(This is the fourteenth 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. Today’s post is the last of a two-part conclusion of the series.)
In searching for the historical Jesus, it helps to remember that we know much more about the object of our quest than ever before. Mid-twentieth century discoveries at the Palestinian locations Qum Ran and Nag Hamadi have yielded manuscripts that have acquainted scholars with previously unknown sources about Jesus. Just as importantly, developments in the fields of history, linguistics, and archeology have made us more knowledgeable about Jesus’ historical context than any previous generation. Acquaintance with such context constitutes actual knowledge about Jesus and the people with whom he interacted.
Similarly, the disciplines like sociology, economics, psychology, and political science have developed principles that describe how individuals within given networks typically act in particular circumstances. One such standard might be termed the “principle of analogy. It holds that: We should ordinarily expect to have happened in the past what routinely happens in the present as described by the social sciences. For instance, we know that Jesus grew up under Roman oppression. About the time of his birth, the recently unearthed capital of Galilee (Sepphoris – just six miles from Nazareth) was destroyed by Roman soldiers trying to wipe out insurgent patriots. Sociologists tell us (and imperial armies act upon this knowledge) that such wars of resistance end up involving virtually the entire local population. This means that Jesus and his family were likely involved as well. All such extra-biblical information helps us better understand the historical Jesus.
Such determinations also coincide with two interpretative guidelines that have emerged from third world scholarship over the last forty years or so. One standard is called the “preferential option for the poor.” The other is “the hermeneutical privilege of the poor.” Both signal a source of knowledge of the historical Jesus that is often neglected and even denigrated by mainstream biblical scholarship.
The option for the poor highlights the biblical fact that the God of the Bible in general and of the Christian Testament in particular takes sides with the poor in their ongoing struggle with the rich. In the Jewish Testament this taking sides is evident in two of what Jesus scholar, Marcus Borg, terms the tradition’s three “macro-stories.” These are the Bible’s primary stories that fired the imaginations of Jewish people and early Christians. They are the tales that gave coherence to their interpretations of life, their relationships with God, and of sacred scripture itself. The first two of these macro-stories tell of the Exodus and the Exile. The third is what Borg refers to as the Priestly Story.
Both the Exodus and Exile stories reveal God’s preference for the poor – 13 century slaves in Egypt and 6th century exiles in Babylon. They show God’s preference for slaves over their slave-masters and for prisoners of war over their captors. For its part, the priestly story prioritizes temple worship and the priesthood. It is a narrative of sin, guilt and forgiveness mediated by an ordained priesthood. The priestly story was the object of criticism by the prophets of the Jewish Tradition including Jesus of Nazareth.
Above all, the New Testament’s Jesus story is one of God’s preferential option for the poor. In that story God is understood as literally siding with the under-classes. First and foremost, it is no accident that the Divine chooses as its site of revelation a poor person rather than a figure of royalty or priesthood. Theologically and sociologically speaking, this point of incarnation represents God’s fundamental disclosure about divine commitment. Such commitment is underlined by the words and practice of Jesus as described in all the sources of the Christian Testament. In the gospel traditions, Jesus’ program consists in bringing Good News to the poor (Lk. 4: 16-21). The Kingdom of God, he insists, belongs to the poor and persecuted (Mt. 5: 3& 10). Moreover, the beneficiaries of Jesus’ acts of healing and exorcism are overwhelmingly the poor and outcast (Mk. 1: 41; 6:34; 8:2; Mt. 9:36; 14:14 15:21-28; 15:32; 17:14-29; 20:29-34; Lk. 7: 13-14, 17: 11-19 . . .). The Final Judgment will be based on one’s attitude and actions to relieve the sufferings of the hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, and imprisoned (Mt. 25: 31-46).
All of this means that God’s Chosen People are the poor. (Hebrew slaves in Egypt are merely the paradigmatic example of such divine preference.) What we know more than anything about the historical Jesus is his embodiment of God’s choice. Jesus is the symbol par excellence of the divine one’s preferential option for the poor. For our purposes here, this divine fundamental option provides an interpretative principle for locating the authentic words and deeds of the historical Jesus. Words and deeds attributed to Jesus’ favoring the poor over the rich are probably authentically his. Words and deeds placing the rich or privileged classes favorably must be interpreted in the light of their impact on the poor who are the primary beneficiaries of Jesus proclamation and practice.
God’s preferential option for the poor leads us to the second important tool of discernment. It is helpful not so much for locating the authentic words and deeds of Jesus but for interpreting them in his spirit – for getting at the underlying ideas and values of his words and actions. This is the principle of the hermeneutical privilege of the poor. This principle recognizes that the poor (i.e. our contemporaries closest in sociological position to the primary intended recipients of Jesus’ Good News) find themselves in a better position to interpret the words and deeds of Jesus than do the non-poor.
For example, when the well-to-do read Jesus’ words, “Blessed are you poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God” (Lk. 6:20), they are likely to unconsciously substitute Matthew’s less radical version (and therefore less likely to have come from the historical Jesus), “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 5:3). As a result, the well-off are prone to spiritualize even the surprising Lucan text. For them Jesus’ words become a promise of an after-life heaven for those who though rich are not attached to their wealth. However, when the poor read Luke’s words, they take it as a divine pledge that God is on their side in their struggles with the rich. Luke’s Jesus assures them that the future belongs to them precisely because they are poor, and that God’s kingdom will bring happiness to them and their children on this side of the grave.