Harvard Square Observer
The Search for the Historical Jesus
Editorial note: Ye Olde Observer is presently in London, the English London, enjoying the cultural activities - concerts, plays, etc. - of that great city. Okay! The cultural activities include sitting in his favorite pubs. But, be that as it may, while he is away, the HSC will be featuring columns from the past. He likes to think of them as “golden oldies.” Whether you agree, of course, is another matter!
The following was published in the 8 January 2006 HSC as an extended essay.
When my wife and I agreed to join others in a fact finding trip to Israel and Palestine, I was inspired to ponder again what we can know about the historical Jesus from the muddle of conflicting written sources and church traditions. And, once on the scene, our group led by a tourist guide, a Roman Catholic who had imbibed all of the traditions of the church, on several occasions I had to swallow hard, and bite my tongue, rather than interrupt him with skeptical questions based on my study of the sources with a historian’s perspective.
Our knowledge of Jesus is based on the gospels. In the Greek, in which the New Testament books were written, “gospel” means “good news.” Four of the gospels were popular enough with the churches in the Greco-Roman world that they made their way into the collection of Christian writings we refer to as the New Testament, to distinguish them from the Hebrew scriptures, which Christians refer to as the Old Testament. There were other gospels, however, only fragments of which have survived.
With the gospels in the New Testament, the alert reader has problems, for each author has his own interpretation of the character and career of Jesus. The Gospel According to Mark, despite its position as second in the New Testament, was the first to be written. It pictures Jesus as a wonder worker, who traveled through the countryside driving out foul, or evil, spirits from people, curing folks who were blind or crippled. And, his power was so great that he even had the ability to raise people from the dead. In the course of his travels, he taught some men and women who latched onto him, often illustrating his teachings with stories,
which we call parables.
The authors of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke used Mark as an outline, but, they had other sources, which allowed them to give a fuller idea of what Jesus taught. If one compares the first three gospels, one discovers that Matthew and Luke had many teachings Mark was unaware of. The 19th-century German scholars of the Higher Criticism of the Bible postulated that Matthew and Luke must have been drawing on a collection of teachings. They gave this conjectured document the name “Q,” from the German word Quelle, which means “spring,” or “source.” Some of the most familiar teachings came from “Q,” although Matthew and Luke often used the teachings in different settings. Just one example: The familiar “Sermon on the Mount” in Matthew is a “Sermon on the Plain” in Luke, and they do not completely agree on the content of the sermon. If one looks at the Sermon on the Mount closely, one has to conclude that it is a series of unconnected teachings strung together, inconceivable as a unified sermon.
In addition, both Matthew and Luke each had a source of teachings the other did not. For instance, the beautiful parables of the Lost Coin, the Lost Sheep, and the Lost (or Prodigal) Son, are found only in Luke.
Matthew’s is the most Jewish of the gospels, the author constantly likening Jesus’ actions to stories or sayings in the Old Testament. In other words, Jesus was fulfilling prophecies found in the Hebrew scriptures.
Luke, on the other hand, is less concerned to connect Jesus with the Hebrew scriptures, his view much more universal, picturing Jesus as motivated by kindness and concern for the people he met in his travels. In our day, we might liken him to a social worker!
The fourth of the gospels, of course, is that attributed to John. This is the most theological of the gospels. It is estimated that, where the first three gospels were written several generations after the death of Jesus circa A.D. 30, John was written well into the second century. The author is far removed from the Jewish land and world view in which Jesus lived, presenting him, rather, to a world of gentiles, with their very different world view. One has only to read the first few passages of John to see that he is concerned with Jesus as a god: “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and word was God.”
When believers read the gospels, they tend to blend them together in their minds. For instance, the birth stories at the beginning of Matthew and Luke are completely different. But, Christians seem not to notice that. They tend to like Luke’s version better than Matthew’s. Matthew, you remember, has Joseph and Mary flee with their child into Egypt, because of the evil designs of King Herod.
Christians prefer the pretty story of Joseph and Mary traveling to Bethlehem, supposedly because a Roman census required Joseph to register there. Because there was no room in the town inn, they moved into a stable, and, of course, pregnant Mary delivered her child there. (In Bethlehem, our guide showed us the grotto in which the family allegedly resided, and the very spot where Jesus was born!)
Why Bethlehem? Because that was the city of King David, and the early Christians wanted to picture Jesus as a descendent of David. The Magi, in Matthew’s version, and all of the details of the story, are designed to foreshadow a great career for the baby. Luke is much more democratic, having mere shepherds come to the scene of the birth.
Mark, the first of our gospels, knows nothing about Jesus’ birth. He begins his story when Jesus is a grown man. He knows nothing about Bethlehem and Jesus as a descendent of King David. Jesus, in his version, is the son of a carpenter, born and bred in Nazareth. Our guide, by the way, pointed out to us a grotto in Nazareth in which Joseph plied his trade. (In rocky Israel and Palestine, we discovered, there are many grottoes!)
When we try to understand Jesus, we have to realize that he spoke the Aramaic language, whereas the gospels were written in Greek. You know the saying, that much is lost in translation.
So, translators have a very difficult task. In our day, some folks refuse to surrender the so-called King James Version, often called the “Authorized Version,” although no one ever authorized it. It is true, that King James the First of England, who came south from Scotland, where he was King James the Sixth - thus the United Kingdom - tried to calm the disputes among Christians of the day by agreeing that a group of scholars should work on a translation.
The result was the only classic ever produced by a committee! The King James Version was published in 1611, and, along with Shakespeare, its magnificent prose set the standard for the English language.
As I say, even though some words have completely changed their meaning between the 17th century and today, some refuse to read anything but the King James Version. As the lady said, “If the King James Version was good enough for the Apostles, it is good enough for me!” But, if we want to get closer to the vigorous Greek in which the New Testament was written, we have to get over this hangup!
Not only are historians confronted with the problem that Jesus spoke in one language and
the gospels were written in another, they struggle to find historical nuggets in books that are not really biographies or histories, but books of propaganda. That is, propaganda in the classic sense of the word, seeking to propagate an idea - that is to convert people to Christianity - not to spread lies, as is so often done by governmental and business propaganda.
In dealing with the life of Jesus, inevitably one has to account for the belief that he rose from the dead. Many have attempted to rationalize the conflicting accounts in the gospels. Some, who have attempted to rationalize the resurrection stories, have suggested that Jesus was not really dead when he was taken down from the cross. The coolness of the tomb revived him.
But, of course, the Christian world generally has believed that he was dead and did come back to life. It is true that in his day, the Pharisees believed in the resurrection of the body, whereas the Sadducees did not. For myself, I believe that the touchingly beautiful story of the disciples who were walking to Emmaus, not far from Jerusalem, and their encounter with a man who so impressed them that, when they parted, they were convinced that he was the risen Jesus is the key. “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the scriptures?” The story is found in Luke [ch.24], although there is a brief reference to it in closing passages of Mark [ch. 16].
In attempting to understand the early Christian’s belief in the resurrection, we must remember that the religions of that day often featured gods who performed miracles, were born of virgins, and were resurrected. We are so far from that time that we tend to forget that those who propagated Christianity were competing with many other religions. Christians in our day are living in a sort of cocoon, looking back only to Judaism in the time of Jesus, and the rise of Christianity, and not being aware that they were just two of a multitude of religions. One has only to read the Iliad and Odyssey of Homer to get an idea of what it was like then. Homer not only tells us what the gods were up to on Mount Olympus, but, the more interesting parts of his books are when he recounts the hanky panky that the gods committed when they hobnobbed with men and women!
So, the most influential of all of the apostles, that is, St. Paul had much competition from other religions as he traveled across the Mediterranean world.
Paul, of course, was a johnny-come-lately to the group of Jews who were spreading this new Christian religion. Saul - that was his real name - had never known Jesus, and, indeed, began his career as a persecutor of the Christians. But, then, on the road to Damascus the most famous conversion in history occurred. Some have said that he suffered sun stroke and thought he heard Jesus calling out, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He, of course, believed that his Savior was speaking to him from the heavens. In any case, he became the most vigorous of all of the apostles, traveling far and wide in the Greco-Roman world. In essence, he was the real founder of Christianity, transforming a Jewish carpenter and teacher into a god. As much as we may admire Paul, and I certainly do, for the moral teachings found in his letters in the New Testament, and for his great personal bravery, his religion was not the religion of Jesus.
As I say, there was much competition from what have been labeled the “mystery religions.” A good example is that of the god Mithra and how one was baptized into his faith. A person stood under a platform on which a bull was slain, the animal’s blood pouring down on him and cleansing him of his sins. Some folks, referring to Jesus as a sacrificial lamb, in their version of Christianity, speak of being “washed in the blood of the lamb.” A perfect example of syncretism; that is, the combining of differing beliefs. The most obvious example in Christianity, is the Christmas tree, which is a tradition taken over from the German tribes. But, there are other pagan elements in the Christian practices of our day. I used to have fun in my university history classes asking students to specify what they are. Well, they would mention the Christmas tree, of course, but then I would ask them what pagan symbol I was wearing. They were puzzled, until I held up my hand with the wedding ring on it, and inquired of them where in Judaism or the teachings of Jesus one finds any mention of a wedding band.
If the gospels are filled with stories of wondrous deeds, which some imbued with rationalism cannot believe, what can we capture of the historical Jesus in the Gospels? Various attempts have been made, of course. You may remember that Thomas Jefferson, after a long day of reading diplomatic dispatches, and chatting with congressmen, and whoever else wandered into the White House - they saw no reason for security in that day - would spend his evenings with the gospels spread before him. With scissors and paste pot, he went about the task of cutting up the pages, separating the teachings of Jesus from the wondrous stories, and pasting them into a notebook. Since he was Jefferson, English would not suffice; his pages contained the teachings in various languages!
This, I think, is a lovely example of the rational mind. Separate the wheat from the chaff. His little book, The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, is usually referred to as the “Jefferson Bible,” and I heartily recommend it to you.
Jefferson concluded that Jesus was superior to the ancient philosophers, especially the Stoics, who had been a great influence on him. The philosophers had taught how a person should deal with his own life, whereas Jesus had taught how one should deal with one’s fellow human beings.
The early Christians were living in a gullible world, a world in which all religious teachers, who were elevated to godhood, were expected to be wonder workers, to perform miracles. Unfortunately, despite the rise of modern science, and the great Enlightenment of the 18th century, there are just as many gullible folks in our day as in antiquity, people who expect wonders and miracles. Some months back, in a break from outlining this paper, I happened to pick up a copy of the Boston Metro newspaper, and discovered several examples of gullibility in our own time. On page 1, I read that in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, “Hundreds of stiff-jointed Cambodians are flocking to a cow whose lick is believed to cure rheumatism and other ailments.” The story went on to report that, “Ailing peasants offer incense, candles, flowers and water. The cow consumes the latter and then performs its licking duties.”
Thumbing through the same paper, I read a feature in which a reporter asks a question of the day, and the responses of three people are given. The question on this particular day was “Do you believe in ghosts?” Two out of the three folks answered that they do. One lady responded, “I’ve read a lot of books about it. There is a lot of evidence out there.” A gentleman responded to the question, “Yup, because people out there swear that they see them.”
“Out there,” which these people mentioned, must be an interesting place! But, when you stop to think about it, this kind of superstitious approach to life is fed by the mass media. Newspapers universally carry Horoscopes. By way of full disclosure - as they say in the media these days - I should admit that, if I happen to come across the Horoscope in a paper, I always glance to see what the stars promise for us folks who are classed as “Geminis.” But, alas, I have yet to find any prediction that corresponds with my experiences on a given day.
And, then, of course, there is that great elevator of human intelligence - television. In the last few years, I have run across dramas in which angels supposedly “touch” people. And, if I remember correctly, there is a program in which a lady performs wonders by witchcraft.
We may say, of course, that these are just the work of imaginative writers and producers, but, unfortunately, I am afraid that a fair number of our fellow citizens take these dramas as representing facts in our existence.
I’ve often thought that it was unfortunate that the early Christians did not reject the Old Testament, since it just confuses Jesus’ teachings. But, of course, as a historian, I realize that this was impossible. Jesus was a Jew and his teachings were in the context of Judaism. Without the Old Testament, we could not understand Jesus and his teachings.
As you know, the early Christians were persecuted in the Roman Empire, for they were a remarkable people. They refused to bring disputes to court, on the ground that disputes should be settled in their churches. They refused to serve in the Roman legions, because they obeyed the teachings of Jesus and refused to shed blood.
As Christianity spread across the Roman world, and gained many more adherents, it began to adapt to the ways of the Romans. I date the fall of Christianity to the conversion of the Emperor Constantine. For two reasons: First, it now became a legal religion and began to compromise its beliefs. And, second, because Constantine was concerned with the arguments among Christians on the question of the nature of Jesus - was he God or Man, or something in between? - he insisted on the Council that met at Nicaea. It was at Nicaea in A.D. 325 that the doctrine of the Trinity was developed, and the Arian, or unitarian, view of Jesus was condemned.
This whole development, as you know, led to countless disputes, and even bloodshed, among Christians. In the process the teachings of Jesus were minimized, and the nature of Jesus became the main concern. Worshiping Jesus, after all, is so much easier than living by his teachings.
What is so interesting in the early pages of the first gospel, Mark, is that, when Jesus leaves his carpenter’s bench, and ventures out to preach, his family thinks he is crazy! Mark knows nothing of a virgin birth, or the predictions in the later gospels of Matthew and Luke that Jesus is slated to do great things! No, in Mark, his family tries to get him to come home. He, of course, tells the fellows who latched onto him and followed him around - we usually call them disciples - that they, too, should renounce their families, for preaching the coming of the end of the world should not be impeded by relations who think they are nuts!
Jesus was an “eschatologist,” an impressive Greek word which means a person who believes the end of the world is at hand. (“Eschaton” is the Greek word for “end.” And, “ology,” which we tack on to so many words, means “words,” or “thoughts, about.”) Paul, and the other early Christians, expected history to come to an end, with the coming of their Lord on the clouds of heaven. St. Paul said that the end could come at any moment - when people least expected it - “like a thief in the night.”
When you look at the history of the Israelites, who, except for brief periods, were under the thumb of greater powers in the Middle East, and, in Jesus’ day, under the power of Rome - remember King Herod was just a puppet of the Emperor in Rome - it is easier to understand the mind set of Jesus and his followers. When we read the Hebrew literature written in the period between the final books included in the Old Testament and the earliest of Christian writings in the New Testament, we find that there was great stress put on the coming of the “Son of Man” on the clouds of heaven, who would bring history to an end. Jesus often refers to the Son of Man in the third person. Since the early Christians believed that he himself was the Son of Man (which they identified with the Messiah, or “Christ,” in the Greek language), it is remarkable that these passages survived.
When his followers called him “good,” Jesus rejected that term, saying only God was good. It is also remarkable that such passages survived in the record of his teachings, seeing that the early Christians came to believe that he was the Son of Man, the Messiah, the Christ!
The basic message of Jesus is found in the story of the Good Samaritan [Luke., ch. 10]. You recall that a lawyer, in an attempt to test him, asked Jesus what he should do to be saved. Jesus responded that he should love his God with his whole heart, soul, strength, and mind - the first great commandment?-and his neighbor as himself - the second great ccommandment. It was the question that the lawyer then asked Jesus - “Who is my neigh-bor?” - that led to one of the greatest of his parables. Jesus tells the story of a man who was beaten and robbed and left by the side of the road to die. Along came a priest of the temple. When he saw the man, he passed by, on the other side of the road. Then, along came a Levite, that is, an official of the temple. He, too, passed by on the other side of the road. It was doubly damning, of course, that these were the leaders of the Jewish religion. (We see this kind of denial of action in our own time, on the part of people who say they don’t want to get involved!)
The third person who came along was a Samaritan. He did not avoid the man, but took pity on him, dressed his wounds, put him on his own animal, and brought him to an inn. He paid the innkeeper to provide whatever the man needed, promising to pay him whatever further cost was incurred, when he returned to the area.
Jesus asked the lawyer who was the man’s neighbor. And, of course, he answered, the man who took care of the man who was attacked by robbers; in other words, the Samaritan. This, Jesus said, was the Second Great Commandment: We should love our neighbors as ourselves.
The great significance of this parable, of course, was that the man who showed love for his neighbor was a Samaritan. Jews held Samaritans in contempt. They were considered half-breeds, whose religious views were defective. Thus, Jesus was not limiting our love to our own kind, but to all humanity. Were Jesus alive today, he would be appalled by the way his fellow Jews treat the Palestinians, making their lives pure hell. We saw many examples of this on our trip. For the people of the Holocaust to act in such a manner demonstrates that human beings do not learn from the evils of a previous period.
It seems to me that these two Great Commandments, along with the Beatitudes, are the core of the teachings of Jesus.
As you know, there are many distortions of Jesus’ teachings. How often have we heard supposed Christians calling for punishment of malefactors, citing the words of the Hebrew scriptures - that is, the Old Testament - “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” forgetting that this approach was specifically rejected by Jesus. “If someone hits you on one cheek, turn the other to him,” said Jesus. Jesus was a great psychologist. He knew that if one responds to a pugnacious person with a soft word, he most likely will calm down and become more reasonable. It is this idea that is behind the movement for conflict resolution in our day.
With the passage of time, it became clear to Christians that Jesus’ expectation that the world was coming to an end, a belief that was also basic to the message of St. Paul, was not to happen. So it was that stories grew up that Jesus established a church, which would continue through the centuries, and sent his apostles to convert the world. Thus, the basic belief of Jesus was buried.
The corruption of Jesus’ teachings was just beginning. We have heard much discussion of late as to whether Islam is, or is not, a religion of peace. As in the case of Christianity, it is a mixed bag. Christians are in no position to criticize Islam. Most of the death and destruction in the world in modern times was caused by wars among Christians. Consider, for instance, the centuries of warfare in Europe, each country appealing to the same god to aid it in the slaughtering of its neighbors.
In this day of war, and rumors of war, we hear learned discussions of the question of what constitutes a “just war.” In none of these discussions have I heard Jesus or his teachings mentioned, for the simple reason that the doctrine of the “just war” has nothing to do with Jesus, but, rather comes from the teachings of St. Augustine in the fourth century and St. Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth. So, we had best remember that those politicians who claim to have been “born again,” and yet call for war, have never read the teachings of Jesus!
But, what about us? Can we live by the teachings of Jesus? Is it possible for Jesus - the greatest radical in history - to “speak” to us living in a time very different from his own? Some of us are old enough to remember the most poignant example of a man who asked this question and the answer he found: Dr. Albert Schweitzer, whom we associate with his hospital in French Equatorial Africa, present-day Gabon. You recall that Schweitzer was a minister, a musicologist - he wrote one of the great biographies of Bach - a great organist, a theologian, and a philosopher. His message of “reverence for life,” I am sure, has influenced many of us.
As a result of years of study, Schweitzer published his book, The Quest of the Historical Jesus, in 1906. In that work, he traced views about Jesus over the years of scholarship. He pointed out that a historical study of the gospels led inevitably to the conviction that Jesus believed the end of the world was at hand. The Son of Man, Jesus believed, would arrive on the clouds of heaven, to bring human history to an end. This figure, in the eyes of early Christians, was identified with the promised Messiah (in Greek, “Christ”), who would deliver the Israelites from Roman domination. With the death of Jesus, and their belief that he had been raised from the dead, his followers became convinced that, when he predicted the coming of the Son of Man, he meant his own return.
So, the question for Schweitzer was: Since Jesus lived in a very different time, can his teachings be applied today? Schweitzer’s answer was that Jesus can speak to us across the centuries. For himself, it was a matter of leaving behind his many-faceted career in Europe, and, after years of study of medicine, to devote the rest of his life to his hospital at Lambarene.
If Jesus spoke to Schweitzer across the centuries, can he speak to us? When we struggle against hatred; when we struggle with ourselves to get along with others, whom we would love to tell to go to - Hades; when we seek resolution of human problems, in a spirit of love and understanding . . . . When we . . . well, we can all fill in the blanks.
Living in the spirit of Jesus is not a piece of cake. It is much easier to worship him as a god and ignore what he taught. It is difficult to live by his teachings. But, as the great Universalist leader Hosea Ballou stressed, we do good because we feel good when we do. And, when we do evil things, we are miserable.
Because of defective genes in some people, because of chemical imbalances, because of psychological problems, because of a lack of education, because of defective education, because of nationalistic jingoism, because of all the evils to which human beings are heir - there is much sin in the world. But, the spirit of Jesus, speaking to us over the centuries, urges us on, and on, and on, to do what we can do to improve the lot of our neighbors and our society.
Let us save Jesus . . . from the church, . . . from the theologians, . . . from the war mongers and saber rattlers, . . . from the preachers of hate. Let us treasure his message, and may it give us the strength we need to overcome the hatred and bitterness of so much of the world around us.
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