Jesus and the Gospel—What Really Happened?

What Kind of Jewish Was the Galilee?
An email conversation about the news of the day.
Dec. 23 2005 1:47 PM

Jesus and the Gospel—What Really Happened?


Larry, I made two different kinds of points yesterday, one methodological and the other substantive.

The methodological one—on which I suspect we don't disagree in principle, though no doubt in its application—is that the criterion of embarrassment, like the criterion of dissimilarity, privileges a very small set of data and makes them "characteristic" of what Jesus was about. But this confuses data whose historicity we might be confident of with data that ought to be privileged in reconstructing what Jesus was about. They are not the same thing.

To be a bit facetious: One of the things that is known rather securely about Socrates is that he was famously ugly by Athenian standards. But that surely isn't the thing that we want to privilege in a reconstruction of the historical Socrates. Analogously, the things we know quite securely about Jesus don't necessarily constitute the heart of what he was about. Maybe this is just academic grousing, but I think its worthwhile pausing over it before we jump on the John the Baptist bandwagon.

To the substantive point: I agree, and have agreed with you earlier and with Alan, that Jesus was associated with John, presumably as a disciple. What was entailed in this association isn't quite as clear to me as it is to you; the nature of ancient association, despite our post-Enlightenment thinking, was not based so much on agreement about ideas as on personal loyalty. Twenty centuries of Christian dogma has stressed the ideas and suppressed the personal, patronage aspect of association, but that doesn't mean that we as scholars should neglect it. It is perhaps hard for us to believe that ideas and beliefs did not matter to ancient Mediterranean persons as much other kinds of ties, but that is the way the Mediterranean worked (and parts of it still work that way). Maybe this is more grousing, but I think it important to underscore the differences.

So, Jesus was John's follower. That no doubt means that he adopted and endorsed a number of John's attitudes—I'd say these included a criticism of divorce and remarriage, which wasn't all that common among the non-elite of the era but would have been shared by the Herodian upper class. John got himself killed for such criticism, and Jesus' sayings against divorce should be seen as arising, at least, from the same political origins—though Jesus seems to have gone beyond John here, too. There are also some similarities between how John and Jesus approached the temple: As Sean Freyne notes in Jesus, A Jewish Galilean, both believed forgiveness could be obtained independent of Temple ritual. This could account for the hostility that the Baptist encountered from priestly authorities (as reported by Matthew 3 and John 1), and that Jesus also encountered.

Hence, I don't "discount" Jesus' association with John, but I do see it as perhaps more of a problem than you, especially given the personal nature of their association. There are too many places where the beliefs of Jesus, such as we can guess them, and of John were different. You name a few: repentance doesn't seem to figure as centrally (or at all) in Jesus' preaching; the threat of apocalyptic judgment functioned differently in Jesus' preaching; Jesus' parables, as far as we know, have no counterpart in John's stuff. (Note, though, that we know hardly anything about John beyond a few sentences in Josephus and a paragraph or two in the Gospels of Q and Mark.) The Jesus tradition reflects the perception that Jesus and John were not thought to be on the same wavelength on some matters—that's why a writer like Matthew has to insist so strongly that they really were.

Your point on the nature of the Galilee is well taken. I don't agree that there is much evidence of "Pharisaic" influence in the Galilee before the second Jewish revolt against the Romans in A.D. 132-135. Lee Levine, after all, has shown that institutionally the early rabbis were not in a position to have much of an effective influence before the third century. However, a careful reading of the archaeological evidence, the rather spotty and tendentious reports of Josephus, and the evidence of the sayings in Gospel Q and the synoptic Gospels suggests that the Galilee was largely Jewish. Galileans for the most part took as part of their identity circumcision, some form of kashrut (kosher observance), and the Jewish Sabbath. Mark Chancey's The Myth of a Gentile Galilee rehearses most of the relevant evidence in a convenient and readable fashion. He has a sequel that will appear in 2006.

Nevertheless, concluding that the first-century Galilee was by and large Jewish doesn't settle the kind or kinds of Judaism that were represented there, any more than concluding that Jesus was John's disciple makes it easy to draw conclusions about the beliefs that they might have shared. We all have more or less abandoned the old pagan Galilee and the zealot-revolutionary Galilee, but there is still a lot of room for further characterization. Were the people there "Torah-true" (whatever that means)? Did they represent a non-Judean Judaism of the Northern tribes, as Richard Horsley has argued? There are several other possible variations, as you know.

My point overall is to resist some of the fast equations that I think you're making, unless I misread you. As you know, I'm quite skeptical about positing sameness and continuity where I don't see compelling evidence. I think that you're a bit more willing to do so.

In any event, it's always a pleasure discussing things with you and Alan, from whom I've learned much.

Merry Christmas and chag sameah.



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