Chapter 1: The Historical Background for the Ministry of Jesus

Jesus and the Word
by Rudolf Bultmann

Chapter 1: The Historical Background for the Ministry of Jesus

A unique picture is presented by the Jewish nation as it existed at the beginning of our era, with its centre in Jerusalem, the holy city. This nation, through a varied history, rich in external and internal experience, had become far removed from the primitive life of immediate dependence on nature, in which neighboring Oriental peoples still more or less lingered. It was a nation whose political life had been finally destroyed by the Roman rule, and whose economic situation involved no problems the solution of which could affect historical development. A people, furthermore, which had no intellectual or spiritual life in the sense of cultural achievements such as science, art, or jurisprudence, developed for their own sake. A people endowed with great vitality, strong natural instincts, the highest moral energy, and the keenest intellectual capacity, yet whose life consisted not in all the things which fill the life of the other peoples of the earth.

Law and promise determine the life of this people, obedience and hope define its meaning. Law — not a law arising from the concrete relationships of life, based upon rational thinking and logically articulated; on the contrary, a law which had grown out of social conditions and cultic motives no longer alive and often no longer understood, artificially preserved and casuistically elaborated and interpreted. A law not lacking a strong infusion of ethical ideas, yet not to be characterized as a "moral code." A law which does not rest upon the ethical conception of man and humanity, but which is characterized by a combination of ethical and legalistic viewpoints. A law which properly has only this meaning: to release man from the world, to separate him from any interest in an independent cultural development, and to humble him in obedience to the transcendent power of God — of a God, whose image is not in any sense determined by the conception that man has of his own highest spiritual life. A God who at first glance is comparable to the picture of the Oriental ruler, who governs his people with complete arbitrariness, bound by no rational law; but a God who is conceived as wholly different from an Oriental ruler, since all physical traits are lacking, all tyrannical desires alien; a God who desires justice and righteousness and punishes sin, a God who loves His people as a father his first-born son, a God to whom the religious man ills as to his father, and in whose help he trusts in all situations of life.

This law and the unconditional obedience of the religious man to it make the Jewish nation a chosen people. The primary sense of this title — irrespective of what arrogant or naïvely material claims may be combined with it — is that this people is a holy people; it is lifted out of the world, out of the world’s interests and ideals, and has its centre of gravity in the beyond. Exactly the same meaning underlies also promise and hope. For the hope has as its content not some kind of program for a political, judicial, or economic ideal. Israel hoped not for an ideal world order (if the word "ideal" be used in its strict sense), but for the end of earthly things and for the glory of God and His people. And although naïve imagination could represent this glory only in pictures which betray pleasure in material splendor and sensuous enjoyments, still this is not the essential element.

In reality such descriptions have only the negative significance that in the promised day all the misery of life, its poverty and sickness, will end; the foreign rule of the heathen will be over. But of what then will positively be, there is no definite picture. There is only the assurance that the holy God will dwell in the midst of His holy people. Such hope rests on the promise of the prophets, whose relation to earlier concrete historical situations is ignored. The prophets themselves were already saturated with Oriental mythology; and the later hope of Judaism was also deeply influenced by the mythology of Oriental eschatologies, of Persian or Babylonian origin. The result was a new and peculiar literary form, apocalyptic, which sought to unravel the secrets of the divine plan for the world, to recognize the signs of the end, to calculate the time of its arrival, and to invent fantastic elaborations of the heavenly glory.

Hope is peculiarly bound up with obedience; they support each other. In rabbinical Judaism after the beginning of the Christian era the hope retreats more and more into the background, not indeed as a fundamental conception but as a practical attitude. Rabbinical Judaism finally rejected apocalyptic, leaving it to Christianity, and concentrated entirely on the Law. How far this movement had gone among the rabbis in the time of Jesus, it is difficult to say. At any rate the Jewish people at just this time were most strongly stirred by Messianic hopes. These hopes were depicted in a great variety of colors, depending on whether the traditional picture of the old Davidic kingdom or fantastic Oriental cosmology and mythology made the greater contribution; on whether political ideals determined their thoughts, or a purely religious hope predominated.

Because of the close connection between obedience and hope, one particular expectation especially filled many minds: the hope that God would destroy the rule of the heathen, that He would again make of Palestine a completely holy land in which only the law of their fathers would prevail. It is true that the official class of the Jewish people welcomed the Roman rule, which gave peace to the land and, in the very act of depriving the race of its national existence, allowed the religious man to work in peace and live faithful to the Law. In the temple at Jerusalem, too, sacrifices and prayers were offered regularly for the Caesar, and Jewish leaders were satisfied so long as the Romans showed a certain consideration for the holiness of Jerusalem. But among the people themselves, and especially in the strictly legalistic group, the Pharisees, there grew out of the Messianic hope a flaming activism, which itself undertook to end the rule of the heathen. From the time of Herod the Great the Messianic movements did not cease, until they finally culminated in the destruction of Jerusalem and the annihilation of the Jewish state in so far as it could be called a state.

2. The Messianic Movements

Herod had already had to use force to suppress a conspiracy which had begun when he had aroused religious antagonism by setting up trophies in the theatre at Jerusalem. As he lay on his deathbed, Jewish youths tore down and destroyed the golden eagle which he had brought into the temple. At the beginning of the reign of Archelaus, to avenge the execution of these offenders, there was a revolt at the feast of the Passover; it was put down by violence. Similarly after the death of Herod an insurrection broke out in Galilee under a certain Judas; it was merely the continuation of earlier disturbances with which Herod had had to deal. In Perea a certain Simon proclaimed himself "king." In Judea a brawny shepherd assumed a crown and began war against the Romans and Herodians. The Jewish historian Josephus calls the rebels "bandits"; the context shows however that without exception these were Messianic movements. When in 6 A.D. the Syrian legate Quirinius took a census in Palestine, there was a revolt in Galilee, and the Judas before mentioned together with the Pharisee Zadok founded the party of the Zealots; religiously the Zealots belonged with the Pharisees, but they made their Messianic hope into a political program. They considered it shameful to pay tribute to the Romans, and to endure mortal men as lords instead of God, the only Lord and King. As they accepted willingly for themselves any kind of death, so also was the murder of relatives and friends a matter of indifference to them, if only they need not call any man their lord. Until the fall of Jerusalem these Zealots continued to defy the Romans, and with them were the like-minded Sicarii, who did not shrink even from the murder of the high priest. Pilate had to suppress in Judea two smaller uprisings, called forth by the offending of Jewish religious feeling; in Samaria he was forced to resort to bloodshed in order to put down a Messianic revolt.

After 40 A.D. such movements multiplied. The old unrest continued. Here and there in Jerusalem and in the country insurrections occurred. Here and there Messianic prophets and even "kings" appeared; under Cuspius Fadus, the "prophet" Theudas; under Ventidius Cumanus, the "bandit" Eleasar; under Felix, a "prophet" who came out of Egypt, who led the crowd of his adherents to the Mount of Olives and attempted to enter Jerusalem with them, expecting the walls to fall at his command; under Festus, a "prophet" who promised "salvation" and deliverance from all suffering. In fact, there was a whole succession of prophets who, according to the account of Josephus, "behaving as if they were chosen by God, caused disturbances and revolutions and drove the people insane with their oratory, and enticed them into the desert, as if God might there announce to them the miracle of their deliverance." All these Messianic insurrections the Romans suppressed and crucified their instigators or executed them in other ways whenever they could get their hands on them. Here it must be emphasized that some of these movements had no political character. The crowds stirred with Messianic hopes often used no violence, but expected the end of the Roman rule and the coming of the Kingdom of God to be achieved purely by a miracle of God’s working. The Romans did not distinguish, and indeed they could not; for them, all these movements were suspected as hostile to the Roman authority.

3. John the Baptist and Jesus

At this time a prophet appeared by the Jordan, John the Baptist. His coming, too, belongs in the series of Messianic movements. It had of course no political character, but it was inspired by the certainty that the time of the end was now come. On the ground of this conviction he preached repentance.

"You brood of vipers! Who has taught you to flee from the wrath to come? Bring forth then fit fruits of repentance, and think not to say within yourselves: We have Abraham for our father. For I tell you, God can raise up from these stones children to Abraham. Already the axe is laid at the root of the trees, and every tree which does not bear fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire!" (Matt. 3:7-10)

He came as an ascetic, and fasting was characteristic of his sect. (Mark 2 :18, Matt. 11 :18) In addition he practised baptism. Judaism, like the other religions of the east, had long practised the washings which were intended to preserve cultic and ritual purity. At the time of the rise of Christianity, however, there had appeared in that part of the world a whole group of baptismal sects, to which for example the so-called Essenes belong. There was a special significance ascribed to baptism, which was obviously connected with eschatological speculations. Hence the baptism which John proclaimed must be understood as an eschatological sacrament. Whoever submitted himself to it, and to the obligation of repentance bound up with it, purified himself for the coming Kingdom of God, and belonged to the company of those who would escape the day of wrath and judgment. Clearly ancient eastern, non-Jewish conceptions influenced this Baptist movement; old mythology of Persia or Babylon perhaps also influenced the Baptist’s preaching of the coming Judge. But we know little about it from the earliest sources — the gospel and Josephus. Possibly the Gnostic sect which emerged later is a development of this old Baptist sect, and perhaps many of the Mandæan conceptions go back to the beginning of the movement. It is worth noting that the Mandæns called themselves "Nazarenes"; and that Jesus is often so called in the early Christian tradition. Since this epithet cannot be derived from the name of his own village Nazareth, and since the early Christian tradition has preserved the recollection that Jesus was baptized by John, it might be concluded that Jesus originally belonged to the sect of the Baptist, and that the Jesus-sect was an offshoot of the John-sect. To this conclusion other traces in the gospel tradition point, sayings which stress now the agreement between Jesus and the Baptist, now the superiority of Jesus over John; sayings which show now the solidarity of the two sects as against orthodox Judaism, now the rivalry between them.

But this matter must not be further discussed here. The important point is that among the many Messianic movements of the time, in close relation to the sect of the Baptizer, that movement also grew up which Jesus initiated by his preaching. His followers saw in Jesus the Messiah, whose return after his execution they expected. (We know of something similar in the case of a Samaritan sect.) Both movements, that of John and that of Jesus, were Messianic. Their connection with each other and also with other Messianic movements is recognizable in the fact that disciples of the Baptist came over to Jesus, and that there was even a Zealot among Jesus’ followers.

Outsiders certainly could not recognize the essentially unpolitical character of the leadership of both John and Jesus, especially as both aroused considerable popular excitement. Both movements were therefore suppressed quickly by the execution of their leaders. John the Baptist was beheaded by Herod Antipas. Mark 6:17-29 gives us an entirely legendary account of his death, while Josephus states that Herod, in view of the crowds which flocked to the Baptist, was afraid that John would incite the people to rebellion, and prevented this by executing him. Jesus was crucified by the Roman procurator Pontius Pilate. What role the Jewish authorities, on whom the Christian tradition put the chief blame, actually played is no longer clearly discernible. It is probable that they, as in other cases, worked hand in hand with the Romans in the interest of political tranquillity. At least there can be no doubt that Jesus like other agitators died on the cross as a Messianic prophet.