. 23: 1). The coherence of Jesus' words with the Aramaic tradition is striking.

The juridical process that overtook Jesus (arrest, interrogation by Jewish authorities, delivery to Roman authorities with recommendation of execution, interrogation by Roman authorities, scourging, execution) corresponds to what we know of other cases. Indeed, the experience of Jesus of Nazareth parallels quite closely the experience of Jesus ben Ananias, who some thirty years later uttered oracles of doom in the city of Jerusalem and in the temple precincts themselves. Like Jesus of Nazareth (Mark 11: 17; cf. Jer. 7: 11), Jesus ben Ananias alluded to Jeremiah 7, while in the vicinity of temple (Josephus, BJ 6. 5. 3, §§300–5; cf. Jer. 7: 34). Unlike Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus ben Ananias was not executed (despite calls from religious leaders that he be put to death), but was released.

Jesus was taken down from the cross before nightfall and was buried according to Jewish customs (Mark 15: 42–16: 4); he was put to death as a criminal, and was buried accordingly (m. Sanh. 6. 5; Semahot 13. 7). The novel suggestion that perhaps Jesus was left on the cross, unburied (as was usually the case outside Israel; cf. Suetonius, Augustus 13. 1–2; Petronius, Satyricon 111), or that his corpse was thrown into a ditch, covered with lime, and left for animals to maul, is wholly implausible. Obligations to bury the dead properly, before sundown, was keenly felt by Jews of late antiquity (Deut. 21: 22–3; Tob. 1: 18; 2: 3–9). Moreover, unburied corpses, subject to predators, would defile the land (Deut. 21: 23; 4Q285 frg. 7, lines 5–6). It is unthinkable that the bodies of Jesus and the men crucified with him would have been left unburied, just outside the walls of Jerusalem.

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