Chapter IV: The Movement Among the Masses

by Martin Dibelius

Chapter IV: The Movement Among the Masses

The oldest tradition of the Christian community, as Char­acterized on pp. 23 ff., begins with the appearance of John the Baptist. Of events in Jesus’ youth only one is reported, and this only in one Gospel: it is the familiar story of the twelve-year-old Jesus in the Temple (Luke 2:41—51). Accord­ingly, it by no means belonged to the traditional material familiar to all the communities. And of the birth of Jesus two Gospels, Mark and John, know nothing, while the other two have very different accounts to give. Thus these stories are likewise not to be reckoned as part of what the first preachers of the message reported. They began with the baptism movement of John. This was the “beginning of the gospel” (Mark 1:1).

According to some Bible passages (Matt. 11:1; Acts 1:22; 10:37), not only was the Baptist regarded as the forerunner of Jesus, but his movement was also regarded as the dividing line between the old and the new age. This is the reason why Luke (ch. 31, 2) opens the account of Jesus’ work with a chronological notice on the appearance of the Baptist. This passage affords an important point of reference for the chronology of the life of Jesus. One is not to look for any absolute certainty in this matter. Like many points of time in ancient history, the dates in Jesus’ life are not ascertainable with absolute exactitude. Especially must it be borne in mind that in dealing with this life we are not dealing with an “official” event; that there were no inscriptions, no chroni­cles, probably also no Roman court record which would have contained a dated report of Jesus’ life. Finally it must be em­phasized that we cannot figure out the length either of the Baptist movement or of Jesus’ activity. The oldest tradition does not by any means consist of a consecutive account; it is made up of single narratives and single sayings (see p. 29), and they can give us no information as to the length of time within which the things reported took place. If one often speaks of Jesus’ ministry as covering two or three years, this reckoning rests on the mention of three Passovers in the Gospel of John (chs. 2:13; 6:4; 11:55). But it is very ques­tionable whether in these passages the Evangelist meant to indicate a chronology. He arranges his material according to other points of view. The cleansing of the Temple he puts at the beginning instead of at the end of Jesus’ ministry, and in his way of writing he might quite well have mentioned the same Passover several times. The other Evangelists men­tion only the Passover celebration at which or before which Jesus died. But even so they have not affirmed a ministry of only one year. It might well be that another Passover, or even several, fell in this period; the old stories would men­tion it only provided some act or other of Jesus’ was con­nected with the festival.

     When one takes all this into consideration, it must seem surprising that we still know as much as we do about the chronology of the life of Jesus, and especially that we can fix inside relatively narrow limits the time within which all that the Evangelists tell of Jesus’ ministry took place. The life of Jesus stands within fixed historical contexts. It did not take place in remote antiquity, like the deeds of mythical heroes. Neither does it hang suspended in some indefinite period, as is the case with Siegfried, King Arthur, Doctor Faustus, and other figures of legendary lore. There are, in fact, an array of witnesses who permit us to insert Jesus’ min­istry into a relatively closely defined period:


     1.  According to all the ancient sources, Jesus was executed by order of the Procurator Pontius Pilate; according to Luke 3:1, 2, the Baptist also appeared under Pontius Pilate. Now according to Josephus, Pilate held office for ten years, which according to Josephus’ data must be fixed as A.D. 26—36 or 27—37.

     2. According to Luke 3:1, 2, John the Baptist appeared on the scene in the fifteenth year of Tiberius. As the Evangelist Luke always has an eye for the connection with secular his­tory, one may credit him in this case with drawing upon an official computation, i.e., of reckoning from the time when Tiberius actually became emperor and not including the years (A.D. 12—14) when he reigned jointly with Augustus. It was customary at that time to count the period before the next New Year, in Syria until October 1, as the first year of a reign; and the question is only whether the date is to be reckoned from the death of Augustus (August 19 in the year 14) or from the moment when Tiberius actually took office, perhaps not earlier than the month of October in that year. In the former case the first year of Tiberius would ex­tend only to October 1, A.D. 14, in the latter to October 1, A.D. 15. The fifteenth year would, in the former case, have to be taken as A.D. 27/28, in the latter as 28/29.

     3. According to all the Gospels, Jesus was crucified on a Friday in the Passover season. According to the oldest Gos­pels, this would have been the first Friday of the Passover. John, however, assumes a tradition (e.g., ch. 18:28) accord­ing to which the Passover meal did not take place until after the Crucifixion, so that the first day of the feast fell on the following day, the Sabbath. There is much to be said for this dating . (See Chapter IX.) If anyone accepts this date, he must look for a year in which the Sabbath and the first Passover day coincide. This, according to astronomical reck­oning, was twice the case in those years, on April 7, A.D. 30, and on April 3, A.D. 33 (the days of the month according to the Julian calendar).

     But this reckoning is burdened with still another uncer­tainty, apart from the question whether the data in the Gospel of John reflect the correct chronology. The Jewish Passover began on the fifteenth of the month Nisan; but the beginning of the month was determined in those days by popular observation of the new moon and not by astronomi­cal calculation. Moreover, an intercalary month may have been inserted before the month Nisan on grounds of agri­cultural necessity. It is questionable, therefore, whether the fifteenth of Nisan as reckoned according to the astronomi­cally correct new moon coincided with the fifteenth of Nisan as actually observed.

     4. An inscription enables us to determine a date in Paul’s life fairly accurately. According to a letter of the Emperor Claudius to the inhabitants of Delphi, preserved in an in­scription there, Gallio, the brother of the philosopher Seneca, was proconsul of Achaia in the year 51/52 or 52/53. His en­trance into office in the summer of 51 or spring of 52 gave the Jews in Corinth the wished-for opportunity (according to Acts 18:12) to bring a charge against Paul, who (accord­ing to Acts 18:11) had already labored there for eighteen months. Therefore, Paul’s arrival in Corinth must have been at the beginning or the end of the year 50, and the meeting of the apostles in Jerusalem described in Gal., ch. 2, and Acts, ch. 15, had probably taken place in 49 (or 50). According to Gal. 1:18 and 2:1 Paul had been a Christian at that time for three plus fourteen years, i.e.. perhaps for fifteen or sixteen years, since it was the custom at that time to in­clude the initial year. The conversion of Paul thus took place between the years 33 and 35.

     One may therefore say with considerable certainty that Jesus died between 27 and 34, probably in the year 30 or 33. The appearance of the Baptist falls in the period between 27 and 29. It is seldom that events which like these occurred off the main highways of the world’s history can be dated within such a closely marked out period. It is remarkable with what confidence we can make the following affirma­tion: Within the range of at most seven years there took place in the politically insignificant land of Palestine, and unno­ticed by the political and spiritual leaders of the day, events that have set the world moving in an entirely new direction.


These events began with the baptism movement. In the Jordan steppe, on the reed- and shrub-covered floor of the valley which extends along both sides of the Jordan through­out the southern part of its course, a hermit, John by name, carried on his lonely existence. Like the Prophet Elijah, he was clothed with a pelt, which was held together by a leather girdle; his food was what he found in the steppe. In dress and in diet he thus seemed like a living protest against the civilized life of the people in the towns and villages, and especially against the Helhenized culture of the court. Such a hermit existence, to which in time disciples also bound them­selves and pursued a similar way of life, was by no means unique in those days. New, however, and strange, was the preaching of this man and his practice of baptism.

     He proclaimed to his disciples, and to the crowds that came flocking to the Jordan to hear him, that the “fulfill­ing” of the times was drawing near. The Day of the Lord was at hand, on which a judgment would be held — of the godly as well as the ungodly. The one who is to exercise the judge’s office, and separate the chaff from the wheat, is to be the Fulfiller, the Greater One whose shoe’s latchet he, John, is not worthy to unloose. For those who live face to face with this day of wrath, John knows only this one way of escape: Repent and be baptized!

     Repent — in John’s mouth that signifies no ritual perform­ance and no ascetic discipline, but the holy dread that over­takes the unholy in the presence of the holy God, and the turning of one’s whole life toward God. The baptism is not the ritual bath that was required of every heathen converted to Judaism, and of every Jew who had become unclean by contact with something heathen. It was, instead, something new and unheard of — otherwise John would not be called the “ Baptist”; it was something connected with his own person — otherwise one would not have had himself “bap­tized by him.” Its purport is easily stated: one who has him­self baptized expects to “ escape the coming wrath.” But the baptism is no magical performance, for it promises escape only to the seriously repentant; at the same time it is no merely symbolical act in the modern sense; it is rather a “sign” in the antique meaning of the word, which guaran­tees the mysterious union of the symbolical act, now occur­ring, with the future event which the symbolical act prophe­sies.

     Much more difficult to answer is the question as to the origin of this baptismal bath. It was not Jewish, as has al­ready been said. In the country east of the Jordan there seems to have been more than a single baptismal brother­hood; and the sect of the Mandaeans still living today in Baghdad and along the Euphrates — a sect which has called itself the John-Nazoraeans — may well be a lost remnant of such a group of Baptists. It may be that it was from a setting of this kind that John took over the custom of the baptismal bath, in order of course to give it a new meaning, one relat­ing to the coming world transformation. It was not a mere act of cleansing; the Jewish historian Josephus, who under­stands it in this way, is in error at this point, just as he is in making completely innocuous the Baptist and the Baptist movement in general. Indeed, as far as that goes, there is remarkably little said in the New Testament about any cleansing effect of baptism, but a striking amount, on the other hand, about its relation to dying and being born again (Mark 10:38; Luke 12:50; John 3:5; Rom. 6:4; Col. 2:12; Titus 3:5; I Peter 3:21). In such ideas may lie the ancient meaning of the baptismal bath, which gave John the Baptist a right to employ it in connection with his preaching about the coming judgment: a voluntary and therefore precau­tionary forestalling of the great catastrophe which God had determined shortly to bring upon the world. If the Evange­lists speak of a “ baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” it is because they reflect the Christian rather than the Baptist feeling.

     Among the many who flocked from the towns and villages of Palestine to the Jordan Valley to have themselves bap­tized came Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee. This connection of Jesus with the Baptist movement is an authentic fact; no Christian would have invented it. Jesus thereby affirmed what he certified later through his praise of the Baptist as the greatest of all those born of women, viz., that in John’s call to repentance and in his command to be baptized God had spoken to the nation. Whether Jesus himself received or discovered his mission at the moment of his baptism, as is implied in the Christian story of the heavenly voice, is something we do not know. Everything that the Evangelists tell us about the inner life of Jesus originates in Christian interpretation and understanding of the events, not in auto­biographic confessions of the Master (for the latter would have been handed down in direct discourse, if they had ever existed). We know with certainty only this: the Baptist movement was taken by Jesus as the sign that God’s King­dom was in fact drawing near.

     The imprisonment of the Baptist seems to have been for Jesus a second sign, a command to begin his own ministry. From this event Mark dates the preaching of the Gospel in Galilee, Jesus’ own movement. The Baptist fell into the power of the tetrarch Herod Antipas, who ruled not only over Galilee but also over the east side of the Jordan. Mark relates that John criticized the tetrarch’s second marriage. Josephus gives us to understand that other motives also played a part; in spite of the innocuous cast he gives to the Baptist movement, the Jewish historian is obliged to ac­knowledge that Herod Antipas regarded the Baptist as po­litically dangerous. In fact, a preaching that gives rise to the expectation that the Messiah will come tomorrow or the day after portends danger for those who are now in power —and so it is no wonder that the Baptist was finally executed in a fortress in the territory east of the Jordan.

     But Jesus had already taken the decisive step in the mat­ter of his own activity. He had returned to his Galilean homeland, perhaps already accompanied by disciples; ac­cording to the indications of the Fourth Gospel, several of Jesus’ disciples had earlier been among John’s closest follow­ers. The gathering of an inner circle of disciples belongs to the work of Jesus as it did to the Baptist’s movement. Com­mon also to Jesus and John is the keynote of their preaching: The time is fulfilled; repent, for the Kingdom of God is near!

     Equally clear, likewise, are the things that distinguish the Galilean preacher from the Jordan baptizer. The scene of their activity is striking, to start with. As an ascetic removed from the world, John dwelt in the steppe; as judge, arbi­trator, counselor, or physician, Jesus frequents the towns and villages in immediate contact with the people. From the Jordan Valley came a cry that aroused the country to re­pentance; the message of Jesus is gentler but more urgent, for it says to each man just what he must now do. Still more important, all that John had to give as the sole consequence of his call to repentance was the direction to be baptized; one who is baptized is now waiting for the coming King­dom. But Jesus is already able to communicate to others in word and deed the powers of God’s Kingdom; one who is taught or healed by him is already within the Kingdom.

For this is the content of the new movement, which Jesus inaugurates on his home soil: he arouses the people by the preaching of the Kingdom, but at the same time he lets them detect in the wrath of judgment, in the word of counsel, in the act of healing, the nearness of the Kingdom — a nearness that meant both bane and blessing. Thus he travels from place to place surrounded by his group of disciples. But in the places that he touches he leaves behind a larger circle of adherents — people who remain in their families and at their work, but are nevertheless ready to testify to Jesus’ cause, to lodge the Master and his followers, to follow his instruc­tions and warnings.

     The command of poverty, the watchword to “follow” Jesus on his journeyings, holds good only for the inner group of disciples; it states the presuppositions of their existence; it says nothing about moral duty as having any value by itself. This is implied by the fact that the disciples are twelve in number, a figure that equates them with the twelve tribes of which the nation originally consisted. The number is symbolic; in reality there are more traveling companions than this. The names of disciples in the Gospels exceed the limit of the figure twelve; several women, and perhaps still others (Acts 1:21), belong to the list. Only in the case of a few do we know how Jesus gained them. The first to be called by him, the brothers Simon (with the nickname Cephas “ or “Peter “—both meaning “ rock “) and An­drew, fishermen from the Lake of Galilee, are associated with the promise, “ I will make you fishers of men “ (Mark 1:17). Here too the oldest tradition is silent about the psy­chological circumstances; whether they already knew Jesus, whether he talked with them at length, is not stated. Only a later narrative (Luke 5:1—l1) permits us to see (perhaps with historical correctness) that the saying about fishers of men was spoken in connection with a miraculous draught of fishes. The Gospel of John tells of a disciple Nathanael, whom Jesus persuaded by clairvoyant knowledge regarding an event in his life — this is implied in John 1::48 rather than explicitly stated. To another, however, who sought to go along with him, but only after he had buried his father, he called out: “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead “— not as if Jesus’ message forbade the fulfilling of the obligations of filial reverence, but because the decision for the Kingdom of God cannot be postponed (Matt. 8:22). The transition from the obligations of the wider circle of follow­ers to the demands on the immediate disciples is effected by the well-known story of the rich man who wanted to attain eternal life. Jesus seeks to admit him into the familiar circle — “You know the commandments “— and only when he asserts that he has fulfilled these is he given the startling com­mand to sell his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor. This is not a regulation applying to everyone, but is God’s demand on this particular man and at this particular hour—a demand that exceeded his powers (Mark 10:17—22).

             For most of the inner circle of followers of Jesus the step from ordinary life to an itinerant one was not attended with such great sacrifices. For what they gave up was the poor and narrow life of fishermen, farmers, craftsmen, or publicans. What they got in exchange was an equally poor but free life of constant journeying. Its poverty was not a practice of as­ceticism, but was the condition of their participation in this movement inaugurated by Jesus. Its features were preaching in the open air, in houses, in synagogues, the healing of the sick, and constant journeying — then repetition of the same activity in another place, and so on through Galilee and the neighboring regions.

In general, Jesus directed his attention to people of Jewish faith, members of the synagogue communities — that they were, of course, race-pure Jews cannot be asserted in regard to Galilee, as has been shown (pp. ~ f.). When Jesus crossed the boundaries of Galilee, he had heathen people before him; but he also encountered them elsewhere. Occasionally hea­then individuals sought his help, such as the centurion in Capernaum and the Phoenician woman in the neighborhood of Tyre. He fulfills their requests, but expressly emphasizes each time that his mission is directed only toward Israel. The new people of God are to be gathered out of the old and pre­pared for the coming Kingdom. It is Jesus’ death that first opens the way for” the many,” and it is the exalted Lord who first wins the world — so at least primitive Christianity, if not Jesus himself, regarded his work (Mark 10:45; 14:24; John 12:23). Thus it was understood that Jesus himself, apart from exceptional cases, had remained within the national boundaries of Judaism.

            The disciples were his helpers; they were even collabora­tors in his work. Sayings have been preserved that order them to go forth to preach; and although these, especially as found in Matthew (ch. 10:5), seem to have been recast into an instruction for the primitive Christian missionaries, it nevertheless does not follow that all such sayings arose at a later time; it is evident that from the time of Jesus’ jour­neys the disciples also proclaimed the approach of the King­dom of God. Cures are demanded from the disciples, to be sure, but not accomplished (Mark 9:18); the new beneficent powers of the coming Kingdom are bound up with the per­son of the Master.

            A movement of an eschatological and Messianic kind in Galilee, distinguished above others by special gifts of its Leader and by the absoluteness of the motives and hopes aroused by it — this, hut nothing more than this, is what Jesus’ ministry in Galilee appears to have been. It may occa­sionally pass beyond the border districts and encroach on foreign territory; a methodically arranged and thoroughly prosecuted mission among the heathen does not take place, for Jesus does not set out to gain the non-Jews. Popular favor may turn toward him or away from him: the thronging of the masses does not become a real danger for the Jewish and Roman authorities, nor does the falling away of the disap­pointed become a threat of revolt against the Master. The fate of the Baptist may also be in preparation for him—but a political misconstruction of the message of the Baptist seems to have been much more readily possible than of the Gospel of Jesus. For the Baptist worked in the vicinity of the political and religious center of the country, Jesus in the re­mote North. Anyone who wishes to ascribe political motives to Jesus will find no foothold in his Galilean activity. A polit­ical movement would have had to struggle against the rulers, and would have been hunted down by Herod. Above all it would have had to seize the most important and most mod­ern city of Galilee, Tiberias on the Lake of Gennesaret, which by its name testified to the renown of the emperor and, with its court life, to the renown of the tetrarch. But Jesus appears to have avoided Tiberias. The central point of his journeys is Capernaum, and neither the choice of this place nor his sojourn in other neighborhoods can be con­strued as signs of a political tendency.

     The only journey of Jesus’ whose goal is recorded and whose purpose can be deduced is the journey to Jerusalem at the end of his ministry. The Galilean prophet and holy man, well known among his nearer countrymen, decides to seek out the capital of the country, the city whose character is de­termined by the priestly nobility, by Pharisaism, and by the Roman garrison. Here is the center of worship; here the Pharisees play a special role; from here, it is hoped, the King­dom of God will take its start. We do not need to engage in psychological speculations; the meaning of this journey is clear without that. In Jerusalem the new movement will present itself to the authorities of the country; in Jerusalem the ultimate verdict must be pronounced; in Jerusalem the hopes of the Kingdom of God will be realized.

Whether Jesus was often in Jerusalem we do not know. The Gospel of John describes several visits in the capital city, but it has chosen the scenes of action more for their symboli­cal significance than for their chronological sequence. Jesus’ saying of Jerusalem, “How often would I have gathered your children together” (Luke 13:34), maybe a quotation, but it may also refer to the decisive visit to Jerusalem at the close of his life. In any case Jesus has not heretofore sought or demanded a decision in the capital, nor asserted the ancient hopes and claims in the way he does now with his entry into the city and his action in the Temple. He means not only to be heard there — he means to be either accepted or rejected by men there; and he means to confront the capital with the message of the Kingdom of God.

     All this may be concluded from the fact that Jesus took his followers with him to Jerusalem. It is the one and only indication known to us of a development in the history of Jesus. The movement that Jesus set going in Galilee was trans­ferred by this change of scene to the religious center of the country. Thereby, so it appears, it was brought to the bar of decision. In reality, however, looked at from the viewpoint of world history, what stands at the bar is not Jesus’ circle but rather Judaism itself. The reasons for and the conditions of this outcome can be made clear only after we have dis­cussed the content of the movement herein depicted. What we perceive from without does not yet explain the outcome of Jesus’ ministry; and especially it does not account for the fact that this outcome was not an end but a beginning, the fact that the movement of Jesus lived on in the Church of Christ.