The Truth About the Historical Jesus? — Part 1

E-mail: gm.jm@sympatico.ca

Most scholars agree about these facts: Jesus was a sucessful healer, although the Gospels exaggerate the quantity and nature of his healings. Jesus taught radical morals in aphorisms, “love of enemies”, “turn the other cheek”, etc. His teaching was based on his belief In God’s morality and how God wants people to behave. Jesus spoke in parables. The focus of the parables was “the kingdom of God”, better translated, “the Imperial Rule of God”. Here is where the debate begins…

The debate about the Historical Jesus’ primary self-understanding centers on two competing ideas:

(1) He was a this-worldly, hopeful wisdom sage. The founder of a confrontational, but non-violent and non-judgmental social revolution that emphasized humane moral teaching. Jesus intended his listeners to re-imagine the world and live in a present kingdom being realized in his own appearance and teaching. Jesus was a social revolutionary, but not a political revolutionary. He believed God was his political savior. Just as Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan believe Jesus is their political savior today.

(2) Jesus was an other-worldly, end-time prophet. His focus was an impending final judgment. He believed God was coming soon to overthrow Rome’s Imperial Rule and replace it with God’s Imperial Rule. Jesus believed his life would culminate in God’s imperial rule on Earth. Jesus thought he would have a special role as “king” in this kingdom, with his disciples beside him. Jesus was wrong. As Ed Sanders puts it, “What happened instead of God’s Imperial rule coming was a surprise, Jesus’ resurrection.”

Will the real Jesus please stand up! Can we decide which is true? Need we decide which is true? My introductory thesis is both are true! I believe the Gospels contain historically true sayings about Jesus inserted into narratives some forty to seventy years later. But two Historical Jesus’ with primarily different self-understandings? How can this be?

The answer is simple! Jesus’ primary self-understanding changed as he lived out his ministry. The Gospels contain sayings from two distinct periods of his ministry.

These sayings come from the lost “Q” source. Memories from his living disciples, who would have been 45 to 55 years old when “Q” was finally written in a Greek form that was used 15 to 30 years later by the different Gospel writers. We can see “Q” partially, when the authors of Matthew and Luke match word for word sayings and short narratives not used by the author of Mark.

However, a new consensus is emerging! Mark also used “Q” to write his gospel! This is important! When Matthew and Luke match Mark word for word, it is because they know it’s true! Matthew and Luke had in front of them on their writing tables a copy of Mark and copy of “Q”. It was obvious to them. Mark used “Q” selectively, as one of the main sources for his Gospel! Indeed, this is the main reason Matthew and Luke follow Mark so closely! They believe his sources. They have one right in front of them and they see how he used it to tell Jesus’ story! Both Matthew and Luke decided to use their own versions of “Q” even more thoroughly. Thank God they did! The Gospels we have today are much richer because they did so.

Another strong probability about “Q” is that it, or some source very like it was used to write the Gospel of Thomas. Thomas reproduces about 40% of the sayings in “Q”. Thomas also contains sayings used by Matthew only and other sayings used by Luke only. This strongly suggests that the so-called “special Matthew sources” and “special Luke sources” go back to the disciples in the 50′s C.E., as does the original pre-proto-Gnostic version of Thomas. I believe Thomas as we now know it was written in the 70′s C.E. and that the author deliberately eliminated the end-time judgment component of Jesus’ preaching to develop his realized eschatology theology in its place.

It is these new theories about “Q” and original Thomas sources like “Q”, that this series of articles will quote Jesus from. This is as far back as we can go to rediscovering Jesus of Nazareth: one of the most wonderful people who ever lived! Let us now return to my thesis that Jesus changed from wisdom sage to end-time prophet when John the Baptizer was murdered and mention a few things.

Mark, Matthew and Luke are not embarrassed by Jesus being wrong about God’s end-time Rule coming to Earth, even though they are writing in the 70′s, 80′s and 90′s C.E. Jesus’ prophecy was wrong. But it did not matter to them. This means they were concerned about honoring the disciple’s memories accurately, at least sometimes! Paul, in an unpublished letter written in the late 40′s, a letter unknown to the Gospel writers and referring to an even earlier time claims “a word from the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 4:15-17). This word is paralleled closely in the Gospels (Matthew 24:27; 30-31; Mark 9:1; Luke 9:27)! We see here that the line is blurred between the Lord coming soon, the Son of Man coming soon, and God’s Imperial Rule coming soon. But the saying is otherwise almost exactly the same suggesting it came from the Historical Jesus!

For the first portion of his ministry (six months? A year?), Jesus’ self-understanding took its cues from his mentor John the Baptizer. At some point, Jesus gathered disciples of his own and started his own ministry. Jesus emphasized the moral aspects of John’s teaching, while downplaying the end-time aspect. Jesus put a positive, hopeful, and even a humorous spin on John! Jesus thought something of unparalleled importance was underway in his new ministry — something he called authoritatively, “The Imperial Rule of God”. This rule was already present in his charasmatic healings, exorcisms, good news for the poor, and other beliefs and teachings. His ministry was very this-worldly. It emphasized compassion, justice, mercy, pacifism, communal sharing, trust, kindness, faith in God and being non-judgmental.

But then something happened. Jesus became an other-worldly end-time prophet. He began predicting doom for those who rejected his message. He attacked the Temple in a symbolic act of destruction. He claimed the mysterious Son of Man was soon coming on the clouds to set up the Imperial Rule of God. He began to view his life as that of an honorable martyr for God. Jesus’ life was in large part a homage to John the Baptizer. When John was murdered Jesus life turned full circle. He knew he too would follow in John’s footsteps as a martyr for God. Thus an apocalyptic end-time prophet was born from the wisdom sage. He began to reemphasize John’s end-time preaching which had haunted him from the beginning. Repent and believe the Gospel. The Imperial Rule of God is near.

In part 2 of this article I would like to quote Jesus from the two distinct phases of his life, wisdom sage and end-time prophet. Both are there in “Q” for a reason. I believe John the Baptizer’s life and death is the inspiration for these two phases of Jesus’ own ministry. I would also like to focus a little on the implications of this thesis for Progressive Christians today.

TCPC is a great blessing to my life in generously giving me a voice for my faith. Thank you. Perhaps these articles will lead to a book someday.

Your feedback and constructive criticism is always welcome at gm.jm@sympatico.ca

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