Prophet and Teacher: An Introduction to the Historical Jesus

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Topics: Theology & Religious Education. Ages: Adult. Resource Types: Books.

Review & Commentary

One thought on “Prophet and Teacher: An Introduction to the Historical Jesus

  1. Review

    In his book, the author introduces the historical Jesus, using the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke as primary sources. He shares the historical research of other scholars engaged in the quest for the historical Jesus, and presents his own proposal for understanding Jesus’s “public activity” as prophet, teacher, healer, exorcist and “broker” of the Reign of God. The author is Professor of New Testament Interpretation at Colgate Rochester Crozier Divinity School in Rochester, New York.

    The first step of historical research in the quest for the historical Jesus, is to evaluate the “layers of tradition” which form the Synoptic Gospels by using “criteria of authenticity” in an attempt to discover, beneath the layers, a profile of Jesus of Galilee. The next step is to understand the political, economic and social world of first century Palestine which formed the context for the public ministry of Jesus. Politically, the two portions of Palestine, Judah and Galilee, had been conquered by the Roman empire and were ruled by client kings and a “high priestly elite” appointed by Rome. Economically, Palestine was an “advanced agrarian society” characterized by a great divide between a ruling class and a peasant class. The ruling elite, about “1 to 2 percent” of the population” owned the land and controlled “between one half and two thirds of the wealth” produced by their society. The peasant class, comprising the remainder of the population, who worked the land were exploited by the ruling elite with the imposition of rents, taxes and tribute. Socially, there was a divide between the cities and the countryside in the interpretation of Torah which the author characterizes as between the “great tradition” of the cities and the “little tradition” of the villages and hamlets.

    It was in this historical context that Jesus began his public activity. Using Luke 4:15 as a source, the author questions the traditional account of the beginning of the public teaching activity of Jesus which is often characterized as a “conflict between Judaism represented by the Pharisees, and Christianity represented by Jesus.” He discusses three problems which arise from this scenario. Then, using the story of the healing of the paralytic (Mark 2:1-12) he shows that the “good news” was “the good news version of the Torah as interpreted by Jesus.” He also points out that Jesus not only interpreted the Torah but healed and exorcized, “thereby restoring men and women to the covenant community as sons and daughters of Abraham.”

    Using Luke 24:19 as a source, the author shows that the public activity of Jesus included being a prophet in the tradition of the prophets of Israel. He points out that the political, economic and social conditions to which the prophets spoke would be familiar to Jesus. He writes, “Like Amos, Hosea, Isaiah and Micah, Jesus the prophet interpreted what was happening to the people of Galilee who were being increasingly squeezed by colonial domination and internal exploitation. He taught them to read their distressing situation not as God’s will but as a consequence of the violation of God’s covenant.”

    It was as teacher and prophet that Jesus announced and brokered the Reign of God, a social vision of justice and compassion, rooted in the covenant of Sinai between Yahweh and his people. In the context of the reign of Caesar, Herod and the priesthood in Jerusalem, this activity was seen as subversive. Consequently, Jesus was executed by the ruling Jerusalem elite in collaboration of the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate. For the author, the resurrection means that God placed his seal of approval “on Jesus’ public activity and its emphasis on justice, judgment, compassion and mercy.” He emphasizes that “In the light that the resurrection casts on the public activity of Jesus, it is clear that God’s redemption includes justice; the gospel includes the social gospel.”

    This scholarly work is a rich resource for scholars, students and all those engaged in the quest for the historical Jesus.

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