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Jesus by Martin Dibelius

Martin Dibelius occupied the chair of New Testament at the University of Heidelberg for thirty two years.  He wrote extensively, and many of his works have been translated into English.  In 1937 he visited the United States, delivering the Shaffer Lectures at Yale University. Jesus was translated by Charles B. Hedrick, teacher of New Testament at Berkeley Divinity School, and Frederick C. Grant (who completed the translation after Dr. Hedrick’s death).  Dr. Grant was Edwin Robinson Professor of Biblical Theology at Union Theological Seminary, New York.  Published in 1949 by Westminster Press, Philadelphia.  This book was prepared for Religion Online by Richard and Sue Kendall.

Chapter III: People Land, Descent

The people among whom Jesus worked were no longer the Israelites of the Old Testament and not yet the Jews of the Talmud. They were distinguished from the ancient Israel by the lack of political independence. The small but vigorous Israelitish people that had arisen out of the invading Hebrew tribes and the indigenous Canaanites had led a now strong, now weak, political existence only until 586 (or 597 B.C. —until the conquest of Jerusalem and the removal of part of the population to Babylon. Then followed the Exile and the reorganization of the Jewish community under foreign sov­ereignty. In the second century the Maccabees, following the revolt against the Syrian king Antiochus (IV) Epiphanes and his Hellenizing policy, founded once more a relatively independent monarchy; but quarrels over the succession and the interference of the Romans — Pompey conquered Jeru­salem in 63 B.C. — put an end to the existence of Judaism as a state. The rule of the alien family of Herod was by the grace of Rome. This holds good even of the so-called “great” Herod, who in the struggle between Antony and Octavian very shrewdly shifted to the side of the victor, the future Caesar Augustus; it holds good all the more of his sons, among whom Herod’s kingdom was divided at his death. The non-Jewish territory in northeastern Palestine (eastward from the Lake of Gennesaret) went to Philip. The northern province proper, Galilee, with a strip of East Jordan territory, went to Herod Antipas, who thus ruled over the region in which Jesus began and expanded his movement. Samaria and Judea, however, became the inheritance of Ar­chelaus; after his removal (A.D. 6) they became Roman terri­tory directly under a procurator. It was one of these procurators, Pontius Pilate (A.D. 26—36), who gave the order for Jesus’ crucifixion. Thus the land in which Jesus worked, Galilee, and even more directly Judea, where he died, were ruled by a foreign power. When Jesus encountered the au­thority of the state, it was mostly foreigners who represented it; for even the auxiliary troops that were stationed in Pales­tine were not Jews. The local tax collectors, who obtained the concession by bidding for it, and had to exact for the chief tax collector as much as possible in indirect taxes — e.g., tolls on imported goods — were indeed Jews, but because of their dishonorable practices, and no doubt also because of their subservience to an alien government, they were so hated and despised that they were not counted as members of the Jewish community, and all intercourse with them was avoided. A Jewish court possessing civil and ecclesiastical authority was merely the “ Chief Council,” the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem.

     But this peculiar political situation, resting partly upon the authority of the occupying power and partly upon the re­mains of indigenous authority, distinguished the Jewish people of Jesus’ day also from the later Judaism which was driven from the country after the destruction of Jerusalem, and is presupposed in the great exposition of Jewish Law, the Talmud. The people in Palestine still occupied their own territory and continued to live by their own traditions; but for that very reason they were not obliged to cut themselves off so completely from the rest of the world as were the Jewish people later, when it became necessary for their self-preservation, exiled as they were from their land and scat­tered among the nations of the world. In Judea the Jewish population had kept itself relatively pure, but even there the influence of the Hellenistic world was to be detected: Roman coinage, a theater in the city of Jerusalem, and an amphi­theater in the plain (after the time of Herod), as well as the rebuilding of the Temple carried out by Herod, presumably with features of Hellenistic architectural style, the military garrison in the Castle of Antonia north of the Temple area, the occasional presence of the procurator in the city — all these were a constant reminder of foreign domination and reflected the influence of the world outside.

    Moreover, the great Diaspora, and the existence of Greek-speaking Jewries in the cities of the outside world, could not remain without effect upon the homeland. After the third century B.C. it was no longer Hebrew that was spoken in Palestine, but Aramaic. For the pilgrims and travelers re­turning from the Diaspora there were, however, Hellenistic synagogues in the capital; the official language of the pro-curators was Greek. Latin-Greek inscriptions are not want­ing, and a knowledge of everyday Greek is accordingly to be assumed on the part of many Jews, not as a sign of special culture but as a necessity for business and professional life.

     Thus even in Jerusalem one did not live cut off from the world empire and its culture, and that was all the more the case in the districts lying to the north, in Samaria and Gali­lee. In Samaria two cities, Samaria and Scythopolis, could be reckoned as predominantly heathen, since they had been settled by non-Jewish colonists. The inhabitants of the dis­trict of Samaria were, as regards religion, generally speaking, Jews, but, unlike the Galileans, they did not belong to the Jewish community, which considered the Temple in Jeru­salem exclusively its own sanctuary. The Samaritans had their own temple, and after its destruction, in the second century B.C., their place of worship was on Mount Gerizim. Since they recognized only the five books of Moses, their man­ner of worship and their religious usages differed from those carried on in Jerusalem; but for all this they belonged to the sphere of the Jewish religion. To be sure, they did not belong to the Jewish race, or at least only in limited measure, since immediately following the conquest of Samaria, in the year 722 B.C., the Assyrians had settled foreign colonists in this province. A considerable part of the Israelite population had been carried off to Assyria; those that remained became in the course of the centuries more and more completely merged with the colonists. To the Judeans this mixed race, which, though it recognized the God of Israel, worshipped him in wrong ways, was an object of hatred and abhorrence.

      In Galilee also there was a mixed population. In the northernmost portion, perhaps even before the destruction of Samaria, the pure Jews had not predominated. But after the Exile the Galileans had gravitated toward religious fel­lowship with the Judeans. For this reason they did not incur that hatred of the Judeans which fell upon the Samaritans. Furthermore, during the Maccabean period a portion of this mixed population in Galilee had been forcibly introduced (under Aristobulus, 104—103 B.C.) into the Jewish religious fellowship: the Galileans were circumcised and put under the obligations of the Law. It is a question if and to what extent this Judaizing process was assisted by the removal of Judeans to Galilee. In any case, the population of Galilee was thoroughly mixed, and was by no means purely Jewish; yet it was religiously attached to the Temple worship in Jerusalem, and in spite of minor differences the practice of the Law prevailed, just as in Judea.

      In Matt. 26:73 the servants of the high priest say to Peter, “Your speech betrays you.” That is an explanation of the curious form in which Mark gives the words addressed to Peter, “You also are a Galilean.” And in fact one may recog­nize the Galilean by his speech. He does not distinguish the guttural sounds clearly, he swallows syllables, and pro­nounces many of the vowels carelessly. And naturally a much greater Greek influence is to be assumed in Galilee, where the Jewish people bordered, so to speak, on the Hel­lenistic world, than in Judea. It is quite possible that Jesus and his disciples understood Greek, perhaps even spoke it.

     It was in this land of Galilee that Jesus was at home. In the district along the Lake of Gennesaret, whose fertility and mild climate the historian Josephus never ceases to praise in some fresh form, Jesus carried on his ministry. It was in the little town of Nazareth that he grew up. This town is en­tirely unmentioned in pre-Christian literature, though per-imps it is mentioned in a late Jewish song; its existence there­fore does not rest on Christian invention. But was Jesus really a Nazarene? Was he a Galilean?



The question of Jesus’ origin, which is involved here, is receiving more attention at the present time than formerly. Back of it lies the further question, To which people and race did Jesus belong? — and also the problem, Can Christi­anity be derived from the spirit of one particular race? Since Houston Stewart Chamberlain’s book, The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century (1899), this question has not been allowed to rest. History and anthropology are interested in it and demand an answer from the Gospels — i.e., from writ­ings that know nothing whatsoever about the question. Hence it requires the most thorough consideration.

     The Christian, who discerns in the words and in the com­ing of Jesus the revelation of God, is unwilling to account for this revelation simply by the spirit of a race or a people. One’s attitude toward Christianity, accordingly, does not de­pend upon a decision as to whether Jesus belonged to this or that race or people, but upon one’s answer to the question, whether here actually — and, of course, in the midst of a peo­ple foreign to us — God was heard and apprehended. For that reason, on the other hand, no one, whether he be Christian or non-Christian, has a right to answer (and perhaps clear up) the historical question of Jesus’ origin by reference to the worth of his message: by arguing that because the Ser­mon on the Mount and the Passion story have come to have significance for the entire Western world, Jesus could not have been of pure Jewish race! On the contrary, this ques­tion of Jesus’ extraction can be dealt with only through the painstaking examination of historical evidence.

      Here is what such an examination yields. As far back as the earliest tradition, Jesus is occasionally designated as son or descendant of David (Rom. 1:3 Mark 10:47). But what is in mind here is not so much a reference to kinship as a customary Messianic title. Jesus himself appears to have set little store by descent from David. He confronts the scribes with Ps. 110. “The Lord said unto my Lord,” and asks them, obviously in order to make light of all genealogies of the Messiah, “If David himself calls him Lord, how is he then his son? “ (Mark 12:37). It is quite possible, however, that certain circles of the primitive Christian community inter­ested themselves in Jesus’ origin and undertook to determine his pedigree, i.e., the ancestry of the carpenter Joseph. Two such tables of ancestry are given in the New Testament — in Matt. 1:2—16 and Luke 3:23—38. The first includes the offi­cial list of kings from David to Jechoniah; the second carries back Jesus’ descent, by way of a side line, to David’s son Nathan. These tables of ancestry remain in the Bible, although the belief in the Virgin birth of Jesus renders the ancestry of Joseph unimportant. Thus Joseph’s (or Mary’s?) derivation from the family of David was maintained in many Christian circles, and the story of Jesus’ birth in Luke, ch. 2, presupposes this derivation. The story of the Annunciation in Luke 1 :26—38 perhaps aimed originally to attribute Davidic descent to the mother. Furthermore, the grandsons of Jude, a brother of Jesus, are supposed to have declared in the reign of Domitian that they were from David’s family (Eusebius, Church History, iii. 20). And since the Jews were careful about preserving the tradition as to their ancestors, it is a natural supposition that the family of Jesus also may have had such information. But even if Jesus actually was of Davidic descent, and the purpose of Mark 12:37 was in no way opposed to kinship with David, Jesus’ pure Jewish de­scent is not thereby assured nor a Galilean origin excluded.

     According to the Gospels, Jesus lived in Nazareth until his public appearance and was called a Nazarene or Nazoraean, and in the Talmud “the Notsri.” In the case of the last two terms it remains doubtful whether they have anything to do with Nazareth at all or whether they are not intended rather to express membership in a sect or a group. Nevertheless the term “Nazoraean” is connected by the Evangelists with Nazareth in Galilee. Jesus is regarded, therefore, as a Galilean. Even if his family, regardless of whether it was of Davidic origin or not, had settled in Galilee some generations earlier, a doubt as to its pure Jewish character would still be permis­sible. A doubt — nothing more; and besides, no certainty would be attainable in that case as to what was the source of the non-Jewish strain in its composition. The possibility of non-Jewish ancestors must be acknowledged — but that is all that conscientious examination of the tradition as to Jesus’ origin can find out.

     There can be no doubt, however, that Jesus regarded him­self as belonging to the Jewish community. The certainty with which he quoted the Old Testament as God’s revelation, and the way in which, at the end of his ministry, he sought a decision in Jerusalem, prove it. But in his case it is not merely a matter of a so-called ecclesiastical membership. It is something greater and stronger that he inherited from the religious tradition of his people, something freed of all cultic and legal framing or clothing, which furnished the presup­position of his own message. It is faith in the reality and ac­tivity of God and hope in God’s decision.

     The people of Israel had experienced the fact, and the Old Testament, the Bible of Jesus, had preserved the experience, that in the history of the people God had made known his will, his severity as well as his love. Not knowledge of God’s nature, nor secret vision of his glory, was Israel’s inheritance, but the consciousness of having been summoned by God in the Law, and of having been examined and tested by him again and again in history. It is not an “all-loving Father” that is proclaimed in the Old Testament, but the Lord of the nations and the ages, who judges individuals as well as whole peoples, who can reject as well as bless them, and whose Law is the declaration of the divine will and the measure of hu­man conduct.

     This conception of God, very unphilosophical but directly affecting mankind, had, of course, been enormously nar­rowed in the centuries between Alexander the Great and the advent of Jesus. The Lord of all peoples had become the party leader of the legalists; obedience to the ruler of history had become a finespun technique of piety. The nation no longer stood in the midst of its own self-determined history, and therefore no longer had any ear for the Lord who acts through nations and upon nations. Among the populace itl was no longer the priestly nobility of Jerusalem that was most looked up to, but the group of the Pharisees scattered over the whole land, the “separated” )i.e. from all uncleannes?).  They were the true champions of that technique of piety whose constant concern it was at every step of their life to fulfill command and to violate none.  They found their authority in the scribes, the inventors of that technique.  Through interpretation of the Old Testament Law and application of it to the smallest everyday matters they developed a profuse tradition of precepts, which were handed down in the schools, and thus through the process of exposition and application became ever more and more numerous.  These are the prescriptions which later, from the second century onward, in combination with other traditional material, was deposited in writing in the steadily growing collection known as the Talmud.  By no means everything found in the Talmud can be claimed as evidence for Jesus’ day; however, the Talmud does give a picture of the subdividing and compartmentalizing of life into legal cases, and of the accompanying restriction of the horizon, which already prevailed in Judaism in the time of Jesus.  The great world, and indeed the political and social life of their own people with their tasks and problems, vanish from the sight of those who thus confine themselves to the study of the Law and to its application to the minutest of spheres of human activity..  The scribes did the first, and the Pharisees (among whom are to be reckoned many scribes) did the second;  they formed a kind of brotherhood within the Jewish community.

            In contrast to both groups stood that section of the populace who neither could nor world observe the Law – “people of the land” [am ha-arets] they are called in the Talmud.  In specific contrast to the Pharisees stood also the professional defenders of what was ancient – the priests, and the group supporting them, principally from the priestly fami­lies, the Sadducees. Their name must have been derived from the personal name Zadok; perhaps the reference is to the priest of this name in the time of David (II Sam. 8:17). They did not share the faith in the resurrection and they rejected the Pharisaic elaboration of the Law. At least, the oral expo­sition of the Old Testament had no authority for the Sad­ducees; they were conservative in clinging to the written text of the Bible, conservative in guarding the Temple tradi­tions, intent on maintaining the status quo, and therefore stood in fairly good relations with Herod and the Roman rule. The Pharisees, on the other hand, were closer to the simple folk, no doubt because they lived among them in the country. The Temple was far away, and the daily sacrifices were witnessed by the Galilean only when he visited Jeru­salem on a pilgrimage. Close by, however, was the local syna­gogue — at once school and place of prayer — where every Sabbath he could worship God and hear the Law read, and come to know what he had to do and avoid doing in obedi­ence to God.

     With the mention of Pharisees, Sadducees, and “people of the land,” however, the Jewish people at the time of Jesus are not fully described. Many a discovery has taught us that Judaism in Palestine exhibited more sects and parties than the historian Josephus would lead us to suspect. But even he mentions the group of out-and-out enemies of Rome, the Zealots. They were the Jewish “ activists” who planned to employ revolution against foreign domination and sought to do so again and again, in minor revolts from the time of the death of Herod the Great, and especially from the begin­ning of the direct Roman rule in Judea, up to the great re­volt of the year 66, the commencement of the Jewish War. It appears that the people in Galilee were especially open to revolutionary appeals, sometimes of a political, sometimes of a religious, sort: Judas of Gamala (east of the Sea of Gali­lee) was known as a leader of the Zealots; among the dis­ciples of Jesus appeared a Simon the Zealot, apparently a former member of the revolutionary party converted to Jesus. And at the beginning of the Jewish War a Galilean bandit, John of Giscala, played a prominent role as a revo­lutionist.

     But some decades earlier, even during the lifetime of Jesus, leaders of bands of robbers appeared again and again throughout the land. They seemed indeed to have aimed not only at gaining political power, but at the fulfillment of hopes such as were found in the Old Testament and in the writings that had appeared later, above all in the popu­lar expectation connected with the person of the coming “Anointed One,” the Messiah. Several of these leaders wanted to revive the kingdom: one promised a miraculous passage through the Jordan, another promised to overthrow the walls of Jerusalem by a miracle; prophets of good for­tune and of ill increased their fame. Although the teachers of the people did not say much about the Messiah, and the authorities anxiously suppressed the Messianic hope, among the people this hope still survived. Anyone who came for­ward among these people with a promise and a claim to leadership at once stirred up the question whether he was himself the” Coming One “ — or at least his forerunner, per­haps the Prophet Elijah, whose return was awaited as a sign of the Messianic age. These expectations and hopes were of different kinds. Those who saw in the Roman domination the root of evil may have thought more about an offshoot of David, who as king would restore prosperity to an empire of Israel. Those who bewailed the whole course of the world as opposed to God may have hoped that God would seize the rulership of the world from heaven, and realize his aims with his pious ones. Probably along with these hopes and expectations were combined those of other peoples and re­ligions. For if the expected redeemer is also known as “the Man “ or “the Son of Man” (which is the same thing), this was a reminder of the Persian expectation that the semi-divine primal man would appear at the end of the ages. As early as The Book of Daniel (ch. 7:13), its author knew of this Son of Man who was to come on the clouds of heaven, though he saw in him an embodiment of the Jewish people; other such “apocalyptic” books, however, spoke of him as the world redeemer. The taking over of this title into the expec­tation of Jewish groups signified at any rate a new emphasis, not upon the political hopes of Israel, but upon the subjec­tion of the entire world to God and his plans. But what is implied by the survival of all these hopes, native as well as foreign, is the consciousness of a tension between God and the present state of the world, the conviction that the Lord of the world would no longer allow this state to endure, the presentiment of a crisis, of an end of this present world age.

     Unaffected by such eager expectations, the order of the Essenes led its quiet existence. This was a brotherhood which, shut off in settlements or even in cities, lived accord­ing to its own peculiar customs. Most prominent among these was a sacred meal of special kinds of food which the brothers ate, clad in holy garments, in perfect silence. Strict rites of purification, a worship of the sun, otherwise unheard of in Judaism, gave the fellowship of the Essenes its dis­tinctive stamp. Their discipline separated them from the world: the renunciation or at least the limitation of marriage, the rejection of oaths, weapons, trade. and luxury were in­dicative of this. The presupposition of this common meal and of their life together and of their uniform white apparel was a form of communism, in which each one contributed his entire property and inheritance. Ascetic and moral obliga­tions were something that Essenism shared with other broth­erhoods; but on the other hand sun worship, food rites, and punctilious rules for purification appear to be peculiar to itself. Here one may trace influences of a non-Jewish kind; likewise the Essene doctrines of the soul and its immortality must be looked upon as foreign to Judaism.

     Upon the life of the common people the Essenes had very little influence, and in the present connection there would be no occasion to say more about them were it not that by various writers Jesus’ person and movement have repeatedly been brought into connection with the Essenes. The special knowledge of nature which is ascribed to them, probably rightly, is supposed to have made possible Jesus’ miracles. The “ Resurrection “ rests back, according to this hypothesis, on the resuscitation of the apparently dead body of Jesus by Essene physicians, who because of their white clothing were taken for angels. Then one may also point with justice to the kinship of certain strict commands, e.g., the forbidding of oaths, both among the Essenes and among Jesus’ disciples, while the silence of the New Testament regarding the Es­senes can be explained as deliberate secrecy. All such at­tempts, however, are contradicted by the plain fact that noth­ing that we know about Jesus points toward Essenism; while some of the things recorded by the New Testament sources make the Essene hypothesis absolutely impossible. In fact there was lacking in the appearance of Jesus everything that would have been considered as typically Essene: we hear neither of sun worship nor of holy garments nor of a secret meal (the Lord’s Supper is something entirely different). We do hear, however, that Jesus more than once violated the Jewish Sabbath law — and the Essenes were regarded as especially strict Sabbath observers. We read of Jesus’ attitude of disregard for the Jewish regulations about cleansing —and the Essenes outdid other Jews in such strictness. Finally, Jesus was derided as “a glutton and a wine-bibber” (Matt. 11:19) — while the Essenes were strict ascetics.

     There were other groups among the Jewish people who belong with far greater right than the Essenes to the ante­cedents of the movement led by Jesus; such, for example, were those who were waiting for “the Man” who was to come from heaven, or Galilean adherents of the Messianic faith, or pietistic religionists of one sort or another. In order to decide such questions one must first of all know whether the nickname of Jesus found in the Talmud, “the Notsri,” and also the Biblical name “Nazoraean “ are really con­nected with Nazareth or refer to some other geographical designation or to the name of a sect.

      Quite certainly, however, the circle that gathered about Jesus stood in close relation with one of the groups that re­garded an immersion bath, i.e., a “baptism,” as a sacred sign which distinguished them from others. For this group, and for their leader, this sign was a mark of preparation for the coming world transformation which their leader pro­claimed. It was John the Baptist who came forward with this message — and with him the story of Jesus begins.


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