Part 2. Excavating Jesus

Lloyd Geering

From The Fourth R
Volume 17-3
May–June 2004

This is the second in a series of four lectures delivered in Wellington, New Zealand, in the Spring of 2004 and published in The Fourth R.

Read Part 1. Christianity at the Crossroads
Read Part 3. The Recovery of Jesus’ Teaching
Read Part 4. The Diverse Futures of Christianity

Up until two hundred years ago it was assumed without question in the Christian world that Jesus was no ordinary human but a divine figure. The Bible seemed to make this abundantly clear, for it was further assumed that the gospel records provide us with a completely reliable account of what Jesus said and did. Not only do Christian fundamentalists believe that to this day but so do most traditional Christians. These assumptions have been seriously undermined by the revolution that has taken place in biblical study in the last two centuries.

New Testament scholars today widely agree that none of the gospel writers were eyewitnesses of the events they narrated. They were writing between forty and seventy years after Jesus had died. At that time the oral stories about him were not only still in a fluid state but were being rapidly embellished, and even added to, by creative and devout imagination.

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The gospel writers were not historians in our sense of the word. They were primarily preachers; that is why their works are called gospels, or proclamations of Good News. The writer of the Fourth Gospel must not be accused of falsifying the evidence when he created the speeches he put into the mouth of Jesus. That had been common practice from Herodotus onwards (c.485-425 bce). Indeed, the writer of the Fourth Gospel tells his readers at the end that he has written as he did for the express purpose of leading them to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. He was doing no more than what preachers and Sunday School teachers do to this day when they use their imagination to fill out a biblical story. There is no great harm in this practice. The problem arises only when what has been said in that manner is appealed to as historical evidence.

From Strauss to Schweitzer

The biblical revolution was set in motion by David Strauss as long ago as 1835 with his epoch-making book, The Life of Jesus Critically Examined. In 1966 the scholarly Bishop, Stephen Neill, referred to this book as a 'turning point in the history of the Christian faith'. Unfortunately most people in the churches failed to notice.

Although Strauss tended to go to extremes, he nevertheless showed convincingly how, during the period of fluid oral tradition, the early Christians both remoulded and invented the stories they told about Jesus. They turned back to their Bible – the Hebrew Scriptures. We are told several times how they 'searched the scriptures' to understand what had happened. That is why there are such close parallels between the story of the crucifixion and Psalm 22, between the transfiguration of Jesus on the high mountain and the shining face of Moses on Mt. Sinai, between the ascension of Jesus into heaven and the ascension of Elijah.

Strauss was the first to draw attention to the myth-making capacity of the human imagination, a faculty of which we have now become much more aware. Thus the figure of Jesus Christ portrayed by the gospels must now be distinguished from the original Jesus. What eventually became the traditional portrait of the divine Christ, as expressed in Christian dogma and worshipped by the church, is largely the creation of the early church. In 1865 Strauss wrote The Christ of Faith and the Jesus of History. By the 'Jesus of History' is meant the original historical figure. By the 'Christ of Faith' (or 'Christ of Dogma', as some now prefer) is meant the figure created by the myth-making faculty of the early Christians. Thus it was not Jesus but the 'Christ of Faith' who claimed to be the Son of God, and who said 'I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No man comes unto the Father except by me'. It has been necessary to make that distinction ever since. It is reflected in such books as Jesus the Man and the Myth (James P. Mackey, 1979), and Jesus who Became the Christ (Peter De Rosa, 1975).

The work of Strauss prompted scholars to search for the historical Jesus; so during the nineteenth century many 'lives of Jesus' were written. But their selection and interpretation of the material was often very subjective. The 'Jesus' they claimed to have recovered was the kind of figure they wanted to find there. As one Catholic critic put it, 'In searching for the historical Jesus the modern scholars have looked down a deep well and what they saw was the reflection of their own Protestant liberal face'.

The search came almost to an abrupt end in 1906 with the publication of Albert Schweitzer's epoch-making book, The Quest of the Historical Jesus. Schweitzer showed the inadequacy of all the attempts to date to write the life of Jesus. Then he largely adopted the position of Johannes Weiss, who in 1893 had written a book, Jesus' Preaching of the Kingdom of God. There Weiss concluded that the chief mission of Jesus was to proclaim the imminent end of the world and the arrival of a transcendental Kingdom – and this turned out to be false. Schweitzer describes this in very moving words, Jesus, in the knowledge that he is the coming Son of Man, lays hold of the wheel of the world to set it moving on that last revolution which is to bring all ordinary history to a close. It refuses to turn, and he throws himself upon it. Then it does turn and it crushes him. Instead of bringing in the eschatological conditions, he has destroyed them.

As Schweitzer saw it, Jesus died on the cross a disillusioned man and that is why he cried out 'My God, why have you forsaken me?' Schweitzer said that the original Jesus was wholly a man of his own time, and not necessarily one we would be attracted to. He even ventured to say that any historical knowledge of Jesus we do uncover might even offend us. Schweitzer concluded that we must be content to let Jesus stay in his own place and time. What remained important for Schweitzer was what he called 'the mighty spiritual force which streams forth from him' and he declared that to be 'the foundation of Christianity'.

For the next fifty years there were relatively few attempts to write 'a life of Jesus'. Most scholars accepted that Jesus was an eschatological figure who spoke in terms of apocalyptic imagery we find quite bizarre. Rudolf Bultmann, the most radical New Testament scholar of the twentieth century, concluded that we know practically nothing about Jesus except that the Romans put him to death for reasons that are none too clear.

The Jesus Seminar

In 1985 the Westar Institute began a new search to rediscover the original Jesus and it took a quite novel form. The scholars engaged in this task became known as 'The Jesus Seminar'. Their first task was to establish a database and this was published in 1992 as The Complete Gospels. They then painstakingly sifted the data for all clues that could genuinely be regarded as pointing to the historical Jesus. Their work has now been published in two major volumes: The Five Gospels: What did Jesus Really Say? (1993) and The Acts of Jesus: What did Jesus Really Do? (1998). The work of the Jesus Seminar has been strongly condemned by fundamentalists and by traditionalist scholars. The Jesus Seminar is often blamed for undermining the traditional figure of the Christ, when this had already been done by 150 years of scholarship. What is easily overlooked is that the Jesus Seminar has been more positive in its results than the radical New Testament scholarship for the previous fifty years.

The task of the biblical historian, like that of any modern historian, has been compared with that of the detective. As the detective tries to reconstruct the scene of the crime on the basis of surviving clues, the historian tries to reconstruct past events on the basis of extant written sources. Parallel to the role of the historians is that of the archaeologists; they try to reconstruct a mental picture of life in the past by sifting through the physical deposits left by the past.

In the search for the historical Jesus these two approaches have recently been combined in one book. One of the leading figures of the Jesus seminar, John Crossan, collaborated with a New Testament archaeologist in writing, Excavating Jesus, Beneath the Stones, Behind the Texts, 2002.

Now when archaeologists excavate, they find they must carefully uncover the past layer by layer in the reverse order to that in which it has accumulated. It is rather like that with the search for the historical Jesus. We start with a picture of Jesus in our minds, which we have absorbed from our cultural background, long shaped by Christian tradition. Taking a lead from the title of the book just mentioned, I now wish to take you on a journey backwards in time. We shall remove, layer by layer, the growing beliefs that gradually turned Jesus into the Christ figure worshipped in the churches. (The fact that I have arrived at 9 Layers is of no significance.)

A Journey Backward in Time

Let us start with the latest, Layer 9, which I call The Dogmatic Layer. In 381 ce the Second Ecumenical Council referred to Jesus as 'the only begotten Son of God, Very God of very God, by whom all things were made, who came down from heaven and was made man'. These words became a permanent part of the Nicene Creed, and some of them are familiar to us because of the popular Christmas carol 'O Come all ye faithful'.

Layer 9 clearly draws from Layer 8, found in the Fourth Gospel. About 100 ce, the author of John began, 'In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. All things were made through him. In him was life . . . And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us'. It was a quite new and daring thought at the time to trace the story of Jesus back to the beginning of time. We know that when this gospel first appeared it surprised and even alarmed some Christians. It did not win full acceptance in the church until near the end of the second century; but thereafter it became the favourite gospel. It is only in these top two layers that Jesus Christ is assigned a pre-history as the divine Son of God. We are told it was he who created the world and who, only much later, became incarnate in the historical figure known as Jesus. Now these two late layers assert that God became man. But in the earlier layers we now turn to, it was the other way round: Jesus became the Christ, the Son of God. In other words, a man becomes God.

A clue to Layer 7 is found in the genealogy compiled by Luke. After narrating birth stories about Jesus, it traces the human ancestry of Jesus back through the generations from his father Joseph to Seth, the Son of Adam, the Son of God. Now Luke was a Gentile Christian; so he set out to show that Jesus was a true representative of all humankind, Gentiles as well as Jews.

This had the effect of widening the more limited genealogy provided by the Jewish Christian who wrote Matthew. He had been content to show that Jesus was a true Jew; so he traced his ancestry back only as far as Abraham. We may call this Layer 6. In layers 7 and 6 the evangelists were assuming the humanity of Jesus but, by means of the birth stories they each supplied, they were implying that the birth of Jesus was all part of a divine plan, by which Jesus was destined to become the Son of God and Saviour of the world.

But how was the man Jesus to become divine? We have some surviving hints of the developing process by which this took place. What we may call Layer 5, is found in Mark, the earliest gospel. Mark provides neither birth story nor genealogy but starts with the story of the baptism of Jesus. Here we are told that 'The spirit descended on Jesus like a dove and a voice came from heaven, 'You are my beloved son; with you I am well pleased'. Thus for Mark's gospel, it was at his baptism that the man Jesus was chosen and ordained by God to be divine.

This story gave rise in early Christian thought to the 'adoption' theory. This asserted that it was at his baptism that the man Jesus became divine, as God adopted him to be his son. This doctrine was eventually declared heretical because it was in conflict with later developments, especially layers 8-9.

But Mark records another story from early tradition which suggests that it was only during the teaching mission of Jesus that people began to regard Jesus as more than an ordinary man. We may call this Layer 4. In telling the story of the disciples with Jesus at Caesarea Philippi, Mark puts into the mouth of Peter the confession 'You are the Messiah'. But he does it in a strange way, for he says Jesus immediately charged the disciples to tell no one about him. Scholars now refer to this odd comment in Mark as the Messianic Secret. It is regarded as a literary device used by Mark to explain to his readers why there was no public talk of Jesus' Messiahship during his lifetime, something Mark seemed to be aware of.

It is now commonly concluded that Mark was not a Palestinian Jew, probably not even a Christian Jew, but a Christian Gentile writing in Rome. This is why he puts into the mouth of the Roman centurion who attended the crucifixion of Jesus, 'Truly the man was a Son of God'. Mark hinted here that it was the bearing of Jesus on the cross which first alerted people to his divine nature and that, for this reason, Gentiles were just as likely to recognise the truth as the Jews, and perhaps even more so. This we may call Layer 3.

As we have been uncovering these layers we see that the point at which Jesus was being affirmed as divine is becoming later and later in time. There is one more layer. The author of Acts seems to be preserving an early tradition that the first recognition of Jesus as Messiah and Son of God actually arose after his death and that it was associated with the rise of the Easter faith. For in Acts we hear Peter say, 'Let all the house of Israel know that this Jesus whom you crucified, God has made both Lord and Christ'. This is Layer 2.

Layers 7–2 have survived in the Synoptic Gospels and Acts, and scholars date the latter between 70–90 ce. They are written in Greek and reflect the Christian beliefs current in the Greek speaking Gentile churches founded by Paul. Paul's own writings come from about 48–55 ce. And the influence of Paul's own beliefs is undoubtedly present in the synoptic gospels.

So strong was the influence of Paul that some now claim that he was the real founder of Christianity. He was certainly the founder of the Gentile stream of Christianity and it was this that eventually triumphed. This brings us to the strangest fact of all. The man who has had most influence in shaping Christianity and in determining the framework of all Christian dogma never met the historical Jesus.

Certainly Paul, some years after his conversion, went twice to Jerusalem to meet the disciples who had known the historical Jesus. But in referring to these meetings in his letter to the Galatians, he made no mention of anything he learned about Jesus. Further, on his admission, he was not interested in information about the historical Jesus.

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If we are to reach the original Jesus we must remove the very strong influence of Paul, Layer 1, and go to those Christians at Jerusalem. They included the original disciples and also James, the blood brother of Jesus. About these first Christians, commonly known today as the 'Jewish Christians', we know very little except that when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in 70 ce. they escaped to Pella in Jordan. They were ignored by the Gentile church and after some centuries died out without a trace.

Jesus Footprints

Have we now come to rock bottom and found nothing? It is here where the work of the Jesus Seminar has produced some interesting and unexpected results. It now seems likely that the four canonical gospels were not the earliest. They were preceded by two others now known as Q and the Gospel of Thomas. We have known about Q for some time because it has actually been incorporated into both Matthew and Luke, but we did not realise its full significance until the discovery in 1945 of the Gospel of Thomas. Fellows of the Jesus Seminar have written excellent books about these: The Lost Gospel - Q, by Burton L Mack, and The Fifth Gospel, by Stephen Patterson.

Now what is surprising about these two apparently early gospels is that they say little or nothing about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus but are almost exclusively concerned with what Jesus said. This suggests that, after his death, the chief focal point of attention was not on his life but on his teaching. So the scholars of the Jesus Seminar have concluded that Jesus of Nazareth was primarily a teacher of wisdom, a sage. It was only some time after his death, and chiefly under the influence of Paul, that the initial emphasis on Jesus as a teacher was displaced by increasing interest in Jesus as the crucified Messiah, the Lord and the divine Son of God.

On the basis of the work of the Jesus Seminar in general, and on the study of these two earliest gospels in particular, we arrive as close as we possibly can to the original Jesus and what do we learn?

First let us say what Jesus was not.

  • He never claimed to be the Son of God.
  • He never claimed to be the Messiah.
  • He was not an apocalyptic prophet, announcing the imminent end of the world.
  • He was not the founder of Christianity.
  • He was not a Christian.

What Can We Say Positively about Jesus?

The person we now call Jesus of Nazareth was a Galilean Jew who lived between the death of Herod the Great in 4 bce and the end of Pilate's governorship of Palestine in 36 ce. He was born and brought up in Nazareth. (Later tradition shifted his birthplace to Bethlehem only to bring it into line with a supposed ancient prophecy. The trip to Bethlehem, the three wise men, the flight to Egypt, the shepherds in the fields and the kinship with John the Baptist are all Christian fictions from the late first century.)

The Galilee in which Jesus lived out his life was not highly regarded by the Jerusalem Jews. They judged it to be semi-pagan, because of its mixed blood and foreign influence. Nazareth was a Galilean village only four miles from the thriving Greek city of Sepphoris (which the New Testament strangely never mentions).

The mother of Jesus was called Mary and the name of his father was probably Joseph. He had sisters and brothers, one of whom, James, later became the leader of the Jerusalem Christians. (The account of his virginal birth was a fictional story that arose later to satisfy growing theological interests about his divinity.)

It is highly probable that Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist and became one of his followers for a time. Then he launched his own career in Galilee and some of John's followers left John to become disciples of Jesus. Jesus became an itinerant sage, wandering from place to place, teaching, healing and living on handouts. His first language was the dialect of Aramaic current in Galilee and a few words have survived in the gospel material, such as, talitha cumi.

Since he was brought up so close to the Greek city Sepphoris, it is likely that Greek was his second language. If so, little or nothing of what he said in Greek has come down to us, even though Greek was the language in which the Christian tradition took shape. We do not know for certain if he could read and write, but being reared as a Jew he probably could. We need to remember that he was brought up in a pre-literate society, where reading skills were learned only by a small minority. That is the reason for the reference to the term 'scribe'.

His chief followers were Peter, James and John and this band included some women. The number twelve is probably a later tradition as Christians began to interpret the Christian movement as the New Israel (the old Israel consisting of the 12 tribes).

Jesus gained a reputation in his lifetime as a healer. He usually healed by the use of words and, from today's perspective, his success may have been in the area of psychosomatic maladies. But by no means all of the healings attributed to Jesus in the gospels have an historical core. Of course, Jesus, being a man of his time, fully accepted the current beliefs of his day about the power of evil spirits and in this respect he almost certainly practised exorcism. (Jesus did not perform miracles, such as the stilling of the storm, the walking on water, the feeding of the five thousand and the turning of the water into wine. Indeed even Mark records that when people asked Jesus for some heavenly sign to demonstrate the coming of the Kingdom he refused their request.)

Jesus became famous for his teaching and crowds came to hear him. This made him very popular with the people, but he was not well received in his home town. Further, he met with opposition from religious authorities. (But much of what is now narrated in the gospels reflects the later conflict between Christians and Jews.)

We do not know how long his teaching and healing career lasted. The gospels imply a relatively short period of one to three years. When Jesus went up to Jerusalem for the last time he was not aware that it would be his last. He may have ridden into the city on an ass as a symbolic act but not as a way of asserting his Messiahship. The story of the dramatic cleansing of the Temple originated with some historical act by which he challenged the Temple authorities. It may have been this which led to his arrest, after which he was charged by the High Priest and handed over to the Romans, who executed him. It is almost certain that his followers fled when he was arrested. (The accounts of the trials and even of Peter's denial are fictional. The burial of Jesus is a fictional narrative carried out by a fictional character, Joseph of Arimathea. The stories of the empty tomb are all fictional.)

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Our search for the original Jesus leaves us with only his voiceprints and his footprints. The voiceprints we shall look at in the next lecture. The footprints are far from being those of an other-worldly, divine figure who performed all sorts of miracles. Rather they point to a person who was very human and this-worldly. He enjoyed life. He liked his wine to the extent of being called a winebibber by his enemies. He cared for people. He mixed with undesirables. He incurred the wrath of the religious people of his day by stepping outside the boundaries of what was regarded as respectable Jewish behaviour. He had a great sense of humour. Though this faint outline deeply disappoints those looking for a divine figure, the historical Jesus seems to have been the sort of person to whom modern secular people can relate much more readily than they can to the traditional otherworldly Christ figure. The latter now belongs to a mythical world altogether foreign to us.

Crucifixion and Resurrection

But if Jesus was not a divine miracle-worker from another world, what was there about this wholly human person that made his followers remember him and eventually, in their devotion, turn him into the divine Christ? Why was it that Christianity burst into life some time shortly after his death? These are not easy questions to answer at this distance in time.

We too easily forget that even on the basis of the New Testament testimony, Jesus seems to have been something of an enigma in his own lifetime. Certainly there was something striking and unusual about him. But that led some to regard him as mad. It led others to see him as a public nuisance who had to be got out of the way. Only a small number were permanently attracted to him — but for what reason?

Paul of Tarsus, who largely shaped Christianity, was himself attracted to Jesus because of his encounter on the road to Damascus. That occurred after the life of Jesus was over. The event within the life of Jesus, which chiefly interested Paul, was his crucifixion. He wrote to the Corinthians, 'I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified'. The crucifixion became the focal point of Christianity thereafter, if not before. A quarter of each of the gospels is devoted to it. It dominated medieval Christian thought and practice through the Middle Ages, as demonstrated by the devotional prevalence of the crucifix. Its most recent resurgence is shown by the interest shown by conservative Christians, Catholic and Protestant, in Mel Gibson's film 'The Passion of the Christ'.

Yet there was nothing unique about the crucifixion, as such. There were thousands of crucifixions in those days, and many of them were executed by Jews themselves. It must have been something else for which Jesus was initially remembered.

During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries defenders of traditional Christianity fastened on the resurrection of Jesus as the key. This was treated as a unique and extraordinary miracle by which a man had overcome death and returned to a new and glorified life. It was frequently claimed that this was the miracle that sparked off the rise of Christianity. Much was made of what was still assumed to be historical evidence for this. Only slowly, roughly between about 1920-1950, was it gradually conceded by scholars that the so-called historical evidence belonged to the realm of devout myth rather than history.

We must also allow for the fact that what attracted people in the first century is not necessarily what we of the twenty-first century would find attractive, as Schweitzer wisely conceded. We are in a very different cultural situation from that of Jesus and also from that of those who shaped Christianity. But if it was something that could also appeal to us it must have been associated with his humanity.

I observed earlier that one of the discoveries of the Jesus Seminar is that the two earliest gospels, Q and the Gospel of Thomas, made no reference to either the crucifixion or resurrection of Jesus. They were chiefly concerned to record his teaching. This makes it appear that it was the teaching of Jesus that sparked off the rise of Christianity. Once again defenders of traditional Christianity argue that this could not explain why Jesus was crucified. To this we have to reply, 'And why not? Socrates was put to death for his teaching. And through the ages the church itself put numerous people to death just because of their teaching, burning at the stake all those judged to be teaching heresy.' Jesus was crucified, not because of any miracles, but because of what he taught.

Lloyd Geering is Emeritus Professor of Religious Studies at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. Honored as Principal Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit for 2001, he is a renowned and respected commentator on religion and the author of several books, including The World to Come (1999) and Christianity without God (2003).

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