In the next few posts, I want to attempt a reconstruction of the career of the historical Jesus from the material in the New Testament. I propose to do this by isolating the narratives and quotations from the gospels which seem to have the strongest claim to historical accuracy.
I have been guided by the standard range of scholarly works. Worthy of particular mention are Geza Vermes’ The Authentic Gospel of Jesus, John P. Meier’s A Marginal Jew and Raymond Brown’s The Birth of the Messiah and The Death of the Messiah, as well as C.S.Mann, Joseph Fitzmyer and Raymond Brown’s commentaries on the gospels.
The beginning of Yeshua’s ministry
Yeshua came from Nazareth in Galil and was baptised by Yohanan the Baptiser in the Jordan. Immediately afterwards, he went out into the wilderness, where he stayed for forty days, living among the wild beasts. When he heard that Yohanan had been arrested, he went back into Galil and began to preach the good news of God, saying: ‘Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!’. (Mk. 1.9-15 etc.)
This short narrative highlights two absolutely fundamental points about Jesus’ ministry: firstly, that it was in continuity with that of John the Baptist; and secondly, that it was focused on the concept of the Kingdom of Heaven, which was imminent and could be entered through repentance.
Yeshua and his disciples
'The harvest is plentiful but the labourers are few, so pray to the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into his harvest.' (Mt. 9.37 etc.)
As Yeshua was passing along the shore of Lake Galil, he saw Shimeon and his brother Andreas casting a net into the sea - they were fishermen. Yeshua said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men’; and they left their nets and followed him. Going on a little farther, he saw Yakov son of Zebadhyah and his brother Yohanan. They were in their boat, mending their nets, and he called them. They left their father Zebadhyah in the boat with the hired servants, and followed him. (Mk. 1.16-20 etc.)
The historicity of this piece of narrative is debatable. It seems rather schematic, and the repetition of the two similar events in succession seems rather suspicious. On the other hand, the ‘fishers of man’ phrase may well be genuine, as may the information concerning the disciples’ occupation and family connections. The passage also illustrates a striking theme in Jesus’ preaching: the need to give up everything, family included, to seek the Kingdom of Heaven.
Yeshua went into the hill country and summoned the men whom he had chosen, and they came to him. He appointed twelve disciples to travel around with him and to be sent out to preach the Kingdom of Heaven and cast out unclean spirits: Shimeon, whom he nicknamed Kepha; Yakov the son of Zebadhyah and his brother Yohanan, whom he nicknamed the Benay Regesh (that is, the Sons of Thunder); Andreas, and Philippos, and Bar Talmai, and Mattay, and Toma, and Yakov the son of Halfay, and Tadday, and Shimeon the Zealous, and Yehuda of Qeriyot, who betrayed him. (Mk. 3.13-19 etc.)
There are slight variations in the names of the Twelve Apostles as given in the gospels: in Luke, Tadday (Thaddeus) is replaced by Yehuda son of Yakov (Judas son of James), and Mark seems to know of an apostle called Levi who is identified by Matthew with Matay (Matthew). Some scholars have plausibly interpreted Levi as a surname or title of Matthew (it means ‘the Levite’, or ‘of the tribe of Levi’); others have suggested that the membership of the Twelve changed as time went on, or that the names of some of the more obscure apostles were mixed up or forgotten. Some of the names listed above are interesting. Andreas (Andrew), Philippos (Philip) and Talmai (Ptolemy) are Greek, and bear witness to how far Israel had become Hellenised by this time. The translation of ‘Iscariot’ as ‘of Qeriyot’ is not certain, but it is no more unlikely that any of the alternatives that have been advanced. It has often been noted that the number 12 is significant. Israel was historically composed of 12 tribes, and Jesus’ selection of 12 apostles can be taken as a sign that he intended to build a new, righteous Israel. He stands outside the Twelve, as God’s envoy and chosen leader.
Yeshua sent out his disciples two by two, giving them the following instructions: ‘Do not go anywhere among the Gentiles, and do not enter any Samaritan town: go to the lost sheep of the nation of Israel. Preach as you go, saying, “The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand”. Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers and cast out demons. You received without paying: give without pay. Take nothing with you except a staff - no bread, no bag, no money in your belt - wear sandals and do not put on two tunics, for the workman deserves his wages.
‘When you enter a town and they receive you, eat what is put in front of you. Heal the sick, and say to the people, “The Kingdom of Heaven has come near to you”. But whenever you enter a town and they do not receive you, go into the streets and say, “Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet we wipe off against you; but know this, that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand”. Truly, I say to you, it will be more tolerable on that day for Sodom than for that town.
‘When you enter a house, say, “Peace be on this house!”. If a son of peace dwells there, your peace will come upon it; if not, it will return to you.’
Soon the disciples returned in joy, saying, ‘Master, even the demons are subject to us in your name!’. Yeshua said to them, ‘I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven! I have given you authority to tread upon serpents and scorpions, and power over all the power of the Enemy, and nothing shall hurt you. But do not rejoice because the demons are subject to you: rejoice, rather, because your names are written in heaven.’ (Mk. 6.7-13, Matt. 10.5-16, Lk. 10.1-12, 17-20)
Little comment on this narrative and speech (or collection of sayings) is required. The dusting of the feet recalls the practice followed by contemporary Jews of dusting off their feet when they returned to the land of Israel from abroad: unrepentant Israel is to be cut off altogether from the real Chosen People, the righteous remnant. The destruction of Sodom is repeatedly used in the Bible as an example of divine punishment. The idea that Christian preachers are entitled to financial support is found also in St Paul (1 Cor. 9.4-18, 2 Cor. 11.7-11), though it may be slightly troubling that he does not quote Jesus himself to this effect.
‘Whoever receives any of you little ones receives me, and whoever receives me receives Him who sent me. Whoever gives to one of you little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple of mine - truly, I say to you, he shall not lose his reward.’ (Mt. 10.40-42)
This is not the only occasion on which Jesus refers to his followers as ‘little ones’: he may be referring to their humility, to their low social status or to both. Note also his consciousness that he is on a mission from God. The historicity of this saying, which occurs only in Matthew, is perhaps questionable: I have already removed a sentence from Matthew’s text because it seemed likely to have been composed in the light of the beliefs and practices of the early Church. On balance, however, I think that it has the ring of authenticity.
‘I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves.’ (Mt. 10.16)
‘What I tell you in the dark, utter in the light. What you hear whispered, proclaim from the rooftops.’ (Mt. 10.27 etc.)
‘No-one lights a lamp and puts it under a heap of grain or under a bed - he puts it on a lampstand so that everyone will see its light.’ (Mk. 4.21 etc.)
This was perhaps not a missionary instruction, but it is of a piece with the preceding saying in highlighting Jesus’ determination to have the good news preached as widely as possible.
‘Do not give a ring to dogs; and do not throw down pearls in front of pigs.’ (Mt. 7.6)
‘As widely as possible’ may require qualification. In this saying, Jesus seems to be warning his disciples not to dispense his teachings to the unworthy, and it has very plausibly been suggested that he had the gentiles in mind. His attitude towards the gentiles elsewhere is more nuanced than this dictum by itself would suggest, however. The traditional rendering of this saying is ‘Do not give what is holy to dogs…’, but this seems to be based on a misrendering of an Aramaic word. Either way, the sense is the same.
Yeshua travelled through various towns and villages, preaching the good news of the Kingdom of Heaven. The Twelve went with him, along with some women whom he had healed of evil spirits and sicknesses: Miryam, known as Miryam of Magdala, from whom he had cast out seven demons, and Yohanna, the wife of Chuza, Herodes’ steward, and Shoshanah, and many others. They provided for Yeshua out of their own means. (Lk. 8.1-3)
Note that, contrary to contemporary Jewish attitudes, Jesus was prepared to admit women to his inner circles. His readiness to mix with the inferior sex seems to have been a matter of comment: see Jn. 4.27. It is well known that the first witnesses to the resurrection were women, and there is evidence that they occupied prominent positions in the early Christian community: see e.g. Rom. 16.1-16; Phil. 4.2f; 1 Cor. 16.19; Acts 12.12, 18, 21.9. All the same, it is worth remembering that the Twelve were all men.
Yeshua and Yohanan the Baptiser
Yohanan had heard in prison about what Yeshua had been doing. He sent some of his disciples to him, and they asked him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?’. Yeshua answered them, ‘Go and tell Yohanan what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. Blessed is he who takes no offence at me.’ (Mt. 11.2-6)
John had been expecting the One to Come: as news came to him of Jesus’ preaching and miracles, it was only natural that he should wonder whether Jesus was the one for whom he had been waiting. Jesus gives a characteristically oblique answer: here as elsewhere, he deliberately refuses to identify himself in explicit terms. Some have suggested that his words are based loosely on Is. 35.5-6.
Yeshua’s fame reached the ears of Herodes the tetrarch. Some people were saying, ‘It is Elijah’, and others, ‘It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old’. But Herodes said, ‘Yohanan, whom I beheaded, has been raised’. (Mk. 6.14-16 etc.)
This passage is ominous insofar as Herod’s comment contains a dark hint that Jesus is in danger of suffering the same fate as John the Baptist. The Herod in question is Herod Antipas, who ruled over Galilee and a strip of land further to the south on the other side of the Jordan. It is interesting to note that Jesus was not initially or universally hailed as the Messiah, but rather as Elijah, the figure who (it was believed) would reappear shortly before the end of the world.
Yeshua began to speak about Yohanan: ‘Why did you go out into the wilderness? What did you go to see? A reed shaken by the wind? A man clothed in soft raiment? Those who wear soft raiment live in kings’ palaces. So why did you go out? To see a prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has risen no one greater than Yohanan the Baptiser - yet the least in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than him. Since Yohanan, the good news of the Kingdom of Heaven has been preached, and everyone enters it violently.’ (Mt. 11.7-12 etc.)
This passage reaffirms Jesus’ closeness to and admiration for John. Some say that the enigmatic final sentence (translated here from Luke’s version) refers to a Jewish interpretation of Mic. 2.12f in which sheep, representing righteous Israel, are depicted as struggling to escape from their sheep-pen. Interestingly, the passage was interpreted messianically: at the head of the sheep was a shepherd, representing the Messiah. If this reading is correct, we may have here an example of Jesus hinting rather obscurely that he is the promised Messiah. Elsewhere, too, he seems to make oblique and implicit claims of the same sort - it was his followers who eagerly made those claims explicit. Other scholars prefer Matthew’s version of the sentence, which states that the Kingdom ‘suffers violence’, referring to the execution of John the Baptist and perhaps also to the ultimate fate of Jesus himself.
‘What shall I compare this generation to? It is like children sitting in the market place and calling to each other, “We piped to you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.” Yohanan came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, “He has a demon”. This man came eating and drinking, and they say, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!”.’ (Mt. 11.16-19)
A blanket condemnation of the present generation of Israelites, most of whom seem not to have troubled themselves to respond to his or John’s preaching. We further see here an indication of Jesus’ habit of seeking out the company of social undesirables.
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