The past thirty years have been especially fruitful for the study of early Christianity. This is partly because the churches appear more to be relaxed about the uncertainties of research findings but also because the available sources, particularly the range of Jewish texts, preeminent among them the Dead Sea Scrolls, have expanded enormously. We are better able to set Jesus within a historical context than at any time since the first century. If we can sum up the rich diversity of modern scholarship, it is distinguished both by the acceptance of the essential Jewish-ness of Jesus and by a fuller understanding of what it means to say that Jesus was Jewish in the first century of the Christian era. While traditional interpretations of Jesus have seen him as somehow apart from Judaism, his mission always focused on the outside world, it is now argued not only that he preached and taught within Judaism but even that he was advocating a return to traditional Jewish values. Nevertheless, the continuing lack of Jewish sources for Jesus’ life means that any interpretation of his role and mission has to be made with caution. 1
There are only a few historical references to Jesus outside the New Testament, and one of these, by the Jewish historian Josephus, may have been rewritten by Christians at a later date.2 The earliest New Testament sources are Paul’s letters, written in the 50s, not much more than twenty years after Jesus’ crucifixion, but they say virtually nothing about Jesus’ life. Later than Paul, but drawing on earlier material, are the four surviving Gospels, written for early Christian communities in the Gentile (Greco-Roman) world. As Luke reminds his readers in the opening verse of his Gospel, there were many other accounts of Jesus’ activities (scholars suggest that there may have originally been some twenty Gospels), but these are now all lost apart from the odd fragment; the four we know were accepted as canonical (authoritative) during the second century. Other later non-canonical texts, such as the Gospel of St. Thomas, which does survive (in part) from the second century, and the mass of material from the Nag Hammadi library (a collection of papyrus codices of works from the third to fifth centuries discovered at Nag Hammadi in modern Egypt in 1945–46, some of which draw on second-century sources), are probably too late to be of much historical value. All four Gospels, as well as Paul’s letters, were originally written in Greek, although on occasion they preserve Jesus’ words in their original Aramaic. There is no account of Jesus’ life written from a Jewish perspective, unless one interprets Matthew’s Gospel in this light (see below). Also lost is a rich oral tradition—it is known that until about A.D. 135 many Christian communities preferred to pass on their knowledge of Jesus by word of mouth. Only a tiny proportion of what was originally recorded, whether orally or in writing, about Jesus has survived; some texts simply disappeared, others were suppressed as interpretations of Jesus evolved in the early Christian communities. The very fact that there are four different accounts of Jesus’ mission and that these reached their final form some decades after his crucifixion suggests that a coherent historical (and, equally, a coherent spiritual or divine) Jesus will be difficult to recover. 3
Most scholars now assume that Mark is the earliest of the surviving Gospels, perhaps written about A.D. 70, forty years after Jesus’ death. It is the shortest of the canonical Gospels and begins with Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist and ends in its original version with the discovery of his empty tomb. (In other words, there are no birth stories and the resurrection accounts were added later.) It is believed to have been written for a Christian community in Rome and composed to be read aloud to them. Then follow Luke (after 70) and Matthew (between 80 and 90), drawing on a common (lost) source (known as “Q,” from the German Quelle, or “source”) as well as on Mark. There is no agreement among scholars as to where Luke’s Gospel was written, but there is a degree of consensus in the belief that Matthew’s was written for a community in Antioch in Syria. These three are known as the Synoptic Gospels (the word “synoptic,” “with the same eye,” reflecting their shared perspective on Jesus’ life). The last of the canonical Gospels, that of John, dated from about A.D. 100, is very different from the earlier three and is a more considered theological interpretation of Jesus’ life in which, for the first time, he is presented as divine. In one or two instances, the accounts of Jesus’ trial, for example, John appears to draw on an independent witness and in some ways his Gospel, though the most removed from events, may in fact be the most historically accurate.
The Gospels are not written as a history or biography in the conventional sense. Events are shaped to provide a meaning for Jesus, partly through his teachings and partly through his trial and death (recounted in detail in all four Gospels) and resurrection. The earliest sources on which they draw appear to have been sayings of Jesus (assembled in collections known as “pericopes,” from the original Greek word for “a cutoff section”), which were placed in contexts created by the Gospel writers themselves. (The same pericopes appear in different contexts in different Gospels, as one can see when comparing Luke’s Sermon on the Mount, 6:17–49, with Matthew’s much longer version, which incorporates material used elsewhere by Luke in his Gospel.) The selection, placing and development of the sayings vary from one Gospel to another, but one common theme, which is approached differently in each Gospel, is the question of how Jesus was to be related to his Jewish background at a time, some decades after the crucifixion, when the Christian communities were spreading into the Gentile world. The issue can be explored by taking Matthew’s Gospel (highlighted here because it was the most influential of the three Synoptic Gospels in the early Christian centuries) as an example.
Matthew, as has been seen, shares a common source with Mark and also draws on “Q,” but there are a number of emphases in his Gospel that are unique. One is the bringing together of Jesus’ ethical teachings in the Sermon on the Mount, a version which is three times as long as the compilation by Luke, actually a “Sermon on the Plain” rather than “the Mount.” Another involves the relating of Jesus’ birth and life back to earlier Jewish prophecies; throughout his Gospel Matthew is concerned to place Jesus’ teaching into the context of earlier scripture. Yet Matthew depicts Jesus himself as firmly, indeed violently, rejected by Jews—Pilate, for instance, is shown as reluctant to order the crucifixion until urged to do so by the Jewish crowds (27:22, “Let him be crucified!”). There is also in Matthew (but not in Mark or Luke) a powerful indictment of the scribes and Pharisees (23:13–33). So Matthew appears to be depicting a Jesus who is an important ethical teacher who can be seen as a fulfillment of Jewish prophecies, but who at the same time rejects Jewish sects and is rejected by the Jews themselves. Another central theme of Matthew is Jesus’ warning of “a burning furnace” for those who have done evil and “eternal punishment” for those who neglect his demands to feed the hungry or clothe the naked (Matthew 13:36–43 and 25:31–46). Many Jews did not believe in an afterlife, but some talked of sheol, a shadowy “grave” or “pit,” where departed spirits live, or Gehenna, a place of torment based on an actual valley in Judaea where human sacrifices had taken place. It is Gehenna to which Jesus refers in Matthew’s telling of his indictment of the Pharisees. 4
To establish how these emphases might relate to Matthew’s own concerns, attempts have been made to establish the audience for whom Matthew was writing. One view is that Matthew led a community that was Jewish in origin and still saw itself as Jewish, despite the fact that its devotion to Christ had led to its ostracism by orthodox Jewish communities. It is usually suggested that this was in Antioch at a time when Judaism was narrowing its boundaries after the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple by the Romans in A.D. 70. Determined that his community survive, Matthew, according to this interpretation, presented Jesus as the hoped-for Messiah, prophesied in the scriptures, but as a Messiah who has been rejected and betrayed by his own people. Such ideas of betrayal and renewal ran deep in Jewish history, and Matthew places Jesus within this tradition. Once again the Jews have betrayed the one who is sent from God, says Matthew, but this does not mean that Judaism in itself is at an end. Jesus had come “not to abolish but to complete [the Law].” It would remain in place “till heaven and earth disappear . . . until its purpose is achieved” (Matthew 5:17–18). Matthew thus presents Jesus as spearheading a Jewish renewal, even if it is one that has not been recognized by his own people. Matthew believes that his community has replaced the Jews as guardians of his Messiahship. One of the verses Matthew attributes to Jesus (21:43) is particularly telling here: “I tell you then, that the kingdom of God will be taken from you [i.e., those Jews who have rejected me] and given to a people who will produce its fruit,” by implication Matthew’s community. Matthew also lays greater stress than the other Synoptic Gospels on the church as an institution. Peter, whose Christianity, like Matthew’s, was set within Judaism, is given a leadership role by Jesus, and there is specific mention of the community having disciplinary powers (18:15–20). This approach to Matthew’s Gospel has been summed up as follows:
[Matthew’s Jewish] community defines itself as the last sanctuary for the preservation of those fundamentals of Israel’s faith. It tries desperately to live up to its true calling, as represented in these responsibilities to preserve true holiness. But it is also inclined to be bitter and vengeful; this typical, and entirely understandable, desire for vengeance (upon the Pharisees in particular) is expressed in the notion of eternal punishment and the principle of just requital.5
When Matthew’s text was adopted as one of the four canonical texts by the emerging churches of the Gentile world, its origin as a Jewish text was glossed over, and Matthew’s rejection of those Jews who had betrayed Jesus was transformed by later Christians into a justification for rejecting all Judaism—the cry of the crowd in Jerusalem, “His blood be on us and on our children!” (27:25), was to be frequently quoted in the diatribes that many of the Church Fathers launched against Judaism as a religion, something Matthew can hardly have intended. Again, the doctrine of eternal punishment in hell, which was further developed in the early church by interpreting Matthew’s verse “Many are called but few are chosen” (22:14) to suggest that a majority of human beings would suffer eternal punishment, became an entrenched and highly influential part of Christian teaching. It is equally important, of course, to note the enormous influence of the Sermon on the Mount on Christian ethics. This is the challenge the Gospels pose for the historian—their own versions of Jesus were shaped to meet the needs of their immediate audience, yet when adopted into the canon they were interpreted to fit the needs of the emerging church. Is it possible to “decode” the Gospel texts so as to place Jesus back into his original background? Some scholars argue that it is now virtually impossible to find “the real Jesus” under the layers of later developments; others believe that something can be reconstructed from the material in the Gospels. This latter will be what is attempted here.
Jesus came to prominence only in the last years of his life, and the story essentially begins in Galilee in around A.D. 27 with his baptism by an itinerant preacher, John the Baptist, “a voice crying in the wilderness,” who called on sinners to show repentance in view of the imminent approach of God’s kingdom.6 Throughout Jesus’ life Galilee was ruled by client kings of the Romans, first Herod the Great (37–4 B.C.) and then as tetrarch (a subordinate ruler) his son Herod Antipas (4 B.C.– A.D. 39). (Contrary to popular belief, Jesus’ ministry did not take place within the “official” Roman empire, until he moved into Judaea, which, as we have seen, had been a directly ruled province of the empire since A.D. 6.) Galilee was a relatively prosperous area with fertile land and good fishing in “the sea of Galilee,” yet Galileans were remote from the more sophisticated centres of Judaism and conscious that the peoples surrounding them, largely Greek and Phoenician, were of very different cultures. There is some evidence that there was an increasing Greek presence in Galilee in these years, but as the Greeks tended to consider themselves superior to local cultures and kept themselves distinct from them (Greeks seldom bothered to learn native languages, for instance), this is only likely to have exacerbated the feelings of exclusion among the native Galileans. Furthermore, as has been persuasively argued by Richard Horsley, the impact of taxation, a growing population and Herodian rule was resulting in the fragmentation of peasant land holdings and placed increasing pressure on traditional family structures.7 Studies of Judaism in Galilee and Judaea at the time suggest that there was relatively little difference between the two areas in terms of religious belief and practice, but, as Horsley again has argued, the pressures on peasant life may have led to a more passionate defence of traditional religious values in Galilee and an attraction to charismatic spiritual leaders who espoused them (in this Galilee would have been typical of areas of peasant unrest through the ages where social change or oppression result in resistance grounded in traditional beliefs).8
Judaism was not a monolithic religion, and recent research has served to stress the diversity of Jewish practice in the first century A.D. 9 There were, of course, beliefs common to all Jews, above all belief in a single providential God who had a special relationship with Israel exemplified by the covenant he had made with his people. Even if the covenant were broken, which it often was in the troubled history of Israel, God would always forgive (the point stressed by Matthew). The requirements of the Law (central to Jewish life and ethical behaviour), the sayings of the Prophets and the history of Israel were recorded in scriptures that were studied by all educated Jews. Rituals shared by Jews included circumcision, dietary restrictions (in practice tied to those foods that most easily carried disease—pork, shellfish and carrion— although the ban was held to be instituted by God) and a strict observance of the Sabbath. As laid down in the Ten Commandments, there was an absolute prohibition on the worship of God through idols. A commitment to Jewish Law, which was believed to have been instituted directly by God (in the giving of the Ten Commandments to Moses, for instance), covered every aspect of life, with detailed prescriptions for living laid down in scriptures such as the Book of Leviticus. There was a strong emphasis on the value of family life and traditional family structures. Those who offended could redeem themselves through repentance, achieved through sacrifice.
The central focus for the worship of God was the great Temple at Jerusalem, and male Jews were required to visit the Temple three times a year, at the times of the major festivals, although in practice the diaspora of Jews throughout the ancient world had made this impossible for many. The Temple was staffed by a large class of priests, perhaps some 20,000 in total, if the assistant priests, the Levites, are included. The priesthood was an important and influential class—it was said that the Jewish revolt of A.D. 66 broke out at the moment when the priests refused to accept any more sacrifices on Rome’s behalf. The priests alone had the right to sacrifice (on behalf of themselves and those who had come to the Temple as penitents). They took it in turns to officiate in the Temple, but all would be on duty there during the major festivals. The Temple had recently been rebuilt in magnificent style by Herod the Great, but in the eyes of many Jews the Temple elite had compromised itself in accepting the patronage of Herod and, after his death, through acquiescing in Roman imperial control.
Because the Law was so fully set out in the Hebrew scriptures, most Jews knew its requirements well. There were, however, groups such as the Pharisees, who had originated in the second century B.C. and who may have numbered some 6,000 in Herod’s day, who had made their own interpretations of how the Law should be observed. They studied it intensively and insisted on its strict observance. One particular belief associated with the Pharisees, but not shared by all Jews, was that there was an afterlife and a final resurrection of the bodies of the dead. While the Pharisees had no political power (very few were actually priests) and did not proselytize, they were respected for their beliefs. Nevertheless, it was natural that they would feel threatened by groups or religious leaders who had a more relaxed attitude to the Law than they did or who claimed their own differing interpretation of the Law. Another group with distinctive beliefs, in this case that there was no afterlife, were the Sadducees, who were essentially conservative in their support of traditional priestly ritual and appear to have been well represented in the aristocratic priesthood. (This was one reason why they came into conflict with groups such as the Pharisees, who threatened to take the interpretation of the Law both outside the priesthood and also outside of Jerusalem.)
The majority of Jews, like all other peoples of the Mediterranean and the ancient Near East, were poor, susceptible to illness (much of it incurable), subject to taxation (whether from the Jewish authorities, a king or directly by the Romans), and vulnerable. In extreme cases these hardships could lead to agrarian unrest or even outright revolt, such as the disastrous uprisings against the Romans of A.D. 66 and A.D. 132. By contrast there was also the possibility of spiritual withdrawal. This was the path taken by the Essenes, a sect that seems to have formed in the second century B.C. Members of this sect, whose lifestyle and beliefs have been recovered from the Dead Sea Scrolls, were extreme in the strictness with which they observed the Law. They held property in common, encouraged celibacy (at least in the Qumran community, which produced the Dead Sea Scrolls) and believed that the soul, but not the body itself, would have an afterlife. They saw themselves as the only true believers, the “sons of light,” while all others, including their fellow Jews, were “sons of darkness.” One should “love all the children of light, each one according to his lot in the council of God, and abhor all the children of darkness, each one according to his guilt, which delivers him up to God’s retribution.” They had a deep-rooted distrust of outsiders, and newcomers were accepted into the group only after two or three years of spiritual instruction. The Essenes were millennarians, waiting for some form of liberation. As one of their texts put it: “The heavens and the earth will listen to His Messiah . . . He [the Lord] will glorify the pious on the throne of the eternal Kingdom, He who liberates the captives, restores sight to the blind, straightens the bent . . . For He will heal the wounded, and revive the dead and bring good news to the poor.”10 Although there is no evidence to connect Jesus with the Essenes, their teachings show that expectations of a Messiah with a special message for the poor who would introduce an eternal kingdom were active in the Jewish world of the first century. As we will see later, Paul appears to have been influenced by them.
The concept of Messiah (Christos in Greek, hence Christ) is so central to Judaism that it deserves to be explored here. The word was used in general of one who was anointed by God for some special purpose (it was even accorded to a Gentile, Cyrus of Persia, who liberated Israel from Babylonian rule), but it tended to be associated with King David and his royal line (God had promised the prophet Nathan that the throne of David’s “seed” would be established “for ever” [2 Samuel 7:12–13]). The conviction that a descendant of David would come to power as a wise and secure ruler ran deep in Jewish thought. According to another tradition, the Messiah would be a priest, and it appears from one text that the Essene community in Qumran may have been waiting for two Messiahs, one a king and one a priest. In neither case was a Messiah seen as divine; rather, he was a human being who had been exalted by God. 11
Many of the lives of Jesus that have appeared in recent years have tried to pin him down with a single epithet. Can he best be understood as a hasid, a Jewish holy man, or a prophet, “a magic man,” a miracle worker, a teacher, a “marginal Jew,” a peasant leader, even a revolutionary? Each has had its supporters, but Jesus does not fit neatly into any one category; perhaps he never did. Almost any statement of his views in one Gospel seems to be qualified or even contradicted by another, sometimes even from within the same Gospel. However, in an insight that does much to explain the continuing significance of Jesus to an enormous variety of Christian communities throughout the world, the theologian Frances Young notes: “Somehow he was all things to all men and broke down social, political and religious barriers . . . all manner of men found their salvation in him and were driven to search for categories to explain him, never finding any single one adequate.”12
Some features of Jesus’ personality can, however, be drawn unambiguously from the Gospel sources. He was highly charismatic; people were drawn to him by his personality and teaching, and herein lay much of his natural authority, but despite periods of withdrawal (and, according to the Synoptic Gospels, uneasy relationships with his mother and brothers [Mark 3:31–35]) he never distanced himself from his chosen followers or their modest way of life. He never, for instance, used his status so that he could avoid the discomforts of daily life on the road, and although there is some scholarly disagreement on this, he did not appear to give himself a privileged place above the Law. There is only one exception to this in the Gospels—when he required a man with a dead father to follow him rather than bury his father, as Jewish Law required (Matthew 8:21–22)—when he unambiguously put himself before the Law. He chose twelve special companions, the disciples, all from humble backgrounds, with the possible exception of Matthew the tax collector. They shared his life closely and probably received confidences denied to others (twelve is the number of tribes of Israel and may echo the belief that at the final judgment Jews would be reassembled according to their tribe, each with a leader), but he was not fussy about whom he mixed with and shocked some by consorting with tax collectors and prostitutes. When he preached he showed a genius for making his points in parables that were rooted not in some abstract spiritual world but in the reality of the everyday life of the small agricultural communities around him. This was the environment in which he was most “at home.” (Jesus appears to have some difficulty in spreading his message to the towns [Matthew 11:20].) His presence tended to have a beneficial effect on those who were ill, both mentally (inhabited by “demons”) and physically, so that the masses were drawn to him as a healer, and word spread of him effecting miracle cures. Belief in “miraculous” interventions of this kind was common in the ancient world, and they were interpreted as a sign of holiness. Other Jewish “holy men” were associated with miracle working, but Jesus’ effective use of miracles, especially exorcisms, was highlighted by his followers (notably Mark) and was to become one of the most common ways individual Christians later proclaimed their own distinct authenticity as those favoured by God.
Jesus had been brought up as a Jew and, like most Jews, knew the scriptures well. His immediate followers were almost without exception Jews, and his teaching made use of concepts that would have been recognizable to them. Much of his teaching took place in synagogues. He may not have foreseen his teaching spreading beyond the Jews—as he himself put it: “I was sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel and to them alone” (Matthew 15:24), although this may reflect the particular perspective of Matthew described above, and the saying comes just before the disciples persuaded Jesus to heal the daughter of a Canaanite. It can, of course, be argued that if he had departed far from traditional Jewish teaching within the conservative agricultural communities in which he preached, he would not have survived as long as he did. On one occasion he stressed the continuing importance of the Law, which, he claimed, he had come “not to abolish but to complete.” Paula Fredriksen establishes important guidelines for historians when she writes that “the prime goal of the historian is to find a first-century Jesus whose mission would make sense to his contemporary first-century [Jewish] hearers.”13 The question remains as to which “hearers” within the diversity of first-century Judaism Jesus was appealing. Those in the countryside suffering from encroachment on their land, taxation and pressures from Herod’s administrators appear the most likely, yet an allegiance by any leader to one group within Judaism was likely to lead to opposition from others, as Jesus’ difficulties with the conservative Pharisees and the elitist Temple authorities were to show.
Jesus’ message echoed John the Baptist’s in that he talked of the imminence of God’s kingdom. It is not always clear from the Gospel sources what he meant by this. Some passages, such as Luke 17:21, suggest that the kingdom has already arrived with the coming of Jesus, others that it will come some day in the near future, perhaps after some cataclysmic event. Many assumed that it would involve the appearance of a king of the house of David as the Messianic tradition had predicted, and one cannot isolate Jesus from the long-held Jewish belief that a providential God will in the end redeem humankind. Much of Jesus’ preaching about the coming of the kingdom is entirely positive in the sense that it talks of those who will be included rather than those who will not—but in some instances its arrival is set within the context of a “last judgment” at which the wicked will be punished at the same time as the good are rewarded. It seems impossible here to be sure of distinguishing Jesus’ own words from traditional Jewish Messianic teachings on “the end,” but it seems likely that the expectation of some major “happening” to come was among the forces which drew people to him. In this sense he can certainly be seen as a millennarian prophet.
The coming of the kingdom is set within the context of moral renewal. In Mark (10:13–27) Jesus teaches that at the coming of the kingdom worldly values will be overthrown; one would have to be without wealth and “like a little child” to be able to enter. This “social” message suggests that Jesus saw the coming of the kingdom as associated with the triumph of the outcast and perhaps with the restoration of traditional values that were under threat from outside forces (hence his stress on the importance of marriage and the honouring of parents—it has been noted that Jesus went further than traditional Jewish teaching in his strictures on divorce). Richard Horsley argues: “For the Jesus movement . . . the kingdom of God means the renewal of Israel, and the renewal of Israel means the revitalisation of families and village communities along the lines of restored Mosaic covenantal principles.”14 So, Horsley suggests, Jesus’ leadership role may have been rooted in and gained strength from the tensions within rural Galilean society.
As would be expected, Jesus drew heavily on Jewish ethical traditions. “Love thy neighbour as thyself,” for instance, often seen as a quintessential “Christian” exhortation, comes originally from Leviticus (19:18). His teachings on ethics were brought together, as already mentioned, by Matthew, in the famous Sermon on the Mount, with its particular focus on those marginalized by society (Matthew 5–7). Although this focus is found elsewhere (in the Essene text quoted above, for instance), Jesus followed it through by practical example. There is a powerful sense, in Mark in particular, of his own compassion for those around him. He does not perform “miracles” to show off, but primarily to bring an end to suffering, whether mental or physical. Particularly striking are the parables, in which outcasts (Samaritans, prodigal sons, lost sheep) are used to show that anyone can be “good” and that those who repent will be welcomed even more warmly than those who have not strayed at all (Luke 15).
Inevitably, Jesus’ followers also tried to pin labels on him. The “title” he used most often of himself was “Son of Man.” The phrase appears to have been used in the Synoptic Gospels when Jesus wished to avoid direct reference to himself—Geza Vermes suggests the equivalent in English of the modest “yours truly.” Yet in John’s Gospel the title is associated with the Book of Daniel, where it is linked specifically to hopes of a Messiah and eternal life. At times of social stress it was perhaps natural to hope that any charismatic leader might be the promised Messiah, and word that Jesus was indeed the Messiah seems to have spread among his followers (and, understandably, given rise to stories that he was therefore “of the House of David”). It is not clear from the Gospel sources whether Jesus accepted Messiah status (suggestions that he did may well have been added by the Gospel writers at a time when the later Christian communities had come to believe that he was). After a long consideration of the evidence, two authorities on the Jewish roots of Christianity, E. P. Sanders and W. D. Davies, conclude: “It seems likely that the one who urged others to give up everything for the kingdom claimed for himself no title or position, except the position of one who bore a message from God, the acceptance or rejection of which would be crucial when the fullness of the kingdom arrived.”15 It has to be said that this remains a contentious area, and other commentators are convinced that Jesus proclaimed himself as Messiah while on earth.
Whatever he may have claimed to be, Jesus was bound to provoke reaction from the authorities. He was a highly popular leader, and although he never appears to have counselled any kind of active resistance to the governing group, crowds following charismatic men who appear to have miraculous powers are always a concern to authorities, especially at times of social unrest. Herod Antipas had already, after all, executed John the Baptist, whose teachings on the coming of the kingdom he appears to have seen as insurrectionary. There was also the underlying antagonism of local Pharisees, who were understandably wary of any teacher who claimed to have his own interpretation of the Law. In particular, Jesus’ teaching that sinners would be welcomed in heaven even if they have not repented through the making of a sacrifice offended traditionalists. 16
Clearly Jesus was vulnerable, and it may have been a growing sense of insecurity that drove him with his immediate followers from Galilee into the Roman province of Judaea, perhaps in A.D. 30 (although other dates between 29 and 33 have been proposed), and then to Jerusalem, where they arrived in time for the feast of the Passover. (John, however, suggests that Jesus had made several previous journeys to Jerusalem, as indeed would have been expected of a conventional Jew.) However, the journey to Jerusalem may also have been deliberately planned as the next step in his ministry, the culmination of his mission, even to the extent of bringing him into confrontation with the Temple authorities. Jesus’ arrival was certainly greeted in the city as if it were about to inaugurate some kind of political or religious transformation in fulfillment of ancient prophecies. He rode in on a donkey as if to fulfill the prophecy that “a king” would enter Jerusalem on a donkey (Zechariah 9:9), and according to Mark (11:9) the crowd shouted, “Blessings on the coming kingdom of our father, David.” In Matthew (21:9) the crowds actually call Jesus “Son of David.”
As the great crowds of pilgrims in Jerusalem gathered for the Passover, the tension can only have been raised by the presence, with his troops, of the Roman governor Pontius Pilate, who had come inland from Caesarea, the seat of Roman government of the province, to make sure that order was maintained. This year there had already been trouble, some form of insurrection within the city, and one of its leaders, Barabbas, was in custody and facing almost certain execution. The official responsible to the Romans for good order was Caiaphas, the high priest. Now in his twelfth year of office, he was highly experienced and must have been a consummate political operator to have maintained the support of the Jews for so long while at the same time satisfying his Roman overlords. Pilate, who, as we have seen, had already shown himself to be erratic, cruel and insensitive to Jewish feeling, would have required very careful handling.
So then, among the mass of pilgrims, arrives an itinerant preacher from Galilee, an outsider who brings his followers, with their distinctive accents, with him. He enters on a donkey with the crowds shouting that he is perhaps the Messiah, or at least a member of “the House of David.” In itself, his arrival might have been containable, but then comes the incident that tips the balance, Jesus’ entry into the Temple, where he overthrows the tables of the money lenders and may have spoken of the later destruction of the Temple. There is no hint in the Gospel accounts that any of Jesus’ followers were involved with him in this, understandably perhaps in view of the immense significance the Temple held for Jews. What Jesus meant to achieve by this provocative action has been endlessly debated. His gesture may have been a symbolic one, a recognition of the passing of the old order—and the Temple with it—at the coming of “the new kingdom,” but he may also have had the more overtly political aim of expressing popular disquiet with the ruling elite. The intrusion was too threatening for the priests to overlook, and Caiaphas had little option but to take the initiative in dealing with it. There could have been many motives for his action—fear that disorder would spread if Jesus was not dealt with promptly, a need to be seen to be supporting his fellow priests in the Temple at one of the most sacred moments in the year when good order was essential, even a desire to show Pilate that he could act decisively if he needed to. John specifically notes that one of the fears of “the chief priests and Pharisees was that Jesus’ teachings would bring Roman retaliation” (John 11:46–48), and if so Caiaphas had little alternative.17 There may have been other motives. The crowds in Jerusalem were restless and might be more so if Barabbas was executed. It could be that Caiaphas decided to exploit the custom that a prisoner be set free at Passover to release Barabbas, thus avoiding the displeasure of the local crowds, while offering Jesus to the Roman authorities in his place as evidence that the Jewish authorities were committed to good order. “It was Caiaphas who had suggested to the Jews, ‘It is better for one man to die for the people,’ ” notes John in his Gospel (18:14). So the chief priests and the elders “persuaded the crowd to demand the release of Barabbas and the execution of Jesus” (Matthew 27:20). In short, Jesus the outsider was being used by the authorities in their quest for overall good order within the city.
Having decided to offer Jesus for execution, Caiaphas’ problem was finding a reason for doing so; the varied debates outlined in the Gospels show that this was not easy. Attempts were made to make Jesus incriminate himself through admitting he was the Messiah or “the Son of God,” and stress was laid on the disorder he was provoking. Eventually he was handed over to Pilate, who acquiesced in the accusation that Jesus had called himself “King of the Jews” and ordered the crucifixion. It seems likely that Pilate saw Jesus’ mission primarily as a political issue—there is also evidence from John’s account that he was influenced by threats of disorder from the crowd and fears that he would be denounced as disloyal to the emperor if he did not crucify Jesus (19:12–16). As we have seen, “good” emperors recognized that it made more sense to replace an unpopular governor than risk stirring up a major popular revolt. In the light of his unhappy experiences early in his rule, Pilate was probably acutely vulnerable to such threats. With such powerful considerations in mind, it is unlikely that a man so apparently insensitive would have hesitated long over ordering another crucifixion.
One remarkable thing about the trial and execution of Jesus is that neither the Jewish nor the Roman authorities followed it up with a move against Jesus’ followers. There was no action on the suspicion that Peter was one of his adherents, and the disciples were left free to visit his tomb without hindrance. This tends to support the view that Caiaphas kept his response to Jesus to the minimum necessary (and also that it was Jesus’ solitary intrusion into the Temple that was the catalyst for his arrest). Caiaphas presumably gauged, rightly as it turned out, that the Romans and the Temple officials would be satisfied with Jesus’ crucifixion, and that he would not be faced with further disruption.
What Caiaphas could not have foreseen was the aftermath of the death for Jesus’ followers. A charismatic leader who had made great promises of the coming of God’s kingdom for the poor, who might even be the Messiah and thus royalty, come in triumph to Jerusalem to establish his rule, had been swept aside by the Roman administration backed by the Jewish hierarchy as if he had been no more than a minor political nuisance. One of his followers (Judas) had betrayed him, and the others had dispersed. One can only begin to imagine the psychological devastation of the disciples. Those close to him had spent months with him, sharing the dangers of the road and the tension of opposition, dealing with the crush of crowds and the emotional power of his teachings, a range of experiences unlike any they could have undergone before. His execution brought much more than the shock and emptiness of any sudden and unexpected death of a close companion. With the loss went the apparent destruction of all their hopes for the coming of the promised kingdom. The ritual humiliation inherent in crucifixion, the stripping naked and very public death agony, was particularly devastating. The point was underscored by the label on the cross, INRI, Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews. We are familiar with the image of the crucifixion now, but for nearly 400 years Christians could not bring themselves to represent Jesus nailed on the cross.18
The resurrection experiences reported in the Gospels and the letters of Paul have to be set within the context of this trauma and despair. As might be expected from the circumstances, the accounts of these experiences are confused and contradictory. Mark ends his original account with the empty tomb, and it seems that it was not until the second century that his version of Jesus’ appearances was added. In his account Jesus appears first to Mary Magdalene, then to two of the disciples, then to all eleven “at table” before being taken up to heaven. (Mark does not make clear where these appearances take place.) Matthew reports one appearance near the tomb and then a single meeting with the eleven disciples at a mountain in Galilee, where Jesus had agreed to meet them. In Luke Jesus’ appearances all occur in or near Jerusalem, but Jesus is not always immediately recognizable (24:16). John also credits Mary Magdalene with the first vision and reports two appearances to the gathered disciples in Jerusalem as well as one at the Sea of Galilee.
Separate from the Gospel accounts is that of the Apostle Paul. Paul had received a vision of Jesus as a blinding light on the road to Damascus, but he later returned to Jerusalem to meet Jesus’ disciples. (According to Galatians 1:18, he was there with Peter for fifteen days.) The date, perhaps in the mid 30s, is not certain, but what is important is that Paul had direct contact with Peter only a few years after Jesus’ crucifixion, and he records his own interpretation of the resurrection in the early 50s, at least twenty years before the Gospels or any other surviving sources. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul tells how it was Peter who experienced the first appearance, then the twelve disciples, then a meeting of 500, next James and then the Apostles and finally Paul himself, an appearance which Paul, doubtless wishing to reinforce his authority (hotly disputed as it was) with the Corinthians, equates with those earlier ones. Mary Magdalene is not mentioned, and one wonders whether this appearance to a “mere” woman was deliberately obliterated by either Peter or Paul. But what did Paul understand as having been seen? He goes on in his letter to stress the difference between the perishable human body and the body in which Jesus appeared, so it can be assumed that he believed that the resurrected Jesus was not a resuscitated corpse but some kind of spiritual being. In John’s much later account, Jesus is able to pass through closed doors and to disappear into heaven. The first appearance of Jesus (by the tomb) and the last (the Ascension) take place in or near Jerusalem. Yet Jesus was also seen in Galilee. There is no record of any journey there or back. This suggests a series of distinct and unconnected apparitions and not Jesus living on earth as if his body had simply been restored to life.19
In Matthew, John (chapter 21), and possibly Mark’s account, the disciples initially went home to Galilee, but they returned to Jerusalem, probably in the belief that the promised kingdom would still materialize there. From this time, when they strike out as independent preachers, one can call them Apostles, “those who are sent,” and their activities are recorded in the Acts of the Apostles (whose author is, according to tradition, Luke, author of the third Gospel). It is certainly true that the imminent arrival of the kingdom dominated their thoughts, and under the leadership of Peter they began preaching their continued belief in Jesus and his promised return. As the followers of a man who had been condemned to death, they were under suspicion and experienced some harassment. However, they still saw themselves as part of Judaism, continued to frequent the Temple and observe Jewish rituals. As the second coming failed to materialize, they began to reflect on how Jesus could be interpreted within Jewish tradition. The idea that he might have been divine was too much for any Jew to grasp, as it was completely alien to any orthodox Jewish belief, but Jesus could be seen as one through whom God worked (as with the earlier Jewish prophets) and who had been exalted by God through his death. Peter put it as follows (Acts 2:22–24): “Jesus the Nazarene was a man [sic] commended to you by God by the miracles and portents and signs that God worked through him when he was among you . . . You killed him, but God raised him to life, freeing him from the pangs of Hades [Sheol, the underworld].” Jesus was still referred to as the Messiah, but how could he be accepted as a Messiah when his earthly life had ended not in the prophesied triumph but in tragedy? The only possible way to explain the crucifixion was to draw on different prophecies. The prophet Isaiah talks, for instance, of a servant of God who was “torn away from the land of the living, for our faults struck down in death. If he offers his life in atonement . . . he shall have a long life and through him what God wishes will be done” (53:8–10). Such texts were used by Christians to create the idea of a “suffering Messiah,” who had died for the sins of mankind. This was very far from the most popular interpretation of Messiah as one coming in triumph, but it was enough for Jesus’ followers to be able to call him Christos, the anointed one. The first recorded use of “Christians” to describe Jesus’ followers comes not from Jerusalem but from Antioch in Syria (Acts 11:26).20
If we return to the question of whether the historical Jesus can be identified, the answer must be “only with the greatest difficulty.” Although this chapter has tried to set out what appear to be the developments in his life and the elements of his teaching about which there is some consensus, virtually every point will still be challenged by one scholar or another. Jesus’ charisma, the brutality of his death and stories of a resurrection had such an impact that they passed quickly into myth, and this myth was soon being used by those committed to his memory in a wide variety of ways. (The word “myth” is used here not pejoratively but as the expression of a living “truth” that can function, as it certainly has done in Jesus’ case, at different levels for different audiences. Apart from Christianity itself, the impact of Jesus can be gauged from the number of spiritual movements outside Christianity—Gnosticism, followers of theos hypsistos, Manicheism and, later, Islam—that recognized him as a spiritual leader.) No one can be sure where the boundary between Matthew (and the other Gospel writers) and Jesus’ original words should be drawn. This left and still leaves Jesus’ life, death and teachings open to a wide variety of interpretations and uses by those who followed him. Nevertheless, the trend in recent scholarship towards relating Jesus to the tensions of first-century Galilee, in particular as a leader who appealed to the burdened peasant communities of the countryside and reinforced rather than threatened traditional Jewish values, has much to support it.
As Christian communities established themselves, it was perhaps inevitable that there would be tensions between those who remained traditional Jews, focusing on the Temple, and those who, perhaps drawing on Jesus’ prophecy of the Temple’s destruction, were more openly hostile to the Temple and all that it represented symbolically in terms of wealth and power. The Acts of the Apostles tell of one Stephen, a Hellenized Jew, who took the provocative line that the Temple should never have existed at all and that the God of Jesus stood independently of it (Acts 7). These assertions were treated by the Jews as blasphemy. Stephen was stoned to death and thus earned himself a revered place within the Christian tradition as the first martyr. Acts records that a man called Saul, or Paul as he was to become better known,21 watched over the outer clothes of those who carried out the stoning.