Part 1: He Was Remembered – Chapter 1
The title I have ventured to propose for these lectures is an ambitious one, for at its widest it covers the whole content of the New Testament. Paul reminds the church at Corinth that when he was with them he had preached nothing except Jesus; a glance at the New Testament will indicate that Paul was not alone in this preoccupation. The faith and the life of the early church were centered about Jesus, and one could not speak without using his name. That name occurs a thousand times in the New Testament, and if separate references to " Christ" and "the Lord" were included, the count would be even higher -- indeed, much higher. Nor are these occurrences confined to the Gospels, where Jesus’ life and teaching are being explicitly described; they are to be found almost as frequently in the Epistles -- and in all manner of connections. Paul’s little note to Philemon, for example, hardly more than a page long and concerned largely with an owner’s relations with a slave, refers to Jesus as many as ten times. The meaning of Jesus in the early church is nothing less than the whole meaning of the whole New Testament. It is even more than that, for it is the meaning of the life of the early church itself.
The word "meaning," as we ordinarily use it, has two senses: one abstract, the other concrete; one formulable in terms of ideas, the other even partly expressible only in terms of art or action. In the first sense "meaning" is truth understood; in the second it is reality experienced. One may ask, for example, what is the meaning of the war which at this moment has engulfed the world, and answer with an explanation of why the war occurred, of what is happening in it, and of what is to be expected from it. But one may ask the same question and know that the answer can never be given in words. The meaning of the war in this second sense is the actual impact of the war on the millions who are involved in it. It is the anguish of waiting, the agony of struggle; it is killing and being killed, maiming and being maimed; it is leave-taking, absence, fear and hope, joy and despair, devotion and hatred, escape and death; it is the exultation of victory; it is the bitterness of defeat; it is the incalculable aggregate of all the blood, sweat, and tears the war is costing the thousands who fight and the millions who suffer the war’s desolation. The meaning of the war in this sense is what the war is actually doing to the minds, hearts, consciences, and bodies of men and women. That meaning cannot be expressed in conceptual terms. It cannot be expressed at all, in the way an idea can be expressed. The best words can do is to represent, stand for, point out, symbolize or suggest this kind of meaning; they cannot contain it. Great works of art are all concerned with meaning in this concrete sense.
Now when we speak of the meaning of Jesus in the early church, we have both of these senses in mind. We are thinking both of what he actually was and of the ways in which he was understood and interpreted. We are thinking both of the concrete impact of Jesus upon the members of the community which was formed about him and of the ways in which the community tried to explain the magnitude and the revolutionary consequences of that impact. We are thus concerned with both Christ and Christology, with both life and dogma.
Of these two concerns there can be no question as to which is more important: life is more important than dogma, Christ than Christology. Christianity grew out of an event, or, better perhaps, a closely knit series of events; it was not the elaboration of an abstract idea or ideal. That event, or the center of that series of events, was the person whom we know as Jesus Christ. All distinctively and authentically Christian ideas are inferences from the thing that has happened among us," are attempts to explain and interpret it. But although there can be no question that in the last analysis fact is more important than explanation, actually they cannot be separated, for some measure of explanation and interpretation -- adequate or inadequate, accurate or inaccurate -- is part and parcel of any knowledge of objective reality it is given us to have. If there is such a thing as a "bare fact," certainly we cannot know one. If there is such a thing as a merely objective event, certainly we can have no knowledge of it as such. History and interpretation, distinguishable in idea, cannot in fact be separated.
The false assumption that they can be separated and that a purely objective historiography is possible (or could be true even if it were possible) partly accounts for the dryness, unreality, and irrelevance which have sometimes characterized biblical scholarship. For a generation or more biblical scholarship has been committed to what is known as the historical method -- that is, to the aim of seeing the books of the Bible in their historical setting and understanding them as nearly as possible in the way their writers and first readers understood them. This historical method of interpretation stands over against the modernizing method. which makes the words of the Scripture mean whatever they may happen to mean to the naive contemporary reader. The distinction between these two methods is manifest, real, and important.
But as much as this cannot be said for another distinction, of which one often hears, between the historical interpretation of the Bible on the one hand, and an interpretation variously called devotional, religious, or theological, on the other. This distinction is often drawn in theory and is constantly exemplified in practice, but it is a false and vicious distinction. There can be no true religious or devotional or theological understanding of the Bible which is not also historical understanding. Once we cut loose from the historical sense of the Bible, we have cut loose from the Bible, although we may play all kinds of homiletical games with its words. This, I hope, is clear enough, although what interpreter with a practical religious interest is altogether free from guilt in this matter?
What is not so clear, but is equally true, is that there can be no true historical understanding of the Bible which is not also devotional, or religious, or theological. For the books of the Bible are not primarily concerned with facts in some hypothetical "bare" sense, but with meanings in the concrete sense of the term. Now such meanings cannot be apprehended with the same kind and degree of objectivity as formal facts can be. One cannot understand such meanings from the outside; one must see them from within. This involves the likelihood, perhaps the necessity, of subjective mistakes; but that risk must be taken, although only with all possible caution. The historian who steadfastly keeps himself as a person out of his study of an epoch may avoid certain subjective errors, but he misses most of the epoch. Purely objective historiography would be neither truly objective nor history. Historiography has to be somewhat subjective in order to be as objective as it can be, This is true because the objects of historical study are events, which are in no small part subjective objects; for events do not simply happen, as in a vacuum: they happen in connection with persons -- they happen not only among persons and to persons, but also in considerable measure within persons -- and only persons as persons can even begin to understand what any historical event in its concreteness is. The true historian is artist and philosopher, not scientist only. A good piece of historical writing is a picture, not a map; a living body, not a diagram; a full-length portrait in color, not a list of dimensions or a thumbnail description.
Now what we have in the New Testament is the account of an event, Jesus Christ, as that event occurred -- that is, as it was experienced, responded to, became effective -- in the community of his followers and their immediate successors. If by the historical study of the New Testament we mean the attempt really to understand that event as it was, then it is clear that no mastery of the critical tools of his craft can be of any but the meagerest use unless the historian stands imaginatively within the event, himself feels the force of it, sees it, as far as may be, as those saw it to whom it first occurred. A cold, dispassionate study of the mightiest event in human history, whatever else it is, cannot be truly and fully historical. It may be accurate, but it is hopelessly inadequate. It may miss being false at any particular point, but it misses being true altogether.
But New Testament study has sometimes been thus cold and dispassionate -- has indeed regarded such detachment as a virtue. Detachment is a virtue so long as it is not actual separation from the object one is trying to understand. When scholarly detachment means a breaking of concrete contact with the reality the scholar is presumably studying, it defeats itself. One has become so objective that one has lost the object. It is partly because of this self-defeating worship of a false and impossible objectivity that New Testament study has sometimes lost contact with the real life of the ancient church and therefore with the life of the continuing church.
We cannot know the meaning of Jesus in the early church except as we know what he actually was within the experience of the men and women who formed the community. To say this is to say that the New Testament does not belong to secular scholarship. Secular scholarship can make immense contributions to the understanding of the New Testament, but cannot itself understand even the first word of it. The New Testament belongs to the church. The church wrote it; only the church can read it. I am not referring here to any magical qualification; the secular scholarship which succeeded in understanding the New Testament would, by that token, have become Christian scholarship. To know the concrete meaning of Jesus in the early church is to belong to the Christian community, for only within the community did the meaning first exist and only within the community has it been conveyed to us. One who finds it at all finds it there. Indeed, might it not be said that a knowledge of this meaning of Jesus is and has always been constitutive of membership in the Christian community?
A very few words will indicate the procedure we expect to follow in these lectures. A visitor at one of the meetings of a typical church at the middle of the first century, hearing the name of Jesus spoken again and again, would, I believe, have received three impressions: he would have gathered that Jesus was a person remembered; that he was a person still known as a living reality by the members of the group; and that he was a person about whom certain important theological ideas were held. A reader coming fresh to the New Testament would get this same threefold impression: Jesus was for its writers an object of memory, of present experience, and of theological reflection. These lectures will attempt as much elaboration of this impression as limitations of time will permit: "He was remembered," "He was known still," "He was interpreted." The remainder of this and the following two lectures will be devoted to the first of these topics; the fourth lecture, to the second topic; and the final two, to the third. It must not be forgotten that the three topics, differentiated from one another for purposes of discussion, represent aspects of one unified meaning, and that actually memory, religious faith, and theology were fused indissolubly. Although I shall occasionally refer to other sections of the New Testament and to extracanonical literature, we shall rely chiefly upon Paul and the Gospels as constituting the most important witnesses to the meaning of Jesus in the early church.
The earliest books of the New Testament are the letters of Paul. These letters were written over a span of not more than twenty years just before and after the middle of the first century and therefore within what might be called the first Christian generation. They had all been written and Paul himself had died before the earliest Gospel was written, and they had been assembled and published and were in wide use among the churches before the last of the Gospels was composed.
This Pauline collection contained ten letters. One of these, the Epistle to the Ephesians, was probably composed, after Paul’s own time, by a disciple well acquainted with the apostle’s writings, perhaps by the collector himself; but the other letters were almost certainly his. Colossians and II Thessalonians are the only letters whose authenticity has even been seriously questioned, and both of them could be surrendered without great loss so far as our understanding of Paul is concerned. That understanding really rests upon Romans, Galatians, Philippians, and the Corinthian letters, all of them undoubtedly genuine. The so-called Pastoral Epistles, I and II Timothy, and Titus, belong to the second century and were not a part of the original collection of Paul’s works. (The conclusions thus summarily stated cannot be defended in this book. They rest upon data presented in any good "Introduction" to the New Testament, and [except for some dissent about Ephesians] would be concurred in by virtually all students of the New Testament.)
I have already quoted Paul as saying that he was determined to know nothing except Jesus; and one has only to leaf through his letters to see how completely his religious life and thought were dominated by him whom he variously calls "Christ," "Jesus Christ," "the Lord Jesus Christ," or simply " the Lord." Jesus appears most often in Paul’s letters as a mighty personal reality known in his own present experience, whose meaning he seeks to interpret; and for that reason Paul will come in for more thorough discussion in the last three lectures in this series. But it cannot be escaped that when Paul speaks of Jesus, he is speaking of a person remembered. The reality which he knows so intimately and surely and whose meaning he can explain only in the most exalted theological terms is a man who walked the earth not long ago and whom hundreds of living men vividly recall.
This fact, one may remark in passing, in no small part accounts for the unique power of the Christian message as Paul preached it in a world which, as he is said to have remarked to an audience in Athens, was very religious. Early Christianity is often compared with the mystery cults, which, arising in the East, so strongly appealed to the mind and mood of the West during this period. There were gods many and lords many. There were Serapis, Isis, Mithra, Adonis, Demeter, and many more -- all of them addressed as Lord or by some similar title and worshiped as divine, But these were not historical persons actually remembered. Among the many differences which set a wide gulf between early Christianity and the mysteries, despite many similarities and doubtless no little mutual interpenetration, none was more important than this.(For an excellent discussion of the mystery cults see S. J. Case, The Evolution of Early Christianity[Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1914], pp. 284 if. This chapter refers to most of the important literature on the subject. Of general books in English appearing later than 1914 the most valuable is probably H. R. Willoughby, Pagan Regeneration (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1929.) It was the memory of a particular man -- or, better, it was the particular man himself who was remembered -- which, more than any other single factor, gave the Christian community its character and the Christian faith its power. This memory unmistakably underlies Paul’s knowledge of Christ and is presupposed in every reference he makes to him. "The Lord Christ" is no vague mythological personage: Jesus was Lord.
That this was true for Paul does not depend upon any conclusion one may reach on the question whether Paul had ever seen Jesus in the flesh.(This question has been vigorously discussed, frequently in connection with the larger question of how real and close was Jesus’ influence upon Paul. a question of which, as I am now endeavoring to point out, it is really independent. On the whole, I should be inclined to say that Paul had not been acquainted with Jesus (in spite of the apparent, but not necessary, implication of II Cor. 5:16). But on the other side see J. Weiss. Paul and Jesus (London and New York: Harper & Brothers. 1909). May I say, however, that Weiss’s principal argument seems to me to involve a curious error? This argument is that Paul could not have recognized as Jesus the glorious figure which, according to Acts, appeared to him in his vision on the Damascus road, if he had not already had in his mind such a picture of Jesus as could have been gained only by actual sight. But is it not a fact that we often, perhaps usually, have in our minds an impression of the appearance of any person about whom we have thought or heard much, even though we may have had no actual basis for the impression, either in our own experience or in what others have told us? How often we say when we meet a person about whom we have heard others speak: "You do not look in the least like the person I had expected to see.") That question is unimportant. If Paul had seen Jesus, he certainly had no more than merely seen him. If he knew him, he knew him only in the way Pilate or the high priest knew him, and therefore did not know him at all. Paul’s effective knowledge of Jesus came to him only after Jesus’ crucifixion, by way of the testimony of others. He entered into the shared remembrance of Jesus which lay, has always lain, and lies still, near the center of the life of the Christian community.
To the reality and importance of this shared remembrance the very existence of the Gospels bears witness. It is often pointed out that the four Gospels -- especially the historically most valuable of them, the first three Gospels -- are not personal compositions in nearly so important a sense as they are creations of the early church. The Gospels are community books. They were composed not by historians, with what we like to call scientific detachment, but by Christian preachers and teachers, and for certain practical purposes. It is undoubtedly true, as we shall frequently have occasion to observe in these lectures, that the Gospels reflect the interests and are addressed to the felt needs of Gentile churches in the late first and early second centuries. These interests and needs were many and diverse, and it is not difficult to show that they often functioned to determine not only the selection of materials a Gospel writer used but also the precise form in which he presented them. But one of these interests -- and surely not the least important of them -- was simply an interest in remembering Jesus as he was. Papias, an important Christian teacher of Hierapolis about 150 A.D., tells us with what eagerness he listened to anyone who had talked with one of the apostles and who could therefore bring him some fresh memory of Jesus (This appears in the preface of Papias’ work. Exposition of the Oracles of the Lord, as quoted by Eusebius. Ecclesiastical History, iii, 39.) Who can doubt that, however many other interests operated to produce the Gospels, this interest in preserving the remembrance of Jesus was one of the most powerful of them?
But if this can be said of the Gospels, it is much more clearly true of the earlier tradition upon which the Gospel writers depended. For the Gospels, especially the first three, are community books not only in the sense that they reflect the interests and needs of the community, but also because they put into what proved to be final form the materials of mixed reminiscence and interpretation of Jesus which had accumulated and circulated among the churches immediately following his career. There is no such thing as pure reminiscence -- that is, reminiscence altogether without interpretation -- but can we doubt that the Gospel-making process began with the act of remembering, as simply as possible, what Jesus had been, what he had said and done, what had happened to him? Those materials which had proved most useful in preaching and teaching were the items which were finally preserved in the Gospels; but it was often the case that these particular items proved most useful for the same reason they had proved most memorable: they were intrinsically most significant. In the beginning a word or act of Jesus would have been remembered simply because of this significance; only later would its use in preaching and teaching disclose its practical effectiveness.
Apparently an early way of citing a saying of Jesus was with the words: "Remember the words of the Lord Jesus how he said . . ." This formula occurs in the book of Acts and traces of it are to be found in I Clement, Polycarp, and elsewhere.(See Acts 20:35; I Clement 13:1; Polycarp 2:3.) Does not the exhortation "remember" almost certainly go back to the simple question, "Do you remember?" How often that question must have been asked as the first disciples and friends of Jesus met after his passion. Then, at least, they must have met largely in remembrance of him. To be sure, they knew him as risen and they awaited his return; but the significance and power of this faith and expectation lay in the fact that it was he who had risen and he who would come again. They believed because they remembered; memory supported faith and made it significant. If I may adapt Paul’s words to an unintended use, Jesus in the early church was the object of faith, hope and love; but here, too, love was "the greatest of these," because both faith and hope rested firmly upon it and derived their character from it. Faith and hope might have neglected the memory of Jesus; love most surely would not. Love most surely did not.
But what was remembered? What was the content of this original memory of Jesus? That it included much which is not to be found in our Gospels goes without saying: only the most significant acts and words would continue to be remembered and would thus be accessible to the Gospel writers a generation or so later. But what about the materials which our Gospels do contain? Did they belong to the primitive tradition? We recognize that "many other signs did Jesus in the presence of his disciples which are not written" (John 20:30.) in these books; but to what extent can we trust the things that are written there?
The obvious answer here is that whereas the Gospels rest firmly upon the primitive authentic memory of Jesus, they contain much which did not belong to that memory. It was inevitable that this should be true. Recollections were not immediately written down, or if they were, such early writings were soon lost or had small circulation. The stories about Jesus and the reports of his sayings for the most part passed by word of mouth from ear to ear, from group to group, in the expanding church, and would suffer some unintentional modification in the process. It was to be expected also that, as time passed, new stories would be produced and legendary elements would weave themselves among earlier, sounder parts of the tradition. It was also inevitable that as new meanings were found in ancient materials, the materials themselves would be altered to make these meanings more apparent. These developments we should expect to occur, and there can be no doubt that they did occur. When we deal, later in these lectures, with the way Jesus was interpreted in the early church, we shall have occasion to discuss at some length several examples of such modifications in the tradition. But some illustration of how this process worked may be valuable now. Let us look at the part of the tradition in which the process of change was under least control because there was little, if any, actual memory by which to check it -- the tradition concerning Jesus’ birth.
The earliest Gospel is the Gospel of Mark. Although it does not deal explicitly with the birth of Jesus, one would gather from it that Jesus was born in Nazareth of Galilee,( See Mark 1:9; 6:1. The use of the word narpls in Mark 6:1 is all but decisive. The word means "native city.") that his mother’s name was Mary. and that she and several brothers and sisters of Jesus still lived there after Jesus’ public career had begun. It is highly likely that this account in Mark represents a primitive memory, the more so as the Fourth Gospel also represents Jesus as coming from Nazareth. But it was soon noticed, in some communities at least, that according to the Scriptures the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem of Judea. Since Jesus was the Messiah and since it was inconceivable that the Scriptures should be mistaken about his birthplace, this prediction became the most incontrovertible of evidence that Jesus had actually been born there.
Since no remembered fact threw any light upon why his parents were in Bethlehem when he was born (earlier tradition uniformly associating them with Nazareth), imagination was free to explain the circumstance in whatever seemed the most plausible way. We should not be surprised, therefore, to find that the two Gospels which tell us of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem offer quite different explanations: Matthew leaves us to understand that Joseph and Mary resided in Bethlehem when Jesus was born; that they remained there after his birth until just before Herod’s murder of the infants, when they escaped to Egypt; that it was their intention to resume their residence in Bethlehem upon their return to Palestine, but fear of the new king of Judea led them to push on beyond their former home and to settle finally in Nazareth of Galilee. This is how it happened, as Matthew understands it, that one who had been born in Bethlehem came to be known as the Nazarene. Luke, on the other hand, understands that Mary and Joseph resided all the time in Nazareth; that they only chanced to be in Bethlehem when Jesus was born, having gone there for the purpose of being enrolled in a census; and that after Jesus’ birth they returned to Nazareth again.
Even earlier than the Bethlehem tradition was the belief that Jesus was a descendant of David. This belief may, of course, have rested upon a genuine memory; but more probably it did not, since one passage, Mark i 2:35 if., attributes to Jesus himself a denial that the Messiah would be of Davidic descent and, implicitly, that he himself was.(This passage is as follows, "And Jesus answered and said while he taught in the temple, How do the scribes say that the Christ is the son of David? For David himself said by the Holy Spirit, The Lord said to my Lord, Sit thou on my right hand till I make thine enemies thy footstool. David therefore himself calleth him Lord; and whence is he his son?" This passage may represent an authentic conversation of Jesus, or it may have been developed out of the experiences of the later church. If authentic, it must mean that Jesus did not believe the Messiah would be or. at least, needed to be, a descendant of David. In that event, it is virtually impossible to suppose that the very early community which remembered and preserved this remark of Jesus and presumably used it in its preaching and teaching held a different view. More probably, however, the remark is not authentic. In that event, it can hardly have been developed except to refute those (probably Jewish) opponents who insisted that Jesus could not be the Messiah because he was not a descendant of David. As we shall see almost at once, the later answer to this charge was the claim that he was a son of David; apparently an earlier answer was that he did not need to be. But the claim to Davidic descent goes back quite early, as Rom. 1:3 indicates.) Besides, such a belief would so naturally have developed in the church in the same way that belief in the Bethlehem birthplace developed: According to the Scriptures (the kind of exegesis represented by Mark 12:35 ff. proved too strained and tortuous) , the Messiah was to be the son of David; but Jesus was the Messiah; therefore, he was the son of David.
But whether Jesus’ descent from David was a genuine memory or an inference from his messiahship, the two quite different genealogies which in Matthew and Luke support this belief can hardly have belonged to the most primitive tradition. Both of them cannot be true, and it is doubtful that either is. They would have been produced during the period when Christians were supporting the claim of Davidic descent for Jesus against Jewish denials, and the discrepancies between them indicate the lack of any authentic or authoritative source of information.
Still another step may be noted in the growth of the birth-story tradition in the period in which the Synoptic Gospels were being compiled. Both genealogies presuppose that Jesus was born in the normal way and therefore trace the descent through Joseph. Later, however, it became widely believed that Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary. The two genealogies were too firmly established in the tradition to be discarded or corrected, although they are utterly incompatible with the new belief. Both Gospel writers make superficial changes in the genealogies, attempting to smooth out the discrepancy, but actually they only call attention to it. Matthew concludes his account with the words: "And Jacob begat Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ"; and Luke begins his: "And Jesus was about thirty years of age, being (as was supposed) the son of Joseph, which was the son of Heli . . ." Luke’s phrase, "as was supposed," betrays particularly clearly that he is attempting to bring an old tradition into line with a later belief with which it was originally and is still essentially incompatible. It may also be noted in this connection that the story of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem which Luke adopts had apparently taken form before this belief emerged. Why should it be assumed that Mary would accompany Joseph to Bethlehem unless they were man and wife? Undoubtedly, when this story was first told, they were represented as such. Luke brings the story into line with the new conception by placing the word "affianced" before "wife," but he cannot so easily destroy the sure traces of an earlier and simpler view.
My reason for reviewing the birth stories in Matthew and Luke is not that I regard them as typical of the extent of change the primitive memories of Jesus suffered before the Gospels fixed the tradition in the form in which we possess it. This part of the tradition underwent more extensive and rapid change than any other simply because interest in Jesus’ birth developed relatively late and there was no solid body of remembered fact by which to check the growth of legend. We are not surprised that this growth proceeded so swiftly that by the end of the second century whole Gospels are devoted to stories of Jesus’ birth and boyhood, all of them palpably without the slightest foundation. I have cited the tradition of Jesus’ birth because the very extensiveness and rapidity of its development enable us to see there more clearly than elsewhere the principles of change which were in some degree operative throughout the whole tradition. In every part of it original memory is mixed with later interpretation and is often modified by it; but one has only to compare the canonical Gospels with such later apocryphal Gospels as the Protevangelium of James or the Gospel of Thomas (These and other noncanonical Gospels are most readily available in Montague Rhodes James, The Apocryphal New Testament [London: Oxford University Press, 1924.]) to see that the body of remembered fact and impression was throughout the first century substantial enough to prevent the wild growth of the tradition.
Indeed, it is striking that the same critical tests which, when applied to the birth stories, reveal so large an element of legend, have the effect, rather, of establishing the validity of the Gospel record when they are applied to the main body of the tradition, the Synoptic account of Jesus’ public career. One of the most prevalent misunderstandings of the meaning of historical criticism as applied to the Gospels has been the supposition that the method has had only negative results. The fact is that for every alleged fact discredited, another has been the more firmly established, and the increased confidence with which we can accept certain elements in the tradition more than compensates for doubts cast on other elements.
Consider, for example, the tradition concerning Jesus’ early connection with John the Baptist. In Mark we are told simply that Jesus was baptized by John in the river Jordan. This was the primitive memory. But we can see that this baptism would cause growing embarrassment: Why should Jesus have been baptized by John -- the greater by the less? And was not John’s baptism a "baptism of repentance"? How then could he who was really the Christ have accepted it? The whole question of Jesus’ baptism by John was the more important and disturbing because at the end of the first century disciples of the Baptist were challenging the primacy of Jesus over John and were doubtless appealing to the baptism as one of their principal arguments.(The best summary known to me of the evidence for the existence and importance of a John the Baptist sect is to be found in an article in the American, Journal of Theology (Jan. 1912) by Clayton R. Bowen, "John the Baptist in the New Testament." This article was later reprinted in a volume of Dr. Bowen’s collected papers, edited by Robert J. Hutcheon and published under the title, Studies in the New Testament (Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1936), pp. 49ff. The following paragraph, quoted by permission of the University of Chicago Press, will be illuminating: "Justin Martyr, who began his Christian life in Ephesus, knows a sect of Jews called Baptists (Trypho, 80). Hegesippus, a little later, gives a similar list of Jewish sects, including ‘Hemerobaptists’ (Eus. IV, xxii, 7). These Hemerobaptists meet us again in the Apostolic Constitutions, in Epiphanius, in the Talmud, and elsewhere. The Clementine Homilies (II:23) speak of John as a Hemerobaptist, making the definite connection between this sect and his movement. The Clementine Recognitions (I:60) has this passage: ‘One of the disciples of John asserted that John was the Messiah, and not Jesus, inasmuch as Jesus himself declared that John was greater than all men and all prophets. If then, said he, he be greater than all, he must be held to be greater than Moses and than Jesus himself. But if he be the greatest of all, then he must be the Messiah.’") But the baptism was too well remembered to be denied, although the Fourth Gospel, written in the early second century, can be silent about it. Luke manages to avoid saying explicitly that John baptized Jesus, and in Matthew’s Gospel Mark’s simple account is amplified by the inclusion of a protest on the part of John against the impropriety of his baptizing Jesus when really Jesus should be baptizing him. In other words, John himself is made to state the Christian case against the followers of John. This is evidently a legendizing addition; but the remembered facts are clear enough. The very signs of the difficulty the early church had with the tradition at this point establish its validity. The baptism would never have been affirmed if it had not been remembered.
The same kind of test confirms such facts as that the major part of Jesus’ public career lay in Galilee rather than in Jerusalem and Judea, and that he was actually put to death by the Roman rather than by the Jewish authorities. In the later Gospels a strong tendency was at work to emphasize the importance of Jerusalem in Jesus’ ministry. Once the church had become largely Gentile (and this happened very soon [It is clear that by the time Paul wrote his letter to the Romans this had happened. In chaps. 9-11 Paul is dealing with the fact that the Jews have, by and large, rejected the gospel and the church has become an almost entirely Gentile community.]), the tendency to associate Jesus with the most important center of Palestine -- indeed, the only center of which the average Gentile would have heard perhaps -- is understandable. That the association of Jesus with Galilee should have been invented is unthinkable; on the contrary, if the fact had not been distinctly remembered it would have dropped from sight (as it has almost done in the Fourth Gospel) under the pressure of the tendency to emphasize the capital city. In the same way, it is clear that as the church became more and more exclusively Gentile, there was the strongest inclination to play down the part which Pilate and the Romans had in the crucifixion and to place the blame on the Jews. This inclination, which reaches its extreme expression in some of the later apocryphal literature, clearly appears in the canonical narratives. But the fact that Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate could not be denied, however it might be mitigated, explained, or condoned. Again, we can be surer of the fact than before the critical tests were applied.
All of these items -- Jesus’ Nazareth origin, his baptism by John, the Galilean locale of his ministry, his execution by the Gentiles -- are examples of facts of which we can be especially sure because later interests and beliefs of the churches would have led to a denial of them if they had not been well authenticated and firmly established. Other examples of this kind will appear in the course of this discussion. It would be arbitrary, however, to decide that nothing is to be trusted which does not pass this test. The fact that an item sustains a later belief or serves a later need does not mean ipso facto that it cannot be regarded as belonging to the earliest tradition. Only when it also fails to conform to the original situation as our most primitive sources give it to us is an item to be rejected. I have already said enough to indicate that many of the Gospel statements fail to meet this test; but many more do not fail, and the principal facts of Jesus’ career emerge clearly and surely enough.
Although these lectures can attempt no full or detailed account of the life of Jesus, it is in order to state briefly what, so far as we can know, was the early church’s understanding of the major formal facts of his career. As I have said and as we would have expected, little, if anything, was remembered about Jesus’ birth and boyhood. It was known that he had come from Nazareth in Galilee, and in all probability it was assumed, or known, that he had been born there. He was the eldest in a family of several brothers and sisters, some of whom at least, whatever their attitude toward him may have been during his lifetime, were later prominent members of the community of believers. Paul speaks of the "brethren of the Lord" as being among the early evangelists and refers to "James, the Lord’s brother," who was apparently the head of the Jerusalem church.(I Cor. 9:5; Gal. 1:19.) Jesus doubtless received an elementary education in the synagogue school at Nazareth. There is no reason to doubt that his father was a carpenter and that Jesus learned that trade. There is every indication that he was brought up in a pious Jewish home of what we would call the economic and social lower middle class.
It was the preaching of John the Baptist which seems to have led immediately to Jesus’ forsaking the quietness and obscurity of his Nazareth life and undertaking his public work. We have already seen how strong is the tradition associating the inauguration of his teaching career with this preacher of God’s righteousness, this herald of God’s approaching judgment, this voice calling Israel to repentance. About the character of Jesus’ own message I shall speak later. While not failing to strike these same notes of righteousness, judgment, and repentance, it differed as widely from John’s message as his manner of life differed from that of the austere prophet, who lived alone in the desert, was clothed in camel’s hair, and "came neither eating nor drinking." Jesus taught and healed in the villages and towns of Galilee, surrounded by multitudes and, more intimately, by a little group of disciples, mostly fishermen and artisans, who accompanied him on his journeys through the countryside and to and fro across the lake of Galilee. Capernaum, a city on the lake, appears to have been his most frequent place of residence.
There is no way of knowing how long his public work continued. Since only one Passover is mentioned in the Synoptic Gospels, it is likely that his active career was a matter of months or, at most, a year. As the Passover approached, he determined to go to Jerusalem, although growing opposition to him among the leaders of official Judaism warned him of danger there.( Although there can be no doubt, as we have seen, that Jesus was put to death by the Roman authorities, I cannot agree with those who virtually deny any hostility toward him on the part of the authorized religious leaders of the people, especially the Pharisees. The actual death of Jesus was perpetrated by the Romans (indeed, the use of crucifixion would itself indicate this) , perhaps with the assistance, if not at the instigation, of some of the priestly hierarchy at Jerusalem, who probably feared a "disturbance even more than the Roman officers did. But there is every reason to believe that before the rapidly climactic events of the final week began. Jesus had offended the official leaders, Pharisees as well as Sadducees. This hostility, according to the highly credible account in Mark 2: 1-3:6, grew out of the threat Jesus constituted to the authority of the "law" as it was conventionally interpreted and to the authority of its trained and duly ordained interpreters. His teaching and practice threatened the mores, the ways of life, to which official Judaism attached much more importance than to formal beliefs merely as such. His way of conceiving God’s righteous will was nothing short of revolutionary, and the opposition of vested interests, religious as well as political, should not be surprising.) This danger quickly materialized. Perhaps it was the enthusiasm of Galilean pilgrims, who hailed him as Messiah as he entered the city, which called Jesus to the unfavorable notice of the Roman authorities; perhaps it was Jesus’ own act of driving money-changers from the temple courts; perhaps it was the bringing of charges against him by powerful Jewish groups whom he had offended. We cannot know just how it happened, but the Roman government was led to see in him a possible revolutionary. He was secretly arrested, summarily tried, and quickly executed.
Such, very briefly, are the major formal facts of Jesus’ career. One cannot state them without realizing afresh how unilluminating and really unimportant such facts often are. Statistics are rarely vital. In this case they do not give us the slightest hint that the life to which they relate was the greatest life ever lived and marked the most important moment in the long history of mankind. For the secret of both that greatness and that importance one must look, not to the public facts about his life, but to what he actually meant to the few who knew and loved him. The due to understanding the whole historical significance of Jesus lies in the meaning of Jesus in the early church.