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  • Brian Chilcote

Jesus Under Construction: History versus Theology

Updated: May 15

Was Jesus a real historical person?


Some would take exception to the verb in the question, correcting it to reflect an assurance that Jesus pre-existed his human form and was raised from the dead to live forever. Others are certain he was simply an invention of the Apostle Paul, other first century Hellenized Jews, or in the hands of Monty Python, a regular guy who stumbled into a messianic role he never wanted. The scholarly consensus for now, based on methodologically sound historical evidence is that a Jewish activist named Jesus did indeed walk the earth in the early first century.


Historical data tell us that Jesus was probably an influential Galilean Jew whose activities ran afoul of the local authorities and got him executed. Theological conclusions tell us a wider story: that Jesus was actually the unique son of the one true God whose death and return to life gives believers an opportunity to repair a broken relationship with God, leading to eternal life.


History versus Theology


Historians work from a specific set of methodologies, theologians from another. They sometimes ask the same questions, but their answers can vary widely. Did Jesus really walk on water? What was going on when our ancient texts describe a healing or exorcism? Answering from a data-driven bias leads to an opinion based on credible interpretations on what's probable using something like a scientific method. Answering from a theological angle steers us into different territories where personal and social mores are in view, and we look at the text for truths that inspire or explain what's possible


Whether we are working from a theological or historical angle, all of us must start with information from ancient writings originating at specific intersections of social, economic, religious, political and personal coordinates. We can include church tradition in the chain of custody of the notions we have now, but even those got their start somewhere in a centuries-old work of literature.


Some perceptive classical-era historians discussed the problem of bias in the writing of history, acknowledging that authors who set about to describe events in the past had conscious or unconscious control over the "spin" of their narratives.  T.J. Luce, in an article on ancient historiography points out,


"The Greeks and Romans usually spoke of the absence of favoritism or hatred. Today the desideratum is given as a positive and particularized virtue, 'objectivity' or 'impartiality,' for which the ancients had no special vocabulary, speaking simply of the 'truth,' which could be compromised in ways other than through bias. What historical truth was, and how it could be attained, were questions seldom addressed (Polybius is the chief exception), partly because, no doubt, the concept of historical truth seemed obvious, and partly because the concept was so often couched in negative terms: when favoritism and hostility are removed, truth is the residuum." (Luce, pg. 17)*


Ancient readers of history had certain expectations of the accounts they heard or read. They were all too aware of the personal biases a historian could bring into their accounts of events; objectivity could be swayed by favors and insults from those in his sphere of social activity, political and familial debts of gratitude or points of contention could surface anywhere in an otherwise factual retelling. Luce writes:

"Failure to acknowledge these debts in his life and writings is the sign of moral defect, as Dionysius' indictment of Thucydides demonstrates. Similarly, the historian is expected to make suitable pronouncements on the goodness and badness of the people appearing in his pages. …failure to do so pointed to a serious imperfection in character…  As the historian is to judge the moral worth of his subjects, so the reader judges the moral worth of the historian."


What are we to make of the difference in expectations between modern readers of history and those of the original audiences? For one thing, we should look for ancient authors to lionize their heroes, denigrate their villains and lay out their goals in ways that if published today would draw accusations of  favoritism and prejudice. Being prepared for that as we read the New Testament might help us to find a halfway point between our expectations of the text and an ancient author's modes and aims. 

How do we get our information about Jesus?


Don't we have a dependable, coherent source for belief and practice?


Well, not exactly. There is wide diversity of opinion on what we read in the gospels and in Paul. One significant branch of modern evangelicalism builds a theology on the assumption that the gospels are recorded history from either direct eyewitnesses or those who had direct access to them. Here's a representative summary of this from Dr. Mark Thompson:


"The record we have of his life and teaching in the Gospels comes from eyewitnesses, either directly in the case of Matthew and John or indirectly in the case of Mark (who, early testimony confirms, recorded the recollections of Peter) and Luke (the companion of Paul who collected statements from a vast number of eyewitnesses and wove them into a coherent narrative)." … Mark Thompson, Moore Theological College**


Dr. Thompson, along with many conservative evangelicals are convinced that Matthew, the disciple mentioned in Matthew 9:9. 10:3, Mark 3:18, Luke 6:15 and in Acts 1:13, personally penned the story that has come down to us through the centuries. According to Thompson, the same goes for John- both are reliable eyewitnesses who were able to capture the facts in such a way as to assure the modern reader that we have an accurate reconstruction of what Jesus thought, said and did. Mark, they assert, was written by a companion of Peter (1 Peter 5, Acts 12 and 15). Luke was composed later by the physician mentioned in Colossians 4, who accessed eyewitness and primary sources to write "an orderly account" of the events surrounding Jesus life and death. 


Why insist on this? Because the authority of the gospels is in question. If one begins with the notion that the Bible is God's absolute truth in all its parts, it helps to know they have a set of "facts" that are correct and binding on Christians- a fixed metric by which we can organize our view of the world and evaluate where everyone stands with God. Being certain that a biography of Jesus was written by someone who was actually there seems to carry a lot more weight than if it was written decades later by someone else, whose name we don't even know.


One prominent example of this view is Anglican scholar Richard Bauckham, who summarized this position in his book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony.  Here's a summary in a review of the book, and a brief summary of the uncertainties scholars encounter as they do their research in a Zondervan Academic article , and a short summary in Wikipedia on the Gospels and Acts


There are a few wee problems with this perspective, which is probably why it's a minority view among biblical scholars. While it may be a comfort to believe that we can read simple account of what Jesus actually said or thought in simple, understandable English, but alas, like most claims of this nature, it's too good to be true.


No Pure Objectivity


When most Christians read the gospels, they take it for granted that the words are creating a reasonably accurate picture in their minds of what happened. If there had been a audiovisual recording of the sermon on the mount, it would precisely match up with Jesus's vocabulary, tone, gestures and intended rhetorical effect along with the scenery, the crowd, the weather, and everything else that happens in our mind's eye in response to our reading. All it takes is a sanctified imagination to render a historically correct impression for any reader.


Obviously, there weren't devices capable of recording anything in those days. Even if there were, we have to admit that there would still be disagreement on what happened, as it is in our time. Two modern people can watch a speech by a politician and take away two radically different conclusions. One despairs of the horror that could follow the politician's ascent to power, the other is giddy with excitement at the prospect.


One way to mitigate this problem is by asserting that God supernaturally arranged it so that the "eyewitnesses" got it completely right as reliable and unbiased narrators. This falls under the rubric of inspiration and inerrancy, but it takes us outside the realm of historical evidence and methodologies. It's an option that one may choose to hold, but it bears repeating that not everyone is satisfied with "God's mysterious action" as a final answer to the problems with inerrancy and inspiration.


Many who agree with Dr. Thompson  want their faith both ways: grounded in historical fact and bestowed on humankind by supernatural means.


What about the Manuscripts?


There is a considerable gap in time between the lifetime of Jesus and any physical copies of writings about him. Often you'll read or hear about the number of manuscripts and partial manuscripts we have supporting the New Testament, but it doesn't really matter how many there are when historians are asking a completely different question: are they accurate?


Second century satirist Lucian of Samosata relates the story of a well-known Cynic named Peregrinus who immolated himself at the Olympic Games, having miscalculated the presence of hoped-for sympathizers who would talk him out of it. After the event, Lucian lingered to describe the event to latecomers, inventing the ruse that this Peregrinus' essence, in the form of a vulture (not an eagle or other nobler bird) was seen to arise toward Mt. Olympus through the smoke of the pyre.


Lucian was delighted to overhear a later discussion between a pair of citizens who had missed the excitement, one insisting that a vulture had indeed been seen rising from the flames!***


Multiple copies of a document does not make it accurate in terms of the events it records, even if they show great stability over time. Lucian's vulture story could well have been repeated many times over and eventually found its way into the written record as "truth." And we know human nature; this is especially likely when people want to believe something is true. In the case of the thousands of fragments of New Testament texts, affirming the advantage of multiple attestations in comparison to other texts of the era is one thing, but solving the problem of objectivity and accuracy regarding actual versus remembered events is another.


And the fact remains that there are discrepancies between different manuscripts from different places and time periods. Most of them have very little impact on later translations, but in many cases transmission errors, glosses, and intentional additions or deletions create a conundrum: which text is the perfect one? Most of the time manuscript scholars are able to identify and correct the differences. In addition, there are many instances of either multiple possible translations of a given word or phrase from Greek into English, or no equivalent at all. Before any church or synagogue established an official canon, rabbis, priests and scribes referred to a library of authoritative texts to extract theological principles and practical wisdom. Some of these texts were astonishingly different than what we are used to. They did their best, and some would even insist that the umbrella of divine inspiration must extend to the scribes, copyists and translators down through the centuries.


The gospels we have adopted into our canon are anything but objective and they don't hide the fact. Each one is an attempt to arrange the narrative in the most persuasive way possible, attempting to engender belief in the author's interpretation of Jesus. An fully accurate (by modern standards) impression of the historical Jesus cannot be recovered, no matter how many manuscripts and fragments we have. By the time the gospels were in their final original versions, a theological Jesus was far more important to the early church anyway. 


The Gospels were written for maximum persuasive effect


All four gospels are anonymous- there's no direct internal evidence for who wrote them (such as "I, Matthew the disciple of Jesus, wrote this"). Papias and other church patriarchs embraced the traditions that assigned authorship of the gospels to apostles in order to assert their authority over various other literary rivals. The early church fathers also had a vested interest in winning a contested "official" set of beliefs that would define the movement. 


"Luke" for example, had opinions of other gospels and set out to write a superior one, but he never reveals his identity as author, nor does he specify any detail about his audience other than naming Theophilus, meaning "Lover of God."


Matthew and John are both highly rhetorical in style rich with chiasm and other classical rhetorical conventions, suggesting skilled efforts to process the material to fit specific literary aims. This says something about their audiences as well, indicating educated elites who would be impressed by eloquence.


Mark includes conventional storytelling techniques like building suspense with his "Messianic Secret" (Jesus keeps telling people to keep quiet about who he is) and poetically shaped chiasms scholars call the "Markan Sandwich."


The twelve disciples are usually presented as unable to understand Jesus or the kingdom of God. We tend to cast aspersions on these poor fellows who continually miss the obvious, argue about rank and constantly ask Jesus to explain things. This achieves exactly what a rhetorical expert hopes for: placing the reader on the inside, with enough theological insight to feel like we are as good or better "Christians" than Peter, James, John and the rest. It also gives the rhetorician the opportunity to explain things to his readers by setting up scenes in which the Master is correcting or dispelling the ignorance of the disciples.


We see examples of this in modern storytelling. For example, introducing an inexperienced or naïve character to whom others must explain why things are the way they are. In the 1960's Batman TV series, Batman frequently pauses to explain to Robin what the villain is up to and why. That way the audience is let in on the secret before the heroes evade some danger. It paints the protagonist in a heroic light, able to outsmart the villain who ends up caught in his own evil devices.


In the Gospels, chronologies, geographical features, entire pericopes (individual short episodes) don't match- when did Jesus rage in the Temple? The synoptics say late in the story- during holy week. John positions it much earlier in the narrative in chapter two, just after the Cana water-into-wine miracle. Luke and Matthew's nativity stories differ on the exact time and events of Jesus' birth. Why all these discrepancies? Because each text is written with a unique slant on what's important as they aim their arguments at dissimilar groups of hearers.


One reason many scholars conclude that Mark was the earliest gospel is that a case can be made that both Matthew and Luke use Mark's material in their own accounts. If that's true, then we can also see what both later authors corrected, changed or omitted. Luke and John both portray Jesus as a universal figure who is interested in lower classes, women and Samaritans, while Matthew is less inclined to do the same. In Chapter 10, Matthew even has Jesus staying in his ethnic lane when he instructs the disciples to fan out and proclaim the arrival of the kingdom: "These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Do not take a road leading to gentiles, and do not enter a Samaritan town, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel."


Could the gospels have been fact-checked?


It's common to hear an apologist for apostolic authority defend their position by insisting that the writers' claims could be fact checked by people who were actually there. The empty tomb? That's the claim of three out of four gospel authors. If the empty tomb was made up, the argument goes, the original manuscript could be corrected or debunked easily by interviewing anyone with direct knowledge of the fact. That goes for other content in the gospels and Acts. These texts must reflect reality because they would have been proven false by direct eyewitnesses who could tell a different story. But "could have" does not mean "must have."


Here’s what's missing in those claims. First, the time lag between the original authorship of the gospels was at least 35 years for Mark and much later for the others. This was enough time for the story to accumulate some embellishments from remembered retellings as the first believers processed what happened. Second, were literate people actively pursuing a "correct" version, making sure it was exactly how Jesus said or did something? Probably not, especially if the stories circulated mainly among early believers who were motivated to depict Jesus in the most favorable and exalted light. This assertion is a good example of how we tend to import our contemporary assumptions about how literature is produced and reviewed into a time and culture where preserving ideas in writing was a rare technology, and reading even rarer. There was neither investigative journalism nor a Snopes website to fact check stories in mass media sources. How widely was the proto-orthodox gospel known in its formative years? We're not sure, but we do know that Information did not travel as easily as it does now, of course, so debate would have been limited.


Third, it's normative for the only surviving version of events to be the one written by the victors. When historical events are related by only one dedicated viewpoint, we know we're only getting a fraction of the whole story. We have few reasonable counterpoints to the gospels, aside from quite a few other "gospels" and other accounts of Jesus from the first and second centuries. Why is that?


Outside of our now-famous beleaguered sect of radical Jewish Messianists, there was no unified voice that was as driven or organized enough to preserve a fully formed contrasting record of events. With the onset of a disastrous war with Rome, there just wasn't any imperative to focus on a definitive counter-story.


Opposition to the claims of the early Christians were first focused on Paul. His writings do hint at pushback, as does Acts, written by "Luke." Perhaps there were many effective counter-stories which represented a very different picture of Jesus, now lost to us. It's not unreasonable to suspect later suppression of these attempts to correct the tradition. As the Christian movement grew, bishops and other learned leaders spilled much ink in an effort to define and unify the movement by marginalizing heresy.


We do in fact have some first century texts that differ quite a bit from what developed into Christian orthodoxy; so it's not really the case that the gospels went unchallenged as official accounts. The diversity of interpretations of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus are numerous but eventually lost out to a much narrower scope of truth. These could be seen as attempts to expose the traditional accounts as deceptive, but they were defeated in the end. We have hints of later attempts to debunk the central themes of burial and resurrection in Matthew 27 in which the chief priests reminded Pilate to station a guard at the tomb, "…Otherwise, his disciples may come and steal the body and tell the people that he has been raised from the dead. This last deception will be worse than the first.” For this to appear in Matthew's gospel indicates that he had to deal with accusations of deception on some level. Some extrabiblical records didn't bother with an empty tomb or a virgin birth. Some disagreed on Jesus' divinity or humanity, but they eventually lost out to the version we now read in our Bibles.


What can we know about the historical Jesus?

Jesus was Jewish

One thing we are reasonably certain about is that he was Jewish. Although many of the details of this are lost to the mists of the past, we can infer a few things that shape our ideas of Jesus as a wonder-working Jewish Rabbi.


Jesus the charismatic holy man is situated in a tradition of first century Hasidim, Jewish sages or revered Rabbis along the lines of Honi the Circle Drawer. These were the days of the Tannaim, scholars whose teachings formed the basis of the Mishnah (the Oral Torah). Scholar Geza Vermes has written on this view in his 1973 book Jesus the Jew. Amy-Jill Levine's The Misunderstood Jew: the Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus also raises awareness of just how Jewish Jesus must have been, in spite of Christian history's attempts to neutralize that reality.


The concept of a miracle performing sage was not unique to Galilee or Judea in this time period. Apollonius of Tyana was a first century Cappadocian miracle worker who, according to his admirers, led an exemplary life, predicted a plague in Ephesus and even raised a Roman Consul's daughter from the dead. Even if Apollonius was merely a fiction used to mock early Christians, it reveals an existing intellectual category for Jesus as the gospels were being written. Other "Messiahs" had come and gone from the scene before Jesus and John the Baptist made their entrance; from what we can glean from the literature of the time period, the air was heavy with apocalyptic fervor.


The four gospels in our Bibles do indeed portray a very Jewish story. Even Luke the gentile makes an effort to record and explain the culturally Jewish aspects of the story. An accurate conception of Jesus according to these scholars must feature Jewish traditions, worldviews, values, social realities and other ways of being that are dramatically different from ours. The question is: "Should we interpret the life and teachings of Jesus through the priorities and values of those who first experienced and remembered them, or through our own modern worldview lenses?

If we start our quest for the historical Jesus with his Jewishness, one likely mode of understanding his life and death is to place him in the then-common category of prophetic teachers who spoke and acted not only against the real-world imperial powers that oppressed and dehumanized God's chosen people, but to attack and destroy anything that placed people in jeopardy with God. The gospel of Mark echoes Numbers chapter 5 as it describes encounters with skin disease, genital discharge and corpse impurity. Jesus was also said to possess the raw power to dismiss impure pneuma, or evil spirits as well. In doing so, Jesus collided with the fact that those who threaten the power of the status quo often don't survive when the empire strikes back, which was certainly true of Jesus of Nazareth.


Matthew Thiessen summarizes this view in his book Jesus and the Forces of Death: The Gospels' Portrayal of Ritual Impurity within First-Century Jerusalem. Rather than trying to overturn the Torah with its hidebound regulations, Jesus set out to increase the "ritual purity quotient" in his cultural setting in full accordance with the Torah's teachings. He was a roving force of holiness who was rumored to remove both ritual and moral impurity.


Jesus and his culture took seriously the idea that ritual impurity represents death and separation. Dealing with the primary sources of ritual impurity prepares people (specifically, the Jews) for the imminent arrival of the End of the Age. Thiessen writes:


"By inserting a new, mobile, and powerfully contagious force of holiness into the world in the person of Jesus, Israel’s God has signaled the very coming of the kingdom—a kingdom of holiness and life that throughout the mission of Jesus overwhelms the forces and sources of impurity and death, be they pneumatic, ritual, or moral."


"…This dramatic story culminates in Jesus facing off with death itself in his crucifixion, taking ritual impurity into his very own body, only once again and with finality to come out victorious when Israel’s God raises him from the dead."****


Contrary to what most of modern Christendom has concluded, acknowledging a Jewish Jesus means that he and the temple apparatus- with its priests, sacrificial systems and built structures- were on the same team, providing a God-given temporary defense against the deathly powers in this life. The priestly caste took special precautions because of their proximity to Yahweh's presence, but there was no avoiding the innocuous stains of everyday life that could prove deadly if you happened to enter the wrong zone of the temple grounds without following the correct purification rituals.


Supersessionism has largely won the day, with its insistence on a "new covenant" that renders the Law and the Temple as mere artifacts of an old, inferior way to access a holy God. There is a case to be made that Jesus saw things differently. Matthew's gospel remembers Jesus saying something like: "For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished." And yet we have the anonymous book of Hebrews contending for a faith that is rooted in -but superior to- the ancient Jewish traditions. All the Law and Prophets led up to the final high priest who supersedes them all: "But Jesus has now obtained a more excellent ministry, and to that degree he is the mediator of a better covenant, which has been enacted on the basis of better promises. For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no need to look for a second one" (Heb. 8:6). What follows in Hebrews 8 quotes Jeremiah 31, a passage that describes a new national post-exilic ideal in which Israel will no longer be in danger of exile because of disobedience.


As the Judaisms of the first century and the Jesus movements began to separate, Christians looked for scriptural justification for their legitimacy. Was it to add an ancient panache to what was perceived as a newfangled religion? We do know there were tensions between the original Jewish Christians and the "Greek" or gentile believers, so it stands to reason that there might be some motivation to posit that Jesus represented a breakthrough that went beyond what the Torah could do for humanity.  


Quests for the Historical Jesus


Helen Bond, in her book The Historical Jesus- A Guide for the Perplexed, outlines the history of "Quests for the Historical Jesus:" The Old Quest, No Quest, The New Quest, and the Third Quest. These quests began in Germany with the rise of scholarship inspired by Enlightenment ideals of critical analysis and empiricism. It was a language professor in Hamburg, Hermann Reimarus, who kicked things off with a couple of controversial, posthumously and anonymously  published essays entitled On the Resurrection Narratives and On the Intentions of Jesus and His Disciples. They hit the public eye in 1777 and 1778 to a mix of outrage and curiosity. Reimarus proposed that Jesus' disciples concocted a politically motivated fraud after he was unexpectedly executed by the Romans. Enlightenment skepticism and English Deism drove the early departures from official church orthodoxy. Paulus and Strauss were next with questions about the historicity of the miracle stories in the gospels.


Throughout the 19th century, European scholars explored alternative explanations of the Jesus of history, culminating in Albert Schweitzer's 1906 The Quest of the Historical Jesus. Schweitzer convincingly argued that Jesus' agenda was driven less by his desire to see human society reformed than his eschatological vision of an imminent "Last Day."


Truly massive changes were wrought by Scholasticism, the Renaissance, the Reformation and all that went with the "Great Shift" away from a dependence on tradition and authoritative hierarchies to interpret reality. Scientific methodologies that took the place of priests and bishops as the tools of discovery were placed in the hands of anyone who had the means to question, hypothesize and test possible answers about the world. Scientific analysis turned its gaze toward history and the Bible and the faith systems it produced, and schools of "criticism" emerged. Form, Literary, Redaction, Historical-Cultural, Source, and other critical methodologies took hold and produced radically different conclusions about the Bible and church history. No longer did a story structured by the supernatural and curated by church hierarchies hold all the high ground, in spite of the doubling-down response from fundamentalist quarters which is still influential to this day.


John P. Meier's A Marginal Jew was published in 1991, kicking off a massive six-volume set of meticulous inquiry into the historical Jesus. Meier's conclusion is in the titles of his books: contrary to what we might have thought, Jesus was simply a marginal Jew in a marginal culture within a world of empire and colonialism. Meier's giant work ironically shows how little we can actually know as historians examine the evidence. It's the theological Jesus that takes center stage today.


Modern scholarly consensus (the bulk of professional scholars whose work touches on questions of historicity) accept that the authors of the gospels are not those that tradition assigns to them. With a few exceptions like Richard Bauckham, who finds agreement with that small handful of early church patriarchs on this point, most of what you'll hear in non-sectarian educational settings is an established opinion that our four anonymous gospel authors are lost to history.


So after a few centuries of investigation, what can we be reasonably certain about when it comes to the Jesus of history? We know he was probably some kind of Jewish artisan, but what else can we say about the actual man named Jesus who walked the roads of Galilee long ago? While we have no extant first hand witnesses or documents, we are left to depend on the impressions remembered and gathered by his early followers. It's important to keep in mind that when we read about Jesus' life and words in the New Testament, we are reading the thoughts and perceptions of his followers a few decades after the fact.


The famous "Jesus Seminar" of the 1980's and 90's developed a set of criteria that directed an effort to single out what was truly original and what was added later. The criteria included items such as: orality- the idea that a catchy turn of phrase was easier to remember and thus was more likely to be recalled later, multiple attestation, embarrassment (stories that put early believers in a negative light. These should have been edited out but weren't), contextual credibility, dissimilarity, and other clues as to what might most likely be traced back to Jesus himself. Here's a short list of items we think we know about Jesus sitz im leben- certainly not an exhaustive list, but a good start:


  • Jesus was influenced by and allied with John the Baptist, from whom he adopted his apocalyptic urgency

  • Grew up Nazareth in Galilee a few miles from the major Roman city of Sepphoris

  • Born in 4-ish BCE. Matthew's account best fits the known political timeline

  • Could easily have been a Tekton (an artisan in wood or stone) before he embarked on his itinerancy.

  • Spoke Aramaic and some Greek, as did most people of his social status.

  • Traveled the countryside to preach as an itinerant "Rabbi." Avoided cities until the end of his career

  • Recognized as a healer (Notre Dame's Jerome Neyrey's essays on miracles)

  • Recognized as a prophet, or one who speaks on YHWH's behalf

  • Gathered disciples, possibly up to twelve

  • Traveled mostly in Galilee, Samaria and Judea. He stayed inside an area of about 100 by 60 miles. MAP

  • Conflicted with established authorities- Jerusalem Temple leaders and Roman representatives.

  • Crucified by a coalition of Roman and Jewish authorities because of his growing anti-establishment influence

  • His message consisted of principles like: "Live the Torah from the heart," "Oppose social, political and religious oppression because YHWH is not like that," "Repent, God's rule is breaking in on us now."

  • Followers were local Galileans including his brother James


Beyond these bare facts are the additions of his early followers which found their way into the texts of the gospels and Paul's writings. Embellishments such as proposing his messiahship or deified status were the result of years of reflection and debate about who and what Jesus was. Matthew and Luke both have Jesus investigating his identity using the disciples as a foil. When they (Peter) affirm his messiahship, in true Messianic Secret fashion (best seen in Mark)  both authors have him swear his followers to silence about it. Luke goes on to have Jesus refer to himself as the "Son of Man" figure proposed in Daniel and Ezekiel.


There's little debate about the observation that the gospels are carefully crafted, well considered narratives that took not a little ingenuity and labor to produce. They use the rhetorical conventions  of their time, like the use of a historical narrative to persuade, poetic diction, careful attention to how it would sound when read, and so on. Out of all the possible remembered words and events in Jesus' life, these were artfully chosen as the most likely to capture and hold the attention of early believers. Allusions and quotations of Old Testament themes added to the edifice of respect for and legitimacy of the rather startling claims about this obscure Jewish figure.


As is the case with any information about the past, we find ourselves at the mercy of memory- our own, or the recollections of the people who claim to have been there.  This Jewish Jesus: what did he believe? What did he actually think about possibly being the final messiah? When or how did he take it seriously? What we have are interpretations several layers removed from the genuine words and works of Jesus himself and once we accept that, we move immediately to a discussion about the Theological Jesus.


Anticipating the next installment on the Theological Jesus, a quote from Princeton's Dale Allison:


"Maybe we have unthinkingly reduced biography to autobiography. Certainly we have sought to set aside Matthean redaction and Markan theology so that we could get back to Jesus as he was before people wrote him up. But should we not be more circumspect here? Of course people can be misunderstood, and fictions may be told about them. At the same time, fictions need not be misleading."


Dale Allison, The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus; Eerdmans, 2009 pg. 24





Which is more important to you, the Historical Jesus or the Theological Jesus?


How do the two categories of thinking about Jesus affect our concept of a Centered Set community?


How would you answer the sort-of famous question: Did Jesus become God or did God become Jesus?




*Ancient Views on the Causes of Bias in Historical Writing

T. J. Luce; Classical Philology, Vol. 84, No. 1 (Jan., 1989), p. 21



***Additionally, Lucian's satire (165 CE) is one of a small handful of texts from the second century to mention an outsider's opinion of Christians, including what were general stereotypes that would likely have been known by his readers. See this English translation of  The Passing of Peregrinus, Lucian of Samosata; sections 11-13


****Thiessen, Matthew. Jesus and the Forces of Death: The Gospels' Portrayal of Ritual Impurity within First-Century Judaism (p. 179). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.



For more on the Quest for the historical Jesus methodology and their criteria for authenticity (Westar Institute), see this Wikipedia article on the Quest  



The Christian Classics Ethereal Library has English translations of most of the works of "Ante-Nicene Fathers" down to 325 CE. On some volumes, when you click on the link it shows a blank first page. In the upper right there is an indicator arrow to turn to the next page.



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Replying to

>>"I do not believe that God is a concept. He is what remains when you take all the concepts away."<<


Granted, it's extremely likely that there are things in the universe that exist beyond what we can conceive, but let's not conflate the two: reality is what it is, and concepts are what we use to hypothesize about it, then interpret and describe it. We arrive at agreement about reality by packaging our interpretations into concepts and comparing them with others' conclusions.


Using language to describe something requires perception, thought, memory, comparison and contrast, analogy, meaning, and other actions of reason. To my limited perspective I can't think of another way to express an idea to myself or…


May 15

Here are my thoughts as it pertains to Cornerstone - our church. Being a center-set church does not mean that center-set is the center. It means Jesus is the center. But then it becomes very important to define who Jesus is - He cannot simply be "our own personal Jesus" or whatever we want him to be,cosmic or historical or whatever. Your Jesus cannot be different than my Jesus. He has to be "Our Jesus" in the same way we say "Our Father". The most obvious starting point is "Jesus is God". In the Bible, eye witnesses are testifying that they saw God on earth. Of course it takes faith to accept this. THat is why the church believes one thing…

Brian Chilcote
Brian Chilcote
May 15
Replying to

Once again, thanks for commenting Mark. The points you raise are valid ones, and worth looking into. I think you should write up a blog article for CCF that defines your Christological position in detail so our readers have more information about the all-important center.


I have a couple of clarifying questions, if I may.


"Your Jesus cannot be different than my Jesus. He has to be 'Our Jesus' in the same way we say 'Our Father.'


God as a father… I know you are aware that the concept of fatherhood is not absolute. Families in antiquity were vastly different in structure and expectations than now, so that when we call God a "father" we probably mean…

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