Explainer: The Historical Jesus
“God on Trial”: From 7:06 to 8:16 “Today there was a selection…” to “He was only on our side…”
THAT was a scene from the BBC film, “God on Trial,” which portrays the trial of God by Jews on the charge that he had breached his Covenant, or contract, with their people.
This is a time of reflection on faith for Christians; but aside from faith, our modern society puts a premium on reason, as well.
So tonight instead of an outright lecture, a discussion of sorts: on Jesus as a historical figure. For some, this is a cause of problems; for others, not at all. Tonight, we’ll try to see why this is so.
I’m Manolo Quezon. The Explainer.
I. Jews and Romans
THE Alpha and Omega of the Christian year are two celebrations, and the forty-day commemorations that precede them.
There is Advent leading up to Christmas, the anniversary of Jesus’ birth, which occurs on a fixed date, December 25.
And there is Lent, leading up to Easter, the commemoration of Christ’s Resurrection. Easter fall on a date that changes every year. That’s because it’s based on lunar calculations that are a sign of how the crucifixion took place in relation to the Jewish Passover.
Holy Week in particular,
And how Jesus Christ appeared to his disciples and, after he ascended into Heaven, how the senior disciples, the apostles, in turn went and preached to Jews and non-Jews alike.
As far as it goes, the whole Jesus story could simply be a spooky myth, except that story has come down to us, in a way that’s filled with references to real times and real people.
We know Jesus was born in a particular place, Palestine, then part of the Roman Empire.
We know he was born in a particular time, around 5 BC, during the reign of the Emperor Augustus.
We know he began preaching, and was condemned to die, during the reign of the Emperor Tiberius, in the years 30 to 33, AD.
We are told of Roman officials under Tiberius, like Pontius Pilate, and that he encountered Jewish officials, like King Herod Antipas, to whom Jesus was sent by Pilate but who sent Jesus back to Pilate.
And we’re told that by virtue of his foster father, Joseph,
That Jesus was therefore related to King David.
This duality –the shifting from Jewish to Roman authorities- in the story of Jesus, points to the realities of Jesus’ time, and of the early Christians, where Rome, as in the Roman official, Pontius Pilate, governor of Judea, who sentenced Jesus to death, was the ultimate political authority, but where the different peoples and nations under Roman rule, like the Jews, had their own authorities, either moral, or spiritual, that clashed with Roman might.
We know all these things and many more besides, because of events that occurred long after Jesus’ death, during the reign of the Emperor Nero.
After the great fire of Rome in 64 AD, Nero persecuted the followers of Jesus who believed he was the Christ, or the Messiah, hence, Christians. Nero blamed the Christians for the fire.
And several years after that, the Jews revolted against Roman rule in the year 66.
four years later, the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed.
Between persecutions and the destruction of Jerusalem, it seemed all those who first knew and could testify to Jesus having existed, might die or be killed.
All these little details have enabled Christians living long after biblical times, to certify the true existence of Jesus, in the context of Jewish and Roman, that is, world, history.
Jesus’ story, for believers, has to conform to the rather elastic confines of biblical time, based on genealogies and isolated mentions of non-Jewish persons and events, and the history and timelines of others cultures and nations –and today, to modern sciences like archaelogy.
The result, at least for Jesus’ life, has been to narrow down the timeline, to dates that more or less correspond between history as historians recognize it, and as the Bible tells it.
We know Jesus, then, spiritually and historically, mainly through these four traditional figures, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. They themselves are figures handed down by tradition. All their eyewitness accounts tell us, is that they are accounts based on what the writers actually saw, or were told by reliable people.
But in the order scholars believe they were written, it’s Mark, then Matthew and Luke, partially based on Mark; and finally, John, unrelated to the earlier three.
Let me introduce to to Bart Ehrman: he is a well-known, and controversial, biblical scholar who began as a Christian but has lost his faith from studying sacred scripture.
Not all biblical scholars have lost their faith; the first biblical scholars, after all, were the ancient fathers of the Church; but as biblical scholars have tried to be scientific about bible study, the results have become, in some ways, a battle between the historical, non-divine, Jesus, and the religious, and thus, divine, Christ.
Interpretations can vary. Let me show you this excerpt from a promotional video, where Ehrman discusses the questions scholars debate about Jesus.
“Jesus, Interrupted”: 0:38 to 1:26 From “For example both Mark and Luke” to “you happen to read…”
So when we return, we’ll take a look at Jesus as both factual figure, and literary character.
II. The Literary Jesus
0:53 to 1:52 From “I have spoken openly…” to “…I heard him say two days!”
IN this cinematic version of Jesus’ trial before the Sanhedrin, you get a sense of the problems presented by Jesus’ life, both for his contemporaries who actually met him, and then told their eyewitness accounts passed on through from word of mouth, and those who’d later on, learn about him only based on scripture.
One problem is the perennial problem involving eyewitnesses, and involving hearsay. Witnesses, even if they all saw the same thing, will report that thing differently. And witnesses who tell friends about what they saw, get reported in different ways by each person passing on the story.
Another problem is that besides providing testimony, accounts of Jesus meant to be recited or read, also had to be teaching aids. They had to enable the early Christians to understand Jesus in terms of his own teachings, and what was happening to the early Christians themselves.
As we saw in the first part of tonight’s show, the Jews believed they had a Covenant with God; so for the Christians, they had to convince Jesus’ fellow Jews that he, indeed, was the Messiah, the deliverer of the Jews from Roman bondage; for non-Jews, they had to convince them that Jesus was relevant for all peoples. This was at a time when Jews and non-Jews alike, knew that Rome had destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem.
So there enter the literary elements, where events are related as having occurred in Jesus’ time, foreshadowing what was happening at the time the story of Jesus was finally being written down. You know, for example, the famous incident in the Gospels of , where, at the moment Jesus died, the curtain of the Temple was torn in half.
In literary terms, this was both a sign of how, literally, Jesus’ death was earth-shaking; but also, a sign of how the old Covenant with the Jews was at an end; and a new Covenant was now being signed, sealed, and delivered by means of Jesus’ death and later, his resurrection.
The New Testament, then, is the combined chronicles of Jesus and his followers, as they took what was once God’s agreement with the Jews, and made it a global agreement.
The New Testament is composed of the Gospels, eyewitness accounts of Jesus’ earthly ministry, the Acts of the Apostles, the first few decades of Christianity, and the various epistles, or letters of the leading Apostles and which ends with the Book of Revelations, which tries to foretell Christianity’s future…
Biblical scholars study the different versions of New Testament’s books, and use everything from archeology, to linguistics, to try to make sense, historically, of the development of Christianitie’s sacred texts.
At a public lecture at Stanford University, Palo Alto, California, on April 25th 2007, Bart Ehrman gives us a glimpse of the problems involved. Let’s watch.
1:40 to 2:47 From “we don’t have a copy of Mark…” to “…and so they throw it away.”
Now the differences between versions can either be due to simple copying mistakes, or they can be due to actual editing choices, that to some scholars, suggest changes in Christian attitudes towards Jesus’ own story.
Here’s another excerpt from Ehrman’s Stanford University talk. Take a look.
2:46 to 3:35 “this passage about Father, forgive them…” to “hadn’t forgiven the Jews”
Ehrman is talking about an event that took place in 30 to 33 AD, but being amended sometime in 200 AD, a century after the gospels themselves were written down in the 1st Century, AD.
But even at the time the gospels were being written, some of the supporting cast in Jesus’ story and the conversion of the first generation of Christians, were already arguing over the right historical interpretation of Jesus.
Saint Paul never met Jesus, but was also a Jew but who argued that Jesus’ teachings made the Jewish religious laws obsolete. He preached about Jesus, and interpreted his teachings; he even challenged-
Saint Peter, who not only knew Jesus, but was the closest to him and acknowledged senior leader of the apostles. Peter held that Christians had to uphold the Jewish law, for example, circumcision. Paul said this was no longer required, it was a sign of the old, not the new, covenant.
But the problem at the end of the New Testament is related to what may have inspired its being written in the first place. Jesus said, he would return; the disciples believed it; the apostles believed it. Paul kept writing confused, quarreling, persecuted Christians to have faith, because Jesus would be back soon –but then soon enough, Paul and Peter would be dead… tradition says, on the same day, in the same city, Rome. What then?
In the Book of Revelations, the historical Jesus gives way to an extremely symbolic Jesus; the Jesus of a history about to end, gives way to the Jesus of a faith that must endure ages until some future, unknowable, but surely not-around-the-corner time.
Let me just recommend two books to you.
The first is “Rome and Jerusalem: The Clash of Ancient Civilizations” by Martin Goodman;
And Bart Ehrman’s “Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene: The Followers of Jesus in History and Legend.”
When we return, more of your questions addressed to our faithful panel.
IV. My view