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From Where Does Jesus Emerge? Part 2

September 7, 2013

There are at least two different approaches to Jesus in the New Testament – Paul’s and the Gospel writers’.

(We might say three, in that one Gospel, John, presents Jesus quite differently than the other three, as described in part 1 of this 3-part article.) Many people don’t know or often forget that Paul’s voice is the earlier one, at least in written form, by one to two decades at least.

English: This is a map of first century Iudaea...

English: This is a map of first century Iudaea Province that I created using Illustrator CS2. I traced this image for the general geographic features. I then manually input data from maps found in a couple of sources. Robert W. Funk and the Jesus Seminar. The Acts of Jesus. HarperSanFrancisco: 1998. p. xxiv. Michael Grant. Jesus: An Historian’s Review of the Gospels. Charles Scribner’s Sons: 1977. p. 65-67. John P. Meier. A Marginal Jew. Doubleday: 1991. p. 1:434. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Virtually all scholars, including the most conservative, believe we can dependably date at least 7 of the epistles (letters) under Paul’s name to about the 50s to early 60s CE, prior to the truly “game-changing” Roman war of 66-70.  A small minority of scholars believe one or more of the Gospels was written in the 60s or even earlier. The rest believe 70 is the earliest likely date for Mark; more likely between 70 and 75.  The other Gospels they see as written between then and the end of the first century or perhaps just into the second.

Why such uncertainty as to the dating of the Gospels? That is an important question in terms of our topic of the emergence of the story of Jesus.  It is a vital point, unknown to many Christians, that the brutal and earth-shattering war just mentioned took place before the Gospels were written.  It had “life-upending” impact on the relatively few surviving Jerusalem Jews, and all Jews of Israel and even of the Mediterranean cities where so many lived.  Jerusalem had been the headquarters of the earliest “church” (or of loyal Jews following Jesus).  During and after the war, no one is sure how many of the Apostles or others survived or where they went and perhaps regathered…. Of course groups to whom they were tied continued in places like Antioch to the north.  The book of Acts, written well after the war, does not carry its selective “history” of the church that far… an interesting fact!     

A couple of the main results of Jerusalem’s near total destruction in the war: Loss of their beloved Temple as center of not only worship but of politics and commerce (the Romans had allowed the Jews to still manage many of their own affairs and economy)…. Something like, though probably much worse than the USA losing both Washington DC and New York City at the same time.  So if this is not discussed directly or even clearly referred to in the Gospels or the rest of the New Testament, one has to wonder why.  Actually, it does appear that it is referred to in the Gospels, mainly as something predicted by Jesus, some of his words being advice about what to do when one sees the destruction coming.

So the Gospels do, to a limited degree and indirectly, present some of the major social, economic and religious upheaval of the war years and post-war period.  But they curiously do not present a picture of the high general tension and the smaller but serious rebellions going on from around the birth of Jesus (presumably about 4 BCE), through his lifetime and after, leading up to the major rebellion beginning in 66.  (To be complete, the book of Acts does give a little of this information, though not entirely consistent with our few other sources, mainly the writing of Josephus).  The lack of inclusion of historical specifics is one reason that the Gospels are hard to date at all precisely.  Add to this the fact that we lack not only the originals but even copies that can be dated close to the time of composition.

It is interesting that the Gospels do slip in a reference to an insurrection that many Christians look right past.  I did as well, for many years, despite a seminary education.  Have you noticed (or heard a sermon mentioning?) that the “thieves” crucified with Jesus, and the released Barabbas were actually rebels against Rome? They were taken prisoner in “the insurrection” (Mark 15:7 and related statements in the other Gospels).  This insurrection is never actually described but its inclusion indicates that Israel was a hotbed of unrest and resistance, both violent and non-violent (as in Jesus’ case), detailed in many pages by the Jewish historian Josephus, of the same era as the Gospel writers.

To return briefly to Paul’s picture of Jesus, it is one from which we get almost no information about his life beyond the conclusions of modern scholars (he lived, taught and healed, was crucified), with the vital addendum for Paul that he was “resurrected”.  (It is not clear exactly in what sense Paul viewed it as a physical resurrection, but he certainly saw it as real spiritually; and his emphasis was on Jesus’ appearances, after it, to him and many others.)  From there, Paul claims to have received new and powerful revelations (he was right about that, in their historical effects) about the significance of Jesus’ death and what it accomplished in “the spiritual realms”.  He claims not to have received this information from any human source.

So where this leaves us is not knowing much of the man Jesus from any source prior to at least 70, a good four decades after his crucifixion.  We don’t hear about who Jesus was (true lineage), what he did and said specifically, and such.  The writings of Paul do give us some indications as to how his followers took him, and the book of Acts does also… written by a “Luke” who also wrote the Gospel of Luke.  However, the two pictures of the beliefs and actions of Jesus’ immediate followers in Paul and in Luke do not always line up well, having key points of inconsistency and not a lot of overlap.  Paul’s statements about other believers, sometimes clearly the leaders or others from Jerusalem, but not always, are often a bit opaque, at least to us now.  But they certainly are sometimes contentious and accusatory, not admiring nor complimenting toward Jesus-followers outside his own sphere.

This, then, is a super-summarized version of the situation out of which the story of Jesus emerges, which we will go into further as to what is in the Gospels, in Part 3:

Israel had been occupied by Rome’s armies for several decades.  The direct oppression seems to have been mainly economic.  But with their economic, governmental and religious worlds all intertwined, the situation was highly complicated.  The kingly Herod line, the high priests and others (elites) were seen as collaborators with pagan Rome, hated by the majority of lower class Jews.  From both the Gospel stories themselves, and from reasonable inferences beyond them, it is hard to tell just how much the story of Jesus represents an attempt at political (as well as religious) liberation.

However, it makes great sense that his story would be re-cast at least somewhat, to reflect the fears and cautions of Jews in Israel itself, and beyond, of Roman recrimination for further hints of a new rebellion. The one just wrapped up in 70 (technically 73 at Masada) with the destruction of the core of Jewish society, its organizing center and Temple, had cost Rome dearly as well as Israel (the area of Judea more than Galilee to the north, but all the region).

Jesus is represented as a charismatic figure for sure.  At least a good part of this is no doubt accurate…  in the sense of the likelihood he was a powerful healer, a prophet-type speaker and perhaps an exorcist.  At least a portion of his preaching was probably in the style and general content of the “apocalyptic” tradition going back at least to the time of the Maccabees, who had led the throwing off of Greek rule a century before the Romans came.  But Israel’s liberation was not complete, the situation grown dire again under the Romans.  The apocalyptic preachers or “organizers” of resistance looked for the emergence of a human messiah, divinely appointed, along with supernatural intervention when the conditions were right.

Messianic claimants were not a few, and they often gathered armed followers only to be eventually caught or restricted to minor guerrilla action from remote areas.  There was nothing in Jewish Scriptures that was then read as their promised Messiah being divine. Such an idea was entirely foreign to their theology and to how they expected deliverance and elevation.  Apocalyptic hopes were not for the “end of the world” as we often think, but for its continuation, radically reoriented under the righteous rule of God, centered in Jerusalem and blessing the rest of the world through Jerusalem and the Jews.

Part 3 will go further into how this all, apocalyptic hopes and dismal reality, connects to the story of Jesus as it particularly shows up in Mark, apparently the earliest expanded written form. (This is allowing that what were probably shorter collections of mainly Jesus’ sayings that came earlier).

Any reflections or comments? 

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