The historical Jesus
We know Jesus was born in a particular place, Palestine, then part of the Roman Empire. We know he was born in a particular time, around 5 BC, during the reign of the emperor Augustus. We know he began preaching, and was condemned to die, during the reign of the emperor Tiberius, in the years 30-33 AD.
We are told of Roman officials under Tiberius, like Pontius Pilate, and that he encountered Jewish officials, like King Herod Antipas, to whom Jesus was sent by Pilate but who sent Jesus back to Pilate. And we’re told that by virtue of his foster father, Joseph, Jesus was therefore related to King David.
This duality — the shifting from Jewish to Roman authorities — points to the realities of Jesus’ time, and of the early Christians. Rome, as in the Roman official Pontius Pilate, governor of Judea, who sentenced Jesus to death, was the ultimate political authority, but different peoples and nations under Roman rule, like the Jews, had their own authorities, either moral or spiritual, that clashed with Roman might.
Jesus’ story, for believers, has to conform to the rather elastic confines of biblical time, based on genealogies and isolated mentions of non-Jewish persons and events, and the history and timelines of others cultures and nations — and today, to modern sciences like archaeology.
The result, at least for Jesus’ life, has been to narrow down the timeline, to dates that more or less correspond between
history as historians recognize it, and as the Bible tells it.
We know Jesus, then, spiritually and historically, mainly through four traditional figures: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. They themselves are figures handed down by tradition. All their eyewitness accounts tell us is that they are accounts based on what the writers actually saw, or were told by reliable people. But in the order scholars believe they were written, it’s Mark, then Matthew and Luke, partially based on Mark; and finally, John, unrelated to the earlier three.
One problem involves eyewitnesses and hearsay. Witnesses, even if they all saw the same thing, will report that thing differently. It is then reported in different ways by each person passing on the story.
Another problem is that besides providing testimony, accounts of Jesus meant to be recited or read, also had to be teaching aids. They had to enable the early Christians to understand Jesus in terms of his own teachings, and what was happening to the early Christians themselves.
The Jews believed they had a Covenant with God; so for the Christians, they had to convince Jesus’ fellow Jews that he, indeed, was the Messiah, the deliverer of the Jews from Roman bondage; for non-Jews, they had to convince them that Jesus was relevant for all peoples. This was at a time when Jews and non-Jews alike knew that Rome had destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem.
In literary terms, this was both a sign of how, literally, Jesus’ death was earthshaking; but also, a sign of how the old Covenant with the Jews was at an end, and a new Covenant was now being signed, sealed, and delivered by means of Jesus’ death and later, his resurrection.
The New Testament, then, is the combined chronicles of Jesus and his followers, as they took what was once God’s agreement with the Jews, and made it a global agreement.
But even at the time the gospels were being written, some of the supporting cast in Jesus’ story and the conversion of the first generation of Christians were already arguing over the right historical interpretation of Jesus. But the problem at the end of the New Testament is related to what may have inspired its being written in the first place. Jesus said he would return. The disciples believed it, the apostles believed it. Paul kept writing confused, quarreling, persecuted Christians to have faith, because Jesus would be back soon—but then soon enough, Paul and Peter would be dead … tradition says, on the same day, in the same city, Rome. What then?
In the Book of Revelations, the historical Jesus gives way to an extremely symbolic Jesus; the Jesus of a history about to end gives way to the Jesus of a faith that must endure ages until some future, unknowable, but surely not-around-the-corner time.
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.