Jesus and the Gospel—What Really Happened?

Baptism and Crucifixion
An email conversation about the news of the day.
Dec. 22 2005 11:23 AM

Jesus and the Gospel—What Really Happened?

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I want to return to Alan's initial posting about a historical approach to Jesus. I need to get a bit technical for a moment, so bear with me. Alan mentioned the so-called " criterion of dissimilarity" and declared it the same thing as what others have called the "criterion of embarrassment." But I think that's a mistake. The latter criterion was actually intended as a superior alternative to the first. The "criterion of dissimilarity" has three major problems. It's logically flawed, impractical, and also shaped by a theological agenda that's insufficiently acknowledged. So, we need to approach Jesus with a much better way of doing history. I'll illustrate in a moment, but first let me quickly justify my judgment about the criterion of dissimilarity.

The logical flaw is that what "dissimilarity" might yield would only be what was totally distinctive about Jesus' beliefs or actions. Of course, that would be interesting. But surely what makes any historical figure notable is his or her total person, purposes, and impact, which usually include a lot of things shared with his or her cultural and historical environment. Individuals aren't notable because they're on some other wavelength, but because they address their time with distinctive clarity, purpose, determination, and successful projection of a persona. What we need to know historically about Jesus includes one helluva lot more than the (likely small number of) things that may have absolutely no parallel either in his religious environment or among his following.

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Secondly, "dissimilarity" is impractical. It presumes an exhaustive knowledge of Roman-era Jewish life and tradition, and an equally exhaustive knowledge of the early Christian movement. And our knowledge of both is … less than exhaustive, shall we agree? So, any claim about this or that being "dissimilar" is itself often entirely contestable and so can't provide any "assured" knowledge.

Thirdly, the scholars who dreamt up "dissimilarity" came out of a theological vector concerned with distinguishing Jesus and early Christianity sharply from its Jewish religious matrix. They weren't all anti-Semitic, I emphasize (though some in the theological woodwork clearly were, as Susannah Heschel has so thoroughly shown), but they shared a certain view that anything Jesus had in common with his ancient Jewish setting was … well, understandable, but in the end, if not regrettable, then not particularly important. 

I think the only way to proceed is to try to give the best account we can of why and how this or that event or belief may have arisen, and then let others test our argument. So, let me have a go at Jesus. To my mind, the two specific things that we can take as most assured about Jesus are his baptism by John the Baptizer (a Jewish prophetic and reformist figure executed by the Roman client ruler of Galilee, Herod Antipas) and Jesus' crucifixion by the Roman governor of Judea (Pontius Pilate). Both events are attested to multiple times in the sources. In addition, I contend that there was nothing for early Christians to gain in concocting either event. In fact, it's widely agreed that both events required Christians to offer some rationale for them.

I also contend that these two events are particularly meaningful for a historical understanding of Jesus. Jesus' baptism by John surely signals Jesus' active acceptance of the validity of John's message and purposes. Indeed, when set alongside other reports in the Gospels about Jesus' attitude toward John, I'd say that Jesus must be seen as having been a follower of John in his early adult years. I think it probable that Jesus' mature sense of his own calling emerged in light of John's preaching and activities. And the baptism probably means that Jesus shared John's urgent concern about the religious state of his people, and John's firm confidence that the time had come when God was about to set in motion decisive events that would bring God's "kingdom." Whatever vague similarities some scholars think they can dimly make out between Jesus and Stoics like Diogenes, John the Baptizer is the much more relevant and meaningful context-figure for understanding where Jesus was coming from religiously.

Jesus' crucifixion is the other event that is unrivalled in historical surety and import. Some scholars assert that it was simply an unfortunate mix-up; Jesus seized by overzealous officials, having been in the wrong place (the Temple) at the wrong time (Passover). Well, anything is possible. But let's talk probable. And for many more reasons than I have space here to elucidate, it's simply much more probable that Jesus was crucified because he was judged guilty of charges sufficient to justify execution—and one in a form that was intended to humiliate and thoroughly degrade the offender, not simply kill him.

To my mind, the likely Roman charge against Jesus was the one we have reflected in the Gospel traditions: Jesus was accused of claiming to be king of the Jews. In spite of the claims of impressive scholars such as E.P. Sanders (whose Jesus book remains one of my favorites), simply causing a disturbance in the Jerusalem Temple would hardly have been sufficient to get yourself crucified. Maybe beaten around the ears or flogged, yes. But crucified? Nope. We have reports of others who denounced the Temple or disassociated themselves from it as invalid, and they weren't crucified. So, we have to posit something else about Jesus that the Roman governor saw as demanding the most extreme measure in his arsenal.

And, of course, the Romans thought Jesus was staking a royal claim likely because of statements and actions on his part that at least implicitly comprised a (royal) Messiah figure. So, I think that historical knowledge of Jesus makes his association with, and endorsement of, John the Baptizer and his crucifixion by the Roman administrator absolutely fundamental. Indeed, to my mind, these events are not only in themselves highly meaningful historically. They also can function as criteria of sorts for other historical claims about Jesus. I wonder, Alan and John, what you make of these musings?

Larry