About 2 million people in our world call themselves Christians. We are divided into innumerable groupings. However, there is one belief that identifies us all. God was uniquely present in the teacher/prophet Jesus from Nazareth. Almost all Christians believe in some sort of incarnation. In Paul’s words, “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.” Christians almost universally believe that Jesus was fully human and also fully divine.
Put another way, Christians believe there is a Jesus of history and a theological Jesus somehow united in one person.
Through history and continuing today, Christians have been much more interested in the theological Jesus than in the Jesus of history. Churches have focused on the miracle worker who healed the sick, raised the dead, multiplied loaves and fish and walked on water. This was the Jesus who died for the sins of the world, was raised on the third day and ascended into the heavens, and now sits at the right hand of his father/God.
It is this Jesus that Christians praise and worship each “Lord’s Day.” Read the words of our hymnals, read the words of our confessions of faith and listen to typical sermons, and the church’s obsession with the theological Jesus is easy to confirm.
The great neglect of Christians is the Jesus of history. Christians have been more interested in ecstatic experiences with the theological Jesus than in being simple followers of the teachings of the Jesus of history. Over the centuries, lonely souls have attempted to give greater importance to the historical Jesus, only to find frustration and failure in their journey. In my writings, I have made generous references to the current ongoing search for the historical Jesus. Following is a brief summary of what has happened during the past 100 years.
A monumental event happened in 1906 when Albert Schweitzer published his “The Historical Quest of the Historical Jesus.” Though lessons were learned, everyone, including Schweitzer, agree that his effort failed to establish a workable historical Jesus. The search for the historical Jesus was revived in the mid-1950s in the context of existential theology. The combination of existentialism and finding the historical Jesus was a poor match. Lessons were learned, but the historical Jesus remained elusive.
We are now in the midst of the third search for the historical Jesus. The third search began in the mid-1980s without any stated goal of finding the Jesus of history. Rather, it began with historical research about the area in northern Palestine that we call Galilee. Social scientists have been able to reconstruct the social, political, religious, economic and symbolic world of Galilee in the first half of the first century CE. The abundance of information that has been generated is giving interpreters of the historical Jesus a working context for the things the Gospels say that he said and did.
The list of historical facts about Palestine in the first half of the first century CE is growing. Here are four examples.
Galilee was a rural area with a history of farming that had become an advanced agrarian society. Ownership and control of land had passed from the farmer who farmed the land to wealthy aristocrats who lived in large cities removed from the farms. Those who tilled the soil had been reduced to poor day labors.
Galilee was a hot bed of the Zealots. The Zealots advocated violent overthrow of every oppressor. The typical Zealot was always armed with a knife and was always ready to commit violence. Zealots were regularly killed with the charge of insurrection.
Galileans resisted the cultural changes that were taking place in the nearby large cities, Sepphoris and Tiberius.
They were intentional in resisting the sinful ways of those cities. Galileans maintained their Jewish identity, but practiced their faith differently than the Jews in southern Palestine, who tied their worship to the Jerusalem Temple. Galileans were at odds with the religious authorities in Jerusalem.
The geography of Galilee lent itself to the settlement of small villages in which clan relationships were maintained. Resistance to outside cultural pressures was strong and the reinforcement of local customs and values was maintained.
All of the four dynamics to which I have referred have been established by research that is completely outside the domain of study of the Bible. Yet they have powerful effects on the Bible interpreter, who takes placing Jesus into historic context seriously. In particular, the study of the parables that Jesus told takes on far ranging implications and understandings.
The third search for the historical Jesus turns him into an advocate for justice, who confronts his followers with a relentless demand for reform. Are we ready?
Jesus taught and believed in a radical redistribution of wealth.
Jesus was strongly identified with the poorest of the poor.
Jesus was an insurrectionist who renounced violence as a tool of reform.
Jesus was thoroughly Jewish and eagerly debated the application of Jewish Torah (law).
The first time Jesus ventured out of his Galilean society, he was killed as an insurrectionist.
The emerging historical Jesus is not a rejection of the theological Jesus. It does demand that we discuss and even argue both sides of the incarnation puzzle.
The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister, who lives in Palmer. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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