Ballparking the historical Jesus – The importance of context

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Ballparking the historical Jesus – The importance of context,' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified February 11, 2023,

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.

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