Rethinking Jesus (01) In the Beginning …

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As a follow-on from my series about God, I want to explore what I currently think and feel about Jesus of Nazareth. If I regard ‘God’ as not so much a person as a process, as transcendental ‘Ground-of-Being-Itself’, what implications does this have for how I see Jesus? Let’s forget what 20 succeeding centuries have said about him, and start afresh on one momentous day in Palestine during the 20s CE. 

The idea that Jesus never existed is, in my view, too far-fetched to be worth spending time on, so let’s focus on the young man of 30+ years of age, who made his first public appearance some time between 25 and 30 CE on the banks of the river Jordan. We should keep it constantly in our minds that he was a Jew. He was circumcised, believed in the Jewish God, followed the Jewish Law, ate kosher food, observed the Sabbath day, and worshipped in the local synagogue and at the Jerusalem Temple with its sacrificial rituals. He was not a Christian.

Jesus gets an ‘honourable’ mention by the Jewish historian Josephus, around 93 CE, in his “The Antiquities of the Jews”. At one point, Josephus writes about the death of a man called James who was “the brother of Jesus, who is called the Christ.” At another point, it’s generally accepted that later Christian scribes made additions to the original (these additions are in italics). If one ignores the italics, the paragraph flows quite naturally, and is almost certainly what Josephus, a non-Christian Jew, actually wrote ..… 

“At this time there appeared Jesus, a wise man, (if indeed one should call him a man. For) he was a doer of startling deeds, a teacher of people who receive the truth with pleasure. And he gained a following both among many Jews and among many of Greek origin. (He was the Messiah. And)when Pilate, because of an accusation made by the leading men among us, condemned him to the cross, those who had loved him previously did not cease to do so. (For he appeared to them on the third day, living again, just as the divine prophets had spoken of these and countless other wondrous things about him). And up until this very day, the tribe of the Christians, named after him, has not died out.” So far, so good, but …..

Jesus gets a ‘dishonourable’ mention by the Roman historian Tacitus around 116 …”Nero inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular.” No love lost there !

Our sole source of information about Jesus, therefore, is the documents in the New Testament, the earliest of which are not the Gospels, but the letters of Paul written in the late 40s and 50s. These, however, contain almost no information about, nor apparent interest in, the lifestyle and teachings of the historical Jesus. Our principal sources for those are the four Gospels. They were originally anonymous, so we can’t now be certain who wrote them. To stick with the traditional names, Mark was written first, around 70, then Matthew around 75-80, Luke around 80-85, and finally John around 90-100. 

From a historical point of view, these Gospels don’t constitute ‘independent’ evidence. They were written by committed followers of Jesus, to confirm believers in their faith, and persuade others to believe. They’re not what we’d call histories or biographies, but are more like ‘religious tracts’. They’re ‘propaganda’, as defined by the SOED – “systematic dissemination of doctrine, rumour or selected information to promote a particular doctrine, view, practice etc.” We might expect them, therefore, to ‘put the best face on things’, to exaggerate rather than under-state, and to play down anything potentially embarrassing.

As noted above, the Gospels were not written down until 40 to 70 years after the death of Jesus. They were written at various cities in the Roman Empire, quite possibly by converts who’d never lived in Palestine. Jesus’ earliest followers are described in Acts 4:13 as “ordinary men of no education” who, like Jesus himself, spoke Aramaic. The Gospel writers, however, were well educated men. They wrote their gospels in Greek, so that they are already at one remove from the original Aramaic of Jesus himself. Next time, we’ll consider how these gospel writers sourced their information.

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