magical mystery tour of historical investigation...’
Extracts from Who on Earth was Jesus?
From the Preface:
If John Lennon could claim that the Beatles were bigger than Jesus,
inventive writers and pseudo-scholars were soon on hand to prove him
wrong and demonstrate that at the name of Jesus the tills in the great
chain of bookstores can still be made to ring out a joyful sound. All it
takes is a generous dose of conspiracy theory, a tabloid distaste for
inconvenient evidence, Dan Brown’s genius for blurring fact and fiction
and Lord Archer’s combination of chutzpah and snake-oil salesmanship to
extract big advances from co-conspiratorial publishers and big bucks
from a gullible reading public... And in this welter of sensationalism,
this cacophony of corrupt claims and cynical salesmanship, where does
the general reader turn for knowledgeable guidance on what could be fact
and what is likely to be fiction in the old, old story?
Where do we go if we want to ask, intelligently: Who on
Earth was Jesus? Where else but to the body of
scholarship dedicated to the tough task of filtering history from
mystery, evidence from conjecture, and critical from wishful thinking?
So where to find them? How to trust them?
To begin with, we must distinguish the serious scholar from
the charlatan. The serious scholar will have taken the trouble to equip
himself or herself with the tools of the historian’s trade: a good
working knowledge of the languages, cultures, literary genres, oral
traditions, power politics, religious controversies and social mores of
first-century Galilee in particular and the Greco-Roman world in
general. Second, the serious scholar will respect the evidence and
follow where it leads, even (or especially) when it leads where he
doesn’t want to go. We must not expect even the most scholarly scholar
to be free of presumptions, opinions, prejudices, personal ambition or
the cultural baggage we all lug around with us. Scholars and charlatans
alike are only human (and according to Matthew 23:13-33 in the Jesus
Seminar’s “Scholars’ Version”, Jesus didn’t have too high an opinion of
them: “You scholars and Pharisees, you impostors! Damn you...You spawn
of Satan! How are you going to escape Hell’s judgment?”).
What we must demand of our guides is evidence of
intellectual integrity, respect for truth, and due humility in face of
the complexity of the quest on which they have embarked. Where do we
find these virtues? There are whole armies of specialists in this field.
Some spend their entire working lives in the academy, the fruit of their
researches hidden in the pages of specialist journals invisible to the
general reader. Others have broken free from the academic closet to
achieve fame, even fortune, as best-selling authors: Crossan, Borg,
Vermes, Wright, and others we shall meet in these pages. What Jesus have
they been looking for? What Jesus have they found?
Readers embarking on this magical mystery tour of historical
investigation will soon encounter an awkward fact. Historians do not
always agree. Decades of painstaking historical Jesus research
have not produced a scholarly consensus on who this man Jesus was.
What I aim to do with this book is provide a rough guide to the main
schools of historical Jesus scholarship a century after the publication
of Albert Schweitzer’s pioneering Quest of the Historical
Jesus. Schweitzer summarized the conclusions of nineteenth century
scholars who knew nothing of the Nag Hammadi codices and Dead Sea
scrolls lying undisturbed under the lone and level sands of Egypt. I
give the best account I can of the work of modern historians and Jesus
detectives whose expanded database of evidence and sharper technological
toolkit has revolutionized the contemporary quest and, for those with
eyes to see and ears to hear, transformed our understanding of an Iron
Age visionary who unwittingly shaped the religious, social and cultural
history of the next two thousand years.
(From pages xvii – xviii)
From the cameo
The invention of
the narrative gospel:
We are now so familiar with the narrative gospels in the Bible that it
rarely occurs to us to ask where this kind of writing came from. Did the
author or compiler of Mark invent the form, rather as Defoe is said to
have invented the novel and Petrarch the sonnet? Or was there already a
literary form at hand, which he simply borrowed?
Whatever genre the narrative gospel belongs to, scholars are virtually
unanimous in their view that it has little connection with that of
modern biography. The authors of Mark, Matthew, Luke and John were not
objective historians who reconstructed events by researching in
libraries and interviewing surviving friends and relations of Jesus.
Biographers and biographies did not exist as the genres and disciplines
we know today. The gospel writers were primarily preachers. They had
“good news” to proclaim, and the narrative gospel was the literary
framework within which they proclaimed it.
The word “gospel” is a translation of the Latin word “evangelium”, which
in turn is derived from Greek. According to Helmut Koester in
Ancient Christian Gospels,
it was first used by Aristophanes (c450 - c388 BCE) to mean “bringing
good news”, such as victory in battle. As a noun, in classical Greek
usage it came to mean the
for bringing good news, or a
for it. By imperial Roman times it was often used to mean news itself:
the content of news, whether good, bad or indifferent. Koester sees the
term as elevated to a new dignity in imperial inscriptions such as that
from Priene (9 BCE) to “the god” and “savior” Augustus, whose birth was
“the beginning of his good messages [or gospels]”.
Within Hebrew tradition, the word appears in the Septuagint (Greek)
version of the Jewish scriptures or “Old Testament”, where it can mean
any kind of news or message, until Isaiah, where it takes on the
particular meaning of the good news of the beginning of the rule of
Yahweh, the “proclamation to the poor”. Taken up by the early Jesus
movement, the noun was used as a synonym of “the message” or “the
preaching”, and the verb meant “to bring the message” or “to preach”.
Koester counts 48 usages in Paul’s genuine letters (which of course
precede the narrative gospels). Since the message that was preached was,
to the early Christian community, indeed “good news”, the word was
re-invested with its older Greek sense of positive or joyful content,
and those who preached the good news, the
or gospel-makers. For Christians, there was no good news other than the
good news proclaimed by Jesus:
But it is by no means clear that the writers of the four biblical books
we now call gospels thought of their work as a new kind of literary
genre to which they attached the name. Mark’s opening sentence
introduces “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ...”, but “the
gospel” here is the message, not the book. Luke refers to his own and
other similar books as “accounts” or “narratives”, not as gospels.
Neither Matthew nor John
use the term as a literary description: the titles “Gospel according
to...” were all added later.
So while we can analyse the changing meanings of the word “gospel”, this
does not tell us where the genre of a narrative gospel came from.
Scholars have pointed out that, while the gospel-writers were clearly
influenced by literary forms developed over centuries of Jewish writing,
there was nothing like a gospel narrative in the Hebrew scriptures. The
lives of Moses, Samuel and David were well represented in the
literature, but no-one had thought to pull their stories into a
narrative proto-biography. The form of a narrative gospel, as distinct
from the word “gospel” meaning message, was unknown in Jewish tradition.
The gospel writers must have taken it from somewhere else, unless Mark
invented the form from scratch.
Since first-century Christianity had its roots in both Judaism and the
overarching Hellenistic culture (that is, the culture of the Greco-Roman
empire), it is not surprising to discover that the form of the four
narrative gospels appears to be patterned on a genre of “life” stories
or proto-biographies already fully developed within Greek literature.
Since Herodotus in the fifth century BCE, Greek story-tellers had put
together improving and inspirational tales about their “heroes”. A hero
was generally someone who had died a noble death, as martyr to a cause.
But the Greeks believed that those who died nobly had been destined to
do so by Fate. They had literally been born to die their noble death.
Moreover, Fate had often signalled the noble end by preliminary signs
and wonders, such as a miraculous birth, a supernatural infancy event,
and the occasional miracle in adulthood. So the Hellenistic
life-narrative of, say, an heroic king or warrior, tended to consist of
the following components:
1. Origins, often supernatural.
2. Youth - one or more infancy stories, prefiguring the wisdom or
nobility that was to come.
3. Adulthood - great deeds, often miraculous.
4. Martydom or heroic death, leading to cult status thereafter.
After the death of Socrates, who was neither a king nor a warrior but no
less a hero, a fifth component came to be added between 2 and 3, or 3
5. A summary of the great man’s teachings.
Lane C McGaughy offers an example:“The brief biography of Theagenes, as
recorded in Pausanias’
Description of Greece,
illustrates well the structure and function of the various parts of a
hellenistic biography; (1) Theagenes was conceived as the result of a
union between the immortal Heracles (disguised as his father Timosthenes)
and his human mother [a sign that he was fated for future greatness];
(2) at age nine Theagenes lugs home a bronze statue (presumably weighing
hundreds of pounds) from the town square [a signal that he will become
the world’s greatest athlete]; (3) a summary of his heroic achievements
as an adult: sure enough, he won 1,400 crowns (= gold medals) at various
Olympiads and other games and thus fulfilled his preordained destiny;
(4) the establishment of a cult to the divinized Theagenes after his
(Forum, NS 2/1, Spring 1999).
McGaughy argues that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John used the Hellenistic
formula “to provide the framework for the independent units of Jesus
tradition that they received from various oral and written sources”.
Mark omits a miraculous birth story, and John loftily presents his hero
as existing before his human birth, but Matthew and Luke follow the
template closely. The four gospels are highly original in theological
content, but their literary form is clearly derived from
well-established Greek-gentile literary conventions.
(From pages 50 – 53)
FROM ‘The utopia that sets history in motion’, in Chapter 12
To search for the Jesus of history is to search for
the Jesus who lived in a late Iron Age village in a remote corner of the
Roman Empire. The framework within which he taught
was the framework of his own time and place. That he could and did
stretch that framework is evidenced by his unique and lasting influence,
but no historical human being can step outside his specific historical
circumstance. We are creatures of our time and place, our culture, our
little stories and grand narratives. The historical Jesus was a
first-century Jew in a Hellenized Roman empire, immersed in a
monotheistic Judaism which had absorbed Persian, Babylonian, Greek and
Roman influences but triumphantly retained its own distinctiveness. The
kingdom he preached and promised was a kingdom conceived within that
particular, distinctive religious and social culture, expressed (and
subtly modified) in the language of that culture. His glimpse of an
alternative reality, his envisioned paradise regained, was a kingdom;
the king was God. There was no other language available to
a Galilean peasant-artisan unacquainted with Philo and Plato, let alone
with Hume’s reason and Blake’s imagination.
Two thousand years later we live in a different
world... So for the kingdom
of God read the republic of heaven. This is not the language of Jesus,
because his language is not ours. But the enabling dream
transcends the language in which it was first expressed in those
uniquely expressive parables and aphorisms, mangled as they were by
zealous evangelists and their editors, spirit-filled prophets and
power-conscious priests bent on creating new hierarchies. After two
thousand years of white noise, those who have ears to hear may still
pick up the authentic voice of a man of his own age who somehow
contrives to speak to ours. We should know, because the world seems
hell-bent on a new apocalyptic. Accelerating human-made climate change
threatens to engulf us within a century; a continuing nuclear arms race
looks like giving us the opportunity to end the world as it began, with
another Big Bang; and apocalyptic Christianity squares up to apocalyptic
Islam. John’s most terrible Jesus [in Revelation], his eyes
aflame, his sword proceeding from his mouth, rides in on a white charger
and scatters his enemies on the hill of Megiddo. That was John’s dream.
But the historical Jesus had a different experience: “My God, my God!
Why hast thou forsaken me?” Perhaps in his death he experienced the
truth of his life: that in the dreamed-of coming kingdom, the kingdom
already in the making, it was the poor, the oppressed and persecuted,
the peace-makers, the God-forsaken, who would lay the foundations
of his visionary kingdom, our republic of heaven, “where the voice of
weeping shall be no more heard, nor the voice of crying”.
(From pages 405 -406)
eagerly look forward to the day when God would arrive on earth to exalt
his true believers and damn the rest of us to eternal torment... Does he
come in peace, or with an axe in his hand?’