As promised on Friday, we will now start unpacking the following long sentence:
The historical activity of Jesus of Nazareth is difficult to reconstruct with precision, but it is best understood as a form of prophetic activity within Judaism that is marked by a particular urgency and authority, and whose proclamation of God’s rule issues in a nascent community.
Ok, here we go.
- So there are formidable difficulties of historical reconstruction of Jesus as he existed in first century Palestine. First off, however, he really was a historical figure. He really did exist. He was a Jew living in Palestine under the rule of Tiberius Caesar. The difficulties of historical reconstruction have to do with our sources. We have very few outsider accounts of Jesus or the early Christians. There’s a few passing mentions by the Roman historians Tacitus and Suetonius, and a possible paragraph in the voluminous works of the Jewish historian, Josephus. But apart from those slender (and largely dismissive!) remarks, we are almost entirely dependent upon the Christian writings themselves. The earliest of these being written by the apostle Paul between the years 50 and 65 A.D., and the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, which can be dated roughly between the years 70 and 90. And those narratives depend upon an earlier oral tradition over a period of some forty years, in which the memory of Jesus was handed on in Christian communities. And those gospels, furthermore, are told from the perspective of the resurrection. In other words, they are not neutral accounts. They are far from eyewitness accounts. They are rather religious witnesses and interpretations which seek to communicate the convictions of the Christian community, and are written from the perspective of belief that Jesus is now the risen Lord, the resurrected one. Therefore, the earliest Christian writings do not give us very good historical sources in order to present a reconstruction of Jesus as a purely historical figure. This is why the attempts to recover the so-called historical Jesus are so difficult. Because the early Christian writings were simply not written for that reason.
- Nevertheless, with great care, we are able to say some things about Jesus which are historically highly probable. First, his characteristic speech and action identify him as a prophetic figure within the symbolic world of Torah. Jesus is very much a figure within Judaism whose speech and actions are best understood as somebody who thinks as a Jew would think in that era. He appears in the narratives as a sort of prophetic figure that we know of in the Old Testament figure of Elijah. He is a wandering figure. He is a wonder working figure.
- Jesus’ most distinctive proclamation was of the rule of God–the Kingdom of God–and this rule of God was now immanent. So there’s a certain urgency to his proclamation, bearing within it a call to repentance. It is a call to a renewed commitment to God by an internal transformation and a change in behavior. “Repent,” which we translate from the Greek “metanoia,” is to change how you think, to change your outlook. So there’s a particular urgency in his proclamation. “The time is now.” “The time has come to completion.” “Repent and believe in the good news.”
- His proclamation also had a distinctive appeal to the outcast. He did not address himself to the religious elite among the people, but rather to the outcast. “Blessed are the poor” as opposed to “Blessed are you rich.” His ministry was characterized by an open table fellowship with sinners and tax collectors, those who were outcasts among the Jewish people.
- He speaks with a sense of authority. He interprets Torah, not as other Jewish leaders of that time, by referring to other authorities, but simply on his own authority. “You have heard it said…but I say to you…” In fact, one of his most characteristic locutions is the outrageous prefacing of his remarks by the word “amen.” “Amen amen I say to you…” “Amen” is usually something someone says to somebody else in order to assent to what they say. So, in other words, Jesus’ sense of authority is communicated by the fact that he self-validates his speech before he even begins it. (If he was not the Son of God, then we must conclude that he was at the very least, quite the ego maniac! A megalomaniac)
- Jesus’ choice of twelve followers is virtually historically certain, and it indicates that he had some sense of beginning a movement. And this movement was understood as somehow being the restoration of Israel itself, since the twelve members match the symbolic figure of the twelve tribes of Israel.
Wow. That was a lot.