Mahlon H Smith
It's like leaven
that a woman took and hid
in three sacks of flour
till it was all leavened.
-- Luke 13:21
What we know of anybody is largely
the product of previous impressions. In the case of Jesus, these impressions
are all indirect: our reactions to the reactions of others.
My own views began to develop from
images implanted by Christian parents, who stressed that Jesus loved not
only me but the whole world, even my sister. My father was a Methodist
pastor who preached the practical wisdom of loving one's opponents. Yet,
this did not prevent heated dinner table arguments over the weekly sermon
between him and his own father, a longtime Sunday school teacher. Admiration
for both made me listen carefully, but hesitate to take sides. That training
turned me into an intellectual historian, determined to get to the bottom of
much older and more complex debates about Jesus. Deciphering all the
evidence will take more patience and practice. But this experiment retraces
the dynamic that generated an argument of historic proportions. Its elements
are sources that illustrate the dialectic of history, where major events
always generate opposing views.
Jesus was a Jew. His given name reflects the dispersion of
Israel's heritage through many foreign cultures. Its equivalents in all
modern languages derive from Iesous (Greek), a transliteration of
Yeshu (Aramaic), a variant of the Hebrew Yehoshua
(English: Joshua). The root meaning (YHWH is savior) is the core of
Moses' legacy to the people of Israel: confidence that God aids those in
need. The first man to bear this name rallied discouraged Israelites to
reclaim their occupied land (Exod 14) and divided it among their twelve
tribes (Josh 13). Originally, this Joshua's reputation as champion of
the Mosaic covenant and restorer of Israel's fortunes was the historical
connotation that came with the name "Jesus" just as the heroic
shadows of Washington or Lincoln follow Americans given those names
today. Before 100 ce many
men---all with Jewish or Samaritan roots---were called
"Jesus": including a prominent Jerusalem sage (Jesus ben
Sirach, ca. 190 bce) and a
Jewish Christian missionary (Jesus called Justus, cf. Col 4:11).
The connotations of this name were changed by controversy involving a
Galilean Jew, who was executed at Jerusalem while Pontius Pilate was
prefect of the Roman province of Judea (26-36 ce).
Though this Yeshu died at the hands of Roman imperial soldiers, his
Galilean comrades blamed native Judean authorities for his death (Acts
2:22-23; 1 Thess 2:14-16). The latter responded with attempts to
suppress Yeshu's outspoken partisans (Acts 4-5; Gal 1:13-14) and expel
them from Judea (Acts 8:1; 1 Thess 2:15).
was complicated by shifting factions on both sides. One Hellenized
Pharisee, Paul, turned from persecutor of Yeshu's partisans for not
keeping Judaic traditions, to self-styled chief advocate of their cause
among non-Jews (Gal 1:15-21). Insisting that Yeshu initiated a new order
in which social differences did not matter (Gal 3:28, Rom 10:12),
Paul criticized "Judaizing" behavior by other leaders of the
Yeshu party (Gal 2). Judean rulers were also at odds over treatment of
Yeshu's Jewish partisans. Thirty years after Yeshu's crucifixion,
Jerusalem Pharisees censored the Sadducean high priest for orchestrating
the stoning of Yeshu's brother, Yakob (English: James).
Still, the Yeshu party blamed Pharisees for the deaths of their leaders
and declared the destruction of the temple (70 ce)
to be divine retaliation. Continued controversy made Pharisees develop
norms to get Yeshu's factions out of Jewish synagogues.
This controversy shifted the use of the name "Jesus."
As the Yeshu party focused on affirming that he is "Lord" (Rom
10:9; Philip 2:9-11), many other Jews avoided uttering his name. Some
supporters claimed Yeshu was the full revelation of the God whom Jews
called "the Lord" (John 1:1-18, 20:28). Others disagreed. The
more Semitic viewed him as a human agent of God like Moses, while the
more anti-Semitic claimed he was a super-human being who revealed a God
greater than Moses' God. In most circles his name ceased to be given to
others. So, today "Jesus" is recognized as one who still
generates debate among both Jews and non-Jews.
Jesus obviously said and did things that attracted fervant support from some
Jews, but strong opposition from others. Such a heated controversy
between those who idolize a person and those who vilify him tends to
produce single-sided caricatures. Only a portrait that balances opposing
profiles can do justice to the person who generated this debate. The
real Jesus appears not just where witnesses agree but where their
disagreement was most intense.
Since Jesus disappeared long ago, any description of him is an indirect
impression: one reaction to reactions of others. Even the gospels are
reactions to prior impressions of Jesus. Each is constructed as a
detailed rebuttal. The authors are more concerned to refute opinions of
their predecessors than to retrace the actual sequence of events
involving Jesus. Setting the gospels in dialectical perspective exposes
the sequence of arguments in this debate.
(3) Matthew: Denial.
For instance, Matthew opens Jesus' public career with a Moses-like mountain
speech, warning, "Don't think I came to annul the Torah and
the Prophets!" (Matt 5:17). This denial presupposes that many
already did think that Jesus opposed Jewish scripture. Nothing Matthew
mentions before this pits Jesus against Judaic tradition. But he assumes
enough people had that impression to make refuting it his top priority.
(4) Mark: Ridicule.
The pretext for Matthew's denial was Mark. Instead of claiming that
Jesus upheld Hebrew scripture, Mark started by stressing Jesus'
authority to offer "a new teaching" (Mark 1:27) that
left him often at odds with Jewish scholars (Mark 1:22), who concluded
he was an agent of forces opposed to Israel's God (Mark 3:22-30).
Matthew buries this material behind passages that make Jesus seem more
biblically conservative than his critics. Mark, however, spotlights
Jesus' independence of tradition to contradict impressions of Jesus'
Jewish fans. He dismisses comparisons of Jesus to Elijah or John the
Baptist as rumors (Mark 6:14-15, 8:27-28), and ridicules Peter, James
and John for confusing Jesus with Israel's national heroes (Mark 8:29-33,
9:5-6, 10:35-41). This makes Mark's gospel more satire than history. But
the viewpoints he ridiculed are obviously earlier than his
(5) John: Revision.
While gospel scholars have long regarded Matthew as a revision of Mark,
until recently few recognized that the images of Jesus debunked by Mark
are championed in John. For almost nineteen centuries John was assumed
to be the last gospel. But study of the logical problems in its
composition have now shown that it is a multi-layered revision of an
early Jewish source. The first layer has been dubbed "the signs
gospel" because it focused on "signs" that Jesus was the
messiah (John 20:30-31). Mark's
denial that Jesus gave his generation any sign (Mark 8:12) shows he was
reacting to this type of argument.
(a) Signs: Recognition.
Unlike Mark, the signs gospel pictured Jesus' disciples as devoted
Jewish students who from the first recognized who their rabbi
really was (John 1:35-42), and insisted he performed more signs to
confirm their impressions than could be reported in one book (John
20:30). Some were deeds that convinced large crowds that Jesus was
"the prophet to come" (John 6:14)---an allusion to Elijah,
whom Jews expected to reappear to restore Moses' covenant (Deut
18:15-19; Mal 4:4-6). So, to keep Romans from suppressing the whole
nation, leading Jews arrested Jesus (John 11:47-49).
(b) Signs: Exaggeration.
Yet, the signs gospel exaggerated Jewish support for Jesus. By starting
with John the Baptist's insistence that he was not the
messiah, Elijah or the prophet (John 1:19-21) the author admits
Jews were apt to think that John fit these roles better than Jesus.
Despite the claim that Jesus showed countless signs, only a few are
cited, most minor incidents that happened out of public view. Rumors of
him feeding a hungry crowd and reviving a dead man might remind
Jews of Moses or Elijah. But the only "sign" that could have
persuaded many that Jesus was the messenger God promised his people was
his "purging" the temple (John 2:14-19; Mal 3:1-4).
The author admits, however, that Judeans
generally did not see Jesus as a few Galilean disciples saw him
(John 12:37-40). So, the signs gospel shows Jesus was not as much
a Jewish hero as it claimed. When it was written, the masses thought
God's ideal champion was, not Jesus, but John the Baptist.
(5) Q: Echoes.
The sayings source that Matthew and Luke added to Mark, which scholars have
dubbed "Q", seems silent on this issue. In
Q no one calls Jesus the messiah, or the prophet or Elijah. And
only a few of Q's clusters of Jesus sayings make any reference to Jewish
scripture. Yet, echoes of the issues debated in other gospels are
evident in Q's opening, beginning with John the Baptist's prediction of
a stronger successor who would purge with fire (Matt
3:11-12//Luke 3:16-17). In Hebrew folklore Elijah purged by fire (2
Kings 1:10); and other metaphors in John's call to repent echo the
biblical text predicting Elijah's reappearance (Mal 4:1-5). A non-Jewish
audience would not catch these echoes. But such rhetoric could lead Jews
who were seeking Elijah to speculate whether John or his successor
filled Elijah’s sandals.
(a) Q: Adversary.
Q introduced Jesus without baptism or contact with John (Matt
4:1-13//Luke 4:1-13). His dedication to the God of Jewish Torah is
illustrated by a forty day wilderness retreat to a mountain top, like
those of Moses and Elijah (Deut 9:8-9; 1 Kings 19:8). But Q turns this
scene into a debate between Jesus and an anonymous
"adversary", who calls him "son of God".
The adversary urges Jesus to show who he is
through miracles in the wilderness (like Moses) or at the temple (site
of Elijah's reappearance). Then, he offers to set him over all the
world's kingdoms (a rank God offers the messiah in Ps 2:8). Such
suggestions parody "signs" the fourth gospel says revealed
Jesus' glory. But Q showed Jesus refuting this flattery, putting God
first instead of himself. So, Q’s temptation scene was designed as a
rebuttal to any who might claim that Jesus acted like a traditional
(b) Q: Contrast.
Presenting Jesus right after John's preaching gives the impression that
he was the successor John predicted. Other gospels assume this; but Q
contrasted the two men (Matt 11:2-19//Luke 7:18-35). Rather than pose as
John's superior, Jesus champions the thesis rejected by the opening
lines of the signs gospel: John is God's ideal messenger to
Israel. In fact, Jesus' reputation was so different from John's, that
Jesus commends John's disciples just for not being upset by him (Matt
11:6//Luke 7:23). Q showed that most Jews did not view Jesus as John's
successor. So, this issue is close to the root of the historical debate
Far from being a marginal
Jew, Jesus stood at the center of a heated Jewish controversy. So to
hear what Jesus has to say for himself one has to filter out the
viewpoints of others that reduce him to stereotypes.
Gospel sayings that neither promote Jesus as restorer of Israel nor
counter claims that he was a perverter are apt to reveal his own
voice rather than those of his fans. Q's prime example is the pair
of paradoxes that contrast Jesus with John. The first (Luke
7:28//Matt 11:11) claims the greatest person who was ever born was
not Jesus, but John:
no one is greater than John;
but in God's government
the smallest is greater than he.
The second (Luke
7:31-35//Matt 11:16-19) goes further by belittling Jesus'
So, to what
will I compare
the people of this generation?
What are they like?
They are like children in a forum,
sitting and yelling at each other.
pipe for you and you don't dance!"
"We sing a dirge and you don't cry!"
For John the
Baptist has come
not eating bread or drinking wine,
and you say:
"He's a fanatic!"
The son of
Adam has come,
eating and drinking,
and you say:
"See, the guy's a glutton and a drunk,
a pal of tax agents and delinquents!" 
is justified by all her children.
Though the concluding
proverb neutralizes the criticism of Jesus, it does not glorify him.
Rather, it makes a very egalitarian suggestion: that Jesus is just
one child of wisdom among many, like any other sage. 
As a sage, Jesus posed as an objective commentator on a situation
that damaged his own reputation. He exposed the inconsistency of
critics without engaging in partisan name-calling. Even foes granted
his wit. In an age when wit was a sage's prime credential, Jesus was
treated as a master by urban aristocrats, who usually scorned rural
orators (Mark 10:17, 12:14; John 3:1-2). Years later, Josephus---a
descendent of the family that ruled Jerusalem a century
before---could still describe Jesus as a "clever man" (sophos
aner is not Christian editing, unlike most of Antiquities 18.3.3).
Jesus was not your average Jewish sage, but Jews who heeded him
behaved as normal Jewish students. They repeated and interpreted
things he said, championing his wisdom when challenged by other
teachers' students and arguing its implications among themselves.
Even worship of Jesus is easily traced to the normal ancient
student-teacher relationship. Jewish students regularly called their
teacher "the master" (rab) or "lord" (mar) and
often treated his words as revelation direct from God. Many a
student regarded his own teacher as the greatest authority. In fact,
there are still Jews who identify their own rabbi with the messiah.
Jesus did not have to say or do anything extravagant to inspire such
expressions of devotion, since idolization of a mentor was common in
the culture in which he lived.
Jesus' supporters were not apt to subordinate him to John, much less
advertise him as a drinking buddy to social deviants. But Jesus
could exaggerate John's status. For no Jew would claim to be greater
than his predecessor any more than usurp the status of his own
father. So, other Jews would think Jesus' glorification of John
qualified him to be a worthy successor of the Baptist. Some were
bound to disagree. But by quoting his critics Jesus could
demonstrate both good humor and a sense of historical proportion.
Like a comic telling jokes about himself, Jesus mocked his own
reputation. After presenting John as the greatest star in the world,
known for self-discipline, he casts himself as a social clown--a
first century Falstaff--noted
for excessive indulgence with disreputable people. But his paradox
is designed to make people rethink their presuppositions. Jesus
juxtaposed caricatures of John and himself that seemed plausible, in
order to discredit both. The final proverb about Wisdom's children
suggests that differences between Jesus and John were not as great
as people thought.
The prior paradox was designed to encourage Jews who saw John as a
prophet (Luke 7:26//Matt 11:9). Supposing he was the greatest who
ever lived, Jesus reminds them, John was only human. He was born
like other humans so, implicitly, like any other human he was bound
to die. And die he did. For, to Herod Antipas, the Romans' nominally
Jewish governor of Galilee and the Jordan, John's influence on the
Jewish peasantry made him a dangerous demagogue who could trigger a
popular revolt at any time. Rather than risk that, Antipas had John
imprisoned and executed in his prime.
prominence precipitated his demise. Even his arrest was bound to
disorient and demoralize Jews who looked to him for leadership. So,
Jesus assures this audience that God's dominion does not depend on
even the greatest mortal. Israel's God often turned unlikely
candidates, like Moses or David, into leaders. By offsetting a
grandiose image of John with a picture of God's inverted social
values, Jesus refocused his fellow Jews' concern with John's arrest.
If they heeded Jesus, they would not lament a great mortal's absence
but celebrate a greater immortal God's presence.
These paradoxes show that, as more a poet than a teacher, Jesus composed
striking images but left logical problems unexplained. So, listeners
had to make their own sense of what he said. Treating these word
puzzles as fact could generate opposing views of Jesus.
Anyone who idolized Jesus was bound to be puzzled by the first
paradox's claim that John was the greatest person who had a mother.
To counter opponents who belittled Jesus, some supporters added a
time limit ("from Adam to John the Baptist") that let them
claim Jesus was greater than John. Other
literalists could conclude this paradox showed that the one greater
than John (Jesus) came direct from God and was not born like other
humans. Such interpretations, however, were pure speculation. For
this paradox does not focus on Jesus at all, much less divide him
from John and the rest of humanity.
The second paradox does contrast Jesus with John, but portrays Jesus
eating and drinking with secular people. Mark illustrates how it
could be used to counter speculation that separated Jesus from the
everyday world. His "good news of Jesus" begins by
identifying John as God's final messenger in terms similar to Q
(Mark 1:1-4; compare Matt 11:7-11//Luke 7:24-28). Mark shows Jesus
recognized John's status by submitting to baptism (Mark 1:9-11), but
focuses this scene on the revelation that Jesus was really God's
son. Thus, as in Q's first paradox, the one whom humans see as
inferior is closer to God than his greatest messenger. After this,
like Jesus' second paradox, Mark sharply contrasts Jesus' behavior
with John's. John preached purification, the unclean obey Jesus
(Mark 1:27). John and his disciples fast, but Jesus parties with tax
agents and others who deviated from religious norms (Mark 2:13-19).
Mark drew the differences between Jesus and John so sharply that no
one could confuse them. Yet, he claimed, after John died many Jews
like John's executioner, Herod Antipas, did confuse both men (Mark
Mark's sequence is odd. If immediately after John's arrest Jesus'
behavior became diametrically opposed to John's, no Jew would think
that Jesus was John's greater successor. For, in antiquity,
followers were expected to adopt the lifestyle of their mentor. If
Jesus deviated so much from John while John was still alive, when
John died no Jew would confuse the two. Non-Jews lacked the
background to confuse Jesus with John or any prophet. But, Jews knew
the background well enough to distinguish a "pal of tax agents
and delinquents" from a champion of Israel's covenant with God.
Mark created this dilemma by presenting contrasting images of Jesus
and John as facts everyone could see. Jesus' paradoxes in Q treated
these images as an inconsistent set of opponents' opinions: i.e.,
old impressions. Jesus' unsavory reputation was based on past
performances, before he began to fill the void left by John's
arrest, not after. Mark's dilemma disappears when his historical
chronology is discounted.
John's arrest (or execution) led Jesus to emerge as a leader of Jews. His
paradoxes admit he was not yet regarded as a religious giant and
differed from John in temperament (optimism vs. pessimism) and
social style (congeniality vs. discipline). But his concluding
proverb about Wisdom's children minimizes the differences. Mark
stressed the gap. From his viewpoint, long after Jesus died, it was
clear that Jesus was John's successor only as agent for the spirit
of God (Mark 1:8-12, 3:28-30). But the specter of death looming
behind Jesus' paradoxes in Q belongs to John. Jesus' spirit of
ironic optimism, at a time when other Jews were starting to mourn
the loss of a dynamic spiritual leader, is the one ingredient that
could have thrust him, a little-known Jew whom others mocked, to
center stage and generated the range of paradoxes in the ensuing
mouths of newborns and infants
you have founded a strong point for response to your foes,
to silence the enemy and the avenger.
--- Ps 8:3
last will be first and the first last.
Jesus' paradoxes invert expectations: a typically Hebrew outlook that Jesus
honed to razor sharpness. Israel's theology traced the operation of
a single dominant universal Force that is basically positive and
inherently consistent. God created the world. God sustained the
world. But God also corrected the world. Israel's history convinced
Hebrew sages and prophets that the Power governing the universe
tended to balance things by repeated reversals of human power.
Commemoration of the ancestors' liberation from Egypt reminded
Israelites that the poles of oppression were subject to reversal.
The Force that ruled nature favored the slave over the master, the
landless over the landowner (Ps 105). The bond between little Israel
and the great God was declared to be eternal. Yet, whenever Israel's
leaders assumed this Power was on their side, their own prophets
warned them that the balance was bound to shift again, unless they
became agents of the God whose goal was always social justice (e.g.,
Isa 1:12-17, Amos 5:8-15).
John the Baptist's call for the family of Abraham to purge itself of a
lax lifestyle through renewed devotion to God and social justice
inevitably catapulted him to public prominence as current champion
of Moses' traditional values. So,
his death created theological and social chaos. Most Jews were
unprepared for the twist of fate that turned John's prophetic
prominence into his death warrant. Jewish wisdom tradition, however,
taught Jesus how to deal with this crisis.
 Jesus interpreted John's mortality as
proof of God's irony. Like Qoheleth, the most radical Jewish sage
before him, he saw that even the greatest sage was bound to suffer
the same fate as the fool (Eccl 1:16). God
governed the world with a time for everything: to be born, to die;
to mourn, to dance (Eccl 3:1-8). One event anticipated its reverse.
So, when one thing happened, it was time to turn to the opposite.
And turn, turn, turn Jesus did. His whole theological outlook
pivoted on the principle of ironic twists. For this Jew saw that the
God who governed the world always turned things around.
The Jewish spotlight shifted from John to Jesus because he found new
metaphors to end the theological confusion created by the demise of
a great prophet. Hebrew prophets used stock verbal images with
familiar connotations to describe the workings of God. These
metaphors became a theological shorthand that was easily grasped by
those who lived in an old world order. But when the world presumed
by a metaphor is upset, a gap in experience occurs. Continued use of
theological images tied to a vanished order creates the impression
that God is absent. So, when old metaphors failed to explain John's
fate, Jesus challenged fellow Jews to revisualize God's power,
turning their depressed view of the world downside up.
Though Jews accepted inversions of human status as normal, they
thought their God was always great. This was expressed in metaphors
of grandeur: the high heavens, a great king, towering cedars of
Lebanon were stock images of God's dominance. These did not reveal
the irony in Israel's vision of God's style of governing the world.
But Jewish scripture offered another image that did: the cosmic
Creator who empowered earthlings.
Jesus used common items in Jewish households to assure peasants
preoccupied with the death of a great champion, that the Force that
fed and protected the small and weak was still in control. Birds eat
seed. But just toss a single mustard seed (which Jews regarded as
next to nothing) and as any peasant knew, you get a shrub that
overshadows the biggest bird.
To make bread, Jewish peasants used leaven: not a fresh yeast
culture but leftover sour dough from yesterday's loaf. Just a bit
was enough to raise even a lot of flour (Matt 13:33//Luke
13:20-21). Like any fermenting concoction old leaven went bad and
had to be thrown out. To be safe, at a time of ritual purification
like Passover (the celebration of God's freeing Israel from a
foreign culture) Jews got rid of it. But Jesus reminded Jews how
this impure ingredient produced their basic food.
Jesus used common Jewish metaphors for worthlessness to remind his fellow
Jews that the God they worshipped as Creator could invert first
appearances and work though creatures that they held in low regard.
His paradoxes about John set the stage for this inversion, by
focusing on the issue of relative worth. There John's stature as a
man of God was not in question but, rather, what came after him.
Mustard seed and leaven---one a lightweight, the other
impure---resolve each paradox in turn.
People tend to imagine the past as an age of giants. So, newcomers
stand in the shadow of their predecessors and often suffer adverse
comparison. Jesus was no exception. His paradoxes prove
contemporaries first thought he was no match for John, much less a
greater successor. Yet, as a Jew, Jesus was heir to a folklore which
celebrated triumphs of relative youths like Isaac, Jacob and David.
For the God of Israel gave youngsters nerve to stand up to greater
No Jewish theological poet before Jesus expressed this better than
David. Experience made this peasant's youngest child marvel that the
Force that created the universe gave an insignificant earthling
power over all other creatures (Ps 8). David's song gave Jesus a
metaphor he refined to describe God's ironic pattern of behavior:
the cosmic Parent puts the last child first. Jesus' claim that
little children inherited God's rule (Mark 10:14) was not a new
teaching nor a sentimental interlude but, rather, a reminder to Jews
in word and gesture. By standing a peasant child in front of him,
Jesus challenged fellow Jews to realize that God's power belonged,
not to fallen giants like John or to bullies like Herod Antipas, but
to a new generation of peasants' children like them and himself.
If the youngest child comes first, then the person in position to
know God best is not the greatest prophet or sage, but any newborn.
David said that God used infants' mouths to silence foes (Ps 8:3);
and Jesus took him literally. The best theology is baby talk. The
most common first word of any child is "mama" or
"papa". Such simple sounds become the primary name for the
parent who supports a child's existence. Jesus lived in a culture
where a father was supposed to support his child and its mother. So,
he called God "Abba" (Aramaic for "papa").
For Jews, accustomed to roundabout references to the supreme Being,
calling God "Papa" was startling. It made such an
impression that a quarter of a century later Greek-speaking
Christians like Paul still used the Aramaic "Abba" to
initiate non-Jews into the circle of Jesus' followers (Rom 8:15, Gal
4:6). Yet, Jesus called God "Abba" precisely because it
was not a ritual formula. He did so to show Jewish peasants, not
that he was favored by God, but rather that they were. Life usually
made peasants view themselves as a voiceless mass at the bottom of
the social pyramid. Jesus stood that pyramid on its head. If
peasants called God "Papa", they would realize they had
direct access to the Power that ruled the universe. Far from posing
as sole spokesman for God, Jesus tried to convince Jews who felt
inferior that they did not need a great prophetic mediator after
John. As David had said, any new voice was in a position "to
silence the enemy."
After John was silenced by Herod Antipas, Jesus emerged as a leader of
Jews simply because he dared to speak up when other Jews did not.
Antipas expected Jewish peasants to revert to a disorganized
subservient mass after he eliminated the spokesman whose voice they
heeded: John. His policy was to decapitate, at least figuratively, a
revival of Jewish culture resistant to Roman domination. He did not
count on the sudden emergence of Jesus, a new voice with a message
of the paradoxical power of common people.
Chain-of-command. Ancients generally thought power flows
from top to bottom. Some cosmic Force made a strongman overthrow
those currently in power. Then, as headman, he controlled others
through loyal underlings. The Roman empire worked this way. After
defeating all rivals, Julius Caesar's heir, Octavion, took the
titles Augustus (greatest), Imperator (commander) and Princeps
(chief). In Greek, the common language of most of his empire, he and
his successors were known as Basileus: "captain",
"chief" or "king." As head of a military
organization, the Roman emperor delegated authority to those who
could maintain the current power structure. Antipas' father, Herod
"the Great", demonstrated his loyalty to Caesar's
successors and ability to suppress Jewish dissidents. So, Rome gave
him the rank and title of "king (or captain) of the Jews"
14.284). Antipas was Herod's original heir but lost his
father's office when the dead tyrant's will was probated in Rome (Antiquities
17.188, 224). Given the military rank of quartermaster
(tetrarch) of the Galilean-Jordan region, Antipas tried to show
Romans he deserved his father's rank of "king", by
pacifying a region that bred many insubordinate Jews. His execution
of John was just another maneuver in his forty year career of trying
to eliminate Jewish social structures independent of the Roman
Judaic tradition, however, was founded on a vision of freedom from
domination by any power-structure. The image of YHWH as king was
really ironic; for YHWH was celebrated as the Power who strengthened
common people to counter the forces supporting any tyrant (Ps 44,
47). The primary principle of Israel's covenant was not to serve any
Power except the One that liberated the ancestors from slavery (Exod
20, Deut 6). To insure everyone freedom from domination by social
superiors, Moses deliberately did not establish a centralized
government. The later emergence of an Israelite monarchy was viewed
by all prophets of the Mosaic order as a concession at best and a
disastrous social experiment at worst. Its collapse led Jews to
celebrate YHWH all the more as the only governor in the world who
was really eternal. So, Jewish history was filled with champions of
independence, including Jesus.
Though Jewish poets described God as seated above the heavens, they
insisted that he was close to anyone in real need (Ps 145:18). Jesus
sought to convince Jewish peasants that this was still true despite
John's death. Many Jews, including Pharisees, mourned John's loss by
fasting. Rather than join their laments, Jesus assured the mourners
that they were near bliss; so, they should not grieve but laugh
(Matt 5:4//Luke 6:21b). David had said "Weeping lasts a night,
but joy comes with dawn" (Ps 30:5a). YHWH always "turned
mourning into dancing" (Ps 30:11). So, after John's funeral
Jesus decided to dance, at least figuratively. Scripture portrayed
God's reign as a wedding celebration (Jer 33:10-11). Jesus just
insisted that the "bridegroom" (God) was still present
(Mark 2:18-19) and urged fellow Jews to let corpses be buried by
"the dead" (Matt 8:22//Luke 9:60). To him the vacuum left
by John's absence was evidence that the unseen God was at hand.
Thus, he called on his fellow Jews to change their depressed
Yet, many refused to view
the world after John as Jesus did. The paradoxes cited above
prove his cheerful behavior offended conservatives' sense of
propriety. But his behavior was only designed to demonstrate that,
while John was gone, his God was not. And he told other Jews to
spread word that the Power that governed the world was really close
(Luke 10:7//Matt 10:9b).
Yet, where was that Power? Like most people, Jewish peasants equated
power with wealth. The rich amass resources that they can disperse,
not only to have a more comfortable life than the average person,
but to control the lives of others. In order to have any power, poor
people think they have to submit to conditions dictated by those who
control the wealth. Jesus concentrated on challenging this way of
Herod the Great had used a policy of confiscating opponents' property and
granting supporters tax-exemptions to become one of the richest and
most influential men in the Roman empire. His death in 4 bce
brought peasant revolts that lasted ten years, with several
commoners (an outlaw, a slave, and a shepherd) seizing portions of
his property and vying to set themselves up as "king"
(Antiquities 17.269-285). A man named Judah (or Judas), the son of
one of Herod's first Galilean victims, led a band of Jews to loot
the imperial palace at Sepphoris, the capital of Galilee, and then
plundered the countryside. Another man by the same name, a Galilean
sage, sparked a tax-revolt among Pharisees and others, urging Jews
to refuse to recognize any man as master (Antiquities 18.3-9, 23).
The Romans crushed these attempts by Jews to reclaim control of
their own land. Sepphoris, the center of tax-revolt in Galilee, was
burned and its citizens enslaved (Antiquities 17.288). Antipas was
left to prevent further uprisings; and for a long time he succeeded.
But his execution of John gave Jesus a Galilean audience eager to
hear his message that they were God's real heirs.
The most provocative of Jesus' paradoxes was his announcement that
God's "kingdom" really belonged to the poor (Luke
6:20//Thom 54). "Kingdom"
(basileia) refers primarily, not to territory, but to the role of
chief: a position with power to govern by staying on top of things.
So, Jesus claimed power belonged to the lower classes. Impoverished
peasants should not to be pitied but congratulated, because God had
turned his office over to them. The rich were not to be viewed as
rulers. With ironic humor, Jesus compared a rich man claiming
kingship to a camel trying to squeeze through the eye of a needle
(Mark 10:25). To his original audience this was transparent mockery
of the pretensions of Herod Antipas. Anyone who concentrated on
amassing resources, like camels or the Herodians, was not qualified
to be king. Israel's unseen God made the standard for kingship, not
bulk or prominence, but being practically invisible, like the eye of
a needle or a mustard seed. Thus, peasants could laugh at John's
executioner instead of fearing him. Indeed, Jesus challenged those
who were deeply in debt to reassess their obligations, by announcing
that they had a choice: either to remain slaves of wealth (Aramaic: mammon) or to serve a God who, they knew, had freed slaves and made
them his heirs (Matt 6:24//Luke 16:13).
Jesus' message was a declaration of economic independence for Galilean
peasants. To have security, he insisted, they did not need any
property. On the contrary, as their generation well knew, royal
storehouses only invited looting by thieves (Matt 6:19-20//Luke
12:33). As Qoheleth ironically observed: riches attract looters, so
laborers sleep better than landowners (Eccl 5:11-12). The more one's
property, the more the risk. For the owner never knew when or where
robbers would strike (Matt 24:43//Luke 12:39).
Moreover, wealth put a person in danger. For, as
any bandit knew, to plunder a strongman's estate, the owner must
first be overpowered (Mark 3:27//Matt 12:29//Luke 11:21-22).
Rumors of this type of talk would lead Antipas to
view Jesus as more a social threat than John. But Jesus did not urge
assault on Herodian strongholds. Rather, by exposing the
vulnerability of wealth, he urged Galilean peasants to see that
those who seemed better off were not really their masters.
When Jesus mentioned looting landlords (mostly Herodians), any
Galilean---friend or foe--would have pressed him to take a stand on
the issue of paying taxes imposed by a foreign regime (Mark
12:13-17). His reply--"Return to Caesar what's Caesar's and to God what's
God's"--could have led radical Pharisees, heirs of the
tax-revolt just twenty-five years before, to dub Jesus "a pal
of tax agents." But, though Paul later told Christians to pay
Roman taxes (Rom 13:6-7), Jesus did not. Rather, he set a standard
that made others determine what the emperor deserved by weighing his
claims against God's. Each tax-payer would have to decide how much
the government was ultimately worth. Jews who denied Roman right to
the bounty of God's land could use Jesus' principle to conclude that
the emperor really deserved nothing. So, this principle was not
just a shrewd evasion of an opponent's trap; it demonstrated that
any government is decided by the governed.
The idea that human beings have God-given authority to govern the world
is as old as Israel's story of the creation. Jewish scripture began
with an ironic vision: the Power that generated and animated the
cosmos made its last creature, "the Earthling" (Hebrew: ha
Adam), a copy of itself (Gen 1:26-28). Jewish
sages sometimes stressed that humans were basically no better than
the lowest beast on earth (Job 25, Eccl 3:18). But this led Jewish
poets to marvel all the more that God made governing the earth the
generic birthright of any "son of Adam" (Ps 8). Even
during dark times, a Jewish visionary assured compatriots that
ultimately God would replace inhumane rulers with a representative
of universal humanity (Dan 7).
This legacy of Jewish humanism was the mirror in which Jesus saw
himself and everybody else. Many sayings show he called himself
"the son of man". Contrary
to much modern scholarship, this was neither a Jewish (or Christian)
messianic title nor the name of a figure in ancient myths. Rather,
it was a just a Jewish poetic way of saying "this guy".
Jesus used it to stress solidarity with other members of the human
species. He did not pretend to be better than any man or woman but,
rather, posed as a representative of common humanity, without any
claim to special distinction. Qoheleth had concluded that there was
nothing better for humans than to eat, drink and enjoy life (Eccl
2:24, 3:12-13). So, Jesus characterized himself as just another guy
who ate and drank (Matt 11:19//Luke 7:34, p. 5 above). He even
identified with the poorest human by leaving job and family to live
as a homeless tramp with "nowhere to lay his head" (Matt
Jesus chose the hardest human lot to show the poor they could do anything
he did. What really distinguished him from other men was his refusal
to regard poor people as helpless. He assured Galilean peasants that
to remove any obstacle they need only speak out with confidence no
greater than a mustard seed (Matt 17:20//Luke 17:6). He saw that
bullies (like Herod Antipas) take advantage of the masses only
because the average person has little confidence in his-or-her own
authority. So, like a cheerleader, he encouraged disheartened Jews
to exercise the decision-making authority that their scripture said
God granted the human species. As a result, he found himself at odds
with those Jews who claimed authority to tell others what to do,
especially scholars and priests. When they claimed he consorted with
deviants from God's laws, he countered that on earth God gave each
earthling authority to decide what to tolerate (Mark 2:10).
When they faulted him for tolerating infractions
of sabbath observance, he noted that the LORD had made the human
being as such "lord" over even such matters (Mark
2:27-28). Far from dictating rules for other people, Jesus made each
person's behavior his-or-her own business. He insisted there was
only one thing God would not tolerate: opposing the spirit by which
the Holy One moved a human to speak out before oppressive
authorities, alien or Jewish, secular or religious (Luke 12:10-12).
Yet, Jesus also stressed that the right to self-rule did not include
authorization to condemn opponents. If the Creator tolerated enemies
and treated all sides the same, right or wrong, then only creatures
who did likewise could claim to be God's heirs (Matt 5:45-48//Luke
6:32-36). Jesus pondered the irony of humans, who tend to be blind
their own flaws, trying to correct others' errors: those who cannot
see their own missteps can only lead everybody to disaster (Matt
7:3-5, 15:14//Luke 6:39, 41-42). Teachers might be offended by such
irreverent wit. But Jesus just provided others a mirror to judge
their own actions. In principle he did not censor anyone---tax agent
or Pharisee, prostitute or priest---though fans who did not
understand his logic later thought he did. An old Jewish proverb
noted that criticism creates hostility as surely as the north wind
brings rain (Prov 25:23). Jesus concluded the only effective way to
counter opponents was to stop condemning them (Matt 7:1//Luke 6:37).
Torah warned against oppressing others or taking vengeance (Lev
19:17-19, 33-34). So, Jesus cautioned Jews against retaliation and
urged kindness to opponents (Matt 5:44//Luke 6:27).
Since aggressors expect hostility, an early Jewish
sage noted: the way to embarrass enemies is not to attack but aid
them (Prov 25:21). Jesus developed this strategy into shrewd but
simple moves to counter those taking advantage of Jewish peasants.
If a creditor claimed someone's clothes, the debtor was to strip and
offer him his robe as well (Matt 5:40). Pagans left slaves naked
(Deut 28:48). The Torah required Jews to leave the poor a robe for
protection (Deut 24:10-14). So, this tactic would publicly shame the
creditor as an oppressor who violated God's law.
Also, when a Roman or rich Jew forced a peasant to
bear burdens like a slave, Jesus advised volunteering to go further
than required (Matt 5:41) to demonstrate freedom from following
orders. Likewise, his tactic of turning the other cheek (Matt
5:39//Luke 6:29) was designed as a sign of defiance, not submission.
By standing up to the slap of a social superior, rather than
cringing, a pauper would demand to be treated as a human equal
rather than as an animal.
Jesus' dramatic message of the dignity and power of the lowest
earthling was contrary to common opinion in his day. To many
peasants he must have appeared as more than an ordinary mortal. Who?
they debated among themselves. But Jesus himself did not ignore the
limits of human existence. While other Jews ranked him among the
immortals (Moses, Elijah, the messiah) Jesus faced up to the fact
that, like any human, his time was short. A child of Adam, he noted,
is like a bolt of lightning: momentarily brilliant enough to
enlighten the horizons (Luke 17:24). But scripture reckoned human
life in days rather eternity. Jesus knew that soon others would look
for him but would not see him (Luke 17:22). But when, he did not
know (Mark 13:32). Jewish followers who could not accept their
brilliant mentor's mortality, however, took such sayings as
allusions to, not Jesus' death as an ordinary earthling, but his
revelation to the world as Heaven's ideal "son of man."
Ordinary Jewish idolization of mentors blinded disciples of both John and
Jesus to a fact that Jesus, as a Jewish sage, accepted: every human,
no matter how great or brilliant, is bound to die. The question he
faced was the same as any human: how was he going to live till then,
lamenting or rejoicing, with fear or courage? Other Jews were
intimidated by Antipas' execution of John; Jesus was not. He knew
that human life is short and unpredictable. So he stressed: nobody
knows where or when anyone's life will end, at work or play (Matt
24:40-41//Luke 17:24-34). Yet, while life lasts, any human has as
much power as leaven or lightning to alter the world. But to do
anything, one must spend what one has. In a sober parable Jesus
likened life to a temporary trust (Matt 25:14-30//Luke 19:12-26).
One who risks nothing gains nothing, nor keeps anything. Everyone's
life must be given up eventually. Ironically, the only way to get
any return is to risk losing all (Luke 17:33).
Jesus did not plan to die. But he saw that as an
earthling, his life was only a seed. If he tried to preserve it, he
would wither alone. But if he risked dying, like John, his life
might bear fruit (John 12:24). He did not know who would hear, much
less understand, his vision of a creative Power that moved masses
organically, through creatures who were themselves ironically no
greater than a speck of dirt. But if he broadcast it, the wind would
find fertile ground for that single seed to yield a huge crop (Mark
4:3-9). It did, even more than he expected.
There was Torah and
as long as there was John;
since then God's government is advertised,
and everyone is empowered in it.
---Luke 16:16 
Jesus was not a typical sage representing timeless wisdom, but a brilliant peasant who
reacted unusually to a crisis in first-century Jewish politics. His intended
audience was Jews gathered to hear John, who listened to him only because of
John's execution. They tended to interpret him in terms that John taught. Many
minds wrestled with what Jesus said, digesting bits of his vision into their
old worldviews. Some interpretations were sterile. But Jesus' autobiographical
parable of the sower (Mark 4:3-9) shows he did not limit his auditors
or try to dictate what they should say. Each hearer determined his-or-her own
harvest. Distortions were inevitable. But enough coherent pieces survive to
retrace Jesus' logic even today.
Jesus was inspired by a different part of Jewish scripture than John. John focused on
renewing Moses' legacy in Torah and prophets. But dependence on a single
spokesman for God threatened the survival of his movement. Jesus saw the only
way to insure that the masses would resist oppression without a prophet
like John was to convince them that all humans could control their own
lives. His vision of the power of the least mortal grew out of biblical
passages focused on the wondrous irony of creation. Concluding that God's
power was learned from experiencing the world, he cited lessons from life
rather than sacred texts.
Three factors prevent a standard biography of Jesus: he was of low repute before John's
arrest, he refused to focus on himself, and others polished his image. The
gospels are his fans' later responses to skeptics. Such accounts give neither
a neutral nor a direct description of events. But even advertising can yield
solid information, if read dialectically. Places where unedited glimpses of
Jesus' life may be found are opponents' objections, shocking dialog, and
unflattering parable plots. The gospels report these, not to advertise them,
but because they could not be denied.
Many Jews hesitated to follow Jesus because they knew too much about his background. He
came from Nazareth, a minor hillside village fifteen miles west of the sea of
Galilee, near Sepphoris (which Antipas had rebuilt as a Roman city) and just
ten miles north of Samaritan territory. Like most of Galilee, the area was of
mixed cultures and known more for commerce than religious practice. Mark (6:3)
noted Jesus' neighbors refused to listen to him since they knew him as a
common laborer. To them he was just an ordinary guy---Joseph's son, Yeshu bar
Yosef (Luke 4:42, John 6:42), one of many brothers (Mark 6:3, John
2:12)---until he left home.
Jesus' reputation for carousing with Jews who did not observe religious laws
shows his path went first in a direction opposite John the Baptist's, into a
secular city (Sepphoris?) to seek his fortune. Several parables show he
accepted urban economic principles scorned by more conservative rural Jews:
lending for interest (Matt 25:14-30//Luke 19:12-16) and insider discounts
(Luke 16:1-8). He was street wise rather than a bible scholar. Far from
stressing ideal morality, he endorsed what worked. Strict Jews (like his
brother, James) were probably shocked by his pragmatic advice from the
marketplace. But his parables show he also knew the dark side of a market
economy, like lack of jobs and being fired. Such experience may have made him,
like my own father, return to his religious roots, aware of his own
imperfection and tolerant of others' errors. This is reflected in his parable
of the prodigal (Luke 15:11-32), which realistically depicts sibling rivalry
between a dutiful son (James?) and an undisciplined younger brother who
left home (=Jesus?).
Jesus responded to John the Baptist's call for all "sons of Abraham" to
"bear fruit fit for a changed mind" (Matt 3:8-9//Luke 3:8). Yet,
observing that thorny plants did not produce good fruit (Matt 7:16//Luke
6:44), Jesus refused to criticize even notorious deviants from Jewish
tradition. His worldly pragmatism made him realize more strays were to be
gathered by social tolerance than strict discipline. This reversed ancient
policies of clan solidarity that suppressed or excluded deviants, and pushed
Jesus' own family ties to the breaking point. When his mother and brothers
tried to bring him back under traditonal family discipline, Jesus declared his
independence by citing his duty to obey only his unseen "Papa" and
identifying only those with this priority as his real kin (Thom 99).
Such repartée, shocking
to Jews trained to obey elders, would lead literalists to wonder who Jesus’
father actually was.
Jesus' startling spirit of independence made those resigned to their own impotence
think he could give them power to do things. The gospels credit him with
curing invalids by just a word or touch. But the really remarkable thing about
these "miracle" stories is that they do not stress Jesus' personal
power. Jesus did not claim he healed anyone. The idea that he did, grew
as stories spread. Yet, the stories make a different point: Jesus told people
their own confidence cured them (Mark 5:35, 10:35). A paralytic walks, when he
is told he can (Mark 2:11-12//John 5:8-9). Jesus only encouraged the man to be
independent of others. Other stories show that Jesus dared touch those whom
other Jews avoided for fear of contamination, ailing women and people with
skin diseases (Mark 1:30-31, 40-41); and they too resumed normal social
functions. Others were assured a person they thought dead or dying
would be well, and it happened (Mark 5:39, John 4:54). How many were cured and
how soon, and the nature of their conditions before or after, cannot be told
from the reports. These only illustrate the effect of Jesus' optimism on other
people. He did not focus on curing physical ailments. But by telling those
treated as helpless that they could live normally and by not
avoiding contact with those society treated as unclean, Jesus revolutionized
conventional Jewish health care.
Not all Jews thought tampering with traditional standards was healthy. Jesus'
disregard for sacred texts bothered biblical scholars; while Pharisees who
supported John's purifications objected to Jesus' lack of concern for
traditional purity codes. He replied with a purity standard of his own:
"Nothing entering the human from outside can degrade it; but what exits
the human degrades the human" (Mark 7:15). This principle is traceable to
the biblical story of creation (Gen 1:29-30) and observation of biological
systems. Nourishment is ingested, pollutants excreted. But Jesus' refusal to
limit ingestion struck religious Jews as dangerous. Taken literally, his
principle denied need for caution against any contamination. So, many Jews saw
Jesus as more a polluter than a healer. He talked about God's government; but
what "god" was this? If he did not enforce Torah codes like John,
they concluded, he must be a false prophet: a spokesman for a pagan nature
deity, like the fertility Force whom Palestinians had called "The Lord of
Heaven" (Ba'al zebul). Jesus countered such slander in a story
mocking efforts to maintain social purity: getting rid of an unclean
"spirit" only invites seven even worse (Matt 12:43-45//Luke
11:24-26). This battle of Jewish wits, like most social disputes, was about
more than details like what to eat and how to treat deranged people. It pitted
opposing Jewish views of whom to let into God's congregation and whom
to drive out. Jesus and his group championed inclusiveness; opponents,
particularly among Pharisees, favored exclusiveness. After the split between
these two Jewish factions, the rhetoric of the "Beelzebul"
controversy was interpreted as resulting from Jesus' exorcisms.
But if Jesus heeded his
own purity principle, the only "spirit" he would cast out
was submission to repressive power structures.
Torah obliged Jews to support their religious leaders with a tenth of their annual
produce (Lev 27:30-33, Num 18:21). The load fell heaviest on poor peasants who
also had debts to landlords and civic taxes to pay. Every adult male, whatever
his income, owed an additional half-shekel fee (at least a day's wage for a
worker) as a ritual "ransom" for his sins (Exod 30:11-16). This was
a bigger burden for the poor than the rich. In Jesus' day, rich Sadducean
priests claimed exemption from the half-shekel tax, yet allowed rival
Pharisees to develop a system to insure collection from other Jews.
Torah required all Israel to celebrate the Passover at the central shrine of
YHWH each year (Deut 16). So, about two weeks earlier, bankers set up tables
in the outer courts of Jerusalem's temple to exchange any currency pilgrims
brought with them for the only coins trusted by temple aristocrats: silver of
Tyre (a Lebanese commercial center just north of Galilee). Jesus decided to
show Galilean peasants they did not have to support this system, which
burdened them and made priests richer. The tax was based on Torah ascribed to
God. But Jesus believed God gave all humans authority to govern their
own lives and power to overthrow any oppressive system, no matter how
sacred. So, when he came to Jerusalem for Passover (the first after John's
arrest), he overturned the money-changers' tables (Mark 12:15//John 2:15).
This gesture was open to many interpretations: to some, it was the
"sign" of Elijah, returned to purify the temple by removing
"those who oppress the worker in his wages" (Mal 3:1-5). Words of
other prophets who had championed temple reform were also recalled (Mark
11:17). But Jesus' gesture was probably based on another rationale. If the
poor were really God's heirs, their "Papa" would never tax them.
Moses' God liberated the oppressed; Jesus applied this to scholars'
interpretations of scripture. To him, every "son" of God was always
free (Matt 17:25-26), even from what priests or other ministers represented as
the word of God.
Jesus stood up to any opponent, but respected opponents who stood up to him. At
first he dismissed non-Jews as "dogs". But a witty retort by a
Lebanese woman altered his opinion of outsiders (Mark 7:27-29). The tables
turned in Jerusalem, where priests branded him a "Samaritan" (John
8:48), perhaps because he reminded them of Samaritans who desecrated the
temple on the eve of Passover only two decades earlier (Antiquities
18:29-30). Jesus retorted in a parable designed to shame priests and force
Jews to see opponents in a new role: a "Samaritan" (Jesus?) aids a
merchant whom Judean priests would let die rather than violate Torah that
forbid touching corpses (Luke 10:30-35; Lev 21:1-3). With Passover preparation
focused on enforcing Torah, Jesus' wit was too provocative and his behavior
too radical for Jerusalem's elite. At Passover thirty-four years before,
radicals, protesting executions by Herod, caused such a riot that Roman troops
raided the temple, killing 3000 Jews (Antiquities 17.213-218). Now,
just before Passover (30 ce) with many Jews still upset by Antipas'
execution of John, the high priest moved to prevent Jesus from sparking a
similar chain of events.
Gospel accounts of Jesus' arrest reveal the anguish his death caused among supporters
who did not expect it. Events were interpreted from the perspective of
Galilean Jews convinced Jesus was right and did not deserve to die. They
naturally tended to blame every other Jew for deserting him, even themselves.
As in other cases involving the unexpected death of a popular hero, Jesus'
admirers suspected his opponents conspired to kill him and reported this as if
it were fact. But they were never in position to learn what really went on
outside their own circle. Their reports were designed to discredit Jews who
dismissed Jesus as a troublemaker. But their witness can be trusted when it
yields information damaging to their defense.
The scene Jesus caused in the temple was a demonstration of disobedience to public
authority that claimed to be instituted by God. Even a minor provocation on
the eve of Passover, demanded some official response. But the gospels prove
the Jewish Sanhedrin was not agreed on what to do with Jesus. The
Pharisees were divided. Some of the school of Hillel, who put humanistic
values above cultic issues, could agree with Jesus on some points (Mark
12:28-33). So, Jesus was not arrested immediately. Since he was not well known
in Jerusalem, authorities could find him only if someone who knew him pointed
him out. That someone was Judah Iscariot, one of twelve men Jesus trusted to
restore a diversified Israel. Why this Judas decided to lead temple police to
Jesus can only be guessed. That he did, shows Jesus surrounded himself with
people who did not always agree with him and allowed each to decide his own
course of action.
Jesus had to be arrested before Passover. The only reason temple authorities
could detain him without formal indictment was to prevent him from provoking a
riot during the week-long festival (Mark 14:2). No Jewish court would agree to
imprison a fellow Jew once the celebration of God's liberation of every
Israelite from bondage had begun. In the few days remaining, a legal case
against Jesus could not be prosecuted, since the temple hierarchy was involved
in preparations for the massive lamb sacrifice on the fourteenth of Nisan.
Also, the annual commemoration of all of Israel being spared from the
"angel of death"---which is what "Passover" was about in
the first place (Exod 12)---precluded even considering executing Jesus during
it. Thirty years later, Pharisees protested the execution of Jesus' brother
James for Torah-violations at a time other than Passover (see p. 2). So, they
would not have approved Jesus' arrest, if there was any plan to execute
him either before or during the Passover festival. The gospels show that the
high priest, Yosef Kayyafa (Caiaphas)---a wealthy Sadducee who collaborated
with the Romans to maintain civil order---sent his own "slave" to
arrest Jesus (Mark 14:47; John 18:10). Other Jews who went along with this
order by the top Judean executive (including Judas Iscariot), probably did so
simply because they thought it best to get Jesus off the streets.
Jesus died on a cross. So, his execution was not ordered by Jews---who were appalled
by the public exposure of crucifixion---but by the Roman military, which used
this slow torture to suppress uprisings. Romans crucified Jewish bandits who
opposed their rule (Antiquities 17.295). The gospels admit that Jesus
was not singled out as a special case, but executed with a pair of such rebels
(Mark 15:26-27; John 19:18-19). No Jew, not even Yosef Kayyafa, would have
allowed such a group crucifixion to be staged near Jerusalem during
Passover. The only time any Jerusalemite would have tolerated such a mass
execution of independence-minded Jews was before Passover, as a public warning
to pilgrims from the countryside not to cause more trouble during the
festival. The mocking sign with Herod's title "king of the Jews,"
which Roman soldiers pinned on Jesus' cross, proves his death was intended as
a warning to Jewish masses not to listen to leaders unauthorized by
Rome. Public claims that Jesus was "the messiah" came only later
(Acts 2:36). The Herodian title shows, rather, that Romans understood the
explosive implications of Jesus' message that God's "kingdom"
belonged to Jewish peasants. How they learned of this can only be guessed,
since everything that happened between Jesus' arrest and his
crucifixion was not open to observation by Jesus' supporters.
Records do show, however, how a move by Jewish priests to detain Jesus turned into
a decision by the Roman prefect to execute him. Gospels admit that when
the temple police came to take Jesus into custody, some supporters put up a
struggle. One with a sword cut off the ear of the high priest's slave (Mark
14:47). This was a violent act of resistance to arrest aimed at the personal
representative of the nation's chief executive. In antiquity, anything done to
or by a delegate was viewed as done to or by the delegator. So, the legal
status of this deed was as if Jesus himself had cut off the high priest's own
ear. If Jesus were detained during Passover, priests now had reason to fear
his followers would incite further acts of violence. To avoid this they
decided to turn Jesus over to the Roman prefect as a dangerous rabble-rouser
who had to be eliminated immediately to prevent an uprising during the
festival. Pilate would comply without a second thought. Jesus' supporter who
wielded the sword may have been one of the "bandits" executed along
with him. But, more likely, Jesus' defender was Simon Peter (John 18:10) whose
feeling of guilt that Jesus died for his offense became the basis of
the Christian doctrine of salvation.
Jesus' public career was like a bolt of lightning: brilliant but very brief. It
probably lasted just a few months after John's arrest. His execution, like
John's, was intended to prevent Jewish peasants from acting independently of
power structures authorized by the Roman emperor. At first this seemed to be
the result. By their own admission, Jesus' supporters were in shock from the
sudden turn of events and lived in fear of being arrested as outlaws. But this
lull lasted an even shorter time. Within days something happened to convince
them that Jesus had not been defeated after all. Exactly what, is difficult to
say. His resurrection "appearances" to various friends were not
public events open to historical treatment. But most reports make it clear
that this "event" was not seen as the resuscitation of one man's
corpse. On the contrary, empty tomb stories were designed to show that Jesus'
corpse disappeared. What happened to it, only God knows. It took time, but his
disciples gradually realized they should leave corpses to be buried by the
dead and celebrate the lord of life instead. They did not view Jesus'
resurrection as the revival of one courageous individual. Rather, they
interpreted it as the power of his independent spirit to revive and transform
many who had been cowards, afraid to act on their own (John 20:19-23; 1 Cor
15:42-50). Now they began to speak out openly in public without fear of
authorities. Being dragged into court or thrown into prison did not stop them.
A few Galilean peasants urged Jerusalemites and other Jews to reject their own
priesthood for engineering Jesus' execution. Enough Jews responded to make
temple officers try to suppress them. But this only scattered the seed to the
wind, to take root in other ground. Not even the ethnic boundaries of Judaism
could limit it. The Jew who called himself only "this human"
inspired other Jews---even opponents like Paul---to accept all humans as
equal, without regard for social differences (Gal 3:28). By identifying with
the least earthling, Jesus led other earthlings to identify with him. The
power of this man with soiled hands, who showed others how to stand up to any
form of oppression without fear of personal consequences, was not immediately
evident. Like leaven, his message of the authority and independence of common
people spread slowly. But it transformed or undermined repressive power
structures---political and religious---that claimed to be eternal. And it
My own view of Jesus is still developing. What
has been sketched here is not the product of a private vision, but a
reflection on a lifelong dialog and debate with many minds, most recently in
the Jesus Seminar. The names of those whose arguments have stimulated me are
too many to mention here. Any who catch echoes of their own voices will at
least know they have been heard. Those who can tell a good retort should
conclude the same. The biblical passages quoted above differ from any standard
translation. They are the product of my own struggle with the logic of Greek
or Hebrew texts. I am solely responsible for my choice of the English
equivalents, as other translators are for theirs. References to the standard
Christian bible are provided for readers to check, if they wish. Others are
found in two works: The Complete Gospels [R.J. Miller, ed., Sonoma CA:
Polebridge Press, 1992] and Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews
[vol. 8 and 9, Loeb Classical Library, Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press,
 The word translated "sack" was a
measure that held about seven quarts (28 cups). One "sack" of flour
weighed at least ten pounds.
 The logic of a dialog, debate or
 Josephus, a Jewish priest and partisan of
the Pharisees, recalled this protest of "the fairest" Jewish leaders
against the 62 c.e. execution of "a man named James---the brother of
Jesus the reputed Messiah---and some others...accused of transgressing the
Torah" (Antiquities, 20.200-1).
 A reconstruction appears in The Complete
 A parallel reconstruction appears in The
Complete Gospels, 248-300.
 The Greek noun diabolos---which the
English mispronounced as "devil"---characterizes a role rather than
a particular person. In antiquity, it was used to describe any opponent who
spread slander or false rumors.
 Unconventional observations; contradictions
of common opinion.
 Rabbis regularly paired "tax agents
and thieves": Jews who profited by ignoring Torah. Here the second term
refers to law-breakers of any kind.
 Matthew changed "children" to
"deeds" to prevent such a conclusion.
 Josephus' explanation of John's death (Antiquities
18.118) is probably more accurate than the gospels' sensationalized account
 Thom 46 (see Complete Gospels,
 Antiquities 18.117. Compare Deut
16:19-20, Micah 6:8.
 A reversal of common logic; an unexpected
twist in speech or event.
 Hebrew Qoheleth (speaker to a
gathering) became Ecclesiastes in Latin.
 Mark 4:30-32. Q interpreted the shrub as a
tree, a more conventional image of dominance (Matt 13:31-32//Luke 13:18-19).
 Mark 1:14-15. The Greek term usually
translated "repent" literally means "change your mind (or
 Matthew (5:3) interpreted the poverty as
spiritual rather than economic.
 Q reinterpreted this as an eschatological
 The later gospel context gave this saying
a spiritual interpretation.
 Mark's location of Herodians in Jerusalem
is dubious and his claim that Pharisees meant to trap Jesus is editorial
opinion rather than fact.
 "Adam" was originally not the
name of an individual male, but a generic collective term for all human
beings. Like "human" it is derived from word for "earth"
or "dirt" (Hebrew: adamah; Latin: humus).
 Greek anthropos, like the Hebrew adam
means "human" rather than "male".
 Matt 9:8 corrected the impression of
unique authority conveyed by Mark's editorial context.
 Mark (3:28-29, 13:9-11) and Matthew
(10:19, 12:32) obscured Jesus' logic by separating these sayings.
 The term usually translated
"love" refers to behavior, not feelings.
 Luke 6:29 adapted this tactic to robbery,
where it would not always work.
 Matt 10:39, Mark 8:35 and John 12:25
qualify and paraphrase this.
 Matt 11:12-13 reverses this, turning it
into a lament of the chaos caused by lawlessness. But the word translated
"empowered" refers to the basic life force (bios): i.e.,
vigor rather than violence.
 Complete Gospels, 320. Among
canonical gospels Matt 12:46-50 best preserved Jesus' witty retort.
 Q based it on a single exorcism (Matt
12:22-45//Luke 11:14-26). Mark added more examples.
 Paul applied Jesus' view on the freedom of
"sons" to all Torah (Gal 4-5). Matthew tried to avoid this
conclusion by claiming Jesus paid the tax.
 Paul claimed the idea that Jesus died
"for our sin" was "among first things" (1 Cor 15:3) and
assumed Peter thought so too (Gal 2:11-21).
Copyright © 1998 by
Mahlon H. Smith
All rights reserved.
This essay was written in 1992 for a
proposed volume of portraits from various scholars working on the question
of the historical Jesus, including Fellows & critics of the the Jesus
Seminar. Polebridge Press abandoned that project for lack of enough
contributions. This draft has been revised as a result of feedback from my
students over several years. The electronic edition was posted July