I have finished “The Historical Figure of Jesus” by E. P. Sanders, and it was very interesting and enlightening. In this post I will share what I’ve learnt about Jesus’ life and mission, saving the part about how he died for another post.
Jesus started out under John the Baptist, before embarking on his own ministry. He called 12 disciples, close followers; the number 12 was symbolic of the 12 tribes of Israel, and he said that they would judge the 12 tribes when the kingdom of God came. His main message was that the kingdom of God was coming very soon (i.e. within his own generation), and this was a common theme of the day. It seems to have referred to a dramatic intervention by God to establish a kingdom on earth ruled by God himself (the eschatological stuff), and also, referred to heaven. He taught about what the kingdom would be like. He had many followers and supporters but he expected only a few to give up everything and join him in his highly insecure existence. Even after his death, his followers continued to expect the kingdom, and gradually adjusted their expectations when it was not forthcoming.
He performed miracles, mainly healings and exorcisms, which earned him local fame. His ethics were perfectionistic, but his main emphasis was not on presenting rules but on showing mercy and compassion. He was not a social or political reformer – he believed the kingdom was coming soon and that God himself would establish it, so there was nothing people could do to bring it about.
Jesus saw himself as representing God – it is unclear whether he took on any titles like Messiah or Son of God, and it is unclear what “Son of Man” meant, which is how he sometimes described himself. It is unclear whether the Son of Man who he predicted to descend on a cloud when the kingdom came also referred to Jesus himself, but it might have. He seems to have thought of himself as “king” in some sense; he was fully aware when he rode on a donkey into Jerusalem that he was making this identification of himself (because it fulfilled scriptural prophecy). It’s worth pointing out that “Son of God” did not imply “more than human” or “divine” where it was used in the Jewish tradition; that and the virgin birth story came with the influence of Greek culture. To the Jews it always meant a person who had a close relationship with God.
Here is some more info under various headings – sorry it’s so long! If you’re pushed for time, “Ethical teaching” and “Sinners” are the most interesting parts, so skip to them. 🙂
Jesus’ miracles were mainly healings and driving out demons. He was not the only healer or exorcist, and it was not taken as a sign that Jesus was more than human, but it meant he was viewed by some as a holy man and his fame arose from it. He saw the miracles as symbolic of the kingdom being at hand.
Some of the miracle stories are probably exaggerated or even made up. The biggest example is the exorcism where demons go into swine which then jump into the sea. Mark sets this story in Gerasa and Matthew sets it in Gadara, neither of which are on the sea. “The apocryphal gospels of later centuries sometimes depict Jesus as performing equally fantastic and grotesque miracles, some of which are even crueller than the destruction of swine, such as killing his childhood playmates and then restoring them to life, or turning them into goats. That is, sometimes Christian authors wished so strongly to present Jesus as a being able to employ supernatural power that they depicted him as being no better than a god of Greek mythology in a bad mood. For the most part, the canonical gospels are free of this tendency. Here, however, Jesus’ spiritual power over demons is so emphasized that it has resulted in an unattractive story.”
Also, the dramatic incident of feeding the multitudes seems to provoke no response from the crowds in the gospel stories, in contrast with other gospel stories where his fame spreads due to a single exorcism. You would think such dramatic miracles would result in mega-fame but this doesn’t pan out through the stories. Perhaps the feeding of the multitudes didn’t really happen. “…it could be reasoned that historically there was little response because there were few major miracles, while in the gospels there are great miracles but inexplicably little response. Possibly Jesus’ actual miracles were relatively minor and excited the public only temporarily. This is a speculative, though I think reasonable solution.”
“All of the authors of the gospels favoured the mission to Gentiles, and they would have included all the pro-Gentile material that they could. … What is striking is that the evangelists had so few passages that pointed towards success in winning Gentiles to faith. They could cite only a few stories about Jesus’ contacts with Gentiles, and even these do not depict him as being especially warm towards them. … We must suspect that the most favourable statements about Gentiles … are Matthew’s creation. Consequently, we cannot be absolutely sure what Jesus’ own view about Gentiles was. On general grounds, I am inclined to think that he expected at least some Gentiles to turn to the God of Israel and to participate in the coming kingdom. The general grounds are these: a good number of Jews expected this to happen; Jesus was a kind and generous man. That is, the alternative to thinking that Jesus looked forward to the conversion of Gentiles would be that he expected them all to be destroyed. This is unlikely.”
Jesus had an idealistic moral perfectionism: turning the other cheek, loving the enemy, and so on. His prohibition of divorce is the most well-attested pericope. Paul modified it to permit divorce with a non-believer; Matthew has Jesus give an exception – divorce is permissible following adultery. “We can hardly think that the early Christians invented the prohibition: they found it very difficult and had to modify it.” I got the impression that while he was an ethical or moral perfectionist, this didn’t extend to ritual perfectionism, like it maybe did with the Pharisees and Essenes who were super-strict in that way – although he did follow the ritual laws.
But although he expressed these high ethical ideals: (1) He didn’t teach very much about inner thoughts – Matthew has two instances of this here and here, but that is all; most of what he taught is more about actions than inner thoughts. (2) He emphasised “compassion towards human frailty”. (3) He was not a puritan – he “came eating and drinking”. (4) He made friends with sinners (see below).
This passage shows that to Jesus, real perfection is mercy – being like God who “sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous”.
Attitude to Jewish law
Sanders proposes that Jesus does not ever oppose or “abrogate” the law, but requires a stricter code of practice (ethical perfectionism as discussed above). Even with divorce – Moses’ command to give a divorce certificate becomes unnecessary but is not declared “wrong”. In regard to this one, the law does not actually command hatred of enemies and this was not generally taught in Judaism, so that is not a law being abrogated. “Eye for eye” sets a limit for retaliation, and non-retaliation is not forbidden by law. In regard to Jesus supposedly declaring all foods clean in Mark, Matthew does not have this – and according to Sanders, what Jesus meant was that not only what goes in (food) defiles a person, but also what comes out (wrong talk).
Sanders justifies this theory by explaining that there would be more of a sense of opposition to Jesus in the gospel stories if he really advocated abandoning the law. “Had he gone around Galilee, teaching people that it was alright to work on the sabbath and to eat pork, there would have been an enormous outcry. A man who claimed to speak for God, but who taught that significant parts of God’s law were not valid? Horrendous! Nowadays, non-Jewish readers may not see how terrible this would have been.” Sanders explains that Mark is retrojecting this into Jesus’ story from the point of view of 2nd-generation Christianity, where the law has been abandoned. “Mark calmly tosses in the sentence, ‘He declared all foods clean.’ Paul’s letters crackle with the rage and hostility that his position on circumcision and food laws occasioned. Paul experienced the debate about the law firsthand. Mark (a second-generation Christian) did not, since it was largely over, nor did Jesus, since it had not yet arisen.”
Apparently it is highly unlikely that small-scale legal disputes would have caused some groups to plot to kill him as it states in Mark 3:6. In particular, no group would have considered that healing to be a transgression of the sabbath law. “In Jesus’ day and age… people did not kill one another over the sorts of issues that figure in Mark 2.1 – 3.6. The level of disagreement and argument falls well inside the parameters of debate that were accepted in Jesus’ time.” I didn’t entirely understand why the authors made it look like people were plotting to kill him over these petty legal disagreements, but I think he is saying that it was written from the point of view of the later legal disputes in early Christianity.
His association with sinners – blatant law-breakers – did actually offend people. And Sanders makes the point that he must not have been trying to reform the sinners, because that wouldn’t have offended anyone. “If Jesus had managed to persuade other customs officers to do what Zaccheus did, he would have been a local hero. But it seems that he was criticized. How can we understand this?”
Repentence as a theme in Jesus’ teaching is really only prominent in Luke and Acts (which are written by the same author). Matthew and Mark have surprisingly little about Jesus teaching repentance. John the Baptist certainly preached repentance, but it seems not to have been at the forefront of Jesus’ teaching.
“Jesus, I think, was a good deal more radical than John. Jesus thought that John’s call to repent should have been effective, but in fact it was only partially successful. His own style was in any case different; he did not repeat the Baptist’s tactics. On the contrary, he ate and drank with the wicked and told them that God especially loved them, and that the kingdom was at hand. Did he hope that they would change their ways? Probably he did. But ‘change now or be destroyed’ was not his message, it was John’s. Jesus’ was, ‘God loves you.'”
I found that particularly interesting, and really quite moving. In fact it was my favourite part of the whole book. The parable of the shepherd and the lost sheep is one of the best examples to illustrate the point: God, the shepherd, goes out to find the lost sheep and bring it home. He does not wait around for the lost sheep to return. The emphasis is on God reaching out in love and mercy, not on the sinner repenting.
“In a world that believed in God and judgement, some people nevertheless lived as if there were no God. They must have had some anxiety about this in the dark watches in the night. The message that God loves them anyway might transform their lives.”
How does this square up with the moral perfectionism? I guess maybe Jesus understood these sinners, understood why they were that way… didn’t judge them, supported them as society’s underdog, and even saw good in them. I imagine he lived in a very colourful world – not black and white.
I think there is a huge difference between on one hand, having idealistic morals but being realistic in dealing with real people (sinners); and on the other hand, having realistic morals that allow you to feel (dishonestly) that fulfilment of your obligations is within your grasp. It’s a completely different kind of realism. And I love Jesus’ realism. I love the fact that there is honesty about what real true goodness is and is not, while at the same time, people who fall short of it are not doomed but are loved despite their failings. It’s a truly astonishing balance.