Chapter 19: The Problem of The Life of Jesus
In the nineteenth century there flourished what Albert Schweitzer called ‘the quest of the historical Jesus’. It cannot be said that this quest was very successful or that its continuation in the early twentieth century, described by C. C. McCown in his Search for the Real Jesus, was especially fruitful. In general the trouble with the nineteenth-century quest was that it overlooked (1) the fact that the gospel materials had been revised as, and before, they were compiled by the evangelists and (2) the crucial importance of the early Christian expectation of the imminent coming of the reign of God. Rather naïvely combining gospel materials as if they were purely factual, many nineteenth-century critics produced a portrait of Jesus which was actually drawn after their own image and likeness. In the first half of the twentieth century this kind of search practically came to a halt because of the rise of form criticism, with its emphasis on the rôle of oral tradition in the creation of the gospels, and the recognition that apocalyptic eschatology had been extremely important in the early Church and (probably) in the teaching of Jesus himself.
To a considerable extent these two factors could have been regarded as mutually exclusive. If the Church controlled the oral tradition to the extent alleged by the form critics, it might have seemed unlikely that early Christians would have preserved the embarrassing (because unfulfilled) predictions of the immediate coming of God’s reign which were to be found in the tradition itself. But the two factors were often combined, with the result that one could be sure that (1) Jesus actually predicted the immediate coming of the Kingdom, while (2) the Church took pains to adapt his teaching to the various needs produced by situations after his death and resurrection.
At the present time a new concern for the life of Jesus has arisen, partly by way of reaction against the extreme scepticism which flourished a generation ago. This concern, it is claimed, arises out of the theological study of the New Testament and can be justified in relation to it. At this point we have no intention of discussing this kind of problem. We shall simply assume that it is important, in relation to critical historical study, of the New Testament, to determine what can be known about the life of Jesus — and equally important to determine what cannot be known. If further justification be needed, we should argue that the existence of a visible community of believers at least tends to imply the existence of a Jesus about whom something more can be said than that he appeared.
Our concern, then, is with what can be known historically about him. But when we use the word ‘historically’ we are already confronted with difficulties. Traditionally this word has implied the effort to set various data, often divergent in nature, into a context contemporary with them and geographically suitable. In other words, the data are to be located in time and space and, it is assumed, made more fully comprehensible by comparison with other data derived from the same period and area. In addition, the chronological arrangement of the data is expected to point towards the establishment of various causal connections. The discovery or recovery of causal connections is based on a negative premise (what is posterior cannot be a cause of what is prior) and on a positive assumption as well (something which is prior is a cause of what is posterior). Unfortunately — and this point is often overlooked — given the fact that our knowledge of historical phenomena is limited, we are not always in a position to say what data are earlier than others, and because historical phenomena owe their existence to various causes we cannot always determine which causes are the most important.
The difficulties we have already mentioned arise in dealing with all historical phenomena, but in dealing with the life of Jesus we encounter problems which are due to the nature of the sources we use. We have seen that the synoptic gospels present a picture which in general is rather different from the one to be found in John. At first glance, then, we must be cautious; we must not assume too rapidly that either the Johannine or the synoptic outline is the only correct one. On the other hand, since all the gospels agree that Jesus was crucified outside Jerusalem and that prior to this event he taught not only in Jerusalem but also in Galilee, we must admit that there was a certain movement in his ministry, whether it was simply from Galilee to Jerusalem (as in the synoptics) or oscillated between the two areas (as in John).
This conclusion does not amount to much, and because it does not amount to much we have to see what grounds can be used for ascertaining the reliability of more of the gospel materials. At the end of the nineteenth century P. W. Schmiedel pointed to the existence of what he called ‘pillar-passages’ in the synoptic gospels. These were verses which he thought could not have been invented by the later community or communities because the ideas expressed in them ran counter to the developing theology of the Church. Among them he included Mark 3:21 (the family or friends of Jesus say, ‘He is beside himself’), Mark 6:5 (‘he was unable to perform any miracle there’), Mark 13:32 (‘of that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven nor the Son’), and others of a similar nature. In other words, the passages Schmiedel accepted were passages which pointed towards either the weakness or the ignorance of Jesus. Since later evangelists or theologians found them difficult to explain, they must have been authentic. There is obviously something to this judgement. It implies that the evangelists were so honest that they were willing to report information which may well have seemed incongruent to them. At the same time, when Matthew 13:58 reads ‘he did not perform many miracles there because of their unbelief’ we must recognize that essentially this is no different from what we read in Mark 6:5, where Mark’s words ‘was unable’ do not reflect a historical fact but come from the evangelist’s judgement as to what took place. And when Matthew 24:36 agrees with Mark 13:32 that the Son does not know the time of the end, both may be making use of a saying revised by the Church in order to counteract enthusiasm for eschatological timetables. Such a conjecture is, of course, not necessary; but it is possible. We mention it only in order to suggest that the solidity of Schmiedel’s pillars leaves something to be desired.
Another kind of pillar was erected by Albert Schweitzer himself when he claimed that the gospel of Jesus had as its centre what he called ‘thoroughgoing eschatology’. The best passages he could provide came from sections to be found only in the Gospel of Matthew, especially the tenth chapter, where we hear of the imminent coming of the Son of Man. First, the context is rigidly Jewish (hence authentic): ‘Do not go to a way of the gentiles, and do not enter a city of the Samaritans; go, instead, to the lost sheep of the house of Israel’ (10:6-7). Second, the eschatology is on the verge of realization: ‘Truly I say to you, you will not complete the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes’ (10:23). The difficulty with treating these verses as verbatim reports of the sayings of Jesus lies in the fact that they so closely resemble some other expressions in Matthew which clearly present .Jesus’ ministry as exceedingly close to ‘orthodox’ Judaism (e.g., 5:18-20) and do not agree with passages in other gospels, and in Matthew itself; which portray his teaching as farther from a literal interpretation of the law. It could, of course, be argued that Mark and Luke, probably writing for gentiles, suppressed such verses. But to make this claim means to hold that whatever in Jesus’ teaching is close to Pharisaic-apocalyptic Judaism is genuine, while whatever looks beyond it has been created by the early gentile, or pro-gentile, Church. And we do not know that Pharisaic-apocalyptic Judaism provided the entire framework within which early Christianity arose.
Once more, there is something to this notion. If the gospel had originally been regarded as clearly addressed to all, Jews and gentiles alike, it is difficult to see how a gentile mission could have arisen as gradually as it did (according both to Acts and to Galatians). On the other hand, however, had it contained no seeds of universality the gentile mission could hardly have arisen at all. There must have been a sense in which Jesus addressed himself primarily to the Jewish people (Paul calls him the ‘minister of the circumcision’, Rom. 15:8); but there must also have been a sense in which he addressed his call to the gentiles as well. The synoptic evangelists reflect such a picture when they mention his encounters with non-Jews in Galilee and its environs. All the evangelists record his controversies over the keeping of the Sabbath.
It could be added that if the mission of Jesus could be defined entirely in relation to ideas already present among the Pharisees or at Qumran he would not have been a historical person, in the sense that there was anything worth recording about his message. To say this is not to assert that his teaching was completely novel, as Marcion urged in the second century. It is merely to insist that had its content not somehow transcended what was ordinarily believed in the Palestine of his day there would have been no reason to preserve it.
A similar observation can be made in regard to his proclamation of the nature and coming of God’s reign. The notion that God would soon take up his power and reign for the benefit of those who obeyed and served him was fairly widespread in first-century Palestine. Josephus describes several of the more conspicuous ‘prophets’ who wrongly anticipated God’s action, and the War Scroll from Qumran shows how seriously some Jews took eschatological expectations in which they themselves would participate. Was the prediction of Jesus of the same sort? Did he die in the mistaken belief that God was soon to intervene? It is certainly the case that some of his sayings point in this direction. The comment of Luke that his disciples supposed, as he drew near to Jerusalem, that the reign of God would immediately appear (19:11) seems to reflect a real historical situation; compare Mark 9:1: ‘There are some of those standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God come in power.’ Many of the parables of the kingdom point in the same direction.
At the same time, there are passages in which the reign of God is regarded as present at least in nuclear form. The most impressive of these is the saying reported in Luke 11:20 (Matt. 12:28): ‘If I by the finger [spirit] of God cast out demons, then the reign of God has already come upon you.’ If the reign of God is like a seed or a buried treasure, it would appear that in some sense it already exists. The idea set forth in such passages has been called ‘realized eschatology’, though in view of the element of expectation which still remains it should probably be called inaugurated eschatology’ or ‘eschatology in the process of realization’. Whatever it may be called, the presence of this element in the teaching of Jesus clearly suggests that he did not simply make predictions about the future. In his teaching there was emphasis on the imminent future; there was also emphasis on the present as an anticipation of the future. The dividing-line between present and future was to some extent blurred.
Again we can pass from mention of specific passages to more general considerations. It is obvious that in the Pauline epistles, or in some Pauline epistles, there is a vigorous emphasis on the nearness of the end and the coming of Jesus from heaven (e.g., I Thess. 4:16-17; Phil. 3:20). Some scholars have claimed that as Paul gets older and the Lord does not return, the emphasis shifts from eschatological expectation to a greater appreciation of the possibilities in the world. With this notion can be combined the fact that in the Gospel of John eschatology is viewed in two ways: it is something already realized in the mission of Jesus (e.g., 11:25); it is also something related to the future (e.g. 5:28-9). The ‘hour’ often mentioned in John is sometimes future, sometimes both future and present. One conclusion that has been drawn from such data is that both Paul and John have modified the original, purely futurist eschatology of Jesus, chiefly because of the passage of time. Against this conclusion two points can be made: (1) the chronology of the Pauline epistles is not well enough established for us to use it in creating a developmental picture; and, even if it were, we find futurist ideas in epistles often dated late; (2) it is by no means certain that the futurist ideas in the Gospel of John are archaic survivals with which John combines his new ideas; according to Bultmann they are due to ecclesiastical redaction, while on other views they probably represent at least one facet of the evangelist’s thought. Moreover the date of the Johannine gospel and the Johannine materials remains open to question. Finally, the rise of Christian Gnosticism at a relatively early period suggests that while the Gnostics undoubtedly made use of only one side of the teaching of Jesus it was apparently there for them to use. Their eschatology, generally speaking, is realized, although in many systems futurist elements remain.
From this overall picture, as well as from the specific passages already mentioned, we conclude that the teaching of Jesus was not a simple futurist eschatology. It had futurist elements, and they were very important. But the eschatology of which he spoke contained aspects both futurist and, in part, present. During the apostolic age some writers emphasized one aspect, some the other.
It was not until the fifth century that the futurist aspects came to be generally neglected. When in II Peter we find a de-emphasizing of the futurist element (3:8) it is still combined with stress on the coming of the Lord; and, in any event, the non-representative character of II Peter is clearly reflected in the failure of most early Christian writers to make use of it.
This conclusion means that one of the cardinal presuppositions of most historical critics of the New Testament is put in jeopardy. If one cannot simply say that unfulfilled apocalyptic predictions are genuine, while passages which regard the kingdom of God as somehow present are late interpretations or misinterpretations, the clear, one-sided picture drawn by Schweitzer and others tends to disappear.
We should not assume, however, that we have now solved all the problems related to the life of Jesus, or even the major ones. Obviously, by insisting upon the double nature of early Christian eschatology we have made it possible to claim that Jesus founded the Church or provided for its existence after his death;(Cf. H. Conzelmann in Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart III [ed. 3], 646.) we have tried to lay emphasis upon continuity rather than discontinuity in early Christian history. It is equally obvious that this continuity has been challenged and will be challenged.( Cf. Conzelmann in Zeitschrift für Theologie und Kirche 54 , 277-96.) In one sense, at least, the continuity is problematic in so far as the resurrection of Jesus is an event which stands outside the ordinary continuities of history; and it was in, and in consequence of, this event that the Church came into full existence.
Jesus in Non-Christian Writings
Because the Christian movement arose within the Roman empire and spread throughout it, from east to west, we should expect to find some notice taken of it by Greek and Roman writers. They ought to say something about Jesus and his influence. Such an expectation is clearly fulfilled only by four writers of the late first century and the early second; by the time of the anti-Christian writer Celsus (c. 178), nothing authentic about Jesus is preserved in non-Christian sources.
The four writers we have in mind are the Hellenistic Jewish general and historian Josephus and the Roman officials C. Plinius Secundus (Pliny the Younger), A. Cornelius Tacitus and C. Tranquillus Suetonius. In dealing with each bit of information we must be just as critical as we should like to be in considering Christian statements. Each of these authors has his own axe or axes to grind; his attitude is not necessarily ‘objective’ simply because he is not a Christian.
The words of Josephus are especially questionable, since we know that he was militantly opposed to apocalyptic movements which in his view had led to the disastrous war with Rome (66 -70); he himself became a devoted supporter of Rome and his work was subsidized by successive emperors. He included three passages bearing on Christian origins in his Antiquities, published about the year 93 (significantly, none of them is to be found in parallel passages in his earlier War; presumably Christians had become more important in the interval). These three passages deal with (1) John the Baptist, (2) James the brother of Jesus, and (3) Jesus himself.
The passage about John the Baptist (18, 116-19) depicts him as a ‘teacher of righteousness’ and makes no reference to his eschatological views. His baptism is portrayed as absolutely non-sacramental. The passage about James (20, 197-203) describes his judicial murder by the high priest Ananas in AD. 62 and refers to him as the brother of ‘Jesus, the so-called Christ’. From this passage two inferences can be drawn. (1) James was an important figure in Jerusalem up to the year 62; this confirms the impression we gain from Acts and from the second-century Christian writer Hegesippus. (2) Josephus probably — indeed, almost certainly — had already given some account of the Jesus to whom he referred in this brief notice, though his account was undoubtedly unfavourable.
If we turn to what he does say about Jesus, it is not what we should expect. The passage (18, 63-4) reads as follows:
At this time lived Jesus, a wise man (if it is right to call him a man), for he was a worker of miracles and a teacher of men who receive the truth with pleasure; as followers he gained many Jews and many of the Hellenic race. He was the Christ, and when by the accusation of the chief men among us Pilate condemned him to the cross, those who at first had loved him did not cease from doing so; for he appeared to them, alive again, on the third day, since the divine prophets had foretold this as well as countless other marvellous matters about him. Up to the present day the tribe of Christians, named after him, has not disappeared.
In this form the description cannot come from Josephus. (1) It is purely Christian in outlook; indeed, only a Christian can have written it. (2) Origen, writing about 250, refers several times to Josephus’s testimony to Jesus as contained in the passage about James; he makes no mention of the fuller account. Since he had read all the later books of the Antiquities, which he regarded as an excellent historical source, this passage cannot have been contained in them — or, if it was, Origen regarded the passage as suspect and therefore refrained from mentioning it.
Various attempts have been made to improve the text by leaving out a few words here and there and by reading ‘he was not the Christ’; but it is highly unlikely that any authentic original version can be recovered. We simply do not know the method which the forger used. All we know is what Origen knew: Josephus said something about Jesus and spoke of him as the ‘so-called Christ’.
Three other testimonies come from a group of Roman officials hostile to Christianity and other non-Roman religions, which they regarded as expressions of fanaticism or, as they called them, superstition’. Pliny was legate to Bithynia and Pontus and wrote to the emperor Trajan in January 112; Tacitus, once proconsul of Asia (where Christians were fairly numerous), wrote his Annals in 112-13; and Suetonius, formerly an imperial secretary, published his gossipy Lives of the Caesars about 121.
Pliny tells us a good deal about Christians, little about Jesus. (1) The Christians, he says, were accustomed to sing a hymn ‘to Christ as to a god’. This sentence shows that Pliny knew, or believed, that Christ should be regarded not as a god but as a man, one who had actually lived and died as a human being.
(2) Renegade Christians were willing to curse Christ; true Christians could not be compelled to do so. Pliny was thus aware of the intensity of Christian devotion to the (human) leader. But his statement (Ep. 10, 96) provides no direct data about Jesus himself.
Tacitus describes a great fire at Rome under Nero in the summer of 64, and he mentions the Christians whom the emperor used as scapegoats. As is his custom, he gives a brief summary of background material to explain who the Christians were. We do not know where he got his information. If it comes from police reports, these in turn were probably based on the interrogation of Christians (Ann. 15, 44).
The founder of this sect, Christus, was given the death penalty in the reign of Tiberius by the procurator Pontius Pilate; suppressed for the moment, the detestable superstition broke out again, not only in Judaea where the evil originated, but also in the city [of Rome] to which everything horrible and shameful flows and where it grows.
Again, we learn something about Christianity. Momentarily suppressed at Christ’s crucifixion, it ‘rose again’ in Judaea and spread to Rome (compare the account in Acts). Of Christ himself we learn only that he founded the sect and was executed under Pontius Pilate. This hardly adds much to what the New Testament says; and if Tacitus’s ultimate source is Christian, it adds nothing.
Finally, Suetonius mentions the fire at Rome in connection with Christians (Nero, 16) and also says that in the reign of Claudius the emperor ‘expelled from Rome the Jews who were constantly rioting at the instigation of Chrestus (impulsore Chresto)’ (Claudius, 25). Since Claudius was emperor from 41 to 54, something is obviously wrong with this statement, even though one later Christian writer (Irenaeus) thought that Jesus was crucified during his reign. Probably it is a garbled version of a story about messianic riots in Rome, riots which could have resulted in the expulsion of such Christian Jews as Aquila and Priscilla (Acts 18:2). The passage shows that the name ‘Chrestus’ (= Christus) was known at Rome during the reign of Claudius. Once more, nothing is added to what we could have inferred from the New Testament.
Our four Graeco-Roman sources, then, contribute nothing to our understanding of the life of Jesus. The Christian interpolator of Josephus undoubtedly thought that he was helping history to confirm faith. All he succeeded in doing was to remove any independent value from the testimony of Josephus.
One might hope for some evidence from rabbinical Jewish sources, but the stories the rabbis tell are late in date and reflect no more than the attitude of the synagogue towards an early heretic.
We are left, then, with Christian testimony. If we wish to recover early non-Christian attitudes towards Jesus we can rely only on what Christian sources are willing to tell us about them. To be sure, we can find that they give us a considerable amount of information. Jesus was frequently accused of violating the Jewish law in regard to Sabbath observances and ritual purity. He was thought to claim divine prerogatives, such as forgiving sins, for himself. His driving out demons was sometimes ascribed to Beelzebul, the prince of demons. The expression ‘son of Mary’ used of him may perhaps reflect a suggestion (developed in later criticisms) that he was illegitimate. According to Luke, he was accused of leading a revolutionary movement, of forbidding the payment of taxes to the Romans, and of calling himself an anointed king. It is true that in part Christian writers report these accusations in order to contrast them with the true understanding which they themselves possess. But the accusations fit the first century situation so well that we need not suppose that they were invented. Indeed, if we possessed a report from Pontius Pilate the ‘facts’ in it could hardly be very different from what the gospels tell us.
Within the Christian testimony, then, we find non-Christian elements. These elements are retained in support of Christian faith in Jesus; but the kind of faith they support is not something unrelated to events. The apostles and the evangelists are giving testimony to events in which, they believe, the work of God was made manifest — though not to all. Because historically the revelation was not received by all, the evangelists are free enough, and honest enough, to record the varying responses which were made to it. These responses, negative as well as positive, were included in the gospel story as they told it.
It has long been recognized that the gospels as we have them were not written immediately after the events which they describe. There was a period of oral tradition which preceded the writing of gospels, and the existence of this period, and of the traditions, can be proved from the New Testament itself. The earliest New Testament documents — the letters of the apostle Paul — make this point clear.
The first example seems to occur in I Thessalonians 4:15-17, where Paul is encouraging those of his readers who are distressed by the fact that some Christians have died before the coming of the Lord. He therefore makes a statement ‘with a word of the Lord’. This word is that
the Lord himself, at a word of command, at the cry of an archangel and the trumpet of God, will descend from heaven; and the dead in Christ will be raised first, then we who remain alive will be taken up in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and thus we shall always be with the Lord.
The closest gospel parallel to this saying is to be found in Matthew 24:30-1:
they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory; and he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.
And in Matthew 24:34 we read that ‘this generation will not pass away until all these things take place’. Here is where the problem arises at Thessalonica: some Christians have already passed away. There is another saying in the tradition, however, which allows for the distinction Paul makes; it is found in Matthew 16:27- 8. The Son of Man will come with his angels, and there are ‘some standing here’ who will not taste death until they see him come (cf. Mark 9:1). We conclude that Paul is relying upon a tradition which is also reflected in these sayings in Matthew.
Similarly, when he reminds the Thessalonians that the Day of the Lord comes like a thief in the night (5:2) he has in mind the parable related in Matthew 24:43 (Luke 12:39-40); and his words about the unexpectedness of the Day recall such verses as Matthew 24:39 and Luke 21:34-5. The apocalyptic passage in II Thessalonians 1:7-2:12 is nothing but a further development of the apocalyptic elements in the synoptic gospels. In view of the differences between Paul’s words and those reported in the gospels, we infer that he has relied upon oral tradition, however, not written accounts.
In I Corinthians Paul’s use of oral tradition becomes even more evident. For instance, when he is giving instructions to married couples he says (7:10-11)
to the married I give charge, not I but the Lord, that the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does, let her remain single or else be reconciled to her husband) and that the husband should not divorce his wife.
The whole passage, including the words inserted parenthetically, is close to the words of Jesus as reported in Mark 10:11-12. It may well be that an earlier form of Jesus’ saying is to be found in Matthew 19:9, where only divorce by the husband, as in Jewish practice (Deut. 24:1-4) is mentioned; but the extension of the principle is logical, indeed obvious, and is implied by the union of the couple to which Jesus refers (Mark 10:6-9; Gen. 1:27, 2:24).
In this section of I Corinthians it is quite clear that Paul is able to differentiate his own injunctions from those of the Lord. In dealing with mixed marriages he is able to state, ‘to the rest I say, not the Lord’ (7:12) and he can point out that ‘concerning the unmarried I have no command of the Lord’ (7:25). At the same time, in dealing with the unmarried he lays emphasis on the principle of being free from worries (7:32-4), and this principle is fully set forth in the tradition underlying Matthew 6:25-34 (Luke 12:22-31).
The payment of ministers is based on a commandment of the Lord (9:14): ‘the Lord commanded those who proclaim the gospel to get their living by the gospel’ and this is almost certainly a reflection of the saying addressed to the Twelve in Matthew 10:10 and to the Seventy in Luke 10:7: ‘the workman is worthy of his food [or wages].’
When Paul is introducing liturgical reforms at Corinth he reminds his readers of the words and deeds of the Lord Jesus ‘on the night in which he was betrayed’ (I Cor. 11:23-5). Here he says that he received the tradition ‘from the Lord’; he means that the Lord, whether in his earthly ministry or now exalted, is the ultimate source of this account, which is very close to the narratives in the synoptic gospels (Mark 14:22-4 and parallels; especially Luke 22:19-20).
It is not so clear in I Corinthians 14:37 that Paul is referring to words of Jesus. Here he insists that what he is writing is a commandment of the Lord, and he is discussing the necessity for order in Corinthian worship. Perhaps it could be claimed that he is looking back to his injunction to be ‘mature’ or ‘perfect’ in thinking (14:20), and this could be based on something like Matthew 5:48 (‘be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect’).
Tradition is evidently reflected in I Corinthians 15:3-7, where Paul sets forth the common account of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus and then adds two lists of resurrection appearances; apparently the first comes from the circle of Peter, the second from that of James.
Such traditions are not so apparent in the later letters, though it seems hard to deny that, in setting forth the commandment to love one’s neighbour as oneself and treating it as a summary of the law (Gal. 5:14; Rom. 13:8-10), Paul had in mind the fact that Jesus had done the same thing (Mark 12:28-31 and parallels).
From these passages we conclude that Paul was acquainted with collections of traditions which related both the words and the deeds of Jesus. Were they oral or written? From the freedom with which Paul handles them we should incline to think that they were oral. When he refers to writings he seems always to have the Old Testament in mind, and in his letters there is no reference to any gospel materials as recorded in written form (‘the scriptures’ in I Cor. 15:3-4 are Old Testament prophecies). The only possible exception to this statement occurs in I Timothy 5:18, where ‘the scripture’ says, ‘You shall not muzzle an ox when it is treading out the grain (Deut. 25:4; 1 Cor. 9:9) and the workman is worthy of his wages (Luke 10:7; cf. I Cor. 9:14).’ Here it would appear that the Pastor has referred to a written gospel what in I Corinthians was an allusion to oral tradition. It is most unlikely that the Gospel of Luke was written in Paul’s lifetime (see chap. 13, on the Pastoral Epistles.)
We conclude that Paul was acquainted only with oral traditions about the words and deeds of Jesus. Does this mean that in his time written records did not exist? Such an inference is not justified by what we know about Judaism in the first century, when many apocalypses and other documents were produced by Jewish teachers. Evidence is provided in abundance at Qumran, and the notion that the ‘oral law’ was entirely oral is not confirmed by students of rabbinic traditions.
At the same time, it seems significant that the tradition of Jesus’ sayings, or at any rate of many of them, bears the marks of oral circulation. Many of his sayings have been handed down in an arrangement which reflects not the subject matter involved but a correlation by means of verbal association. Such an arrangement is especially conspicuous in Mark 9:33-50, where the subject changes from ‘servant’ to ‘child’ (the same word in Aramaic) to ‘my name’, then back to ‘little ones’ and on to ‘cause to stumble’, ‘gehenna’, ‘fire’, and ‘salt’. Still more important, at points where Matthew and Luke report the same sayings, often the sayings subsequent to them are different because the verbal associations used as points of departure are different. As one example out of many, Matthew 10:19-21 is bound together by the word ‘deliver’; Luke 12:10-12 is based on the phrase ‘Holy Spirit’.(Cf. J. Jeremias in ZNW 29 , 147-9.) Such arrangements are characteristic of the transmission of oral materials. They suggest that until a time not long before the composition of the written gospels there was no uniform arrangement of the sayings of Jesus but that the sayings continued to be circulated orally. This is to say that oral traditions not only were characteristic of Paul’s day but also continued to be utilized considerably later — at least into the decade between 60 and 70.
Certainly oral tradition continued to exist in much later times; but after written gospels began to be circulated, there was some tendency to favour the written at the expense of the oral, even though defenders of oral tradition like Papias insisted that oral reports of eye-witnesses were more reliable than written documents. ‘I supposed that materials taken from books would not assist me as much as those received from a living, surviving oral witness’ (Eusebius, H. E. 3, 39, 3).
If the tradition underlying the gospels was primarily oral, it is not surprising that efforts have been made to analyse it and to attempt to differentiate more authentic materials from less authentic, and to treat the analysis as demonstrating the existence of various layers or levels of tradition.
Especially since the end of the first World War, scholars have been trying to get behind the written gospels to various stages of the tradition. They seem to have based their method primarily on similar studies of the ‘sagas’ underlying the patriarchal narratives of the Old Testament and of Germanic folk tradition. Though there is an obvious difference between traditions in circulation over a long period of time and the gospel traditions, crystallized in writing after being transmitted orally for little, if any, more than a generation, these scholars believed that the Christian traditions must have recapitulated in a very short time the processes which in other circles had extended over centuries.
Partly because of the different ways in which the various evangelists connected the single items contained in the traditions, form-critics proceeded to their task by first removing the framework provided by the evangelists. The function of this framework was only that of holding together the small units of tradition, which originally, it was believed, circulated independently. Such a conception of the framework is largely correct. We have already seen the part which verbal association played in combining sayings of Jesus. In addition, many of the links provided in the gospels are not very important. When Mark says ‘after some days’ or ‘again’ or ‘immediately’, it is doubtful that his chronology is very meaningful. ‘When Luke arranges a good deal of material in relation to a journey of Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem (Luke 9:51-18:14), the connectives he uses (‘while on the way’, ‘after this’, ‘when he was in a certain place’) do not seem very precise. Similarly, the arrangement provided by Matthew seems to exist primarily for the sake of relatively systematic teaching.
After the framework has been removed, we are left with collections of materials of various kinds in which non-literary ‘forms’ can be detected. (1) One form, especially favoured by Jesus, has already been discussed; this is the parable. (See Chapter IV). In addition to parables, there are, of course, other kinds of sayings. These have sometimes been classified as (2) proverbial sayings of the type to be found in Jewish — or for that matter Greek and Egyptian — wisdom literature; (3) prophetic and apocalyptic sayings; (4) legal prescriptions, perhaps formulated within Christian communities; and (5) ‘I-sayings’, usually of a kind which can be called ‘programmatic’ (‘I came not to. . . but to. . .’). It is a question whether or not classifications such as this really illuminate the meaning or the transmission of the sayings involved.
There are also stories of various kinds. (1) There are ‘apophthegm stories’ in which a situation is described so that a setting may be provided for a saying or pronouncement by Jesus. The ‘apophthegm’ gives the whole story its point. (2) There are miracle stories, usually concerned with healings and exorcisms but sometimes demonstrating Jesus’ power over ‘inanimate nature’. In them we find (a) a description of the situation, (b) mention of the word or deed of Jesus, and (c) a brief remark about the effect of the miracle. Here too we may wonder whether our understanding of such stories is notably advanced by this classification. In human experience generally, stories are intended to set forth something striking that has been said or done. They begin with a situation and proceed to the word or act which this situation, so to speak, demands.
The basic purpose of form-criticism is not, however, limited to classifying the various units of tradition. Form-critics have generally made use of their classifications to get behind the gospels and look for earlier, purer ‘strata of tradition’. For instance, they have that the explanations of the parables do not belong with the parables, and that the moralizing conclusions often provided are secondary. They have also claimed that some miracle stories can be classified as ‘Jewish’ (healings and exorcisms) and therefore relatively early and authentic, others are to be regarded as ‘Hellenistic’ (the so-called ‘nature miracles’) and therefore late and unreliable. This analysis is not very satisfactory, for (1) it introduces historical considerations into what was supposed to be literary, or pre-literary, analysis, and (2) as far as the miracle stories are concerned, those classified as ‘Hellenistic’ have very few Hellenistic parallels. On the other hand, it cannot be denied that those who transmitted the traditions about Jesus may have handled them with some measure of freedom.
The question of the nature of the witnesses to the oral tradition thus becomes important. Did Mark, for example, rely on miscellaneous witnesses when he compiled his materials, or did he make use of the teaching of the apostle Peter? Is the Gospel of Matthew really associated with the apostle whose name it bears?
Some scholars have claimed that the sayings of Jesus were remembered because Jesus taught his disciples to remember them. There seems to be no direct evidence to support this attractive theory, but it can at least be held that the fact that the sayings were remembered suggests that they were spoken in order to be remembered. There is an emphasis upon the words of Jesus in the gospels which seems inexplicable had he not regarded them as worth remembering (see Mark 13:31 and parallels).
It may be that modern analysis of the process of memory will contribute something to our consideration of this problem. In his classical work entitled Remembering, F. C. Bartlett has analysed two types of oral transmission. (1) The first he calls ‘repeated reproduction’; this takes place when the same person reiterates what he has seen or heard. This kind of transmission presumably existed in the early Church, since not all the apostles died immediately. In repeated reproduction, Bartlett found, stereotypes are likely to arise and literal accuracy is unusual. There is a tendency to introduce rationalizations and even to substitute explanations for what they originally explained. Details are preserved only when they correspond with the transmitter’s pre-formed interests and attitudes. The accuracy of the apostles’ remembering, then, would depend in large measure on the extent to which they were genuinely dedicated to their mission. We may assume that they were so dedicated, and we may add that, in Bartlett’s view, the total effect of repeated reproduction is often close to the original occurrence being remembered. (2) The second kind he calls ‘serial remembering’; this takes place when a tradition passes down through a chain of rememberers. Here the situation is less satisfactory. Indeed, ‘it looks as if what is said to be reproduced is, far more generally than is commonly admitted, really a construction, serving to justify whatever impression may have been left by the original’.
This is to say that Bartlett’s experiments confirm what common sense would expect. A record derived from an eye-witness is more reliable than one which has come from a chain of secondary witnesses. In dealing with the gospels, common sense would also suggest that at the time they were written, or may be supposed to have been written, there were eye-witnesses and their testimony was not completely disregarded. This is not to say that everything in the gospels is precisely and literally true. It is to say that in spite of the weaknesses of memory the evangelists’ accounts should be given the benefit of the doubt.
The gospels are not simply the product of the Church. (1) Individuals, not communities, write books. (2) The evangelists regarded their function as that of bearing witness to Jesus Christ, not that of composing edifying fiction. There is no reason to suppose — though one form-critic supposed it — that there was ever a special class of ‘story-tellers’ in the Church. At the same time, the gospels were produced within the Church. They were not produced simply to ‘meet the Church’s needs’ in various historical situations. The evangelists were not trying to ‘make the gospel relevant’. They believed that it was relevant because they had accepted the call of Jesus. Though they inevitably wrote what they believed was meaningful to themselves and to others, they were not free to explain the apostolic testimony away.
This means that the gospels must be regarded as largely reliable witnesses to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and that the attitudes of the evangelists cannot be completely separated from the materials they are transmitting. For example, Christians had disputes about keeping the Sabbath; they had them because Jesus himself had treated the Sabbath with considerable freedom. They were concerned about divorce because Jesus had been so concerned. The life of the Church was not completely disjoined from the life of Jesus.
The Birth of Jesus
At a relatively early time, Christians were concerned with asserting that Jesus had not simply ‘appeared’ among men as if he were an angel or a spirit. He was actually born as a human being; he ‘was born of the seed of David according to the flesh’ (Rom. 1:3); he ‘was born of a woman, born under the law’ (Gal. 4:4). ‘The Word became flesh and dwelt among us’ (John 1:14). In neither Mark nor John, however, is there any statement about the way in which he was born. In the New Testament such statements are provided only in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, which are in agreement in regard to several points. (1) The mother of Jesus, Mary, was betrothed to Joseph, a descendant of King David, but was a virgin at the time of his birth. (2) The conception of Jesus was due to the Holy Spirit. (3) An angel instructed either Mary or Joseph to name the child Jesus. (4) Jesus was born in Bethlehem during the reign of Herod I. The measure of agreement is obviously significant.
On the other hand, the stories diverge in regard to details. (1) The genealogies of Jesus in both Matthew and Luke genealogies which (a) disagree with each other and (b) lead from Abraham or Adam to Jesus through Joseph, not Mary. According to Matt. 13:55 a crowd asks, ‘Is not this the son of the carpenter?’ just as in John 6:42 (cf. Luke 4:22) the Jews ask, ‘Is not this Jesus the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know?’ Of course, it can be answered that (a) genealogies can be traced in several ways and that (b) legally, Joseph was the father of Jesus. Crowds are not necessarily reliable authorities. The reference to the brothers and sisters of Jesus (Mark 6:3) is harder to explain, though they may have been children of Joseph.
(2) There are some difficulties in relation to the place of the birth. Mark 6:1 speaks of Nazareth as the patris or native city of Jesus. Even though the word patris does not necessarily refer to a birthplace, Jesus is described as ‘from Nazareth’ in Acts 10:38 (cf. John 1:45-6). Matthew describes Joseph and Mary as first going to Nazareth after the death of Herod; Luke says that they came from Nazareth to Bethlehem and then returned there. Finally, Matthew 2:5-6 states that the birth in Bethlehem was to fulfill the prophecy of Micah 5:1-3 (cf. John 7:41-2), while Matthew 2:.23 relates that Jesus lived in Nazareth because of what was said ‘through the prophets’: ‘he shall be called Nazoraios’ (Lev. 21:12? Judges 13:5?). What conclusion should be drawn from these passages?
(3) As we have said, Matthew and Luke agree that Jesus was born in the reign of Herod, in other words not later than 4 BC. On the other hand, Matthew 2:22 describes the family as coming to Nazareth while Archelaus was reigning, and Luke 2:1-3 says that Joseph took Mary from Nazareth to Bethlehem at the time of a census which was made for the first time when Quirinius was governor of Syria. The chief difficulty here is that Josephus (War 2, 118; Ant. 19, 355) describes what seems to be the same census as taking place when Judaea was placed under direct Roman rule in AD. 6. There is no direct historical evidence for an earlier census, though it is possible that one was taken. It is hard to believe, though not inconceivable, that all who claimed Davidic descent were enrolled at Bethlehem rather than at the places where they lived.
Historically, then, there are strong, if not insuperable, difficulties in regard to the story or stories of the conception and birth of Jesus. None of the New Testament evidence shows that the virginal conception was regarded as an indispensable dogma by the earliest Christians.
There are some historical analogies to this idea. The idea that God’s work is reflected in the births of patriarchs or heroes is to be found in the Old Testament patriarchal narratives (Gen. 17:19; 18:14; 21:1; 25:21; 29:31; 30:22) and in the accounts of Samson (Judges 13:3) and Samuel (I Sam. 1:19-20) — as well as in the story of John the Baptist (Luke 1:25). In addition, whether the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14 refers to a young woman or to a virgin who would conceive and bear a son Immanuel, among Hellenistic Jews, and doubtless among others, the word was understood to mean ‘virgin’. The fact that Greeks, Romans and others told stories about the miraculous conceptions of various ‘divine men’ suggests how the virginal conception of Jesus may have won ready acceptance in the Graeco-Roman world, but it does not explain the origin of the belief. In other words, analogies to be found either in the Old Testament or in the world outside Judaism are nothing but analogies. They neither substantiate nor demolish the historical nature of the story. Indeed, while some Graeco-Roman writers regarded virginal conceptions as possible, others insisted that they were not.
It has been suggested that the story of the virginal conception reflects an attempt to solve the problem of Christ’s nature in relation to his origin. On this view, the picture of the pre-existence and incarnation of the Word in the Gospel of John is the result of a similar attempt with different results. We do not know, however, that the story came into existence for this reason.
If we turn from the main emphases of the stories in Matthew and Luke to their details, we find that Matthew concerned with relating his version as closely as possible to the Old Testament. He stresses the fulfillment of prophecy and describes Joseph as a dreamer like his Old Testament prototype. Some details have often been questioned. What of the star of Bethlehem and the visit of the Magi? Presumably the star is that predicted in Numbers 24:17, and the Magi are Zoroastrian astrologers who played a significant rôle in the first century. At the court of Archelaus were Chaldaean astrologers and Essenes who interpreted his dreams (Josephus, War 2, 112). Magi came to Rome in the year 66 and acknowledged the divine nature of Nero. This is to say that some aspects of the story are historically possible, at least. As for the slaughter of the innocents (Matt. 2:16-18), Matthew regards it as a fulfillment of Jeremiah 31:15. Did he or some predecessor invent the story after finding the prophecy? Is the story intended to explain why Jesus was in Egypt and could be regarded as fulfilling Hosea 11:1? Or was there actually some such massacre in the last years of Herod’s bloody reign?
Our judgement on such questions will depend upon the view we take of Matthew’s writing as a whole. The entire second chapter of his gospel is tied together by means of a series of ‘prophecies’ regarded as fulfilled in the early life of Jesus. (1) There is an allusion to the star and rising sceptre of Numbers; then (2) comes an explicit quotation from Micah 5:2 (Bethlehem). (3) The journey to and return from Egypt fulfils Hosea 11:1, treated as prophecy because in Hebrew the perfect tense can refer either to past or to future. At the end of the chapter come (4) the quotation from Jeremiah and (5) the statement about the Nazoraios to which we have already referred. What are we to make of this collection of prophecies, and of the stories related to them? Some scholars have spoken of Matthew as a writer of haggadic legends, based on Old Testament texts and imaginatively expanding them. This theory might well explain the choice of all the Old Testament passages but one, Jeremiah 31:15, and Matthew or some earlier Christian may have been meditating upon the general resemblances between the early life of Jesus and such messianic texts as those discovered at Qumran. The fact that Matthew’s narrative is historically possible does not prove that the events occurred just as he describes them, and it is very hard to reconcile with the account given in Luke 2:8-40.
The ultimate difficulty with the whole narrative of the conception, birth and infancy of Jesus lies in the modern (and ancient, too) belief in the general regularity of natural processes. In early Jewish Christianity there were those who held that Jesus was the son of Joseph and Mary, though we do not know why they maintained this view. Theological ideas have varied in relation to this subject. Most Christians have insisted that if Jesus was the Son of God he must not have had a human father. Others have argued that if he was fully human as well as fully divine he must have had two human parents. The more traditional view is based on a definition of human and divine nature in terms of essences, natures or origins. The less traditional view is primarily concerned with Jesus in terms of the response of faith to him, though the question of ‘nature’ is not necessarily overlooked.
Many New Testament data or phenomena are related primarily to what we should regard as historical events. The resurrection of Jesus must somehow belong to this category. Without such an event the existence of the Church is inexplicable (cf. Cor. 15:14-18), though obviously the theological significance of the event is not in any way limited to its ‘happenedness’ or to the explanations given by the earliest witnesses. On the other hand, such a story as that of the virginal conception is much less important. In the New Testament it is never regarded as possessing central significance. It has no place in the apostolic preaching to Jews or to gentiles; there is not even an allusion to it except in the two narratives in Matthew and Luke; even where Paul and others point towards esoteric teaching they are not pointing in the direction of this story. What it must represent is an attempt to state a way in which God’s creative activity. reflected in the resurrection and in the ministry of Jesus, was manifest in the way in which he was generated. In Matthew the virginal conception takes place in order to show that Jesus’ origin was due to the Holy Spirit. He is, in the words of the prophet Isaiah, Emmanuel, ‘God with us’. Similarly in Luke’s account Mary is to conceive because the Holy Spirit will come upon her and the power of the Most High will overshadow her; her son will be called the Son of God. The environment of both stories is to be found in Jewish Christianity, but it is a kind of Jewish Christianity concerned with making the meaning of Jesus comprehensible to gentiles. And it is at this point that we can probably understand the tendency of Ebionite Jewish Christianity to speak of Jesus as the son of Joseph and Mary. Not only did the Ebionites often retain archaic traditions; they had no mission to the gentile world except in the sense that they wanted gentiles to become Jews and accept Jewish customs.
The kind of Jewish Christianity in which the story of the virginal conception makes historical sense is one which, like that of Philo, looks outward to the gentile world and has a mission to it. And this is obviously the kind of Jewish Christianity reflected in both Matthew and Luke. In Matthew, Jesus first sends his disciples only to the empirical Israel, but after his resurrection he sends them out to all the world; a similar picture is set forth in Luke; after the resurrection the disciples are told to remain in Jerusalem until they have received power from on high and then to preach to all nations.
The story of the virginal conception, then, is likely to be an explanation of the significance of Jesus in terms of origins and in the light of the resurrection and the consequent gentile mission. It is analogous to Paul’s interpretation of Jesus as the pre-existent Wisdom of God, the instrument not only of redemption but also of creation, and to John’s picture of the pre-existent word of God who became incarnate. Symbolically it is important because it reflects an insistence upon God’s freedom to act and to create novelty. God’s freedom is not limited by his creatures. But at the same time, as some of the early Fathers recognized, the Jesus who was son of Mary was not a creature in the sense that God created him absolutely de novo. Because he was son of Mary he was a human being. He really lived, really grew up (as Luke makes clear), and really died.
It is always difficult, if not dangerous, to try to separate events from their significance, or vice versa. But there are examples in the Old Testament of ‘events’ which, while not historical in the ordinary sense, convey important theological insights. The most obvious example is the story of creation and the life of Adam in paradise. And it may well be the case that not everything in the New Testament should be regarded as historically true. Probably it would be right to say that everything is historically true in the sense that it reflects the life and thought of the early Church, but not in the sense that it is literally true.
If one attempts to by-pass theological questions by an ‘appeal to history’ it must be admitted that the historical method as such can provide little guidance on this problem. Two evangelists describe the virginal conception and the birth of Jesus in rather different ways. If they were in complete agreement, it might be suspected that they had relied on a previously invented story. Suspicion arises in relation to the differences which now exist. How many differences would be required in order for us to regard their narratives as absolutely authentic and reliable? To ask this question suggests that it cannot be answered.
Jesus in The Temple
The apocryphal gospels tell us stories of the early years of Jesus. He made clay pigeons which would actually fly; he restored to life a playmate whom he had accidentally pushed off a rooftop; he amazed a teacher who wanted him to express the second letter of the alphabet by asking him the real meaning of the first letter. The legendary character of such accounts is self-evident.
In three of our gospels we hear nothing of Jesus’ early years. Luke, however, describes two episodes from this period, both related to the temple in Jerusalem. The first story deals with the purification of Mary after childbirth, in accordance with the law of Leviticus 12:4-8. Since her means were inadequate for the purchase of a lamb, she bought two sacrificial birds, as the law allowed. Luke’s emphasis, however, is not on the mother but on the child. The visit of the family to Jerusalem took place so that Jesus could be presented to God in the temple, in accordance with Exodus 13:2, ‘Sanctify unto me all the first-born.’ It was the occasion of prophecies delivered by the aged Symeon and Anna, both of whom were awaiting the deliverance of Israel. They found prophecies fulfilled in the presence of Jesus. The second story is concerned with a visit of Jesus to the temple at the age of twelve, when he was probably first regarded as old enough to participate in the Passover celebration there. His parents left him behind when they began their homeward journey, and when they returned to Jerusalem they found him in the temple raising questions with the ‘teachers’ there. Naturally they were surprised at his situation; they were even more surprised when he told them that he had to be in his Father’s house. This view of the temple suggests that the story comes from early Jewish Christianity such as that reflected in Acts 3:1, where Peter and John are described as going up to the temple to pray.
The source of these stories is clearly described by Luke (2:51) as the mother of Jesus. Their atmosphere is clearly quite different from that of the apocryphal gospels, and it may well be the case that Mary did remember them and transmit them to others. According to Acts 1:14 she was a member of the early Church in Jerusalem.
John The Baptist
By the time Jesus was ‘about thirty years old’ (Luke 3:23), a prophet had arisen in the region near the Jordan River and not far from Qumran. Luke dates the coming of God’s word to this person, John the Baptist, as taking place in the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar (3:1); by this year he means either AD. 26 on AD. 27.
In order to understand the rise of John we must bear in mind the expectations of the Essenes. They looked forward to the time when God would act to destroy evil and evil men, and reward those who had become members of the holy congregation. There would be a final war, a final victory, and a final judgement. But when? The Habakkuk Commentary says that ‘the final moment may be protracted beyond anything the prophets have foretold.’ The War Scroll seems to suggest that unpredictable comets will indicate the coming of the final struggle. And a fragment on the new covenant says that God will choose a people in the time of his good pleasure; in other words, one cannot tell when he will do so.
At that time, there was to come a prophet, the one foretold by Moses, and two Messiahs, one a layman, the other a priest. Sometimes the prophet is not mentioned and we hear simply of the coming of a ‘faithful shepherd’ like Moses himself. At the hour of judgement, says one of the hymns of thanksgiving, rivers like fire will pour forth, consuming everything in their way.
Now if we bear these expectations in mind we can understand the sudden appearance of John the Baptist. John was an ascetic. He wore camel’s hair clothing and a leather girdle; he ate locusts and wild honey (mentioned in the Zadokite Document). And he preached a ‘baptism of repentance for the remissipn of sins’. To his hearers he repeated the words of the prophet Isaiah, ‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness, “Make ready the way of the Lord, make his paths straight” ‘ (Is. 40.3). Here we must wonder whether our evangelists have quoted John correctly, for we now know that in the Manual of Discipline men were told to go into the wilderness to prepare the way — reading Isaiah not as ‘a voice in the wilderness’ but ‘in the wilderness make ready a way’. This is what those who followed John did; they went into the ‘wilderness’ to be baptized by him.
To those who went out he said, ‘You offspring of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?’ Then he launched into an attack on those who thought that they would be saved simply because of their Jewish descent. ‘Do not say in yourselves, “We have Abraham for our father,” for God can raise up children for Abraham from these stones.’
Right now the axe is laid at the root of the trees; every tree that does not bring forth good fruit will be cut down and cast into the fire.
This is the same sharp distinction between good and evil which we have already seen in the Dead Sea community and its message. And John’s prescription for goodness is the same as that of the Essenes. ‘He who has two coats is to give to him who has none, and he who has food is to do likewise.’ All were to share their property.
But then who was John? Was he himself the expected Messiah? No, he says,
I indeed baptize you with water; but after me
there comes one greater than I am, whose sandal’s thong
I am not worthy to loosen; he will baptize you
in spirit and fire:
his winnowing-fan is in his hand, and he will thoroughly cleanse his threshing-floor,
and gather the wheat into his barn;
but the chaff he will burn up with unquenchable fire.
John himself was the ‘prophet’ of the coming Messiah, not the Messiah himself; and he predicted the sprinkling of the Spirit by the Messiah, and the cosmic fire, which the Dead Sea people foretold.
Here we must turn aside to look at a different account of John’s work which is given by the historian Josephus; and we must remember that Josephus is always anxious to show how politically harmless the leaders of Jewish religion were, and how little they predicted coming disasters. Josephus can be expected to leave out whatever was distinctive about John’s message. In any event this is what Josephus says of John:
This good man told the Jews to practise justice towards one another and piety towards God, and then to come to baptism. For the washing would then be acceptable to God, not as a begging-off for certain sins but as a purification of the body; the soul was already purified by justice.
Two points deserve notice. (i) It has often been supposed that the contrast between body and soul is Josephus’s own contribution, based on Greek ideas. We now know, however, that the Essenes of Qumran also contrasted body with soul. Moreover, while ‘justice’ and ‘piety’ are clearly Greek terms (Josephus was writing in Greek), he uses the same ones when he describes the initiation oath of the Essenes. (2) The Qumran Manual of Discipline agrees exactly with what Josephus says when it states that ‘no one is to go into water to attain the purity of holy men; for men cannot be purified unless they repent their evil.’ In other words, Josephus describes John in language which reveals how close John was to the Essenes. He gives no reason for John’s proclamation and omits any reference to God’s wrath or to one who would come later, since he wants to divorce ‘this good man’ from apocalyptic hopes.
The preaching of John thus closely resembles that of the Dead Sea community, near which his baptism was performed. But the two kinds of baptism were not identical. At Qumran baptism was not only a rite of initiation but also a rite frequently repeated. It was only for members of the monastic community. For John, baptism took place once only, and he offered it to any who would come.
It is possible that John had once been a member of the Qumran community. He differed from it, however, in two respects: (1) God would express his wrath without the military assistance of the Essene army, and (2) God’s blessings were to be offered to the Jewish people as a whole, not just to the sect’s members. In this way, it might be supposed, he modified the teaching of the Dead Sea group much as the apostle Paul modified that of earlier Jewish Christianity. And just as the old Jewish Christianity gradually disappeared while gentile Christianity flourished, so the Qumran group was finally destroyed while in John and Jesus its message, completely reinterpreted, lived on. Neither Jewish Christianity nor the Dead Sea group was able to last for long after the fall of Jerusalem.
John’s relation to the Essenes is important; much more important is the relation between him and Jesus. Here we have to deal with the gospels with considerable care. The evangelists are very anxious to make two points clear. First, they want to remind their readers that John was not the Messiah; this point is stressed in the gospels of Luke (3:15) and John (1:20; 3:28). They say plainly that he is not the Messiah; and this view seems to be historically sound, at least in the sense that he makes no claim for himself; even though in the second century there was a Jewish sect which made the claim for him (Clem. Rec. I, 60). Second, the evangelists want to indicate that John recognized Jesus as the Coming One whom he preceded.
At this point their evidence is somewhat ambiguous. It is undoubtedly a fact that Jesus was baptized by John. The evangelist Matthew finds the story so embarrassing that he has John say that he would prefer to be baptized by Jesus (3:14). But both Matthew (11:13) and Luke (7:19) tell us that when John was in prison he sent disciples to ask Jesus, ‘Are you the Coming One, or do we expect someone else?’ This question suggests that by having John recognize Jesus at his baptism the evangelists are making explicit a relationship which was not quite so clear. Before his death, John may have decided that Jesus was the one whose coming he had foretold; probably he did not recognize him in the crowds who came to the Jordan. In the Gospel of John, Jesus’ earliest disciples come from those of the Baptist. This idea may well be historically correct, and it helps explain the Gospel of John itself; as we shall later see.
It is significant that Jesus was baptized by John. This means that he, like others who took part in this baptism, believed that John was right in predicting the coming fire and cosmic conflict; that he too believed that the end was at hand. It means that he believed that God was going to act as judge, and that those who lived in accordance with God’s will would be judged favourably.
Once more, just as John’s message was not precisely that of the Essenes, so the message of Jesus was not that of either the Essenes or John. For the Essenes, the way of the future was the way of battle and victory. For John it was escape from the coming disaster. For Jesus it was whole hearted acceptance of what God might bring, in obedience to his will.
The Baptism of Jesus
The synoptic gospels agree that Jesus was baptized by John, and that as he came up from the water he saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove upon him. Luke adds that he was praying and that the Spirit descended ‘in bodily form like a dove’. John says that it was John the Baptist who saw the Spirit descend. Apparently both evangelists are trying to make the experience less subjective.
A similar tendency is evident when Matthew rewrites Mark. In Mark there is a voice from heaven (like the bath qol mentioned by the rabbis) which says, ‘You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased’ (Psalm 2:7; Is. 42:1). In Matthew the voice says, ‘This is my beloved Son. . . .’ Thus testimony is given to the witnesses present rather than to Jesus. A few manuscripts of Luke modify the statement still more by making it a direct quotation of Psalm 2:7, but this reading is hardly original.
The Temptation of Jesus
According to the three synoptic gospels, Jesus was tempted or tested by Satan in the desert immediately after his baptism. John makes no mention of this occurrence, probably because in his view the incarnate Word was not subject to temptation. The accounts in the synoptics are rather divergent. According to Mark, the Spirit (received at the baptism) drove him into the desert, where for forty days he was tempted by Satan. There he was with wild animals, and angels served him — presumably with food, as in the story of Elijah (I Kings 19:5-8). Angelic guardians and the danger of wild beasts are also found in Psalm 91:11-13. Matthew and Luke, evidently following a common written source at this point, describe Jesus as fasting for forty days and nights (as Moses did, Exod. 34:28), and then being tempted by the devil. The first temptation was therefore ‘if you are the Son of God’ to convert stones into bread. To this suggestion Jesus replied by quoting Deuteronomy 8:3: ‘Man will not live by bread alone, but by every word which proceeds from the mouth of God.’ Matthew and Luke present the other two temptations in different sequences. According to Matthew, the second took place when the devil took Jesus to the ‘wing’ of the temple and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, cast yourself down.’ Psalm 91:11-12 contained a promise that angels would protect the godly man. Jesus replied by quoting Deuteronomy again: ‘you shall not test the Lord your God’ (6:16; cf. Isaiah 7:12). Finally the devil took him to a high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world; these would be his if he would worship him. Once more a verse from Deuteronomy provided the answer: ‘you shall worship the Lord your God. . .’ (6:13).
The point conveyed by this story may be that, though Jesus as Son of God possessed the powers ascribed to him by the devil, he was unwilling to use them for Satan’s purposes. But since this point is not brought out in the third temptation, it is more likely that the basic purpose of the narrative is the same as that in Mark. It depicts a struggle between Jesus and Satan which resembles the testing of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. Adam and Eve yielded to Satan’s wiles; Jesus resisted them and remained obedient to God. The details of the story can hardly be taken literally. As Origen pointed out, there are no mountains from which all the kingdoms of the world can be seen. Presumably the account was not intended literally. It is a portrayal of an inner struggle, not one which can be located geographically.
Some of the Church Fathers thought that the devil did not know who Jesus was; he was trying to find out by means of his suggestions. This interpretation is improbable since the devil’s ignorance is intimated, in the New Testament, only in I Corinthians 2:8, and in the synoptics as a whole, demonic powers are depicted as recognizing Jesus without difficulty.
It has also been held that in this story Jesus is rejecting the use of miraculous powers altogether. Such a notion finds a parallel in Mark 8:12, where Jesus tells the Pharisees that ‘no sign will be given to this generation’. It is evident, however, that none of the synoptic evangelists can have understood it in this way. All three of them describe the multiplication of loaves and fishes and the stilling of a storm; Matthew and Mark report that Jesus walked on the Lake of Galilee. It is hard to find a non-miraculous kernel of the gospel.
After the temptation, the public ministry of Jesus begins.
The Gospel in Galilee
Though the baptism of Jesus took place in the Jordan, probably near the point where it enters the Dead Sea, and the temptation was in some desert region perhaps in the same vicinity, Jesus began his ministry in Galilee, the region in which he had been brought up. The gospels disagree as to the way in which this beginning was made.
Mark (1:14-21) gives the following sequence of events: (1) the arrest of John the Baptist, (2) Jesus’ entrance into Galilee, (3) his call of the first four disciples, and (4) his teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum. Matthew and Luke agree that Jesus entered Galilee after John’s arrest, though the Fourth Evangelist explicitly states that John had not yet been imprisoned (3:24). Both Matthew and Luke place the call of the disciples after Jesus’ teaching in Capernaum. Matthew emphasizes the importance of Capernaum by saying that the preaching there fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah 9:1-2; but he does not describe Jesus’ activities as Mark does. Luke has the ministry begin at Nazareth (4:16-30), though he alludes to events which previously took place at Capernaum (4:23); Jesus then goes to Capernaum, now identified as ‘a city of Galilee’ (4:31). Oddly enough, though John gives a completely different account of the beginning of the ministry, he does state that from Cana in Galilee Jesus went down to Capernaum with his mother, his brothers and his disciples; but he adds that they stayed there ‘not many days’ (2:12). For John the ‘holy city’ of Galilee is Cana, not Jerusalem.
In the gospels only two indications of the occasion of Jesus’ first preaching can be found. (1) The quotation of Isaiah in Matthew points towards ‘Galilee of the gentiles’ as a land of messianic expectation. ‘The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwelt in the land of the shadow of death, upon them has the light shined.’ It was in Galilee that the revolutionist Judas had proclaimed that God alone should be king. Though no other evangelist uses the prophecy in this way (cf. Luke 1:79), Jesus may have chosen Galilee not only because he was familiar with it but also because it was a land of ‘darkness’. Certainly Judaeans were not enthusiastic about it. ‘Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?’ (John 1:46) ‘Search, and see that no prophet arises out of Galilee’ (7:52). (2) The synoptists’ mention of the arrest of John the Baptist may provide an occasion for Jesus’ proclamation. Having been baptized by John, he could recognize in his arrest a beginning of God’s wrathful judgement. Such an explanation, however, seems suspect in view of the explicit statement in the Gospel of John that the Baptist had not yet been put in prison. More probably, both Jesus and John were working at the same time, at least for some months.
What Jesus proclaimed is briefly set forth by Mark in these words: ‘the time has been completed and the kingdom of God has drawn near; repent and believe in the gospel.’ (Luke 4:16-27 is an expansion of this theme and contains typically Lucan allusions to gentiles.) Like other allusive reports of mission preaching (e.g., I Thess. 1:9-10), this one is not fully comprehensible unless it is expanded. (1) What is the ‘time’ which has been completed? Presumably the background of this word lies in Jewish apocalyptic literature like the book of Daniel, in which we read that ‘the ancient of days came, and judgement was given to the saints of the Most High, and the time came that the saints, possessed the kingdom’ (7:22). (2) The ‘kingdom of God’ is his everlasting dominion which he will give to ‘the people of the saints of the Most High’ (Dan. 7:27). (3) The ‘gospel’ is the message that the kingdom of God is at hand, though it could be expanded by statements about God’s demands upon men such as we find in the synoptics.
If men sought evidence that the reign of God was being inaugurated, they could find it in the power of Jesus over demons and diseases, as we learn elsewhere in the gospels.
The Call of the First Disciples
Jesus was not content to proclaim the coming of the reign of God; he also called disciples to assist him in his mission. This call (and consequently the picture of the mission) is resented in different ways by the various evangelists. (1) In Mark 1:16-20 Jesus is walking along the lake of Galilee when he sees two brothers, Simon and Andrew, casting their nets. He says to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fishers for men.’ They follow; soon afterwards, they encounter two more brothers, James and John, who join the group. In the Old Testament the image of fishing for men is used of God’s judgement. The fishermen are representatives of God’s wrath; they take the fish from the water and harm them with nets or hooks (Amos 4:2; Hab.1:15; Jer.16:16). The same figure is to be found in the Dead Sea Psalms of Thanksgiving (Col. 5, 7-8). The meaning of the word of Jesus is presumably analogous. Those who follow him will be proclaiming the coming wrath of God, though they must also be telling men how this wrath is to be avoided by repentance (cf. Mark 1:15). (2) The same story is told in Matthew 4:18-22, but in Matthew 13:47-50 the significance of the net is modified in relation to the Church. In the kingdom of heaven there are both good and bad fish; they will be separated by angels at the end of the world. (3) Luke (5:1-10) changes the story by placing it in a context of a miraculous catch of fish. He makes no reference to any possible eschatological meaning. Instead, Simon, James and John are astounded by their catch and because of their astonishment are ready to follow Jesus. (4) In the Gospel of John (1:35 -51) the saying about fishing for men disappears entirely. John the Baptist tells Andrew and someone else that Jesus is the Lamb of God. After the two visit Jesus, Andrew brings his brother Simon to him. The next day, Jesus calls Philip simply by saying, ‘Follow me,’ and Philip informs Nathanael that Jesus is the one predicted in the law and the prophets. Nathanael, impressed by Jesus’ recognition of him before his call, hails him as the Son of God and the king of Israel. The whole account has been set in a different key.
If we assume, as we probably should, that both Matthew and Luke represent versions secondary to that in Mark, we are left with a choice between Mark and John. Both narratives treat Simon and Andrew as among the earliest disciples, though in John, Simon is the third disciple to follow Jesus, not the first (cf. John 20:2-8; 21:7, 15-23). The call itself is delivered in different ways. In Mark it consists of the saying about fishers for men, while in John it is based on a word of John the Baptist and Jesus’ own command to come and follow him. In John, as in the rest of his gospel (except 21:2), there is no mention of the sons of Zebedee. How can these differences be explained? Presumably the most satisfactory conclusion is to admit that both are right and that some disciples followed Jesus for one reason, others for another. Some of his disciples may well have come to him from John the Baptist; others probably did not. The notion that Simon Peter was called only indirectly may be due to a special concern of the Fourth Evangelist, but we cannot tell whether this concern was based on fact or not. Mark’s notion of Peter’s chronological primacy may be due to Peter’s own view of the matter.
These human factors must be borne in mind rather than any a priori theory as to how early Christianity developed.
According to Mark 3:14-16 there was a special group among the disciples of Jesus. Mark says that ‘he made twelve to be with him and to send them to preach and to have authority to cast out demons.’ Then he repeats his first words: ‘and he made the twelve.’ There follows a list of twelve names. In Mark 6:7 we read that he sent out the twelve, two by two; when they return, Mark (6:30) speaks of them as ‘the apostles’. Matthew (10:1-2) identifies the twelve disciples as the twelve apostles. so does Luke.
It is fairly evident that at a very early time it was recognized that Jesus was accompanied by a group of disciples called ‘the twelve’; this title occurs in all four gospels, as well as in I Corinthians 15:5. In Luke 22:30 Jesus tells his disciples that they will ‘sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel’; Matthew (19:28) probably does no more than make explicit what was already implied when he refers to ‘twelve thrones’.
Difficulties arise when we try to determine (1) who the Twelve were and (2) whether Jesus called them apostles or not. In the synoptic gospels and Acts we find four lists of the twelve.
(1) Simon Peter
(2) James S. Zebedee
(3) John S. Zebedee
(9) James S. Alphaeus
(11) Simon Cananacus
(12) Judas Iscariot
Apart from minor differences in order, the lists all agree as to the first eight names, though some manuscripts of Matthew substitute ‘Lebbaeus’ for Thomas (No. 8, in seventh position); others combine Lebbaeus with Thomas; and the Old Latin version substitutes ‘Judas the Zealot’. In Luke-Acts the description of Simon as Cananaeus is interpreted by calling him ‘Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James’ is substituted for Thaddaeus. Only half of these names are mentioned in the Gospel of John, but the evangelist mentions ‘the Twelve’ three times. From these facts we should conclude that the names of most of the Twelve were fairly well known, but that some of them were not especially significant in relation to the story of Jesus.
Did Jesus call them ‘apostles’ ? Only Luke (6:13) says that he did so, and it seems more likely that the name developed from later recognition of the mission which they performed. In the non-technical sense (‘one sent’) the word occurs in John 13:16 (compare Matt. 10:24, where ‘disciple’ is used), and it may also be non-technical in Mark 6:30. Such a picture may be confirmed by I Corinthians 15:5-7, where the Twelve are differentiated from ‘all the apostles’.
What we discover in the New Testament record, then, is that Jesus called twelve disciples to accompany him and to proclaim his gospel; at the coming of the kingdom they were to act as judges of the twelve tribes. That they expected such honour is suggested by the story about the request made by James and John, the sons of Zebedee (Mark 10:35-45), who asked Jesus for positions on his right and on his left. It should be added that an element of judgement was already present in their preaching mission. Those who accepted the gospel would enter into the kingdom; those who rejected it had judged themselves already. If men did not receive them, they were to shake off the dust under their feet as a testimony to them (Mark 6:11; cf. Matt 10:14-15; Luke 10:10-12). There is no record of their going into gentile territory or of conducting any mission to gentiles. As Matthew (10:5-6) reports, they were to go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel — primarily to those Jews who owed no allegiance to the parties of the Pharisees or the Sadducees or, for that matter, the Essenes.
The Twelve, then, had a present function and a future office. Apparently it was after the death and resurrection of Jesus that they came to be called apostles and that, indeed, the conception of apostles as the leaders of the community arose. This question will be discussed in Chapter XXI.
For modern readers of the gospels it is often something of an embarrassment that so much of the ministry of Jesus is characterized by works of power, by ‘paradoxical events’, by ‘works’, and by ‘marvels’ — in short, by miracles. Sometimes refuge is sought in the meaning of the word especially favoured by John, a ‘sign’ which points beyond the outward and visible ‘work’ to its inner meaning for faith. This solution is not very happy for John not only lays Stress on signs but also insists upon the reality of the works. Other ways of avoiding miracle have been found by means’ of a kind of historical criticism. Exorcisms were characteristic of first-century Palestine, and Jesus therefore performed them. Stories which describe miracles which we find more incredible can be assigned to the Graeco-Roman world. Such criticism, while in matters of detail perhaps correct, does not touch the real problem: the ministry of Jesus is full of miracles and the expectation of more miracles; his resurrection is the miraculous culmination of his ministry. Sometimes it is supposed that miracles are the result of ‘projections’ backwards into the ministry from the resurrection. It seems more accurate, however, to suggest that the disciples would not have believed in the resurrection had they not been prepared to accept its reality on the ground of something that had happened earlier.
It may be added that objection to miracles is not a modern phenomenon. In antiquity there were those who did not accept the truth of stories about them. Indeed, the so-called Gospel of Thomas can be regarded as an anti-miraculous document. Jesus was so spiritual that he cannot have bothered to deal with the natural world. (Of course this is not the only ground on which miracles were or are rejected.)
In dealing with miracle-stories we may make a distinction, for convenience, between (1) exorcisms and healings and (2) what we call nature-miracles, though we must bear in mind that the early tradition did not draw such a line. Jesus addressed a demon and a storm at sea in the same way (Mark 1:25; 4:39) and he once cursed a fig tree (11:14).
Yet he himself clearly regarded exorcisms and healings as of primary importance. ‘If I by the finger of God cast out demons,’ he said, ‘then the reign of God has come upon you’ (Luke 11:20; cf. Matt. 12:28). The expulsion of these invisible powers, responsible for sin and disease, was the chief sign of the coming of God’s kingdom. Mark tells of an unclean spirit who recognizes Jesus as the Holy One of God and comes out of a man at his command (1:23-6). According to Mark’s summaries Jesus cured many demoniacs (1:34; 2:11), though the evangelist gives only three other examples, all special cases (the Gerasene demoniac, 5:2-20; the Greek woman’s daughter, 7:25-30; and the man whom the disciples could not cure, 9:14-29). It is plain that Jesus was well known as an exorcist, for it was said that others used his name in order to expel demons (9:38-9), and the ‘scribes from Jerusalem’ argued that he possessed the demon Beelzebub and therefore was casting out demons by their chief. Jesus pointed out the absurdity of their claim. How could Satan cast out Satan? Such inconsistent conduct would bring his reign to an end (3:22-6).
In ancient belief it was necessary for demons, since they were discarnate spirits, to find some other abode once they had left their victims. For this reason the ‘legion’ possessing the Gerasene demoniac went into two thousand swine and may have drowned with them in the sea. Sometimes, as Jesus observes, an unclean spirit returns, along with others more wicked than himself, and with their aid makes the victim’s final situation worse than it was originally (Luke 11:24-6; Matt. 12:43-5). The power of the exorcist is shown by the numbers expelled, as in the ease of the seven driven out of Mary Magdalene (Luke 8:2).
The presence of demons was detected by abnormal actions such as shouting (Mark 1:23), living in tombs while shouting and cutting oneself with stones (5:5) foaming at the mouth, gnashing teeth, and fainting, as well as jumping into fire (9:18, 20). Inability to speak could also be caused by a demon (Luke 11:14; Matt. 9:32). Clearly such cases resemble those of psychological ailments common enough today. Jesus cured them with a word of command (Mark 1:25; 5:8; 9:25), following a preliminary question of concern and recognition by the demon (1:24; 5:7) or a statement of faith by a relative of the patient (9:24). The result was a loud cry of crisis (1:26; 9:26) and an immediate cure, with subsequent health (7:30).
Closely related to these illnesses which we should call mental are the cases of physical illness. Jesus regarded his cures of these as important, for he sent word about them to John in prison (Luke 7:22-3; Matt. 11:4-6). He cured Peter’s mother-in-law of a fever by raising her by the hand; ‘the fever left her and she served them’ (Mark 1:29-31). Jesus touched and spoke to a leper, and the leprosy left him at once (1:40-2; ultimately it makes little difference whether or not ancient and modern leprosy are the same). When he stated that a paralytic’s sins were forgiven, and told him to get up, lift up his bed, and walk, he was cured (2:3-12). He restored a withered hand with a word (3:1-5). Jairus’s daughter was actually dead when Jesus held her by the hand and said, ‘Girl, get up’; she got up, walked, and ate (5:22-3, 35- 43). A woman whom doctors could not cure touched Jesus’ garment in a crowd and was healed at once. Jesus felt that power had gone out from him and looked for her, telling her that her faith had healed her (5:25-34).
Sometimes the technique of healing is more fully described. In order to cure a deaf-mute he put his fingers in his ears and touched his tongue with spittle; with a groan he looked up to heaven and said, ‘Be opened’ (Mark 7:32-5). Again, to cure a blind man he spat on his eyes and laid his hands on him, producing a partial cure which was completed only by a second imposition of hands (8:22-5). Both examples are omitted by the later evangelists; both resemble the ‘sympathetic magic’ employed by other healers in the ancient world. Neither is discussed in any extant writing, of ante-Nicene commentators, perhaps because both were regarded as too much like other instances of thaumaturgy. But there is no reason to suppose that our standards, or those of some early Christians, as to what is edifying can serve as historical criteria. From the complaints of critics as recorded in the gospels we should suppose that Jesus was not concerned with the question of technique. He could use whatever technique seemed suitable at the moment. In the last healing in Mark, that of blind Bartimaeus, Jesus simply says, ‘Your faith has healed you’ (10:52; cf. 7:34).
Thus far we have discussed only the stories in Mark. Those reported by the other synoptic evangelists are not essentially different, though there is a slight tendency to heighten the difficulty of the miracles. Luke gives five additional instances. The slave of a centurion in Capernaum is about to die when, because of the centurion’s faith, Jesus heals him without seeing or touching him; and the only son of a widow at Nain is about to be buried when Jesus takes pity on the mother, touches the bier, and says, ‘Young man, be raised.’ He sits up and speaks (7:1-16). A woman had a ‘spirit of sickness’ for eighteen years and could not stand erect; she was healed by a word of ‘release’ and the laying on of hands (13:11-13). A man had dropsy and was cured (14:2-4). Ten lepers — among whom the only grateful one was a Samaritan — were cured (17:12-19). Matthew’s stories are essentially the same, except that he twice tells a story, based on that about Bartimaeus, about two blind men (9:27-31; 20:30-4).
In all three synoptics the stories about exorcisms and healings are told only in relation to Galilee or its surroundings. Only in Matthew (21:14) do we read that ‘the blind and the lame came to him in the temple and he healed them’ — but he knows no miracle story related to Jerusalem.
From these stories it is evident that Jesus was known to his contemporaries as one who could drive out demons or perform the analogous function of healing diseases. He was not what today is called a ‘faith healer’. Sometimes faith is mentioned in the stories; sometimes it is not. The tradition is concerned with one thing only, to show that the power of God was present in him. That this power existed is also plain from the criticisms made by his opponents. They did not question his power; they only argued that it was demonic rather than divine. That others had it as well, and that Jesus believed that they did, is also clear. ‘By whom do your sons cast them out?’ (Matt. 12:27; Luke 11:19). We conclude that the existence of a power to exorcise and to heal was not open to question in Galilee in Jesus’ time. What differentiated his work from that of others? We must assume that the context was what was important. Jesus did not exorcise and heal ‘for the works’ sake’ but because these activities were united with his proclamation of the coming kingdom, already potentially present in the miracles.
The exorcisms are absent from the Gospel of John, perhaps because the evangelist or his readers did not find them edifying. The charge that Jesus was possessed by a demon is set forth, but it is understood as meaning that he was crazy (8:48; 10:20). Some of the healings are described; they have become great signs of Jesus’ heavenly glory manifest on earth. Four healing stories are told. The centurion’s slave (Luke) or boy (Matthew) has become a royal officer’s son, and as in Matthew he is healed just at the hour when Jesus speaks to his (here) father (4:46-53). A man has been paralysed for thirty-eight years and Jesus tells him to take up his bed and walk, and to sin no more (5:8-9, 14). This story resembles the version in Mark (2:3-12), and like it is related to Sabbath observance. A third healing is that of a man born blind; it is effected by putting a mixture of mud and spittle on his eyes (cf. Mark 8:23) and by ordering him to wash in the pool of Siloam (9:6-7). The fourth is the most striking of all: the raising of Lazarus, dead for four days (11:1-44). Nothing quite like it is found in the synoptic tradition, even though there too we find raisings from the dead. The uniqueness of John’s story lies in his insistence that Jesus rejoiced because he had not been with the sick Lazarus; therefore Lazarus could die and rise. The miracle is performed not so much for the sake of Lazarus as to manifest the glory of God. Here John expresses a meaning which is less explicit in the synoptic tradition.
It is undoubtedly significant that exorcisms of demons occur in the synoptic gospels (but only in relation to events in Galilee) and that they are absent from the Gospel of John and are not mentioned in the Pauline epistles (or in any of the epistles except, by implication, James). The only exorcisms to be found in Acts are mentioned in a brief summary (Acts 19.1 i — 12) describing the effects of contact with Paul’s handkerchiefs or aprons, and in the subsequent verses which describe the activities of ‘seven sons of a Jewish high priest named Sceva’ (19:14); but demons are not mentioned.
This means that exorcism, while characteristic of the Galilean period of the church’s life, was not characteristic of the gentile mission, at least until the time of the Apologists, when mention of it recurs.
Exorcisms, healings and raisings thus make up the bulk of the gospel accounts of the miracles of Jesus. We now turn to the other stories which illustrate the power of Jesus, and of his disciples, over ‘nature’ — remembering once more that the distinction we draw is our own, not theirs. This power is clearly set forth in the word of Jesus, ‘Whoever says to this mountain, Be lifted up and be cast into the sea, and does not doubt in his heart but believes that what he says is taking place, for him it will take place’ (Mark 11:23; cf. Matt. 21:21). A similar saying is preserved in different contexts in both Matthew (17:20) and Luke (17:6) and is referred to by Paul (I Cor. 13:2). We shall later discuss what seems to be the probable original context. Here it is enough to say that the saying illustrates the faith of Jesus and of his disciples in a God who works ‘mighty acts’ and can make his power available for believers. ‘All things are possible for him who believes’ (Mark 9:23). ‘I can do all things through him who strengthens me’ (Phil. 4:13).
The miracles are closely related to the belief of Christians that in Jesus God has decisively acted; and this faith was shared by Jesus himself. Thus the nature miracles do not really differ in kind from the others which we have already discussed. The most important of them is the story of the feeding of the five thousand, related by all four evangelists and handed down by three of them in connection with Jesus’ walking on the lake of Galilee. (Mark and Matthew give the story twice, once as the feeding of five thousand, once as that of four thousand.)
In Mark the story is set after the Galilean mission of the disciples (6:30-3, 34-44). The weary missioners are to come to a desert place and ‘rest a little’, but a crowd follows, eager to satisfy its curiosity. The hour becomes late and Jesus tells the disciples to feed the crowd. Among them, however, they have only five loaves of bread and two fish. Jesus then commands the crowd to recline in groups of fifty and a hundred; taking the bread and fish he blesses it, breaks it, and gives it to the disciples to distribute. ‘All of them ate and were filled.’ The leftovers fill twelve wicker baskets (characteristic of Jews, says the Roman poet Juvenal).
There are several ways of looking at this story. The most common view in Western Christendom has been that it provides an example, and can be used as a proof, of Jesus’ power over nature. This view, doubtless given credence by the following miracle of walking on water, leads to almost insuperable difficulties when the details are pressed. Hilary of Poitiers (fourth century) was embarrassed by such questions as these: where did the bread multiply? In the hands of Jesus? in the hands of the disciples? in the mouths of those who ate? Naturally an equally literalistic explanation was advanced by rationalists. Even a tiny amount of bread and fish (1/5000 of 7 loaves + 2 fish) seemed a considerable amount to men under the spell of Jesus. Alternatively, those in the crowd had bread and fish of their own and suddenly began to share at this point.
More modern students have attempted to explain the story in relation to various motifs which can be found by considering parallels. (1) There is a somewhat similar story about Elisha in II Kings 4:42-4, where the man of God, through his servant, feeds a hundred men with only twenty barley loaves (the barley loaves recur in John’s version, 6:9, 13). If Elijah had come as a forerunner of Jesus (Mark 9:13), it was conceivable that the work of his successor Elisha, who had received a ‘double portion of Elijah’s spirit’ (II Kings 2:9-14), should be surpassed by Jesus. (2) A second motif is eucharistic. As Mark tells the story, it is remarkably similar to his account of the Last Supper, where Jesus took bread, blessed it, broke it, and distributed it to the disciples. All his disciples (and the crowd) eat of the loaves and fish as they all ate and drank at the Last Supper. (3) A third motif is eschatological. The feeding of the five thousand corresponds to God’s miraculous feeding of the children of Israel in the desert on their way to the promised land. This feeding was regarded by Jews and Christians alike as a prefiguration of the ‘messianic banquet’ in the kingdom of God. The rabbis give various picturesque details — thus the marine monsters will finally serve God’s purpose when they are eaten in the kingdom. No such details are given in the gospels, but the expectation of such a banquet is there; Jesus swears that he will not drink wine again until he drinks it (a)new in the kingdom of God (Mark 14:25). The reclining of the crowd by fifties and hundreds points closely to the eschatological idea. It was Moses in the Exodus who instructed the children of Israel to assemble in groups of thousands, hundreds and fifties; and this command was reiterated among the covenanters by the Dead Sea. As one greater than Moses, Jesus prepares his disciples and the crowd for their march into the new land of promise, the kingdom of God.
As Schweitzer puts it, Jesus ‘consecrates them as partakers in the coming Messianic feast, and gives them the guarantee that they, who had shared his table in the time of his obscurity, would also share it in the time of his glory’.
The baskets of leftovers may be related to the mention of leftovers in the story of Elisha or else to the Exodus story of the double supply of manna which was provided on the day before the Sabbath (Exodus 16:22-7). The numbers of the baskets (twelve after the feeding of the five thousand, seven after four thousand) may be symbolical, but the twelve is easier to explain (apostles, tribes) than the seven is.
These motifs certainly illuminate the meanings which early Christians may have found, and indeed almost certainly did find, in the story. They do not indicate either that the event took place or that it did not. A decision on this point must be reached on grounds extraneous to the New Testament itself. The same kind of decision must be made in regard to the story of walking on water. Some critics have suggested that the story is simply a heightened account of the parallel, or somewhat parallel, story of the stilling of the storm (Mark 4:35-41). In both instances Jesus and his disciples wish to cross the lake of Galilee; it is evening, and a strong wind troubles the disciples, who are afraid. At a word of Jesus the sea goes down and the disciples either fear even more or are astonished. There are differences, however. In the first storm story Jesus is calmly asleep in the boat and the disciples criticize his lack of concern (4:38), while in the second he comes to them by walking on the sea, just as in Job it is God who, poetically speaking, walks on the waves (9:8; 38:16) and in Sirach it is Wisdom who does so (24:5). Again, in the first story Jesus rebukes the wind as if it were a demonic power (cf. Mark 1:14, 23), while in the second the wind goes down after he announces, ‘It is I, do not fear’, and gets into the boat. Finally, the points made by the two stories are different. In the first the emphasis is laid on stilling the storm; in the second, on walking on water. Both stories may reflect the Old Testament motif of Yahweh’s victory over chaos.
The conclusion in regard to Jesus, no in matter how different the stories may be, is the same. ‘Who is this,’ the disciples ask (4:41), ‘that wind and sea obey him?’ The power of Jesus over water, an unpredictable element of nature, is such that he can still it or walk on it as he chooses. We cannot get rid of these stories by ascribing them to an ‘ancient world view’. The ancients were well aware that bodies heavier than water sink in it. The conclusion that Christians drew from these stories was that Jesus was different from other human beings. Indeed, in Mark 6:49 the disciples suppose that he must be a ghost or phantom. Who was he? He was one in whom the creative power of God was at work. Job had said that it is God alone ‘who speaks to the sun and it does not rise … who walks on the sea as on dry land’ (9:7-8). Yet God’s power could be given, according to the Old Testament, to his holy ones. When Moses stretched forth his hand, God made part of the sea like dry land (Exod. 14:21); the priests carrying the ark crossed the Jordan, along with all Israel, on dry ground (Josh. 3:17); Elisha too divided the waters of the Jordan (II Kings 2:14). It may be, then, that in the story of walking on .water we meet the Exodus motif once more — a motif also found in the messianic expectations’ of Jesus’ day.
The same questions arise, of course, in regard to this story as in regard to the feeding miracles. Do the stories reflect reminiscences of what happened or were they created in order to set forth in symbolic fashion the ways in which the ministry of Jesus constituted a new Exodus? Historically, we are not in a position to answer such questions. In the later gospels we can see some tendencies to develop the stories, but the later existence of such developments proves nothing about the origins of that from which the developments took place. Theologically, we can weigh various considerations such as the nature of the Incarnation if related to such stories treated as fact, and can argue that to treat the stories as factual would mean denying the reality of Christ’s human nature. But such arguments are often inconclusive, and in any case the precise historical nature of an occurrence (or nonoccurrence) should not be determined by our feeling that it was, or was not, ‘fitting’.
The most important retelling of the story of the feeding is that provided by John, who clearly recognizes its triple significance. (1) It points backward towards its Old Testament antecedents; John mentions barley loaves, probably because of the story of Elisha, and he devotes a long discourse to the relation of the feeding to the gift of manna at the Exodus. (2) It points forward towards the eucharist. This point is made explicit in the long discourse, and is also implied by John’s omission of any account of the institution at the Last Supper. (3) It also has historical consequences. Those who saw the ‘sign’ said, ‘Truly this is the prophet who is to come into the world’ (6:14) — presumably the prophet ‘like Moses’ who was to succeed him (Deut. 18:15). Jesus, ‘knowing that they were going to come and seize him to make him king’, fled from them to a mountain (6:15). John may be giving authentic historical information. The Galilean mission resulted in enthusiasm, but this enthusiasm was misguided. Those who shared it thought that Jesus was a political leader. They took the miracle to some extent as Schweitzer takes it.
John certainly believed in the miraculous. He did not, however, believe in miracle for miracle’s sake. In the ‘sign’ with which he has Jesus’ public ministry begin, the changing of water into wine at Cana, there is no effect on a crowd. The servants at the wedding banquet know that water has been transformed (water once more!), but the glory of Jesus thus manifested results in belief only for his disciples (2:11). Sometimes it has been urged that John has Christianized a popular tale, for example about the god Dionysus, who annually transformed water into wine at his festival. (It should be added that many ancient writers were unconvinced of the reality of the Dionysiacs’ miracle.) Once more, however, the story may well reflect the conception of the eschatological banquet, often regarded as a wedding feast, at which wine, given by God, would flow freely. Taken literally, the story presents difficulties. Chrysostom, writing in the fourth century, mentions non-Christian critics who suggested that the guests at the wedding were unable to distinguish wine from water. And as early as the second century, when Marcosian Gnostics attempted to repeat the miracle in their eucharists, use was made of some kind of powder to produce the desired effect. Excavations of a well in Gerasa, where the miracle was reproduced in the fourth century, suggest that one pipe line brought water, another wine. The dangers of literalism are obvious, though it must be admitted that to treat this miracle, like others, as purely ‘spiritual’ can be equally unconvincing. If we do treat it as symbolic, we must recognize that those early Christians who did so did not ordinarily separate the outward and visible sign from the inward and spiritual grace. Whether we do or do not keep them together, we must recognize historically that early Christians did so and that historical analysis as such cannot tell us what actually happened. Even if we believe that the stories do not record what happened, we are in no position to say what did.
It should be added, however, that the fact that early Christians, or some early Christians, do not differentiate outward experience from inward experience, or nature from history, does not prohibit the historian from making an attempt to do so. The apostle Paul is quite willing to tell the Corinthians that among them ‘the signs of a true apostle were performed . . . in all patience, with signs and wonders and mighty works’ (II Cor. 12:12). But he hesitates when he is describing ‘a man in Christ’ who was caught up to the third heaven and into paradise. Twice he uses the expression ‘whether in the body or’ out of the body I do not know, God knows’ (12:2-3). If his description involves cosmological concerns, we must go beyond what he says and insist that such a journey was not one which can be charted. Again, when he says that ‘if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing’ (I Cor. 13:2) there are two points which should be made. First, he seems to have freed the saying of Jesus in Mark 11:23 from its precise eschatological relation to the Mount of Olives (as in Zechariah 14:4); the saying has become a general word about faith. Second, he rigorously subordinates wonder-working faith to love. This is to say that in the early Church miracles were important because they pointed towards the creative activity of God, not because of anything they were in themselves; and also that the creative activity of God is better expressed in works of love than in signs and wonders.
What Jesus Taught
To discover what Jesus taught and, perhaps, why he taught it is just as difficult as to consider the historical meaning of miracle stories. We must be constantly on guard against the natural tendency to assume that because we agree (or because we disagree) with the content of a particular saying it is therefore authentic. Kirsopp Lake has been quoted as making this statement: ‘The genuineness of a saying attributed to Jesus can be judged only by men free if necessary to say without emotion that, so far as they can see, Jesus did teach in the way under discussion, but that on this point they disagree with Jesus.’ Probably Lake’s emotion-free men do not exist, but a measure of this attitude is required in the study of the gospels. It can be called a sense of the ‘distance’ between the viewer and the object viewed. Christians may find that to achieve this distance is difficult, but in all historical study it is a necessity, if only for a moment. Perspective can be gained only from some degree of distance.(It may be added that a man may be anxious to affirm the authenticity of a saying in order to justify his personal rejection of Christianity.)
There are, of course, some obstacles which stand in the way of recovering what Jesus taught. At first his sayings were handed down either separately or in little clusters. These sayings were translated from Aramaic into Greek and edited by the evangelists and their predecessors — who did not aim at completeness (cf. John 20:30, 21:25). The process of transmission lasted a minimum of thirty years. But the time involved is not as important as the motivations of the transmitters. There is every likelihood that they intended to remain faithful to the teaching they were handing down; at the same time, it is probable that they could not help modifying it, consciously or unconsciously, in relation to their own attitudes and to the circumstances in which they, and the churches of which they were leaders, found themselves. One obvious example is found in the reports of Jesus’ teaching on divorce and remarriage. Under Jewish law, in the circumstances under which Jesus taught, a man could divorce his wife but she could not divorce him. It is therefore likely that when Mark 10:12 refers to a wife’s divorcing her husband the tradition known to the evangelist has modified the original saying in order to widen its range. Other examples can be found in the brief moralizing and generalizing conclusions which the various evangelists append to the parables.
(It should be added that such modifications do not necessarily diminish the religious or theological relevance of the sayings as they now stand, since those who transmitted the sayings may have correctly interpreted them for their environment or environments, and the situation of the transmitters may not be very different from our own. But such considerations cannot be taken into account when we try to determine what Jesus himself taught.)
What Jesus was concerned with proclaiming was the kingdom of God, and especially the requirements laid by God the king on those who took upon themselves the ‘yoke of the kingdom’. He used various forms of speech in order to make his proclamation (parables, sayings, etc.), but these are not as important as what the proclamation contained. In the gospels we find one summary of his message, and it is based on two passages in the Old Testament. A scribe in Jerusalem asked him which was the primary commandment of the law, and he replied (Mark 12:28-30):
The first is, Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your understanding and all your strength (Deut. 6:4-5). The, second is this: You shall love your neighbour as yourself (Lev. 19:18).
This saying too is an illustration of expansion and interpretation; the words ‘with all your understanding’ are absent from the Old Testament, since the Hebrew man thought with his heart; they have been added in Greek Christian circles in order to point up the completeness of response required of man.
The primary commandment, then, requires love of God and love of neighbour. Jewish teachers in the time of Jesus were also concerned with providing such summaries. None of them, however, seems to have chosen these two passages from the Old Testament; the parallel often cited from the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs is from a book which in its present form is Christian.
To love God means to imitate him. ‘You shall be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect’ (Matt. 5:48). The term ‘perfect’ probably means to be holy as God is holy, as in a parallel command in Leviticus 19:2; it probably also involves the ‘merciful’ character of God, as in the analogous command in Luke 6:36. In other words, the command looks both Godward and manward. To love God means also to trust him, not to worry about food or clothing, after which ‘the gentiles’ seek (Matt. 6:32). He feeds the birds and clothes flowers with beauty; afortiori he will feed and clothe men (Matt. 6:26-30). If men first seek for God’s reign and his righteousness, he will give them all they need (6:33; 7:7-11). If men forgive, God will forgive them (6:14-15). His forgiveness has no limits if men repent, for he is the Father of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). At the same time, his forgiveness is accompanied by his wrath. If men do not forgive, their heavenly Father will not forgive them (Matt. 6:15). God can destroy both soul and body in hell (Matt. 10:28). And at the final judgement rejection will be the fate of those who have rejected God’s reign.
It may be asked what is particularly different about the teaching of Jesus when it is compared with the Old Testament. First, of course, it must be stated that it cannot be, and never is, compared with the whole of the Old Testament; some process of selection is involved. The teaching of Jesus resembles most closely that of the prophets. Second, we should not expect to find a sharp contrast between the prophets and Jesus, since in his view his God was theirs — and that of the patriarchs as well (Mark 12:26). In agreement with some Jewish teachers of his time, he often spoke to his disciples of God as their Father; but he went beyond them in emphasizing that God was his Father. He pointed towards a closeness of relationship in which Christians soon found intimations of what became the doctrine of the Trinity.
The emphasis in Jesus’ teaching, however, lies not so much on love of God as on love of neighbour. This love is to be all-inclusive; men are not to be loved because they are members of the community but also, and especially, when they are outsiders. Such a kind of love is not only repeatedly expressed in the gospel records but is also set forth in the Holiness Code in Leviticus. ‘The stranger who sojourns with you shall be as the home-born among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God’ (Lev. 19:34). In the gospels it is dramatically portrayed in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10.30-7) and systematically defined by Matthew in the first half of the Sermon on the Mount, where sayings are collected and related to the appropriate commandments of the decalogue and other parts of Old Testament law.
In this Sermon Jesus defines the righteousness of his disciples as one which must surpass that of the scribes and the Pharisees. The old law said, ‘You shall not commit murder’ (Exod. 20:13). Jesus tells his disciples that to be angry with one’s brother (some manuscripts limit the range of his words by adding ‘without cause’) or to speak abusively to him is equivalent to murder. A gift cannot be offered to the temple by one who has not been reconciled with his brother (Matt. 5:21-4).
Again, the old law said, ‘You shall not commit adultery (Exod. 20:14). Jesus tells his disciples that to look at a woman with lust for her is equivalent to adultery. If one’s eye or hand lead one to offend, it would be better to lack these members than to be cast into Gehenna, where the wicked dead are punished in fire (5:28-30). The old law forbade false oaths (Lev. 19:12). Jesus forbids oaths of any kind. The disciple is simply to say Yes or No; anything further is from the ‘evil one’, presumably because it implies the possibility of falsehood (5:34-7). The old law said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ (Exod. 21:24-5), thus limiting revenge by justice. Jesus tells his disciples not to seek revenge at all. ‘Whoever strikes you on one cheek, turn the other to him’ (5:38-42). The old law said, ‘Love your neighbour’ and (at least among the Dead Sea sectarians) ‘hate your enemy.’ Jesus tells his disciples to love their enemies and pray for their persecutors, for their love, like God’s, must be all-inclusive (5:44-7). He tells them to forgive a repentant brother’s sins seven times a day (Luke 17:3-4), and when Peter asks if seven is the limit, he replies that seventy-seven times (at least) are possible, and indeed necessary (Matt. 18:21-2). God will not condemn one who has not condemned; he will forgive him who has forgiven (Matt. 6:12-15; Luke 6:37-8). The man who does not forgive is compared to a merciless lender who forgets his own debts (Matt. 18:23-35).
Because of Jesus’ insistence upon genuine love of neighbour, a good deal of his teaching is directed against insincerity in the name of religion. Prayer and almsgiving should not be done for show (Matt. 6:1-8), even for inward ‘peace of mind’ (Luke 18:10-14), nor should fasting be ostentatious (Matt. 6:16-18). (The semi-Gnostic Gospel of Thomas misrepresents his teaching by claiming that he opposed prayer, fasting and almsgiving.) The true disciple cannot judge others but must judge himself (Matt. 7:1-5); he must bring forth good fruits (7:16-20); he must humble himself (Luke 14:7-11). He Cannot lay up treasures on earth; he cannot serve God and money (Matt. 6:19-21, 24). To save his life, he must lose it (Mark 8:35). He must become a ‘eunuch’ for the kingdom’s sake (Matt. 19:12); he must leave everything to follow Jesus (Mark 10:21). ‘No one who has put his hand to the plough and then looks back is fit for the kingdom of God’ (Luke 9:62). Only one thing (discipleship) is necessary (10:42).
It has sometimes been argued that (1) Jesus gave no binding commandments applicable to every conceivable situation; indeed, in the tradition some commandments are in contradiction with others (contrast Mark 10:9 with Luke 14:26 Mark 10:21 with Luke 19:8), and that, therefore, (2) only ‘following Jesus’ can be called for (e.g. Mark 1:17, 2:14, 10:21); this way is the way of the cross (Mark 8:34-5). The purpose of this interpretation is to free Christians from the concrete historical nature of the call of Jesus and to view it more in the manner of John 14:6, where we read that Jesus himself is ‘the Way, the Truth, and the Life’ (an Aramaic original of this could mean ‘true and living Way’). Its modern theological value, however, is probably greater than its approximation to what Jesus actually taught and to what his disciples understood him as teaching.
Perhaps the question as to what they understood can be approached by asking why they became disciples. There seem to be five main reasons for this action. (1) They were doubtless impressed by Jesus’ power over demons and diseases; they were convinced that something greater than Solomon or Jonah was present among them and in their leader. (2) They probably recognized that the moral teaching of the prophets and their call to repentance were being set forth anew — and in a manner like that used by the prophets, in poetic and symbolic form and with the performance of symbolic actions. The tone of authority with which Jesus spoke was also like that of the prophets. (3) Jesus also appealed to men as intelligent, observant persons. He argued from the ubiquity of sunshine and rainfall to the inclusiveness of God’s love (Matt. 5:45; Luke 6:35). A man should not swear by his head, for he cannot make one hair white or black (Matt. 5:36). A man should not lay up treasures on earth, since moth and rust destroy them and thieves dig through and steal (6:20). Birds and flowers provide examples of God’s care for his creation (6:26, 28), and by worrying no one can add a few feet to his stature (6:27). A father does not give his son a stone for bread or a snake for fish (7:9-10). A good tree does not produce bad fruit (7:17). All these are analogies. If such is the case on earth, how much more is it so with God? Indeed, all the parables are based on the same kind of analogical reasoning, proceeding from the creation to the Creator, from the area ruled to the Ruler. It is probably Luke who is responsible for the formulation of the question, ‘Why do you not judge from yourselves what is right?’ (12:57), but the question is true to the spirit of Jesus. (4) The hearer of Jesus might well be one who, influenced by apocalyptic expectations, was waiting for the imminent coming of God’s kingdom. Many apocalypses were in circulation, and many (not only at Qumran) interpreted the prophets as guides to the immediate future. Roman-Herodian oppression seemed to be a sign of its coming. (5) Jesus promised rewards for those who would follow him and punishments for those who did not. Like the prophets, he used such promises as moral levers, and appealed to the rewards as providing a motive for repentance.
These rewards included acquittal in the coming judgement, entrance into the kingdom, and the inheritance of life with all its treasures. The penalties were suffering in Gehenna and exclusion from the life of the kingdom. Generally speaking, the poor, unimpeded by possessions, were expected to receive the rewards; the rich, who could not leave their wealth to serve God, found it difficult to follow Jesus. ‘It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle [i.e., impossible], than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God’ (Mark 10:25). Luke tells many parables which illustrate the condition of the rich; Matthew too is aware of their condition.
It is not certain, however, that Jesus was speaking sociologically when he described conditions for entrance into the kingdom or the rewards which would ensue. We may suspect that his teaching was not altogether ‘spiritual’, especially when we recall that for pious Jews ‘heaven’ was often a word substituted for ‘God’, and that as the gospel left Jewish soil this use of ‘heaven’ could easily be misunderstood so that the this-worldly became other-worldly. When Peter claims that the disciples have left everything to follow Jesus, his master tells him that ‘there is no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and the gospel’s, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and fields — with persecutions — and in the coming age, eternal life’ (Mark 10:29-30). When we compare the Lucan version of this sentence (18:29) we seem to see difficulties being added and taken away. Luke adds ‘wife’ to the relatives to be abandoned; he omits any reference to the future receipt of fields. Considerably later, Origen argued that the prediction must be taken allegorically since the brothers, sisters, mothers and children must be symbolical. This means that the concreteness of the expectation has vanished. But how concrete was it? To answer this question we also have to consider the problem raised by eschatological predictions in general in the gospels. Was the kingdom present? Was it being inaugurated? Was it purely future? Or did Jesus explicitly say what he believed about it?
Before turning to the nature of the kingdom of God we should tentatively suggest that the question about its being this-worldly or otherworldly and its being present or future is analogous to one more question, that concerning Jesus’ view of himself as Messiah or Son of Man. On all these questions various scholars have assumed varying positions, usually emphasizing one or the other horn of the dilemmas and arguing that inconvenient texts are not genuine. They thus have used literary criticism (1) in a highly subjective way and (2) in order to solve a problem historical in nature. A more adequate solution can undoubtedly be reached by trying to discover what attitude assumed and expressed by Jesus could have led to the varying interpretations, each of which has something to commend it. (It should be noted that we are not advocating some kind of synthesis of opposing views; what we should like to discover is a prior condition, attested by evidence, which can explain the existence of later circumstances, divergent but related to their source.)
The two extremes are set forth most vividly in two texts, one of which reflects a futurist conception of the kingdom (‘thy kingdom come,’ Matt. 6:10; Luke 11:2), the other a ‘realized eschatology’ (‘the kingdom of God is within you,’ Luke 17:21). There can be no doubt about the future reference of the first passage. On the other hand, those who have wished to minimize the present reality of the kingdom have pointed out that the saying found only in Luke is addressed to (hostile?) Pharisees (the kingdom cannot have been within them), and must therefore mean ‘in your midst’; furthermore, the hypothetical Aramaic original would not use the verb ‘to be’ and therefore can be interpreted as future in meaning. There are other passages, however, in which the kingdom is regarded as actually present. For instance, ‘if I by the finger of God cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you’ (Luke 11:19; cf. Matt. 12:28). (We cannot use Matthew 5:3, ‘theirs is the kingdom,’ because of the ambiguity of whatever the original saying may have been.) Other passages can easily be collected on both sides.
Several attempts have been made to resolve this dilemma by doing justice to both aspects. (1) It can be argued that God’s kingdom is eternal. It is ‘an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed’ (Dan. 7:14). But this kingdom is eternal in the sense that it will continually last once it has been given ‘to the people of the saints of the Most High’ (Dan. 7:27); the reference remains future. A reference to an eternal reign in past, present and future can be found in Ps. 145:13, however; if this psalm is related to the expectations of Daniel it places far less emphasis on the future. ‘Thy kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and thy dominion endureth throughout all generations.’ If the kingdom is understood in this way, it means that God is king; his throne is established of old; he is ‘from everlasting’ (Ps. 93:2). But men have revolted against him, and he is now about to put down their rebellion by calling them once more to obey him. On this supposition, the present nature of the kingdom is based on the perpetuity of God’s rule; the future aspect is concerned with his act to reinforce it. (2) It may also be claimed that the two emphases arose because Jesus spoke with such intensity and immediacy of the future that some could regard the kingdom as already present. To say this means that the futurist view is correct, while the ‘realized’ view is wrong. (3) It has been held that he not only regarded the kingdom as future but also believed that to a considerable extent he was inaugurating it. The kingdom was present as the mustard seed of Mark. 4:30-2 was present before it became a great plant.
It appears that the most adequate solution will be one which accounts for both the presence and the future fulfillment of the kingdom. In providing a solution of this kind we can use such terms as potentiality and realization — provided that we do not limit the range of potentiality by overstressing the difference between it and the realization still to come. In the mission of Jesus, in his words and in his deeds, the kingdom had been inaugurated. Its fullness was still to come, but the ‘shape’, so to speak of the kingdom ‘with power’ (Mark 9:1) would not be essentially different from what had already arrived.
There is a considerable measure of ambiguity in the gospel tradition, as in later Christian theology, as regards the way in which the kingdom is finally to be realized. Sometimes its coming is described as sudden and catastrophic; sometimes it is viewed as a process of growth, whether gradual or not (Mark 4:26-32). Again, some sayings point towards a kingdom regarded almost entirely as this-worldly; others point towards a more ‘spiritual’ conception. Finally, some sayings indicate that the precise time of its coming cannot be predicted. It comes like a thief in the night, and no one but the Father knows when it will arrive (Mark 13:32).
To be sure, the sayings to which we refer can be regarded as possessing varying degrees of authenticity; but taken as a whole they point in the same direction. They suggest that Jesus was concerned almost exclusively with the reign of God, present and future, and with calling men to assume its yoke. He was not concerned with telling them whether it would come catastrophically or not, or with whether it would be this-worldly or not, or when it would come. Because he was not concerned with these matters he left his disciples free to consider them in various ways, and they did so. Perhaps they should not have considered them, but they did. In this sense the view that he intended simply to call men to follow him is correct; it must be added, however, that he told men in what ways to follow him.
We now come to the question of the way or ways in which he intended his statements about God’s moral demands to be taken. Various views of this matter have been advocated. (1) Was his teaching, for example in Matthew’s sermon on the mount, intended chiefly to convict disobedient men of sin? Certainly this aspect of it cannot be neglected; in order to repent, his disciples must have been or become aware of their sinfulness. But this cannot have been the sole purpose of his teaching, for he came to call sinners to repentance, to heal the sick, to cast out demons, to bring men to a new life. (2) Was his teaching intended to provide norms for behaviour in the very short period before the coming of the reign of God? Were the disciples expected to lead lives of perfection — a perfection which could not have been required if he had believed that the world would go on? This theory of an ‘interim ethic’ is based on two postulates: (a) Jesus expected nothing but the imminent end of the world, and (b) his teaching is in fact impracticable. The first postulate is historically incorrect, and the second cannot be assessed by means of any historical method. (3) Did Jesus set forth the pure will of God, apart from any historical circumstances, just as it for ever is? On this view, he was giving a new law to guide his disciples to a ‘righteousness’ which would exceed that of scribes and Pharisees (Matt. 5:20). He expected his disciples to obey its commandments (cf. Gal. 5:14; Rom. 12:2; 13:8-10).
We should incline to accept the third view, while recognizing that his message was historically conditioned and that under different circumstances the supreme principles of love of God and neighbour might be differently worked out in practice. In other words, later theological and historical considerations should not influence our recognition that Jesus expected his disciples to ‘do what he said’ (Luke 6:46; cf. Matt. 7:21). The problem of the ways in which his expectation was to be fulfilled belongs to the study of church history or of systematic theology.
What Jesus Taught About Himself
In the New Testament the title ‘Christ’ or ‘anointed one’ is so frequently used of Jesus that in the Pauline epistles and elsewhere it has become a proper name. It is therefore something of a surprise when we observe that in the famous ‘recognition scene at Caesarea Philippi (Mark 8:27-33) Peter says to Jesus, ‘You are the Anointed One,’ but is immediately instructed to say nothing about him to anyone. Jesus proceeds, instead, to discuss the suffering through which the Son of Man must pass before his triumph. Luke’s version (9:18-23) is much the same. Only in Matthew (16:13-23) do we find Peter’s confession amplified, given the approval of Jesus, and separated from the prediction about suffering. Peter gives a more complete Christological statement: ‘You are the Anointed One, the Son of the living God,’ and Jesus answers, ‘You are blessed, Simon Bar Jona, for flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.’
The only point in Mark at which Jesus is represented as declaring that he is the Anointed One is in the investigation before the high priest, who asked him, ‘Are you the Anointed One, the Son of the Blessed?’ According to Alexandrian and ‘Western’ manuscripts, Jesus said, ‘I am,’ and went on to predict the coming of the Son of Man on the clouds of heaven (14:61-2). Several questions arise here. (1) Caesarean manuscripts agree with Origen that the answer was less direct; they read, ‘You have said that I am.’ Do they preserve Mark’s original reading, reflected in different ways in Matthew 26:64 and Luke 26:67-71? Or has the text of Mark been influenced by the later gospels? (2) How did the evangelists know precisely what went on during the investigations? Are their statements about the charge due to reliable information or to inferences drawn from the title on the cross, ‘the king of the Jews’ (Mark 15:26)?
Perhaps these questions can only be answered by considering what the title ‘the Anointed One’ may have meant in first-century Palestine. There the expression was commonly employed with reference to an anointed king of Davidic descent, who with God’s help would restore independence to Israel, freeing it from foreign domination. In this sense it is obvious that Jesus cannot have accepted the title for himself; though it is, of course, possible that he used the term and gave it a new meaning.
There is a strange passage in Mark 12:35-7 which may cast some light on the question. Jesus was teaching in the temple and he asked this question: ‘How do the scribes say that the Anointed One is David’s Son? David himself, inspired by the Holy Spirit, said, “The Lord said to my Lord, Sit at my right hand until I set your enemies under your feet.” David himself calls him Lord, and how can he be his son ?‘ In this saying it is assumed that (1) Psalm 110:1 was written or spoken by David, (2) it has a direct reference to the Anointed One, who is called ‘my Lord’, and (3) a man’s son cannot be his master. Therefore the Anointed One is not of Davidic descent. If this is so, the word of address, ‘Son of David’, used by blind Bartimaeus (Mark 10:48-9) is due to a blindness more than physical, and the cry of the crowd at the ‘triumphal entry’ (Mark 11:10), ‘Blessed be the coming kingdom of our father David,’ is a symptom of their misunderstanding of the mission of Jesus. Such errors are not surprising, for Mark often speaks of the disciples’ failure to comprehend what Jesus said or did.
We conclude that the representation of Jesus as the Anointed One was a view which, though probably current during his ministry, was not accepted by him and became popular among Christians only after the resurrection (cf. Acts 2:36). If he was in fact descended from David (as Paul states in Romans 1:3), he made nothing of this genealogical consideration.
The most significant term found in the gospels is the expression ‘Son of Man’.
Professor Bultmann has attempted to bring some order out of the chaos in which we find sayings about the Son of Man by classifying them in relation to (1) his future coming, (2) his suffering, death and resurrection, and (3) his present work. The first class includes the following sayings:
Whoever is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels (Mark 8:38).
Then they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven [cf. Dan. 7:13] with great power and glory. And then he will send his angels and will gather his elect. . . (Mark 13:26-7).
You will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power and coming with the clouds of heaven (Mark 14:62; cf. Dan. 7:13).
As the lightning comes forth from the east and shines to the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man (Matt. 24:27; cf. Luke 17:24).
As were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of Man; they ate, they drank, they married, they were married, until the day when Noah entered the ark and the flood came and destroyed them all (Matt. 24:37-9 and Luke 17:26-7; cf. Luke 17:28-9).
As Jonah was a sign to the men of Nineveh, so will the Son of Man be to this generation (Luke 11:30; different in Matt. 12:40).
Everyone who acknowledges me before men, the Son of Man will acknowledge him before the angels of God (Luke 12:8; different in Matt. 10:32).
According to Bultmann, these sayings must come from very old tradition, since it is impossible to see how early Christians could have dissociated Jesus from the Son of Man. The tradition is obviously close to Jewish apocalyptic thought.
The second class includes these words:
The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the high priests and the scribes and be killed and rise after three days (Mark 8:31; similarly 9:31 and, with more detail, 10:33-4).
The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10.45; cf. Isaiah 53:10-12).
The Son of Man goes as it is written of him. . . (Mark 14:21).
The Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners (Mark 14:41).
Bultmann points out that none of these sayings refers to the coming of the Son of Man, and he claims that all represent prophecies after the event.
The third class contains sayings directly related to Jesus.
. . . that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins . . . (Mark 2:10; cf. Matt. 9:8, referring to ‘men’).
The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath; therefore the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath (Mark 2.28; only the conclusion of the sentence is retained in Luke 6.5 and Matt. 12.8).
The foxes have holes and the birds of the heaven have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head (Matt. 8:20; Luke 9:58).
The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and men say, ‘Behold, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners’ (Matt. 11:19; Luke 7:34-5; contrasted with John the Baptist).
Whoever says a word against the Son of Man, it will be forgiven him (Matt. 12:32; Luke 12:10).
Bultmann claims that in all these passages the common Hebrew and Aramaic use of ‘son of man’ for either ‘man’ or ‘I’ is reflected. A more restricted use is suggested by other scholars, who prefer to translate the phrase as ‘this man’, somewhat like the expression ‘thy servant’ in Psalm 19:13.
To these materials found in Mark and Matthew-Luke can be added a few found either in Matthew or in Luke alone. For instance, there is an apocalyptic prediction in Matthew 10:23, ‘You will not finish the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes,’ and another in Matthew 19:28, ‘When the Son of Man sits on the throne of his glory. . .’ In Luke 18:8 there is an apocalyptic question: ‘When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?’
Before we can either agree or disagree with Bultmann we may also consider the Son-of-Man passages in the Gospel of John. There are twelve of them, or eleven if with Wendt and Bultmann we regard the words ‘of man’ as a gloss in John 5:27 (the context requires this deletion). Eight of them refer to the crucifixion-exaltation of Jesus (1:51, 3:13-14; 6:62; 8:28; 12:23, 34; 13:31); two others refer to the eucharistic flesh and blood of Jesus, and presumably are not authentic (6:27, 53); and one identifies Jesus precisely with the Son of Man (9:35; compare 12:34 with 12:32). This picture shows that in John the synoptic, or rather pre-synoptic, idea of the future coming of the Son of Man is lacking.
Are we then to treat John as late and argue that the only authentic words of Jesus about the Son of Man as a person distinct from himself are to be found in Bultmann’s first category? This is one possibility. Another is that Jesus at first spoke of the Son of Man as distinct from himself and later came to identify himself as this person. A third is that Jesus, deeply influenced by the prophecies of Daniel, at first attempted to create ‘the Son of Man’ (the kingdom of the saints) by a public appeal; next he found this Son of Man concentrated in his own disciples; finally he stood alone as the individual Son of Man (as in I Enoch 37-71). A fourth is that on different occasions he presented different doctrines, and that no single conception of the Son of Man was really central to his mission.
How is such a question to be settled? The various uses of the term in pre-Christian Judaism may well illuminate its meaning — or rather, the possible range of meanings which it possessed. (We have no idea as to which usage Jesus must or should have accepted.) When we look at the Old Testament and apocalyptic literature, we find four conceptions. (1) In the visions of Ezekiel, he is addressed as ‘son of man’; this means ‘man’ as contrasted with God, though the reference is to an individual man. (2) In the Psalms (e.g., 8:4), ‘son of man’ means ‘man in general’. (3) In Daniel there is a vision of ‘one like a son of man’, in other words, like a human being as contrasted with animals (7:13 contrasted with 7:3-8). Daniel himself is addressed as ‘son of man’ in 8:17, as ‘man’ in 10:11. The figure ‘like a son of man’ is identified with ‘the people of the saints of the Most High’ in 7:27. What we learn from Daniel is that for the purposes of his vision the Jewish people, or the saints among them, were depicted as a single human-like being. (4) To be sure, Jewish exegetes often interpreted isolated passages and found special significance in them. Such a process may be reflected in I Enoch 46, where we read that ‘this is the Son of Man who has righteousness, with whom dwells righteousness, and who reveals all the treasures of what is hidden.’ Enoch is told that ‘this Son of Man whom you have seen will put down the kings and the mighty from their seats and will loose the reins of the strong and will break the teeth of sinners.’ Did this passage influence Jesus? Unfortunately, among all the fragments of Enoch found at Qumran, chapters 37-71 are not included, and this lack tends to confirm the suspicions of those who have regarded the section (called the ‘similitudes’ of Enoch) as a Christian or, at any rate, post-Christian interpolation.
From our glance at Jewish ideas of the, or a, Son of Man we conclude that they provide no positive evidence concerning the meaning of the term as used by Jesus. We are therefore left with the data with which we began, the passages in the synoptic gospels. What conclusions can be drawn from them? (1) We may hold that the only authentic passages are those belonging to Bultmann’s first and third categories. Jesus spoke of the future coming of the Son of Man; he did not use the phrase to indicate his identity with this personage. (2) We may hold that all three kinds of passages are authentic, and that Jesus spoke explicitly of himself as the Son of Man, more vaguely of his own return in glory. Such a judgement might help to explain the way in which various shades of meaning seem to be expressed in the various sayings. It would also point towards the meanings to be found in the Gospel of John. Nowhere in the synoptic gospels does Jesus speak explicitly of his own return to his disciples. Such statements are, however, to be found in the Gospel of John, where Jesus speaks of his going away and returning (chs. 14 and 16) and he is so completely identified with the Son of Man that he can speak of his own exaltation and his opponents begin to discuss the exaltation of the Son of Man (12:32, 34). Unless John is simply inventing these themes, he presumably relies on traditional materials in which Jesus and the Son of Man were identified. Again, it is difficult to account for the early Christian belief in the return of Jesus unless somehow it is related to what he himself had taught.
Son of Man is the most difficult of Jesus’ titles to understand. The reason for the difficulty may possibly lie in the fact that it was the title which Jesus himself chose in order to express the mystery of his person and his mission. He was not explicitly fulfilling Old Testament prophecy or the dreams of the apocalyptic writers. He was unique; in his mission was summed up the destiny of the Hebrew people as the saints of the Most High, as well as the purpose of God for them and for all mankind.
Even in the Gospel of Mark, however, this is not the only title by which Jesus is known. A man possessed by demons addresses him as ‘the Holy One of God’, and this title may be based on Psalm 16:10 (‘thou wilt not suffer thy holy one to see corruption’) or Psalm 106:16 (Aaron as the holy one of God). More common titles are ‘rabbi’ or ‘teacher’, but they bear no distinctive meanings. Most significant for Mark seems to be the title ‘Son of God’. Mark probably uses it in the first verse of his gospel; demons employ it (3:11; 5:7); it is used by the high priest (14:61), a Roman centurion (15:39), and a voice from heaven (1:11; 9:7). In the Old Testament it is used of the king and of the Hebrew people, and its origin need not be ascribed to ‘Hellenistic’ influence upon early Christianity. It is worth noting, however, that except in the Gospel of John, Jesus never uses it of himself, though the expression ‘the Son’ in Mark 13:32 implies such use.
Another idea about the ministry of Jesus may be reflected in such verses as Mark 9:12, 10:45, and 14:24, where we find references to suffering, rejection, and dying ‘for many’. These are probably allusions to the suffering servant of God portrayed in Isaiah 53. To be sure, in Jewish exegesis of the time this servant was usually regarded as the Jewish people. But there is no reason to suppose that Jesus was incapable of original ideas. The fact, however, that in the gospels he does not explicitly identify himself with the servant suggests that he referred to him only by implication, and that the Church later developed his implications.
We conclude that in general Jesus spoke about himself allusively, and that among the various conceptions he employed, ‘Son of Man’ was probably primary. In the Gospel of John we find reflections either of private discussions with the disciples or of a process by means of which the implicit was made explicit.
The question which remains after we have looked through the records of the teaching of Jesus is this: are the records ‘authentic’, or are the sayings ‘genuine’? We have already indicated at several points that this question probably cannot be answered on the basis of the materials (and the methods) we possess. (1) Sometimes it is claimed that the ‘Semitic’ form of certain sayings gives them a guarantee, but it must be remembered that (a) most ‘retranslations’ of sayings into Aramaic are not wholly convincing, and (b) they take us to a ‘Jewish’ stage of tradition but not necessarily to Jesus himself. (2) Sometimes it has been thought that some document or hypothetical source deserves special confidence (Mark or ‘Q’ or ‘L’), but there is usually no ground for absolute faith in one evangelist or one ‘source’ as against others. In some instances it can be seen that a later evangelist has modified the work of a predecessor; but this fact does not guarantee the predecessor’s work. (3) Analysis of the history of tradition, in addition to being rather subjective, leads only to an early stage of tradition, not necessarily to the earliest stage. (4) The idea that one can analyse the purpose for which a saying was transmitted in relation to the Sitz im Leben of either (a) Jesus or (b) the apostolic Church is mistaken, generally speaking, because we do not know exactly how the two Sitzen were different from each other.(For part of this analysis I am indebted to a paper by Professor Batdorf read tot the Chicago Society of Biblical Research on November 18th, 1961.)
What we suggest is that in the absence of some external control authenticity cannot be established on internal grounds alone. ‘Consistency’ serves only as a very general criterion, and in view of the inconsistency (logically speaking) found in many of the sayings it does not help us much. All we can say is that the general impression the gospels give is that they come from reliable witnesses.
The three synoptic evangelists relate that Peter’s confession near Caesarea Philippi was followed by a divine confirmation of the identification of Jesus. This scene is omitted by John, who believes that the ‘glory’ of Jesus was revealed through a number of ‘signs’ (2:11, etc.), not at one specific moment. To analyse the historical origin of the transfiguration-story is very difficult. Fairly simple solutions have been offered by a number of scholars who have suggested that it is purely mythical or a symbolic apocalyptic scene or a misplaced resurrection-story. Others have held that it represents the coming of the Messiah at the feast of Tabernacles, though Mark misunderstood the nature of his materials.
Certainly it must be said that in the tradition the story was told in relation to the epiphany of Yahweh to Moses on Sinai. In Exodus (24:15-16) we find the six days of Mark 9:2, the mountain, the cloud, and the voice of God. It was also related to the prophecy of Malachi, according to which the messenger of God is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap (3:2, cf. Mark 9:3) and before the day of the Lord Elijah would return (4:5; Mark 9:4).
These aspects of the story show that in describing an event of crucial significance those who described it made use of language derived from the tradition of revelation. They do not show that something did not take place, even though we may not be able to describe that something in some other terminology. It would appear that, just as in the story of Peter’s confession, Peter did not adequately understand the meaning of the event. Here he wanted to erect tabernacles for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. He did not understand that the way of Jesus was to be the way of the cross (Mark 8:31-7). It must remain uncertain whether or not he could have understood this at the time. Many passages in the gospels seem to indicate that there were various ideas about when and how the kingdom would come, even among the closest disciples of Jesus.
The Jerusalem Ministry
The journey of Jesus to Jerusalem is finally finished, and he arrives there to encounter an atmosphere of intense expectation. Luke (19:11) comments that when he drew near to the city his disciples supposed that the kingdom of God would immediately appear. There is no reason to doubt this statement. The only question is whether or not he shared their hopes.
His actions at the time seem to indicate that he did so, and that like the disciples he regarded his coming to Jerusalem as a fulfillment of the apocalyptic prophecies of Zechariah 9-14. (1) The central point of his Jerusalem ministry was the Mount of Olives (Zech. 14:4). (2) He obtained a colt and rode upon it into the city (Zech. 9:9). (3) The crowds carried branches as at the feast of Tabernacles (Zech. 14:16-19). (4) He went into the temple and drove out traders from it (Zech. 14:21c). (5) He would not allow anyone to carry any vessel through the temple (Zech. 14:20b-21a). In other words, he entered Jerusalem as a king of the kind foretold in Zechariah — ‘lowly, and riding upon a colt’ — not as the warrior king of popular expectation. His disciples probably did not understand what he was doing, as John 12:16 points out. They remembered what he did, however.
The hope that at this point the kingdom would come was not fulfilled. Either before (Mark 11:13) or after (Matt. 21:19) the cleansing of the temple, Jesus saw a fig-tree in leaf and looked for figs on it. Mark comments that ‘it was not the season of figs’ before recording Jesus’ curse upon the tree. Why should he have expected to find fruit? Because miraculous fruitfulness was to accompany the coming of God’s kingdom, as we read in Ezekiel 47:12 and in the Jewish apocalypses. The time foretold in Zechariah 14:11, when there would be ‘no more curse’, had not arrived.
When Peter spoke to Jesus of the withering of the fig-tree, he was told to ‘have faith’.
Whoever says to this mountain, Be torn away and cast into the sea, . . . it shall take place for him.
Once more, a prediction in Zechariah seems to be in view. ‘And the Mount of Olives shall be torn asunder towards the east and towards the west’ (14:4); the Hebrew word for ‘towards the west’ is ‘to the sea’ — the Mediterranean. The saying is transmitted in differing forms and contexts in Matthew 17:20 and Luke 7:6, and something like the Matthaean form is alluded to in I Corinthians 13:2. But the original context, in view of the parallel in Zechariah, is probably to be found in Mark.
The conclusion we ought to draw from the ‘Zechariah-pattern’ is not altogether clear. (1) Is the pattern due to Christian reflection on the meaning of the entry into Jerusalem? Such an explanation is suggested by the words of John 12:16. After quoting Zechariah 9:9, the evangelist adds, ‘His disciples did not know these things at first, but when Jesus had been glorified, then they remembered that these things were written of him and that they did these things to him.’ Moreover, in Mark there is no explicit quotation from Zechariah such as we find both in Matthew (21:4-5) and in John. (2) On the other hand, does the pattern go back to Jesus himself? In favour of this view is the fact that while the parallels exist Mark does not make anything of them. The tradition may well contain materials whose precise significance the evangelist did not know. He was certainly not concerned with discussing unfulfilled prophecy. On balance, we should incline to think that Jesus did intend to fulfil the prophecy of Zechariah and that some of it remained unfulfilled. Like his disciples, he had believed that when he went up to Jerusalem the kingdom of God would come.
For some time in Jerusalem — perhaps between Tabernacles and Passover — Jesus was engaged in teaching and in controversies with religious leaders. (Only Matthew 21:14- 15 intimates that he performed healings there.) The Stories of these controversies reflect the continuing tension between Jesus and the authorities. They ask for his credentials in relation to his cleansing the temple; he counters by asking them what credentials John the Baptist had. He tells them a parable of warning: to reject God’s messenger means to be rejected by God. He explains that his mission is not directed against Rome; he argues with Sadducees about the resurrection and summarizes the law for a scribe; he asks how the coming of a Davidic messiah can be expected, when David referred to the messiah as ‘Lord’; and he praises a poor widow for her gift to the temple. The impression which this section gives (Mark 11:27 -12:44) is one of marking time while waiting for the crucial action which is to come.
Finally the crisis is at hand, and Jesus predicts to a disciple that the temple will be destroyed (Mark 13:1-2). Such predictions had been uttered by some of the Old Testament prophets. Micah denounced the priests and the false prophets who claimed that since Yahweh was in their midst no evil would come upon them; ‘therefore for your sake Zion shall be ploughed like a field and Jerusalem shall become heaps, and the mountain of the house as the high places of a forest’ (3:11-12). Similarly Jeremiah proclaimed that if the people did not repent and turn from evil, Yahweh would ‘make this house like Shiloh’ (26:6; the tent of meeting had once been there, Josh. 18:1).
It is clear that some early Christians (like the Essenes of Qumran) believed that the temple would be destroyed and that Jesus had said so (Acts 6:14). On the other hand, Mark 14:57-8 relates that only false witnesses said of Jesus that he would destroy the temple and in three days build another. Perhaps what Mark means is that the witnesses made the prediction too precise and did not understand its reference to Jesus himself (cf. John 2:19-21). We should conclude that Jesus did predict the destruction of the temple.
In Mark there follows a Section of eschatological predictions which has been called ‘the little apocalypse’ (13:3-37). This section is almost certainly a compilation from various kinds of materials and has been worked into a literary composition (‘let the reader understand,’ 13:14). As it stands, it contains a secret revelation given only to the four disciples first called 1:6-20). Following the tradition of prophets and apocalyptic writers it describes the catastrophes which will precede the end, not only on earth but in the heavens; but it concludes with a statement that the precise day or hour is known to no one — neither to the angels in heaven nor to the Son, but only to the Father (13:32).
This saying may reflect a post-resurrection view of Jesus as the Son; it is equally likely that he regarded himself as God’s Son in a special way and that he was expressing his faith in the Father’s purpose in spite of his ignorance of a detail. According to Zechariah 14:7 there would be ‘one day which is known to Yahweh’. This prophetic statement may lie at the foundation of the word of Jesus.
If we are right in concluding that at this point Jesus was influenced by the predictions found in the prophet Zechariah, we are immediately involved in the question as to whether or not his proclamation was fully consistent. (1) It is possible to argue that different aspects of it were brought out on various occasions, and that a central core of emphasis on both present and future lies underneath the expressions found in the gospels. (2) It is also possible to suggest that, humanly speaking, ‘though he was a Son, he learned obedience by the things which he suffered’ (Heb. 5:8); his view of the coming of the kingdom was modified in relation to (a) Galilean rejection of his message, (b) his journey to Jerusalem, and (c) his experiences in Jerusalem itself We should not expect the evangelists to set forth any clear picture of such modifications. Like most ancient writers, they were not interested in psychological (or even in theological) development.
Either of these two solutions, it would appear, is historically possible.
The Last Supper
The last supper of Jesus with his disciples took place in a private house in Jerusalem on a Thursday evening which was either on the day of Passover (synoptics) or a day earlier (John). The chronological difficulty is important because the meal either did or did not have Paschal overtones. If it did, we see Jesus reinterpreting the Passover celebration in relation to his own mission; if it did not, some other meaning was presumably intended.
In the book of Exodus the Paschal killing of a lamb and consuming it is described as taking place on the fourteenth day of the month, ‘between the two evenings’ (Exod. 12:6). ‘Evenings’ are mentioned because the Jews reckoned the day as beginning at sundown and continuing to the next sunset. The instruction is made more precise in Deuteronomy 16:6: ‘Thou shalt sacrifice the Passover at even, at the going down of the sun.’ This is the practice described for the first century by Josephus; the sacrifice took place at the beginning of the 14th of the month Nisan (Ant. 2, 312); elsewhere (War 6, 423f.) he states that it was performed between the ninth and the eleventh hour, presumably between three and five in the afternoon of the 13th. Among the Essenes, according to the Book of Jubilees (49:1), a different schedule was followed: the lamb was killed on the 14th and eaten on the 15th.
In addition, from the 14th to the 21st only unleavened bread was eaten. Mark 14:1 thus refers to the festival as ‘the Passover and the Unleavened Bread’. When he speaks in 14:12 of ‘the first day of unleavened bread when they sacrificed the Passover’ and indicates that this time preceded the eating of the Paschal meal, he is probably following a non-Jewish chronology. According to all three synoptic gospels Jesus ate the Passover with his disciples. Luke (22:15) makes the point most explicit; Jesus says, ‘With desire I have desired [a Semitic turn of phrase, meaning “I have strongly desired”] to eat this Passover with you before I suffer.’ But in the others it is fairly clear. Though details of the Passover meal are lacking (the lamb, the bitter herbs), the atmosphere is Paschal. Jesus identifies himself; however, not with the lamb but with the bread and with the first of the four cups characteristic of the meal. The bread signifies his body, which is to be given for the disciples; the cup is the seal of the new covenant in his blood, a covenant between God and the disciples. Jesus takes an oath that he will not drink wine again until he drinks it new in the kingdom of God (Mark 14:25). Luke views the scene from the standpoint of the apostolic Church and portrays Jesus as ‘covenanting’ the kingdom to his disciples as the Father has ‘covenanted’ it to him (22:29); but the idea of covenant is already present in the words spoken over the cup. If Luke actually modifies the meaning of what Jesus said, he does so by drawing out implications already present.
The sequence bread-cup which is found in Mark and Matthew is altered by Luke to cup-bread, perhaps reflecting early Palestinian liturgical usage as in the Didache. Whatever it may reflect, the Lucan version shows that the rite in the early Church was not absolutely uniform.
Another account of the last supper is given by Paul in I Corinthians 11:23-5. This may be compared with that in Mark.
Mark I Corinthians
As they were eating,
he took bread The Lord Jesus took bread
and having blessed (eu1ogesas) and having blessed
he broke it he broke it
and gave it to them
and said, and said,
this is my body. This is my body; do this in
And he took a cup Likewise after supper the
and having blessed
he gave it to them.
And they all drank from it.
And he said, saying,
This is my blood of the This cup is the new
covenant covenant in my blood;
which is poured out for many.
do this, as often as you drink
it, in my remembrance.
The principal difference lies in the ‘words of institution’ related by Paul; these are found neither in Mark nor in Matthew, though in relation to the bread they appear in most manuscripts of Luke 22:19 (they are omitted in Codex Bezae and in the Old Latin version). It has often been thought, therefore, that they reflect the Church’s intention to relate the Lord’s Supper to the last supper. After the death and resurrection of Jesus, the meaning of the last supper was understood in relation to the continuing life of the Church. Indeed, the account of the last supper was presumably transmitted because it had this significance.
In attempting to defend the historical character of the words of institution, scholars have claimed that the words ‘in my remembrance’ (or ‘for my remembrance’) refer not to the community’s remembering or recalling Jesus but to their calling upon God to ‘remember’ him with favour. Old Testament parallels show that this interpretation is possible, but it does not necessarily exclude the more natural meaning of the words. Paul’s own statement, ‘as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death, until he comes’ (I Cor. 11:26), can bear either meaning. The Lord’s death is proclaimed to God and to the Church.
Another difference between Mark and Paul lies in Paul’s usc of the word ‘new’ in relation to the covenant. Since this word is found neither in Mark nor in Matthew we should assume that it has been added as an interpretation of the significance of the work of Jesus — though presumably the newness was implied in what Jesus did.
The real historical difficulty arises, however, when we compare the synoptics and Paul, on the one hand, with John on the other. (1) In John the last supper is not a Paschal meal. John states that it took place ‘before the feast of the Passover’ (13:1-2); the next morning the priests are still waiting to ‘eat the Passover’ (18:28). It may be that John has changed the date in order to bring the crucifixion into synchronization with the killing of the Paschal lamb. According to Mark 15:23 Jesus was crucified at the third hour; according to John he was handed over for crucifixion at the sixth. The synoptics state that Jesus died at the ninth hour; John may be relying on a similar tradition but emphasizing the lateness of the time for the sake of synchronism. Whether this be so or not, Jesus does die about the time when the lambs were killed; and John regards Jesus as ‘the lamb of God’ (1:29, 36; 19:36 may be a quotation from Exod. 12:46). (2) In John the last supper contains no reference to the Lord’s Supper. Even if we should suppose that the allegory of the vine in John 15:1-16 is related to the wine of the last supper, it has nothing to do with blood or a covenant or drinking from a cup. Instead, wine occurs in John only in the story of the wedding at Cana (2:1-11) and bread in the story of the feeding of the five thousand (6:1-15) and in the discourses related to it (6:26-65; an incidental allusion in 21:9). Jesus refers to himself as the bread of life (6:35, 48-51) and states that the only means of obtaining eternal life is to eat his flesh and drink his blood (6:51c-58). This statement is corrected for the disciples, since ‘it is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is of no avail’ (6:63). Apparently John is speaking of the Lord’s Supper and is rejecting interpretations of it which relate it (a) to the last supper and (b) too closely to the eucharistic elements.
These differences require some kind of explanation. (1) It has been argued that John really treats the last supper as a Passover; his chronology reflects Essene usage, not that of the priesthood in Jerusalem. This argument is wrong, for the Essenes killed the lamb on the 14th, not the 13th. (2) It has been argued that John is right, and that the last supper was really a ‘fellowship meal’ of a general kind or a special ‘Passover-Kiddush’ anticipating the Paschal feast. It cannot, however, be proved that this is so. (3) It has been argued that the pre-Pauline Eucharist contained no reference to the death of Jesus and that therefore Paul was responsible for introducing it. (a) The disciples broke their bread with gladness (Acts 2:46); therefore they cannot have been thinking about Jesus’ death. But this statement does not necessarily refer to the Lord’s Supper, and we are not in a position to state that gladness excluded remembrance of the Lord’s death. (b) The Corinthians were not thinking about the death of Jesus. But this fact does not prove that their practice was primitive. Paul is correcting aberrations, not fidelity to tradition. We conclude that the synoptic account is probably correct and that the last supper was a Passover meal. In John the last supper has been interpreted differently; perhaps it was already interpreted differently when Paul was writing to the Corinthians, for in I Corinthians he says that ‘Christ, our Passover, has been killed’ (5:7, obviously a reference to the lamb), and dates the last supper ‘in the night in which he was betrayed’ (11:23), not with reference to the Passover. For Paul and John the sacrificial death of Jesus was more important than his eating the Paschal lamb. Indeed, by the second century only Ebionites and Quartadecimans continued to regard the Jewish Passover as significant.
Leaving the upper room which their friends had provided in Jerusalem, Jesus and his disciples went out of the city to the Mount of Olives. John (18:1-2) specifies that the location was a garden ‘across the brook Kidron’, and that this spot was known to Judas because the disciples had often met there. Before their departure they had concluded their Passover meal by singing either the whole of Psalms 113 to 117 or, as Rabbi Shammai had required, only Psalm 117. These psalms speak not only of God’s acts in the past but also of his continuing care for his own, though in Psalm 116:10-11 we read these words:
I kept my faith, even when I said,
‘I am greatly afflicted’;I
said in my consternation,
Men are all a vain hope.’
Something of this motif is reflected in Jesus’ prediction that his follwers will be scattered and that Peter will deny him (Mark 14:27-31). It is reflected even more strongly in the scene in Gethsemane (apparently in the valley below the Mount of Olives). There he takes aside only Peter, James and John, and tells them that his soul is very sorrowful, even to death (cf. Ps. 42:6, etc.). They are to keep awake or to watch while he prays. His prayer resembles the prayer he had taught his disciples.
Abba (Father), all things Father (Luke I
are possible to thee;
take this cup from me; lead us not into testing
nevertheless, not what I thy will be done (Matt.
will but what thou 6.10).
The similarities surely do not suggest that we have here a Christian meditation on an early prayer; instead, it may be supposed that in Gethsemane Jesus prayed in a manner not unlike that to which he and his disciples were accustomed. He expressed his human hope that God would bring in the kingdom without the pangs of the last days; his comment on the sleeping disciples, ‘The spirit is ready, but the flesh is weak,’ could be applied to his own words as well as to their failure to watch.
The Gethsemane scene ends with the arrival of Judas and emissaries from the high priest carrying swords and clubs; John (18:3) mentions a cohort of soldiers, probably temple police. At the signal given when Judas kisses Jesus, they move in and take Jesus. One of the disciples who is armed with a sword — Peter, according to John — cuts off the ear of the high priest’s slave (only Luke says that Jesus healed him). Jesus himself asks his foes why they have come out for him as for a robber. The Greek word ‘lestis’ is used by Josephus to mean ‘revolutionist’, and it may bear that meaning here.
Mark alone (14:51-2) speaks of a young man who followed Jesus (was his disciple?) who escaped arrest by leaving his Outer robe in the hands of the police. It would appear that this odd episode is recorded because it happened rather than because someone created it as a fulfillment of Amos 2:16: ‘He who is stout of heart among the mighty shall flee away naked in that day.’ Hoskyns and Davey suggest that the parallel, while perhaps fantastic, is disquieting. Probably it is just fantastic.
There follows an immediate ‘grand jury’ investigation by the Sanhedrin, the Jewish court of seventy-one members which apparently could recommend the death sentence to the Roman procurator but could not execute it. The fact that the investigation violates many of the rules set forth more than a century later in the Mishnah tractate Sanhedrin should not suggest that the account is fundamentally wrong. Rules formulated abstractly in the second century cannot be used to discredit an account of an earlier event. On the other hand, the most difficult item in the passion narrative, the crucifixion on the Passover, is explicitly provided for in Sanhedrin xi. 4, and the two meetings of the court, required in capital cases, are to be found in Mark 14:55 and 15:1 (Sanhedrin v. 5).
The first charge brought against Jesus was that he had threatened to destroy the temple (Mark 14:58; cf. a revised version in John 2:19-21). According to Mark, Jesus had predicted the destruction of the temple to one of his disciples (13:1-2), but apparently he did not make this statement publicly. To predict such a calamity was dangerous. Micah (6:12) had foretold destruction, but the repentance of King Hezekiah and of all Judah had saved him (Jer. 26:19). Jeremiah too had prophesied against the temple (Jer. 7:14; 26:6) and had escaped death only through the influence of a powerful official (26:24). At the same time a certain Uriah was killed, in spite of his escape to Egypt (26:20-3). But since the witnesses against Jesus did not agree, another charge had to be found.
The high priest therefore asked him a double question. ‘Are you the Anointed One, the Son of the Blessed?’ (Mark 14:61). The present form of the question may owe something to Christian terminology. But since it is not possible to prove that the high priest (1) could not have spoken of ‘the Anointed one’ and (2) did not know that Jesus regarded the Anointed One as not the son of David (Mark 12:37), we may well suppose that his question has been correctly reported. Whatever Jesus’ answer may have been (the gospels disagree), it must have allowed the high priest to view it as affirmative. He tore his outer garments and stated that Jesus had uttered a blasphemy. Technically, blasphemy consisted only of expressing the secret name of God, YHWH. There was a wider use of the term, however, and it could have covered the claim to a unique relationship to God (cf. John 5:17-18). However this may be, it is evident that the idea of blasphemy was in the mind of the high priest. He said that Jesus had blasphemed; the others agreed. The penalty for blasphemy was death (Lev. 24:16).
Meanwhile Peter had denied being a follower of Jesus. Almost apprehended when a servant girl noticed his Galilean accent, he said that he did not know Jesus. It has, of course, been suggested that the account was invented in order to encourage Christian martyrs not to imitate Peter, but as we have often argued, these suggestions reflect the creativity of those who make them rather than that of early Christians.
Jewish form, as we have said, is preserved when the Sanhedrin meets again at dawn. Evidently some revision of the charges was made in order to present them to Pilate, who could understand insurrection better than blasphemy. According to Luke 23:2 the grounds on which Jesus was brought before the Roman procurator were as follows:
(1) leading the nation astray (cf. Deut. 13:1-5);
(2) forbidding the payment of taxes to Caesar (cf. Mark 12:13-17); and
(3) calling himself an anointed king.
According to all four gospels Pilate found it hard to believe that these charges were genuine. Pilate had no interest in revolutionary movements, but from his other dealings with the Jews it is evident that he was not impressed favourably by the Jerusalem aristocracy. Luke alone says that upon learning that Jesus was a Galilean he sent him to Herod Antipas, who was in Jerusalem for the Passover (23:4-12). Apparently Herod regarded Jesus as a magician and, upon being denied a performance, sent him back to Pilate.
Pilate then sought for a way to please the high priest and the mob (among which, as he knew, were supporters of Jesus). According to Mark (15:6) it was customary for the procurator to release a prisoner at the feast (so Matt. 15:15; John 19:39); Luke, on the other hand, describes it not as a custom but as the result of a request by the mob on this occasion (23:18). Luke’s notion seems more probable. There may or may not have been a custom of releasing a prisoner at Passover; it is certain that the procurator, the direct agent of the Roman emperor, who could even put to death a governor of senatorial rank (Tacitus, Hist. i. 7), was able to release a prisoner if he wanted to do so. In any case, a popular revolutionary leader named Barabbas (or Jesus Barabbas, as in the Caesarean text of Matthew 27:16) was released.
Pilate had Jesus scourged, and delivered him to Roman soldiers for crucifixion; this penalty was customarily employed by the Romans in dealing with revolutionists. At this point some of the soldiers mocked and derided Jesus, viewing him as a pretender to the Jewish throne. After the scourging he was so weak that he was unable to carry the heavy wooden beam on which he was to die. The Romans therefore impressed a Jew from Cyrene, apparently on his way to Passover, to carry the beam to a place named Golgotha. As an opiate, wine mixed with myrrh was offered to Jesus, but he refused it. He was crucified at about nine o’clock in the morning, with the title ‘the king of the Jews’ placed above his head. After the relatively brief interval of six hours he died.
His words from the cross are given differently by the various evangelists. The simplest version is that presented by Matthew and Mark; according to them he said, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ They add that bystanders misunderstood what he said and supposed that he was calling for Elijah, in Jewish tradition the forerunner of the Messiah. Such a misunderstanding could arise only from the first words of his statement, in Hebrew ‘Eli’, in Aramaic ‘Eloi’. It is therefore possible, though of course most uncertain, that he actually expressed only these words and that the rest of the sentence — the beginning of Psalm 22 — was filled in as the saying was transmitted.
The centurion in command of the Roman soldiers was standing facing Jesus, and when he saw how he died he was moved to say, ‘Truly this man was a son of God’ (Mark 15:39). Mark probably intended to provide a gentile testimony for his own belief that Jesus was the Son of God. Luke records the centurion’s words in a different way: ‘this man was really innocent’ (23:47). A striking pagan parallel, however, suggests that something like what Mark reports may really have been said. After a great snake coils itself around the head of the crucified Cleomenes, the Alexandrians regard him as a hero and ‘son of the gods’ (Plutarch, Cleomenes 823e).
After this point the evangelists describe the burial of Jesus, an event also mentioned by Paul in I Corinthians 15:4. Unlike the other evangelists, Mark (15:45) is willing to refer to his dead body as a corpse.
The Rejection of Jesus
The gospel story is concerned not only with prophecy and its fulfillment and with the preaching and teaching of Jesus, but also with the rejection of Jesus. Many were called, but few followed him. In the gospels we find many groups and individuals who turned away from the gospel.
(1) In the first place, his emphasis on the importance of inner motive in obedience to the commandments, and his choice of certain commandments as more important than others, meant that conflicts arose with scribes and Pharisees who feared that the stress on inner motive would result in neglect of external obedience. They could not believe that Jesus could forgive sins; only God could do so (Mark 2:7). Indeed, Mark’s whole collection of controversy-stories (2:1–3:6) clearly illustrates their fears and disagreements. Jesus not only forgives sins but also eats with unclean tax-collectors and sinners; he does not advocate private fasting; he heals on the Sabbath. His disciples desecrate the Sabbath by plucking grain ‘to make a path’ through a field. In Mark 7:1-23 another controversy is concerned with the disciples’ eating with unwashed hands (apparently it was developed in Christian tradition into a discussion of food laws in general). Some Pharisees ask Jesus for a ‘sign from heaven’ in Mark 8:11-15; he warns his disciples to avoid the ‘leaven’ (unclean bread?) of the Pharisees and of Herod. We meet the same adversaries in Jerusalem, where the Pharisees try to trap Jesus into making pro- or anti-Roman statements (Mark 12:13-17) and the scribes ask him what the source of his authority is (11:27-33). He denounces the scribes as hypocritical thieves.
The impression of Jesus’ hostility towards scribes and Pharisees is heightened by a collection of ‘woes’ against them which Matthew has collected in his twenty-third chapter (cf. Luke 11:39-52) and by the parable of the Pharisee and the tax-collector (Luke 18:10-14).
It is fairly plain, in spite of some scholars’ doubts in the matter, that Jesus and the Pharisees (in general) were locked in conflict. To be sure, some Pharisaic teachers agreed with Jesus in his attitude towards the law (Mark 12:28-34 gives an example of a scribe who did so) and that some invited him to eat with them (Luke 7:36; 11:37; 14:1; cf. 13:31); but the general attitude of the Pharisees cannot be judged from a few ‘Christlike’ expressions. The fact that at some points they agreed with him, and he with them (cf. Matt. 5:18-19, probably phrased in Jewish Christian terms), does not contradict the fact of their basic opposition. When he forbade divorce on the ground that part of the Mosaic law was a temporary accommodation (Mark 10:5), he implied that the whole law did not come from God. By his attitude towards ritual observances he necessarily separated himself from the religious leaders of Judaism and their basic emphasis on doing the whole law.
(2) Jesus was also rejected by his family. It is quite clear from Mark 3.21 and 31-5 (separated by the inclusion of a controversy over exorcism, 22-30) that ‘those from him’ (i.e., his family) came to seize him, ‘for they said, He is beside himself.’ In verse 31 his mother and brothers finally come on the scene and call for him. Surrounded by a crowd of hearers, he is informed that his mother, brothers and sisters are seeking him. ‘Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?’ He looks about and says, ‘See, my mother and brothers; whoever does God’s will is my brother, sister, mother.’ For this reason we are not surprised to find him promising his disciples that anyone who abandons home or family will receive a hundredfold reward (Mark 10:29-30). In spite of his denunciation of divorce and blessing of children (Mark 10:13 -16) and his criticism of making gifts to the temple instead of helping father and mother (7:10-12), the mission of Jesus and his disciples involved separation not only from traditional religion but also from family ties (cf. Luke 12:51-3). The heavenly Father replaces any earthly father (Matt. 23:9). The disciple’s new family is the band of disciples itself.
(3) Jesus proclaimed his gospel in his home town of Nazareth and met with sceptical unbelief there. His synagogue sermon was greeted with questions. ‘How did he get this way? Isn’t this the carpenter, the son of Mary, the brother of James, Joses, Judas and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?’ Jesus answered with a proverb: ‘A prophet is not without honour except in his own city and among his relatives and in his home.’ The result was that ‘he could do no miracle there, except that by laying his hands on a few sick people he cured them’ (Mark 6:1-5).
(4) This attitude of scepticism was evidently shared by many in Capernaum, the centre of Jesus’ mission to Galilee, and in the near-by towns of Chorazin and Bethsaida. Matthew (11:20-4) and Luke (10:12-15) agree that he expressed ‘woes’ upon what Matthew calls ‘the cities in which most of his miracles took place’.
Woe to you, Chorazin!
Woe to you, Bethsaida!
For if in Tyre and Sidon the miracles had taken place which took place in you, they would long ago have repented in sackcloth and ashes. But I say to you, it will be easier for Tyre and Sidon in the day of judgement than for you.
And you, Capernaum, are you exalted to heaven? You shall go down to Hades!
For if in Sodom the miracles had taken place which took place in you, it would have remained to this day.
But I say to you, it will be easier for the land of Sodom in the day of judgement than for you.
The prophets had denounced Tyre and Sidon; Jesus denounces the cities of Galilee.
(5) Jesus antagonized the political ruler of Galilee, Herod Antipas. Doubtless he was already suspect to Herod because of his association with John the Baptist (cf. Mark 6:14-29), but suspicion would have been confirmed had Herod learned of his warning to his disciples to beware of the ‘leaven’ of Herod (Mark 8:15; Matthew 16:6 substitutes ‘Sadducees’) or of his referring to him as ‘that fox’ (Luke 13:32). To be sure, he had freed Herod’s steward’s wife from demons (Luke 8:3), but his denunciation of divorce could hardly have pleased the divorced tetrarch.
(6) When Jesus came to Jerusalem, he left none of the old opponents placated; instead, he encountered new ones. In Galilee he had said nothing against the temple. Now, however, he entered the city of Jerusalem accompanied by a large crowd and he proceeded to go into the temple and to ‘cast out those who sold and bought in the [outer court of the] temple’. He ‘overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold doves, and would not let anyone carry a vessel through the temple’. In his view the temple had been defiled by its contents. Citing the word of Jeremiah (7:11), he declared that the temple authorities had made it a ‘den of robbers’ (Mark 11:15-17). He fiercely criticized the scribes, denounced the rich who were making insignificant gifts to the temple (12:38-44), and finally, like Jeremiah (7:14), predicted the destruction of the temple itself (Mark 13:2).
(7) At this point, if not sooner, the high priest and the other temple authorities recognized that they must take action, and they turned towards the collection of evidence which would convince the Romans that Jesus had to be executed. The procurator of Judaea had already experienced many difficulties with seemingly seditious Jews, as we have seen. Since it was his duty to maintain law and order in this troublesome frontier province, he was bound to suppress any activity even potentially revolutionary. He could not bear the semi-official title ‘friend of Caesar’ if he were to release a self-styled king (cf. John 19:12). In Jerusalem, then, all the powers that existed, political and religious, were arrayed against Jesus. They did not and could not recognize his authority without ceasing to be powers. Had they known him, Paul says (I Cor. 2:8, where the demonic powers are secondarily political), they would not have crucified him. Historically, it should be said that since they recognized him, but did not accept him, they crucified him.
(8) ‘And Judas Iscariot, one of the Twelve, deserted to the high priests in order to betray him to them. When they had heard him they rejoiced and promised to give him money. And he sought for the right time to deliver him’ (Mark 14:10-11). This time was the night of the Passover and the place was the garden of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives — ‘not at the festival, lest there be a public disturbance’ (Mark 14:2). Judas had told the Jewish soldiers that he would identify Jesus with a kiss (14:44). But what did he betray? Did he identify Jesus, not known by sight in Jerusalem? This seems unlikely, since Jesus had been teaching there. Did he betray the ‘messianic secret’ or the prophecy that the temple would be destroyed? Since these questions were brought up before the Sanhedrin, Judas may have been responsible for raising them. A modern theory, resembling that of the Cainite Gnostics of antiquity, suggests that in Judas’s view the death of Jesus was necessary so that the kingdom would come; he therefore tried to advance the kingdom’s coming. The tradition in the gospels provides scant support for any of these views; it seems to suggest that he gave information about the whereabouts of Jesus. His motive is unclear, and perhaps can never be recovered. Matthew (26:14-15) agrees with John (12:6) in stating that he wanted money. Luke (22:3) and (John 13:2, 27) ascribe his act to the work of Satan.
(9) Did only Judas betray his Lord? Mark tells the story of Peter’s impetuous boast that even if everyone else were to deny Jesus, he would not do so (14:29-31), and then goes on to describe how Peter, avoiding detection, was nearly caught by a maidservant of the high priest who noticed his Galilean accent; he escaped only by swearing that he did not know Jesus (14:66-72). Similarly the sons of Zebedee, who had insisted that they would drink his cup and be baptized with his baptism of suffering (10:39), were among the disciples who swore that they would face death with him (14:31). But when Jesus was crucified, at his right and left were two non-Christian revolutionists (15:27), not these disciples who had asked to be at right and left in his glory (10:37). All the disciples fled (14:50). At the crucifixion, only a group of Galilean women watched from a distance (15:40-1), as well as some charitable women of Jerusalem (Luke 23:28). Only in the Gospel of John (19:25-7) do we read the story (perhaps symbolical) of the beloved disciple and the Virgin Mary at the cross.
(10) Abandoned by all men (cf. Isaiah 53:3) Jesus finally may have felt himself abandoned by God, and at the end of his three hours’ agony on the cross he cried out, ‘My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?’ The fact that this is a quotation of the first verse of the 22nd Psalm, which passes from despair to triumph, does not prove that Jesus was thinking of ultimate victory. We do not know that he intended to quote the entire psalm. Indeed, as we have already suggested, he may really have called upon Elijah. In any case, no matter which form of his words we may accept, the same conclusion is fairly evident. (1) If he quoted from the psalm, he felt himself abandoned by all, but he still addressed God as ‘my God’. (2) If he called upon Elijah, he still believed that God would somehow bring his kingdom into earthly existence.
The Resurrection of Jesus
If the life of Jesus were the life of some saint, prophet or hero, it would end with his crucifixion or perhaps with an account of his burial. His disciples, however, claimed that his life did not end in this way. He died and was buried, but he was raised from the dead. Obviously any historian who presupposes that death marks the final termination of human life will find this claim unacceptable. He will have to explain why the disciples believed that Jesus was risen, but he can still proceed on the assumption that they misinterpreted the evidence they had. In our view such a presupposition does not belong to historical analysis, which must take the evidence as it stands and try to understand the purposes for which it was transmitted, without making a preliminary judgement as to its modern significance or insignificance. Admittedly such a procedure is difficult, but unless it is viewed as a goal historical interpretation becomes nothing but modern propaganda.
In dealing with the resurrection we are fortunate enough to possess a brief statement about it which the apostle Paul set forth for the Corinthians about the year 54. Since he prefaces his remarks by pointing out that he had delivered the statement to them when he first was with them (about 50) and that be had received it, presumably from tradition, it obviously came into existence no later than the forties of the first century or, in other words, little more than a decade after the events took place. In addition, we should note that among the witnesses to the risen Lord whom he lists are Cephas and James, both of whom he had encountered at Jerusalem no later than the years between 33 and 35. Some, at least, of the evidence goes back to the period within five years after the crucifixion.
Paul’s statement consists of four parts. First comes a description, almost credal in nature, about the death and resurrection of Jesus:
Christ died for our sins, in accordance with the scriptures; he was buried;
he was raised on the third day, in accordance with the scriptures.
It might be suggested that this description is the result of theological reflection. If it is, the reflection is easy enough to identify. It consists of ‘for our sins, in accordance with the scriptures’ and ‘on the third day, in accordance with the scriptures’. Both ideas are obviously based on Old Testament passages, the first on Isaiah 53:12 and the second on Hosea 6:2 or II Kings 20:5. At the least, the words ‘according to the scriptures’ are reflective; at the most, the phrases related to them. If we remove these words we are left with the skeleton of the traditional statement: ‘Christ died, he was buried; he was raised.’ This skeleton bears no marks of theological reflection — though we should hesitate to hold that it ever existed in this form; surely those who transmitted the skeleton had some reason for doing so, and the reason is expressed in the ‘additions’ which we have noticed.
In any event, it looks as if the reasons were added in response to the events. Perhaps pre-Christian Jews were looking for someone who would die for their sins; but there is no evidence of such an expectation. It is most unlikely that a resurrection was anticipated because of the words found in Hosea or II Kings. Before the interpretation came the event.
It should be added that the ‘third day’ is reflected in Christian observance of Sunday, the third day from the Friday on which Jesus was crucified. The statement about resurrection ‘after three I days’ in Mark 8.31 and elsewhere means the same period of time, as passages injosephus prove (Antiq. 7, 280- 1; 8, 214 and 218).
It should also be added that the existence of an empty tomb is probably implied in Paul’s reference to burial. No ancient opponents of Christianity denied its existence, and the controversy reflected in Matthew 27-8 suggests that Jewish critics found it embarrassing.
After this brief notice of death, burial and resurrection, Paul goes on to provide a list of witnesses to the risen Lord. Some theologians have stated that the list marks a fatal decline from the primitive, existential Easter-faith. Whether this judgement be correct or not, it is a fact that Paul did not so regard it. He was a witness to the risen Lord (cf. I Cor. 9:1); so were other Christians.
The list has been variously analysed by various scholars. If we lay emphasis on the repetition of the word ‘he appeared’, it consists of four parts.
He appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve;
then he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at the same time (most of them are still alive, though some have died);
then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles;
last of all, as to an abortion, he appeared to me also.
(Paul varies the word he uses for ‘then’, but apparently because of style rather than for any other purpose.) It may be that, as some scholars have suggested, the first three appearances took place in Galilee and the fourth and fifth in Jerusalem. This idea is based on the fact that in Mark and Matthew the Twelve (now eleven) see Jesus only in Galilee (Mark 14:28, 16:7; Matthew 26:32, 28:10, 16), while in both Luke (24:13-49; Acts 1:4-12) and John (20:19-29) he appears to them in the vicinity of Jerusalem. In John 21:1-14 there is a Galilean appearance, but this chapter may have been added later. It is uncertain, however, that the appearances of the risen Lord were confined to one locality or the other, and it remains only a speculation that in Paul’s list we can trace notions of limitation. The list as he received it presumably came from Jerusalem, where, as we have said, he met both Cephas and James.
In our earliest manuscripts of Mark there is no account of the resurrection appearances, though the empty tomb is mentioned and the appearance of Jesus in Galilee is predicted (16:3-7). In Matthew 28:9 Mary Magdalene and ‘the other Mary’ (‘of James’ in Mark) see Jesus near the tomb, but he appears to the eleven disciples in Galilee. One of Matthew’s principal aims is to repudiate a Jewish explanation of the empty tomb. His argument can be set forth in dialogue form as follows
Christians: the tomb was empty.
Jews: the disciples stole the body.
Christians: the tomb was sealed and guarded.
Jews: the guards were asleep.
Christians: the guards were paid to say they were asleep.
It is obvious that apologetic interests have played a part in the formation of both sides of the debate, but this fact does not prove that underneath it lies some fact.
In Luke we find three women discovering the empty tomb. The same day, Cleophas and another disciple are on their way to Emmaus when a mysterious stranger joins them and explains to them that they did not understand the meaning of Jesus’ mission in relation to the Old Testament. At sunset he breaks bread with them and they recognize him as the living Lord. When he disappears they return at once to Jerusalem and are told that ‘the Lord has truly been raised and has appeared to Simon.’ As they describe their experience, Jesus stands in the midst of the disciples and says to them, ‘Behold my hands and my feet, that it is I; handle me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones such as you see I have.’ He eats a piece of fish in their presence and tells them to remain in Jerusalem until they receive divine power for a mission to all nations. He then takes them towards Bethany and, after blessing them, departs. It is tempting to view this narrative as a compilation from three different stories: (1) the road to Emmaus, (2) the appearance to Simon (Peter), and (3) a Jerusalem appearance. The first emphasizes the Christian interpretation of the Old Testament and the presence of Jesus at the Eucharist (compare 24:30 with 22:19); the second points towards the primacy of Peter; and the third explains that the risen Lord had a body of flesh and bone. At the same time, even though these interests may be present, their existence does not prove that the stories are late in origin. Jesus himself used the Old Testament in a ‘Christian’ way; he chose Peter first and appeared to him first; and any attempt to describe the action of the risen Lord in narrative form must indicate how he could be visible.
In the Gospel of John several concerns are evident. Mary Magdalene assumes that the tomb is empty, but the anonymous ‘disciple whom Jesus loved’ is the first to enter it. John points out that neither he nor Peter was aware of any prediction of the resurrection. The first witness of the risen Lord is actually Mary Magdalene. Later on the same day Jesus appears to the disciples, passing through closed doors, and imparts the Holy Spirit to them. A week later they are assembled again, this time with ‘doubting Thomas’. Jesus appears and says to him, ‘Place your finger here, and behold my hands, and take your hand and place it on my side, and do not disbelieve but believe.’ Thomas does so, saying, ‘My Lord and my God,’ and Jesus blesses those who have believed though they have not seen. These narratives point towards a body which, though capable of passing through solid objects, is tangible and visible. (Nothing different is said on the subject in John 21.)
If we now attempt to correlate what we have found in Paul’s statement with what we have found in the gospels, it is obvious that the appearance first to Cephas is corroborated by Luke 24:24 but by no explicit statement in any other gospel; indeed, Matthew (28:9) and John (20:14-18) clearly State that Mary Magdalene was the first witness. Presumably the Jerusalem church regarded her as non-apostolic; she could be criticized as unbalanced, since according to Luke 8:2 seven demons had been expelled from her (the anti-Christian writer Celsus refers to her as crazy’). Paul’s list has a rather ‘official’ character.
Appearances to the Twelve are mentioned in the three gospels which contain accounts of appearances, but those to the five hundred and to James are not recorded in them. James was an early convert (Acts 1.14), but the only description of a resurrection-appearance to him is given in the Gospel of the Hebrews. The appearance to ‘all the apostles’ cannot be identified. What this comparison shows is that in our gospels, as in Paul’s list, we have selections from a much larger body of testimonies to the appearances of Jesus. We have only the accounts which later Christians, for one reason or another, considered important.
But Paul does not end his statement with appearances to others. ‘Last of all. . . he appeared to me also.’ In relation to Paul’s own life, this appearance was obviously the most important. It changed his whole word-view (compare Gal. 1:13-15; Phil. 3:5-7) and probably made him an apostle (I Cor. 9:1). And in his opinion the experience which he had was the same as that of the other apostles. Their testimony was the same as his (I Cor. 15:11). A difficulty may arise at this point if we compare the nature of his vision on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1-9, etc.) with the accounts given in the gospels. If we assume that the various narratives in Acts are ultimately derived from Paul, it is singular that in Acts 9:7 his companions see nothing but hear a voice, while in Acts 22:9 they see a light but hear nothing. The point may be that the nature of the phenomena was irrelevant; what mattered was the meaning which Paul understood. With this idea we may compare the word he uses in Galatians 1:16: the revelation took place ‘in’ him (if this is what ‘en’ necessarily means). We may well conclude that his experience was primarily subjective; in Acts 26:19 it is called a ‘heavenly vision’. On this ground we are then likely to suppose that since he had a vision the other disciples also had visions.
But this is not what he says. When he is developing his argument about the resurrection of the dead, he relies on the unity of apostolic testimony not about the nature of the resurrection appearances but about the fact that Christ was raised from the dead. To be sure, he regards his own understanding as universally valid. It is almost certain that in his view the risen Lord did not bear a body of ‘flesh and blood’ but what he calls a ‘spiritual body’ (1 Cor. 15:44, cf. 50). It had been transformed; it had ‘put on’ imperishability and immortality (15:33). But given agreement as to the fact of the resurrection, different witnesses would naturally lay emphasis upon different aspects of the risen body. We do not know just how Peter viewed it. Presumably Palestinian Jews were likely to emphasize its corporeality, while Paul — because of the nature of his conversion and because of the nature of his converts — emphasized other features. All that can finally be said is that the disciples were convinced that Jesus had been raised because they saw something which they could identify as someone, more precisely as Jesus. To this fact all early Christian evidence testifies. What they saw can be called a vision, but the word means no more than that something was seen. Theologians who have daringly classified it as a ‘veridical hallucination’ solve no problems. Historical examination of the evidence does not permit us to state either that it was a hallucination or that, if it should be so regarded, it was veridical. Historical examination permits us to say only that they were convinced that they had seen Jesus. The only proof of the correctness of their conviction lies in the existence and the nature of the early Church.
To the resurrection early Christians often added the ascension of Jesus into heaven. It is not altogether clear whether or not all of them regarded ‘heaven’ as a place in the sky. The only ascension story we possess in the New Testament (Acts 1:9-11) definitely speaks of heaven in this way.
He was taken up, and a cloud removed him from their eyes. And as they were gazing at the heaven as he was going away, behold, two men stood by them in white clothing and said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking at the heaven? This Jesus who has been received up from you into the heaven will come in the way you have seen him going into the heaven.’
The conception of ‘heaven’ has been literalized, perhaps by Luke (cf. Luke 3:22, the Spirit ‘in bodily form’). Elsewhere in the New Testament there are allusions to the ascension of Jesus, but no descriptions of it — any more than there are descriptions of the Resurrection. For example, in Ephesians 4:8-10 we find exegesis of Psalm 68:19; the words ‘having ascended on high’ are understood to mean that Christ ascended ‘above all the heavens, in order to fill all things’. And the ascended Christ is regarded as the one who created the ministry of apostles, prophets, evangelists, etc. In Ephesians the ascension is treated as an immediate consequence of the resurrection of Christ: God ‘raised him from the dead and made him sit at his right hand in the heavenly places’ (1:20). The ascension is also mentioned in Hebrews, where we read that Jesus is a great high priest ‘who has passed through the heavens’ (4:14), that he was ‘made higher than the heavens’ (7:26), and that he entered ‘into heaven itself’ and ‘sat down at the right hand of God’ (9:24; 10:12). The Mosaic law is reinterpreted so that the true Holy Place is heaven and the veil before it is the flesh of Jesus (9:24; 10:20). Finally, in I Timothy 3:16 (perhaps from an early Christian hymn) there is another allusion: ‘he was received up in glory.’
In two of these passages, as elsewhere in the New Testament (e.g., Mark 12:36 and 14:62; Acts 2:34; I Cor. 15:25; Col. 3:1), we find quotations from Psalm 110:1, in which Christians found a reference to the triumph of Christ. ‘Yahweh says to my Lord, Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool.’ When Jesus asked a question about the Davidic origin of the Messiah, he suggested that David (the supposed author of the psalm) could not have referred to a descendant as ‘Lord’. He did not express any doubt that the psalm was speaking about the Messiah (Mark 12:35-7). From the words of Jesus, then, came the belief in his being seated at God’s right hand, and this is the belief which is expressed in the doctrine of the ascension.
In the Gospel of John the doctrine is expressed somewhat differently. ‘No one has ascended into heaven except the one who has descended from heaven — the Son of Man’ (3:13). ‘What, then, if you see the Son of Man ascending where he was before?’ (6:62). The first passage is a proleptic reference to the future ascension; the second asks a question about its significance. But the ascension is not described by John, except when he refers to the crucifixion as the ‘lifting up’ of Jesus (3:14; 8:28; 12:32, 34 [in the last verse there is an allusion to Psalm 110] ). To Mary Magdalene the risen Jesus says, ‘Do not touch me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father’ (20.17); on the other hand a week later he tells Thomas to touch him (20.27). Has he ascended during the interval? John’s meaning is not clear.
It is evident, however, that (1) Christians took very seriously, some of them ‘literally’, the belief that Christ was now seated at God’s right hand in glory; (2) he had been raised from the dead and had appeared to his early disciples and to James and Stephen and Paul (‘last of all,’ I Cor. 15:8) but no longer did so; and (3) he would come down from heaven (I Thess. 4:16; Phil. 3:20, etc.) in the future. These three premises permitted only one conclusion: he was in heaven. The degree to which ‘heaven’ was given a precise location would vary in relation to the world-views of different writers, though it can probably be said that no New Testament writer would have denied that heaven, or the highest heaven (cf. II Cor. 12:2), was ‘up’. Given the limitations of language, they could hardly have said that it was down or across. At the same time, we must observe that in most New Testament writings the conception of heaven is given a symbolical interpretation. In Colossians 3:1-4 the mixture of spatial-temporal language with a symbolical meaning is very clear.
If, then, you have been raised with Christ,
seek the things that are above,
where Christ is, seated on the right hand of God.
Set your mind on the things that are above,
not on the things that are upon the earth.
For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.
When Christ, our life, is manifested,
then you too with him will be manifested in glory.
The element of mystery is primary, and no attempt either in New Testament times or later can result in removing the mystery. If we wish, we may say that the human life of Jesus ended on the cross. Historically, this is correct. But it is also historically true that his disciples recognized that God had raised him from the dead and that they expected his return from heaven.
The story of their life before his appearing ‘a second time’ (Heb. 9:28) belongs to the history of the Christian Church.
The resurrection of Jesus is a historical event in at least the following senses: (1) his appearances to his disciples are well attested in documents whose sources are close in time to the event, and (2) the origin of Christianity is almost incomprehensible unless such an event took place. On the other hand, there are certain difficulties in regard to it. (1) The New Testament writers never describe the resurrection itself; they point only to appearances of the risen Lord and to his empty tomb; the resurrection is inferred from these two kinds of evidence. (2) Ancient Jews and Christians believed in the possibility of resurrection in the sense of resuscitation (e.g. Mark 5:35-43; Luke 7:11-17; John 11:1-46; Acts 20:9-12) and could therefore accept the story of Jesus’ resurrection as others, ancient and modern alike, could not.
Ultimately it is not possible to provide a cogent historical proof of the resurrection, since the event was, and was regarded as, unique — though accepted in the context of belief in a future general resurrection. The arguments of Paul are based on (1) the testimony of others, (2) his personal experience, and (3) theological inferences (‘if Christ has not been raised, your faith is vain; you are still in your sins,’ I Cor. 15:17). A similar form of presentation occurs in the Gospel of John (20:29), where Jesus says to Thomas, ‘Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.’ The resurrection, in part because of its unique character, is hard to relate to a general world view. According to the gospel accounts, the earliest disciples experienced trembling, astonishment, fear, and doubt.
In antiquity it was sometimes argued (e.g. by Tertullian) that narratives are transmitted because they are either probable/ credible or true. Such narratives as the resurrection stories are, generally speaking, improbable/incredible; therefore they must be true. Put another way, this means that ‘it is likely that unlikely things should happen’. The first argument is unsound because the classification scheme is confused. ‘Probable/credible’ involves a judgement primarily subjective; ‘true’ implies an objective judgement. As for the second, ‘unlikely’ things that are ‘likely’ to happen are not really unlikely. It would appear that there is no way in which the resurrection can be shown, on historical grounds, to be either probable or true. Historical evidence can point towards a decision, and historical evidence could make a positive decision impossible (proof that Jesus was not actually crucified, for example); but the final decision is that which the early Christians called ‘faith’.