Sunday, January 02, 2011

Shaping Jesus

The following was delivered at All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Rehoboth, Delaware, the first lecture in the 2010 Advent series. The overall theme was “Shaping Jesus”. Lecture 1: The Context of his Life & Work


a) In this kind of quest, one is always faced first with the question, “Where shall we begin?” If you consider the life situation in which you find yourself, the innumerable factors at work almost deny analysis, though most of us can discern the more dominant influences. This ad hominem approach suggest a long list of questions we need to ask: where was I born, when was I born, what kind of parents did I have, and, come to that, what kind did they have? With that last question the field has already opened out to six individuals, four grandparents and two parents.

b) The task of finding and defining the influences that shaped Jesus is infinitely harder than the process required for a more or less contemporary person. Genetic factors are powerful, but the influences of geography, history, culture and religion are also immense. In the case of Jesus, we are dealing with a long past history, with a culture that is very different from ours and a religion that was by no means the monolithic structure that is the more traditional picture of Judaism.


Furthermore, there is a salient question that must be addressed before we can go any further. It is to what degree we are still tied to a pre- modern, dogmatic view of Jesus, of the church that emerged and the causes of the march of events that produce the narratives of history. It is a rather loose generalization, but, I think largely true that a pre-Enlightenment view of the matter would suggest that asking what shaped Jesus was a non-question: there can be only one influence in the shaping of Jesus, the divine plan that arranges everything in the appropriate sequences, and directs history like a puppet master. The post-Enlightenment view, is that history has its own dynamics and reports of what happened cannot always be taken at face value.

A surprising number of conservative Christians still hold the “puppet master” view, and, therefore, they would say to ask what shaped Jesus is unnecessary or absurd, perhaps even blasphemous. This approach is, of course, firmly linked to the Christological issue. That is, how Jesus can be thought of as divine and also human. In spite of protesting very loudly that they do not approve of monophysitism, a heresy condemned in the fifth century (which, very roughly, sees Jesus as fundamentally a divine being with a human apparatus, possibly temporary, cf. the Carol, “Veiled in flesh, the God head see”), conservatives have tended in practice to emphasize the divine and fudge stories that show Jesus as human, as fallible, for example, statements that indicate that Jesus, unsurprisingly, held a pre-critical view of Old Testament authorship such as assuming that David ‘wrote’ all the Psalms. The more extreme are quite happy to talk about God traveling around Galilee, a remark I heard from a Televangelist the other day: the question of blisters on the foot or sun stroke was not addressed; presumably this god was immune from the “thousand shocks and heart aches the flesh is heir to”.


i) Important Clarifications

With an intelligent, open-minded audience at the start of the 21st century, I feel sure that I can assume a solid belief in the complete humanity of Jesus. Much of importance follows from this, since it puts Jesus in an historical context, subject to the usual pushing and pulling of human development. It suggests that we cannot always take at face value the picture of Jesus we find in the gospels, particularly the Fourth one. This is not to say that we have nothing left with which to form a picture of Jesus, the Galilean preacher, but it does mean that we need always to beware that many influences were at work to form the books we call gospels that were not, repeat not, formative forces for the shaping of Jesus from Nazareth.

We also have other sources: writings of Roman historians, (remembering that “history” here means something rather different from today); Jewish writings, like the Talmud, the Dead Sea Scrolls (Qumran) and a Jewish soldier historian, Josephus, and we should not forget the valuable contributions of significant archeological finds all of which paint the background for us in general terms, though the actual mentions of Jesus outside the pages of the N.T. are sparse indeed until we get to the second century C.E.

ii) The Shaping Influences –Culture, Politics, Religion & History

If we ask what was the primary force shaping my life, I suppose most would answer, my family, and this must have been true for Jesus.
It is important, however, to note that two of the gospels, Mark and John, say nothing about Jesus until he appears as a preacher. The other two, have stories about his birth, and only one Luke, says anything about him between his babyhood and a young boy who goes to Jerusalem with his parents. We know from Mark (3.31) that Jesus was not an only child, in spite of later dogmatic assertions. So what we know about Jesus’ early life is meager verging on next to nothing. We do, however, know enough of the typical family of the time to make some fairly solid assumptions. Time does not allow us to cover the many influences at work in any detail, and so the best I can do is to summarize the results of a century and a half of intense critical research that seem to have withstood minute examination and analysis.

(iii) Some Conclusions of Critical Study

Bethlehem may have been where Jesus was born, but, more probably, it is so designated as a result of strong, later theological presuppositions about the Davidic ancestors of Jesus. However, that he spent his youth, early manhood and ministry in Galilee is well attested by many direct and incidental references in the Synoptic gospels.
The fact that the family lived in Galilee is, perhaps, the most important fact that we know about the shaping of Jesus, and it is here that we need to examine the politics and religion that loomed large in his small world. It is also important to note that where one is brought up is as important as the kind of family that nurtured one.

We can, I believe, make the following assumptions with some confidence. I will later one suggest some significant references in the words of Jesus and in the editorial material about him that give weight to these assumptions. We may assume: that he attended the synagogue with his father and brothers (while his mother and sisters sat segregated); [See endnote on Synagogues in Galilee in First century C.E.];
that he worked on a tiny small holding of hardly more than an acre; that he was apprenticed to some trade or other (carpentry is as good a guess as any!);
that he spoke the lingua franca, Aramaic, but learnt a little Hebrew at the Synagogue, memorizing important passages, of the Torah and Prophets;
that living where he did (I will come too that soon) he might have had a tiny smattering of common Greek. He certainly had the experience of living in an occupied country under the domination of a powerful foreign military government.

(iv) The Distant Scene

• The origins of the Hebrew people are lost in the mists of time.
Disparate groups of Semitic nomads came together and gradually infiltrated into Palestine, bringing with them early sagas of their origins and the beginnings of a revolutionary way of thinking about God.

• By the tenth century, we see the emergence of a nation state, and, of paramount importance, the developing of a script for their language, an offshoot of north western Semitic. This period of the monarchy saw the appearance of the Prophets, establishing a firm basis for a unique view of God: not a god of caprice, who had to be flattered or appeased; not a god demanding rituals of the natural seasons, but a consistent and just God they called YHWH.

• The preaching of a whole line of prophets from Amos to Malachi established the revolutionary idea that God wanted justice, loyalty and love. Perhaps two and a half centuries of Prophetic teaching is best summed up in the succinct statement of Micah: “[W]hat does Yahweh require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness,, and to walk humbly with your God?” (6.8). The prophetic movement is truly one of the great advances of humankind. For the first time, in the West anyway, religion was seen to involve personal responsibility for others; it was no longer to be a matter of performing the correct ritual at the right time. By the time of Jesus, however, a second tradition had developed within Judaism that often eclipsed the insights of the Prophets. It was a central core of Jesus’ message that he took us back to the Prophets.

• In 586 BCE the nation state abruptly ended in an event that set a pattern for the Jewish people from then on. They were enslaved by the Babylonian empire. Escape from slavery is a dominant theme of the whole Hebrew Scriptures, and reappears in the NT. The early sagas had put at least some of the early Hebrews in Egypt as slaves, from where they had escaped. The story of the Exodus is paradigmatic for almost all the biblical writers.

• So when a century or so later when a few stragglers returned from Babylon (by then incorporated into a new empire of Persia) to a ruined Jerusalem, they thought in terms of a second liberation, a second Exodus. What they established, though, was a mere shadow of the earlier State of Israel, more like a religious community, centered on a re-built temple (stripped, as contemporaries lament, of all its precious adornments). Another momentous development resulted from the exile: it was the dispersion of Jews to other Mediterranean lands, a movement of immense importance for the future of Judaism and the spread of an embryonic Christianity. It was, however, the small group in Jerusalem that for the next few centuries forged the religion we call Judaism into which Jesus was born and in which he received his earliest religious ideas.

(v) Characteristics of this Community:

• It became the “people of a Book”. In the 3rd and 2nd centuries, the books of the O.T. were assembled and edited. There was no more a living voice of the Prophets declaring “Thus says Yahweh” delivering a stern message recalling Israel to its true religion. The final editors are known as the Priestly writers, and they stamped large tracts of the scriptures with their distinctive theology, a theology significantly different from that of the Prophets.

• It emphasized the need for the Jews to be quite separate from other cultures – qu’dosh, ‘holy’, has the root meaning ‘to separate’, thus to avoid any contamination of their absolute monotheism. In time, however, this became an assumption of superiority, a conviction that God cared only for Jews. Everyone else, ‘the Gentiles’ were outside the pale.

• With the finalizing of the scriptures, came a re-writing of the older laws to cover innumerable details of ritual and rules to keep “clean” from the great unwashed. Of course, the central core of the commandments was there, but it was now heavily overlaid. A new emphasis on the absolute holiness of the Sabbath is heard. The first creation story in Genesis is the work of the P(riestly) writers, and with its seven-day format, clearly exhibits their extraordinary insistence on the holiness of the Sabbath – one of the many ways of establishing Jewish identity and exclusiveness. The increased importance of the circumcision rite is another. This was to be an issue of central importance for Paul’s missionary work.

(vi) The Political Backdrop

• Several other characteristics of the Judaism of Jesus’ time are so intimately connected with politics and the play of international forces that we must take a look, however fleeting,

• The geography of Israel made it vulnerable to frequent foreign incursions and occupations. To the East was the series of Empires based on the Tigris/Euphrates river basin; to the West was Egypt, and for a thousand years the one tried to dominate the other, marching back and forth across a bridge formed by Palestine. Babylon, Persia, Alexander the Great, one after the other dominated the tiny state. After Alexander’s death one of his generals, Seleuceus and his successors, ruled Syria and subjugated Judea.

• One of the major legacies of Alexander’s brief ascendancy was to spread Greek language and culture widely round the Mediterranean and eastwards, almost to India.

• In around 160 BCE, the attempt to force the Jews into a Hellenistic pattern, produced a revolt led by the Macabees who after a long guerilla war gave the Jews about 60 years of independence.
This was a crucial period; the tiny state became a sort of theocracy ruled by the High Priestly families. It was at this time that the various religious parties known to us from the NT formed – the Sadducees, the Pharisees and the Essenes, to mention just a few.

• In 63 BCE, the Romans, pushing their borders eastwards, swallowed up Judaea with the rest of the Eastern Mediterranean seaboard. This was the situation when Jesus was born and for the whole of his ministry.

(vii) Religious & Economic Consequences

• As one power followed another, oppressing the Jews, they looked back to their glory days, particularly to David, and hoped and prayed for a new Davidic King. The word they used was messiach, - ‘anointed with oil’, the ancient rite of coronation. As the Roman domination repressed freedom, this hope burned brightly and produced a freedom movement. The remarkable things is that Jesus seems to have resisted any attempts to cast him in the role of Messiah as it was popularly understood, but messianic movements produced immense civil unrest and counter military measures.

• The last years of the century also saw great economic hardship. The only fertile land was a narrow coastal strip and it was heavily over-worked. The Roman presence produced a large slave population that made laboring work hard to find (cf. laborers in the vineyard parable), and taxes were a crushing burden, imposed both by the Jewish authorities, and the Romans.


The major forces at play were, (a) Judaism with its rigid legalism, yet instilling great reverence and the need for compassion. From the sayings of Jesus we know that he reacted against the legalism of official Judaism: “The Sabbath is made for people, not the other way round”. It seems that he also reacted against the narrow exclusiveness of Judaism, displaying a more tolerant attitude to Gentiles and taking note of women and children (who tended to be regarded as “non-persons”).

(b) Clearly he was strongly influenced by the reading of the Scriptures in the Synagogue, but in an amazing way, his teaching suggests that he went back behind the Priestly influences to the Prophetic core.

(c) He knew and shared in the burdens of foreign occupation, but remarkably refused to join in the popular resistance movement. “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s”. Indeed, it is virtually certain that he advocated a stance of non-resistance.

(d) Perhaps more than anything else, his parables reflect the formative influences:

Agricultural life in a Galilean village (The sower, Mk. 4.1ff); J.Jeremias Points out that the details - stones collected year by year, piled at the edge; weeds soon growing there; a hard, trodden-down path, the result of a short-cut during the winter, - all these details give an accurate picture of typical ploughing and sowing methods.

The hardships of foreign occupation where press-gangs rounded men up; Mt 5.41 illustrates the occupation and Jesus’ admonition to do good to an enemy. A Centurion could press gang a group of men to carry baggage to the next village; one can hardly imagine the reaction of some hard-bitten veteran when the response to his barked “Fall out you dogs” was “Don’t go to the trouble of pressing a new squad; we’ve done one mile, we’ll do a second”

The Good Samaritan (Lk.10.29) illustrates both Judaic exclusiveness and Jesus’ rejection of it. The Prodigal son story (15.11ff) makes the point of God’s wide compassion for all.

The hardship of the day laborer is clearly seen in the parable of the farmer hiring men who gather in the market square to find work each morning; as late as five p.m., men are still there (with no hope of feeding the family that night). Mt. 20.1ff. The story not only gives us significant sociological information, but also goes to the heart of Jesus’ revolution in theological thinking: God’s love is the divine Being; it cannot be earned by working longer hours. It can only be received with amazement and thanksgiving.
Indeed, it is a mistake to see the sociological details as central; as in all parables, they are contextual, certainly not to be treated allegorically.

It is fitting, therefore, to close with this parable that gives us in story form, one of the foundational insights of the Christian Gospel which the first Theologian, St. Paul, formulated so strikingly in his Letter to Rome.
He begins this subtle and complex exposition establishing the very point of Jesus’ parable: “If Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. … [T] o one who works , wages are not reckoned as a gift (charis) but as something due. But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness” (4.2ff).

In spite of all the discussion that has gone on about Paul’s showing so little knowledge of the verba Christi, I remain convinced that this whole passage in Romans is anchored on the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard. In the rest of the exposition Paul is concerned to understand how what happened to Jesus (rejection and execution of the supremely good man) was somehow connected with the central theme of God’s love. And so, many pages later he concludes: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come…nor anything in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God (i.e. ‘God’s love for us’) in Christ Jesus our Lord”. (8.37ff).

Note: Synagogues in Galilee

In the last several decades scholars have questioned the tradition of Jesus attending the synagogue on the grounds that the remains of only three such buildings have been found by archeologists. Nevertheless, the tradition of Jesus's religious observance is very strong, and since the Deuteronomic law of Jerusalem alone as the place of worship had never been followed, other solutions have been suggested. The main one is that the word sunagoge has a much wider connotation than its later use of a building suggests.

James D.G. Dunn in his magisterial work on the origins of Christianity (Vol. 1 Jesus Remembered) gives an excellent summary of the matter pp.302-306. He notes an analogy with "'church'=people' and 'church'=building", and says that here we have another reminder "of the need for historians of Jesus to jerk themselves consciously out of their contemporary perspective." (p.306).

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