Chapter 11: The Life of Jesus
The Limitations of our Knowledge
For the facts of Jesus’ life and the words of his teaching we are almost entirely dependent on the four gospels and a few allusions in Acts and the epistles. The references to Jesus in pagan and Jewish writings of the first and second centuries A.D. do little more than confirm that he really lived, was put to death under Pontius Pilate (so Tacitus, Annales, 15:44), and was recognised by those who believed in him as the Christ.
This comparative silence of non-Christian writers is easily explained. It took a considerable time for the Christian impact upon pagan civilisation to become seriously felt in literary circles; Tacitus (c. A.D. 116) mentioned Jesus only in connection with Nero’s attempt to fasten the responsibility of the Fire of Rome in A.D. 64 upon the unpopular Christians, and Josephus, who as a Jew might have been expected to have some knowledge of Jesus, considered the Christian sect of such little importance that his only reference to Jesus comes in a statement that James, who was killed by the Jews c. A.D. 63 was ‘the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ’ (Josephus, Antiquities, 20, 9, 1, c. A.D. 95).(A passage in Josephus, Ant. 18, 3, 3, which mentions Jesus’ ministry, his death under Pontius Pilate, and his resurrection, is open to the suspicion of being a Christian interpolation in the original text.) The devastation of Palestine in the Jewish revolts of A.D. 66-73 and 132-135, followed as they were by the imposition of a tight religious censorship by the Pharisaic-Rabbinic school which thereafter dominated Jewish thought, has left little available information about Jesus from Jewish sources, except for a handful of hostile references, mostly of doubtful interpretation.
The evidence of Christian writings outside the New Testament is not much more helpful. Fragments have survived of a number of ‘apocryphal’ gospels, written in the second or succeeding centuries, which purport to record the infancy and childhood of Jesus or to rewrite the gospel story in fuller detail; but a cursory examination of these is sufficient to expose the doctrinal motives or legend-loving piety which have led to the invention of these details. Only in a few sayings which have survived from these gospels, from collections found in Egyptian rubbish-heaps, and from the main stream of Christian tradition, does the authentic ring of Jesus’ voice sometimes make itself felt. Perhaps the best known of such sayings occurs in a third century papyrus found at Oxyrhyncus:
Wheresoever there are two, they are not without God: and where there is one alone I say I am with him. Lift up the stone and there shalt thou find me: cleave the wood, and I am there.
Within the New Testament the occasional references of Paul to the details of Jesus’ life and teaching are of great interest and importance, e.g. I Cor. 7:10, 9:14, Gal. 1:19, 4:4, I Thess. 5:15, and above all his allusions to the Last Supper, I Cor. 11:23-25, and to the Resurrection Appearances, I Cor. 15:3-8. For the teaching of Jesus the epistle of James has a special significance and for the outline of the ministry the speeches in Acts, e.g. 10: 37-42, have a certain value. The teaching of Acts and the epistles as a whole provides valuable evidence for the spirit of the teaching of Jesus which his followers wished to pass on to new converts. Yet it is to the four gospels that we must turn for the great bulk of our information.
What has already been said in the preceding chapters about the gospels and their sources makes it clear that even their evidence needs careful assessment before it can be used for reconstructing the life of the historical Jesus. In the first place the gospels can no longer be considered as fully apostolic in the traditional sense. Behind them lie sources, some of which may well contain the reminiscences of Matthew, Peter, and John, but these sources have been edited and the gospels given their final form by men of a later generation who had not themselves known Jesus in the flesh. The student who seeks for historical truth must be content to accept the gibe of Monsignor Knox:
Twelve prophets our unlearn’d forefathers knew.
We scarce are satisfied with twenty-two —
They were content Mark, Matthew, Luke and John
Should bless th’ old-fashion’d beds they lay upon:
But we, for ev’ry one of theirs have two,
And trust the watchfulness of blessed Q.(R.A. Knox, Essays in Satire, p. 87.)
In the second place it must be admitted that the gospels, written as they were to confirm and instruct Christian faith by authors who were themselves zealous Christians, show a tendency to distort the facts in the interest of Christian apologetic. The historical motive is inextricably intertwined with that of edification, and it is impossible in many incidents and sayings recorded in the gospels to know how much was said or done by Jesus and how much has been added in the tradition.
The difficulties to which these deficiencies of the gospels give rise are many and serious. For the birth and infancy of Jesus we have only the first two chapters of Matthew and Luke to guide us, for the period of his boyhood and early manhood only a single story in Luke of his visit to the Temple when he was twelve years old (Lk. 2:41-52). For the period of his ministry we have no comprehensive and worked-out scheme, but merely a number of incidents and discourses loosely knit together with a minimum of chronological framework. Only for the last week in Jerusalem have we a day to day account of Jesus’ activities, culminating in the detailed descriptions of his trial and crucifixion. Of the resurrection appearances enumerated by Paul some only are described in the gospels.
Not only are the gospel-narratives extremely limited in their extent, but they are often conflicting and some of them artificially constructed. It is impossible satisfactorily to reconcile the birth and infancy narratives of Luke and Matthew, and in both gospels the true story seems to have been overlaid with a considerable amount of legendary material. The ignoring of the Judaean ministry in Mark and the concentration upon this period of the ministry in John serve to show the limited sources available to each evangelist; the plan of the ministry in both gospels is to some extent artificially constructed, that in Mark by the grouping together of controversies, that in John to suit the dramatic purposes of the evangelist. We cannot know how far the divergences between the resurrection-narratives in the different gospels are due to imperfect knowledge and how far to deliberate selection, but it seems clear that developments in the tradition and editorial work have both in part obscured the original experiences of the apostles.
The tendency at work in the resurrection-narratives to demonstrate in ever more striking and external manifestations the divinity of Jesus finds its counterpart within the earthly ministry itself, especially in the accounts of miracles and in the claims put into Jesus’ mouth. This is not to deny that Jesus really did work miracles of healing or that he knew himself to be in a unique sense the Son of God, but a comparison of Mark with Matthew and John show a continual tendency in the later gospels to heighten the miraculous and to magnify the evidences of his Godhead. Even in Mark we have reason to believe that this process has gone some distance already and that the nature-miracles, for example, are the invention of early Christians or the distortion into miracles of what originally was not miraculous, e.g. the feeding of the multitude.
Side by side with this eagerness to multiply proofs of Jesus’ divinity went the willingness to reinforce his claim to be the Christ by putting into his mouth, or into that of others (cf. Mt. 3: 14, Jn. 1:36), unequivocal statements of his Sonship. While it is impossible in most cases to speak with certainty, and it cannot reasonably be denied that Jesus did claim to be the Christ, the tendency of the tradition to multiply his claims must also be admitted. A further distortion of the facts arose from the reading back into Jesus’ mouth of what had become incorporated in Church teaching out of ecclesiastical needs, the reading of Jewish apocalypses, and the meditation of Christians on actual words of Jesus. Examples of the way in which the practical problems of the Church altered the gospel-record of Jesus’ teaching have been given above and the ascription to Jesus, e.g. in Mk.13, of much that is really drawn from Jewish apocalyptic ideas is discussed in chapter 26; that much of the discourse-material in John represents the reflections of the evangelist upon Jesus’ life and teaching rather than the ipsissima verba of Jesus is manifest, as can be seen, e.g. in the conversation with Nicodemus, Jn. 3:3-21, where Jesus tells Nicodemus to be born of water and the Spirit, although ‘the Spirit was not yet given’ (Jn. 7:39) and the last verses of the discourse are clearly the evangelist’s own interpretation of Jesus’ mission on earth.
The defects of the gospels as historical material for the life and teaching of Jesus are certainly very great. But criticism of the gospels has positive as well as negative results to offer. Although the gospels in their present form are not eye-witness accounts of Jesus, some of the sources on which they are based are of high historical value. It has been suggested above (chapter 7), that the general plan of Mark preserves a trustworthy, though incomplete account of the chief stages of the ministry, such as Peter may well have narrated, and that much of the historical framework of John goes back to early Palestinian tradition, some of it at least possibly to the apostle John himself. Even though it is impossible fully to disentangle these sources from the surrounding material and from the editorial revisions to which they have been subjected, we are enabled to reconstruct a broad outline of Jesus’ activity which is intelligible in itself and has a solid claim to represent what actually happened. For filling in this outline many of the incidents related in the gospels, especially in Mark and Luke, may be accepted as historically reliable, but not inerrant, versions of what took place. For the teaching of Jesus the material of Q and much of the discourse-material of Matthew are of first-class value, with a strong claim to represent in substance what the apostles had recalled of Jesus’ words: these sources supplement, and occasionally correct the somewhat scanty teaching material in Mark and help to establish some parts of the discourses in John as representing what Jesus himself had said.
By concentration on what appear to be the best and most nearly apostolic sources behind the gospels we can obtain a firm nucleus of material, consistent in itself and adequate both for giving us a rough sketch of Jesus’ ministry and teaching, and for checking the value of the material drawn from other sources. This material in turn can then be used in part for filling out the picture in more detail with occasional aid from the epistles.
It remains true that a life of Jesus in the normal sense can never be written. The earliest Christians were too concerned with the urgency of their message about the risen Christ to set down in writing any detailed record of what Jesus had said and done during his time on earth. What they did hand on in their preaching was all related to their proclamation of his saving power, a confirmation by illustration of what he had taught on particular subjects, his mighty works, his conflicts with authority, and a connected account only of the last days in Jerusalem, his crucifixion, and his resurrection. When at last the gospels came to be written the apostles were no longer available to help the final authors in their historical task. The shape and form of our gospels was conditioned both by the difficulty of finding full material and by the bias that had been acquired by such material as was available.
Given these limitations, however, we can still gain a picture in broad detail of the course of Jesus’ ministry and of the main themes of his teaching, which, if not of guaranteed accuracy in every particular, yet preserves a generally truthful likeness of Jesus as he came to men in Palestine nineteen hundred years ago. It is the likeness of a man consistent in his teaching and in his actions, who claimed to be the Christ of God. What we can know of him as he lived on earth agrees with the Christian claim that the Christ of apostolic faith was in truth before his resurrection the Jesus of history.
The Course of The Ministry
The birth of Jesus is recorded in Matthew and Luke, but with differing detail and a wealth of legend, whose full extent is difficult to determine. Many critics would reject even the placing of the birth at Bethlehem, as a Christian attempt to satisfy the prophecy of Micah 5:2, and the tracing of his descent from David as a similar attempt to satisfy Messianic tradition (contrast Jesus’ use of Ps.110:2 in Mk. 12:35-37). Of the first thirty years (Lk.3:23) of his life we know little more than that he was brought up at Nazareth as a carpenter, the reputed son of Joseph and his wife Mary, with brothers, James, Joses, Judas, Simon, and sisters (Mk. 6:3). It is only with his baptism by John and the beginning of his ministry that it becomes possible to take up the story in any detail.
I The Chronology and Duration of the Ministry
Luke fixes the beginning of John the Baptist’s preaching ‘in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar’, probably to be reckoned as A.D. 28-29; in Jn. 2:20 allusion is made to the fact that the Temple has been in course of building for forty-six years, and as we know from Josephus that Herod the Great began to rebuild the Temple in 20-19 B.C., the date given would appear to be A.D. 27 or 28. It would seem therefore not unlikely that the beginning of Jesus’ ministry is to be dated from late in A.D.27 or early in A.D. 28, although allowance must be made for the possible error of a year or two either way. The date given for the crucifixion must largely depend on the view taken of the length of the ministry. Pontius Pilate was procurator of Judaea from A.D. 26-36, and Caiaphas seems to have held the office of high priest from A.D. 18-36. Attempts have been made to discover in which of these years the 14th Nisan, the day before the Passover, when, according to John, Jesus was crucified, fell on a Friday, but none of the calculations which have been made have been generally accepted as decisive.
The duration of the ministry cannot be established with certainty. The ‘green grass’ of Mk. 6:39 suggests springtime, (The plucking of ears of corn, Mk. 2:23, cannot be stressed as affording a clue to the season of the year at the beginning of the ministry. Mark seems here to have collected material, some of which, at least, may originally have had a different context [Chap. 7]) and would involve a period of at least a year before the crucifixion, also in the springtime. John’s narrative includes references to three successive passovers, 2:13, 6:4, 11:55, but the first of these is linked with the Cleansing of the Temple which Mark with more probability puts in the final week at Jerusalem. The choice seems to lie between a ministry of rather over one year, and one of two or three years; on the whole the balance of probability is in favour of the shorter period. The plan of Mark’s gospel may be accepted as generally accurate within its limits, but Mark has passed over a preliminary period of the ministry in Judaea, and has given a very summary account of the period between Jesus’ final departure from Galilee and the last days in Jerusalem. It is possible to dovetail into this account most of John’s extra material, and some of Luke’s, in such a way as to produce a connected narrative covering the main stages of the ministry and occupying some 15-18 months. These stages, and their approximate dates, may be tabulated as follows:
A.D. 27 Winter: Jesus’ Baptism and Temptation, and a period of activity in Judaea and Samaria.
A.D. 28 Early Spring: John is arrested, and Jesus begins his Galilean ministry.
Early Summer: The climax of his popular success, and the Feeding of the 5,000.
Summer: Growing Hostility of the Authorities.
Herod’s suspicions are aroused and Jesus leaves Galilee for the borders of Tyre and Sidon and Decapolis.
Late Summer: Jesus returns to Galilee in secret, and leaves it for the last time.
Autumn: Jesus is in Jerusalem for the Feast of Tabernacles.
Winter: Jesus retires across the Jordan after the Feast of the Dedication, and later removes to a remote district of Judaea.
A.D. 29: Spring Jesus makes his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, is arrested, tried, and crucified.
Such a reconstruction must inevitably contain speculative elements, but raises fewer difficulties than most alternatives. It is used as the basis for the more detailed account of the ministry below.
2 The Beginning of the Ministry in Judaea
The baptism of Jesus by John and his temptation in the wilderness were the prelude to his own active ministry. Mark has preserved an account of the baptism (Mk. 1:9-12) and Q an account of the Temptation (Mt. 4: 3-10, Lk. 4:3-12) which contain interpretations of these events such as Jesus may well have himself given to his disciples at a later stage of his ministry, although the actual wording of both accounts has been moulded in Christian tradition. It is significant that the revelation of God at the baptism in Mark’s account is to Jesus alone, and that there is no sign of any recognition of Jesus by John as in later accounts, e.g. Mt. 3:14, Jn.1:29. That John recognised Jesus at his baptism as ‘he that should come’ appears to be ruled out by his later enquiry from prison (Q, Mt. 11:2-3, Lk. 7:18-19).
John the Baptist had appeared in Judaea prophesying the imminence of divine judgement, and proclaiming himself the unworthy forerunner of one mightier than himself who would have power to save and to destroy. He exhorted men to undergo a baptism of repentance in Jordan, and to bring forth fruits worthy of repentance. His message was a continuation of that of the Old Testament prophets, and his practice of baptism as an initiation into the community of those who would be saved seems to have been derived from such passages as Is. 1:16-17, Ezek. 9: 4-6, 36: 24-26. Josephus (Ant. 18: 5, 2) confirms the gospel accounts of the great enthusiasm kindled by John, and tells of his arrest and later execution by Herod as the potential leader of a rebellion, but does not repeat Mark’s story of Salome’s dance, which is probably only a popular fiction.
Jesus found in John’s preaching, imperfect as he saw it to be (Q, Mt. 11:7-11, Lk. 7:24-28) the preparation for himself and his own greater mission, and recognised in John the Elijah redivivus of Mal.4:5-6 who was his own forerunner (Mk. 9:11-13). He underwent the baptism of John in recognition of this and received in a spiritual experience associated with the baptism a confirmation of his Sonship (Mk.1:10-11). Whether this experience marked a development in Jesus’ thought we cannot tell: a variant reading of the voice at the baptism in Luke is,
‘Thou art my beloved son; this day have I begotten thee’, and some scholars hold that this may be the original reading and may even be derived from Q; on the other hand this variant may be due only to assimilation with Ps. 2:7. Jesus seems, at any rate, to have found in his baptism the impulse to begin his own ministry.
His first step was to withdraw into solitude for a period — the ‘forty days’ of the gospels are only a conventional figure — in which to prepare himself by physical fasting and the meeting of mental temptation. Although the Q account of the Temptation has been ‘materialised’ and cast in the form of a biblical-quotation match, it preserves the substance of the internal conflict which Jesus in his humanity must have faced before he finally committed himself to the supreme task.
For the beginnings of Jesus’ active ministry we are dependent on the early chapters of John, where the evangelist’s narrative is confused and highly-coloured. He portrays scenes at Bethany beyond Jordan, without actually mentioning Jesus’ baptism, followed by a short visit to Galilee, a visit to Jerusalem, missionary activity by Jesus and his disciples in Judaea, a journey through Samaria to Galilee, another visit to Jerusalem, and a return once more to Galilee and the eastern side of the lake. The account includes elements of doubtful historical worth; thus the cleansing of the Temple is associated with the first visit to Jerusalem, 2:13ff., and the testimony borne to Jesus both by John and by himself betrays the hand of the author of the gospel. Yet there may well be a nucleus of truth in the description of Jesus’ call of some of his disciples for the first time from among those who had come to hear John, and in the description of Jesus and his disciples as active in Judaea for a time before returning to Galilee through Samaria. It is possible, too, that the fourth evangelist is correct in depicting Jesus’ disciples as baptising during this stage of the ministry until they found themselves in competition with John and withdrew to Galilee (3:22-4:3); such a practice would help to explain their adoption of an altered rite of baptism after the resurrection (Acts 2:38). For Jesus’ teaching at this time the fourth evangelist, with his concern to emphasise Jesus’ divinity, is not a safe guide; it seems more likely that Jesus began with a message closely akin to John’s, such as Mark records he proclaimed in the first days of his Galilean ministry (Mk. 1:14-15), and that he did not publish abroad, except in a veiled way, his own Sonship.
3 The First Days of the Galilean Ministry
Mark portrays Jesus as coming into Galilee and beginning his ministry only after John’s arrest (Mk. 1:14), and it may be that Jesus did in a sense make a fresh start then, after an interval during which the disciples had returned to their homes. This would explain the instant response to his renewed call of Peter and Andrew (Mk. 1:16-18). For a period of some months Jesus went about Galilee, especially in the districts and villages near the sea of Galilee, preaching in the synagogues and in the open air, performing miraculous healings, and gathering about him a little company of close disciples. The content of his teaching was in some ways similar to that of John, the imminence of the Kingdom of God and the need for men to repent, but there were also significant differences. He was no less stern than John in his description of the penalties of sin, but his message was fundamentally one of good news and of the rewards that God offers to men. This note of joy was particularly associated with the position which he assumed himself and which he emphasised in his teaching. He not only performed healings and exorcisms and spoke with authority (Mk. 1:22), but he emphasised his own role in calling men to salvation (Mk. 2:17), and even claimed the power to forgive sins (Mk. 2:5). This assumption of authority, coupled as it was with wonder-working powers and with the disregard of traditional religious customs when they conflicted with the doing of good (e.g. Mk. 2:16, 3:2), impressed the majority of his hearers (Mk. 2:12, 3:7-9) but also aroused the hostility of others, especially the religious leaders (Mk. 2:6, 3:6). His relatives thought he was ‘beside himself’ (Mk. 3:21), scribes from Jerusalem that he was possessed by Beelzebub (Mk. 3:22), and a visit with his disciples to his own village was a comparative failure because of the unwillingness of those who knew him and his family to accept his authority (Mk.6:1-6).
Mark and the other gospels give us only short glimpses of this phase of Jesus’ ministry, and we can reconstruct only a rough pattern of the course of events. Two incidents, however, stand out as of special importance, the Mission of Jesus’ disciples and the Feeding of the Five Thousand.
It is clear that from the beginning Jesus distinguished between the crowds of hearers, drawn by every kind of motive, and an inner band of disciples who had left all and followed him (Mk. 10:28). To the outer circle he presented himself as a healer and as one who spoke with authority, but often in riddles; thus he spoke of himself as ‘the Son of Man’ (e.g. Mk.2:10; Q, Mt. 12: 39, 40b, Lk. 11:29, 30), a term which could be interpreted either as ‘a man ‘or in the celestial sense of the ‘son of man’ in Dan. 7: 13, and he spoke of the Kingdom of God for the most part in parables, which he explained only for his close disciples (Mk. 4:10-12). How far Mk. 4:10-12 correctly interpret Jesus’ motives for so teaching is disputed, but it is clear that Jesus, for all the urgency of his message, did not want half-hearted followers (Q, Mt. 8: 19-21, Lk. 9:57-60) and sought also, without abating his claim to authority, to avoid the acceptance of men’s allegiance to him based on wrong motives. Even to the inner band of disciples he seems to have revealed his message at this stage only in part, training them first for the task of spreading to all the neighbouring region the imminence of the coming of the kingdom and the need for repentance (Mk. 6:7-13; Q, Lk. 10:3-12).
This mission had a double purpose: it was not only for the training of the disciples, but for challenging with his good news as many people as possible before the growing hostility of the authorities should make Jesus’ own public activity difficult and dangerous. The picture which Mark gives of the rising tide of opposition rings true: he mentions first the offence taken by local scribes (2:6), then the opposition of Pharisees who consult with Herodians (the meaning of this name is obscure, but it implies some sort of connection with Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee) how to destroy him (3:6); scribes come down from Jerusalem to investigate (3:22) and show themselves equally hostile, and later, during the mission of the Twelve, Herod himself hears of Jesus’ activity and success (6:14).
The feeding of the multitude is described twice over by Mark, and once by John, with the added and significant detail of the crowd’s attempt to make Jesus king (Jn. 6:15, cf. ch.10). The gospel accounts of the feeding represent it as miraculous, but this is probably the work of Christian tradition, and of many possible interpretations the most likely is, perhaps, that Jesus in some way anticipated the ceremony of the Last Supper in a ‘sacramental’ meal. The effect, however, was to heighten the popular belief in Jesus as a potential leader with divine authority who might fulfill traditional hopes of a warrior king. Jesus managed to escape from the crowds and to reach the western side of the lake only to be met with the demand for a sign (Mk. 8:11-13) based on the same misconception of his claims, but this time from his enemies. To avoid the inevitable results of such misguided popular enthusiasm, Jesus left Galilee with his disciples and abandoned for a time his public preaching.
4 The Journey in the North and the Later Judaean Ministry
Mark has recorded a journey of Jesus with his disciples ‘into the borders of Tyre and Sidon’ during which he sought to keep himself from public attention (vii o4), and speaks of him as then coming ‘through Sidon unto the Sea of Galilee, through the midst of the borders of Decapolis’ (7:31). There are difficulties in interpreting this last sentence (cf. chap. 7), but it seems probable that Jesus did in fact travel through the country to the north and east of Galilee, in his determination to avoid the political enthusiasm of the Galilean crowds and conflict with Herod’s government, and that he devoted himself at this time especially to further private training of his disciples.
What form this training took we can only guess, but Mark places here the scene ‘in the way’ near Caesarea Philippi, to the north-east of the Lake of Galilee, where Jesus asked his disciples who they thought him to be, and Peter answered, ‘Thou art the Christ’ (Mk. 8:27-29, cf. Jn. 6: 66-70). It seems clear that Jesus had so far made no claim to this title, and that his teaching about himself and the kingdom had largely avoided terms liable to misunderstanding in a political sense, especially after the feeding of the multitude. The Marcan narrative represents him as neither accepting nor rejecting the title, but as at once foretelling his own suffering and resurrection. The historicity of these verses has been attacked by many critics on the ground that Jesus did not yet foresee his death, but thought of the coming of God’s kingdom on earth in the immediate future. The rebuke to Peter, however, ‘Get thee behind me, Satan: for thou mindest not the things of God, but the things of men’ (8:33), is couched in terms which can hardly be the product of later Christian tradition, and have every appearance of being in substance derived from Peter himself.
While Peter’s confession marks a stage in the disciples’ understanding of Jesus, their comprehension remained imperfect. Convinced more than ever of his divine authority they continued to interpret this in terms of their own background of thought; a suffering Messiah was something unheard of and almost impossible for them to believe. That the human Jesus was from God, and, in the light of his claims about himself, the Messiah, they were quite sure, but because of his humanity they apparently thought that he might not himself yet fully understand how he was to achieve God’s purpose. It is probable, for example, that Mark has correctly placed late in the ministry the request of James and John for seats on Jesus’ right hand and left hand in his ‘glory’ (Mk.10:35 ff., cf. 9:33 ff.).
Jesus now entered upon the final Judaean phase of his ministry, passing through Galilee as secretly as possible (Mk. 9:30) and coming ‘into the borders of Judaea and beyond Jordan’ (Mk. 10: 1). Mark has foreshortened this stage in his narrative, and regard Jesus’ journey as leading up to his final visit to Jerusalem (10: 32, 46, 11:1), but, if we follow John’s account, Jesus seems to have visited Jerusalem for the Feast of the Tabernacles in the autumn (7:2, 14), to have preached publicly, and to have encountered opposition (7:32, 8:59, 9:39) which led him to retire once again beyond Jordan (10:40) and later to a small village, Ephraim (11:54), some fifteen miles north-west of Jericho.
John pictures Jesus as gathering round him at this period many who ‘believed on him’ (10: 42), and a period of public preaching during the winter would account for some of the details in the Marcan account of the final entry into Jerusalem from Jericho, which represents Jesus as accompanied by a number of followers (10:46, 11:8), convinced of his Messiahship (10:47, 11: 9).
5 The Last Days in Jerusalem
The gospels agree in representing Jesus as entering Jerusalem a few days before the Passover, surrounded by enthusiastic supporters who expected the speedy coming of the Kingdom of God (Mk. 11:10, Lk. 19:38, Jn. 12:13) and recognised Jesus as
‘coming in the name of the Lord’. They portray the general interest and excitement (e.g. Mk. 12:35, Jn. 12:18, 20-21), such as the cleansing of the Temple, placed here by Mark, would have stimulated to fever pitch, and the determination of the religious leaders to arrest him as a dangerous impostor (Mk. 14:1-2, Jn. 11: 48, 53). The substance of this is clearly historical. Jesus, by his acceptance of popular support and by his assumption of authority at a time when Jerusalem was packed with pilgrims, had delivered a direct challenge to the chief priests and the scribes.
A quiet arrest, without the risk of a popular tumult (Mk. 14:2) was achieved by the treachery of Judas, which seems to have consisted in the betrayal of the whereabouts of Jesus on Thursday night. It is at least possible that Jesus’ nightly withdrawals from the city (Mk. 11:19) and the signal for finding the room where the last supper was to be held (Mk. 14:13) were part of a plan to postpone his capture. The arrest achieved, and the disciples dispersed, the authorities hurried on the trials. The details of these are obscure, as there is considerable divergence between the accounts of Mark, Luke, and John, but two points stand out. In the trial before Pilate the charge was that of claiming to be the King of the Jews, in effect a charge of treason. Such an accusation could only have been made on the basis of a claim by Jesus to have Messianic authority, and Mark, for all the difficulties presented by his narrative of the trial before the high priest, is almost certainly right in making the high priest ask, ‘Art thou the Christ, the Son of the Blessed’? and Jesus admit the charge.
The sentence was carried out immediately. After scourging, Jesus was led outside the city and nailed to a cross at nine o’clock in the morning in company with two thieves; by three o’clock in the afternoon he was dead.
6 The Resurrection
That Jesus rose from the dead and appeared over a period of time to some of the disciples is the belief of Christians, and was the decisive factor which led to the growth of the Christian Church by giving a new and fuller meaning to the events of his earthly life. Paul in I Cor. 15:3 ff. gives a list of resurrection-appearances which he had received from tradition, and says that they began ‘on the third day’, but gives no description of these appearances other than what is implied by the inclusion of his own sight of Christ in the list. The accounts in the gospels have some strange omissions, e.g. the first appearance to Peter and that to James, and they contain many difficulties. Even among Christians there is no general agreement as to the form of the appearances, and a critical examination of the evidence can do little more than establish certain tendencies within the early Christian tradition about the resurrection.
Matthew’s account seems to mirror a late and developed form of Christian belief, where the original experiences have been converted into formalised external manifestations with legendary additions, such as the placing of the guard and the earthquake (27: 62-28:4, 11-15). It is possible that even Mark’s description of the angelic appearance and the empty tomb (16: 4-6) represents an earlier stage of such a development, and that Paul’s silence about the empty tomb may indicate that this detail was no part of the original Christian belief in Jesus’ resurrection. Yet it is by no means certain that Paul’s silence is to be thus interpreted, any more than it can be assumed that Paul’s silence and the accounts in Acts of his own vision of Christ on the Damascus road rule out the physical nature of the appearances. Mark’s hints at a Galilean appearance, Luke’s description of appearances in and around Jerusalem only, and John’s mention of appearances both in Jerusalem and Galilee, are best reconciled by the supposition that Jesus appeared to disciples in both regions. Each of these gospels clearly gives only a partial picture, in which the details have already undergone change and expansion, but the evidence which they afford, although circumstantial, gives strong support to the reality of the experience undergone by those to whom the risen Jesus appeared.
The Teaching of Jesus
Perhaps the strongest proof of the reality of the resurrection lies in the implications of the teaching of Jesus as we can recover it from the gospels, and the key which only the resurrection can provide for understanding this teaching. The gospel-picture of Jesus, in Mark no less than in John, shows no sign of a development in Jesus’ thought but only of a tactical development of plan. Jesus shows human traits in his physique (Mk. 15:21, Jn. 4:6), and in his emotions (Mk.1:41, 3:5, 14:35-36, Jn. 11:35); there are limitations to his knowledge (Mk. 13:32) and to his power (Mk. 6:5); yet there is an inner consistency in his claim to reveal God’s will that binds his ministry and teaching into one uniform whole. If he reveals his full teaching only little by little, e.g. in the gradual unfolding of his Messiahship, this is represented in the gospel not as a development or change of his original intention, but as a calculated policy.
This consistency has been denied to Jesus by many critics who would attribute it to a deliberate attempt on the part of Christian tradition to idealise the human Jesus in the light of their knowledge of him as the Christ of experience. It is true that such an idealising tendency can be traced in the gospels, not only in John where it has seriously distorted the presentation of events, but, to a lesser degree, in the synoptic gospels also. On the other hand, the Marcan narrative, in its general outline, has a strong claim to preserve a trustworthy record, and this claim receives a tremendous reinforcement in the body of Jesus’ teaching which, with due allowance made for tendencies in its transmission, presents just such a picture of Jesus himself as compels belief in a ministry similar in essentials to that described by Mark.
The fact that this teaching has been preserved for the most part in short incidents and sayings, whose original setting is hard or impossible to determine, brings into relief how much ‘of a piece’ it is. That Jesus’ thought developed before he started his ministry is in the nature of his humanity; it is possible that in certain aspects it developed under the impacts of the events of the ministry itself; but the underlying conception of his Sonship and of the nature of the kingdom of God and its spiritual demands remain constant, varying only in its adaptation to suit the particular needs of each separate situation.
1 The Background to Jesus’ Teaching
There are two ways in which especially the form and expression of Jesus’ thoughts were moulded by the circumstances of his earthly life, his study from boyhood of the Old Testament and the necessity of proclaiming his message to a small section of the ancient world where a religion based upon the Old Testament had assumed new and bizarre shapes.
Jesus’ deep knowledge of the writings of the Old Testament is abundantly shown in his constant use of them in his teaching. He is represented as frequently quoting from the Law and the Prophets in his controversies, e.g. on the Sabbath (Mk.2:25 f.) and the Resurrection of the dead (Mk. 12:26), and in his discourses; moreover, the whole of his teaching is permeated with phrases, which, if not direct quotations, yet are reminiscent of the Prophets and the Psalms.
How far this knowledge was based on the private reading of the Old Testament we cannot tell. Jesus does not seem to have undergone regular instruction from scribes (Jn. 7:15), but must have attended the weekly synagogue services, where psalms were sung and passages from the Law and the Prophets read aloud, first in Hebrew and then in the Aramaic of contemporary speech. He himself during his ministry often taught in synagogues (Mk. 1:21, 6:2), and Luke describes a sermon at Nazareth which followed Jesus’ own reading of Is. 61:1-2.
To these writings Jesus attributed divine authority, and from them he drew many of the ideas which shaped his thought; his teaching has been aptly described as ‘the distilled essence of the Old Testament’. Yet he also transformed what he found. He saw in his mission the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets (Mt.5:17), but his interpretation of the central profundity of the Old Testament revelation enabled him to set on one side what was only for the hardness of men’s hearts (e.g. Mk.10:3-6) or of external significance, e.g. in his revision of the old commandments (Mt. 5: 21, 27, 33, 38, 43). He employed a vocabulary whose important words and phrases were almost all of Old Testament derivation, but gave to this vocabulary a new and sublimer meaning.
If Jesus’ knowledge of the Old Testament shaped his interpretation of his own experience, his immediate environment was also responsible both for forming his thought and for forcing upon him certain methods of approach to those whom he taught. Central to the religion of Jews in first-century Palestine were belief in the one true God, the observance of His Law, and — for the overwhelming majority — the veneration of His Temple, but here general agreement ceased. The Sadducees, a small but influential party, who monopolised the office of High-Priest, held nominally conservative but often sceptical views, rejecting belief in a resurrection and refusing to acknowledge as authoritative the oral tradition which had grown up round the interpretation of the Law. The Pharisees, a more numerous sect, who counted among their members most of the distinguished scribes, endeavoured to make the Law a more real guide to daily conduct by a series of traditional interpretations; they believed in a resurrection of the dead, and some, at least, of them hoped for the coming of the Christ. Politically they had little power, but as teachers of religion they played the leading rôle among the people.
Their teaching often contained flashes of great religious insight, and many of Jesus’ utterances can be paralleled by passages in the Rabbinic writings which often go back to first-century Pharisaic teachers. Thus Jesus’ words on the Two Great Commandments (Mk. 12:29-31), when he joins Deut. 6:4-5 to Lev. 19:18, find a partial parallel in the saying attributed to the Pharisee Hillel (60 B.C.-A.D. 20), ‘Do not to another what thou wouldst not that he should do to thee; this is the whole law, the rest is commentary’. On the other hand the Pharisees often seem to have substituted correctness in external observance for sincerity of motive, and the denunciation of these traits in the gospels (Mt. 23:1-31, Lk. 11: 37-44) is all too clearly based on fact. It is probable that Jesus learnt much from the Pharisees, with some of whom he seems to have been on friendly personal terms (cf. e.g. Lk. 13:31), both positively from their development of Old Testament theology and ethics, and negatively from their failure to live up to their professed beliefs.
One failing of the Pharisees in particular was their spirit of exclusiveness, and their contempt for the ‘am ha ‘aretz’, ‘the people of the land’, who would not or could not conform to their rigorous rules of ceremonial purity, Sabbath observance, and payment of tithes. Probably the great mass of the population, the peasant cultivators, fishermen, shopkeepers, tax-collectors, and so on, fell into this category. They owed no formal allegiance to the Sadducees or Pharisees, and few of them belonged to the curious ascetic sect of the Essenes, mentioned by Josephus as living a separated puritanical existence in many places in Palestine. It was among the ‘people of the land’ for the most part that Jesus seems to have been brought up, and it was they who formed the mass of his hearers when he began his ministry.
The religious beliefs of such people varied enormously, but it is clear that for many among them a combination of revolutionary nationalism and crude apocalyptic belief aroused the same enthusiasm as had inspired the Maccabaean revolt two hundred years before. Onerous taxation and the subjugation of the land to the Roman yoke fanned the nationalist spirit, and a series of apocalypses, in which a forthcoming divine intervention in history was forecast in lurid terms, had spread abroad an expectation of God establishing by supernatural means a new order upon earth or in heaven. The apocalypses current at this time which have survived differ widely in the descriptions which they give of the coming world-catastrophe, the means of God’s intervention, and the nature of the new age (cf. chap. 26). It is probable that the enthusiastically religious Galilean had a very confused picture in his mind of how God was to achieve his will, but he had a very vivid hope that God was about to reveal himself in some way.
For our understanding of the teaching of Jesus this fact has a special importance. Jesus himself must have been acquainted with much apocalyptic expectation, and from it he drew, in a transmuted form, some of the ideas and language which figure so prominently in his teaching, and which he used to lead his hearers from a material and imperfect conception of God’s actions to a truer and spiritual understanding of the new age which was to come.
2 The Kingdom of God
Jesus is represented by Mark as beginning his ministry with the message,
‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe in the good news.’
It is clear from the repeated occurrence of the phrase ‘kingdom of God’ in Mark and Q as well as in our other gospel sources (Matthew prefers ‘kingdom of heaven’ as avoiding the use of the divine name) that this theme was indeed central to Jesus’ teaching. He spoke of the kingdom in two quite different ways, which are, at first sight, hard to reconcile. The kingdom is near (Mk. 9:1, Q, Mt. 10:7, Lk. 10:9), and it is associated with judgement (Mk. 9:47); it is represented in the form of a banquet (Mk. 14:25: Q, Mt. 8:11 f., Lk. 13:28 f.). It is also present in a spiritual sense (Mk. 12:34, Lk. 17:20-21, although the meaning of these last verses is not altogether clear), and is portrayed in parables as like seed growing secretly (Mk. 4:26-29), like mustard seed or leaven (Q, Mt. 13:31-33, Lk. 13:18-20): it is the possession of the ‘poor ‘(Mt. 5:3, Lk. 6:20).
To understand Jesus’ teaching here contemporary beliefs are important. The actual phrase ‘kingdom of God’ does not occur in Jewish literature before the first century A.D., but the idea of a future kingdom of Israel to be set up by God’s will occurs over and over again in the Old Testament (e.g. Jer.23:5, Dan. 2:44), and had come to be particularly, although by no means exclusively, associated with the expectation of a Davidic Messiah who would establish his rule over the Gentiles (Psalms of Solomon 17:23-38). Jesus’ teaching on the kingdom of God undoubtedly raised hopes of such a kingdom being established on earth, especially among his close disciples when they came to see in him the Messiah (Mk. 10:37, Lk. 24:21, Acts 1:6).
A number of scholars have thought that Jesus in fact shared this belief, and interpret the urgency of his call to repent as a sign that he expected the coming of such a kingdom to follow hard upon his ministry. It would not have been incompatible with the demand for repentance and spiritual righteousness (cf. Ps. Sol. 17:28-30, 36). Yet such a view conflicts not only with the passages where Jesus speaks of the kingdom as a present spiritual reality, but with the tenor of his teaching as a whole.
The real purpose of Jesus’ teaching on the kingdom seems to have lain in his intention to use the popular phraseology of his time in order, by transforming its meaning to lead men to the spiritual reality that lay beneath their crude and material phrases. When he taught his disciples to pray
Our Father . . . Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, as in heaven, so on earth.
he was showing them the essentially spiritual nature of the kingdom as it was to be on earth. His words to his disciples (Mk. 4:11)
Unto you is given the mystery of the kingdom of God: but unto them that are without, all things are done in parables.
whether or not they were originally spoken to explain the significance of his parabolic teaching, indicate that the true meaning of his teaching on the kingdom could only be understood in the context of his teaching as a whole, and of his revelation of God. The full realisation of the kingdom of God lies beyond this life in a heavenly kingdom, where only those who repent will gain entrance, but in another sense Jesus claimed to bring the kingdom of God upon earth in his own person. This can be seen in two passages of the utmost significance that stood in Q.
In Mt. 12:28, Lk. 11:20, Jesus says
If I by the spirit (Lk. finger) of God cast out devils, then is the kingdom of God come upon you,
and in Mt.11:11, Lk.16:16 he draws a clear distinction between John the Baptist as the culmination of the Law and the Prophets and the kingdom which only now is open to men. The true meaning which Jesus attached to the kingdom can only be understood in the light of his teaching about himself.
3 Son of Man, Son of God, the Christ
When Jesus gave up his public teaching in Galilee he was regarded by many of his hearers as a prophet or as Elijah, whose coming was expected before God’s final intervention in world history (Mk.6:15, cf. Mal. 4:6). It is noteworthy that these terms are used, and that belief in him as Messiah had not yet taken firm hold of the people as a whole in spite of the abortive attempts to
‘make him king’ (chap. 11). It is plain that Jesus’ teaching about himself had so far been in veiled terms.
The gospels represent him as using about himself from the beginning of his ministry (Mk. 2:10) the mysterious term ‘Son of Man’. The contemporary meaning of this title is much disputed, and it seems clear that it could be taken as a mere periphrasis of
‘man’; it had, however, been used in this sense by Daniel (7: 13 f.) of one who was to come with the clouds of heaven, and to be given an everlasting kingdom over all peoples, and there is evidence for the use of the term to describe an apocalyptic figure in the pre-Christian ‘Similitudes of Enoch’.
When Jesus used it of himself it would, at least at first, have conveyed to his hearers only a slight feeling of mystery; they could hardly have understood such a phrase used by a man in their midst as implying that he was a celestial figure. It is probable that this was Jesus’ purpose; it was no part of his plan to speak fully and openly of his own relationship to God at the very beginning of his ministry.
Yet he had a further motive in so describing himself. ‘Son of Man’ was a term whose full implications would become clear in the end to those who believed in him, although it could be employed without arousing serious misconceptions in his early teaching.
Jesus knew himself to be in a special sense the Son of God (cf. the voice at his baptism and Q, Mt. 11:25-27, Lk. 10:21-22, also Mk. 14:61-62), and the fulfillment, not of this or that passage of the Old Testament only, but of the whole Old Testament revelation. To have proclaimed this Sonship in open terms, however, would have involved also an assertion of his Messiahship. The Old Testament conception of Israel as the son of God (e.g. Ex. 4:22, Hos.11:1) had led to the growth of a belief that the Messiah was God’s son in some special sense, in fulfillment of God’s promise to David (2 Sam. 7:14, cf. Ps. 2:7, Ps. 89:20-27); that such a belief was current in Jesus’ day is shown by the High Priest’s question to Jesus (Mk. 14:61) ‘Art thou the Christ, the Son of the Blessed’? and is confirmed by the application of this title of Son to the Messiah in I Enoch 105:2 and 4 Esdras 7:28 f., 14:9. Jesus seems therefore to have avoided in the early stages of his ministry open references to his Sonship, although his allusions to ‘my father’, sometimes in conjunction with a claim of his own authority (e.g. Q, Mt. 10:32), did indirectly assert his close relationship with God. At a later stage of the ministry when the disciples had recognised his Messiahship Jesus seems to have been more explicit; three passages in Mark from the last days in Jerusalem, if they can be accepted as recording the actual words of Jesus, affirm his claim to be THE Son of God (12:6, 12:37, 13:32). At his trial he reaffirmed his Messiahship in conjunction with his claim to be the Son of Man and Son of God (Mk.14:61-62).
Jesus’ claim to be Messiah has already been discussed in connection with its gradual unveiling in the course of his ministry. While the expectation of the Messiah was not the only form taken by popular hopes of God’s intervention, nor the only interpretation possible of Old Testament prophecies, it was certainly the most widespread and the one most attuned to the nationalist desires of the people as a whole: a century later Bar-Cochba was to lead a national revolt and be accepted as the ‘Son of the Star’ (cf. Nu. 24:17) and as Messiah in his fight against Roman oppression.
The term Messiah (Greek Christos = Anointed) had assumed its special sense, or rather senses, from the Old Testament hopes of the restoration of an idealised Davidic monarchy (e.g. Is. 9:6-7, Jer. 33:14-17, Hos. 3:5). These hopes were developed in Pharisaism and in later apocalypses in many different ways. Sometimes the Messiah appears as a merely human being who is to restore righteousness and material prosperity to an earthly Israel: sometimes he is a supernatural being whose kingdom is described with a wealth of apocalyptic imagery, often in close connection with the final judgement of God.
Jesus’ own conception of his Messiahship must be understood in the light of his understanding that he was also Son of Man and Son of God, and in his taking up into his own person of the fulfillment of the Old Testament revelation as a whole. He accepted only so much of the traditional expectation as could be reconciled with his purpose as a whole; both his delay and caution in accepting the Messianic title and his teaching on his forthcoming death — the idea of a suffering Messiah seems to have been no part of the tradition in his time — show that he interpreted the title in a new and deeper way.
4 Jesus’ Interpretation of his Death
Mark represents Jesus as following Peter’s confession of his Messiahship with an immediate reference, for the first time, to his forthcoming rejection, death, and resurrection (8:31). The warning is repeated again and again (9:12, 31, 10:33, 38, 12:8, 14:41), sometimes with explicit reference to the fulfillment of Scripture (9:2, 12:10-11), and Jesus speaks of how he has come ‘to give his life a ransom for many’ (10:45) and at the Last Supper both foretells his betrayal and distributes bread and wine with words that link this act to the new covenant of his blood ‘which is shed for many.’ (14:21-24).
The historicity of Mark’s account has been denied by many critics who see in it a later Christian interpretation of this stage of Jesus’ ministry and think of Jesus as having hoped almost to the end that the kingdom of God would come without his death. While some of Mark’s summaries of Jesus’ teaching about his death may well be editorial additions of his own (e.g. 9:9, 12, 31, 10:33), and the parable of the Wicked Husbandmen (12:1-2) seems to have undergone changes in the course of tradition, the accounts of Jesus’ words at Caesarea Philippi and at the Last Supper have a strong claim to represent his actual teaching. Two passages in Luke which appear to rest on old tradition independent of Mark put similar forecasts into the mouth of Jesus (12:49-50, 13:31-33).
There is a further reason for defending the authenticity of at least some of the passages where Jesus predicts his own coming death. Jesus was well acquainted with the book of Isaiah (e.g. Mk. 7:6-7: Q, Mt. 11:5, Lk. 7:22: Lk. 4:18-19), and with the passages in that book which are now commonly called ‘The Servant Songs’, and attributed to an unknown religious genius of the Exile, although no direct quotations of Jesus from these ‘Songs’ occur in the gospels. In the surrounding contexts of these passages ‘my Servant’ is a description of God’s chosen people, Israel (e.g. Is. 41:8, 48:20), but within the passages themselves He is described as an individual whose sufferings and death are to be on behalf of the transgressions not only of Israel but of the Gentiles as well (Is. 42:1-4, 49:1-6, 50:4-9, 52:13-53:12) .
Whatever the original intention of the prophet — and there are many views as to this — it is impossible to read these ‘Songs’ to-day without being struck continually by the way in which Jesus’ life fulfilled the spirit of the prophecy in its deepest sense. His call by God (52:1) to ‘restore the preserved of Israel’ and to be ‘a light to the Gentiles’ (49:6); his endurance of shame (50:6, 53:7); his rejection by men (53:3) and his death ‘although he had done no violence, neither was any deceit in his mouth’; the purpose of his death, ‘he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities . . . and with his stripes we are healed . . . and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all’ (53:5-6); his final triumph (53:10-12, where the text unfortunately is corrupt); all of these were seen by the earliest Christians as fulfilled by Jesus’ life, death and resurrection (e.g. Acts 3:13, 8:31-33, I Cor. 15:3, I Pet. 2:22-24).
That Jesus thought of his mission as involving his own suffering and death, at least from the end of his Galilean ministry, and that he thought of himself and the redeeming power of his passion in terms of these prophecies, seems the best explanation of these facts. At the same time he was no more bound by this conception than by those of Messiah and Son of Man, and his own interpretation of his death seems to have contained elements not present in the ‘Servant Songs’.
The final victory of the Servant is described in obscure terms which seem to imply a personal survival (Is. 53:10-12), although the original meaning may only have been the survival of the chosen community. Jesus’ teaching about his death was closely associated with affirmations that he would rise again and survive death to come into his kingdom. The references to his rising again ‘on the third day’ may be due to Christian tradition, but the repeated emphasis on his forthcoming entrance into his kingdom must be accepted as an integral part of his message (e.g. Mk. 10:39-40, 14:25) even in the period when he foresaw the near approach of his execution. The meaning of his death was in fact bound up with his survival of it. His departure from earth was to be the prelude for his eventual return from heaven to bring the consummation of all things (Mk. 14:62, Q: Mt. 24:7, Lk. 17:24).
Jesus also thought of his death as on behalf of ‘many’ (cf. Is. 53:11). He declared that the purpose of his coming was ‘not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many’ (Mk. 10:45). ‘Ransom’ would be better rendered ‘redemption’ here (cf. Is. 51:11, Lk. 2:38), although the idea is not worked out. At the Last Supper, where the wine is equated with ‘my blood of the covenant, which is shed for many’, the parellelism with Exod. 24:8 and the covenant of Moses (cf. to Jer. 31:31ff.) shows that Jesus in his thought of his approaching death, as in his adoption of titles to describe his person, was interpreting the significance of his own actions in the light of more than one strand of the Old Testament belief. Only one who believed himself to fulfil the rôle of God’s ‘Servant’ and to be a greater than Moses in the sight of God could have spoken such words.
5 TheContinuing Community
There is little direct teaching of Jesus in the oldest gospel sources on the continuance of his disciples as a Church after his death and resurrection. This fact has often been pointed to by those who see in Jesus a disappointed human fanatic as proof that he did not look beyond his lifetime for the coming of the apocalyptic kingdom of God, or that at least he expected this kingdom to appear immediately after his death. Yet there is no need for such a solution of the problem, which indeed is no true solution.
In the first place Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom of God presents it on two planes of thought, as a future kingdom to come and as a present spiritual reality. Significantly enough it was the latter aspect of the kingdom that figured most largely in Jesus’ teaching after the Confession at Caesarea Philippi.(Manson, Teaching of Jesus, pp. 129 ff.) The ethical teaching of the early period of the ministry was reinforced by demands upon his disciples which presupposed a lifetime of work in his cause, even if a lifetime which might be cut short by persecution, e.g. Mk. 9:37, 10:7-21, 23-31, 9:23-25, 12:28-34. Editorial re-arrangement and alteration may have played a part in the location and adaption of such passages, but the impression remains that Jesus envisaged a continuation of life on earth after his resurrection.
Such an impression is strengthened by Jesus’ eschatological teaching (cf. pp. 246-250), once it is realised what a distorted and confused version of his words Christian tradition has produced in the synoptic gospels. Both Jesus’ prophecies about the future that Jerusalem and the Temple would be destroyed, and that the Son of Man would return in judgement at a time he did not know (Mk. 13:32), are consistent with an expectation that earthly life would continue its course for some time (Q, Mt. 24:37-39, Lk. 17:26-27, 30).
The accounts of the Last Supper, too, imply the continuance of a community of Jesus’ followers in the world. The Pauline version (I Cor. 11:23-25) contains a definite command to continue the rite, and even if Mark’s version be preferred (Mk. 14:22-25) the implications of the covenant involve the persistence of a fellowship of believers on the earth.
When Jesus’ belief in an interval of time between his resurrection and the final end of the world is grasped, the whole of his teaching gains a new emphasis and importance. The eschatological element becomes the temporal framework within which the spiritual message is contained. Jesus proclaimed the coming of a new relationship of men with God achieved through his own life, death, and resurrection. Although this relationship could only finally be established completely on his return in glory, it had become possible of realisation for all who accepted the fact that with Jesus’ appearance God had manifested his power in the world. It now becomes possible to put Jesus’ teaching on how men should live into its proper setting.
6 Repentance and the New Life
Jesus’ call to men was to turn away from their old life and accept as good news the fact of the coming of God’s kingdom. This message was a continuation of what John the Baptist had preached, but also the fulfillment of what John had only anticipated, and acceptance of Jesus’ challenge involved not only a belief in the coming judgement and redemption but a trust in the authority of Jesus himself. He was at once the interpreter of the true meaning of the kingdom and the personification of it (Q, Mt. 12:28, Lk. 11:20) and with his appearance a new understanding of God’s will was possible for his disciples (Mk. 4:11: Q, Mt. 13:I7, Lk. 10:24).
Although Jesus’ teaching was not delivered in any systematic way, and of his preaching only isolated sentences and paragraphs seem to have survived, often in an artificial editorial context, there is a unity about it which enables us to arrange it around the central themes and recognise the consistency of his thought. It is this very consistency of his ethical teaching, for example, at a level which great religious leaders of other faiths have sometimes approached but never sustained, that marks out Jesus as unique among the teachers of mankind.
At the very centre of Jesus’ message stood the proclamation of the loving Fatherhood of God and of the sonship of men. It is his good pleasure to give us the kingdom (Lk. 12:34), he loves us and cares for us continually (Q, Mt. 6:26, Lk. 12:24: Mt. 18:14), and he rejoices over our repentance (Lk. 15:7). Repentance on man’s part involves acknowledgement of his sinfulness (Lk. 18:13), and a subordination of his will to God’s (Q, Mt. 5:48, cf. Lk. 6:36). Only thus can he come to know his sonship and to love God, which is the first commandment of all (Mk. 12:29, Lk. 10:27-28). This love in turn enables man to accept as his first and supreme obligation the seeking of God’s kingdom and His righteousness (Q, Mt. 6:33, Lk. 12:31), and involves necessarily the love of his fellow-men who are also sons of God (Mk. 12:31, Lk. 10:27-28).
From this central basis of Jesus’ teaching spring his interpretation of the authority of the Law and his practical demands on men. He accepted the divine purpose of the Law (Mt. 5:17), but drew a clear line between what was fundamental in it, and what of no permanent validity (Mk. 7:1-23, Mt. 5:21-48). He had no hesitation in denouncing the traditional Sabbath regulations when they conflicted with the deeper purposes of God (Mk. 2:23-3:6), and it was this claim of his to supersede the traditional interpretation of the Law that aroused the hostility of the Pharisees (Mk. 2:24, 3:6), who rightly perceived in it an assumption of authority greater than that of Moses. He distinguished even within the written law itself between the minor ritual regulations and ‘the weightier matters of the Law, judgement, and mercy, and faith’ (Mt. 23:23), and in fact subordinated the whole of the ceremonial element to the final ethical principles behind the Decalogue. In so doing he in effect substituted for a code of external law the inward law that springs from man’s desire to obey God.
The repentance that Jesus demanded was the prelude to the growth of this desire. Only a man conscious of his sinfulness could keep the ‘weightier matters of the Law’in sincerity and pureness of motive; thus Jesus distinguishes between true and false almsgiving and prayer (Mt. 6:1-8), and makes the efficacy of sacrifice dependent on previous reconciliation with a brother (Mt. 5:23-24). He makes it clear, too, that men’s actions will in the long run betray their true motives, and that the tree is known by its fruit (Q? Mt. 12:33-35, Lk. 6:43-45).
In this stress on motive Jesus’ teaching showed itself as at once permanent and universal. The impossibility of keeping the lofty demands made by Jesus has sometimes been interpreted as a sign that he regarded his teaching as an ‘interimsethik’, to be observed by his disciples until the kingdom should suddenly appear in the very near future. But this is nowhere indicated in the gospels, and the nature of Jesus’ teaching proceeds from the nature of God, as he revealed him, and from principles which, as history has shown, maintain their validity in all places at all times.
The universality of the teaching, and its appeal to Gentile as well as to Jew, help us to understand Jesus’ conception of his mission to all men. The rarity of his contacts with Gentiles during his time on earth stands out in the gospels, and these contacts are clearly exceptional (Q, Mt. 8:10, Lk. 7:9: Mt. 10:5-6, Mk. 7:24-30); Jesus’ earthly mission was in the first place to his own people, the Jews. Of the few texts which directly envisage the entrance into the kingdom, some appear to be the creation of Christian tradition (but cf. e.g. Q, Mt. 8:11, Lk. 13:29). Yet once it is accepted that Jesus looked forward to a period of time between his death and his final coming, the limitation of his sphere of ministry becomes intelligible and the expansion of the Church to Gentile lands is seen to be in accord with Jesus’ ultimate purpose.
The ethics of Jesus envisage life in a world where his challenge is not yet universally accepted, and the whole fabric of society is subjected to searching criticism. Just as the Scribes and Pharisees are condemned for their social conduct (Q? Mt. 23:25, Lk. 11:39: Mk. 12:38-40), men in general are envisaged in their ordinary social relationships, whether as stewards (Lk. 16:1-13), householders (Lk. 11:5-8), kings (Lk. 22:25), or guests (Lk. 14:7-14). And always they are given as the supreme guide to conduct the need to put the kingdom of God first even if it means renunciation of wealth (Mk. 10:21ff.), family (Mk. 10:29, Mt. 10:37) or earthly life itself (Lk. 14:25-27). The kingdom remains the supreme goal, for the attainment of which any sacrifice is justified.