Thursday, October 13, 2005

Search for the Historical Jesus, 2

In the first blog with this title, I basically introduced the three
fold method John Dominic Crossan has used in his personal search for
the historical Jesus:

• Cross-cultural anthropology which is to study what is "common
across history to all those (societies) of the
same ecological and technological type." ( All
quoted passages unless stated otherwise are from Crossan's book,
"Jesus, a Revolutionary Biography".)

• "Greco-Roman and especially Jewish history in the first quarter of
Jesus' century."

• A literary or textual examination of -- not just -- those
"gospels" or writings concerning Jesus within
the official canon of scripture determined in the the 4th Century
C.E. (A.D.) but the even larger number
of writings or gospels --- outside The Canon

• To examine the development, retention and creation of Jesus
materials within the entire gamut of
writings concerning Jesus from the earliest -- around 50 A.D. to
the later -- around the first part of the
second century, i.e. 100-125 A.D.

• Note the differences and discrepancies within these materials that
appear not to be due to memory
or carelessness but to the theological slant of
the author.

(N.B. It is not my purpose nor intention to disturb anyone's faith, but
to share with others matters concerning Jesus, his life and teaching in
my quest for a better grasp on the historical Jesus. If you are
bothered by anything in this particular reoccurring set of blogs---just
skip them. bob)

As I mentioned in the first blog, Crossan does not consider the four
canonical gospels as histories or biographies.
Instead they are four different accounts of Jesus by four authors whose
identities are not truly known --- written over a period of around 28
to 80 years after the death of Jesus. Each of these four presentation
of Jesus present a certain theological slant or perspective on Jesus.

It was common at this period of history for the lives and backgrounds
of well-known leaders to be composed by writers who did not consider it
their task to record a precise relating of the events and words of
their subject. In most cases, the "biography" would present the subject
in a more flattering, and, at times, glorified manner. One example is
Octavius, the adopted son of Julius Caesar who eventually defeated the
army of Anthony and became the Emperor Augustus continuing the Julian
Virgil, the famed Roman poet: lost no time in celebrating this new
Roman leader: "combining magnificently musical poetry with consummately
political propaganda, moved immediately to give Octavius...a
mythological genealogy worthy of the new Roman order. He went back for
inspiration to the only possible source, to Homer --- the 'bible', if
ever there was one, of Greco-Roman paganism."
Virgil used the Iliad and the Odyssey ascribed to Homer as part of his
own epic saga, the Aeneid. In this latter work both Julius Caesar and
Augustus are seen as heirs as to both "an ancient and even divine

It was only natural, in fact, perfectly understandable, that the four
authors of the canonical gospels would seek to present Jesus as they
saw him and believed in him. Instead of Homer, these authors looked to
the Jewish Bible for the foundation of their accounts and support of
the divinity of Jesus. As Crossan puts it: "The past was used to
ground the present and found the future, but in the process Jesus
became incomparably greater than any predecessor on which he is being

(I am deliberately leaving out many interesting details from the
book for sake of brevity. If after you
read my blogs and feel the urge to read the actual book, it should be
in any public library, and, of course,
Crossan considers an educated guess as to the year of Jesus' birth is
4 B.C.E. (B.C.)

Jesus may very well have been a carpenter. Carpenters (tektons) did
not have the position of skilled workers today. In fact, a "tekton"
belonged to the lower classes. At this time in history if one did not
have to work with one's hands --- the individual was considered a
member of the upper classes. Those who did work with their hands ---
the lower classes. In the lower classes, the highest position was held
by a very large group --- peasant farmers. Two thirds of their products
went to support the upper classes. Next were the Artisans, about 5% of
the lower classes. At the bottom were 10% of the lower classes
sometimes referred to as "expendables" or the "degraded". This bottom
rung group ranged "... from beggars and outlaws to hustlers, day
laborers, and slaves."

Jesus belonged to the Artisan class. "It must be presumed that Jesus
also was illiterate, that he knew, like the vast majority of his
contemporaries in an oral culture, the foundational narratives, basic
stories, and general expectations of his tradition but not the exact
texts, precise citations, or intricate arguments of the scribal

Then what about Jesus in Luke 4: 1-30 amazing the learned teachers in
the Temple in Jerusalem with his wisdom?
Crossan considers this passage: "Lukan propaganda rephrasing Jesus'
oral challenge and charisma in terms of scribal literacy and exegesis."


At this time in history, the accounts of highly regarded persons
almost always were not biographies in our sense of the word, but
accounts of individuals written by fervent followers, or, as often in
the case of rulers and wealthy personages---stories about their lives
composed by writers hired for this purpose or those doing it to curry
favor with the elite. In all cases, glorification and myth creation was
a standard approach.

What we do know with reasonable certainty about Jesus is the following:

• He was born around 4 B.C.E. in Nazareth.
• His parents were Joseph and Mary.
• Nazareth was between 200 and 1200 people at the time.
• It appears he had at least six siblings. He was not necessarily
the first born. There is a stronger case for
James being the eldest.

What about the other elements of Jesus' early years? The flight into
Egypt; the birth in Bethlehem; the coming of the Magi from the East;
The prophecies of Simeon and Anna at Jesus presentation in the Temple;
et al?

Crossan: "The rest is mythology, telling us much about Jesus' later
followers but nothing about Jesus' earlier origins, telling us how
future history might be founded but not at all how past history had

I suppose some readers may say, "What is there left of Jesus or at
least of his story --- after a comment such as Crossan's?

For me --- based on Crossan's book and others by biblical scholars
studying the historical Jesus---
I feel that I am finally coming to know the essential Jesus, who,
again, for me, is much more special that the one I knew before --- the
one in which I was brought up.

Crossan, himself, answers this question in the next paragraph when he
considers the arguments being waged even as we speak between those who
support the authenticity of these birth stories and those who don't.

"The divine origins of Jesus are, to be sure, just as fictional or
mythological of Octavius (those spun by Virgil about Emperor Augustus),
But to claim them for Octavius surprised nobody in that first century.
What was incredible was that anyone at all claimed them for Jesus."

The Roman pagan philosopher,Celsus mocked the gospel's accounts of
Jesus birth. He was not disturbed about divine birth stories---only
that such birth stories could be about an obscure, non-Roman Jewish

Crossan points out the positive side of these birth stories not being
historical --- but a myths created:

" begs the question of who he was and what he did that caused
his followers to make such claims. That is a historical question, and
it cannot be dismissed with Celsus's sneer."