Category Archives: Historical Jesus

Ballparking the historical Jesus – The importance of context

In my previous posts on the historical Jesus, I have stressed the difficulties modern historians face in reconstructing this first century peasant or in being precise about what exactly the peasant of Galilee did or said.  The limits of historical method and the scholarly choices that are involved every step of the way help to explain why solid scholars such as E.P. Sanders and John Dominic Crossan come up with quite different results in their attempts to say something about the historical Jesus.  (I hope to return to these guys in another post).

When it comes down to it, one could say that what we know with a relatively high level of probability using historical approaches are two specific things: that there is a very high likelihood that Jesus was executed by crucifixion under Pilate and that Jesus was probably baptized by John the immerser.  There are, of course, important corollaries to these two items that allow us to go further.  Yet, beyond such historically secure statements, it is difficult to be precise about sayings and actions of Jesus from an historical perspective.  Some things may be more securely probable or likely than others, but we are dealing with less secure items the rest of the way in the search for the historical Jesus. What one scholar considers to be a more likely case of an authentic saying or action of Jesus, another will consider probably a product of an early Christian author, and therefore inauthentic.  Modern historical methods are limited in what they can tell us about a specific person living two thousand years ago, and our ancient sources have interests other than historical reporting.

As the title to my post puts it, we are in some sense better off admitting that we can only (carefully) ballpark it when it comes to evaluating many aspects of the historical Jesus.   What I mean by “ballparking it” here is that we can gain a relatively good picture of some aspects of the social, economic, and cultural contexts in which the peasant Jesus was active, and we can know with some degree of likelihood about some of Jesus’ contemporaries in the context of Galilee and Judea.  We can construct a likely picture of the overall ballpark or range of possibilities within which to place the figure of Jesus — a first century Galilean ballpark set within the Roman empire.

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(The Galilean ballpark)

A typical student in a second year course or your average Jane-blog-reader may know very little about ancient history.  They may know even less about the Mediterranean world as a whole in that ancient period.  They may know even less about what was going on in Israel in the first century, and still less about what it was like in the region of Galilee or in some village like Nazareth.  Then there’s the question of whether one’s limited knowledge is focussed on what we moderns distinguish as geography, politics, economics, society, or culture.  The thing to teach here, I would suggest, is the ballpark (itself hard to recreate using historical methods) in which to plot out the various possibilities for a peasant like Jesus.  If we spend considerable time studying the world in which Jesus lived, through both literary and archeological evidence, and focus our attention on studying other near-contemporaries of Jesus who produced writings or who left behind artefacts, then we can get quite a bit closer to the ballpark in which Jesus played.

A second highly probable thing about the historical Jesus: Immersion by John the Baptizer

My previous discussion of Tacitus and Josephus concluded with the observation that the execution of Jesus under the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate is one of the most secure things we can know about the peasant from Nazareth with a high degree of probability using modern historical methods.  This is because reference to the execution is attested in multiple, independent sources (criterion of multiple, independent attestation), including sources which refer to Jesus only incidentally, as an aside.  Historical methods are limited in what they can reveal to us, particularly in the case of ancient history and especially in the case of studying an obscure Galilean villager who lived two thousand years ago (our knowledge of Galilee is quite limited, let alone our knowledge of an individual living there).  When historical approaches can reveal something to us, it is only with certain levels of likelihood or probability, not certainty or “truth.”  So cases of “high probability” that x or y happened are the best you can get in doing history (in the modern sense).

Joachim Patenier, The Baptism of Christ (1515; Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna)

(Joachim Patenier, The Baptism of Christ [1515; Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna])

A second highly probable thing about Jesus accessible through historical methods is his immersion or baptism by John the Baptist.  Scholars of early Christianity have developed a set of criteria for establishing the historical “authenticity” of particular activities or sayings attributed to Jesus in our sources, and multiple attestation is an important one.  Another is known as the criterion of embarrassment.  The principle here is: if a source reports some incident or saying even though the author of that source was hesitant about reporting it and somewhat embarrassed by the incident or saying, that author is not likely to have completely made up that incident or saying.  On the other hand, the author in question could have simply omitted it to avoid any difficulty.  In other words, when our sources report something in a round about way that reveals some embarrassment, there is a higher likelihood that it actually did happen.

One of the most illustrative cases in which this criterion plays a key role relates to the immersion of Jesus by John the Baptizer.  The actual incident of Jesus being baptized in this case is attested in the gospel of Mark and in both Matthew and Luke.  However, if one is using the two-source hypothesis, this would entail only one independent source for the incident, since Matthew and Luke are here drawing their material from Mark, the earliest ancient biography of Jesus.  The Gospel of John completely omits the baptism itself and the Q-sayings source may or may not have included the actual baptism (Q did have material about John the Baptist and Jesus interacting).  The so-called Gospel of the Hebrews and Gospel of the Nazoreans each report the immersion, so they may or may not (depending on their reliance on the synoptic traditions) supply further independent attestation.  So the criterion of multiple attestation is not much help here.

This is where evidence of embarrassment comes in handy for the historian.   The way that New Testament scholars explain this is that the embarrassment arises from the implications of a superior teacher or mentor in relation to an inferior student or protégé.  At the time when the authors of the synoptics were writing (late first century) there were apparently still groups of followers of John the Baptizer (cf. Acts 19:1-7), which might raise the question: why not join a movement devoted to the superior baptizer rather the inferior baptized one.  An early follower of Jesus might be concerned to assert that Jesus is superior to John the Baptist, even though Jesus’ baptism by John might imply otherwise.

Each of the gospels deals with this in different ways.  The earliest, Mark, presents a saying in which John explicitly identifies his inferiority to Jesus, in terms of not being worthy to even undo Jesus’ sandals, and a dove, interpreted as the Spirit, confirms Jesus special status (Mk 1:7-11).  Mathew uses Mark but adds in a further interchange in which John tries to prevent Jesus from being baptized by him, which would imply Jesus’ inferiority, but Jesus gives the green-light in terms of “fulfilling righteousness” (Mt 3:13-15).  Luke goes about dealing with the embarrassment in an interesting way.  Mark, Luke’s source, has that Jesus was “baptized by John in the Jordan” but Luke takes out John here and changes the phraseology so that there’s an ambiguity about who exactly baptized Jesus: “when Jesus also had been baptized… ” (Lk 3:21-22).

Finally, the Gospel of John (1:29-34) is usually out in left-field in comparison to the synoptic gospels, but the material on John the Baptist and Jesus is one of the very few cross-overs.  How does the author of the gospel of John show what scholars call “embarrassment” here?  The gospel of John omits the baptism of Jesus altogether but still presents John’s proclamations about the superiority of Jesus (e.g. the “Lamb of God” that takes away the sins of the world) and the descent of the dove indicating Jesus’ special status.

So all of our sources for the relation between John the Baptist and Jesus reveal what could be called an embarrassment at the implications of the baptism itself, one gospel to the point of omitting the immersion altogether.  Mark, Matthew, and Luke could have likewise simply omitted this incident to avoid having to explain, but they included it despite their embarrassment.  It is highly unlikely that the authors of these sources made up the baptism, and in historical terms it is highly probable that Jesus was actually baptized by John the Baptist.  There are important corollaries of this piece of information, particularly relating to the apocalyptic worldview of John the Baptist, but I’ll have to save those for another post.

Non-Christian sources for the study of the historical Jesus: Josephus and Tacitus on the execution of Jesus

One of the frustrating things about studying ancient history is the very limited nature of our sources, both in terms of quantity (only bits and pieces have come down to us) and in terms of quality.  What I mean by quality is reliable and verifiable historical information (in a modern historian’s terms) regarding the figures and incidents literary sources describe.  What the ancients were interested in telling us is seldom what a modern historian wants to know.

This also holds for the study of the historical Jesus, an obscure peasant from Nazareth in Galilee.  Archeology is indispensable in providing insights into the cultural context of that peasant, but does little for solving details about what that figure said or did.   When it comes down to it, the ancient biographies known as the gospels (e.g. Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) remain our principal source of evidence, along with other more recently discovered writings (e.g. The Gospel of Thomas).  Yet the authors of ancient biographies, or “lives” (bioi),  had very little interest in what a modern historian looks for in studying a figure of the past.  The ancient “lives” of Jesus were instead very interested in explaining what they thought the meaning of Jesus was for those who wished to follow him, and in promoting their own particular takes on that figure’s significance.

What would help in this situation would be some non-Christian sources regarding Jesus which could be carefully compared with these ancient, insider “lives” of Jesus in order to assist the historian in reconstructing with some level of probability a picture of the historical Jesus or of certain aspects of his life.  Such sources are few and far between, so it’s important to note the ones we have.

There are two main sources which I want to mention, one by a Judean author from a priestly family in Jerusalem (Josephus) who wrote in the last decades of the first century, and another by an upper class Roman imperial official (Tacitus) who wrote in the early second.  Neither author cared much about Jesus, but each happens to mention something about Jesus nonetheless.

SOURCE 1: Josephus wrote several works, the most important of which were the Judean War (written in the decade following the destruction of the temple in 70 CE) and Judean Antiquities (written in the 90s CE).  Figures related in some way to Jesus incidentally get mentioned three times in Judean Antiquities, including John the Baptist (Ant. 18.116-119), James (Ant. 20.200-201), and Jesus himself, who gets mentioned in one of the most important and controversial passages in all of Josephus’ writings (Ant. 18.63-64).

This passage is controversial because virtually all scholars agree that the text as it now stands (see below, including the strike-throughs) does not make sense as something Josephus would write: namely, there are no other signs anywhere in Josephus that suggest that he believed Jesus was an anointed one sent by God (“messiah”).  Josephus is actually averse to any claims that average peasants or anyone other than a member of the elite was a messiah or king or worthy of some leadership position.

A very few scholars suggest that the whole passage was later inserted into a copy of Josephus which then got re-copied and ended up in copies that have survived into the modern period.  Many other scholars would suggest that the passage was originally in Josephus’ book, but that someone (a Christian scribe) tampered with the passage and tweaked it significantly to make it sound like Josephus thought Jesus was absolutely wonderful, as though Josephus were actually a follower of Jesus.  John P. Meier has done a good job of assessing the passage and in offering what seems a likely scenario of what was added in and what, therefore, should be struck-out in using the passage to study the historical Jesus :

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 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 Christians, named after him, has not died out. (Ant. 18.63-64; translation by John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus [New York: Doubleday, 1991], vol. 1, p. 60; bold and strike-throughs mine).

This scenario is also supported by an Arabic version of this same passage in Josephus, which does not have the struck-through material and instead has similar material grouped at the end of the passage, suggesting that the Christian-sounding material is not original.


SOURCE 2: Much more could of course be said about this passage in Josephus, but for now let’s move on to the second important non-Christian source pertaining to Jesus.  Tacitus was a member of the imperial elite and senator, active in Rome, whose official positions included Roman governor of the province of Asia at one point (in 112-113 CE).   In the early second century, Tacitus wrote a history of the Roman emperors of the first century, known as Annals (written in the early second century).  There he deals with Nero’s time as emperor (54-68 CE).  Tacitus, by the way, does not like Nero at all, but he’s safe since Nero died several decades earlier, and few of the imperial elite of Tacitus’ time looked back fondly on Nero.

Tacitus mentions that a fire engulfed a particular neighbourhood of the city of Rome, a neighbourhood that was slotted for heavy rebuilding by Nero.  So, rumours began to spread that Nero himself had his men set the fire to clear the area and speed up the renovations.  Nero’s response?  Find someone to blame and quickly.  He chose followers of Jesus since, he heard through some source, they were sometimes disliked and viewed as anti-social.  Here is the passage from Annals 15.38 and 44:

(15.38) A disaster followed, whether accidental or treacherously contrived by the emperor, is uncertain, as authors have given both accounts, worse, however, and more dreadful than any which have ever happened to this city by the violence of fire. . . (15.44) But all human efforts, all the lavish gifts of the emperor, and the propitiations of the gods, did not banish the sinister belief that the conflagration was the result of an order. Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, 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. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired. Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle, and was exhibiting a show in the circus, while he mingled with the people in the dress of a charioteer or stood aloft on a car. Hence, even for criminals who deserved extreme and exemplary punishment, there arose a feeling of compassion; for it was not, as it seemed, for the public good, but to glut one man’s cruelty, that they were being destroyed (Tacitus, Annals, 15.38-44; trans. by A.J. Church and W.J. Brodribb, The Annals by Tacitus [London, New York: Macmillan, 1877]; public domain; bold mine).

SIGNIFICANCE FOR THE HISTORICAL JESUS: There are many historical issues that could be explored both in Josephus and in Tacitus.  (On Tacitus and persecution, see my earlier post on the atheistic Christians).  But what is the primary significance of these passages for study of the historical Jesus?  These sources coincide with a claim made in the gospels, the claim that Jesus was executed in Judea with the most severe form of punishment available for criminals, crucifixion, and that this took place in connection with the Roman imperial official Pontius Pilate.  So we have multiple sources, some non-Christian, that confirm this aspect of what happened to the peasant named Jesus.  Multiple attestation is always a key criterion in historical reconstructions (and in gospel studies, by the way).  This is the most reliable thing we know — using limited, modern historical methods — regarding that figure, Jesus.

I will soon return to a second key item that scores high on the scale of probability for modern historians: the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist, which has other significant corollaries regarding the peasant Jesus.

Did the peasant Jesus ignore Judean ritual laws? Crossan’s answer

As I’m preparing to introduce second year students to the study of the historical Jesus, I am trying to pinpoint key issues and differences among scholars in order to highlight the problems in getting at that Galilean peasant.  Soon enough, I’ll come to scholars (e.g. E.P. Sanders) who might point to the ways in which the Galilean Jesus was concerned to observe the Judean (Jewish) practices outlined in the Torah or Law, including some or most of its ritual observances.  The proposal there would be that the difference between Jesus and many of his contemporaries was in the interpretation or application of those ritual laws, not in whether they were valid or not.

As I’m re-reading John Dominic Crossan’s book, however, I am starkly reminded of where his peasant Jesus diverges from some other portraits.  For Crossan, Jesus significantly diverged from the apocalyptic message of his mentor, John the Baptist.  John the Baptist’s warning of the imminent end and the impending kingdom of God in the near future was replaced by Jesus’ message focussed on transforming present arrangements in a way that acknowledged the kingdom of God in the present.

The central point of what Jesus was all about is centered on the implications of Jesus’ call for “open commensality” (meal practices open to anyone) in this present kingdom of God and it is related to the charge that Jesus was a glutton and a drunkard.  Crossan’s claim to find in Jesus an egalitarian view on gathering together at the meal and a randomness in Jesus’ notion of the gathered community that will have a part in the kingdom or reign of God (e.g. parable of the feast in Gospel of Thomas 64 // Luke 14:15-24) becomes the interpretive key for all other aspects of the historical Jesus.

Crossan’s focus on this issue has implications regarding the degree to which Jesus was an observer of Judean customs and ritual ways as outlined in the Torah.  You could even say that Crossan’s approach here determines the question of Jesus’ observance or non-observance of ritual requirements (apart from any other evidence or lack thereof):

it was obviously possible for the first Christian generations to debate whether Jesus was for or against the ritual laws of Judaism.  His position must have been, as it were, unclear.  I propose, from those preceding complexes [themes that converge in sayings of Jesus that center on open or egalitarian notions of meal practices, including the view that Jesus ate with sinners and was a glutton/drunkard], that he did not care enough about such ritual laws either to attack or to acknowledge them.  He ignored them, but that, of course, was to subvert them at a most fundamental level.  Later, however, some followers could say that, since he did not attack them, he must have accepted them [e.g. Crossan may be thinking of Matthew].  Others, contrariwise, could say that, since he did not follow them, he must have been against them [e.g. Crossan may be thinking of Mark].  Open commensality profoundly negates distinctions and hierarchies between female and male, poor and rich, Gentile and Jew.  It does so, indeed, at a level that would offend the ritual laws of any civilized society.  That was precisely its challenge (Crossan, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant [New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992], 263).

Are the sayings of Jesus pertaining to meals and eating the primary (or only) means by which his relation to Judean ritual customs can be determined? may be a question to ask.  There will be more to come on such things in future posts.

Golden rule: Do unto others according to the “pagans”

“In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets” (attributed to Jesus in Matthew 7:12 [NRSV]; cf. Luke 6:31).

As you may know, rabbi Jesus was not alone among those in antiquity in advocating that ethics and treatment of others should be based on how one would like (or not like) to be treated. Thus, for instance, in a story involving another first century rabbi, rabbi Hillel, like Jesus, summarizes the ethical basis of the Torah in speaking to a Gentile convert:

“What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow neighbor. That is the whole Torah, while the rest is an elaborate commentary on it; go and learn” (Shabbat 31a; trans. by Moshe Gold, “Ethical Practice in Critical Discourse: Conversions and Disruptions in Legal, Religious Narratives,” Representations 64 [1998], 21).

And the book of Tobit in the apocrypha preserves a similar concept (Tobit 4:15). This was by no means a solely Jewish (or, later, Christian) way of thinking, however.

Despite what you may have heard about the “pagan” Greeks or Romans (a friend of mine — perhaps representative — thought they were all about wild orgies), “pagans” too were very concerned with proper behaviour as they defined it, and sometimes they defined it in similar ways. Educated philosophers, in particular, focussed their attention on questions of what behaviours were most fitting, desirable, or appropriate in particular circumstances. Such philosophers were often very concerned with “family values”, and so they spent considerable time thinking about what were the appropriate relationships among members of the household: husband-wife; parent-child; sibling-sibling; master-slave (the so called household codes which also appear in variant forms in Christian writings such as Colossians 3:18-4:1 and 1 Peter 2:18-3:7).

Among these “pagan” philosophers is Hierocles, who wrote a handbook in the second century that incorporated many ethical ideas from Stoicism (partially preserved in the works of Stobaeus). In the midst of discussing proper relations among members of the family and in society generally, Hierocles has this to say:

The first bit of advice, therefore, is very clear, easily obtained, and common to all people. For it is a sound word which everyone will recognize as clear: Treat anybody whatsoever as though you supposed that he were you and you he. For someone would treat even a servant well if he pondered how he would want to be treated if the slave were the master and he the slave. Something similar can also be said of parents with respect to their children, of children with respect to their parents, and, in short, of all people with respect to others” (Hierocles, On Duties 4.27.20; translated by Abraham J. Malherbe, Moral Exhortation: A Greco-Roman Sourcebook [Library of Early Christianity; Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1986], 93-94. ).

Think of that bit of Greco-Roman wisdom the next time you’re watching some modern film or show depicting those supposedly wild Roman “pagans” with their orgies and gladiatorial slaughter.

Want more on “pagan” ethics and family values?:  See my earlier post on Paul and Philemon, in which I discussed the views of Galen and Seneca, both philosophers, on the proper treatment of slaves.  Also see my articles on the use of familial language including  “brothers” and “mothers or fathers”, within associations.

Let’s talk about sects: Diversity in Second-Temple Judaism (NT 2.3)

Judean culture in the second-temple period (c. 500 BCE-70 CE) was diverse. And it is important to remember that what we often call “early Christianity” or, perhaps better, the Jesus-movement was in fact one among many Judean groups or sects in first century Palestine and the Mediterranean diaspora (Jews also lived in Greek and Roman cities outside of Israel).

Among groups within Judaism or Judean culture, we happen to know most about the sects that the Jewish historian Josephus styles as three (or four) Judean “philosophies” (especially in War 2.119-166 and Antiquities 18.11-25, produced in the 70s and 90s CE).

In more than one passage, Josephus speaks of the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Essenes. In one of them he tacks on the so-called “fourth philosophy,” a violent group stemming, Josephus’ claims, from the tax-related rebellion (c. 6 CE) associated with Judas of Galilee and including, in his view, the sicarii assassins of the mid-first century. The difficulty is that Josephus’ account of each of these groups is brief and sketchy, and he has certain axes to grind. It is from Josephus, for instance, that we hear some reliable information that the Pharisees were concerned with the exact interpretation of the law and that they believed in some form of future resurrection (“immortality of the soul”), while the Sadducees did not believe in such a resurrection (War 2.162). Josephus doesn’t hesitate to make value judgements in his descriptions, though. Thus he says that the Pharisees are friendly and nice to the public while the Sadducees treat one another badly and treat outsiders worse (War 2.162).

Our other sources for the groups mentioned by Josephus are likewise not unbiased. One could say that the gospels, especially Matthew, reverse the bias regarding Pharisees in that this Jewish author of Matthew would not feel bad if readers (or hearers) of his writing came away with the notion that “Pharisees” and “hypocrites” were synonyms (see Matthew 23). So we lack clear and detailed information concerning these groups. Discoveries such as the scrolls found on the edge of the Dead Sea since the 1940s may expand our picture of at least one of the groups that Josephus discusses, but the identification of the Dead Sea community as Essenes is uncertain (see Pliny the Elder’s description of the Essenes on the Dead Sea coast in his Natural History, 5.15.17). So our information is meager for even these best known groups, let alone the many other movements that were active in the first century.

Rather than go into the details of what Josephus says about each, what I want to emphasize here is that the ones he mentions in these substantial passages were by no means the only groups. In fact, it seems that Josephus has in mind only the more educated classes in his discussion (hence his use of the designation “philosophies” for his Greek-speaking audience). All four of these groups consisted primarily of the literate, probably less than ten percent of the population at the time. In fact, Josephus explicitly states that the Essenes numbered only in the thousands (he says four thousand in Ant. 18.1.5 [20]), and it is likely that each of the other three were likewise in the thousands at most. So what about the remaining population of Judea, Samaria, and Galilee, which would have been into the millions?

Once again, Josephus happens to give us hints in his incidental stories of this or that prophet or “king” (messiah), though he tends not to like these other popular movements within Judea, Samaria, or Galilee. He gathers together a number of cases in just one time period alone, in a collection of what he calls a sampling of “ten thousand disorders” (Antiquities 17.269-285). One example from another period will suffice here, this one involving a prophetic figure named Theudas who gained a following in the 40s CE:

Now it came to pass, while Fadus was procurator of Judea, that a certain magician, whose name was Theudas, persuaded a great part of the people to take their effects with them, and follow him to the river Jordan. For he told them he was a prophet, and that he would, by his own command, divide the river, and afford them an easy passage over it; and many were deluded by his words. However, Fadus did not permit them to make any advantage of his wild attempt, but sent a troop of horsemen out against them; who, falling upon them unexpectedly, slew many of them, and took many of them alive. They also took Theudas alive, and cut off his head, and carried it to Jerusalem. This was what befell the Jews in the time of Cuspius Fadus’s government (Antiquities 20.97; trans. by William Whiston).

The Jesus-movement (what we now call “early Christianity”) should be understood, in part, within the context of many popular and not-so-popular Jewish movements and sects in the first century. We need to remember that this was a movement within Judaism, not a separate religion.

In writing this post, my memory was refreshed by Lester L. Grabbe, Judaism from Cyrus to Hadrian. Volume Two: The Roman Period (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), especially pp. 463-554.