From The Evolution of God:
Historians of religion have an ironic rule for evaluating the Bible’s claims about history: the less sense a claim makes, the more likely it is to be true. That is, the less theological sense a claim makes, the more likely it is to be true. After all, if the Bible’s authors were going to fabricate things, you’d expect them to fabricate things that coexisted easily with their religious beliefs. When you see them struggling to reconcile some ill-fitting fact with their theology, chances are that the fact is indeed fact-a truth so well known in their circles that there was no way of denying or ignoring it.
That’s one reason the biblical accounts of King Josiah’s zealous devotion to Yahweh, discussed in chapter 6, are credible. Given that Josiah goes on to die ignominiously, and that Israel’s fortunes then spiral toward catastrophe, it would have been theologically simpler for the Bible’s monotheistic editors to describe Josiah as a rampant polytheist who incurred God’s enduring wrath. His opposition to polytheism is so theologically inconvenient that the best explanation for its inclusion in the Bible is its truth.
This criterion of credibility-call it the rule of theological inconvenience-is one reason biblical historians attach so much credence to the Crucifixion of Jesus. There is no written reference to Jesus being crucified until two decades after his death, but we can be pretty sure the Crucifixion happened, in part because it made so little theological sense.
That may sound strange. What could make more sense to a Christian than Jesus’s dying on the cross? The Crucifixion embodies one of Christianity’s central themes, God’s love for humanity.
As the iconic Christian verse John 3:16 puts it: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son. . ." And. as powerfully as these words ring now. imagine their impact in the ancient world. Throughout history, gods had been beings to whom you made sacrifices. Now here was a god that not only demanded no ritual sacrifices from you but himself made sacrifices-indeed, the ultimate sacrifice-for you. All of humanity’s sins, including yours. could be wiped off the ledger by God’s self-sacrificing redemption.
And this reversal of sacrifice was only Act One of Crucifixion theology. Act Two-the Resurrection of Jesus after his execution and burial-was an equally potent symbol. It illustrated both the possibility of eternal life and the fact that anyone of any ethnicity and any social class could qualify for it; all they had to do was accept and comprehend the Resurrection of Jesus himself. In full form John 3:16 reads: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son. that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but should have everlasting life.” The book of Galatians spelled out this open admissions policy: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Universal salvation was on offer from a deeply compassionate and giving God, and it’s hard to imagine a more resonant symbol of this fact than the Crucifixion of his son.
Why, then, if the Crucifixion fits into Christian theology so logically and powerfully, would scholars say that it passes the test of theological inconvenience (or, as they call it, the “criterion of dissimilarity”)? Because, however theologically convenient the Crucifixion may seem now, it didn’t seem that way back when it happened. For Jesus’s followers the Crucifixion was, in addition to emotionally wrenching, a serious rhetorical problem.
After all, Jesus was supposed to be the Messiah. (“Messiah” is the meaning of the Greek word that became Jesus’s title: Christos-or, in English, Christ.) Today Christians understand the Messiah as someone sent from on high who makes the ultimate sacrifice his life- for humanity, bringing spiritual salvation to the world. But back in Jesus’s time, losing your life wasn’t part of me Messiah‘s job description.
The word “messiah” came from the Hebrew verb meaning “to apply all to,” to anoint. In the Hebrew Bible, Israel’s kings were sometimes called Yahweh’s “messiah”--God’s anointed one. By the end of the first millennium BCE, as Jesus’s birth approached, some Jewish sects saw an “anointed one,” a messiah, figuring centrally in their apocalyptic visions of a coming, final battle with God’s enemies. The most common expectation seems to have been that this messiah would be, like most of the Hebrew Bible’s “anointed ones." a king. Hence the words that, according to the Gospel of Mark, were inscribed on the cross by Jesus’s persecutors: “King of the Jews.” And hence their sarcasm as he died: “Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, so that we may see and believe.”
Being a king wasn’t a strict prerequisite for being messiah. The Hebrew Bible had occasionally referred to a high priest or even a prophet as divinely anointed. This diversity was reflected in apocalyptic thought around the time of Jesus. According to the Dead Sea Scrolls-left behind by a sect that settled near the Dead Sea more than a century before Jesus’s birth-the climactic battle between good and evil would be fought under the leadership of two messianic figures, a priest and a prince.Io And even if the messiah was a king, his triumph wouldn’t necessarily come by military force alone. The “Psalms of Solomon,” written in the decades before Jesus’s birth, envisioned a messianic king who would “destroy the Unlawful nations with the word of his mouth.”
Still, one thing that all anticipated messiahs of Jesus’s era had in common was that they would aid a climactic triumph over evil by exercising leadership here on earth-which meant, for starters, not dying before the climactic triumph over evil.“ Thus, according to prevailing logic, the death of Jesus should have been a devastating blow for any disciples who had been claiming that he was the
Then again, according to prevailing logic, the death of King Josiah in the late seventh century, along with Judah’s ensuing catastrophe, should have vindicated polytheists and spelled doom for monolatry, to say nothing of monotheism. But the Yahweh-alone movement had proved creative then, and so would the Jesus movement now. Judah’s Yahwists found a way to turn calamity into a symbol of God’s universal power, and Jesus’s followers found a way to turn calamity into a symbol of God’s universal love.
How did they do it? Why did they do it? In answering these questions, it helps to appreciate that this lemons-into-lemonade theological maneuver isn’t the only thing incipient Christianity has in common with incipient Judaic monotheism. In both cases, also, ensuing scriptures had a tendency to cover theologians’ tracks~to recast the past in a way that obscured the actual evolution of doctrine. The Hebrew Bible’s latter-day monotheistic authors and editors, in recounting Israel’s history, created the illusion of an indigenous lsraelite monotheism by depicting gods other than Yahweh as foreign, whether they were or not. The New Testament’s authors, in recounting the life of Jesus, created the illusion that post-Crucifixion belief was basically the same as precrucifixion belief. The Christianity that evolved in the decades and centuries after Jesus’s death-the Christianity that had Crucifixion as its natural core-was made to look like a straightforward extension of what Jesus himself had said and done. And in some cases that meant twisting what Jesus had actually said and done.
This isn’t to say, in either case, that conscious dishonesty was rampant. As stories spread orally, from person to person to person, an overarching dishonesty can take shape without a conscious attempt to mislead. Imagine followers of the crucified Jesus trying to win converts possessed by a conviction so powerful that they embellish the story here and there, yet a conviction so earnest that they believe their embellishments.
Anyway, for present purposes the honesty of the Bible’s authors isn’t what matters. Rather, the take-home lesson is that, in deciphering the Christian revolution, we have to bring to the New Testament the same perspective we brought to the ‘Old” Testament, the Hebrew Bible. We have to remember that biblical narratives reflect not just the times when the events recounted took place, but the times when the narrative coalesced. With this in mind we can understand how exactly the Crucifixion, an act that in theory should have thrown this would-be messiah into disgrace beyond recovery, wound up turning him into a symbol of universal love.
Certainly this took some doing. For the real Jesus- the “historical Jesus”didn’t emphasize universal love at all. At least, that’s what a close and critical look at the scripture strongly suggests.
Hard evidence about the “historical Jesus” is scanty. The Bible’s gospel accounts of Jesus’s life and words-the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John-were written sometime between 65 and 100 CE, thirty-five to seventy years after his death. By that time, their raw material, stories then circulating about Jesus in oral or written form, had no doubt been shaped by the psychological and rhetorical needs of his followers. (The letters of Paul-New Testament books such as Philippians and Romans-were written earlier, beginning around twenty years after Jesus’s death. Unfortunately, they say almost nothing about Jesus’s life and very little about his words.)
The book of Mark is generally considered the most factually reliable of the four gospels. It was written around 70 CE, roughly four decades after the Crucifixion. That’s a long lag, but it offers less time for the accrual of dubious information than the roughly five decades available for Matthew and Luke or the six or seven decades for John. What’s more, during Mark’s composition there would have been people sixty or seventy years old who as young adults had personally witnessed the doings and sayings of Jesus and knew his biographical details-and whose recollections may have constrained the author’s inventiveness. This population would shrink during the decade or more before other gospels took shape, expanding creative freedom.
Certainly as we move through the gospels in the order of their composition, we can see the accumulation of more and more dubious information. Mark doesn't give us anything like “the plain unvarnished truth," but his story is plainly less varnished than are later accounts. (The actual name and identity of the author of Mark, as with the other gospels, is unknown, but in all cases, for convenience, I’ll call the authors by the names of their books.)
Consider the problem of Jesus being from a humble village, Nazareth. The Hebrew Bible had said that the Messiah would be a descendant of King David and, like David, would be born in Bethlehem. Mark never addresses the question of how “Jesus of Nazareth” could have been born in Bethlehem. But by the time Matthew and Luke were written, an answer had emerged-two answers, even. Luke says Jesus’s parents went to Bethlehem for a census and returned to Nazareth after his birth. In Matthew’s version, Jesus’s parents just seem to live in Bethlehem. How then would Jesus wind up in Nazareth? Through an elaborate side story that has the family fleeing to Egypt under duress and then, upon leaving Egypt, deeming a return to Bethlehem dangerous, and settling in “a town called Nazareth.” This contradiction between Luke and Matthew suggests that in this case, Mark, the earliest gospel, is the place to find the awkward truth: Jesus of Nazareth was Jesus of Nazareth.
So too with the question of Jesus’s attitude toward his own death. If Jesus was the son of God, sent here to die, you would think he might accept his death with grace-not happily, perhaps, but at least with a certain dignified resignation. After all, he’s known about the plan all along, and he knows, too, that he’ll be resurrected in the end anyway. Yet in Mark his last words are “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” --as if the Crucifixion was a terrible surprise and the last act. In Luke, written a decade or two later, there is no such puzzlement, and Jesus’s last words are instead the more equanimous “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” In John his last words are simply “It is finished,” and, again, there are no signs of doubt or surprise. (And as for the most magnanimous of Jesus’s sayings on the cross-“Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing”--this, uttered early in Luke’s Crucifixion scene, seems to have been added after Luke was written.)’ Once again, Mark, the earliest account, has an inconvenient feature of the Jesus story that later gospels obscure.
Still, there are at least two inconvenient truths that live on not only in Mark but in Matthew, Luke, or both. First, when the Pharisees challenged Jesus to generate heavenly signs-“to test him,” as Mark puts it-he failed to deliver. Second, he was rejected in his own hometown, and here, too, he failed to perform powerfully persuasive miracles. That these failures live on in gospels written later than Mark may mean that, as scholars have suggested, some of Jesus’s failures became talking points for opponents of the Jesus movement and perhaps worked their way into a unified, written critique that lived on for decades.
Even here, where Mark is not alone in conceding awkward facts, he comes across as the most candid, lacking layers of artifice that accumulate in later accounts. In Mark, when some Pharisees ask for a “sign from heaven,” Jesus just gets in his boat and leaves in a huff after saying, “Why does this generation ask for a sign? Truly I tell you, no sign will be given to this generation.” By the time of Matthew, the story has gotten better. Here, too, Jesus says that this generation will receive no sign, but now there’s a reason: this generation is evil. Moreover, Jesus turns the request for a sign on its head by indicting the Pharisees for failing to read the “signs of the times.” On a second occasion in Matthew, Jesus uses such a challenge as an occasion to cryptically predict his own death and resurrection; now the Pharisees have received a sign and are too blind to see it. And by the time of Luke-considered later than Matthew by most scholars Who don’t judge them essentially contemporary-the problem has been downgraded; the request for a sign no longer comes from the Pharisees at all, but from mere anonymous onlookers, and is dis: patched with a confidently oblique reply that includes the encoded prediction of Jesus’s death and resurrection.
Especially awkward for defenders of Jesus, no doubt, was rejection in the town where he was raised. Nazareth had only about three hundred residents. Most would have known Jesus personally, and many were probably kin. It’s no surprise that the story of so jarring a rebuke would live on long enough for Mark, Matthew, and Luke to feel compelled to confront it, which they do with growing success.
In all three, Jesus dismisses the debacle with an aphorism that would wind up in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. The seminal version, as relayed in Mark: “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” Thereafter, the gospel accounts differ. Mark says of Nazareth that Jesus “could do no deed of power there” and left the people in a state of “unbelief.” Matthew, ingeniously adding that the latter caused the former, turns the episode into an object lesson on the importance of faith: “And he did not do many deeds of power there because of their unbelief.” Luke takes another tack. First, Jesus, rather than seem unresponsive to a popular wish that he do miracles, preemptively anticipates the wish:
“Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaurn.’ ” And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.”
Then he cites precedent in the Hebrew Bible for prophets applying their miraculous powers abroad rather than at home: the time Elisha cured a Syrian leper even while Israelite lepers suffered. In Luke’s telling it is this teaching--a sympathetic reference to Gentiles-that turns the crowd against Jesus, not his failure to perform miracles.
The accretion of suspiciously convenient lore and interpretation after the writing of Mark doesn’t mean that Mark itself is anywhere near being a reliable document, or that its author is guileless. Mark seems responsible for one of the most striking defensive devices in the gospels: the explanation of why Jesus, sent by God to convince people that the kingdom of god was at hand, convinced so few people.
In the fourth chapter of Mark, Jesus shares a cryptic parable with a large and presumably uncomprehending crowd. Then, later:
When he was alone, those who were around him along with the twelve asked him about the parables. And he said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables; in order that
‘they may indeed look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand; so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.
Odd-the one sent from heaven to spread the divine word purposely encodes the word so that most people won’t get it! The oddness is only mildly diluted by the fact that this has Hebrew Bible precedence (in the story of the prophet Isaiah, to which Jesus here alludes). In all likelihood, this was an early attempt to explain why Jesus, who ostensibly came to enlighten people, had enlightened so few by the time he died- an explanation so needed that the story is preserved in Matthew and Luke.
Such is the general, asymmetrical pattern. Mark is more inclined than later gospels to concede inconvenient facts (“Why have you forsaken me?”). And when later gospels do include such facts (the Nazareth fiasco, for example), they tend to retain Markian devices that explain them away, and they sometimes throw in additional exculpatory devices not found in Mark. The later gospels
Shroud Jesus’s life in more obfuscation, and more successful obfuscation, than Mark does. As the decades go by-70 CE, 80 CE, 90 CE-the Jesus story gets less constrained by historical memory
and more impressive. This trend culminates in John, the latest of the gospels. Here unfortunate facts that even Matthew or Luke felt compelled to concede are ignored or even inverted. There is no mention of the Nazareth fiasco, and as for Jesus‘s failure to perform signs for the Pharisees: time after time, in the book of John, Pharisees are convinced that Jesus can perform signs and wonders. As one of them marvels, “No one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”
Indeed, by the time of John there has been a general change in the tenor of Jesus’s miracles. In Mark, Jesus didn’t do miracles ostentatiously, and sometimes he even took pains to perform them in private. (An answer to critics who noted that few people other than Jesus’s followers claimed witness to his miracles?) In John, Jesus turns miracles into spectacles. Before raising Lazarus from the dead-something Jesus does in no other gospel-he says Lazarus’s illness was “for God’s glory, so that the son of God may be glorified through it.” Moreover, the miracles are now explicitly symbolic. When Jesus heals a blind man, he says, “I am the light of the world.”
A fairly immodest claim-but John’s Jesus is not a modest man. In no previous gospel does Jesus equate himself with God. But in John he says, “The Father and I are one.” Christian legend and theology have by this point had sixty or seventy years to evolve, and they are less obedient than ever to memories of the real, human Jesus.
All of this suggests that if we are going to try to make a stab at reconstructing the “historical Jesus,” even in broadest outlines, Mark, the earliest gospel, is the place to start. There, more than in any other account of Jesus’s life and sayings, the number of plainly awkward and barely varnished facts suggests at least some degree of factualness.
What is the Jesus of Mark like? For starters, adventurous. Early on. after being immersed in the Jordan River by John the Baptist, he Spends forty days alone in the wilderness. This episode could be apocryphal, but it’s a plausible prelude to a messianic career. We know from the “vision quests” of young native American men that ascetic solitude can impart a sense of purpose, sometimes catalyzed by presumably hallucinatory contact with supernatural beings. In the book of Mark, the supernatural being was Satan, whose temptations failed to divert Jesus from his mission.
That mission was twofold.
One part was to go around healing people, exorcising their demons and, occasionally, multiplying foodstuffs. Here Jesus sounds rather like other healers and exorcists who roamed Palestine at the time. He also sounds like a classic shaman in a “primitive” society: after an apprenticeship that involves the blessing of an older practitioner (John the Baptist) and a fortifying phase of ascetic privation, he is empowered to cure the physically or mentally ill. Did Jesus employ the sleight of hand that many real-life shamans have been known to employ? (One scholarly book on Jesus is called Jesus the Magician.) Or did he just have a “gift”-say, a soothing effect on people with hysterically induced illnesses-that produced enough success stories for his followers to publicize, along with some embellishment? Or were his miraculous deeds wholesale inventions of his followers, designed to outweigh the famous occasions on which he was challenged to produce “signs” and failed?
Hard to say. In any event, if Jesus had just been another wandering Palestinian wonder worker, we would never have heard of him. It is the second, nonshamanic part of Jesus’s mission that would prove momentous. In Mark, his first act upon returning from the wilderness is to go to Galilee and start predicting the arrival of the “kingdom of God.”
Here Jesus is picking up where Second Isaiah left off half a millennium earlier: in apocalyptic mode. Isaiah had envisioned a day when Yahweh would finally bring justice to the world, when the long-suffering faithful could rejoice, as oppressive imbalances of power were inverted. Jesus shared Isaiah’s anticipation of a time when the “last shall be first and the first shall be last,” as he put it. But Jesus was more specific about when this time would come: very, very soon. The day of salvation, when good would finally triumph over evil, was near. Hence the term “gospel”, “good news.” Jesus’s first words in the Gospel of Mark are “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the good news."
What would the coming of the kingdom be like? Some passages attributed to Jesus make it sound like a subtle spiritual thing, perhaps just a metaphor. “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you,” But this verse, from Luke, was written some fifty years after Jesus's death, perhaps to assuage growing doubts about Jesus’s prediction that the kingdom of God would arrive any day now. More reliable evidence comes from Mark in the form of the prediction itself: “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come in power.” And they’ll know it when they see it: “the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven.”
Drama was in order, since the blessed event was nothing less than the imposition of God’s ideal state-which heretofore had existed only in heaven-on the otherwise imperfect world of human beings. As the Lord’s Prayer puts it, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
God’s will was that those unworthy of citizenship would be cast out, consigned to eternal suffering. Here Jesus Clearly means business: if your foot causes you to stumble while treading the path to salvation, he says, you should cut it off, and “if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hall where. . .the fire is never quenched.”
And what were the criteria of admission? What was Jesus's conception of righteousness? If we do our best to reconstruct the historical Jesus," which of the moral teachings attributed to him seem to be authentically his? The answer that emerges from the earliest renderings of his message will disappoint Christians who credit Jesus with bringing the good news of God’s boundless compassion. In the book of Mark, the word “love” appears in only one passage.“ Jesus, asked by a scribe which biblical commandment is foremost, cites two: “The first is . . . ‘you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ ” When the scribe agrees and deems these commandments “more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices,” Jesus says, “You are not far from the kingdom of heaven.” This is definitely a message of love. But love of what breadth? We’ve already seen that in the verse Jesus quotes-the Hebrew Bible’s injunction to love your neighbor-the meaning of “neighbor” was probably confined to other Israelites. In other words: neighbor meant neighbor. There is no obvious reason to believe that this part of the earliest gospel, the only part of Mark where the word “love” shows up at all, was meant more expansively. In fact, there is reason to believe otherwise. Two gospels carry the story of a woman who asks Jesus to exorcise a demon from her daughter. Unfortunately for her, she isn’t from Israel. (She is “Canaanite” in one gospel, “Syrophoenician” in another.) Jesus takes this into account and replies, with one of his less flattering allegories, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Pathetically, the woman answers, “Yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table,” after which Jesus relents and tosses her some crumbs by tossing out the demons. Defenders of Jesus might say he was just piquantly driving home the fact that Gentiles can find salvation through faith. Indeed, that is the way the story plays out in Matthew, as Jesus exclaims, “Great is your faith!” But in Mark, the earlier telling of the story, there’s no mention of faith. What wins Jesus’s favor, it seems, is the woman’s acknowledging her inferior status by embracing her end of the master-dog metaphor; with the woman bowed before him, Jesus answers only, “For saying that, you may go, the demon has left your daughter.“ This Jesus doesn‘t sound like the ethnicity-blind Jesus of modern Sunday school song.
Defenders of the traditional idea of a color-blind Jesus might point out that, at the end of Mark, Jesus tells his disciples, “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation. The one who believes and is baptized will be saved.” But it turns out that this passage was added well after Mark was written. Besides, bringing word of Israel’s god to the world doesn’t necessarily mean granting foreigners the status of Israelites. Second Isaiah had wanted the world’s people to witness Yahweh’s grandeur, and thus find a salvation of sorts, but the idea was that they would then bow to Zion in subservience to Israel’s god and hence to Israel. In fact, when Jesus says, in Mark, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’?” he is alluding to a passage in which Second Isaiah envisions foreigners being brought to God’s house in Israel “to be his servants?“
In short, if we are to judge by Mark, the earliest and most reliable of the four gospels, the Jesus we know today isn’t the Jesus who really existed. The real Jesus believes you should love your neighbors, but that isn’t to be confused with loving all humankind. He believes you should love God, but there’s no mention of God loving you. In fact, if you don’t repent for your sins and heed Jesus’s message, you will be denied entry into the kingdom of God. (What about the Jesus who said, “Let be who is without sin cast the first stone”? That verse not only comes from the last gospel, John, but
apparently was added centuries after John was written ) In Mark there is no Sermon on the Mount, no beatitudes. Jesus doesn‘t say “Blessed are the meek or ‘ turn the other check" or 'Love your enemy'
For people who would like to think Jesus said those three things, there is a ray of hope. The hope is called ‘Q The books of Matthew and Luke share many stories, and the stories fall into two categories: the kind that are found in Mark, and the kind that aren’t. Most scholars infer that the authors of Matthew and Luke had access both to the book of Mark and to some other source-an actual document, presumably that is referred to as Q. If Q existed. it must have been earlier than Matthew and Luke, and some scholars think it was much earlier, bearing at least as close a connection to the “historical Jesus” as Mark does. And Q includes the Sermon on the Mount, which features, among several striking utterances, this fairly radical one: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”
That definitely sounds like universal love. After all, if you love your enemies, who don’t you love? But is it really clear that Jesus is here talking about Gentile enemies-about enemies of the Jews, as opposed to enemies among the Jews? Certainly Jesus's attitude toward Gentiles doesn’t sound very charitable two verses later, when, elaborating on the need to spread your love widely, he says, “And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?” Citing this and other parts of Q, the scholar C. M. Tuckett has observed: “The natural language of Q seems to assume that ‘gentiles’ are those who are outside the sphere of salvation.” The “terms of reference seem to be wholly Israel-oriented.” In other words, “love your enemy,” like “love your neighbor,” is a recipe for Israelite social cohesion, not for interethnic bonding.
Tuckett could be wrong, of course, but that may be a moot issue, In the next chapter we’ll find reason to doubt that the real Jesus actually uttered the phrase “Love your enemies” anyway.
To find Jesus explicitly carrying the mandate of love beyond the bounds of Israel, we have to go to the book of Luke. After establishing that “Love your neighbor” lies at the core of the Jewish Law, Jesus is asked, “And who is my neighbor?” He replies with a story about a man from Jerusalem who is beaten and left lying by the road. Two fellow Jews, a priest and a Levite, pass him without helping, and then a man from Samaria passes by, takes pity on him, and restores him to health. (Samaria had been part of the northern kingdom of ancient Israel, but, after successive imperial conquests, Judaism didn’t take root there, so Samaritans were foreigners to Judeans.) Jesus says, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” His listener says, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus replies, “Go and do likewise.”
This, the Parable of the Good Samaritan, is a staple of Sunday school classes, and understandably so; it explicitly carries love across ethnic bounds. But it isn’t found in either candidate for earliest gospel source-the Gospel of Mark or the posited Q. So it is an unlikely utterance of the historical Jesus, especially given its clash with things that are found in earlier sources, such as Jesus’s calling foreigners “dogs.” It clashes, too, with other sources that, if not the earliest, are at least as early as Luke. For example, in Matthew, Jesus has only this to say about Samaritans, shortly before sending his disciples out to spread the saving word: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
The Israelocentric nature of the coming kingdom of God is echoed elsewhere in the New Testament. Ever wonder why there were twelve disciples? In both Matthew and Luke Jesus says that, once the kingdom of God has arrived, each disciple will get to rule one of the twelve tribes of a reconstituted Israel. And since they’ll be seated alongside the ruler of this kingdom presumably Jesus or some other divinely anointed figure, if not Yahweh himself --this suggests a prominent role for Israel in the scheme of things; it suggests that the “kingdom of God” is also the “kingdom of Israel.” Indeed, in the book of Acts the apostles ask Jesus, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”
This conversation, set after the Resurrection, is unlikely to have taken place. But the point is that the author of Acts (who was also the author of Luke) must have been steeped in local lore about Jesus’s ministry, and he still considered this the kind of question the apostles might well have asked. Moreover, Jesus doesn’t take the opportunity to correct them by waxing universalistic and saying, “This isn’t about Israel.” He seems to accept the premise of a coming Israelite kingdom, correcting them only on the question of timing: “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.”
Jesus is often called a radical, a revolutionary, but our attempt to trace the rough contours of the “historical Jesus” leaves him looking in many waystraditional.
For starters, he was above all-as Albert Schweitzer famously argued in the 1906 book The Quest of the Historical Jesus-an apocalyptic prophet. And he was a direct heir of earlier Jewish apocalyptic prophets, notably Second Isaiah. Jesus’s “kingdom of God", though rendered by Matthew as a “kingdom of Heaven,” was going to be Second Isaiah’s anticipated kingdom, right here on earth. And also llke Isaiah’s kingdom, it would place not Just Israel's God, but Israel itself, front and center. E. P, Sanders, a scholar of early Christianity, has written, “Jesus’ hope for the kingdom fits into long-standing and deeply held hopes among the Jews, who continued to look for God to redeem his people and constitute a new kingdom, one in which Israel would be secure and peaceful, and one in which Gentiles would serve the God of Israel. Jesus harboured traditional thoughts about God and Israel: God has chosen all Israel, and he would someday redeem the nation.”
Nor was there anything new about speaking up on behalf of the poor and the weak. Biblical prophets had been doing that since at least the time of Amos and First Isaiah, more than seven centuries earlier. Exploitation of the powerless, they complained, was among the ways Israel defied Yahweh’s will.
But if there was nothing new in Jesus’s apocalypticism or in his progressive politics, there may have been something creative in his combination of the two. As we’ve seen, the apocalyptic vision-in ancient Israel and elsewhere-has typically featured a reversed polarity: someday the oppressed will rise to the top of the heap, and the oppressors will find themselves at the bottom. Usually this inversion of power plays out on an international stage: an entire people, such as Israel, finally rises above long-dominant neighboring peoples. Jesus, though, seems to have envisioned this reversal of fortunes not just among nations but within the Israelite nation as well. His famous promise that the “first will be last and the last will be first” could have summed up Second Isaiah’s prediction of the geopolitical future, but Jesus seems to have applied it internally, to Israel’s social future. When he said, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God,” he meant that, come Judgment Day, poor Israelites would rise in the nation’s social hierarchy. Jesus combined the progressive politics of First Isaiah with the apocalyptic inversion that reaches such heights in Second Isaiah and justified the former in terms of the latter.
This rhetorical maneuver may have been politically convenient. The downtrodden seem to have been a big part of Jesus’s constituency, and they no doubt would have warmed to visions of their coming ascendancy. This message may also have won Jesus a few not-so-downtrodden followers. Every time he trots out the camel/needle metaphor, it is while trying to convince people of means to sell their possessions and join his cause.
Of course, we can’t be sure that Jesus embraced the cause of the downtrodden. It is not a theme that gets a lot of play in Mark, and even in the Q source, in the Sermon on the Mount, it is ambiguous; Luke has him saying, “Blessed are the poor,” while Matthew has him saying, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”
Still, at least this message makes political sense; rabble-rousers often have lower-class constituencies. And at least it isn’t contradicted by a lot of passages in the earliest gospel. His message of universal love, in contrast, is flatly contradicted by passages in Mark and is not a natural political winner. So how did that message enter the Christian tradition?
To answer that question we need to move beyond the “historical Jesus.” We need to understand not the hills of Galilee where Jesus preached, or even the streets of Jerusalem where his ministry reached its violent climax. We need to understand the cities across the Roman Empire through which the Jesus movement spread in the following decades. That is where the Jesus Christians know today took shape, after the real Jesus died. That is where Jesus Christ-the crucified Messiah who wasn’t supposed to die in the first place-was born again.