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Mahlon H Smith
Rutgers University

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.



(1) Heritage. 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).

(2) Controversy. 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).

This controversy 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).[3] 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.

(3) Redefinition. 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.

(1) Profiles. 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.

(2) Refutation. 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 counter-portrait.

(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).[4] 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.[5] 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".[6] 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 Jewish hero.

(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 about Jesus.



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.

(1) Voice. 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:

Among women's offspring
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' reputation:

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.
They say:
"We 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!" [8]

Now, Wisdom 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. [9]

(2) Wit. 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).

(3) Worship. 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.

(4) Proportion. 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.

(5) Inversion. 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.[10]

Ironically, John's 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.

(6) Puzzles. 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.

(a) Speculation. 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.[11] 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.

(b) Illustration. 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 6:14).

(c) Dilemma. 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.

(7) Spirit. 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 debate.

From the 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

So, the last will be first and the first last.
---Matt 20:16

(1) Reversal. 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).

(2) Crisis. 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.[12] 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.

(a) Irony. [13] 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).[14] 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.

(b) Metaphor. 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.

(3) Stature. 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.

(a) Seed. 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.[15]

(b) Leaven. 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.

(c) Worth. 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.

(4) Youth. 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 forces.

(a) Child. 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.

(b) Parent. 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").

(c) Point. 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."

(5) Power. 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.

(a) 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, Octavian, 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" (Antiquities 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 chain-of-command.

(b) Independence. 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.

(c) Presence. 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 worldview.[16]

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).

(6) Economics. 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 thinking.

(a) Property. 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.

(b) Poverty. The most provocative of Jesus' paradoxes was his announcement that God's "kingdom" really belonged to the poor (Luke 6:20//Thom 54).[17] "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).

(c) Robbery. 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).[18] 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).[19] 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.

(d) Taxes. 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).[20] 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.

(7) Anthropology. 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).[21] 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).

(a) Solidarity. 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".[22] 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, see 2.1 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 8:20//Luke 9:58).

(b) Authority. 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).[23] 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).[24]

(b) Principle. 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 (Luke 6:39, 41-42//Matt 7:3-5, 15:14). 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).

(c) Tactics. 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).[25] 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.[26] 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.

(d) Time. 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."

(e) Mortality. 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 17:34-35). 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).[27] 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 prophets,
as long as there was John;
since then God's government is advertised,
and everyone is empowered in it.

---Luke 16:16 [28]

(1) Voices. 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.

(2) Lessons. 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.

(3) Life. 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.

(a) Roots. 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 (tekton). To them he was just an ordinary guy---Joseph's son, Yeshu bar Yosef (Luke 3:32, John 6:42), one of many brothers (Mark 6:3, John 2:12)---until he left home.

(b) Reputation. 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?).

(c) Relations. 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).[29] Such repartée, shocking to Jews trained to obey elders, would lead literalists to wonder who Jesus’ father actually was.

(1) Health. 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 5:34, 10:52). 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.

(2) Purity. 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.[30] But if Jesus heeded his own purity principle, the only "spirit" he would cast out was submission to repressive power structures.

(3) Temple. 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 12:17). 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.[31]

(1) Opponents. 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.

(2) Witness. 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.

(a) Betrayal. 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.

(b) Arrest. 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. 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.

(c) Execution. 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.

(d) Sword. 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.[32]

(3) Revival. 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 still does.



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, 1963, 1965].



[1] The word translated "sack" was a measure that held about seven quarts (28 cups). One "sack" of flour weighed at least ten pounds.

[2] The logic of a dialog, debate or interaction.

[3] 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).

[4] A reconstruction appears in The Complete Gospels, 175-193.

[5] A parallel reconstruction appears in The Complete Gospels, 248-300.

[6] 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.

[7] Unconventional observations; contradictions of common opinion.

[8] Rabbis regularly paired "tax agents and thieves": Jews who profited by ignoring Torah. Here the second term refers to law-breakers of any kind.

[9] Matthew changed "children" to "deeds" to prevent such a conclusion.

[10] Josephus' explanation of John's death (Antiquities 18.118) is probably more accurate than the gospels' sensationalized account (Mark 6:17-29).

[11] Thom 46 (see Complete Gospels, 312).

[12] Antiquities 18.117. Compare Deut 16:19-20, Micah 6:8.

[13] A reversal of common logic; an unexpected twist in speech or event.

[14] Hebrew Qoheleth (speaker to a gathering) became Ecclesiastes in Latin.

[15] 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).

 [16] Mark 1:14-15. The Greek term metanoeite, usually translated "repent," literally means "change your mind (or opinion)."

[17] Matthew (5:3) interpreted the poverty as spiritual rather than economic.

[18] Q reinterpreted this as an eschatological warning.

[19] The later gospel context gave this saying a spiritual interpretation.

[20] Mark's location of Herodians in Jerusalem is dubious and his claim that Pharisees meant to trap Jesus is editorial opinion rather than fact.

[21] "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).

[22] Greek anthropos, like the Hebrew adam means "human" rather than "male".

[23] Matt 9:8 corrected the impression of unique authority conveyed by Mark's editorial context.

[24] Mark (3:28-29, 13:9-11) and Matthew (10:19, 12:32) obscured Jesus' logic by separating these sayings.

[25] The term usually translated "love" (agapate) refers to behavior, not feelings.

[26] Luke 6:29 adapted this tactic to robbery, where it would not always work.

[27] Matt 10:39, Mark 8:35 and John 12:25 qualify and paraphrase this.

[28] Matt 11:12-13 reverses this, turning it into a lament of the chaos caused by lawlessness. But the word translated "empowered" (biazetai) refers to the basic life force (bios): i.e., vigor rather than violence.

[29] Complete Gospels, 320. Among canonical gospels Matt 12:46-50 best preserved Jesus' witty retort.

[30] Q based it on a single exorcism (Matt 12:22-45//Luke 11:14-26). Mark added more examples.

[31] 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.

[32] 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 © 1998-2023 by Mahlon H. Smith
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  • 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 11, 1998. It was last updated February 11, 2019.

  • Hypertext links to this web page and brief quotations in scholarly reviews and publications are invited. But the text as a whole may not be posted or reproduced elsewhere without express written permission of the author.

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