Rediscovering the Historical Jesus
New Perspectives on the Ancient Evidence
By Rev. Gaetano Salomone
Despite popular movies like Mel Gibson’s The Passion, most people are still unaware of the fascinating discoveries of non-dogmatic approaches to the life of Jesus. Recent decades have produced a wealth of information on ancient Palestine and the earliest church not usually discussed in mainstream churches. This situation leaves most of the public in the dark about findings that bear direct relevance to the origins of Christian faith.
A number of progressive New Testament scholars have risen to the challenge, reevaluating sacred scripture in light of history, archeology and anthropology. Known as the Jesus Seminar, these experts have analyzed the parables of Jesus to ascertain exactly which stories might actually come from him. The Seminar published a red-letter edition of the gospels, including the Gospel of Thomas — voting on Jesus’ sayings and color-coding the words that they thought were authentic.
This way of reading the Bible is known as the historical-critical method and is quite different from the literal interpretations of the text performed by most evangelicals. As a scientific approach to the scripture, its purpose is to read between the lines, behind the text, to ascertain what may be the actual, physical circumstance that gave rise to a given saying or story. It is an invaluable tool for rediscovering the historical Jesus as a man of his time.
One of the most important insights of this methodology has been the rediscovery of Jesus’ Jewishness. Seeing Jesus as a saint and prophet similar to other such figures in ancient Israel has radical implications for Jewish/Christian relations. Excavation of the peasant Galilean town of Nazareth casts new light on Jesus’ origins and religious background.
Jesus appears to have come from a line of charismatic holy men known in Jewish tradition as “men of deed” because of their miracles. Indeed, Jesus emerges on the historical scene getting immersed by an apocalyptic prophet named John (Mk 1:9). Although Christians present Jesus as the fulfillment of the Baptist’s prophecies, in fact he may well have been a disciple of John before embarking on his own teaching and healing ministry.
The discovery and translation of the Dead Sea Scrolls has provided further insight into Jesus’ influences. Written and compiled by the monastic sect of the Essenes, the scrolls were deposited in caves not too far from where John the Baptist was preaching. Recently, the actual cave where John resided in the wilderness was unearthed. Along with the burial box of Jesus’ blood brother James, the history of Jesus is coming increasingly to life.
New information has also been gleaned from uncovering the literary roots of the gospels, indicating that the earliest Christian texts were compilations of the words rather than the deeds of Jesus. A comparison of the narratives of Matthew, Mark and Luke shows how Mark was the earlier composition. Other sections probably came from a source called Q by scholars, which was a collection of Jesus sayings.
The composite picture that emerges is of Jesus as a master storyteller and powerful healer. Most of the gospel stories revolve around his miracles and exorcisms, his mystical prayers to Abba and controversial habit of dining with outcasts and “sinners.” Jesus was thus a radical reformer of orthodox Judaism, calling people to repentance and challenging legalism and prejudice that would pit one Jew against another.
When the parables are read back into the social situation of Roman-occupied Palestine, they show a deep concern for the plight of the poor who were losing their land to overtaxation. Jesus denounced the ruling aristocracy of his day, including the priestly establishment that ran the Jerusalem Temple. It was his prophetic act of overturning the moneychangers’ tables in the Temple courts (Mk 11:15-18) that led to Jesus’ arrest as a political insurgent and final execution by crucifixion.
Jesus’ death did not stop the movement he started. His followers soon
experienced Jesus alive again in their midst as the resurrected Messiah. It is
only in modern times that fact is finally being separated from fiction to
understand the complex phenomenon that led to the rise of Christianity as a
world religion. Only by de-constructing the myths about Jesus does it becomes
possible to glimpse him as he really was once again.
Borg, Marcus J. and N.T. Wright. The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions. San Francisco: Harper/Collins, 1999.
Crossan, John Dominic and Jonathan L. Reed. Excavating Jesus: Beneath the Stones, Behind the Texts. HarperSanFrancisco, 2001.
Funk, Robert W., Roy W. Hoover and the Jesus Seminar. The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus. HarperSanFrancisco, 1993.
Rev. Salomone is an ordained, independent priest in the Old Catholic
tradition. He gives lectures and workshops on mystical Christianity and the
life of Jesus at the Learning Light, Anaheim (see calendar listings).
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