When I first created this blog my purpose was to discuss politics. But it appears that religion has come to dominate more and more of my posts. Things change of course and I will, no doubt, return to politics as a primary focus eventually. For now, however, I shall continue to post on the matters most in my thoughts, and presently those matters pertain to religion.
I want to write briefly about the central message of the Historical Jesus.* But first some necessary preliminaries:
1) By the term "Historical Jesus" I refer to the actual flesh and blood person who walked the dusty roads of ancient Israel, insofar as that individual can be reconstructed by means of historical-critical scholarship. This Jesus is not to be confused with the "Jesus of Faith." The latter is Jesus as he is experienced in the religious life of Christian believers. The difference between these two is crucial to solid scholarship.
2) The four New Testament gospels are not straightforward historical accounts. This is a fact that no serious Bible scholar or historian doubts and it has been well known for around 200 years now. The gospels contain myths and legends (e.g. the birth stories, the temptation by the devil, walking on the sea) exaggeration, theological musings projected into narratives about Jesus, propaganda, and so forth.
3) Despite (2) the gospels are not useless as historical documents. Two centuries of painstaking historical research has established beyond reasonable doubt that the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) have a solid historical foundation. The gospel of John is not close to history and is not accorded the same status as the synoptics by historians.
4) The narrative spine of Mark (and thus Matthew and Luke who used Mark as a primary source) is broadly historical: Jesus came from Nazareth, briefly followed and was baptized by John the Baptist, shortly after John's arrest went out on his own mission, chose disciples to follow him and do what he was doing, taught in parables, gathered people together around a common meal, worked as an itinerant healer and exorcist, and, at Passover in the year 30, journeyed to Jerusalem, confronted the leaders there with the judgment of God by word and deed (the demonstration in the temple) and was crucified by Rome for his troubles.
5) Scholars also generally agree that much of the teaching in a hypothetical document called "Q" is authentic to the Jesus of history. Q is a source that was used by Matthew and Luke (they also used Mark). We have no copy of this source as it is lost. But it is clearly visible in the passages that Matthew and Luke have in common but that are not in their other source, Mark. It is also fairly clear that the majority of the parables (though not the interpretive gloss gospel writers sometimes give them) go back to the Jesus of history as well.
6) But, even in "Q" and Mark we do not have unbiased plain history. And scholars are careful to point out that in those two early sources some material is still suspect. In particular, passages that too obviously reflect the theology of the later Jesus movement (as evidenced in, say, Paul's letters) is unlikely to go back to Jesus. Passages in which Jesus speaks to the conditions of his followers in the 50s and 60s (see Mark 13) are clearly not from the Jesus of history, nor are passages in which Jesus speaks of himself as a heavenly judge and one who will come again - this rules out all future "son of man" passages, which has very important ramifications, as will be seen below.
With these preliminaries in place we can now ask who Jesus was? Or better, what picture of Jesus emerges from our earliest sources (Q and Mark - excluding the obviously unhistorical passages)?
I will here restrict myself to the core image in the teaching of the historical Jesus: The Kingdom of God. Better translated as the "ruling activity of God" this phrase refers to the concrete activity of God in the world whereby He establishes that He is in charge. The phrase does not indicate a place or nation in which God is actually the king.
Though the phrase "Kingdom of God" could mean many things, by the time of Jesus it serves as an eschatological image. Eschatology is that branch of theology dealing with "end-times," death, judgement, eternal life, Heaven and Hell. But used in reference to the period in which Jesus lived it refers rather to the expectation and hope, shared by many of the Jewish people at the time, that God would soon act decisively in human history to once and for all end injustice, oppression, and evil and usher in an age of prosperity, peace, and harmony.
Some scholars misleadingly speak of the time that God would do this as "the end of the world." But that is not what most of these Jewish people expected (Crossan The Greatest Prayer, 79). What they expected, rather, was that God would transform this world, not end it. Many did expect that only a supernatural act could accomplish this and thought also that events like the raising of the righteous dead to new life would accompany the eschaton. Indeed, most early Christians thought that the kingdom would be decidedly established by a return of Jesus to earth, to end evil and usher in an age of everlasting peace.
Many scholars have claimed that Jesus' own eschatology was close to that of the early Christians. He too, so they argue, expected a supernatural event in the very near future that would transform the world forever. On this view, Jesus' message was simply "the kingdom is coming soon, so you better repent and get ready for it."
I don't think this position is particularly well supported for several reasons. First the only gospel passages in which Jesus speaks of an imminent and spectacular arrival of God's kingdom are in the passages in which he speaks of the coming of the son of man (himself) from heaven. But the work of such scholars as Geza Vermes and Norman Perrin (as well as many others) demonstrate clearly that such passages do not go back to the historical Jesus, but are products of the early Jesus movement and depend upon the belief that the executed Jesus is raised up to God's right hand and that he will return from there to establish everlasting justice and peace. These passages reflect the view of Jesus' followers after his death, not the view of Jesus himself.
Second, Jesus' message in Q and Mark is simply not "repent, pray and wait for God to act." On the contrary his message reads more like "This is what the kingdom is, you are called to live out and participate in that kingdom, so get to work!" (Crossan The Greatest Prayer, 90)
So the overtly apocalyptic or end-of-the-world Jesus is not the Jesus of history. Nevertheless, I cannot quite agree with those scholars who claim that for Jesus the Kingdom of God is only a present reality made known to those who realize it in themselves. Even without the son of man passages there are enough texts that show that Jesus did teach that the kingdom, though clearly a present reality to enter now, in its full glory lies in the future (Matthew 5: 3-11, Mark 14: 25, etc.).
Did Jesus then believe that the great eschaton was soon to come? That God would indeed radically act so as to transform the world forever?
It seems to me that a careful reading of the earliest sources does not support the claim that Jesus spoke of a Kingdom of God about to burst upon the world in the future, either immediately or at some unspecified time. Nor do those teachings support that Jesus denied this in favor of a mystical present kingdom. Geza Vermes has expressed the position I am reaching for well:
[Q]ueries concerned with whether the kingdom had come, was on the way, or would come later, must be irrelevant. At issue in New Testament eschatology is the actual movement itself of turning back, of entering into the kingdom. It is in the surrender of the self to God's will that his sovereignty is realized on earth (Jesus in his Jewish Context, 35).
And Norman Perrin expressed it similarly:
In the teaching of Jesus the emphasis is not upon a future for which men must prepare, even with the help of God; the emphasis is upon a present which carries with it the guarantee of the future (Rediscovering the Teaching of Jesus, 205).
In short if we are to understand the eschatological mindset of the historical Jesus we must look to what he actually says about the kingdom. Jesus speaks of the kingdom as a reality that people can enter now (Luke 16.16), that is among us (Luke 17:20), but that will be our destiny in the future as well (Mathew 8:11). The kingdom is known in acts of healing (Luke 11:20) in the embracing of social outcasts, forgiving each other, in peace, non-violence, love for others, and the fight for justice (Matthew 5-7). In short, it is in healing each other, forgiving each other, battling injustice, and ending oppression that the kingdom is entered into by all who choose it here and now.
For Jesus, it appears, the full fruits of the kingdom do lie in the future, but it does not seem that his message is about waiting for that future. Rather than seeing the kingdom as imminent - as about to burst forth on the earth - it seems that Jesus saw the kingdom as ultimate. The Hebrew God of justice and compassion would, in the end, perfect the world, would eliminate injustice and usher in a time of everlasting peace and plenty for all. This is the heart of prophetic Judaism, and the core of the vision of the historical Jesus. Where Jesus takes his faith in God's kingdom a step further is in his clear conviction that the coming kingdom is even now already present. Like the leaven in the dough that has not yet risen, or the mustard seed that has not yet grown into a great tree, the kingdom is here, now and we may enter it, confident that the tree will grow and the bread will rise, and we must work with it.
So the message is not to wait for God to fix things. The message of the historical Jesus is rather, embrace the outcasts, combat injustice, forgive those who have wronged you, heal the sick. Do all this and you have entered the kingdom. As John Dominic Crossan puts it:
[Jesus called others] to do exactly what he himself was doing: heal the sick, eat with the healed, and demonstrate the kingdom's presence in that reciprocity and mutuality. It is not, he said, about intervention by God, but about participation with God. God's Great Cleanup of the World does not begin, cannot continue, and will not conclude without our divinely empowered participation and transcendentally driven collaboration (The Greatest Prayer, 90).
*My understanding of the Historical Jesus is most indebted to the work of John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg. But I also draw considerably on Geza Vermes and Norman Perrin. To a lesser but non-trivial extent I am indebted to the work of N. T. Wright and Richard Horsley. I find the Jesus of such scholars as Paula Frederickson, Ed Sanders, and Bart Erhman to be historically problematic (given its rejection of politics and its reliance on "the son of man" style eschatology), and the very non-jewish wondering sage (who seems to have no relation to Jewish politics or eschatology!) of Robert Funk and Burton Mack even more so.
Note: The Picture accompanying this post is from a BBC documentary which attempts to construct a face for Jesus that actually looks like a 1st century Galilean.