A while ago I made a post called Will The Real Jesus Please Stand Up?. That post was meant to illustrate that the name Jesus was common in antiquity, and a lot of those people named Jesus share eerie similarities with the Jesus of Christianity.
The entire post is worth reading, but I just want to call attention to one fact: There isn’t just “one” historical Jesus (that is, the Jesus recreated by historians). There are a multitude of historical Jesuses.
Albert Schweitzer in his From Reimarus to Wrede: A History of Research on the Life of Jesus (1906), was already discovering that every scholar claiming to have uncovered the “real” Jesus seemed to have found a mirror instead; each investigator found Jesus was a placeholder for whatever values they held dear. Over a century later, the situation has not improved – quite the contrary. To say there is still no consensus on who Jesus was is an understatement. A quick survey (Price presents excellent examples in his Deconstructing Jesus, Prometheus, 2000, pp. 12-17) shows we have quite an embarrassment of Jesi:
Cynic philosopher – The many borrowings from Greek philosophy in Jesus’ teachings would make sense if Jesus had actually been a wandering Cynic or a Stoic philosopher, or the Galilean equivalent. Burton L. Mack, John Dominic Crossan, Gerald Downing and others have strongly defended this view, citing plenty of Cynic statements with their equivalents in the Gospels.
Liberal Pharisee – Something like his predecessor, the famous Rabbi Hillel. In Jesus the Pharisee: A New Look at the Jewishness of Jesus, historian Harvey Falk argues that virtually all of Jesus’ judgments on the Halakha, the Jewish law, are paralleled in the Pharisaic thought of that time, as well as later rabbinic thought.
Charismatic Hasid – Similarly, Dead Sea Scroll authority Geza Vermes, an expert on New Testament-era Judaism and author of Jesus the Jew: a Historian’s View of the Gospels, sees Jesus as one of the popular freewheeling Galilean holy men, unorthodox figures like Hanina Ben-Dosa or Honi the Circle-Drawer. Just like Jesus, they had little respect for the niceties of Jewish law, which of course ticked off the religious establishment.
Conservative Rabbi – On the other hand, Jesus upholds the Torah, insisting “not one jot or stroke of the Law will pass away” (Matthew 5:17–19). He wears a prayer shawl tasseled with tzitzit (Matt. 9:20-22), observes the Sabbath, and worships in synagogues as well as the Temple.
Antinomian Iconoclast – But on the other other hand, Jesus then turns around and point by point dismantles the Torah (Mark 7:18-20, Matt. 5:21-22, 27-28, 31-32, 33-37, 38-42, 43-44, etc.) and dismisses the Temple (Matt. 12:6, 23:16, 13:1-2, Luke 21:5-6).
Magician/Exorcist/Faith Healer – Morton Smith, discoverer (or more likely, its forger – but that’s another story) of the Secret Gospel of Mark made the argument that Jesus the Christ was actually Jesus the Magician in the book of the same name. Like the pagan miracle workers, Jesus cast out demons and healed the blind, deaf, and mute with mud and spit, using the same spells, incantations and techniques as taught in the many popular Greek magic handbooks of the time (Mark 5:41; 7:33–34).
Violent Zealot Revolutionary – But maybe Jesus was really a political messiah, inciting a revolt against the Romans; like Theudas or “the Egyptian,” the unnamed Messianic figure Josephus describes, or the two “robbers” crucified with him (since rebel bandits were commonly referred to as “robbers”). Why else would it be the Romans crucifying him, rather than the Jewish Sanhedrin just stoning him to death for blasphemy? There is evidence one can point to: Luke’s Gospel lists a disciple called Simon “the Zealot,” and seems to hint that Jesus had other Zealots in his entourage: at the Last Supper, Jesus tells his followers to grab their bags and buy a sword (22:36); they tell him they already have two swords on hand (22:38); when Jesus is about to be arrested they ask if they should attack (22:49). In Mark 14:47, one of the disciples does just that and cuts off the ear of one of the High priest’s men (the story grows more details in the other Gospels: Matt. 26:51-52, Luke 22:50-51, John 18:10). Many capable scholars including Robert Eisler, S. G. F. Brandon, Hugh J. Schonfield, Hyam Maccoby, and Robert Eisenman have thought this is where the real Jesus is to be found, and there are many scholarly variations arguing for the Jesus as Che theory.
Nonviolent Pacificist Resister – but then again, Jesus isn’t called the Prince of Peace for nothing; there’s no trace of such political agitation when he instructs his followers “if someone strike you on the right cheek, turn the other also” (Matthew 5:39), or when conscripted by Roman soldier to lug their gear for a mile, to “go with him two” (Matt. 5:41).
Apocalyptic Prophet – This is the Jesus that Albert Schweitzer and many subsequent historians have thought was the real thing: A fearless, fiery Judgment Day preacher announcing that the end was nigh and the Kingdom of God was coming fast. Like Paul (and many other first century Jewish apocalyptists) this Jesus did not expect the world to survive his own lifetime. Bart Ehrman makes a well-reasoned case for such a figure in Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium.
First-Century Proto-Communist – Was Jesus the first Marxist? Milan Machoveč and other leftists have thought so. You have to admit Jesus has nothing good to say about the capitalist pigs of his day (Luke 6:24, 12:15), repeatedly preaching that they cannot serve both god and money (Matt. 6:24, Luke 16:13), that they should sell all they own and distribute the money to the poor (Matt. 19:21, Mark 10:21, Luke 18:22) and most famously, that it is easier to get a camel through the eye of a needle than for the rich to get into heaven (Matt.19:24, Mark 10:25, Luke 18:25) – and don’t forget his casting the Moneychangers out of the Temple with a scourge. Acts not only depicts the early Christians as sharing everything in common, it even the states the Marxist credo: “From each according to their ability, to each according to their need” (Acts 4: 34-35).
Early Feminist – Or was he the first male Feminist? Some scholars like Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza and Kathleen Corley point to his unusual attitudes towards women, some of which seem remarkably progressive for the first century. They say not only were some of his closest followers women, but he forgave the woman caught in adultery, and challenged social customs concerning women’s role in society (John 4:27, Luke 7:37, Matt. 21:31-32).
Earthy Hedonist – Or was he a male chauvinist pig? Onlookers criticize him for being “a glutton and a drunk” who consorts with riffraff like tax collectors and whores (Luke 5:30; 5:33-34; 7:34, 37-39,44-46).
Family Man – but then again, Jesus is a champion of good old family values when he gets even tougher than Moses, ratcheting Old Testament law up a notch and declaring “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery” (Mark 10:11–12). He also reminds his followers to honor their father and mother, then sternly warns “whoever speaks evil of father and mother must surely die” (Matthew 15:4).
Home Wrecker – Though when Jesus speaks evil of the family, apparently it’s okay: “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). When Jesus is told his mother and brothers have come to see him, Jesus ignores them and asks, “Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?” (Matt. 12:47-48) “Do not think I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have come not to bring peace, but to bring a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law” (Matthew 10:34–35).
Savior of the World – But despite all that, Jesus loves everyone; he even preached to Samaritans (John 4:39-41; Luke 17:11-18) and Gentiles (Matt. 4:13-17, 24-25).
Savior of Israel (only) – Well, he loves everyone except Samaritans or Gentiles.
When a Canaanite woman begs him to heal her daughter he ignores her; after the disciples ask him to make her go away, he first refuses, saying “I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt. 15:24). When Jesus sends out his disciples, he commands them not to preach the good news to Gentile regions or Samaritan cities (Matthew 10:5-6).
Radical Social Reformer – Still others like John Dominic Crossan and Richard Horsley see Jesus as a champion for the Jewish peasants suffering under the yoke of the Roman Empire and its rapacious tax collectors; a Jesus somewhat along the lines of Gandhi and his struggle against the British Empire.
The problem with the vast majority of these reconstructions is that they don’t have the necessary logical connection to a death by crucifixion. Bart Ehrman points out:
The link between Jesus’ message and his death is crucial, and historical studies of Jesus’ life can be evaluated to how well they establish that link. This in fact is a common weakness in many portrayals of the historical Jesus: they often sound completely plausible in their reconstruction of what Jesus said and did, but they can’t make sense of his death. If, for example, Jesus is to be understood as a Jewish rabbi who simply taught that everyone should love God and be good to one another, why did the Romans crucify him?
Of course, the Apocalyptic Prophet model also doesn’t necessitate Jesus’ death by crucifixion. As I pointed out in my post “Will The Real Jesus Please Stand Up?”, there was another apocalyptic prophet named Jesus who was simply roughed up by the Jews, given a trial by a procurator — not saying a word in his defense — and simply let go. He was left free to preach his apocalyptic warnings for six years straight until he was killed by a random weapon during the first Jewish-Roman war.
None of the wandering, preaching Jesus models (including a straighforward reading of Mark) make sense of his execution by crucifixion.
The model that I’m partial to is the violent revolutionary, which to me makes sense of Jesus’ association with Simon the Zealot. As I wrote in that post, Simon the Zealot possibly makes an appearance in Mark, but Mark might have Hellenized the original Hebrew/Aramaic name for “zealot” and ended up with something phonetically close to “Canaanite”.
Simon himself was executed around 46 AD.
As I’ve written before, I think that Jesus was cruficied along with Simon and Simon’s brother James. Which itself gives us the familiar Gospel image of Jesus crucified among two “robbers”. The only problem is that this places Jesus’ cruficixion 10 years later than what is given in the Gospels. But why trust the Gospels’ dating anyway? 40 years prior to the destruction of the Jewish Temple is symbolism enough to make it suspect. And there’s no reason to think that any of the teachings of Jesus go back to an original Jesus, other than a straightforward reading of the Gospels and using fallacious criteriology. The fact that Pharisees in Galilee during the time period of Jesus and disciples calling Jesus “rabbi” are anachronistic** also makes the Gospel teachings of Jesus suspect. There are other anachronisms which place the composition of the Gospels after 70 AD, which would mean that post-70 Christians were retrojecting their gripes with Pharisees into the time period of Jesus using Jesus as a mouthpiece for their own struggles.
** “Sage” or “elder” (elder in Greek: πρεσβύτερος::presbyteros) were terms of respect in the time period of Jesus; Second Temple (pre-Rabbinic) Judaism. It’s almost tautological that “rabbi” (Hebrew for my teacher) would be a term of respect in Rabbinic Judaism, which itself only started to form after Judaism was decentralized due to the destruction of Jerusalem. Decentralization forced Pharisees to start setting up shop in other areas besides Jerusalem. Hence Pharisees only started having a presence in rural areas like Galilee as a necessity of Rabbinic Judaism. Here are other anachronisms