CHRISTIANITY: The Historical Jesus

Reference: Christianity
Reference: The World’s Religions by Huston Smith

[NOTE: In color are Vinaire’s comments.]

Jesus’ mission had been to crack the shell of Judaism in which revelation was encased and release that revelation to a ready and waiting world.

Of all the great religions Christianity is the most widespread and has the largest number of adherents. The figure is probably inflated, but registries list almost one out of every three persons today as Christian, bringing the number into the neighborhood of one and one-half billion.

Christianity is the most widespread religion and has the largest number of adherents.

Nearly two thousand years of history have brought an astonishing diversity to this religion. From the majestic pontifical High Mass in St. Peter’s to the quiet simplicity of a Quaker meeting; from the intellectual sophistication of Saint Thomas Aquinas to the moving simplicity of spirituals such as “Lord, I want to be a Christian”; from St. Paul’s in London, the parish Church of Great Britain, to Mother Teresa in the slums of Calcutta—all this is Christianity. From this dazzling and often bewildering complex, it will be our task to indicate first the central strands that unite this religion, and then its three major divisions: Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Protestantism.

Christianity is also the most diverse religion.

Christianity is basically a historical religion. That is to say, it is founded not on abstract principles but in concrete events, actual historical happenings. The most important of these is the life of a Jewish carpenter who, as has often been pointed out, was born in a stable, was executed as a criminal at age thirty-three, never traveled more than ninety miles from his birthplace, owned nothing, attended no college, marshaled no army, and instead of producing books did his only writing in the sand. Nevertheless, his birthday is kept across the world and his death day sets a gallows against almost every skyline. Who was he? 

Christianity is founded not on abstract principles but in concrete events, actual historical happenings. 

The biographical details of Jesus’ life are so meager that early in this century some investigators went so far as to suggest that he may never have lived. That possibility was soon rejected, but the impact of Albert Schweitzer’s century-dominating Quest for Historical Jesus reduced what the world was hearing about Jesus from biblical scholars to two points: We know almost nothing about him; and of the little we know, what is most certain is that he was wrong—this last referred to his putative belief that the world would quickly come to an end. As this is not much to build a Church on, it is fortunate that “the extreme historical skepticism that has marked most Jesus study in this century is abating.” Classicists have remarked that if the canons for historical reliability that have been erected for the Bible had been required in their studies, our view of the Greco-Roman world (which seems to be reasonably in place) would be in shambles.

Historically, we know almost nothing about Jesus Christ.

Who, then, was this Jesus whom New Testament scholars are beginning to return to view? He was born in Palestine during the reign of Herod the Great, probably around 4 B.C.—our reckoning of the centuries that purports to date from his birth is almost certainly off by several years. He grew up in or near Nazareth, presumably after the fashion of other normal Jews of the time. He was baptized by John, a dedicated prophet who was electrifying the region with his proclamation of God’s coming judgment. In his early thirties he had a teaching-healing career, which lasted between one and three years and was focused largely in Galilee. In time he incurred the hostility of some of his own compatriots and the suspicion of Rome, which led to his crucifixion on the outskirts of Jerusalem. From these facts that fix the framework of Jesus’ life, we turn to the life that was lived within that framework.

We only have a framework of Jesus’ brief 33 years long life.

Minimally stated, Jesus was a charismatic wonder-worker who stood in a tradition that stretched back to the beginnings of Hebrew history. The prophets and seers who comprised that tradition mediated between the everyday world, on the one hand, and a Spirit world that enveloped it. From the latter they drew power, which they used both to help people and to challenge their ways. We shall expand this capsule characterization by considering successively (a) the Spirit world, to which Jesus was exceptionally oriented and which powered his ministry; (b) his deployment of his Spirit-derived powers in the alleviation of human suffering; and (c) the new social order he sought to effect.

Jesus drew power from the spirit world, which he deployed to alleviate human suffering and affect a new social order.

“The Spirit of the Lord Is Upon Me.” According to Luke Jesus opened his ministry by quoting this statement from Isaiah and adding, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled.” We must attend to this Spirit that Jesus experienced as empowering him, for there can be no understanding of his life and work if it is omitted.

In what has proved to be one of our century’s most durable books about religion, The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James tells us that “in its broadest terms, religion says that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in rightful relations to it.” Until recently, modern science seemed to question the reality of unseen entities; but with Eddington’s observation that the world is more like a mind than a machine, and astrophysicists’ reports that 90 percent of the “matter” in the universe is invisible in the sense that it impacts none of their instruments, scientific skepticism has begun to subside. The point here, however, is that the biblical tradition in which Jesus stood can only be read as a continuous, sustained-and-demanding dialogue of the Hebrew people with the unseen order that William James emphasizes. They called that order Spirit (as in the opening verses of the Bible, where Spirit plays over primordial waters to create the world) and, sensing it as intensely alive, they populated it with beings such as angels, archangels, cherubim, and seraphim. Its center, however, was Yahweh, whom they viewed personally: as shepherd, king, lord, father (and less commonly, mother), and lover. Though Spirit was typically pictured as being above the earth—images of ladders to Heaven are routine—that was only to stress its distinctness from, and superiority over, the mundane world. The two were not spatially separated, and were in continuous interaction. God walked in the garden of Eden, and “the whole earth is full of God’s glory,” his radiant presence.

“In its broadest terms, religion says that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in rightful relations to it.” 

Not only was Spirit not spatially removed; though invisible, it could be known. Often it would take the initiative and announce itself. It did this supremely to Moses on Mount Sinai, but it also spoke in a still small voice to Elijah, in lions’ roars to other prophets, and in dramatic events like the Exodus. Concurrently, human beings could take the initiative in contacting it. Fasting and solitude were means for doing so, and Jews who felt the call would periodically remove themselves from the world’s distractions to commune with the divine through these aids. It will not be amiss to think of them as soaking themselves in Spirit during these vigils, for when they return to the world they often give evidence of having almost palpably absorbed something: Spirit and its attendant power.

Spirit is invisible but not spatially removed; and often it takes the initiative and announces itself. 

That Jesus stood in the Jewish tradition of Spirit-filled mediators is the most important fact for understanding his historical career. His immediate predecessor in this tradition was John the Baptist; and it is a testament to his spiritual power that it was his initiation (baptism) of Jesus that opened his third or spiritual eye, as Asians would say, causing him to see “the heavens opened and the Spirit descending upon him like a dove.” Having descended, the Spirit “drove” Jesus into the wilderness where, during forty days of prayer and fasting, he consolidated the Spirit that had entered him. Having done so he reentered the world, empowered.

Jesus stood in the Jewish tradition of Spirit-filled mediators.

“By the Spirit of God I Cast Out Demons.” If science no longer discounts invisible realities, it has also grown open to the prospect that they may be powerful, for experiments now suggest that “the energy inherent in one cubic centimeter of empty space is greater than the energy of all the matter in the known universe.” Whatever the fate of that particular hypothesis, the Jews accepted the supremacy of Spirit over nature without question. The Spirit-filled personages of the Bible have power. To say that they were charismatic is to say they had power to attract people’s attention, but that is only the beginning of the matter. The reason they attracted notice was the exceptional power they possessed. They “had something,” as we say—something ordinary mortals lack. That something was Spirit. The Bible frequently depicts them as “filled with the power of the Spirit,” a power that enabled them at times to influence the natural course of events. They healed diseases, cast out demons, and occasionally quelled storms, parted waters, and caused the dead to return to life. The Gospels attribute these powers to Jesus copiously. Again and again they report people flocking to him, drawn by his wonder-working reputation. “They brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons,” we read, “and the whole city was gathered together about the door.” A New Testament scholar comments that “despite the difficulty which miracles pose for the modern mind, on historical grounds it is virtually indisputable that Jesus was a healer and exorcist.”

“Despite the difficulty which miracles pose for the modern mind, on historical grounds it is virtually indisputable that Jesus was a healer and exorcist.”

He could have been that—indeed, he could have been “the most extraordinary figure in…the stream of Jewish charismatic healers,” as the same New Testament scholar goes on to say—without attracting more than local attention. What made him outlive his time and place was the way he used the Spirit that coursed through him not just to heal individuals but—this was his aspiration—to heal humanity, beginning with his own people.

What made Jesus outlive his time and place was the way he used the Spirit that coursed through him not just to heal individuals but to heal humanity, beginning with his own people.

“Thy Kingdom Come, on Earth.” Politically, the position of the Jews in Jesus’ time was desperate. They had been in servitude to Rome for the better part of a century and, along with their loss of freedom, were being taxed almost beyond endurance. Existing responses to their predicament were four. The Sadducees, who were relatively well off, favored making the best of a bad situation and accommodated themselves to Hellenistic culture and Roman rule. The other positions hoped for change. All three recognized that the change would have to be effected by Yahweh, and all assumed that the Jews needed to do something that would prompt his intervention. Two of the three were renewal movements. The Essenes considered the world as too corrupt to allow for Judaism to renew itself within it, so they dropped out. Withdrawing into property-sharing communes, they devoted themselves to lives of disciplined piety. The Pharisees, on the other hand, remained within society and sought to revitalize Judaism through adhering strictly to the Mosaic law, especially its holiness code. Representatives of the fourth position have been referred to as Zealots, but it is doubtful that they were sufficiently organized to deserve a name. Despairing that any change could occur without brute force, they launched sporadic acts of resistance that culminated in the catastrophic revolt of 66–70 A.D., which led to the second destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.

The position of the Jews in Jesus’ time under Roman rule was desperate. Existing responses to their predicament were in terms of the Sadducees, the Essenes, the Pharisees, and the Zealots.

Into this political cauldron Jesus introduced a fifth option. Unlike the Sadducees, he wanted change. Unlike the Essenes, he stayed in the world. Unlike the advocates of the military option, he extolled peacemakers and urged that even enemies be loved. It was the Pharisees that Jesus stood closest to, for the difference between them was one of emphasis only. The Pharisees stressed Yahweh’s holiness, while Jesus stressed Yahweh’s compassion; but the Pharisees would have been the first to insist that Yahweh was also compassionate, and Jesus that Yahweh was holy. The difference appears at first to be small, but in actuality it proved to be too large for a single religion to accommodate. We must understand why this was the case. 

Jesus stood closest to the Pharisees but the difference proved to be too large for a single religion to accommodate.

Grounding themselves in the understanding of Yahweh as majestic holiness, the Pharisees went on to affirm the accepted version of Jewish self-understanding. Being holy himself, Yahweh wanted to hallow the world as well, and to accomplish this aim he selected the Jews to plant for him, as it were, a beachhead of holiness in human history. On Mount Sinai he had prescribed a holiness code, faithful observance of which would make of the Hebrews “a nation of priests.” Yahweh’s dictum to them, “You shall be holy, as I the Lord your God am holy,” became the Pharisees’ watchword. It was laxity in the observance of the holiness code that had reduced the Jews to their degraded state, and only the wholehearted return to it would reverse that state. 

The Pharisees were devoted to the holiness code prescribed on Mount Sinai by Yahweh.

Much of this Jesus subscribed to, but there was an important feature of the holiness program he found unacceptable: the lines that it drew between people. Beginning by categorizing acts and things as clean or unclean (foods and their preparation, for example), the holiness code went on to categorize people according to whether they respected those distinctions. The result was a social structure that was riven with barriers: between people who were clean and unclean, pure and defiled, sacred and profane, Jew and Gentile, righteous and sinner. Having concluded that Yahweh’s central attribute was compassion, Jesus saw social barriers as an affront to that compassion. So he parleyed with tax collectors, dined with outcasts and sinners, socialized with prostitutes, and healed on the sabbath when compassion prompted doing so. This made him a social prophet, challenging the boundaries of the existing order and advocating an alternative vision of the human community. 

Jesus subscribed to the holiness code except for the lines it drew between the Jew and Gentile. 

Jesus was deeply Jewish; at the same time he stood in sharp tension with Judaism. (One is tempted to claim this as an important aspect of his Jewishness, for no religion has manifest, and on the whole encouraged, internal criticism to the extent that this one has.) Jesus saw the holiness code and the distinctions that followed from it as having been needed to lift the Jews to a purity that surpassed their neighbors. His own encounter with God, however, led him to the conviction that, as practiced in his time, the purity system had created social divisions that compromised God’s compassion, which compassion the Pharisees equally subscribed to in principle. 

Jesus objected to the fact that the compassion of Jews did not extend to the Gentile.

It is important to emphasize that the issue was not God’s compassion; it was whether the social system that the holiness code in its outworkings had structured was compassionate. Jesus’ conviction that it was not put him at odds with the Pharisees, but his protest did not prevail. It did, however, attract enough attention to alarm the Roman authorities, which led to Jesus’ arrest and execution on charges of treason. 

This put Jesus at odds with the Pharisees, and it attracted enough attention to alarm the Roman authorities.

Thereafter the future of the “Jesus people” lay with the wider world. In time Christians came to read this development positively. To their eyes God’s revelation to the Jews was too important to be confined to a single ethnic group. Jesus’ mission had been to crack the shell of Judaism in which revelation was encased and release that revelation to a ready and waiting world. Putting it this way does not cancel the need for a continuing Jewish presence. Until the world is regenerated, the witness of a nation of priests remains relevant.

Jesus’ mission had been to crack the shell of Judaism in which revelation was encased and release that revelation to a ready and waiting world.


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