Ten Things I Learnt about Jesus by Writing a Book about him
Ive become increasingly convinced that the search for authentic words of Jesus is a waste of time. The human memory has been studied exhaustively in recent decades, and the overriding picture which emerges is one of fragility and subjectivity. On an individual level, we tend to fill in the blanks, to make sense of what we see or hear, and to allow later information to blend into and inform what we think we remember. Over time, we may retain the gist of what happened, but not the specific details....the idea that a person or a group could remember and transmit Jesus sayings perfectly seems highly unlikely.
See Also: The Historical Jesus: A Guide for the Perplexed (T&T Clark, 2012)
By Helen K Bond
University of Edinburgh
Last March saw the publication of my The Historical Jesus: A Guide for the Perplexed (Continuum/Bloomsbury). For those unfamiliar with the series, its designed as an upper level introduction to various theological (and philosophical) themes and figures. The publishers contacted me out of the blue one of those random emails that appears innocuously enough in your inbox and goes on to change the direction of your life for the next few years. I took the offer as a challenge: Id written fairly extensively on Jesus trial and execution, and have always been interested in the social and political world of first century Judaea, so this was a chance to set the earlier part of Jesus life in its context and to try to make sense of it. Although the book is short (the publishers were rigid in their 70,000 word limit), it took me three years to research and write. As anyone working on Jesus will know, there is always so much to read, so many views to take account of, and so many different possible patterns into which to place the fragmentary evidence. It would have been much easier to write a book three times the length with excessive footnotes detailing precisely how I came to every conclusion, but this was simply not going to be possible. In the end I convinced myself that we have enough hefty books on Jesus and that the Unique Selling Point of my slim little volume is its brevity and relative lack of notes.
The Guides do allow (even encourage) authors not just to provide a survey of whats gone before, but also to outline their own views something I was more than happy to do. While I cant possibly hope to put forward all my ideas on Jesus in this short essay, I thought Id highlight just 10 things that struck me forcibly as I worked my way through the material.
The first is a growing sense of dissatisfaction with the 3 (or 4)-fold history of the Quest. The search for the historical Jesus has taken on a life of its own in recent scholarship, populated by now familiar key names and distinct periods (the Quest, No Quest, the New Quest, and the Third Quest). But there are several difficulties with this scheme. First, its basic shape is largely derived from Schweitzers (admittedly influential) The Quest of the Historical Jesus (1906) and is heavily German centred. Of course, German Universities were pre-eminent in theological studies throughout the nineteenth century, but there was plenty of work going on elsewhere too. The so-called old Quest covers a vast array of differing approaches and perspectives over a considerable period of time and includes such disparate movements as rationalism and romanticism. It is usually categorized as being broadly anti-dogmatic in tone, but beyond this it is difficult to see what links the work of Reimarus with that of Renan, or Paulus with Wrede. Equally problematic is the no quest period. It is clear from contemporary literature that scholars in the UK and the US, who were perhaps less constrained by the work of the form critics, were blithely unaware that they were living and working within what would one day be seen as a scholarly gap (for example, C. H. Dodd or T. W. Manson). More significantly, the whole categorization largely ignores some very important Jewish contributions from the nineteenth century onwards (Claude Motefiore, Joseph Klausner, Robert Eisler). For the purposes of the book, I felt I had to keep to the traditional divisions, and the accepted picture does highlight the fact that Jesus studies are not immune to trends in society as a whole. But I cant help thinking that a thorough overhaul of the history of the Quests might be long overdue, and that it might be replaced by a more linear consideration of only the really important works that actually moved scholarship onwards with as much consideration given to Jewish works as to those by German Protestants. [And Id like to put in a personal plea here: if anyone is tempted to start a Fourth Quest, please dont.]
Ive become increasingly convinced that the search for authentic words of Jesus is a waste of time. The human memory has been studied exhaustively in recent decades, and the overriding picture which emerges is one of fragility and subjectivity. On an individual level, we tend to fill in the blanks, to make sense of what we see or hear, and to allow later information to blend into and inform what we think we remember. Over time, we may retain the gist of what happened, but not the specific details. On a group level, social memory provides a common story which binds individuals together, but memory is always intrinsically connected to the groups present sense of identity, and studies have shown the malleability of collective memory too. Under these circumstances, the idea that a person or a group could remember and transmit Jesus sayings perfectly seems highly unlikely. In a similar vein, appeal to eyewitnesses in the Jesus tradition is no guarantee of what we would see as historical reporting. Furthermore, since memory distortions occur from the very first retelling, it doesnt really matter whether a source comes from 50 or 70 CE. Separating out layers of tradition only shows how the tradition developed over time; it cant take us back to what Jesus actually said. (Of course, Im not disputing that Jesus said something like several of the sayings in the Synoptic tradition, but I dont think its worth poring over differing versions, trying to work out which sounds most authentic. Id like to think that Jesus said something like the Lords prayer, but I dont really see how we would decide between the Matthean or the Lukan version, particularly since he may have prayed the same prayer on many occasions, doubtless varying it slightly each time.)
Central to my reconstruction of Jesus is the idea that he was an apocalyptic prophet. Quite simply, nothing else makes sense. I was particularly impressed by the idea that Jesus expected his to be the last generation (Mt 22.30, Lk 20.35-6). And the only reason his followers would interpret post-mortem appearances and an empty tomb (assuming its historicity) as a resurrection is if they had been swept along by his apocalyptic worldview and now believed they were witnesses to the beginning of the apocalyptic age. The view that Jesus abandoned the apocalypticism of his mentor John the Baptist only for it to be taken up again by the post-Easter church seems highly unlikely to me. When you add in the great interest in apocalyptic ideas within first century Judaism, along with the scattering of highly apocalyptic sayings in the Jesus tradition (Mk 9.1, 10.23, much of chapter 13), the case seems overwhelming.
Jesus and women. There are two sides to this point. The first concerns female Jesus scholars. While biblical studies is lamentably male dominated (at least in my own UK context), some subjects attract at least a reasonable number of women (we might think here of Johns Gospel, or narrative criticism). Other subjects, however, dont seem to attract women to the same degree (such as the synoptic problem, or text criticism). For some reason, Jesus studies belong firmly to the latter category. With the notable exceptions of Paula Fredriksen, Kathleen Corley, Dagmar Winter and Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, women are few and far between in Jesus studies. I have no idea why so few are interested in Jesus (and am clearly not the person to ask in this regard!). Is it because of the preoccupation of past questers with authentic words? Is it because its such an overcrowded area? Or is it because Jesus had little to say specifically to women?
This brings me to the second aspect of this heading: as a female scholar I felt obliged to spend some time on the whole question of Jesus attitude towards women. Its common nowadays in some quarters to claim that Jesus had a special interest in women; while I would certainly like this to be true, I see little evidence for it in the gospels themselves. Women certainly flocked to hear Jesus, and his parables and sayings reflect womens lives and experience, but there is nothing in these images which challenges conventional feminine roles. And though Jesus (like the prophets before him) had a great deal to say about poverty and riches, and what we might call economic equality in the coming kingdom, he says nothing about gender equality. This should not particularly surprise us: all ancient societies were patriarchal, and there are no examples of egalitarianism as we would understand it in any contemporary context, whether Jewish or Graeco-Roman. Tempting as it might be to see Jesus as a feminist, the evidence cannot support such a claim. Women play a role in his movement not primarily because of Jesus radical social views but simply because Jewish society of the time allowed them to act in these ways.
Jesus and Empire. Much has been written lately about Jesus supposed antagonism towards imperial Rome (its never simply Rome); Jesus, were told, set himself against imperialism, or, more broadly, the dominating system(s) of his day. This is particularly strong in US scholarship and reflects (I assume) a certain degree of American angst regarding its own imperial standing in the world. But I have to admit that I dont really see it in the texts. I wouldnt want to claim that Jesus was favourably disposed towards the increasingly direct Roman presence in his homeland, or that he regarded political domination (in whatever form it took) as a good thing; doubtless he shared his compatriots contempt both for foreign rule itself and for those who profited by it. But I dont see anti-imperialism as a central theme in his preaching. Jews over the centuries had developed many theological strategies to explain and come to terms with foreign rule, most commonly that God (the ruler of history) was chastising his people for a time before a great final vindication when Israels enemies would be swept away and God would clearly reign. In this apocalyptic scenario, theres no point in setting oneself against empires, because their frailty and false-pride will soon be exposed for all to see. What we have here in scholarship that puts an anti-imperial agenda to the fore in Jesus teaching, it seems to me, is the desire for a useable Jesus someone who will speak to modern day liberal Christians who want to critique their own governments imperialist practices. Ive nothing against that, but we shouldnt call it historical Jesus studies. Its exactly the same with the Jesus as promoter of women view wed all like a Jesus who champions modern day values, but its not always going to be the case.
Writing the book on Jesus forced me to confront the whole question of Jesus miracles, particularly the so-called nature miracles. Jesus healings and exorcisms seem to me to be relatively straight-forward: there is little doubt that Jesus was regarded, by friends and foes alike, as a worker of miraculous deeds. While, as a historian, I cannot prove that they owed their inspiration to God (any more than those of Honi the Circle-Drawer, Apollonius of Tyana, Vespasian, or the God Asclepius), the fact that Jesus was not unique in first century society (or other later societies, for that matter) convinces me that intelligent and sincere people thought that they were in the presence of someone who could genuinely heal and cast out demons. But the nature miracles are different: within the gospels, they never advance the plot, they are concerned above all with Jesus identity, and are overlaid with OT allusions. In fact, it is possible sometimes to detect various layers of scriptural allusion. The feeding of the five thousand, for example, despite its Eucharistic overtones and links with the story of the manna in the wilderness (Ex 16), seems at its heart to be a retelling of Elishas feeding of the hundred men in 2 Kings 4.42-4. And the stilling of the storm, which in its present form has echoes of the crossing of the Red Sea (Ex 14), has much in common with the story of the Galilean prophet Jonah (1.1-16). Once Jesus became linked in popular imagination with prophetic figures such as Elisha and Jonah, its easy to see how stories associated with the great men of old were retold in connection with him. I would regard the nature miracles, then, as not so much events in Jesus life (though I wouldnt rule out some historical kernel) as scripturally inspired attempts to say something about Jesus identity.
The date of Jesus death. I was quite staggered in the course of my research by the frequency with which scholars maintain that Jesus died on 7th April 30 CE. Indeed, the date has reached near consensus level. (The main alternative - that Jesus died in 33 - tends to be held only by those who argue for a longer ministry). The date of 7th April 30 CE, however, carries with it two implications: first it assumes Johannine chronology and sets Jesus death on the day of Preparation, and second, it places a high degree of trust in astronomical calculations. While neither of these is self-evidently wrong, it does seem to me that we can be rather more sophisticated in our use of the gospels. Most discussions of Jesus death seek to decide whether to follow Marks date (in which Jesus was executed on the Day of Passover) or Johns (in which he died the previous day). Ive always been surprised by the willingness of Johannine supporters to argue that Marks tradition changed the date for theological reasons (usually to link the Last Supper with Passover), and of the relaxed way in which upholders of Markan chronology can suggest that John has altered things to suit his own theology (usually to link Jesus with the paschal lamb). Yet very few seem willing to draw the obvious third possibility from all of this that both Mark and John are secondary theological expansions of the fact that Jesus simply died around Passover. Thus, Jesus may well have died on a Friday, but we can no longer know whether that was the Passover, the Day of Passover, or more probably a few days earlier. And if so, we can no longer use astronomy to set the date, and all we can say with any certainty is that Jesus died some time around 29-34 CE.
Jesus burial. Scholars commonly note the increasingly dignified burial given to Jesus in the gospels. In Mark he is laid in a rock-hewn tomb (Mk 15.46), in Luke and John it becomes a new rock-hewn tomb (Lk 23.53, Jn 19.41), and in Matthew he is put to rest in Josephs own unused tomb (Mt 27.60). Joseph of Arimathaea, too, is gradually Christianised by the tradition, moving from Marks pious member of the council (Mk 15.43) to a fully-fledged Christian (Mt 27.57, Jn 19.38-42). But theres still a reluctance to push back behind Mark and ask what kind of an account he and his sources were embellishing. The desire to give Jesus a decent burial would have been a strong one in the tradition, and we can imagine it would have already left its mark in the 40 years before Mark was written. How, then, was Jesus really buried?
At a very basic level, rock-hewn tombs could only be afforded by the wealthiest members of Jerusalem society, and it seems unlikely that a crucified criminal would have ended up in such a place. (The stress on the newness of the tomb is doubtless to prepare for the accounts of the empty tomb). If Joseph of Arimatheaea was simply a pious Jew (as Marks gospel suggests), it seems most likely to me that he was the council member entrusted with specific responsibility to ensure the swift burial of Jewish victims of crucifixion (following the demands of Dt 21.22). M.Sanh 6.5 talks of a burial plot for criminals, and (unpalatable as the thought may be) I think it most likely that Jesus was buried not in the rich mans tomb piously envisaged by the evangelists, but in a shallow (though likely individual) pit reserved for criminals. The relationship between such a grave and the return of the women on the Sunday morning, allows us to think about the empty tomb traditions in a rather different way. How easy would such a grave have been to find? Is Marks stress that the women noted the precise location of the tomb simply an over-elaborate attempt to dispel the story that the women simply didnt know exactly where Jesus had been buried?
Closely connected to this is the whole question of Jesus resurrection. Initially, I was uncertain whether resurrection really belonged in a book on the historical Jesus. But I did include it, largely because its the resurrection for Christians which makes the life of Jesus important. Without the resurrection, Jesus would presumably have been relegated to the deceivers and imposters who annoyed Josephus so much. In any case, it seems to me that there are areas here where historical enquiry is quite appropriate: in investigating the change in the post-Easter disciples; evaluating the evidence for resurrection appearances; and whether the empty tomb tradition goes back to the earliest period. What historical enquiry cannot do, however and should never be asked to do is to prove the resurrection. Often I have the impression that proving the historical accuracy of the empty tomb is an important declaration of faith for some scholars. But an empty tomb does not prove the resurrection one way or another (it certainly doesnt seem to have featured highly in Pauls preaching). Questions relating to the truth of the Resurrection belong to the realm of faith and belief, and whether we like it or not, these are murky areas of uncertainty and doubt. As a historian, it is my task to understand why the early Christians thought their Lord had been raised from the dead, but its not my place to attempt to prove or disprove the Resurrection.
Finally, it has become abundantly clear to me over the last few years that Jesus needs to be studied like any other historical character. Of course, this is a central claim in most third quest thinking, but often it isnt followed through. Too often we see an obsession with reconstructing the actual words of Jesus, a preoccupation with creating a useable Jesus, and all too frequently a concern to present a unique Jesus (even in a world where others performed miraculous deeds, his are automatically assumed to be special in some way). I doubt Ive avoided all the pitfalls myself, but at least Im aware of what some of them might be. Theres an obvious interest in trying to offer as rounded and full a picture of Jesus and his ministry as possible, but we need to resist the temptation to fill in the gaps and to accept the limitations of our sources. I structured my book as a series of snapshots of the historical Jesus precisely for this reason we have certain pieces of evidence relating to his life, but its not always easy (or advisable) to try to connect them all too coherently. In the end, I think we know quite a lot about the man from Nazareth, and considering that he lived exactly two thousand years ago, thats no small achievement!
I also appreciated your measured words on Jesus and women. I fail to discern any convincing evidence Jesus the 1st Cent apocalyptic prophet was interested in the conversion of gentiles, or the issues of gender equality for women or of gay marriage - any more than he was with slavery in the Roman world. The coming reign of God occupied his full attention. Having said that, he must have had some vision of what Yahweh's reign would look like at the village level. And that's where the debate becomes interesting.
John W Pryor
"Now at the place where Jesus was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden was a new tomb where no one had yet been buried. And so, because it was the Jewish day of preparation and the tomb was nearby, they placed Jesus’ body there."
It seems like that tomb was only used because it was nearby, empty and they were in a hurry because of Passover? What were the odds that exactly this tomb (whether new or not) was the one of Joseph of Arimathea?
Wasn't it more likely that JoA had Jesus' corpse put there and then had it removed first thing the Sabbath (and thus Passover) was over and laid down at its final resting place? The lowly, poor disciples of Jesus would of course have no means to know where the corpse ended up, thus being confronted with an empty tomb ...
Assuming it was probable that the Romans would allow crucified criminals to be buried in the first place?
"some I heard myself, others I got from various quarters; it was in all cases difficult to carry them word for word in one's memory, so my habit has been to make the speakers say what was in my opinion demanded of them by the various occasions, of course adhering as closely as possible to the general sense of what they really said." (1.22, Crawley translation)
As a necessary outcome of this method, all the speakers in his History tend to sound like - well, Thucydides. Despite this, we can draw various historical conclusions regarding the War from his account.
1. It's not so much that women scholars are not interested in Jesus, I think, as that they don't want to write big books on Jesus - this seems to be a particularly male quest!
2. While I don't want to go to the other extreme of having a completely "non-apocalyptic" Jesus, I am reluctant allow Jesus' apocalypticism to overshadow interest in the implications of the "kingdom of God" for this world. Not room to expand this: but I would like some more nuance. While "your kingdom come on earth, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven" may be a Matthean addition, I think it captures something of Jesus' intent. In support I would look to the beatitudes, some of Jesus' controversies with opponents, dialogues on the greatest commandment, and some parables, e.g. "The Good Samaritan" (if we may allow that to Jesus!).
How do we know that?
'Jesus’ healings and exorcisms seem to me to be relatively straight-forward: there is little doubt that Jesus was regarded, by friends and foes alike, as a worker of miraculous deeds. '
How do we know that?
Why does Paul scoff at Jews for expecting his new religion to come with tales of the miraculous? (1 Corinthians 1)
What I think Thucydides and Plato claim for the speeches, indeed the words, of their characters is authenticity - not reality or exactitude but authenticity, with the attributed words reflecting the real spirit of the person.
If we want to identify the real spirit in which a person famous for the spoken word spoke and taught we do indeed need words which represent that spirit authentically. We don't need exactitude. But if we are to say that we know something of a person's place in the history of ideas we have to decide which, if any, words attributed to him/her are authentic. If we decide that this matter is undecidable then we accept that we cannot identify that place in the history of ideas with any certainty. Same with Pericles, Socrates, Jesus. I don't see that we can have it both ways.
And yes, I think you're right about women not wanting to write big Jesus books. I'm tempted to ask What is it about men and length . . .??
Of all the scholars I learned about, your conclusions about Jesus are the closest to mine. And I reached these conclusions after years of study. It's all explained on my website.
However, I am rather certain Jesus was crucified in 28 CE. Why did you not consider that earlier date?
I reread your article and I am amazed at the similarity of views, often all the way to the details. And I also spent years doing research on the subject: does that mean long and critical studies would lead to the same conclusions?
However I differ on another small item: I do not think Jesus devised parables: that was done first by "Mark" as disguised Jesus prophecies.
Cordially, Bernard D. Muller
As I'm sure you're aware, there's a sortof soft-core version of the anti-imperial talk, which I'll now blatantly misrepresent, but it seems to basically suggest, "Well since Jesus talked so much about Kingdom he must have been somewhat political." Now, the agenda there seems aimed at getting conservative christians more focused on social issues, but regardless of that I'm wondering about the actual matter. Does "kingdom" (or "gospel" etc) have political implications? And to what extent?
Thanks very much for your time...
Steven Carr responds: "Why does Paul scoff at Jews for expecting his new religion to come with tales of the miraculous? (1 Corinthians 1)"
Surely, the fact that Jesus was not unique in being regarded as a healer and exorcist points equally to a second possibility: that these miracles were added as embellishment simply because miracles were expected of a great sage or demigod from the first century. Without them, Jesus would seem inferior to the aforementioned Apollonius of Tyana, Vespasian, or Asclepius. Taking that into consideration, the evidence of 1 Corinthians (representing earlier beliefs about Jesus than those presented in Mark) should tip the scale further in that direction and away from the possibility that Jesus was actually known as a miracle-worker in the mid-first century.
Perhaps, then, the nature miracles aren't so different from Jesus' other miracles after all.
If one takes the approach that the gospels (indeed almost all of the NT), represent Pauline theology which whitewashed the Jesus Community almost out of view, then the only sensible approach in historical Jesus studies would be to abandon the gospels as sources for anything other than Pauline studies.
Chapter 1: Empty Tomb
Chapter 2: Obscure Burial
Chapter 3: Died for Sins and Raised
Chapter 4: Appearance Traditions
Chapter 5: Raised on the Third Day
Chapter 6: Conclusion and Meaning
Komarnitsky addresses the question, given the legendary nature of the story of discovering an empty tomb on the third day after death, what plausible historical reality could have caused the rise of resurrection beliefs and traditions.
This book is praised by scholars of both radical skeptic and more conservative persuasion.
Bernard - I'd ruled out 28CE because it seemed too early to fit with Lk 3.1-2. If John's ministry began in the 15th year of Tiberius (which can't really be any earlier than 28 at the earliest), there really isn't much time to fit in Jesus' baptism, ministry and death into the same year. Its just possible I suppose, but it seems incredibly tight. Of course, if you don't think Lk 3.1-2 is sound, then that opens up far more possibilities (and anything after Pilate's arrival in 26 would be possible). I love all this chronology stuff, so if you have a good reason for 28 I'd be happy to hear it.
Ron - I'll admit to being a little overdramatic in my comments on Jesus' words. I do actually agree with you that aphorisms would have been more easily memorable, especially if Jesus had a few that he liked to say many times. But I doubt that all of his words were so easily memorized (some may have assumed their memorable quality as they were transmitted), and then we still have the problem of how to sift between the authentic and the non-authentic.
Bill - it does seem to me that Kingdom/kingship has something of a political edge. To say that God is King and directs your life necessarily has political connotations to some degree - particularly in a first century setting where religion and politics were so intertwined. So I wouldn't want to deny that Jesus' message was 'political'. But I think that he would want to stand up against anything that hindered the rule of God - that might be Roman governors and Kings, but could equally well be human ignorance, fear or malice. To single out 'Rome' in all this, it seems to me, makes the teaching of Jesus far less radical than it really was.
Thanks again for your comments!
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