The Historical Jesus
By Ted Belman
Scholars have long recognized that the historical Jesus and the Jesus of faith are not one and the same. Many such scholars both Christian and otherwise participate every few years in the Jesus Seminar which reviews recent discoveries and treatises which shed light on the historical Jesus. They cast ballots to state their opinions on whether each statement or act attributed to Jesus in the Gospels can’t be true, might be true or probably is true. Much has been written on the historical Jesus and continues to be written. Most scholars, except for the fundamentalists and literalists, are of the opinion that very little in the gospels is true. But does it matter.
Some Christian scholars argue that the historical Jesus is irrelevant. Its the Jesus of faith that counts. Others would say that if Jesus wasn’t the son of G-d or G-d himself or, less extreme, if he didn’t say the things or do the deeds or have the personality attributed to him in the Gospels then Christianity is meaningless. Before we Jews get too smug, we must realize that one could also argue that if the Torah wasn’t inspired by G-d or if G-d didn’t liberate the Jews from Egypt or enter into a covenant with Abraham that Judaism would have no foundation in truth. In both cases religion would be a man made construct executed after the events depicted. Yet before we dismiss these religions and all others of which the same can be said, we must realize that man has always enshrined basic truths as they understood them in mythology. What counts then is the message and not the facts; or, what counts is not what happened, only what people think happened.. My purpose is not to delve further into this debate but simply to identify for you what is known about the historical Jesus.
The New Testament
We learn about the Jesus of Faith from the New Testament. It consists of, among other things, the Epistles of Paul written (50-60 CE) after the death of Jesus (32 CE), Acts of the Apostles, written about 100 CE, which describes the putative beginnings of the Church and the role of Paul, and the four Gospels ( 70-110 CE) which deal with the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus. When studying the New Testament, it is important to keep in mind that although the Gospels deal with the life of Jesus, they were written long after the Epistles of Paul which are the first writings. Accordingly the Gospels were greatly affected by Paul’s ideas and interpretations. As you can well imagine there were many rewrites to these entities over the first 300 years of the C.E. and there were many other testimonies and written stories. What we have today as the New Testament was compiled and edited into final form in 325 CE when Christianity became the official religion of Rome.
The question arises,.. to what extent is the Jesus of faith set out in these Gospels, coincident with the historical Jesus.
Before dealing either with the Jesus of faith or the historical Jesus, it’s important to introduce Josephus (37-96 CE) to you. Josephus wrote The Jewish Wars in the seventies, after the destruction of the Temple and wrote Antiquities in the nineties, He originally fought with the Jewish resistance against the Romans but ultimately switched allegiance to the Romans. He became connected at the highest levels and became a Roman citizen. His meticulous reproduction of events and persons in Palestine in this period is without equal in almost any time or place up to the era of modern record keeping and reportage. It is because of these books that we know so much today of what took place. These books were preserved by the Church, because they were thought to refer to Jesus. In them, Josephus suggests that Jesus was “more than a man”, avers him to have been “the Christ” and refers to his resurrection “on the third day”. From such a lover of detail, not much at all for someone, the Gospels consider to be the center piece of the times.
Scholars do not accept that Josephus would have written thus, because it is in line with orthodox Christian teachings which developed after he wrote these books and is in conflict with his view, elsewhere expressed, that the troubles were caused by the messianic deceivers of whom Jesus would have been one. They suggest that the Church was the author of these interpolations. In fact Josephus did not refer to Jesus, James his brother or John the Baptist in Jewish Wars, but did so in Antiquities, presumably because he felt more secure twenty years later.
Where the Gospels and Josephus agree, is on blaming the Jews and praising the Romans, in general, and Pilot (who crucified Jesus) and Titus (who destroyed the Temple) in particular, for their clemency and indulgence. The Gospels blame the Jews for rejecting Jesus and Josephus blames the Jews for rejecting Rome. For the destruction of the Temple, Josephus says “we have only ourselves to blame” and “the Temple was burned against the wishes of Caesar.”. In the Gospel of Matthew, when Jesus is crucified, the Jews are reputed to have said “his blood be upon us and upon our children.” and Pilot is reputed to have been agreeable to releasing Jesus or Barabbas and the Jews picked Barabbas thereby condemning Jesus. The parallels are striking. It is obvious that they were both marching to the same drummer, Rome.
Our search for Jesus must start with the study of Paul who was the founder of Christianity. He is regarded as the great interpreter of Jesus’ mission, who explained, in a way that Jesus never did, how Jesus’ life and death fit into the cosmic scheme of salvation. It was as a result of his theories and efforts that Christianity came into being.
He claimed in his Epistles to have been born a Jew and to have been a Pharisee. The Pharisees at the time were held in high regard by the Roman and Parthian empires as dedicated group who upheld religious ideals in the face of tyranny, supported leniency and mercy in the application of laws, and championed the rights of the poor against the oppression of the rich. Paul, who was earlier known as Saul, was claiming a high honour. It was only as a result of the Gospels that the Pharisees got an undeserved reputation for hypocrisy. Paul obviously was attempting to get greater legitimacy for his views by showing he was learned in the Law.
Acts of the Apostles surprisingly, in telling the life of Paul many decades after his death, adds to and subtracts from the details given in the Epistles. I quote from Acts words reputed to be said by Paul when speaking to Jews in Palestine,
“I am a true-born Jew, a native of Tarsus in Cilicia. (Earlier he claimed to be born a Roman citizen which means his father was a Roman citizen.) I was brought up in this city, and as a student of Gamaliel (This is very doubtful), I was thoroughly trained in every point of our ancestral law. I was always ardent in G-d’s service as you all are today (He is acknowledging that Jews adhered to the Law.). And so I began to persecute this movement to the death, arresting its followers, men and women alike, and putting them in chains (He doesn’t say why.). For this I have as witness the High Priest and the whole Council of Elders.”
and later when speaking to King Agrippa
“My life from my youth up, the life I led from the beginning among my people and in Jerusalem is familiar to all Jews.(This is not considered to be true.) Indeed they have known me long enough and could testify, if only they would, (but as you will see, they would never testify for him.) that I belonged to the strictest group in our religion: I lived as a Pharisee. (There were stricter groups.) And it is for a hope kindled by G-d’s promise to our forefathers that I stand in the dock today. Our twelve tribes hope to see the fulfillment of that promise … I myself thought it my duty to work actively against the name of Jesus of Nazareth; and I did so in Jerusalem. (Actually he worked for the High Priest who was a quisling and wanted to suppress the messianic revolt against the Romans and the establishment.) It was I who imprisoned many of G-ds people by authority obtained from the chief priests (you see); and when they were condemned to death my vote was cast against them (as though he were a member of the Sanhedrin and entitled to vote or perhaps it was the Romans who condemned them to death for being part of the resistance after Paul turned them in). In all the synagogues I tried by repeated punishment to get them to renounce their faith (more likely, their resistance.); indeed my fury rose to such a pitch that I extended my persecution to foreign cities. On one such occasion I was traveling to Damascus with authority and commission from the chief priests….”
The Pharisees are depicted in Acts as opposing the persecution of the followers of Jesus and at odds with the Sanhedrin. Yet Paul as a Pharisee is virulently anti-Christian. To add to the confusion Paul is also described here as on a mission for the chief priest who was by definition a Saduccee. It is unlikely that the high priest would select a Pharisee to work for him. Why all the confusion. We’ll see.
On the way to Damascus, Paul had an epiphany in which he had a vision of the resurrected Jesus and became a convert. He articulated the doctrine that Jesus was a divine-human person who had descended to Earth from the heavens and experienced death for the express purpose of saving mankind. This doctrine had much in common with Greek mythology that has many a god coming down to earth for a particular purpose and then returning and nothing in common with Judaism except by distortion. Yet Paul claimed that every line of the Jewish scriptures was a foreshadowing of the Jesus-event and must be interpreted in this light. Paul wrote in his Epistles, “Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures.” and “he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures.” All Jews including Paul looked to the scriptures to support their position.
Christianity insists that it is a progression of Judaism and contains a ’new covenant’ and a ‘new testament’ which overrides the old. Inconsistently the Gospels also have Jesus proclaiming a New Church. It also insists that Christians are now the chosen people. Mind you, fundamentalist Christian denominations still believe that God has a special relation ship with the Jews and will restore them to the promised land. That is why they are such strong supporters of the State of Israel. Judaism on the other hand rejects Christianity outright. Both claimed that they alone interpreted the Scriptures properly. The more they fought over this the more they distanced themselves from each other. The final fracture came in the late 80’s of the Common Era when Jewish services were altered to include “anathemas” against all who deviated from strict orthodox standards and who relativized the ultimate truth of the Torah. This resulted in the excommunication of the Christians from synagogue life and ultimately from Judaism. No doubt a major cause of this was their abrogation of Mosaic Law. This conflict is similar to the present conflict between the orthodox and liberal or secular Jews in Israel.
As you know, ‘Christ’ is the Greek word for ‘Messiah’, the anointed one. That doesn’t mean that the two words today have the same meaning. For Jews, the Messiah has always meant a normal person born of a young woman in the Davidic line who would lead the Jews to a military victory and restore the Kingdom of G-d on earth with him as King. While Jesus was alive Jews may have looked to him as the Messiah destined to defeat the Romans militarily and restore sovereignty to the Jewish people. Such victory over the forces of evil, it was thought, could usher in the Messianic era of peace and prosperity; in other words, the Kingdom of God on earth. To Jews therefore, his crucifixion should have ended all speculation that he may have been the Messiah. Yet many continued to hope that Jesus, the human, had entered heaven alive and was waiting for the moment to return to earth. This was in accordance with a long standing tradition in Judaism concerning many a folk hero. Paul was in agreement, with the caveat that Jesus was also somewhat divine although he didn’t define this and probably didn’t believe Jesus was God incarnate. He also argued Jesus died for our sins, (which he did not explain), but did hint at the notion of the “original sin” of Adam. It took 400 years for such Christian theology to develop. What resulted as “Christ” is an entirely different concept from the Jewish “messiah’.
Faith vs Works
Another difference of opinion relating to the abrogation of the Law was that Paul said “Justification not by works of the Law but rather through faith in Jesus Christ.” and “if Righteousness is through the Law, Christ died for nothing.” Judaism believed that you must follow the law and do good works to have a portion in the world to come whereas according to Paul, faith alone is enough for salvation. This difference is expressed many times throughout the literature of the times. The Koran follows the Jewish view in this regard. Today Reform Judaism rejects much of the Law but doesn’t accept Jesus as Christ or Christians as replacing Jews as the chosen elect. Similarly, Christians believe that good works are also important but that they are not necessary for salvation.
Furthermore, Paul claimed that his interpretations came to him by personal inspiration and that he had a personal acquaintance with the resurrected Jesus gained through a vision. He also claimed that such visionary acquaintance was superior to a lifetime acquaintance.
Paul describes the Gentile Christian Community as the true Children of Abraham’s wife Sarah and the Jews as the Children of Hagar the bondservant. He intentionally links the Bondage of Hagar with the bondage of the Jews to the Law. This is a prime example of the New Testament offering an inversion of the scriptures. No lie is too big. It is rife with such distortions and inversions. Mohammed, six centuries later also claimed descent, for all Arabs, from Abraham through Hagar and Ishmael. And Ishmael was the first born. Thus Abraham becomes the father of all three religions.
It is interesting to note that Paul never met Jesus, appears on the scene a few years after the death of Jesus and either knows nothing or is willing to tell us nothing about him. Isn’t that odd. Only two historical points emerge from his writings; firstly that Jesus was crucified and secondly that he had several brothers one of whom was called James. In fact, taking the brother relationship seriously may turn out to be one of the only confirmations outside the New Testament, that there ever was a historical Jesus.
In contrast to what the New Testament says of Paul, writings by the Ebionites, a Jewish messianic sect, claim that Paul had no Pharisaic background or training, converted to Judaism, came to Jerusalem as an adult, and attached himself to the high priest as a henchman and tax collector.. This is by far the more credible biography.
The name Ebionites comes from the Hebrew word “ebion” meaning “the poor”. They were a Jewish messianic sect who followed the Law, revered James and believed that Jesus was a human conceived by natural means. In the Letter of James which is included in the New Testament and is thought by some to be authentic, James refers to “the Poor chosen by God as the heirs to the Kingdom to whom the piety command of loving God is applied”. The focus of Christianity on “the poor” or “the meek” derives from Jesus’ association with this group. Also it is easy to see where the Christian notion of ‘the meek inheriting the earth’ came from.
Before pursuing the historical Jesus further or expanding on his brother James who keeps cropping up, it is necessary to provide the Jewish context of the times.
Strangely we must go all the way back to the Book of Numbers in the Torah where it is written “the people began to commit harlotry with the daughters of Moab. And they called the people unto the sacrifices of their Gods, and the people did eat and bow down to their gods”. G-d was angered by this and ordered Moses to kill the wayward Israelites and the Torah states that four and twenty thousand were killed by Moses. One Israelite took a Midianite woman into the sanctuary before Moses and the congregation and fornicated there with her. Phinehas, the grandson of Aaron, in a moment of zeal killed them both and G-d rewarded “him and his seed after him, the covenant of an everlasting priesthood; because he was jealous for his G-d”. In Psalm CVI, we read that “his zeal was counted unto him for righteousness”.
These writings are the origin of the attitude that Jews must not have intercourse with gentiles for it would pollute them. Also that G-d rewards those who are zealous for the law and brook no compromise.
The occupation of Palestine by the Greeks (333 BCE) not only resulted in the Hellenization of the Jewish establishment but also the Hellenization of Jewish religious practices. This Hellenization was not unlike the intercourse with the Moabites described above. The masses led by the Maccabees rose up (167 BCE) and defeated the Greeks over a period of 30 years and cleansed the Temple of their pollution. The masses yearned for a return to the purity of the Jewish people and the Jewish religion. All foreign influences had to be expelled. Chanukah as you may know, means “rededication”.
The Maccabees held the position of High Priest, having come from a priestly family, and continued so until the Romans conquered Palestine 100 years later. They were popular, nationalistic and zealous for the law. The Pharisees we hear so much about in the New Testament may have got their name, which means “those who separated from”, from a group that deserted the cause of the Maccabeans in favour of a foreign appointed High Priestly claimant during the second century BCE. More about this later.
Alexander Jannaeus, Judas Maccabees’ grand nephew (103-76 BCE), also had similar problems with Greek intervention and with the support of the people defeated the Greek Syrians (Seleucids). He then turned on the Pharisees who had collaborated with the foreign invaders, and killed some 800 of them according to Josephus. Alexander had two sons; one was nationalistic and was supported by the people because “they were sick of servility” and the other was anti-nationalist, more accommodating and supported by the Pharisees.
It would appear that the Pharisees were more accommodating to foreign influences and thus less nationalistic, then the people. This may explain why they were held in high regard as mentioned earlier and why Paul, being a Roman citizen, claimed to be one of them. The Gospels also considered Jesus to be a Pharisee.
The Book of Daniel
The Book of Daniel was written after the defeat of the Greeks and was one of the last books included in Jewish scriptures. Centuries later the Rabbis down graded it from “Prophets” where it was first placed to the lesser “Writings”. No doubt the Rabbis saw it as a prophetic expression we now call apocalyptic and one that gave rise to the Uprising against the Romans and the destruction of the Temple. It was at the time, the expression favoured by the nationalistic masses. Along with Ezekial and Isaiah, it is the most important scriptural inspiration for much of the apocalyptic ideology and symbolism of the Dead Sea Scrolls as well as for the literature of Christianity. Daniel includes the only overt reference to resurrection in the entire Old Testament., “Of those who lie sleeping in the dust of the earth, many will wake, some to everlasting life…, for their share at the End of Time.”
Although the Messiah is referred to in Daniel as the “Son of God”, Judaism never took this literally.
Prior to conquering Palestine in 63 BCE, the Romans got along well with the Jews within their empire and accorded them religious liberty. They even regarded them as allies in the Greek cities they had conquered because the Greeks remained hostile. By the beginning of the Common Era, one/tenth of the entire Roman Empire was Jewish and as much as 40% of Alexandria was Jewish.
The problems started in the decades following the conquest with the appointment by Rome of the gentile Herod to be king of the Jews and with the appointment Alexander’s anti-nationalist son to be the High Priest. There followed certain disturbances which resulted in the nationalist leaders taking refuge in the Temple. The Pharisees joined the Romans in storming the Temple “against the will of the people”. As Josephus bears witness, “the Pharisees engaged in the wholesale slaughter that ensued, even more enthusiastically than the Romans”.
Josephus reports in Antiquities that a movement began at this time among the people “who had an inviolable attachment to liberty” and were “zealous for the law”. He further notes that “the nation was infected by it to an incredible degree.”.
Thus the stage is set for an endless succession of revolts culminating in final Uprising in 66-70 CE.
On the one side we find the spiritual successors to Phinehas and the Maccabbees who were messianic, nationalistic, anti-foreign, anti-accommodationist and zealous for the law. These included such sects such as the Essenes, Zealots, Ebionites and the Qumran Community. It also included the early Christians, whoever they were.
On the other side we have the Romans supported by the establishment i.e. Herodians, Pharisees and Saduccees. They were all accommodationists or as some historical writings put it, “seekers after smooth things.”. To the nationalist camp this was a betrayal of the worst kind and was “breaking the law”. They resented the foreign king Herod, the foreign appointed High Priest and sacrifices in the Temple by and on behalf of foreigners. They also resented that the Jewish daughters of Herod were marrying blood relatives contrary to Mosaic Law. They referred to them as prostitutes. In the Gospels, Jesus is shown to be befriending or eating meals with “prostitutes” and “tax collectors” whereas in reality it was the actions of these “prostitutes” and tax collectors which so offended the nationalist camp.
Both Josephus and Vespasian blamed the uprising against Rome on the Messianic fervor that gripped the land. This flies in the face of the Gospel claims that Jews suffered the destruction of the Temple because they rejected the Messiah. The New Testament makes much of the persecution of the Christians due to their belief in the Jesus of faith. In fact, the persecution was due to their support of the historical Jesus who wanted to restore Jewish sovereignty. Actually the Romans tried to suppress all the groups which were messianic and nationalistic. Herod even ordered that all Jewish males in the line of David be put to death to put an end to this fervor. Once the Christians were removed from Judaism and accommodated themselves to Roman rule, they were no longer persecuted although they weren’t respected by Romans at first, because they were religious radicals in breaking with Judaism, and Rome preferred respect for authority and the established order.
This movement was reflected in Masada and breathed its last gasp in the Bar Kochba Revolt in 132CE.
The historical Jesus was part of this resistance and as such, he would have been against the “prostitutes” and tax collectors.. He followed the law and worked toward the overthrow of the establishment and the Romans. Thousands of such Jewish revolutionaries were crucified by the Romans during his lifetime.
There may be some truth in the Gospels which say that the High Priest or Saduccees turned him over to the Romans saying he claimed to be the King of the Jews. (they meant in the political sense and not in the religious sense.) After all, the High Priest was a quisling and part of the establishment aligned with the Romans. This could explain why Paul persecuted Christians on behalf of the High Priest. The Romans then crucified Jesus for sedition. The part of the story which claimed that he was tried by the Sanhedrin before being turned over to the Romans to decide his fate can not be true. No offense was alleged in the Gospels, over which the Sanhedrin had jurisdiction and the Sanhedrin would not have convened on Passover to try him as alleged in the Gospels. The story of Jesus over-turning the tables of the money-changers in the Temple could also have been true because the nationalists were angry about what was going on in the Temple and at odds with the High Priest. The nationalist camp often robbed the establishment as part of their war against them. As a result, they were referred to as “robbers”. Jesus, we are told, was crucified along side of two such “robbers”.
In “A Search for the Historical Jesus “ written by a far eastern scholar it is argued that Jesus did not die on the cross but feigned death and survived. Afterwards he went to the East and lived for another 70 years. This would explain why his body was not found after the Sabbath and how his disciples could have seen him apparently alive in the days following as he was on his way to the East. Jesus is quoted in the Gospels as saying to his Apostles after his resurrection, “feel me, I am real”, to allay their fears. Much evidence is quoted in support of this theory.
James the Brother of Jesus
In contrast to the paucity of extra-biblical sources mentioning Jesus or Paul, there are a myriad of extra-biblical sources about James, the brother of Jesus, whose Jewish name was Jacob. One might ask if Jesus was by far the more important of the two, why is so much written about James and so little about Jesus. One might also ask, what has James got to do with the historical Jesus. The answer,.. lots.
James, the brother of Jesus, is the key to unlocking the secrets of early Christianity and the Dead Sea Scrolls according to Professor Eisenman. He is one of the most eminent scholars on first century Palestine. He led the fight to get the Dead Sea Scrolls made public. His thesis is set out his book entitled James the Brother of Jesus which I will refer to later on.
From Acts and other sources we learn that Jesus appointed James to be leader of the “early Church” or “Jerusalem Assembly”. He fulfilled this role from the 30’s to the 60’s.. To have been “Head” or “Bishop’ of the ‘Jerusalem Church” was to have been head of the whole of Christianity as it then was. Paul, who was actively promoting “Christianity” in the same time period, bridled under James’ authority and was constantly at odds with him. Paul speaks of this conflict many times and acknowledges that James is the leader. But nowhere is the conflict over whether Jesus was divine. There was room for some disagreement on that. What mattered were their differences over whether the Law had been abrogated and whether Jews could fraternize with gentiles.
James, because of his great righteousness, was called ‘James the Just’ or ‘James the Righteous’. He was also the acknowledged leader of the opposition alliance as well as the Bishop of the Jerusalem Community. At one point in the ‘40s, according to early Christian sources, the Jewish establishment, concerned that “there was danger that the whole people would now expect Jesus as the Messiah”, called on James with the following request;
“We Beseech you, persuade all the people who are coming for the Passover Festival concerning Jesus for we all have confidence in you. For we and all the people testify to you that you are the Just One and not a respecter of persons. Therefore persuade the people not to be led astray concerning Jesus for we and all the people must obey you.”
James replied “Why do you ask me about the Son of Man (Son of Adam). He is now sitting on the right hand of the Great Power and is about to come on the clouds of Heaven.” These words were originally coined in the Book of Daniel. In Christian theology, Son of Man, as denotative of Jesus, is one of the most precious references..
In the tradition of Phinehas and the Maccabees, James viewed the Romans and the Herodians as polluting the Temple. He held that Jews should not fraternize with the foreigners which included breaking bread with them. Paul on the other hand argued that the Law no longer applied and that anything could be eaten with anyone and circumcision was no longer necessary. Paul wanted gentile converts to be converted without the necessity of circumcision and bondage to Mosaic law and went so far as to argue that the Law no longer applied to Jews. James found it necessary to advise all communities in his movement that he in effect sets the party line and to police Paul. Acts tells us that Paul so angered the Jews that they tried to kill him. In an early Church document we are told that Paul began a riot in the Temple where James was preaching and “the enemy (Paul) attacked James and threw him headlong from the top of the Temple steps” and left him for dead.
James became an alternate High Priest to one, Ananas, appointed by the successor of Herod. This was one more reason why Paul was persecuting Christians on behalf of the High Priest as above set out. James also was permitted to enter that part of the Temple to which only the High Priest could enter and to wear the vestments of the High Priest. The bitter rivalry between James and Ananas resulted in Ananas convening the Sanhedrin to try James for blasphemy. It dutifully sentenced James to death by stoning. The sentence was carried out (62 CE). In retaliation, the nationalists assassinated Ananas and then rose up against Rome.
Prior to the death of James (62 CE), Pauline Christianity had made little headway. Paul died about six years after James but not before establishing a foothold for his ideas in the Jewish communities in the Greek and Roman world.
All the foregoing comes from the New Testament and other early Christian writings.
Aftermath of Temple destruction
The uprising resulted in the wholesale slaughter of Jews (1 million in Palestine and 1.5 million in Alexandria) and the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and the lesser temple in Alexandria.
After the destruction of the Temple, the accommodationists curried even more favour with the Romans in order to survive and prosper. Pauline Christianity grew into Christianity as we know it and Jamesian Christianity died out. The other accommodationists, the Pharisees were appointed the tax collectors for the Romans and survived to become the dominant force in Judaism.
Thus messianic Judaism died out and Rabbinic Judaism took hold. There was no longer a need for the priestly class to oversee the Temple rites and sacrifices and they lost their power and position. The destruction of the Temple irrevocably changed both “Christianity” and Judaism forever.
The highly Hellenized movement that developed overseas after the destruction of the Temple, which we now call Christianity, was far different from the Jerusalem Church under James. Even so, Eusebius, a Christian scholar records around 300 CE that the first 10 Bishops of the Jerusalem Church were all circumcised Jews. They observed the dietary laws, the Jewish Sabbath and the festivals including Yom Kippur (thus showing that they did not regard the death of Jesus as atoning for their sins
Scholars assume that since Jesus appointed his brother James to lead his movement they must have been in agreement. They believe that anything in the New Testament about Jesus not in keeping with what they know about James is simply a fabrication. The scriptures are not accepted as historical because they present Jesus as anti-nationalistic, cosmopolitan, antinomian and accepting of foreigners and persons with perceived impurities. Just the opposite of James.
True Prophet Ideology
Deuteronomy is among the proof text found at Qumran and is the basis of the idea that a Prophet would succeed the heritage defined by Moses in the Old Testament. This is known as the “True Prophet” ideology. Following this legacy, Christians and Muslims consider Jesus and Mohammed to be “True Prophets” respectively. Judaism rejects both prophets believing that revelation in the Hebrew Bible is the be all and end all of revelation. In other words, there would be no new prophets or revelations..
Dead Sea Scrolls
Professor Eisenman turned to the Dead Sea Scrolls, which included the Habakkuk Commentary, to look for new insights. He was surprised to note that the story they told was surprisingly similar to that told by Acts, Josephus and other early Christian historians as set out above. They told the story of the Teacher of Righteousness, unnamed, who was an exemplar of righteousness and the acknowledged leader of the sectarian religious community who were zealous for the law. The “Teacher” had to contend with two distinct enemies. One was called the “Liar” or “Spouter of Lies”. He was an outsider who was admitted to the community, then turned renegade, quarreled with the Teacher and hijacked part of the community’s doctrine and membership. He “did not listen to the word received by the Teacher of Righteousness from the mouth of G-d”. He appealed to the “unfaithful of the New Covenant in that they have not believed in the covenant of God and have profaned his holy name”. “The Liar flouted the law in the midst of their whole congregation“ and ”led many astray”. The second adversary was the “Wicked Priest” whose story conformed exactly to that of Ananas with much more detail added. Thus Eisenman argues that part of the Scrolls and the Habakkuk Commentary deal with the same events recounted in Acts and Josephus and that Paul is the “spouter of Lies” and James “The Teacher of Righteousness”. Christianity tried to withhold the Scrolls from public study, preferring to impose their self serving interpretation on the world at large as they have for 2000 years. They also argue that the Scrolls were written before the time of James and thus couldn’t refer to him. What they were resisting and continue to resist is the inescapable conclusion that Jesus and the early Christians were part of the nationalist camp and zealous for the Law. This is the opposite of how they portray Jesus and his followers today.
In his exegesis, Prof. Eisenman dissects all the stories and word usages in the Gospels to show the origins of same and to clearly demonstrate that either the stories were either inversions of truth or misappropriations of truth or allusions to truth. As for word usages, he demonstrates the real meaning of the words or why the particular words are being used. I have already pointed out the special meaning for the words “robbers” and “prostitutes”. You are aware that the Gospels contain stories of Jesus and the Apostles fishing in the Galilee. Eisenman argues that the literal meaning is of no value and the real meaning lies in what the ‘fish’ represent (dead Jews), and what the ‘casting of nets’ represent (the “casting down” of James from the Temple Walls) etc. It is truly fascinating to see behind the words and stories of the Gospels.
Faith and Salvation
“Faith” was the foundation piece of Pauline theology. Although it was not part of Judaic teaching at the time, it in fact comes from the Book of Habakkuk a text of Old Testament apocrypha dating from before 500 BCE which reads “the upright man will live by his faithfulness”. Paul uses these exact words to support his theories. But the Habakkuk Commentary found among the Scrolls comments on this statement as follows.
But the righteous shall live by his faith. Interpreted, this concerns all those who observe the Law in the House of Judah, Whom G-d will deliver from the House of Judgment because of their suffering and because of their faith in the Teacher of Righteousness.
This extra-ordinary passage is tantamount, in effect, to a formulation of early Christian doctrine. It states explicitly that suffering and faith in the Teacher of Righteousness constitute the path to deliverance and salvation. This is where Paul derived the foundation for his theology but he contrives to leave out the most important part, namely, that it only applies to ‘those who observe the Law in the House of Judah’.
Yohannan ben Zacchai
As an interesting side note, the Talmud tells the story of how Yohanan ben Zacchai was smuggled out of Jerusalem in a coffin during the siege of Jerusalem and sent an arrow into the camp of Titus with the following note “Rabbi Yohanan is one of the Emperors’ friends”. He also applied the “Star Prophecy”, the most precious prophecy of the Jewish people at the time, to Vespasian, saying that he was the Ruler prophesied to come out of Palestine and rule the world. Talk about obsequiousness. Ben Zacchai was rewarded with a Jewish academy at Yavneh. Some draw a parallel with this story and the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Ben Zacchai also died so to speak, i.e. was put in a coffin, and was subsequently ‘resurrected’.
A second interesting side note is to compare the story of the crucifixion of Jesus with the execution of Socrates. Both refused to answer their interlocutors or to avoid their fate. Indeed much of the legacy of Socrates and Plato is incorporated into the materials about Jesus including the notions of non-resistance to Evil and a Justice that does not consist of helping your friends and harming your enemies; all doctrines absolutely alien to the Palestinian milieu.
Liberating the Gospels by J. S. Spong, Episcopalian Bishop
According to Bishop Spong, and after reading this book you will have no doubt, the Gospels were written in the style of the Midrash with a thoroughly Jewish context and content. As the Midrash is not to be taken literally, so too, the Gospels were not intended to be taken literally. He argues that the stories are interpretive narratives about the meaning of Jesus using images and themes from the Hebrew Bible and are meant to be read along with the Torah readings weekly throughout the year..
To prove his point, he superimposed the Gospels on the Jewish liturgical readings. This took some work. First he concluded that the earliest and most reliable Gospel, Mark, was intended to cover the period from Rosh Hashanah to Passover. Since the event of the crucifixion brought the Christian people into existence as the people of God it had a parallel in Passover which saw the birth of the Jewish nation. Jesus was the Pascal lamb. His blood was put on the cross to save mankind as the blood of the Pascal lamb was put on the door posts to save the first born. To partake in the body or blood of Christ as all Christians do symbolically today, is to partake of the pascal lamb. The balance of Mark, when divided into weekly portions deals with the same issues as the weekly Torah readings do. Yet Mark, which was anti Jewish, presents Jesus as a perfectly normal man with a family including brothers and sisters.
Matthew, which was written next and was the most Jewish of the Gospels, covered the whole year and does likewise. For instance the Sermon on the Mount comes at Shavuoth, the time of the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. The same principal was discovered to apply to Luke which is the most gentile in outlook and John, which was the most anti-Jewish. Remember that the Christians were excommunicated from Judaism before Luke and John were written.
These later Gospels articulated the virgin birth and that Jesus was G-d incarnate. As a result, these Gospels did away with the family of Jesus, and the Jewishness and the existence of his Apostles, and the role of James. They were excommunicated so to speak. They went so far as to have Jesus reject his mother and brothers. They also whitewashed the Romans and condemned the Jews as Christ- killers.
Not only does Spong conclude that the subject matter coincides when overlaid as I have said, he also concludes that many of the characters in the New Testament are fashioned to be like Old Testament personalities both in name and in deed. The “signs and wonders” performed by G-d in the Old Testament are performed by Jesus in the New Testament. Moses is the prophet to whom God revealed himself, who gave the Law and who died in an unknown place. Maybe he didn’t die. Jesus likewise. The Promised Land of the Jews became the Kingdom of G-d promised to the Christians. One more example to make the point. Luke introduces Zecharia and Elizabeth as the parents of John the Baptist who baptized Jesus. He overtly portrayed them in the pattern of Abraham and Sarah. Both sets of parents were called righteous, both women were barren and advanced in age, both fathers were disbelieving of the possibility of theirs wives giving birth and both were told that nothing is impossible for G-d.
The Nativity story demands close attention. In short, Jesus was born of a virgin in a manger in Bethlehem and was wrapped in swaddling clothes. Three wise men came riding on camels, bearing gifts of frankincense, gold and myrrh, to witness the birth and a star rose in the East. What are its antecedents? In Isaiah, “kings came to the light and to the brightness of G-d’s dawn, riding on camels and bringing gold and frankincense”. Isaiah also tells us that a messiah would be born in Bethlehem of a young woman. In Wisdom of Solomon, Solomon says, “I was nursed with care in swaddling clothes for no king has had a different beginning of existence.” Even the word “manger’ comes from Isaiah where it conveyed the meaning that the whole earth was a crib or bin where G-d fed his people. So Jesus was presented as sustenance from G-d. Finally there is no mention of camels in the New Testament, only in Isaiah so we conclude that the early Christians knew the source of the story and never forgot the camels. The Gospels were written in Greek and ‘young maiden’ was translated as a ‘virgin’ because the concept of young maiden and virgin are merged into one Greek word. The rest, as they say, is history.
Among the details of the crucifixion given by the Gospel of John are that a Roman soldier pierced Jesus’ side with a spear and did not break his legs (whereas the other two robbers had their legs broken). You might think that these are innocuous details that are historically true. But no such thing. John relates them as fulfilling Jewish Scriptural passages namely Zachariah which refers to “being pierced” and Exodus which according to John, says “not a bone of him shall be broken”.
Of greater interest is the Exodus passage which, when referring to the Pascal Lamb, laid down that the meat thereof “shall not be carried out of the house, nor shall a bone of it be broken”. Thus John is implying that Jesus is the pascal lamb whose bones (legs) were not broken. Or in other words, that Jesus is the new Passover meal – that is, Paul’s “communion” with the body and blood of Christ Jesus. This passage further provides when referring to the Passover meal, that “No uncircumcised person may take part.”. Nothing could be further from the spirit of Christianity; in fact the opposite of it. This is another example of how the Gospels have used scriptures for their own purposes in a way that totally distorts or inverts their original meaning. In contrast, Jerome, an early Christian historian, when telling of the stoning of James, makes the point of his legs “being broken” from the fall from the Pinnacle of the Temple.
That leaves only the message. Jesus was shown to be cosmopolitan, accommodationist, universalistic and pacifistic. This was in keeping with the Pauline attempts to have the movement all inclusive and acceptable to Rome. As I have shown, scholars believe that this was the mirror opposite of what Jesus would have stood for. To the extent that Jesus is presented as teaching a concern for the weak and the poor and the giving of charity, this was mainstream Judaism at the time. When Jesus talked of the golden rule, he was merely following Rabbi Hillel. The Gospels, in part, presented Jesus as being against the Law but in real life he would have followed the Law to the last letter.
References to James in the Dead Sea Scrolls include “not being a regarder of persons”, “Holy from his mother’s womb”, and “standing on the pinnacle of the Temple”. These and many others including the James’ Sanhedrin trial are retrospectively inserted and sometimes reversed into the pro-Roman, anti-Jewish biography of Jesus. One account of the stoning of James, reports that he said on dying “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.” . Astonishingly these words too, are later attributed in the Gospels to Jesus. The destruction of the Temple which Christians attribute to the “killing of Jesus by the Jews” some 40 years earlier, really came about as a result of the killing of James.
I have only scratched the surface of the scholarship presented by Eisenman and Spong. Hardly a detail goes unnoticed.
Josephus in the Preface to the “Jewish Wars” writes
“The War of the Jews against the Romans was the greatest of our time, greater too perhaps, than any recorded struggle whether between cities or nations. Yet persons with no first hand knowledge accepting baseless and inconsistent stories on hearsay, have written garbled accounts of it; while those of eyewitnesses have been falsified either to flatter the Romans or to vilify the Jews, eulogy or abuse being submitted for accurate historical record.”
In conclusion it may be safely said that all we know of the real Jesus was that he was crucified and had many siblings including James. Most incidents of his life and death and most teachings attributed to him as set out in the New Testament, either come from symbols from the Old Testament, facts about the life and death of James or the desire to produce an inclusive theology acceptable to gentiles or an historical record acceptable to the Romans.
I leave you with one final thought, Messianism is a nationalistic ideology. To be anti-nationalist messianists as the Christians fashioned themselves to be is a contradiction in terms..
CHRONOLOGY OF EVENTS
325 Christianity became the state religion of the Holy Roman Empire
132 Second Jewish Revolt (Bar Kochba)(132-136)
110* Gospel of John
100* Acts of the Apostles
96 Death of Josephus
92* Gospel of Luke
90* Antiquities written by Josephus
85* Chriistians excommunicated from the Jewish religion
80 Judaism declared certain practices of Christians as “Anathamas”
75* Jewish Wars written by Josephus
77* Gospel of Mathew
73 Fall of Masada
72* Gospel of Mark
70 Destruction of Temple
69* Death of Paul
66 Final Uprising agaist Rome (66-70)
62 Death of James
55* Epistles of Paul
33* James becomes Head of Jerusalem Assembly (33-62)
32* Crucifixtion of Jesus
06* Birth of Jesus
20* Herod killed last of Maccabee priestly line and appoints his own High Priest
37 Herod appointed King of Palestine by Rome (37-4 BCE)
63 Romans conquered Palestine
100* Alexander Jannaeus grand nephew of Judas Maccabee defeats Seleucids
120* Maccabees 1 and Maccabees 2 written
130* Book of Daniel written
167 Start of Maccabee Revolt
333 Occupation of Palestine by the Greeks
440* Second Temple built by Ezra and Nehemiah
540 Return from Babylonian exile
586 Destruction of First Temple and exile to Babylon
1000 Solomon completed First Temple
* Denotes approximate date.