Jesus and the Gospel—What Really Happened?

John the Baptizer, Jewish Judea, and the Virginal Conception
An email conversation about the news of the day.
Dec. 23 2005 1:00 PM

Jesus and the Gospel—What Really Happened?


I'd like to begin with a response to some of the comments Alan and John made in reply to my piece yesterday. Then I'll discuss whether we have archaeological evidence and artifacts relevant to Jesus.

John queries the significance I attributed to Jesus' association with and baptism by John the Baptizer (or Baptist), and also Jesus' crucifixion by the Roman governor. Sure, John, there are scholars who assert that Jesus subsequently distanced himself from the Baptizer. But I don't buy it, at least not the versions of this assertion that you cite. All we have to go on are reports about Jesus in the Gospels, and all the references Jesus makes in them to the Baptizer seem to me positive. For instance, when asked about his authority to cleanse the temple and overturn the tables of the money-changers, Jesus responds by linking his actions with John. True, in one place Jesus is depicted as distinguishing between the Baptizer and himself. Matthew and Luke include the comparison between the Baptizer's more ascetic posture and Jesus' greater propensity for social action. But even here, rather clearly, the overall thrust is a direct and positive linkage of Jesus and the Baptizer. The difference seems to me essentially this: The Baptizer urged preparatory repentance in advance of God's coming kingdom, whereas Jesus' actions and sayings announce and demonstrate the arrival of God's kingdom already, with Jesus as chief herald and key vehicle of its manifestation. In short, if anything Jesus' sense of the immediacy of God's kingdom is even more intense than the Baptizer's! 

Whatever you make of the specifics of my reasoning, John, I want to emphasize that it's not sound history to discount Jesus' association with the Baptizer, as is done all too often. The Baptizer makes an all-too-convenient foil for a Jesus who's a much nicer guy, ready to go down to the pub or enjoy a joke. It's all soooo anachronistic. What if we actually took more seriously the indications that Jesus' convictions were primarily religious, contextually Jewish, and that they were heavily indebted to and linked with the ministry of John the Baptizer? Well, for one thing, we'd be doing a much more authentic kind of historical work!

This is a good point at which to introduce archaeology. We don't have any artifacts from Jesus, of course, or from his earliest followers. Our earliest Christianobjects are manuscripts, some of which date to the late second century. I discuss these in the book I just completed, The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Christian Origins (forthcoming 2006). We also have an increasing body of archaeological evidence about life in Jesus' homeland, Roman Judea. In particular, very recent study seems to me to suggest that the parts of the Galilee where Jesus grew up were recognizably Jewish. I point to the findings there of special pools for ritual purification (mikva'ot in Hebrew), which suggest a piety perhaps influenced by Pharisaic teachings. Likewise, as the scholar Roland Deines has argued, the many stone household vessels found in the Galilee also line up with Pharisaic concerns about purity.

So, the old Nazi-sympathizing notion that Jesus was a crypto-Aryan seems very wide of the mark, as do more recent efforts to minimize the significance of Jewish religion and culture in the Galilee. I think that Sean Freyne of Trinity College, Dublin, has done a good job of putting together the archaeological evidence to place Jesus squarely within the multifaceted, tumultuous setting of Jewish Judea.

I also want to respond to Alan's last posting, concerning the traditions about Jesus' conception and birth. Alan, you wrote, "We can guess that the doctrine originated largely among Gentiles known to Luke and not among the Jews known to Matthew." I find that statement completely puzzling. Let's recall that we have two birth narratives (one in Matthew 1:2 and one in Luke 1:2), which appear to be independent of each other. Further, both narratives reflect the claim that Jesus was conceived miraculously. Indeed, Matthew's account is, if anything, more explicit and emphatic on this than Luke's. So, the claim about Jesus' conception must be earlier than either narrative. But also, to reiterate a point I made in our first exchange, both narratives are thoroughly connected with ancient Judaism. In practically every verse the narrators wink at us knowingly, nudging and pointing to passages in the Hebrew Bible and to Jewish traditions. For instance, the Matthew narrative is studded with explicitly cited Biblical proof texts, like Joseph's dreams and the star, the Eastern gentlemen, and their gifts. Just about every specific feature of the story seems intended to connect Jesus' birth to Jewish hopes and sources. In short, "the Jews known to Matthew" (I assume you mean Jewish Christians and others for whom Matthew wrote) seem very much acquainted with, and appreciative of, the idea that Jesus was conceived by God's "Holy Spirit." Luke's birth narrative, too, thoroughly reflects a concern about making the same ties. Both narratives are impressively sophisticated literary productions with profound religious purposes.

So, I don't think that it works to ascribe the origins of belief in the miraculous conception particularly to Gentiles, or early Christians of pagan background. The evidence we have points us more cogently toward a provenance in first-century circles of Christians who were either Jewish in background or deeply appreciative of that tradition. Also, Alan, you claim that the virginal conception arose in answer to the question "How was Jesus born?" as a way of making the birth special and honored. But that's not an adequate explanation. To provide Jesus with an honorable birth story, it would have been more than enough to claim for him noble parentage, or special omens attending his birth. This sort of story would have also posed far fewer difficulties. Virginal conception was a particularly—even unwisely—provocative idea that quite predictably elicited the counterclaims about Jesus' illegitimacy that appeared rather quickly. So, there must have been particular reasons for making this daring assertion.

As for the importance of the belief that Jesus was miraculously conceived, I agree that it's not actually necessary for traditional Christian faith in Jesus as the unique Son of God and exalted Lord. Yet from an early point, Jesus' miraculous conception came to have a place in Christian teaching. Alan is confident that such a conception didn't happen. Well, of course, legends develop quickly around revered figures, and we all agreed at the outset of this discussion that you can't demonstrate conception by the Holy Spirit in terms of the usual forces of history. But I take the Christian teaching about Jesus' conception to represent, at the least, a vivid way of asserting that he is to be seen primarily in terms of divine purpose and initiative. As the Swiss theologian Karl Barth has proposed, Jesus' virginal conception is a "sign" pointing to his significance. So, I'd say that Christians should be reluctant to jettison the conception, and should instead probably explore seriously its meaning. I'd also suggest that Christians should not allow the difficulties in treating the conception historically to lead them to overlook its historic place in the faith, and its continuing potential in Christian piety and reflection.

Alan and John, and all who may read these lines, I've enjoyed the exchanges. And I wish us all a safe and happy Christmas season.