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A Jewish Life and the Emergence of Christianity

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On Sale: November 07, 2012
Pages: 352 | ISBN: 978-0-307-82657-2
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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Synopsis

Paula Fredriksen, renowned historian and author of From Christ to Jesus, begins this inquiry into the historic Jesus with a fact that may be the only undisputed thing we know about him: his crucifixion.

Rome reserved this means of execution particularly for political insurrectionists; and the Roman charge posted at the head of the cross indicted Jesus for claiming to be King of the Jews. To reconstruct the Jesus who provoked this punishment, Fredriksen takes us into the religious worlds, Jewish and pagan, of Mediterranean antiquity, through the labyrinth of Galilean and Judean politics, and on into the ancient narratives of Paul's letters, the gospels, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and Josephus' histories. The result is a profound contribution both to our understanding of the social and religious contexts within which Jesus of Nazareth moved, and to our appreciation of the mission and message that ended in the proclamation of Jesus as Messiah.

Excerpt

Introduction: The History of the Historical Jesus

Christianity has always been concerned with the historical Jesus. The Gospels present their religious message through the medium of a life story, providing names and dates in their own narratives -- the reign of Herod the Great or Augustus, the tenure in office of Pilate as prefect or Caiaphas as high priest -- that orient their story in the flow of public time. Paul himself, though notoriously unconcerned with Jesus before the Crucifixion as opposed to the Risen and Returning Christ, nonetheless still incorporates a key moment in the life of Jesus into his proclamation when he invokes the teaching about the Last Supper: "On the night when he was handed over, the Lord Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks he broke it and said, 'This is my body' " (1 Cor 11:23f.). The point, both for the evangelists and for Paul, was that Jesus, his elevated status as Redeemer, Lord, Messiah, or Son of God notwithstanding, had acted and operated in a human context, within human time.

Even as formal Christian theology developed and grew, and the language describing the person and work of Christ drew increasingly on the concepts and vocabulary of Greek philosophy, this historical dimension never disappeared. The same bishops who were caught up in endless controversies about the Son and the Trinity, about essences and substances, affirmed their faith in creeds whose content was largely narrative and, thus, historical: "I believe in God . . . and in Jesus Christ his Son our Lord, who was conceived of the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate . . ."

The modern quest for the Jesus of history -- the project here -- was begun and pursued foremost in the university faculties of post-Enlightenment Germany. In part continuing the Reformation's protest against the theological formulations of Roman Catholicism, in part applying the developing methods of scientific historical research to the documents of the ancient church, German scholars blazed the path for critical work on the life of Jesus. Their efforts ended in an impasse almost a century ago, when these academic portraits of Jesus, sketched primarily from the palette of Mark, Matthew, and Luke, polarized around two options: Jesus imagined essentially as a teacher of religious ethics ("The fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man"), or Jesus as self-designated apocalyptic Messiah (the hero of Albert Schweitzer's great classic The Quest of the Historical Jesus). Each interpretation emphasized different aspects of the Gospel tradition: the ethical Jesus, the Sermon on the Mount; the apocalyptic Jesus, those passages on the coming Son of Man, and God's kingdom. And both failed at the same point, namely, on constructing a convincing historical explanation (as opposed to a polemical or theological one) of why Rome would have moved to execute such an essentially religious figure in such a brutally political way.

One hundred years later, where are we? Jesus the charismatic leader; Jesus the existential religious thinker; Jesus the hypnotic healer; Jesus the witty, subversive sage; Jesus the passionate social revolutionary; Jesus the prophet of the End -- all these diverse images of Jesus populate the most recent books; all are presented with the same flourish of authority; all are constructed by appeals to the same data. The paperbacks proliferate as the range of the portraits broadens. If this is progress, we might wish for less of it.

Whence this bewildering variety? In part, from the enormous gains made especially in the last fifty years in our knowledge of first-century Judaism, the historical matrix of both Jesus and the early churches. The recovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, manuscript finds in Egypt and in the Judean desert, energetic and sustained archaeological research in Judea and the Galilee pursued since the foundation of the modern state of Israel in 1948, and in Jerusalem, particularly around the Temple Mount, since the reunification of the city in 1967 -- all have contributed to increasing our knowledge and, hence, our interpretive options. In part, too, this variety comes of the new home for New Testament research created, particularly in the United States and Canada, within the religion faculties of liberal arts colleges and universities. Critical and comparative in principle, the modern liberal arts study of religion deliberately draws on the methods of other fields -- social anthropology, cultural anthropology, sociology, political theory, literary criticism -- to see familiar data through new interpretive prisms.

Proliferation of both data and analytic methods feeds the current superabundance of different images of Jesus. One clear example of the revolutionary effect of new data is the impact that the Dead Sea Scrolls have had on New Testament research. Some of the wildest arguments -- that Jesus himself, or perhaps his brother James, was an Essene; that minute fragments of Christian texts can be seen in (emended) Scroll documents; that the Scrolls themselves speak of a crucified Messiah -- routinely appear in popular media without seriously affecting the direction most scholars take. But the new knowledge gained through the Scrolls has permanently altered essential perceptions of Gospel material.

Before the Scrolls' recovery, for example, many scholars regarded the Gospel of John as presenting a very Hellenized, fundamentally non-Jewish image of Jesus. They consequently discounted this Gospel as both late and intrinsically nonhistorical, and they favored the synoptic tradition (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) when in search of the Jesus of history. The discovery of the Scrolls -- whose place, date, and completely Jewish context is very secure -- undermined this view of the Fourth Gospel. For the Scrolls, like John, speak the language of Children of Light and Children of Darkness; they, too, envisage struggle between the two realms. One need not posit, then, as earlier scholars did, that such language and thinking point to a late or non-Jewish origin for John's Gospel. The Scrolls incontrovertibly show that early first-century Judean Jews spoke and thought in similar ways. And an earlier, Jewish context of composition for John's Gospel then reopens the question of its historical value for reconstructing Jesus' life.

New methods complicate our efforts in other ways. Their very variety undermines any possibility of consensus about how to proceed; their respective orientations guarantee often disparate results. Do we emphasize political and economic theories on the organization of aristocratic empires? Then, unsurprisingly, we end up with a Jesus whose program addresses these economic and political problems, the inequalities of power, that such empires analyzed in this way are seen to embody and express. Do we look to anthropological studies of shamans in other cultures to understand spontaneous healings in first-century rural Palestine? Then we will analyze the Gospels' accounts of Jesus as exorcist and healer accordingly. Do we use literary methods to refract the evangelical narratives into the layers of tradition that putatively comprise them, isolate those layers that we consider the most ancient, and concentrate our efforts solely on those? If we argue that the earliest layer is sayings rather than story, word rather than deed, we will naturally conclude that Jesus was primarily a teacher. Our efforts then will turn to understanding what he taught, not what he did, since his actions (healings, for example, or exorcisms, or the scene in the Temple) are communicated not in sayings but in story. Narrative on this reading inevitably recedes in importance as primary evidence. In sum: Once method determines our perspective on our sources, how we see is really what we get.

All these diverse positions affect, indeed afflict, the current quest. Even though all scholars who work on Jesus look more or less to the Gospels as the mother lode to mine for data, a priori commitments to different methods mean that they actually read different texts. My colleagues who take Jesus' wisdom sayings ("Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves") as the earliest, most authentic tradition that the Gospels preserve portray a Jesus who seems much more like a Cynic philosopher -- another purveyor of witty maxims in antiquity -- than like a Jewish prophet. My colleagues who look to later rabbinic writings as the closest native context for traditions also visible in the Gospels will see Jesus as a charismatic Galilean Hasid, a pious layperson, beleaguered on that account by the Pharisees, since such men drew the scorn of the more learned and powerful in these later Jewish texts. And my colleagues who stay closest to Mark's story of a Jesus who goes to Jerusalem only once and stages some sort of action at the Temple inevitably see a Jesus whose religious business, in one form or another, essentially challenged the "official" Judaism of his day. The first group emphasize Jesus' sayings when they look at the Gospels; the second, a sketchier version of tensions that become more visible in the later Talmud; the third, the Markan narrative rather than the sayings. The methods introduced in quest of the historical Jesus, in short, have resulted in turn in a de facto quest for a historical Gospel. Once again, diversity -- and controversy -- dominate.

Do we have any polestar, then, by which we might navigate our way through this confusion? I think we do. Though the word is unfashionable in academic history right now, I shall breathe it anyway, here: We have facts. Facts about Jesus, and facts about the movement that formed after his crucifixion. Facts are always subject to interpretation -- that's part of the fun -- but they also exist as fixed points in our investigation. Any explanation, any reconstruction of Jesus' mission and message must speak adequately to what we know to have been the case. If it cannot, then no matter how elegant an application of interesting methods or how rousing and appealing its moral message, that reconstruction fails as history. It might conjure an image of Jesus that pleases or moves us as religiously meaningful, but that portrait will have only a glancing resemblance to the real person who lived, intact and entirely, within his own culture and in his own time, utterly without obligation to make sense to us in ours.

So let's put our facts up front in order to begin our search here. What do we know about Jesus of Nazareth, and how do these facts enable us to start out on the road to a solid and plausible historical portrait of him?

The single most solid fact about Jesus' life is his death: he was executed by the Roman prefect Pilate, on or around Passover, in the manner Rome reserved particularly for political insurrectionists, namely, crucifixion. Constructions of Jesus primarily as a Jewish religious figure, one who challenged the authority of Jerusalem's priests, thus sit uncomfortably on his very political, Imperial death: Pilate would have known little and cared less about Jewish religious beliefs and intra-Jewish religious controversy. The lines spoken in the Acts of the Apostles by Gallio, proconsul in Corinth, capture well the general Roman indifference to the particular religions of subject peoples and Rome's clear sense of where to invest its energies when running an empire. Addressing the group of Corinthian Jews who seek to arraign Paul before the tribunal, Gallio says, "If it were a matter of wrongdoing or vicious crime, I should have reason to bear with you, O Jews. But since it is a matter of questions about words and names and your own law, see to it yourselves: I refuse to be a judge in these things" (Acts 18:14-15).



The single most solid fact about Jesus' life is his death: he was executed by the Roman prefect Pilate, on or around Passover, in the manner Rome reserved particularly for political insurrectionists, namely, crucifixion. Constructions of Jesus primarily as a Jewish religious figure, one who challenged the authority of Jerusalem's priests, thus sit uncomfortably on his very political, Imperial death: Pilate would have known little and cared less about Jewish religious beliefs and intra-Jewish religious controversy. The lines spoken in the Acts of the Apostles by Gallio, proconsul in Corinth, capture well the general Roman indifference to the particular religions of subject peoples and Rome's clear sense of where to invest its energies when running an empire. Addressing the group of Corinthian Jews who seek to arraign Paul before the tribunal, Gallio says, "If it were a matter of wrongdoing or vicious crime, I should have reason to bear with you, O Jews. But since it is a matter of questions about words and names and your own law, see to it yourselves: I refuse to be a judge in these things" (Acts 18:14-15).

This problem of linking Jesus' Jewish career with his Roman death challenges many, and extremely diverse, modern reconstructions of Jesus and his message. The more Jesus is imagined as a teacher whose message -- be it the witty subversive aphorisms of the wandering Jewish Cynic, the existential ethics of the pious Hasid, or the antinationalist, anti-Temple proclamation of the Galilean visionary -- essentially challenges Jewish religious authorities, the harder it is to explain Pilate's role. Explanations range from Jesus' having died by accident (caught up inadvertently by a police action against some sort of demonstration) or by mistake (Rome thought he was incendiary, but he really wasn't), to seeing the supposedly offended priests as the true initiators, who worked out a deal with Pilate for Rome to do what they could not, namely, execute him (this essentially expands the Gospels' view). Against these, other historians have speculated that Jesus actually did lead a more political, rebellious sort of movement than the Gospels dare portray, so that Rome responded rightly as Rome naturally would.

However, Jesus' cross is the stumbling block for all these reconstructions. Those who emphasize his offense to highly placed Jews rightly note that the former and current high priests named in the Gospels, Annas and Caiaphas, together held that office for seventeen of the first twenty years that Judea, hence Jerusalem, was under direct Roman rule: Presumably they had excellent working relations with whatever prefect was in power. If they decided they wanted Jesus out of the way, Pilate may indeed have been perfectly happy to oblige. This can explain Jesus' death at Rome's hand, but not, specifically, his crucifixion. Pilate could have disposed of Jesus easily and without much fanfare, murdering him by much simpler means. (The Gospels' emphasis on Jesus' popularity -- "The chief priests and the scribes were seeking how to arrest him by stealth and kill him; for they said, 'Not during the feast, lest there be a tumult of the people' " [Mk 14:1-2] -- makes Pilate's decision to crucify him that much odder.) And those who speak to the sharp contrast between Jesus' religious, Jewish message and his political, Roman death must claim that the Gospel stories are deliberately, egregiously misleading, either investing too much meaning, since Jesus truly died by mistake (Rome thought he was politically dangerous, but he wasn't), or obscuring the true meaning, since Jesus really was anti-Roman and political (so Rome was right, by its lights, to crucify him). But these latter theories collide head-on with a second incontrovertible fact we have from the earliest movement: Though Jesus was executed as a political insurrectionist, his followers were not.

Had Rome, mistakenly or not, truly thought that Jesus posed any sort of political threat, more than only Jesus would have died. Pilate never could have risked or tolerated the existence of what he would suppose to be a revolutionary group. Further, the earliest Christian evidence, Paul's letters, written midcentury, depict the disciples as ensconced comfortably in Jerusalem, directing a Mediterranean-wide mission without the slightest hint of constraint from Rome -- or, for that matter, from Jerusalem's priestly hierarchy. Clearly, nobody in power was much worried by this movement. Why then did its leader die the way he did?

This is a crucial anomaly. Because it is established by two absolutely secure historical facts, it will serve as the driving wheel for my effort here to reconstruct the Jesus of history. I think that it forces us to conclusions about the Gospel evidence that run radically counter to the prime assumptions of all other current work on Jesus, most especially on the question of why he was killed. I emphatically include my own earlier book, From Jesus to Christ, in this group whose conclusions this book challenges. In the eleven years between that publication and this one, my contemplation of this anomaly has steadily eroded my conviction in my previous conclusions. The argument here, then, is my own pentimento as well as a fresh chapter in the current quest for the historical Jesus.

The opening two chapters necessarily delay the reader's plunge into the gospel material. The first is on the nature of history, the second on ancient religion, specifically Judaism. The peculiarities of our topic -- the historical Jesus and the Jewish origins of Christianity -- mandate these prior discussions.

For our knowing what Christianity's future would be makes its past harder to see. Because we seek causes, connections between events that explain them, patterns of meaning in the evidence that remains, we often run the risk of anachronism: Our knowledge of what ultimately happened affects our efforts to convincingly present the experience of those ancient agents whose actions we want to understand and explain. We see causes and impute motivations with a clarity that the actual historical characters could not possibly have had because, unlike us, they did not know what their future held.


However, Jesus' cross is the stumbling block for all these reconstructions. Those who emphasize his offense to highly placed Jews rightly note that the former and current high priests named in the Gospels, Annas and Caiaphas, together held that office for seventeen of the first twenty years that Judea, hence Jerusalem, was under direct Roman rule: Presumably they had excellent working relations with whatever prefect was in power. If they decided they wanted Jesus out of the way, Pilate may indeed have been perfectly happy to oblige. This can explain Jesus' death at Rome's hand, but not, specifically, his crucifixion. Pilate could have disposed of Jesus easily and without much fanfare, murdering him by much simpler means. (The Gospels' emphasis on Jesus' popularity -- "The chief priests and the scribes were seeking how to arrest him by stealth and kill him; for they said, 'Not during the feast, lest there be a tumult of the people' " [Mk 14:1-2] -- makes Pilate's decision to crucify him that much odder.) And those who speak to the sharp contrast between Jesus' religious, Jewish message and his political, Roman death must claim that the Gospel stories are deliberately, egregiously misleading, either investing too much meaning, since Jesus truly died by mistake (Rome thought he was politically dangerous, but he wasn't), or obscuring the true meaning, since Jesus really was anti-Roman and political (so Rome was right, by its lights, to crucify him). But these latter theories collide head-on with a second incontrovertible fact we have from the earliest movement: Though Jesus was executed as a political insurrectionist, his followers were not.

Had Rome, mistakenly or not, truly thought that Jesus posed any sort of political threat, more than only Jesus would have died. Pilate never could have risked or tolerated the existence of what he would suppose to be a revolutionary group. Further, the earliest Christian evidence, Paul's letters, written midcentury, depict the disciples as ensconced comfortably in Jerusalem, directing a Mediterranean-wide mission without the slightest hint of constraint from Rome -- or, for that matter, from Jerusalem's priestly hierarchy. Clearly, nobody in power was much worried by this movement. Why then did its leader die the way he did?

This is a crucial anomaly. Because it is established by two absolutely secure historical facts, it will serve as the driving wheel for my effort here to reconstruct the Jesus of history. I think that it forces us to conclusions about the Gospel evidence that run radically counter to the prime assumptions of all other current work on Jesus, most especially on the question of why he was killed. I emphatically include my own earlier book, From Jesus to Christ, in this group whose conclusions this book challenges. In the eleven years between that publication and this one, my contemplation of this anomaly has steadily eroded my conviction in my previous conclusions. The argument here, then, is my own pentimento as well as a fresh chapter in the current quest for the historical Jesus.

The opening two chapters necessarily delay the reader's plunge into the gospel material. The first is on the nature of history, the second on ancient religion, specifically Judaism. The peculiarities of our topic -- the historical Jesus and the Jewish origins of Christianity -- mandate these prior discussions.

For our knowing what Christianity's future would be makes its past harder to see. Because we seek causes, connections between events that explain them, patterns of meaning in the evidence that remains, we often run the risk of anachronism: Our knowledge of what ultimately happened affects our efforts to convincingly present the experience of those ancient agents whose actions we want to understand and explain. We see causes and impute motivations with a clarity that the actual historical characters could not possibly have had because, unlike us, they did not know what their future held.

In quest of the Jesus of history, this occupational hazard finds expression in the tendency of many scholars to impute to Jesus some thought or action that explains, in a concrete way, what Christianity ultimately became. By the time we have most of the texts that constitute the New Testament -- say, by the late first or early second century -- the Temple in Jerusalem was no more, Pharisees were emerging as notable sectarian survivors of the Jews' war with Rome, and the ethnic population base of the Christian movement had begun the momentous shift from its Jewish beginnings to its gentile future. Consequently, the ancient Jewish laws and customs enacted at the Temple had little practical application to late first-century religious life, whether Jewish or (to the degree that we can meaningfully distinguish the two communities so early on) Christian. The Pharisees, the most intact group of the postdestruction period, were also the most articulate in preserving and presenting their own particular interpretation of Torah. And Gentiles, whether as pagans or as Christians, had never been held by Jews, nor even by most Christian Jews, as responsible to and for the mandates of the Law. But now as Christians they had become worshipers of the God of Israel. What, then, was to be their relationship to his teachings as conveyed in biblical revelation?

The evangelists incorporate these postdestruction issues into their depictions of Jesus, the founder-figure for their communities. Thus their Jesus, too, exhibits a post-Temple religious consciousness; he, too, has his most charged arguments with Pharisees; he, too, seems turned away from his Jewish present, facing a gentile future. We have no option to drawing on the evangelists: Their writings represent the best body of evidence we have for reconstructing the historical Jesus. But we must be sensitive to the ways that their own historical context, sometime in the last third of the first century, shapes their presentation of Jesus and his: Jewish Galilee and Judea in the days of vigorous sectarian variety, oriented around the vibrant cult of the late Second Temple.

By considering the difficulties of anachronism and the complicated status of the Gospels as evidence (chap. 1), and by imaginatively locating ourselves within the religious world of antiquity, and specifically Jewish antiquity (chap. 2), we can develop some critical purchase on the problems attending most current modern interpretations of Jesus. Our focus on the anomaly that stands at the heart of what we know past doubting to be historically true -- that Jesus was executed by Rome as an insurrectionist, but that none of his followers were -- together with our increased sensitivity to anachronism, will help us to formulate a new approach to the gospel material. And this approach, in turn, will enable us to see a new answer to that most ancient question that lies at the source of the Christian movement: Why was Jesus crucified?
Paula Fredriksen

About Paula Fredriksen

Paula Fredriksen - Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews

Photo © A.I. Tauber

Paula Fredriksen is the Aurelio Professor of Scripture at Boston University.
Praise

Praise

"Tightly reasoned, learned and readable.... Engagingly written."--National Review

"Fredriksen boldly and compellingly tackles a fundamental question about Jesus: Why did he die?"--The Boston Globe

  • Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews by Paula Fredriksen
  • December 05, 2000
  • Religion - Christianity
  • Vintage
  • $17.00
  • 9780679767466

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