In Search of the Historical Jesus

As you want people to treat you, do the same to them. If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even tax collectors love those who love them, do they not? And if you embrace only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Doesn’t everybody do that? If you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even wrongdoers lend to their kind because they expect to be repaid. Instead, love your enemies, do good, and lend without expecting anything in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of God.
– The Book of Q

[Jesus’s] ecstatic vision and social program sought to rebuild a society upward from its grass roots but on principles of religious and economic egalitarianism, with free healing brought directly to the peasant homes and free sharing of whatever they had in return. The deliberate conjunction of magic and meal, miracle and table, free compassion and open commensurality, was a challenge launched not just at Judaism’s strictest purity regulations, or even at the Mediterranean’s patriarchal combination of honor and shame, patronage and clientage, but at civilization’s eternal inclination to draw lines, invoke boundaries, establish hierarchies, and maintain discriminations. It did not invite a political revolution but envisaged a social one at the imagination’s most dangerous depths. No importance was given to distinctions of Gentile and Jew, female and male, slave and free, poor and rich. Those distinctions were hardly even attacked in theory; they were simply ignored in practice.
– John Dominick Crossan, The Historical Jesus

In this essay I intend to convey some thoughts about the origins of Christianity and the historical Jesus. But before doing so I should first confess that for me this subject carries no slight emotional charge. I grew up in a Midwestern Protestant household and attended church throughout my youth (though at about age twelve I began to question the religious teachings with which I was being indoctrinated); meanwhile, the rest of my family was beginning a slow drift toward evangelical fundamentalism. For years afterward I was torn between the desire to escape the tight-lipped Puritan ethic and unreasoning faith of my parents, and the need to validate at least a fragment of their beliefs in order to maintain a thread of connection with them and to feel that there was something right about the spiritual context in which I had been raised.

This latter need led me to embrace, for many years, a New Age version of Christianity that regarded Jesus not as the only son of God, but as the spiritual point of focus for our particular planet, a significant member of a cosmic hierarchy of god beings. Increasingly, however, I’ve felt compelled to examine even these liberalised beliefs in the light of reason and experience: before I regard Jesus as the spiritual point of focus for myself and for the world, should I not put forth some effort to learn whatever facts exist concerning his teachings, his life, and how various beliefs about him originated?

At the same time, my ongoing study of the history of civilisation has led me to conclude that in very many cases Christianity has exerted a force in the direction of intolerance, the concentration of power, and the suppression of free thought. This is certainly the case in America today, where the Christian Right is villainising gays, feminists, environmentalists, and “godless humanists,” while working to protect and expand the rights of powerful corporations to undermine traditional cultures and to pillage ecosystems. The fundamentalists plead for “family values” while promoting ideas and institutions that are actively destroying the cultural medium in which healthy communities and families thrive. What is worse, I see my own relations enthusiastically contributing (by way of the evangelical ministries of Pat Robertson and his brethren of the TV pulpit) not only to hatred and atrocities in the world today, but to what will almost surely be a biological catastrophe of unprecedented scope in the century ahead. For me, this painful personal circumstance only intensifies the importance of determining, to whatever extent is possible, the truth of Jesus.

Decoding the Gospels

The search for the historical Jesus has been going on for more than a century now, and anyone who embarks on even a cursory study of the findings of New Testament scholars quickly discovers a glaring disparity: while the scholars have been making important discoveries about the gospels, their sources, and the history of first-century Palestine, the average church-going layman knows virtually nothing at all about these findings. It is easy enough to find parties to blame for this situation – the clergy, for wishing to spare their parishioners the possibility of confusion or loss of faith; the flock themselves, for preferring comfortable beliefs over unfamiliar new information; and the scholars themselves, for maintaining an aloof position that says to the layman, “You have no right to an opinion about the historical Jesus because you have not acquired the necessary intellectual tools; only specialists are entitled to pass judgment in this matter.” And so we have two groups growing ever further apart as time goes on: on one hand, millions of faithful Christians for whom evidence is irrelevant and faith is everything, of whom many regard every word of the Bible as historically accurate; and on the other, a small coterie of academics, and their readers, who are intent on following the evidence wherever it leads regardless of its agreement or disagreement with received teachings.

The scholars (who include historians, archaeologists, anthropologists, linguists, and literary experts) have approached the New Testament the same way they would any other piece of ancient writing, directing their efforts simultaneously along two lines: first, the literary analysis of the gospels and of related texts, including the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi scrolls (What do they have in common? In what ways are they different? When were they written and by whom? What sources did the authors draw upon?); and second, historical studies of events and characters and anthropological research into their cultural context (What religious ideas, philosophies, and myths were current in the Near East during the first century? What was the political and social situation in Palestine? What were the cultural backgrounds of the people mentioned in the narratives?).

Today most textual analysts agree that the earliest stratum in the Jesus literature is comprised of the genuine sayings of the master. The Jesus Seminar – an ongoing collaboration of eminent New Testament scholars seeking to determine the most probably authentic teachings of Jesus – has helped somewhat to clarify the conclusion that most independent investigators had already reached: that the authors of the canonical gospels (which were written several decades after the events they describe, and almost certainly not by the individuals to whom they are attributed) each drew upon a lost so-called sayings gospel. Known by the scholars as “Q” (for Quelle, German for “source”), this text was recently reconstructed and published by Burton Mack of Claremont College in his popular book The Lost Gospel: The Book of Q and Christian Origins. Scholars may still dispute the authenticity of individual sayings, but the gist of Jesus’s original message, which we will explore below, seems clear enough.

The narrative biography of Jesus contained in the gospels is another matter, however. Clearly, some elements were derived from mythical sources. We know, for instance, that Mithras (a Syrian hero-god whose cult was popular throughout the Roman Empire during the first century) was believed to have been born in the company of shepherds and to have shared a last supper with his followers, later commemorated by them in a communion of bread and wine. Mithraism also taught the immortality of the soul and a future judgment and resurrection of the dead. The idea of a god who dies in order to save, redeem, or give life to the world had antecedents not only in the mythic biography of Mithras, but those of Osiris, Attis, Adonis, and Tammuz as well. Even the ascension story easily fits a mythic type well known during this period: all admired Roman emperors were said to have ascended to heaven after their deaths; as Morton Smith (author ofThe Secret Gospel and Jesus the Magician) tells us, “By the early second century there was a regular ritual to assure the ascension. Augustus’s ascension was attested to the senate by the sworn witness of a Roman Praetorian.”

But there is disagreement over just how much of the biography is history and how much is myth. Burton Mack argues that we must assume that everything but the sayings is myth; he writes: “The first followers of Jesus did not know about or imagine any of the dramatic events upon which the narrative gospels hinge. These include the baptism of Jesus; his conflict with the Jewish authorities and their plot to kill him; Jesus’ instruction to the disciples; Jesus’ transfiguration, march to Jerusalem, last supper, trial, and crucifixion as king of the Jews; and finally, his resurrection from the dead and the stories of an empty tomb. All of these events must and can be accounted for as mythmaking in the [early] Jesus movements….” On the other hand, Morton Smith and John Dominick Crossan (author of The Historical Jesus and Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography) accept at least some of the narrative material as factual; Smith contends, for instance, that the miracle stories resemble reports of the works of itinerant magicians known to have flourished throughout the Near East during the time in question, and proposes that Jesus was merely an example of the type.

Who Was Jesus?

Which brings us to the question, Who was the utterer of these sayings on which so great a religion was built?

One of the most radical interpreters of the evidence, G.A. Wells of the University of London, argues that Jesus did not exist as a historical person, but was invented by a group of first-century proto-Christians who merely expanded upon certain passages in 2 Isaiah and the Wisdom of Solomon describing a supernatural entity sent by God into the world as a man. However, most scholars dispute this interpretation, concluding instead that the number and character of early references to Jesus establish his historicity beyond doubt. And most agree that the evidence portrays him as a remarkable, charismatic individual.

But to grasp, to any significant degree, how Jesus’s cont-emporaries viewed him, we must first try to understand the context of the place and times in which he lived. During the first few decades of the first century, Palestine was a centre of religious and political ferment. The Hellenistic culture that had come to dominate the eastern Mediterranean region during the previous three hundred years had also profoundly affected Jewish society, and foreign myths, cults, and philosophies were current in the land. Politically, Palestine was under Roman domination, and the Jews were a repressed and exploited people whose aspirations for independence would erupt in the war of 66-73 c.e.

Anthropologists and historians agree that revelatory world-views tend predictably to spring from situations of intense social conflict and crisis. Such revelations take forms appropriate to the unique circumstances of time and place. In the case in point, according to Mack, “One important phenomenon of the Greco-Roman age was the appearance of the religious and philosophical entrepreneur, sometimes called the divine man, sometimes the sophist or sage. The entrepreneur stepped into the void left vacant by the demise of traditional priestly functions at the ancient temple sites and addressed the confusion, concern, and curiosity of people confronted with a complex world that was felt to be at the mercy of the fates.” In addition to freelance visionaries and prophets, the eastern Mediterranean during the first century was also home to magicians, protesters, bandits, messiahs, and revolution-aries. Jesus seems to have fit well into this milieu.

As we have already noted, Morton Smith sees Jesus primarily as a magician or miracle worker. Smith cites magical texts of the period, in which not only the major elements but even many minor details in the gospel stories find parallels. For example, he sees the eucharist as “a variant form of an attested magical rite for binding the celebrant and the recipient together in love; a number of other forms are found in magical papyri; the verbal parallels are unmistakable.”

In The Messianic Legacy, authors Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln argue that Jesus was in fact the rightful heir to the throne of David – hence his triumphal entry into Jerusalem and Pilate’s insistence on having the inscription “King of the Jews” affixed to the cross. They also emphasise Jesus’s role as a political agitator: Why, after all, would Pilate have dispatched (according to the Vulgate translation) a cohort of five or six hundred soldiers to the garden of Gethsemane to arrest Jesus, unless he anticipated a civil disturbance? Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem and driving of the moneychangers from the Temple can likewise be seen as acts of an insurrectionist.

Burton Mack, who puts more weight on Jesus’s sayings and less on the details of his biographies, tends to view him as a wandering wisdom teacher in the tradition of Diogenes the Cynic. The Cynics taught the renunciation of desires and appetites imposed by civilisation, equality among people, and the virtue of a natural life free from social conventions and possessions. In modern parlance, the term cynical is fraught with negative connotations; these, however, can be traced to an unfair caricature of a school of courageous philosophers known, in Mack’s words, for “voluntary poverty, renunciation of needs, severance of family ties, fearless and carefree attitudes, and troublesome public behavior.” Cynicism, according to Crossan, “involved practice and not just theory, life-style and not just mind-set in opposition to the cultural heart of Mediterranean civilization, a way of looking and dressing, of eating, living, and relating that announced its contempt for honor and shame, for patronage and clientage.” Jesus’s sayings closely parallel Cynic teachings; and, in the Hellenistic era, the philosophy of Diogenes would likely have been well known in Galilee. But Jesus, as a Jewish peasant Cynic, seems to have added a unique and significant twist to the established tradition: unlike the urban Greek Cynics, he advocated the formation of a rural social movement.

So, whence comes the image of Jesus as the only Son of God, the second Person of the Trinity, forgiver of sins, hearer of prayers? Was this how Jesus thought of himself? Was it how his first followers viewed him? The historical and textual evidence gives us no reason for thinking that it was, and offers instead an account of how and why these ideas came into currency decades or centuries after the period in question.

But what of millions of people’s dreams, visions, and NDE encounters with Jesus; what of miraculous conversions and healings, of prayers answered and lives changed? Perhaps these should be accorded precisely as much legitimacy and significance as, for example, an Australian native shaman’s experience of totemic ancestral spirit-beings; an early Egyptian’s experience of Osiris; or a West African peasant’s experience of Legba. Which is to say: the experience is no doubt real, and in many cases the healings and miracles may also be real – all products of the human mind’s extraordinary need for symbols of transcendence, and of its ability both to generate meaningful and internally consistent world views, and to alter its own perceptions and the physical body’s abilities and state of health and vigour in order to fit those views.

The Teachings of Jesus

Now we arrive at a central question: What was the message that Jesus sought to convey? Burton Mack summarises some of the significant themes in the reconstructed sayings gospel:

• Voluntary poverty
• Lending without expectation of return
• Critique of riches
• Etiquette for begging
• Etiquette for troublesome encounters in public
• Nonretaliation
• Rejoicing in the face of reproach
• Severance of family ties
• Renunciation of needs
• Call for authenticity
• Critique of hypocrisy
• Fearless and carefree attitude
• Confidence in God’s care
• Single-mindedness in the pursuit of God’s kingdom

Again and again, Jesus exhorts his followers to seek the kingdom of God – a metaphor for an alternative social order in which people live according to nature, free and equal. The idea of God in the earliest core of sayings is of a universal power – or “father” – that “makes his sun rise on the evil and the good,” that “sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” “Be merciful even as your Father is merciful”; “If God puts beautiful clothes on the grass … won’t he put clothes on you? Your father knows that you need these things.” Jesus was, according to Crossan, “neither broker nor mediator but, somewhat paradoxically, the announcer that neither should exist between humanity and divinity or between humanity and itself. Miracle and parable, healing and eating were calculated to force individuals into unmediated physical and spiritual contact with God and unmediated physical and spiritual contact with one another. He announced, in other words, the brokerless kingdom of God.” Most scholars agree that some of the sayings attributed to Jesus are later additions; these include apocalyptic warnings about the Final Judgment, pronouncements against the Pharisees, pronouncements against towns that reject the movement, congratulations to those that accept the movement, the lament over Jerusalem, and the story of the temptations in the wilderness.

It is possible to trace, via shifts in discourse in the added material, just how the early Jesus community developed. At the earliest layer, according to Mack, “the discourse … was playful and the behavior public. Individuals were challenging one another to behave with integrity despite the social consequences. … If we ask about the character of the speaker of this kind of material, it has its nearest analogy in contemporary profiles of the Cynic-sage.” Then, in the next layer of sayings, “selected imperatives were elaborated as community rules … Jesus’ voice was now that of a founder-teacher giving instructions for the manner of life that should characterize his school.” We see the beginnings of social conflict surrounding the movement. By degrees, the voice of Jesus is made to utter things that only the wisdom of God could have known. The last layer of sayings dates from immediately after the Roman-Jewish war. According to Mack, “A retreat took place from the vigor with which these people had engaged their social environment to a kind of resignation, an acceptance of the fact that the rule of God was a matter of personal and ethical integrity. An amazing accommodation seems to have been made with a Jewish piety against which earlier battles had been fought. And Jesus was heard quoting the scriptures even though he was now imagined as the son of God whose kingdom would only be revealed at the end of time.”

In the earliest level of sayings we hear Jesus preaching, “How fortunate are the poor; they have the kingdom”; “Everyone who glorifies himself will be humiliated, and the one who humbles himself will be praised.” He is proposing a social experiment – a classless society in which all are equal in the sight of God. It is a society governed not by power and wealth, nor by rigid laws, but by charity and kindness.

An Unholy Alliance

Jesus’s egalitarian social philosophy has special relevance for us now, living as we do in one of the most polarised and stratified societies in history. Indeed, today’s multinational corporate-dominated industrial system owes much to institutions and practices pioneered by the Roman empire. Like twentieth-century America and Europe, first-century Rome was at a pinnacle of economic and technological “progress.” It was a colonial power, the centre of a far-flung trade network. It was also an urban centre in which extremes of wealth and poverty coexisted. Like the European colonists of the past five centuries, the Romans were destroyers of indigenous cultures and voracious consumers of natural “raw materials” (such as forests); and like us, they relied upon unsustainable, soil-killing farming practices. While the earliest reconstructed collection of Jesus’s sayings does not mention Satan, it does suggest the idea that the pursuit of power and glory is at the heart of social evils. And in later additions to the sayings gospel, in which the devil (literally, “the accuser”) makes his first appearance, he clearly serves as the personification of institutionalised social dominance.

The new scholarship portrays the historical Jesus as an anti-authoritarian, a primitivist, and an anarchist. According to Crossan, the earliest Jesus people were the equivalent of “hippies among the Augustinian yuppies.” Jesus’s message was a challenge to social power in all its manifestations. Yet within only a few generations that message had been twisted and co-opted almost beyond recognition. Through a gradual process of subversion, Christian teachings were first mythologised and then appropriated by the ruling elite of the Empire. As a result, Christianity has become a kind of time capsule in which are preserved fragments of Greek, Roman, and Near Eastern myths and philosophies, the theologies of Paul, Constantine, and Augustine, and the imperialist social program of ancient Rome. It is surely fair to say that most of this is virtually the opposite of what Jesus originally had in mind.

Of course, through it all the words of the Galilean sage have continued to shine: “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. Isn’t life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” And, where individuals or groups have drawn inspiration from this earliest layer of teachings, a St. Francis or a St. Clair has come forward to propose the sort of “liberation” or “creation” theology that Jesus himself might have embraced. But as an institution, Christianity eventually became the handmaiden of the capitalist industrial state, supplying the theological justification for colonialism and a work ethic for the factory system. Today, “fundamentalists” claiming to represent the true teachings of the Galilean promote an anti-environmental, anti-feminist, anti-gay, pro-corporate, pro-technology agenda utterly opposed to the message of modern-day prophets of social justice and voluntary simplicity. Surely this constitutes one of the bitterest ironies in all of history.

A New Church?

At the end of the twentieth century we stand on the brink of a global civilisation whose might and sophistication would have delighted a Roman emperor to no end. The wealthiest one percent of the world’s population live in unimaginable opulence while hundreds of millions exist near the point of starvation. If we are to understand the devil as being not an otherworldly malevolent being, but as the tendency toward the accumulation of political and economic power, then it appears that in our generation virtually the whole world is coming to be possessed by the devil.

In such circumstances, one cannot help but yearn for a new Christianity that would pay attention to the discoveries of the scholars and focus its interest on the lifestyle and social program that Jesus taught and exemplified, rather than the theology his later followers adopted. Such a denomination or church could serve as a foil for the fundamentalists and as a haven for critics of the power system who are increasingly vulnerable to attacks from the neo-fascist Right.

And yet, seeing how easily ideologies and organisations are subverted, perhaps a new church is precisely what we do not need. It’s probably safe to say that Jesus did not wish to create a church of any kind. He seems to have envisioned instead a community of spirit. But when even well-intentioned attempts to form such a community result in the building of any sort of formal organisation, then the corrosive, hierarchical influence of civilisation seems nearly always to intrude. Moreover, a new Christian denomination could not help but focus much of its attention on the past, and on the person of Jesus. Again, this is probably not what he had in mind: it was only the later generations of his followers who insisted on uniquely divinising him. And hero worship, even given the best of heroes, tends to demean the worshipper. Jesus has not been the only individual in history to teach love, tolerance, equality, simplicity, voluntary poverty, generosity, and freedom from social conventions, and there are plenty of advocates of these ideals alive today who could benefit from our respect and support.

No, it is not a new church or denomination that we need. I suspect that one of the ideas that Jesus was seeking to convey was that true spirituality is not represented by a book or a hero or even a teaching. It may be expressed by means of a community of support, but it is not the community itself. It is a way of being. Those with some experience of that way of being may find it helpful to know that one of the most revered individuals in history taught and exemplified it. And the existence of people following that path today may somewhat vindicate that pivotal individual’s actual message (rather than the theology that conceals it). But the path itself is the point.

This article was published in New Dawn 50.
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