After a critical inspection of the Gospels and the other available evidence, historians have attempted to marshal what appear to be the verifiable events of the life of Jesus of Nazareth. No one seriously doubts that he existed, that he was an itinerant Jewish preacher in Galilee during the formal Roman occupation of Judea after 6 A.D. and that he was executed in Jerusalem by those same Romans, probably around 30 A.D. Sliding gently down the scale of certainty, there is recognition of the fact that Jesus can be firmly located in an established sectarian, eschatological tradition connected, in his instance, with a man called John the Baptist; that Jesus worked “wonders,” chiefly remarkable cures and often dramatic exorcisms; that he was opposed by the well-know party/sect—Josephus calls them, unhelpfully, a “school”—of the Pharisees; that he was arrested at the instigation, or at least the connivance, of Jerusalem’s Temple priesthood; and that, shortly after his death and burial, his tomb was found empty.
That much is more or less firm, but, singly or in sum, it hardly points to the birth of Christianity as its sequel. We want to know what he was preaching and why he was put to death by public execution. And what was there about him that caused his followers to claim, very shortly after his disreputable death, that he was not only the promised Messiah of Israel but the very Son of God? The answers to those questions are not nearly so certain as those other bare-boned “facts” about Jesus of Nazareth. The Gospels do purport to answer our questions, sometimes directly—Jesus’ teachings are abundantly quoted; his trial and execution are described in almost hourly detail—but more often indirectly, particularly when it was a question of what precisely Jesus was about: what he claimed and what his followers understood about him during his brief career and then after his death.
Jesus in Galilee
The Jesus portrayed in the Gospels is the same man from beginning to close to the end – in his appearances after his death, he will be, according to the Gospels, somewhat transformed in appearance and behavior – but the narrative which presents him to the reader is not of a piece. It falls into two distinct parts, one covering the scant year or so of his public career, chiefly in Galilee, and the other a few days in Jerusalem at the end of his life. The first is impressionistic, filled with vignettes of Jesus teaching and healing as he travels through the villages and around the countryside of Galilee; aphorisms and parables are recorded as are more intimate moments with his followers. He encounters both support and incredulity as well as more formal and fundamental opposition from the Pharisees, the partisans of a fastidious observance of Jewish Torah law. The Jerusalem chapters are darker and almost claustrophobic, filled with foreboding, plotting and violence, an arrest, a trial and an execution, all set down in rather precise detail. Finally, there is a coda: Jesus’ tomb is discovered empty and he abruptly appears to one or other of his astonished and baffled followers. Here the narrative is jumbled and scattered and the accounts do not harmonize as well as those described earlier in the Gospels.
Each of the two acts into which the main narrative falls, what may be called “Jesus in Galilee” and “Jesus in Jerusalem,” has a very distinctive quality about it. “Galilee” is rural and didactic. Its tone is earnest and sincere and the person of Jesus is interesting, if somewhat elusive. “Galilee” is not the stuff of either biography or drama; there is no “plot” as such. What each of the three Synoptic Gospels presents is a series of vignettes that serve to frame Jesus’ “sayings.” These glimpses of Jesus are located in what is unmistakably a Galilean landscape – Nazareth, Capernaum, Bethsaida and Chorazin all loom faintly in the background, but with only the most impressionistically sketched settings (“the seashore,” “a mountain”) and strung along an undifferentiated sequence rather than guided by a chronology. In the minds of the composers, neither much mattered: the Jesus event had overtaken both time and place.
Though there is no plot, there are incidents in “Galilee,” to be sure. Jesus’ baptism is described as one of a number of “acts of power,” better known as miracles, performed by or on behalf of Jesus, though they are set out with dramatic restraint and economy. There are other players as well: the powerful figure of John the Baptist who sets “Galilee” in motion, and “the Twelve,” Jesus’ chosen inner core of followers, some of whom, like Peter, occasionally rise to the surface of the narrative as individuals, but who function in the Gospels mostly as a group. So too the Pharisees and the Sadducees, two well-known Jewish sects of that era, though the interesting third, the Essenes, the sectarians who produced the Dead Sea Scrolls, are never mentioned.
Jesus the Jew
We begin by underlining what should be a transparent fact: The man who is the subject of our sources was unmistakably a Jew speaking to other Jews with a background like his own and in terms that were intelligible, if not always persuasive, to them. That much is not always obvious to the 21st century reader who receives the texts already varnished by their authors with a thick theological patina and then wrapped in centuries of liturgical veneration as Scripture and of a disfiguring exegesis, sometimes friendly, sometimes hostile, though often professedly disinterested.
Under the distorting glow the facts seem plain enough. Jesus was the town carpenter from a rural area in Palestine in the early decades of first century of what would come to be called, much to the amazement to those who were his audience, the “Christian era.” This was both the Jewish homeland and the theological Land of Promise, Erezt Yisrael, a land of and for Israel that had been promised to Abraham and his descendents. Jesus is supplied in Matthew and Luke with two Biblical genealogies (Mt. 1: 1-17; Lk. 3:23-38), whose point is argumentative rather than documentary. Each is less concerned with Jesus’ proximate ancestry, which was less than glittering, than with the connection to his putative more remote, and likewise “anointed,” ancestor, King David.
His genealogical lines may be tangled, but Jesus’ mother was Jewish– “Is not this the son of Mary?” (Mk. 6: 3)—and she was betrothed to a Jewish carpenter in the Galilean village of Nazareth, which was probably his birthplace: the “Infancy Narratives” apart, Jesus is always identified in the Gospels as being from there (Mk. 1:9; Mt. 13:55; Lk. 4:16; Jn. 1:45-46) rather than the traditional Bethlehem. It was, in any event, where he spent most of his life. His language was a local Jewish variant of the widespread Aramaic, his law was the Torah of Moses and his religion was, in a conceptualizing term that was becoming current in his day, “Judaism” (Ioudaismos). We know nothing of his education but we can be reasonably sure that it was not formal, that his Jewish formation was of the “mother’s milk” variety, enhanced perhaps by attendance at a local synagogue, spiced surely by his contact with the Baptist and strained through his own sensibilities.
But if Jesus was an adherent of “Judaism,” what was the content of that notion in the first century A.D..? Before the fall of Jerusalem to the Romans and the destruction of its Temple, Jewish society in Palestine was characterized by a profound sectarianism that clustered around the issues of Torah observance on the one hand and the Temple and its priesthood on the other. The party of the Pharisees, which Josephus, who was one of them, characterized as the “most popular” and who were the likely ancestors of the later rabbis, were but one voice in the ongoing religious discourse. Whatever control there was of religious life rested not in their hands but in those of the priests.
This Jewish “background” to the life of Jesus was, in any event, quite different in structure and striving from what prevailed two centuries or more later when the Mishna and Talmud, the twin foundations of Rabbinic Judaism, were being cast down. We can trace some of its complexity in Josephus’ works, though descriptively rather than analytically or textually, and of course filtered through Josephus’ own Pharisaic sensibilities. The Gospels provide their own insights into that same milieu, but here the mode is openly polemical: these were, after all, as the Gospels inform us, Jesus’ competitors. It is only the Dead Sea Scrolls that give us an immediate view of one sectarian strain, but it is enough to assure us that there was in Jesus’ day not a single “Judaism” but many such. John the Baptist was a “sectarian” and so too was Jesus in that both men stood at the head, if not of a “party” (hairesis), as Josephus understood that term, then of a movement with an ideology and a program.
But for all the diversity, Jesus and his fellow “sectarians” would have unhesitatingly identified themselves as Jews and not merely on the ground of an ethnic identity. Descent from Abraham was more than a tribal boast; it meant as well the embrace of a common core of values and practices, some threatened, some questioned, but all affirmed. There have been various attempts at describing this common core that constituted “Second Temple Judaism,” from analysis of contemporary texts, for example, or through Jewish self-identification on funerary and other inscriptions. By one not terribly controversial reckoning, the “five pillars” of Second Temple Judaism were the conviction that 1) the belief that the Bible is revealed Scripture and veridical history; 2) monotheism, that God is One, Unique; 3) election, that God has concluded a sacred covenant with His “Chosen People”; 4) covenantal nomism, that the biblical Torah constitutes the foundation charter of Jewish identity and that its observance is crucial to that identity; and 5) that the Land and the Temple are central to the life of Israel.
These are only the boldest of strokes, but they serve to define a spiritual homeland for Jesus and his contemporaries. But on the testimony of both Josephus and the Gospels, it was not their communal ties held the attention of Jews of the centuries on either side of the beginning of the Common Era but rather their differences. If the Pharisee, Sadducee, Essene and later Zealot parties and the lesser individuals who dot the pages of Josephus’ pageant of the times were all trying to win the commitment of their fellow Jews to their more nuanced, but in their eyes essential, insight into what it was to be truly Jewish, so too were their fellow sectarians John the Baptist, Jesus of Nazareth in Galilee.
John and Jesus
John’s career and his prominent place at the head of all the Gospels sharpen our focus on the mission and intent of Jesus. We note at the outset that, except for Jesus’ own baptism by John, we are shown no actual baptisms being preformed in the Gospels. The evidence is, however, suggestive (Jn. 4:1-2) that from the outset of the new movement, Jesus’ followers might well have continued the Baptist’s practice of using a public washing to signal a spiritual rebirth in an outward and formal way. What is more certain is that, as time passed and its institutionalization proceeded, a baptism ritual was commonly used to mark membership in the Jesus movement (Mt. 28:19; Acts 2:41; 1 Cor. 1:14-17). Jesus’ own participation in the rite is more problematic. John’s Gospel seems almost offhandedly to mention that Jesus was baptizing (Jn. 3: 21, 26), and then later, in what is obviously an editorial comment, and equally obviously a defensive one—there was a rumor that Jesus was by then winning more followers and baptizing more people than the Baptist himself—the Fourth Gospel loudly announces (4:2) that “Jesus was not in fact baptizing; it was his disciples who were doing the baptizing!”
The latter comment seems like another Evangelist attempt to put distance between Jesus and the Baptist. But for all the awkwardness that the connection with the Baptist posed to his later followers (and presumably to John’s), there is no reason that Jesus should not have been doing what John was doing before him and his own followers were doing after him, and eventually in his name. We are not the first to think so. Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee and son of the Herod who had reportedly pursued the infant Jesus, heard and believed the report that Jesus was the Baptist come back from the dead (Mk. 6:14 and parr.). And when Jesus inquired of his own followers what people were saying about him, he was told that some people thought he might be John the Baptist (Mk. 8:27-28 and parr.). In the popular mind Jesus was closely associated with the Baptist, and probably with good reason. The two men had the same vision of an approaching End Time that they understood as the arrival of the “kingdom of God.” They preached righteous living rather than fastidious observance as the best preparation for the coming Judgment, and they both used submission to the familiar ritual act of “washing” as a signal that one accepted this new charge.
But there is equally persuasive evidence of a separation from John, not a break with the Baptist but simply a parting of the ways. We do not know why. Jesus and his disciples departed from John’s ascetic regimen and it was a matter of public knowledge, for example, that they no longer fasted like John and his followers—and the Pharisees–did (Mt. 9:14-15; 11: 18-19. The parting may not have been all that definitive or all that permanent since the Gospel writers are at such pains to have John announce that it was not he but Jesus who was important, an indication that even in their day the differences between the two movements were not yet resolved.
John had disciples and then so too did Jesus after he left the fellowship of John. We do not know much about John’s followers, but in Jesus’ case the function and actions of his disciples are described in some detail. What is here being called a “movement” was at the outset two or three concentric circles of individuals surrounding Jesus himself. The first circle is unmistakable; it is that of “The Twelve, the individuals chosen and personally called by Jesus–“Have I not chosen you Twelve?”, Jesus says (Jn. 6:21). The later tradition remembered the Twelve clearly as a notion but less certainly as individuals since their names differs in the various New Testament lists (Mk. 3: 16-19; Mt. 10: 2-4; Lk. 6:14-16; Acts 1:13), a fact that points toward a collective rather than an individual function. That function is defined as an eschatological one, to rule over the restored Twelve Tribes of Israel (Mt 19:27; Lk. 22:30). Though they later became the directors of the Christ sect,, the Apostles, or “The Sent” as they were generally later known, appear to have had few administrative responsibilities during Jesus’ own lifetime. John (12:6) does remark, however, of Judas, one of the Twelve, and the one who betrayed Jesus for money (Mk. 14:10-11), that “he was a thief, and he held the purse and carried the things that were put into it,” suggesting that Judas was a kind of treasurer who managed the offerings to the group and paid out their expenses.
An Itinerant Preacher
A plain reading of the Gospels portrays Jesus, after his separation from John, as an itinerant preacher-teacher who went about with his followers spreading his message, or better, messages, in a variety of public and semi-private venues. The setting is Galilee, the largely rural and agricultural north Palestinian domain of Herod Antipas (r. 4 B.C.-39 A.D.), a puppet ruler who administered his allotment under the regarding gaze of the Romans in Judea. There is, however, no “plain reading” of this heavily freighted text, not certainly at the beginning of the 21st century. Galilee is no longer just a landscape against which the career of Jesus unfolds. It is, in the eyes of modern critics, variously and concomitantly, the seat of a “colonial, cosmopolitan, peasant, purity and patriarchal (‘androcentric’)” society. Nor do the texts themselves constitute a homogenous account: resting on one rather than another produces dramatically different results: healer or magician; prophet or sage; visionary or revolutionary.
We proceed, then, carefully. Jesus had once had an occupation, carpenter, as did his circle of the Twelve; some were fishermen (Mk. 1: 16-20), and Matthew or Levi, we are told, was a tax collector in the employ of the Roman corporation that held the tax franchise in Galilee (Mt. 9: 9). But whatever their previous occupations, as the Gospels unfold, Jesus’ followers no longer seem to be engaged in anything save following Jesus.. The evidence is indirect, but indications are that Jesus and his immediate circle were supported by some of his more prosperous followers in whose homes they stayed as they traveled through Galilee, including, it appears, a number of women (Lk. 8:1-3), a circumstance that appears, to our limited knowledge, unusual for that time and place. Jesus and his circle seem to have moved from place to place as the occasion, or perhaps just chance, dictated.
The Pharisees and Sadducees of Jesus’ day had their programs: they were attempting to shape Jewish life according to their own understanding of Torah and observance. The Essenes, the other chief sectarians of the day, were conservatives of the right, many of whom had withdrawn from the unspoken Jewish communal consensus and, closed in on themselves, were patiently cleansing themselves in expectation of divine vindication. The Baptist and the followers of Jesus were, however, activists. They too were awaiting divine vindication in one of the forms described by their literary cousins who turned out apocalypses, those imaginative “unveilings” of the End-Time, the final curtain, whether political, spiritual or cosmic – there is no dogma here to help us – on the travails of Israel. But unlike the Essenes huddled in their scholarly and sanctified retreat at Qumran, these two End-Time splinter parties shouted their warnings and advice on the mountain tops and valley bottoms. Their following was open, embracing, universal; their invitation was urgent; and, at least for the followers of Jesus, their talismanic word was the “kingdom,” their talismanic figure, the Messiah.
Jesus’ activities during his two or three years in Galilee are sometimes characterized in the Gospels, but they are more often simply described. We are shown Jesus instructing both individuals and small groups; publicly preaching in synagogues but even more often in open-air settings like the seashore or a hillside; working cures in the most chance locations. The Gospels generally characterize Jesus’ activity as preaching, teaching and working what the ancient world generally knew as “wonders” (thaumata) but what the Gospels prefer to call “deeds of power” (dynameis) or, and this is particular to John’s Gospel, “signs” (semeia). The distinction between the first two, preaching and teaching, is maintained throughout. “Teaching” (didaskein; noun, didaskalia) is used for the imparting of instruction, in most cases, moral or ethical instruction. “Preaching” (keryssein; noun, kerygma) is more accurately rendered as “proclamation” or “announcement,” in this instance of the “Good News” (Greek: euangelion; Hebrew and Aramaic: besora), that is rendered in English as “Gospel.”
The Good News
The characterization of his proclamation as the “Good News” may be Jesus’ own–the Gospels’ and Q’s insistence on the term suggests that it was—and the content of that pronouncement, and so the substance of that “Good News” is unmistakable in the summaries provided by the Gospels. Right at the outset of his Gospel, Mark sums up(1:14) Jesus’ Galilean career: “After the arrest of John, he came to Galilee proclaiming (kerysson) the Good News of God (and saying) that the kingdom of God was approaching. Repent and trust the Good News.” Matthew’s Gospel (4:21) similarly says of Jesus, with somewhat more emphasis on Jesus’ instructional mission, that “he went about in all of Galilee, teaching (didaskon) in the synagogues and proclaiming (kerysson) the Good News of the kingdom and healing every disease and illness among the people.” Even more pointed than these editorial summaries is what Q reports from Jesus’ own mouth. Approached by some of John’s own followers with the imprisoned Baptist’s question whether he was the Expected One, Jesus answers, “Go and tell John what you have heard and seen: the blind see, the halt walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, the dead are raised and the lowly are told the Good News” (Lk. 7:22=Q).
The Good News According to Jesus
The Kingdom of God
The content of the Good News is presented to us, if not by Jesus, then by his reporters, in a remarkably straightforward fashion. Or so it seems, at least at a first reading and with the kind of editorial underlining just quoted from Mark, the earliest of the Gospels: “The opportune moment has arrived,” Mark has Jesus say, “Reform yourselves and trust in the Good News.” Both the notions embedded in the summary, that of reform, literally “changing your mind,” “changing your attitude”, which is a more exact translation of metanoia than the traditional “repent,” and the appeal to an eschatological “kingdom,” come directly from the Baptist’s own version of the message. Jesus may, however, have reshaped John’s eschatology somewhat by describing the End Time as the “kingdom of God.”
In what is a rare consensus on matters pertaining to Jesus, New Testament scholars are now agreed that the saying reported by Mark 1:14 is authentically Jesus’ own. It does not appear exactly as such in the Hebrew Bible and only very rarely is the body of non-canonical Jewish writings of the Second Temple period. In the Gospels it is almost always Jesus and not others who uses the phrase, and yet there can be no doubt that the “the kingdom of God” or “of heaven” was a central concept in Jesus’ message during his Galilean ministry, even though the notion, or at least the term, appears to have rather quickly faded from view in the sequel; it is not a critical element in the preaching of the apostles or Paul in the decades after Jesus’ death. There is agreement too that what is usually rendered “kingdom” in that phrase is better understood as active sovereignty or rule rather than the state-like construct suggested by the English “kingdom.”
However the Romans might have heard the term, there is no certain sign that Jesus ever intended “kingdom” in a political sense. But its anticipated future presence—”May Your kingdom come, may Your will be done” (Mt. 6:10-11) was Jesus’ own invocation of it—implies a change, and likely a massive change since the present human condition does not represent “God’s imperial rule.” The kingdom preached by Jesus would represent, then, a new order, and certainly a new moral order. But there are a few clues about its shape or form. One is that “the Twelve” were commissioned rather precisely to sit as “judges over the Twelve Tribes of Israel” (Mk. 10:37; Mt.19:28), a notion that somewhat bafflingly underlines both the real and the ideal side of the kingdom. The restoration of the long-since scattered ten tribes was an idea, an almost cosmic notion, but the appointment of twelve very concrete individuals gave it an unmistakable reality.
The weight of the evidence of Jesus’ sayings on the subject strongly suggests that he expected, and probably preached, that God’s rule would be established in its final and definitive form — all Jews believe that God in some degree governing guided His creation — at some point in the future. indeed, some passages rather clearly expressed his expectations of the kingdom in the very near future, while some of his listeners were still alive (Mk. 9:1; Mt. 16:28;Lk. 9:27).
But there are, disconcertingly to modern scholarship, a few other sayings that broach another possibility. In Matthew Jesus says, a propos of his casting out demons, that if he accomplished it by the Spirit of God, then “the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Mt. 12:28 = Lk. 11:20), and in the Q passage Lk 17:20-22, Jesus says “The kingdom is not coming with signs to be observed. The kingdom is among you,” though the latter is immediately followed (vv. 23-37) by a prediction of a future coming.
These and similar verses have inclined many, either from a desire to save Jesus from erroneous prediction or to justify the later Christian interpretation of a postponed kingdom or, more recently to save the social reformer from becoming an apocalyptic messianist, to read Jesus’ message of the kingdom as being initiated and rendered operative by his own work. But that work was, by Jesus’ own description in another Q passage (Lk. 7:18-23), precisely the miraculous cures that some critics have also been inclined edit out of Jesus’ actual career.
Without ruling out the strong possibility of later editorial tampering and adjustments, the most sensible course is to think, in the light of this conflicting evidence, that Jesus meant both a future and in some sense a present kingdom. The main thrust of the preserved pronouncements is that the kingdom, over which he would preside, lay in the very immediate future. Its coming, moreover, would be by a miraculous act of cosmic proportions wrought by God and not one brought about by human diligence or striving. And if “kingdom” was the primary figure of the new condition, it was also symbolized as a messianic banquet (Mk. 14:25 and parr.) to which all the just would be summoned, even from among the Gentiles (Mt. 8:11-12; Luke 13:28-29) and where the poor, the humiliated and the downtrodden would find their quittance (Mt. 5:3-12; Lk. 6:20-23).
But there is also no denying that in Jesus’ mind the kingdom could, to some extent, be inaugurated, or perhaps, in the later language of the rabbis, be “hurried” by human moral effort. That effort is embodied in the ethic described and urged on his audiences throughout Jesus’ Galilean ministry. It is even conceivable that it might be decent by more extraordinary means, witness the thinking behind Jesus’ dispatch of his disciples (Mt. 10:23) and, even more persuasively, by Jesus’ own acts in the Temple in Jerusalem.
Messiahs and The Messiah
If “the kingdom” represents, now or in the future, the fulfillment of God’s plan, what is Jesus’ role in it? If, as seems likely, his own immediate followers confessed him as the Messiah, then it would be natural for them to think of him as the ruler of the future kingdom, God’s vicar or caliph, so to speak. There is no clear evidence that Jesus claimed such— Was the protestation “My kingdom is not of this world!” (Jn. 18:36) his or his followers?— but it would be nonetheless natural that Messiah Jesus should be the ruling power in God’s kingdom.
Where the term “the anointed” (ha-mashiah) appears in the Bible, is not used as a title but simply as a descriptive word that is regularly and normally applied to a priest or, more generally, a king, and never to a figure from the onrushing End-Time. There is no Messiah in the voluminous writings of either Josephus for Philo. While it is certain that there was no general Jewish expectation, or even understanding, but someone called “the Messiah,” messianic-type figures, eschatological saviors, do appear in Second Temple era writings. There is, in short, present in the writings of that time evidence of messianism, if not of “The Messiah.”
The actual messianic background against which Jesus appeared is illustrated in the extra-biblical books called 1 Enoch (the so-called “Similitudes”), 2 Baruch and 4 Ezra, in addition to a number of messianic reflections in the Dead Sea Scrolls. The figures identified as such are called by a variety of names like “Chosen One” or “Son of Men” and display diverse characteristics ranging from a celestial figure to a king or a warrior or a teacher. No matter how many Jews awaited a savior ex machina—some others simply took up arms in a hopeless effort to save themselves – there was clearly no messianic consensus in Jewish expectations before or after 70 A.D., no agreement on either the who or the what of a Messiah, or the exact context in which such might appear.
We do not know how many of the other claimants to the title validated themselves, but the proof later offered throughout the Gospels is that Jesus, by his words and his deeds, fulfilled the Biblical passages thought to refer to a future Messiah. The assumption that the Bible was looking forward in that fashion was certainly not the invention of either Jesus (Luke 4: 15-17) or his followers. It seems to been accepted as legitimate by contemporary Jews, some of whom were doing much the same thing for similar or different purposes. But if they accepted the method, contemporary Jews did not believe that the “messianic” reading of any given passage was necessarily the correct one..
Jesus seems from the Gospels particularly elusive and reluctant on the subject of his own Messiahship, an attitude somewhat portentously dubbed “the Messianic Secret” in William Wrede’s 1901 book. He appears often to pull back from open identification of himself as such and warns those who had experienced his extraordinary curative powers, “not to tell anyone,” not to reveal that he was the Messiah (Mk. 8:30) or the “Son of Man” (3:12). In addition to Wrede’s own hypothesis, two general explanations have been put forward for this rather odd reluctance. The first, the standard Christian one, was to prevent misunderstandings of his messianic purpose, as there certainly were. The more secular explanation is that Jesus was himself uncertain of his role in the unfolding movement that he (or the Baptist) had set in train.
Signs and Wonders
There are very few “events” in Jesus’ Galilean ministry. He preached in parables, realistic but idealized scenes where characters–kings, landowners, farmers, tenants, laborers–are recognizable but anonymous, and the places and persons among whom this itinerant preacher moved were much the same: a town, a synagogue or someone’s house, a hillside, a lakeshore. A few of the Twelve, Peter, James and John, take life briefly from time to time but then quickly recede back into the faceless crowds of the curious and the convinced, those who came to follow or merely to watch or listen.
It must have been the watching that drew most of his audience, the reports of wondrously instantaneous cures: limbs straightened, the veil of blindness lifted, ritual impurities, even chronic conditions like leprosy or dysmenorrhea, cleansed on the instant and, what has almost disappeared from our own repertoire of miracles, the exorcisms of evil spirits. Generally they were effected by a word or touch, though there are traces of the healing process, the utterance of certain words that the Christian tradition remembered in their original Aramaic, perhaps because of their intrinsic power (Mk. 5:41; 7:34), the placing of fingers into deaf ears and of spittle on a dumb tongue (Mk. 7:33), and even the rubbing onto blind eyes of a mud-like concoction of dust and spittle (Jn. 9:6).
The Gospels present a portrait of a Jesus who is not only the particular object of God’s favor and providential activity, as signed by his virginal conception, transfiguration and resurrection, for example, but who possesses of himself both a supernatural knowledge and the ability to work wonders. In the four canonical Gospels alone –the number would rise dramatically if all the Jesus gospels were tallied—there are by one count thirty-three distinct miracles performed by Jesus himself, in addition to other summary statements attesting to similar activities on his part.
The modern reader of the Gospel accounts may be torn between assent to a supernatural miracle and a deep-seated skepticism that at its worst scents charlatanism and at its best suggests either mass hallucination or the misinterpretation of natural processes. The young girl that Jesus raised from the dead perhaps really was, as Jesus himself remarked, merely “sleeping” (Mk. 5: 39). But such skepticism is all modern; no trace of it arises out the Gospel narratives themselves, nor from Josephus who calls Jesus simply “a doer of wonders.” Jesus’ onlookers show no reluctance to accept the authenticity of what they had witnessed; their question was rather, “By whose power was this accomplished, God’s or Beelzebub’s?” (Mk. 3:22-30)
Since the inception of the critical study of the life of Jesus, the miracles have been viewed with suspicion and skepticism by historians, chiefly, one supposes, because they are reluctant to admit the a priori possibility of acts contravening the laws of nature. But on purely evidentiary grounds, some at least of the occurrences are among the best attested of Jesus’ deeds, and the strength of that evidence has constrained a majority of scholars to the pinched concession that Jesus was indeed known as one who healed the sick and cast of demons. Jesus’ exorcisms and the closely linked charge that they were done through the power of Satan are multiply attested to in our available sources and, more convincingly, show up independently in both Mark (3:33) and Q (11:15). Nor is the charge of diabolical assistance likely to be the kind of thing invented by the early Church! Finally, non-Christian sources from Josephus and the 2nd century pagan polemicist Celsus down to the Talmuds all regard Jesus as a wonder worker. Whatever the judgment might mean to us, it seems beyond any serious doubt that in the eyes of his contemporaries Jesus was capable of performing “wondrous acts,” in short, miracles.
When it comes to affirming the historicity of any specific miracle described in the Gospels, the consensus quickly melts away, however. The fear of the invisible editorial hand is by now endemic among scholars, and it was too simple a matter, many argue, for the early followers of Jesus to flesh out the received reputation of Jesus as a wonder-worker with examples of his power at work. But some candidates carry more historical conviction than others, because they are circumstantial in detail, for example, or are free of Christological argument. One such is the almost casual cure of Peter’s mother in law (Mk. 1:29-31 and parr.). Others are the cure of Bartimaeus’ blindness (Mk. 10:46-52 and parr.), the healing of the leper (Mk. 1:40-45 and parr.), of the paralytic (Mk. 2:1-12), of the hemorrhaging woman (Mk. 5:25-34 and parr.), of the blind man at Bethsaida (Mk. 8:22-26), the exorcism of the epileptic boy (Mk. 9:14-29 and parr.), and the healing of the official’s son (Mt. 8:5-13 and parr.).
If there are scholars who are willing to defend the historicity of those accounts, if not of the actual cures, particularly since they fall within the parameters of psychosomatic illnesses and cures, where modern skepticism has considerably softened, the numbers of those willing to argue for authenticity declines sharply in the case of Jesus’ “nature miracles” (his calming storms, walking on water, multiplication of bread and fishes, converting water into wine, etc.) and his reported raising people from the dead (Jairus’ daughter in Mk. 5:21-24, 33-43 and parr.; the son of the widow of Nain in Lk. 7:11-17; Lazarus in Jn. 11:1-44). Among many scholars, even some reckoned conservative, these are now signaled as examples of the early churches’ inventive fervor toward their Lord.
Jesus, then, was generally regarded, however we might judge such activity, as a charismatic wonder-worker, in the tradition of such biblical figures as Moses, Elijah and Elisha, and perhaps, as has been suggested, like a known type of Galilean Jewish hasid or holy man with wonder-working powers whose examples date from roughly the same era. And Jesus’ miracles, it appears, were performed not to verify his other claims, messianic or otherwise, but rather to confirm and reward the faith of those on whose behalf they were performed: “Thy faith has made thee whole” is a frequent and apparently authentic gospel refrain.
A Jewish Teacher
By all the evidence, Jesus was an observant Jew, as that designation was understood in the first century in Palestine. Circumcised on the eighth day according to Jewish law (Lk. 2:21), Jesus worshipped the One True God of Israel, and though the “Lord’s Prayer” (Mt. 6: 9-13) composed for his followers, Jesus too prayed to his “Father in heaven” (Mk. 14: 35-36). Though we are never shown him actually participating in Temple rituals, there is no reason to think that he did not, at Passover, for example, Sukkoth or Hanukkah. Like most contemporary Jews, Jesus observed the Sabbath and the dietary laws, though he disagreed with the Pharisees on some of the finer points of both observances, and principally and particularly with the wall of separation that the latter were attempting to erect between the Gentiles and their own “unclean,” that is, unobservant, Jews on the one hand and, on the other, the purified “nation of priests” they were attempting to foster.
Much of Jesus’ traditional Jewishness is unstated, as is that of a Pharisee of his own day and that of the rabbis of a somewhat later era. Most of these latter would quickly embrace the Gospel’s “Great Commandment”: “Love God and love your neighbor” (Mk. 12:29-31 and parr.). For Jesus as for them, this was the heart of the Torah. And however sensitive was the subject of the Sabbath, more than one Pharisee would have agreed with Jesus that “The Sabbath was made for the sake of men and not men of the Sabbath” (Mk. 2:27). what are chiefly and explicitly preserved are his talking points, emphases and new directions. To the Great Commandment Jesus adds “and love your neighbor as well,” to which he then illustrates by a series of very concrete examples (Mt. 5:38-49; Lk. 6:27-32).
But if he was familiarly Jewish, he was also different, in degree if not in kind. Jesus was advocating a more individual, more internal, conscience-driven morality. His concern was for the lust in the heart (Mt. 5:28), the inside of the cup (Mt.23:26), the defilement within (Mk.7:15). Jesus was grounded in the Torah but took spiritual wing above it. The figure is a gentle one but to “rise above” can with remarkable ease become to “fly away from,” to transcend. It is difficult to say if Jesus understood his — and others’ — relationship to God as transcending the Torah, but in less than a generation, some of his followers, most notoriously Paul, when attempting to transfer Jesus’ teachings to non-Jews (for whom the teachings came associated with, but different from, the Torah) was forced to concede that it did. And beyond Paul the gap between Jesus’ teachings, now interpreted and expanded by non-Jewish followers, grew progressively more distant from the Torah roots, a discordant separation whose echoes still sound in the Gospels.
In Jesus’ own day’s these developments could scarcely be scented, even though some of them have leached backward up into the Gospels and somewhat contaminated the portrait of the historical Jesus. But even if most, if not all, of what Jesus said and did is recognizably Jewish, as that term was understood early in the first century of the the Common Era, the fact remains that he was arrested and executed with the cooperation, or at least the connivance, of both the Jewish and Roman authorities of that time and that place.
“Who Do People Say I Am?”
This is the question Jesus posed to his own closest followers (Mk. 6:27 and parr.) and, in the light on what we know follows—Jesus’ arrest, execution, the empty tomb and his reported post-mortem appearances—we judge that our own answers at this point must be tentative. It is quite apparent that the two great sections of the Gospels, what has been called here “Jesus in Galilee” and the “Jesus in Jerusalem” that will follow, have two different purposes which are manifested in the Synoptics as least—the distinction is blurred somewhat in John–by two narrative styles. The first, which has concerned us here, was to record Jesus’ teachings. We are presented with a portrait of a teacher with the emphasis not on his life but on his teaching. Jesus is a teacher of Jewish values to a Jewish audience. This Jesus is not an unfamiliar figure. Though most of the examples emerge only later when the rabbis’ own logia are collected in the Mishna of circa 200 A.D., there were similar types in Galilee in Jesus’ day.
Jesus was somewhat different from those other early examples, however. First, like his predecessor and perhaps model, John the Baptist, Jesus had profound eschatological concerns, while the later rabbis had been largely purged of these by the cataclysm of 70 A.D., when the entire Jewish enterprise in Palestine collapsed in flames. But more startlingly, and this was noted by his audience, Jesus spoke and acted “with authority” (Mk, 1: 27; cf. Lk. 4: 36) and not like the rabbinic teachers who are invariably “traditionists” who taught on the authority of their masters or relied simply the “tradition of the fathers.”
There was then a claim that lay behind Jesus’ teaching, an unstated (or obliquely stated) claim to authority by reason of what he was. Who he was was clear enough to his contemporaries: “Jesus, the son of the carpenter and of Mary” (Mk. 6: 3; Mt. 13:55). But carpenters or their sons did not pronounce. They might point out signs of the End Time and call for “radical spiritual change,” which was the burden of John’s and Jesus’ metanoia, but they assuredly did not set down ethical markers or revise the Mosaic Law, as Jesus did.
As baldly expressed in his message slogan, Jesus seems to have claimed no role in the coming kingdom; he was, like John before him, a mere “crier,” a vox clamantis. But as Jesus’ Galilean message unfolds and then, with even greater urgency, in the events at the end of his life, there appears the true problematic of Jesus’ career: was Jesus in fact a key figure in the End Time, the Anointed One who appears as an agent of God’s will in many of the apocalyptic scenarios? And if he were, where was the political and cosmic upheaval that was generally thought to accompany his arrival? if the figure of the Messiah is somewhat ambiguous in the imaginative literature of post-exilic Judaism, there was no mistaking the other tumultuous events of the End Time. Jesus’ audiences must surely have had problems with this as well, and those who did accept him as Messiah must have thought that this particular Messiah had arrived prior to the End Time and that that latter was no less certainly close upon them.
There is a pastoral quality to the Galilean chapters of the Gospels. The fields, in sowing and growth and harvest, the plains, hills and sea are all on display, as are the people who work in them. We see fishermen, farmers, tax gatherers, Roman centurions and prostitutes, whether in the flesh or as figures in Jesus’ parables, all drawn from Galilean life. When the action is moved to Jerusalem, the gaze is still upon Jesus, but it is now so relentlessly focused that we get little sense of the ordinary life of this city at the center of the Jewish world. We are now in the midst of a drama whose principal characters like Pilate and Caiaphas are portrayed in bold relief, with others are deftly thumbnailed: Peter, Judas, the Temple priest’s maidservant, the thieves executed with Jesus and the hapless Simon of Cyrene. Of the larger Jerusalem background there is little: we are in an enclosed space.
Hovering over the accounts of Jesus’ Galilean ministry the Gospels’ authors have painted in a dark foreboding of providential doom. The evangelists knew, of course, of the pain and suffering that was to come, but Jesus too may have had a presentiment of what lay ahead; the violent deaths of prophets was a familiar trope in Jewish recollection of the past. And on this telling, the divine plan headed for a fierce denouement in Jerusalem, a place that Jesus must have visited on the feast days but was certainly not the center of his preaching and other activities. God, it was later said, was leading Jesus to his foreordained end in the heart of Judaism (Mk. 10: 33-39 and parr.). After a year or possibly two, the Galilean ministry draws to a rather abrupt close. The Gospels’ telling of Jesus’ story undergoes a radical change at that point, the same point for all four. The year was probably 30 A.D. and the occasion was a journey from his native Galilee to celebrate that year’s Passover in Jerusalem.
What had been up to that point a chronologically and topographically relaxed telling of the series of anecdotes and vignettes that show Jesus preaching, teaching and sometimes relaxing, across the length and breadth of Galilee now tightens into a narrative of what will turn out to be the last earthly days of Jesus of Nazareth. We will be taken through them in meticulous detail; names and places will be recorded, dates and times down to the hour. Throughout the Gospels the case is insistently made that whatever Jesus did and whatever befell him was in fulfillment of a Messianic prophecy. That practice continues, now reinforced with an insistence that everything that occurred in this last week of his life, all the violence, bloodshed and suffering, had also been divinely preordained.
The account of Jesus’ last days is marbled with Biblical prophecy fulfilled. His arrest and execution must have been a matter of great importance for his followers since, far from being dissembled or concealed, every day of that week is described in close detail, accompanied at each step of the way by an explanation. The “Passion Narratives,” which are clearly the most detailed and most important sections in all four of the Gospels, not only describe the circumstances of Jesus’ arrest, trial and execution; they also explain them by connecting each happening to what was identified as a “Messianic” passage in Jewish Scripture.
If the exegesis strikes a modern reader as rather freewheeling and arbitrary, it was distinctly in the manner of the times. The Jews of Jesus’ day did not hesitate to read the Torah and the Prophets in precisely that way. We read those same texts differently, however. The historian looks past the evangelists’ “Biblical” explanation of the events of Jesus’ last days and puts the question anew: Why was Jesus of Nazareth arrested, tried and executed?
Jesus’ dark end begins in a well-lit triumph. The time is just before Passover and the year most probably 30 A.D. Jesus approaches Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives, and as he and his chosen followers descend to the eastern gate of Jerusalem, a spontaneous demonstration breaks out: he is hailed by the Passover crowds as “Son of David” and “king” (Mk. 11: 1-10 and parallels). He enters the splendid new porticos of Herod’s Temple, which was still under construction, and causes a public commotion by overturning the tables of the money-changers—the temple tax had to be paid in temple coinage not Roman—and rummaging the booths of the sellers of small unblemished animals for sacrifice, both legal and necessary activities (Mk. 11: 15-19 and parallels). The Gospels say that this aroused the ire of the priests, and many modern scholars have seen this ostensible attack on the Temple and its institutions, perhaps more threatening in its symbolic intent than in its actual execution, as the most plausible explanation for the priest-driven arrest and quick execution of Jesus.
This latter suggestion is in fact the Gospels’ own. They agree in alleging a plot against Jesus by the Jewish authorities (Mk. 11:18;14 and parr.; and, most circumstantially, Jn. 22: 1-2), that is, the Temple priesthood But in the end it was, the Gospels insist, God’s plan and not man’s work that leads to Jesus’ death. On this providential assumption, there is no very clear delineation of human motives. But we may be able to supply our own.
What follows next—it is now Thursday of that same week–is an evening meal, possibly a Passover seder (Mk. 14: 12-25 and parallels). The Christians would later call it the “Last Supper” and it is the setting for an extraordinary scene in which Jesus identifies for the Twelve the bread and wine before them as his body and blood and bids his followers “take and eat.” The event came to be regarded as the institution of the ritual of the Eucharist, a commemoration of Jesus’ words and acts on that occasion that becomes the primary liturgical act of Christianity, which accounts for its highlighting the Gospels. At its completion Jesus and the Twelve—all save one, Judas “who was to betray him”—go out into the night, a highly unusual practice in a very ill-lit antiquity, and walk to a garden place called Gethsemane in the Kidron valley on the eastern side of Jerusalem. There Jesus draws apart to pray and, on the Gospels’ own testimony, experiences doubts about what he is about to undergo. Abruptly, a group of temple priests and their police appear, and with them Judas, who identifies Jesus. There is the briefest of struggles, swords are drawn, some blood flows and Jesus alone is arrested; his followers scatter in the Jerusalem night.
Jesus is led back into Jerusalem to the house of Caiaphas the high priest, where he is subjected to an inquiry at the hands of the high priest and the Sanhedrin (Mk. 14: 53, 55), the chief judicial body of the Jews. It is difficult to discern whether this was an impromptu hearing or genuine trial or whether the latter took place early the next morning (so Lk. 22: 66-71), Friday, which, according to the three earliest Gospels, was the first day of Passover. Jesus is asked: Did you threaten to destroy the Temple? Are you the Messiah? The Son of God? He does not deny, neither does he forthrightly affirm.
Jesus is then taken to Pilate, the Roman prefect of Judea who is in Jerusalem during the always crowded and potentially dangerous days of Passover. The reason why the Romans were involved, we are told, is because the Jews did not have the power to inflict capital punishment (Jn. 18: 31). This appears to be true, but it still does not explain why the Temple authorities were so bent on having Jesus put to death in the first place, and the Gospels, which are caught midway between their theology of God’s plan and their half-formed desire to write history, provide no satisfactory answer.
The motivation of the Jerusalem priests who first framed the charges against Jesus seem rooted in fear, a fear ignited, it seems likely, by Jesus’ dark prophecies about the end of the Temple and then most recently reinforced by this recent incident in the Temple when he suddenly and violently interrupted not the Temple services, which would have been almost unthinkable, but various commercial activities in the outer porticos, all of them apparently legitimate. And if we do not fully comprehend the priest’ fear of Jesus or what he represented, a high nervous anxiety is plausible enough in that violent and unsettled time that saw the state execution of John the Baptist shortly before Jesus own (Mark 6:14-59 and parallels) and the juridical murder of Jesus’ follower Stephen not long after (Acts 7:54-60).
Pilate’s portrayal in the Gospels is quite remarkable. We know something of Pilate from other Jewish and Roman sources, and by all accounts he was a ruthless and unscrupulous wielder of Roman authority. In the Gospels he is shown as vacillating and uncertain, and even at times somewhat sympathetic toward Jesus. His interrogation of Jesus is openly political—“Are you the king of the Jews?—even though the Gospels record much more secondary chitchat (“What is the truth?”) than seems plausible between a short-tempered Roman autocrat and one more Jewish trouble-maker.
We can easily imagine two principal scenarios that might explain a collusion between the Temple priests and the Roman procurator. It is possible that the priests wanted Jesus removed for their own reasons and they managed without great difficulty to persuade the Roman governor that Jesus represented a political threat to the order of the province; or else, the priests, the guardians of traditional values in Judea, were in actual cooperation with the Romans and handed over Jesus to them because they felt that he might be –or indeed, that he actually was– a direct threat to Roman authority and order, and thus their own.
That second scenario is tied to a conviction that the historical Jesus had in fact some sort of political agenda that is only imperfectly concealed in the Gospels; those accounts were being edited after all in the wake of a bloody Jewish insurrection, when their authors had motive enough to conciliate Rome, just as their contemporary Josephus did. The thesis has strong but minority support among modern scholars.
Jesus’ Galilean preaching appears genuinely politically innocuous—“Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s” (Mt. 22:21) is hardly a call to rebellion—and well within the parameters of what the Romans might consider acceptable political discourse. But against that are the unmistakable facts that Jesus was arrested under very unusual circumstances: at night in a garden outside the city (Mk. 14:32 and parr.) and with some of his followers bearing arms (Lk. 22: 38, 49); he was executed on a patently political charge, as would-be “King of the Judeans” (Mk. 15:1, 9, 26 and parr.); and was crucified with two other political prisoners (Mk. 15:27 and parr.). Just prior to his execution Pilate offered to exchange Jesus’ freedom for that of (another?) known rebel, the curiously named Bar Abbas, “Son of His Father” (Mk. 15:6 –7 and parr.). More, Jesus numbered among his inner circle of The Twelve one Simon called “the Zealot,” a name that later at least signified a member of a professedly insurrectionist party.
Finally, the Romans in general and Pilate in particular have been scrubbed so clean in the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ trial and execution as to arouse suspicion that the scrubbing was actually a whitewash to cover not only the Romans but an overtly political Jesus. But temporary enthusiasms apart, there was no sustained public reaction, no uprisings demonstrations or protests, when his Jewish audiences heard Jesus’ message, the same call for justice and mercy that has been parsed by modern readers as everything from mild social moralizing to a highly inflammatory critique of Jewish society. Jesus for his part had urged no group action, and his public pronouncements, which were made on occasion before large crowds, seem to have fallen most persuasively on individual ears.
What seems most likely is some version of the first scenario, that the priestly authorities of the Temple wished Jesus out of the way and persuaded their nervous Romans overlords that he was a threat to their sovereignty. And if Scene Two of this unfolding drama, “Jesus’ Roman Execution,” is easy to imagine in Judea on the eve of a major political explosion, the Gospels’ “writing” or “construction” of Scene One, “Jesus Before the High Priest,” represents a far greater problem. What was there about Jesus to provoke such an apparently extreme reaction on the part of the Temple priesthood? First, as already noted, in Jesus’ day both Torah and Temple were under the control of the high priest and his circle. They were not merely the important Torah-appointed functionaries in charge of and supported by Judea is largest religious — and commercial – enterprise, the Jerusalem Temple; they were also the interpreters and adjudicators of Jewish justice, both of which the Romans, like the conquerors before them, left in Jewish hands. The position would be suddenly and irreversibly undermined by the construction of the Temple in 70 A.D., but forty years earlier the Jerusalem priests were the chief legal and religious authorities not only for the Judeans but for all the Jews of the Mediterranean Diaspora.
Jesus’ activities in Galilee would seem to have little to do with the priests. When not teaching in the open air, his formal preaching venue was the synagogue, in that day a kind of community meeting and prayer hall with no ties to the priesthoods. When he performed certain impurity cures, Jesus was punctilious in telling to beneficiaries to “go, show yourself to the priests” (Mk. 1:44 and parr.) and get the required certification of ritual purity.
Where Jesus was less punctilious was in the forgiveness of sins. This was Jesus’ most outright arrogation of authority. In Jewish eyes only God could forgive sins, which were after all offenses against Him and/or violations of His statutes. The priests did not forgive sins; their function was to preside over the stipulated Temple sacrifices that signaled and sealed the remission of sin. The argument is rather one from silence. Jesus seems not always to have counseled those whose sins he pronounced forgiven to make the prescribed Temple sacrifices, a negligence to which the High Priest might have strenuously objected.
And so the priests arranged to have Jesus put to death? it seems somewhat unlikely. Jews of every era have had profound disagreements on almost every issue concerned with Jewish identity and practice but almost never to the point of reading their opponents out of the community, much less to executing them. And yet. Important note must be taken that Stephen, a follower of Jesus, and James, the brother of Jesus and the head of the Jerusalem assembly of his followers, were both killed for their beliefs by in Jerusalem not long after Jesus’ death. There were of course bloody-minded Jews in Jesus’ day, but by and large it was politics not theology that set their blood boiling.
After Pilate pronounces sentence, Jesus is lead off through the streets of Jerusalem to the place of his execution—we are given the name, Golgotha, the “place of the skull”—outside the walls of the city (Mk. 15:20-47 and parr.). His death was to be by crucifixion, suspension from a wooden cross until death by either suffocation or shock occurs. There were two others executed with him (Mt. 27: 38). These are transparently political prisoners: the Greek word lêstês that is applied to them is commonly translated as “thief” but is much closer to “bandit” and served as a contemporary code word for political terrorist. The indictment posted on Jesus’ cross, “King of the Jews,” also strongly underlines that Jesus was being executed for a political crime (Mt. 27: 37).
It was a tremulous time in Judea, in Roman Palestine. Just short of forty years after the execution of Jesus, there would be a bloody insurrection that convulsed the land and at its end Jerusalem would lay battered and its Temple destroyed. The insurrection and was against Roman authority and the destruction was Romans’ calculated response. There should be little wonder, then, that the Roman execution of a Jewish preacher of “the kingdom,” particularly during the “high alert” of Passover in Jerusalem.
Jesus’ death is somewhat more nuanced than that, however. He alone was arrested, while his followers were allowed to scatter as they would. Later they seem to have attracted no particular attention from the always vigilant Romans whose feet were hardened from stamping out religio-political brushfires among its clientelae in this their most problematic province. Equally tellingly, Jesus was arrested not by Roman soldiers but by Temple police in the charge of the High Priesthood. His execution was an affair that transparently involved, albeit somewhat awkwardly, both the Jewish and Roman authorities.
It was noon on that same Passover Friday. Jesus hung on the cross for three hours until finally pronounced dead—there may have been a coup de grace with a lance to hurry his expiring before the Sabbath should begin at sunset (Mk. 15: 42-47). At the end there were few left to mourn him; Jesus’ followers appear to have scattered in his arrest — there had been no attempt to arrest them — but two rather influential believers in his message step forward and arrange for his burial in a new tomb close by the site of his execution. On the afternoon of the Friday that was also the feast of Passover in that year, Jesus of Nazareth was crucified outside the walls of Jerusalem. Case closed.
Our Gospels end their narrative of Jesus in Jerusalem with his corpse being taken down from the cross on which he died and being placed in a nearby rock-hewn tomb chamber. A stone was rolled across the entry to protect the body from animal scavengers and, just possibly, tomb robbers with either political or theological intent on their minds. Matthew introduces exactly that notion. He has the priests and the Pharisees go to Pilate and request a guard for the tomb to prevent Jesus’ followers from stealing the body and claiming that “he has risen from the dead” (Mt. 27: 62-66). There is a narrative follow-up (Mt. 28: 11-14). When the empty tomb is discovered, Matthew tells us, the same priests bribed the Roman guard to tell Pilate that that was exactly what happened. They did so, and then we reach the point of Matthew’s tale and at the same time we are given a rare glimpse of contemporary Jewish reaction to Jesus: “The story became widely known and is current in Jewish circles to this day” (Mt. 28: 15).
It was not an entirely glorious end to the very short and not terribly successful career of Jesus of Nazareth, an itinerant Galilean charismatic who claimed to be Daniel’s messianic “Son of Man.” He had managed to stir some local waters and even make a small splash in Jerusalem. He had attracted some followers, not very many apparently, and had somewhat inexplicably made enemies in high places, and it was they who did him in. The leader was dead and his followers dispersed, though none of them was either arrested or pursued.
“He is Risen!”
Among Jesus’ followers the mood immediately after his shameful public crucifixion was one of hopeless despair. Jesus had been hastily buried the Friday afternoon of his execution, with further traditional obsequies to follow immediately after the Sabbath had passed (Mt. 27:57-60). But the first reports were startling: the women who had gone out early Sunday morning to the burial site near the place of execution reported that the tomb was empty (Mk. 16:1-8)! Soon there was even more startling news: there are set down in the Gospels –though not in Mark who apparently ended his account with the discovery of the empty tomb– somewhat disjointed and not entirely coherent reports from his followers of encounters with Jesus, a flesh and blood living Jesus with his wounds still upon his body (Mt. 28:8-10, 16-20; Lk. 24:13-49;Jn. 20-21). He had risen from the dead!
There is little arguing the crucial centrality of Jesus’ resurrection. Paul himself had told the congregation at Corinth, “If Christ had not been raised from the dead, then our preaching would be in vain and your faith would be in vain” (1 Cor. 15:14). How so? Without the resurrection, with Jesus of Nazareth moldering in his tomb, he would have ended his life and his career as a publicly executed criminal, and all his followers’ hopes, genuine and misplaced, would have been disappointed, as the Gospel strongly suggests and explicitly states (Lk. 24:21). The dead Jesus would have been described in the pages of Josephus as one more failed Jewish Palestinian prophet fatally caught in the tangle of Jewish and Roman suspicions and fears. And his followers, rather than gathered in a house in Jerusalem in expectation of the Spirit, would more likely have been scattered fearfully across the Judean landscape and beyond.
What was that resurrection? We do not know since no one claims to have witnessed it. That Jesus’ tomb was empty shortly after his death has the earmarks of a historical fact, but the second element in thinking about Jesus’ resurrection is of a different order. An empty tomb might be explained in a number of ways, including the theft of the corpse (cf. Mt. 28:11-15), but the explanation that Jesus’ tomb was empty because he was raised from the dead rests uniquely on the witness of those of his followers who, individually or in groups, claimed to have encountered him after his death.
The earliest expression of that latter testimony occurs in a letter of Paul written about twenty years after Jesus’ death. It occurs in the form of information he had earlier received –he doesn’t say from whom; presumably from the Twelve– and that he accepted as true, to wit, “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures; that he was buried; that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures; that he appeared to Cephas [Peter], then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brethren at once, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. After that he appeared to James, then to all the missionaries” (1 Cor. 15:1-7). Finally (v.8), Paul adds himself to the list, though his experience of Jesus was not so much an encounter as a personal revelation (Gal. 1:15-16).
More anecdotal detail on those encounters is provided in the Gospels of Matthew, Luke and John. The encounter anecdotes for their part vary from Gospel to Gospel. But they are in agreement that this was truly the once dead Jesus and that he was now alive, though in a somewhat different state, at once both corporeal and “spiritual.”
This, then, represents the fiduciary basis of the Christian belief in Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, buttressed by the complementary but important conviction that it, like many other crucial (or inexplicable) events in the life of Jesus, it had taken place “according to Scripture,” that is, in accordance with a divine plan that had been revealed by the Biblical prophets and, as Christian hermeneutical sophistication grew, could be further uncovered through an allegorical reading of the so-called Old Testament. Indeed, if these witnesses were not convinced, and if their contemporaries and successors down to the present day did not “trust” (pistis) that those Galilean fishermen and others, most of whom were still alive in the 50s, had really encountered a Jesus not resuscitated but risen from the dead, there would be, as Paul already understood, no Christianity.
Risen, then gone, raised up bodily, in their sight, to heaven (Acts 1:9). In the aftermath of Jesus’ departure from among his followers, there is in both Paul and Luke, our two sources for the immediate post-Jesus era, a prevailing sense of eschatological expectation. In Paul, writing in the 50s, the immediacy of the End Time is still powerfully felt, but with a change in emphasis from what is presented in the Gospels as Jesus’ own eschatological expectations. In the Gospels’ account the entire apocalyptic sequence is unfolded and Jesus’ role is messianic in what was then the traditional Jewish sense, Daniel’s Son of Man descending in glory (Mark 13:24-27 and parallels). In Paul most of the dramatic mise en scène of the climactic arrival of the Messiah has fallen away; for Paul and his audience, the focus is on the return of Jesus to gather the souls of the believers into a heavenly eternity (1 Thess. 4:15-17).