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Ten Things I Learnt about Jesus by Writing a Book about him

I’ve 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
December 2012

Last March saw the publication of my The Historical Jesus: A Guide for the Perplexed (Continuum/Bloomsbury). For those unfamiliar with the series, it’s 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: I’d 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 what’s gone before, but also to outline their own views – something I was more than happy to do. While I can’t possibly hope to put forward all my ideas on Jesus in this short essay, I thought I’d highlight just 10 things that struck me forcibly as I worked my way through the material.

  1. 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 Schweitzer’s (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 can’t 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 I’d like to put in a personal plea here: if anyone is tempted to start a ‘Fourth Quest,’ please don’t.]

  2. I’ve 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 group’s 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 doesn’t 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 can’t take us back to what Jesus actually said. (Of course, I’m not disputing that Jesus said something like several of the sayings in the Synoptic tradition, but I don’t think its worth poring over differing versions, trying to work out which sounds most authentic. I’d like to think that Jesus said something like the Lord’s prayer, but I don’t 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.)

  3. 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.

  4. 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 John’s Gospel, or narrative criticism). Other subjects, however, don’t 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 it’s 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. It’s 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 women’s 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.

  5. Jesus and Empire. Much has been written lately about Jesus’ supposed antagonism towards ‘imperial Rome’ (it’s never simply ‘Rome’); Jesus, we’re 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 don’t really see it in the texts. I wouldn’t 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 don’t 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 Israel’s enemies would be swept away and God would clearly reign. In this apocalyptic scenario, there’s 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 government’s imperialist practices. I’ve nothing against that, but we shouldn’t call it ‘historical Jesus studies.’ It’s exactly the same with the ‘Jesus as promoter of women’ view – we’d all like a Jesus who champions modern day values, but its not always going to be the case.

  6. 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 Elisha’s 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, it’s 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 wouldn’t rule out some historical kernel) as scripturally inspired attempts to say something about Jesus’ identity.

  7. 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 Mark’s date (in which Jesus was executed on the Day of Passover) or John’s (in which he died the previous day). I’ve always been surprised by the willingness of Johannine supporters to argue that Mark’s 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.

  8. 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 Joseph’s own unused tomb (Mt 27.60). Joseph of Arimathaea, too, is gradually Christianised by the tradition, moving from Mark’s pious member of the council (Mk 15.43) to a fully-fledged Christian (Mt 27.57, Jn 19.38-42). But there’s 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 Mark’s 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 man’s 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 Mark’s stress that the women noted the precise location of the tomb simply an over-elaborate attempt to dispel the story that the women simply didn’t know exactly where Jesus had been buried?

  9. 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 it’s 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 doesn’t seem to have featured highly in Paul’s 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 it’s not my place to attempt to prove or disprove ‘the Resurrection.’

  10. 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 isn’t 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 I’ve avoided all the pitfalls myself, but at least I’m aware of what some of them might be. There’s 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, that’s no small achievement!