Between now and Christmas I would like to take an historical-critical look at Jesus of Nazareth, as understood by Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John. The purpose of this historical-critical journey is to help us in our own contemporary understanding of Jesus. It would be helpful if people could re-read each gospel, on this journey.
Virtually all scholars of antiquity accept that Jesus was an historical figure and attempts to deny his historicity have been consistently rejected by the scholarly consensus. Jesus was a Galilean Hebrew who was born between 7 and 2 BCE and died around 30 CE. Jesus lived only in Galilee and Judea. Like most people from Galilee back then, Jesus most likely had brown eyes, dark brown to black hair and olive-brown skin. Jesus spoke Aramaic and may have also spoken Hebrew and Greek. The languages spoken in Galilee and Judea during the 1st century included the Semitic Aramaic and Hebrew languages as well as Greek, with Aramaic being the predominant language.
A friend asked me what the historical Jesus said about sex. A strong case can be made that Jesus did not directly discuss sexual activity at all. Jesus did stress the fundamental moral principle of loving God and loving your neighbor as yourself. That really covers ALL human actions.
Biblical perspectives on the historical Jesus are based on the Pauline epistles and the gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John all writen within, say, seventy-five years of Jesus’ death. Those four gospels, however, do not represent all the early gospels available. This becomes clear in studying other gospels either discerned as sources inside the official four or else discovered as documents outside them. An example of a source hidden within the four canonical gospels is the reconstructed document known as Q, from the German word Quelle, meaning “source,” which is now imbedded within both Luke and Matthew.
An example of an other ancient Jesus document discovered outside the four canonical gospels is the Gospel of Thomas, which was found at Nag Hammadi, in Upper Egypt, in the winter of 1945 and is, in the view of many scholars, completely independent of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John. It is also most strikingly different from them, especially in its format. It identifies itself as a gospel, but it is in fact a collection of the sayings of Jesus given without any descriptions of deeds or miracles, crucifixion or resurrection stories.
Most contemporary biblical scholars agree that Jesus began his public ministry when he was about thirty years old, as indicated in Luke 3:23. The New Testament does not specifically give the ages of any of the men and women who were Jesus’ disciples. Biblical historians suggest, however, that some of them may have joined Jesus as early as age 15 and would have still been teenagers at the time of his death and resurrection. Education for young Hebrews, in Jesus’ time, concluded at the age of 15.
What did Jesus do before his public ministry? We don’t know. We can can only speculate. Some believe Jesus was first of all like a first century “blue collar” worker in construction work outside Nazareth. Others suggest that, after his father’s death, Jesus took over the work to support his mother, brothers, and sisters. Still others theorize that Jesus was a monk and spent years in study and prayer, before entering his public ministerial life. Frankly, I have no pet theory. I am more interested in what Jesus said and did.
When we look at the history and biblical testimony about the post-Resurrection apostolic community of Christians in Jerusalem, clearly the leader was James, the “brother of the Lord.” Peter played a role in the Council of Jerusalem, around 50 CE. But James was in charge and James issued the definitive judgment that converts to Christianity did not have to be circumcised. Then, according to the epistle to the Galatians, Peter went to Antioch. There he tangled with Paul, who rebuked him for treating Gentile converts as inferior to Hebrew Christians. There is a tradition that Peter and Paul went to Rome and were put to death at the hands of Nero, probably between 64 and 68 CE. Peter, as I have written earlier, was never a bishop of Rome and not the first pope. The first great acclamation of “Peter as a pope,” came from Pope Leo I who was pope from 440 CE until his death in 461 CE.
After the deaths of James, Paul, Peter, as well as others who had known Jesus face-to-face, it became essential for the survival of the way of Jesus that his words and deeds be recollected and written down. This led to the birth of the four Gospels. The clear majority of contemporary biblical scholars believe that Mark was the first Gospel to be written, sometime around the year 70 CE. The Gospels contain bits of history, parables, metaphor, symbol, re-interpreted passages from the Greek (Septuagint) Hebrew Scriptures and imagined scenarios for key events in the life of Jesus.
Next week we will explore perspectives on Jesus in the Gospel of Mark, which is simple and succinct with a vivid account of Jesus’ ministry, emphasizing more what Jesus did than what he said.