Portrait of the Historical Jesus

(This is the seventh in a series of “mini-classes” on the historical Jesus. Together the pieces are intended to assist those who wish to “dig deeper” into the scholarly foundations of postmodern faith and to understand the methodology behind the postings on the blog site.)

Keeping in mind previous installments of this series (and especially the “principle of analogy” in its positive and negative meanings), the historical Jesus who emerges from contemporary Jesus scholarship looks something like the following.

He was a Galilean peasant from an extremely poor background.  He was born in Nazareth of Galilee, a community perhaps as small as two dozen families. He was the son of Mary and Joseph conceived and born in the same way all humans are.

Nothing is known of Jesus’ life before something like the age of 30, except for a few legends often associated in the ancient world with “Great Men.” The first “historical” event in the gospels is Jesus baptism by John the Baptist. There according to legend, Jesus received a “divine revelation” regarding his vocation to continue the movement started by John the Baptist and cut short by John’s execution at the hands of Galilean King Herod. In that sense Jesus became a movement founder in the tradition of John and the prophets. However his movement was not to found a new religion but to reform Judaism.

Jesus was himself a prophet, in Israel’s long tradition of holy men and women defending the widows, orphans, and immigrants. Jesus also became a great faith healer, an extraordinary teacher, and a mystic. Jesus’ mysticism endowed him with a high degree of God-consciousness that told him of his capacity to appropriate the divine nature that is essence of being human. His roles as prophet and movement founder are what got Jesus into trouble with Rome.

Jesus’ prophetic message was not about himself, but about the Kingdom of God whose dawning he (and his immediate followers) mistakenly thought would occur in their own generation. As understood by Jesus, the Kingdom of God referred to what the world would be like if God were king instead of Caesar. In God’s social organization, everything would be turned upside-down. The first would be last; the last would be first. The poor would laugh, and the rich would weep.  As such the kingdom was good news for the poor (“anawim” in the Jewish Testament). That news said that God was on their side.  It was in no way about the rich who are “poor in spirit.” In fact, the only way for the rich to enter the kingdom was for them to adopt the perspective of the poor, support them in their struggle against oppression, and to share their own wealth with the indigent.

In their efforts on behalf of God’s order, Jesus and his movement were involved with resistance to the Roman occupation of Palestine.  Nazareth’s geographical location and revolutionary context would also have brought Jesus into contact with Zealots. These were guerrilla rebels, assassins of Roman soldiers, and kidnappers whose campaign against the Roman occupiers championed a plan of agrarian reform and cancellation of debts based on the Mosaic Jubilee Year and Year of Grace. Jesus’ own program was certainly in agreement with the Zealots on many of these issues, especially his proclamation of a Year of Grace with its debt forgiveness, liberation of slaves, and return of properties to their original owners. This agreement would have attracted Zealot sympathizers to his movement. For instance, Simon “the Zealot” certainly belonged to the resistance movement (Lk. 6:15). Judas was also probably a Zealot. Additionally, Peter’s nickname “Bar Jona,” and the aliases of James and John (“Boanerges”) are seen by some as code names associated with the guerrilla movement.

Many women were prominent in the Jesus movement. Among them the foremost was Mary Magdalene, often defamed by jealous opponents (even among Jesus’ apostles) as a prostitute.  In reality, she was extremely close to Jesus, and may even have been his wife.

Jesus was not born to die according to some divine plan. Rather, he was killed by the Romans because of the revolutionary implications of his basic proclamation that the Kingdom of God was near or that “another world is possible.” Such revolutionary implications became especially clear to the Roman authorities after Jesus took part in a massive protest demonstration in the Jerusalem Temple against Jewish money changers, merchants and others seen as exploiters of their own people and/or as collaborators with the Roman occupiers. This “direct action” led to the Romans offering a reward for information leading to Jesus’ arrest. Soon Judas accepted that offer, and Jesus was captured in his garden hideout.  The Romans executed him with two other insurgents by means of crucifixion, a form of torture and death reserved for revolutionaries.

The resurrection experience of the early Christian community was also rooted in insurrection.  That is, the idea of immortality drew on the Book of Maccabees.  In the aftermath of the Maccabees’ rebellion against the Greek occupiers of Palestine, the mother of the Maccabees insisted that her sons could not die – that they were immortal. Similarly, the idea of Jesus’ resurrection began with women, not with Paul or Peter.  The women followers of Jesus refused to reconcile themselves to the death of Jesus. They were the first to recognize the truth of Jesus’ words, “Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in their midst,” and “Whatever you do to the least of the brethren, you do to me.”  Jesus, the women saw, had risen in the community of believers.

Though Jesus’ message was about the imminent arrival of a new social order in which God would be king instead of Caesar, his identity was changed by John and Paul in the Christian Testament. The titles emphasized there (“Lord,” “Christ,” “Son of God,” “Heavenly King”) raised the human Jesus to divine levels none of his followers perceived before the Easter event.

However the greatest transformation in the crucial passage “from Jesus to Christ” came in the 4th century, when the emperor, Constantine, attempted to harmonize Christianity with Roman religion, specifically with the cult of Mithra, the Sun God. In fact, there is much truth to the position that Constantine was the actual founder of the Church. He was the one who called the Council of Nicaea in 325. And Nicaea was responsible for canonizing an understanding of Jesus that was more Mithric than Christian.

That is the “Nicene Creed” ratified in 325 focused on Jesus’ life before his birth, and his life after death. The “middle” the part about his identification with and good news to the poor was left out. It was the Creed’s middle and the historical Jesus that were rescued by the movement called liberation theology.

Next week: Step Two in the Development of the Early Christian Tradition — The Resurrection

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 45 years. Three grown children. Six grandchildren.

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