Did the Historical Jesus Bring about His Own Death? (EHJ series)

“We don’t need to take the apocalyptic Jesus to church; he is already there.”
—David Galston, Embracing the Human Jesus

We are in the midst of a chapter-by-chapter reading of David Galston’s book, Embracing the Human Jesus. Don’t be a stranger—share your thoughts below!

Chapter 4 of 9, “Unhearing the Apocalypse,” Embracing the Human Jesus (EHJ) series
« Chapter 3

Did the historical Jesus know he was going to die? For some of us, this is a non-question that takes us too far into the realm of the impossible. A human Jesus could not possibly have foreseen his own death. But did he want that outcome? Did he, like David Koresh of the Branch Davidians, propel himself willingly toward his own death? Did he act in such a way as to bring it about? The word for this is apocalyptic.

Maybe it makes more sense to see Jesus as a wisdom teacher of sorts. Even saying it this way, I feel a drop in pressure. Wisdom teacher? Big deal. Why would history remember a guy who went around spouting aphorisms? I’m not saying, if he was a wisdom teacher, that he didn’t stir up controversy—quite the opposite. To forward our parallel with Socrates from last week, recall that that wise man’s life ended with a dose of hemlock for all-too-political reasons.

Was Jesus an apocalyptic end-times prophet who incited outrage, even purposefully, with an intent to go out in a blaze of glory? Or was he a wisdom teacher whose cheeky, barbed remarks got him in trouble once too often with the authorities?

We have examples of both in history, including specifically in ancient Jewish history and literature. Anyone who has read the later books of the Hebrew Bible, especially the Elijah stories, will easily recognize the prophet motif. The wisdom motif is there, too, in books like Job and Ecclesiastes, although these books as wisdom are emphasized less often in Christian contexts. I certainly noticed, growing up in the pentecostal tradition that I have since left, that it is very much possible to read such stories as a community while still downplaying any interpretation outside the apocalyptic. I certainly learned that wisdom all occurred inside an end-times framework, and the wisest action of all was submission to the cosmic Christ.

It doesn’t have to be interpreted that way, of course.

Wisdom Traditions in Ancient Jewish/Israelite Culture
I opened with a quote from Galston about the apocalyptic Jesus already “being in church.” Church rituals, stories and interactions all cater to an interpretation of Jesus as bringing about the end of history as we know it. This being the case, I thought it might be helpful here to share a couple quotes about Jewish wisdom traditions as a way to counterbalance the more dominant apocalyptic view. For instance, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz in The Essential Talmud (2010) explains,

The sages themselves said, ‘Random conversations, jests or casual statements of sages should be studied,’ and sometimes important halakha is derived from chance remarks made without any educational intent. This being so, the actions of the sages are of even greater significance. Everything a sage does in every sphere of endeavor must be carried out in a spirit of truth and should be Torah itself. Disciples often studied closely the behavior of their rabbi in order to learn how to conduct themselves. (138)

Carl S. Ehrlich, in From an Antique Land (2009), helpfully summarizes types of wisdom literature in ancient Hebrew/Israelite culture:

According to James L. Crenshaw’s categorization, there are four types of wisdom literature: “natural, experiential, judicial and theological” (Crenshaw 1993). Natural wisdom reflects observations of the real or natural world. This type of wisdom literature in the ancient Near East includes lists of various types and reflects a precursor of what has become known as the method of scientific observation. Experiential wisdom deals with the workings of the world and more specifically of human society. It is closely allied with what may be termed folk wisdom in the modern world. Judicial wisdom deals with the adjudication of disputes and how to settle them. Finally, theological wisdom is the one that attempts to answer questions of a speculative nature and is the type that is arguably predominant in the Hebrew Bible, but not necessarily within the book of Proverbs itself, in which experiential wisdom is quite heavily represented. (376)

On the other hand, it’s good to remember that just because clever sayings were written down does not mean they were part of popular culture. Gonzalo Rubio, in a discussion of Sumerian literature, calls on a more recent example to show how far divorced an intellectual exercise can be from popular practice in the ancient world, too:

The divorce between production and consumption (i.e., writing and performance) of artistic works is not a particularly unusual phenomenon. For instance, J. S. Bach composed his Mass in B Minor according to the Roman Catholic ordinary cycle in Latin, as an expansion of a Lutheran missa brevis. However, there was no occasion for the performance of such a Mass in Lutheran Leipzig, and there is no indication this Latin mass was commissioned by any patron, such as the Catholic court at Dresden (Wolff 2000: 441–42). By producing such an apparently decontextualized Mass, Bach was establishing a musical dialogue and placing himself within a learned tradition that was initiated by Catholic composers, such as Palestrina. … [Likewise] many Sumerian literary compositions are thoroughly scholastic and appear detached from performative goals of any kind. (From an Antique Land: 25–26)

Rubio is not saying that scholarly and artistic ventures like Bach’s are fruitless, but rather that they belong to a particular community and stream of tradition that may not have touched the lives of everyday people. He specifically uses the word “decontextualized” to convey precisely what came up in discussion in last week’s blog: the situation of a new stream of knowledge/performance, or the reason it came into existence. Why did Bach create such a Mass? To continue a multi-generational conversation he found meaningful about a certain genre of music. We don’t always think of that as a context, but it was the context for his Mass.

Why did Jesus tell parables? Why did he tell those parables? The religion that developed out of it overshadows the original context, but what was that context, and why was it remembered in such a way that it eventually became an apocalyptic religious movement? Galston introduces his interpretation of life practices and philosophy recommended by the parables in the next two chapters of Embracing the Human Jesus, but for now, where does Galston find wisdom traditions in surviving texts about the Jesus movement?

Everywhere in the Jesus tradition there is evidence of wisdom as the fundamental memory of Jesus. In the canonical gospels, Jesus teaches mainly in parable. In the gnostic gospels, Jesus is almost exclusively a figure of wisdom. And the Apostle Paul is acutely aware of the wisdom tradition that defines his opponents and that he claims to know equally well (1 Cor 2:6). It cannot be said that apocalyptic material holds the same omnipresent characteristic. … Other Christian options [apart from apocalypticism] that were eventually labeled heretical were originally as prolific as the orthodox tradition and shared with it the wisdom associated with Jesus. (78)

Galston goes on to cite the examples of Diogenes versus Thales to say Jesus not only employed parable but also short pithy sayings known as chreia. Even though this is traditionally a Greek form of wisdom, Galston and Steinsalz share the view that a man like Jesus need not be ignorant of wisdom traditions outside Judaism. “The spiritual world of sages was not closed to external influence or knowledge,” Steinsalz explains after citing several examples of rabbinic interest in physical sciences. “‘If you are told that there is wisdom among the nations, believe it,’ they said” (140). Steinsaltz also observes that some branches of Judaism were aware of Greek and classical literature but purposefully muted their reliance on it, while others, like the Egyptian Jewry, purposefully “tried to combine Greek culture with Judaism” (141).

Returning to the parables, one thing I find very interesting is Galston’s definition of a parable as a way to see this world differently rather than transport oneself to another, better world. Case in point: Some of you may be familiar with Wendell Berry’s agricultural interpretations of the Bible. I found it helpful to ask myself how Galston’s view differs from Berry’s, by way of example. Berry’s theology is not interested in the historical Jesus, so it doesn’t add much to the discussion in that sense, but it’s exemplary of an interpretive approach that does not focus on an apocalyptic end that comes from outside the world. Where Berry imagines an almost certain-to-come human-caused apocalypse caused by our failure to work with the earth that sustains us, I see Galston as turning away from that model entirely to a tradition that is complementary to Berry’s concern with the impact of human action on the world, but is not apocalyptic at all in that it doesn’t imagine a virtually inevitable, destructive end.

To frame this same point in light of Carl Ehrlich’s four types of wisdom, I feel that authentic Jesus sayings generally suit experiential and judicial wisdom. What’s the right thing to do, and how should we behave when the world does not operate by just and fair rules? These questions rub up against the problem of the Roman elite’s displays of military and economic power, so they are not merely moralistic.

I noticed in last week’s discussion, however, that we aren’t all in agreement or clarity about what sayings of Jesus we would consider authentic, versus what should be attributed to Jesus’ followers. I see the parables as largely experiential, but maybe if you include some of the more mystical sayings in your repertoire you see theological wisdom—”that attempts to answer questions of a speculative nature”—as more dominant. How many angels can dance on the head of pin? Which answer will get you crucified? Sometimes even the speculative questions can get you in trouble.

Don’t leave the last word to me. Share your thoughts below ↓

Carl Schleicher Eine Streitfrage aus dem Talmud (Carl Schleicher (fl. c. 1859 – after 1871))

Carl Schleicher Eine Streitfrage aus dem Talmud. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons


Ehrlich, Carl S. From an Antique Land: An Introduction to Ancient Near East Literature. Plymouth, UK: Rowman & Littlefield, 2009.

Steinsaltz, Rabbi Adin. The Essential Talmud. London: Maggid, 2010.

[divider style=”hr-dotted”]

Cassandra FarrinCassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as Associate Publisher and Director of Marketing. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University.

38 replies
  1. Gene Stecher says:

    Hello everyone. I see some familiar names. It’s been a number of years since I enjoyed conversations with Peter and Mike.

    Quote: “A human Jesus could not possibly have foreseen his own death. But did he want that outcome? Did he…propel himself willingly toward his own death? Did he act in such a way as to bring it about? ”

    The most that the Jesus Seminar would say was: As he traveled to Jerusalem, “The Fellows of the Jesus Seminar are of the opinion that Jesus…..might well have had some notion of the dangers to which he was exposing himself.” (AOJ, p. 218)

    It seems to me that MLKJr said that he fully “expected” to be killed. Is that the same as “foreseen?” He certainly “propelled himself” but where was that on the scale from “willingly” to “reluctantly?” Did his actions “bring death about”? – surely. The human Jesus was certainly also capable of expectation, goal driven passion, reluctance and fear, and enduring commitment.

    The Jesus Seminar noted in its writings that it thought of the red/pink Jesus as a healthy person, i.e., one whose behavior matched his speech. In my view, prior to the the final week, however, we look in vain for “behavior” that matches his “love your enemy” teaching. That leaves us to interpret his death as an act of loving the enemy, a non-violent “choice” against the reigning powers.

    I also wanted to say that whenever the word “apocalyptic” is in the conversation, I always think of the 2002 text edited by Bob Miller, The Apocalyptic Jesus, with Allison, Patterson, Crossan, and Borg in dialogue.

    Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa

    • Cassandra says:

      Gene, welcome to the conversation!

      When I was preparing to become an adoptive parent, I encountered a story about the Waco disaster from the children’s perspective in a book called The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog by Bruce Perry and Maia Szalvitz. I was startled to learn that David Koresh had actively set up the explosive end of the compound, betting on the behavior of the authorities and even going so far as to tell the children he would disappear in an explosion of flames. (The children of course did not know he had himself planted the means for that outcome.) When it came true, the children were confirmed in believing the other things he claimed, of a more supernatural nature. Someone in that kind of scenario, who actively incites conflict with the reigning authorities, appears to me to be different from an MLK Jr. type who is saying, “I acknowledge this is likely to happen, but I will keep marching against the oppressive state, and I won’t be the one to bring it about.”

      In the first scenario, it seems to me Koresh was willing and indeed actively cultivating an end, which he associated with something even bigger than his own death but that included it. In the second scenario, it seems to me MLK Jr. was not wrapping up his own fame and glory into the end of anything. But maybe that’s a naive vision of him, as my grandfather has informed me that back in the day MLK Jr. was viewed as quite a “rabble rouser” and not necessarily in a positive light. Generations looking back on the past can see things very differently indeed. In a past conversation we did bring up the fact that Nelson Mandela and Ghandi were not saints, which they themselves admitted, however dramatically they impacted human history. In fact, I just came across this article today, which might be relevant: “Dead Can Dance,” by Hannah Black, an interview with Berkeley historian Thomas Laqueur on his book The Work of the Dead. At one point Lacquer observes:

      “What strikes me as interesting is that we create communities with dead people that represent our communities, even though we know that what we’re burying is indistinguishable from anything else—the dead body of our friend is no different from the dead body of our enemy. But we believe it to be the dead body of a friend, and we invest meaning in that. We take nature, which is the dead body, and bring it into culture. That’s a very remarkable thing.”

      We imbue meaning in the death of a person, or group of people, and that in turn shapes a community. Koresh seems to have wanted to bring this about around himself; but did Jesus?

      I have not read The Apocalyptic Jesus, but it looks like an interesting read!

      • Gene Stecher says:

        Cassandra wrote: “We imbue meaning in the death of a person, or group of people, and that in turn shapes a community. Koresh seems to have wanted to bring this about around himself; but did Jesus?”

        We know that Koresh, historically, gathered the world around himself with the tools of charismatic psychopathic narcissism. The gospels suggest that Jesus gathered the world around himself by reference to the gracious gifts of a benevolent Father, but we don’t know if that is historical.

        By their fruits ye shall know them was the test advocated by the head of the business department where I received my undergraduate education. That self/other line can be blurry.

  2. Peter Kane says:

    Hello Gene!
    Things that you can do to kill time when you retire: I have been trying to inform myself on all the intricate details of the Iraq situation in the last few days. When you filter out all the ‘president is great/president is a jerk’ stuff on TV, there is not much of any substance left to help one understand those intricacies. I have been learning some fine points of Sunni/Shiite/Kurd politics, struggling with complexities of Damascus/ISIS interactions, thinking about what might be the core interests of other nations in the region. Obviously the American response is fragmented as well, by election politics as well as political philosophy. I listened to one commentator who bizarrely tried to describe everything you could know about the Yazidis by explaining how many angels they believe in.
    Of course I am just scratching the surface of the complexities of the situation. While I don’t want to suggest any direct analogies to first century history, it should be obvious that the first century was at least as complex in its own way as our current situation. When we try to explain events in the first century simply by reference to wisdom or apocalyptic streams of thought, we make about as much sense as talking about how many angels Yazidis cherish to explain life in our world.
    Westar has been influential in the long and ongoing scholarly effort to move Jesus from a religious/theological to a historical context, and suggests that wisdom is a more plausible interpretive key than apocalyptic for doing that. I like Galston’s argument that parables aren’t usually the literary tool of choice for someone proclaiming god’s great cleanup of the world, which seems to have a lot of merit to me. I am more familiar with the summary of Kloppenborg’s Q1, Q2, Q3 analysis as pointing also to wisdom initially.
    But what if we really want to take a bigger step repositioning Jesus historically? Or what if we wanted here and now a historical rather than a religious response to 1st century events. If anyone wants to have some small sense of meaning and purpose in life, intuitively that can only be done as a historical actor, not a religious actor. If it isn’t done in history, it isn’t done. Religion, for better or worse, is only a set of symbols and conventions to aid in a larger communities’ acting in history. In other words, religion is secondary and derivative.
    It is hard to get people in the pews to think historically rather than religiously, and almost as hard to get many scholars to do it. But it is important, more than an academic exercise. A congregation that thinks only in a narrow religious framework is literally robbed of the chance of having a meaningful impact of any sort on the great stream of human history.
    Crossan has talked about the messiness of god interacting in the world. Perhaps the way forward for Westar and others is to embrace the mess, and particularly to help congregations become more sophisticated about historical messiness. I am not suggesting Sunday morning history lectures, but growing the culture of a historical rather than a religious framework for understanding life might be doable if worked at.
    ISIS can keep the absolutes.

    • Gene Stecher says:

      Peter, I think you’re correct about the need for a change in emphasis, but, given the shifting sands of what we can know about history, what would you that the relationship between history and fruit should be? (see my comments in reply to Cassandra).

      • Peter Kane says:

        Gene: In the book Zealot R. Aslan gives a very good introduction to some of the history of the 1st century. He then moves on to place Jesus as a Zealot in that history. R. Horsley on the other hand has argued that scholars overuse the category zealot, and in fact there wasn’t an identifiable group called zealots until the time of the great revolt. If pressed, Aslan might modify his argument to say that Jesus actually hung out among the precursors of the zealots. Whatever. The point is that either way, you are discussing the issue in a historical framework, not a theological framework. And history is probably much more messy even than theology, so people will not agree.
        The reason I think the framework matters is that I think churches would be better off proceeding historically rather than theologically. Theology invites you to sit back and receive something. History invites you to participate. Not that all participation is good. I am not advocating becoming a zealot and running off to join ISIS, though some probably will. But others will figure out how to participate in something small yet decent in the world. And on rare occasion someone will decide not to give up their seat on the bus.
        What would you rather do, ponder the nature of things, or ponder what might be worth doing in the world? Not that there are any guarantees. Isn’t that what church renewal could be about? History is about our place, as well as the ancients’ place in the scheme of things.

  3. Brian says:

    “If anyone wants to have some small sense of meaning and purpose in life, intuitively that can only be done as a historical actor, not a religious actor. If it isn’t done in history, it isn’t done. Religion, for better or worse, is only a set of symbols and conventions to aid in a larger communities’ acting in history. In other words, religion is secondary and derivative.”

    You forgot about movie actors.

    From The Power of Myth (1988) Joseph Campbell with Bill Moyers:

    Moyers: What happens when people become legends? Can you say, for example, that John Wayne has become a myth?

    Campbell: When a person becomes a model for other people’s lives, he has moved into the sphere of being mythologized.

    The movies are powerful, and they are constantly trying to (make money) create meaningful stories. Sometimes they really succeed. Cinematic and literary characters have given my life some small sense of meaning and purpose.

    • Peter Kane says:

      Brian: After the Robin Williams news last night we reordered The Fisher King. That was a particularly meaningful movie for me. But for better or for worse, I have always been arrogant enough to refuse models and think instead about what would be my way. Other than Aaron Rodgers I don’t want any mythological heroes.

  4. Dennis Dean Carpenter says:

    Whether a statement is “apocalyptic” and “wisdom” is dependent upon the context, the audience, and the one who is doing the sorting. Look for a moment at the three “congratulations” of the beatitudes… The sad, poor, and hungry, are deemed red in The Five Gospels. The pressing questions would be “Why” and “when” are they to be congratulated. In the context of the ancient Near East, and certainly of first century Judaism, “when” had to do with a time of shalom, when God brought forth a utopian world. This is eschatological, if not apocalyptic, thinking. “Why” is perhaps more interesting. Why are these groups featured? Going back perhaps 4000 years, that was a duty of the agent of God, usually the king. We have God giving the moral exhortation about the poor and oppressed in many places, like Exodus 23.6-11, Leviticus 19.9-10, Deuteronomy 10.17-19 and so forth. It is a call for the reversal of destiny, where we find in Hannah’s song (1 Samuel 2) “The bows of the mighty are broken and the faltering are girded with strength. Men once sated must hire out for bread; Men once hungry hunger no more. While the barren woman bears seven, the mother of many is forlorn.” It goes back longer to that, to Egyptian and Mesopotamian inscriptions of kings.

    So, while many would see these three “congratulations” as being a key to the voiceprint of a historical Jesus, they are in reality common dreams of the target audience, part of a literary tradition pulled from the stage of humanity in which most were poor, sad, and hungry. They certainly have the whiff of apocalyptic thinking.

  5. Cassandra says:

    I think the question I’m continuing to turn over in my brain, and that your responses are continuing to provoke, is, “Was the Jesus movement like most new religious movements?” I keep hearing this theme in Galston and elsewhere that Jesus didn’t found a religious movement; a religion sprang up around his memory.

    Yet new religious movements are often purposeful in cultivating a new vision, often in response to other existing, established movements.

    Like Peter and Dennis said in various ways, history is messy. Yet also, as Gene said, we can know something about it by its fruits, to a point. I think the John Wayne example from Brian is a good example of how the fruits of an event or movement can become a typology. David Koresh, Jim Jones, and others conscientiously modeled themselves after who they perceived Jesus to be, and at the same time modified the model to suit their circumstances. Who did they think a Son of God/Son of Man should be? They consciously set about crafting a reality.

    Peter said, “Perhaps the way forward for Westar and others is to embrace the mess, and particularly to help congregations become more sophisticated about historical messiness. I am not suggesting Sunday morning history lectures, but growing the culture of a historical rather than a religious framework for understanding life might be doable if worked at.”

    I like that idea, and I think that’s where the new Seminar on God and Human Futures is trying to go.

    • Gene Stecher says:

      Such challenging points. However, I’m not sure what can be accomplished by an attempt to differentiate an historical framework from a religious framework, messy as it is. The religious framework of the gospel writers was also their history, and I don’t think that dynamic has changed 2000 years later.

      Geering, in Coming Back to Earth (2009), sees this relationship pretty clearly in his “new” construction of heaven and earth: [“whatever you bind and loose on earth will be bound and loosed heaven” (Matt 16:19).]

      (215) “The Gaia theory (Lovelock, Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth, 1979) proposes that the biosphere is connected with the other physical components of the earth – the atmosphere, hydrosphere, and lithosphere – in such a way as to form a complex interconnected system. This web of being acts in a homeostatic function that operates so as to preserved the climatic and biochemical conditions on Earth that make it suitable for living systems.

      Gaia theory does not say the earth ‘is’ a living organism, but rather than life in all its diversity has so evolved in relation to the physical forces of its earthly environment that its operation is ‘like’ that of an organism – so much so that it is worthy of the name Gaia. Indeed, the living envelope of the earth and its environmental home together constitute a self-regulating system similar to the immune systems of the human body. For just as the human body has a remarkable capacity to restore itself to health or wholeness, so the natural forces of the earth have a remarkable capacity to preserve and restore the climatic and biogeochemical conditions on Earth that make it suitable for living systems.”

      • Peter Kane says:

        Words might be a problem here. My sense of the terms is that historical and religious could fit together, but theological is a different animal. Anyway, not sure we are using the terms in the same way.

  6. Dennis Dean Carpenter says:

    Gene, you said, “The religious framework of the gospel writers was also their history, and I don’t think that dynamic has changed 2000 years later.” The political and personal framework of the stories, the Gospels, were also their history, with kings being chosen by the gods and with one’s station in life being chosen by the favor (charis, generally called “grace”) of the gods. (That book by Geering is a great one, incidentally!)

    Peter, I’m afraid, however, that many people who think long enough about things biblical are leaving the pews. The “religious framework,” as Gene calls it, becomes incredulous or the god celebrated in the Christian church has become a “Superman” Jesus that is caricature. As you probably remember from some of my other posts that I left when I was sixteen, almost fifty years ago. “Church” is thankfully irrelevant to around 20% of the USA population and is growing. It has become the card table one gets out of the closet when the extended family comes over for dinner. Once one is a certain age, one outgrows it and sits with the older folks. Or risks turning it over (like the story of Jesus and the money changers) with one’s knees. I’m not sure how making the church “historically” oriented would help, since as I see it, church is a social event anyway. It seems like the theological Superman Jesus would draw a larger audience than one teaching a history lesson that can not be untangled without applying one’s 21st century world to it anyway, distorting it further, in my opinion.

      • Cassandra says:

        I think we have to be careful not to jump back to the 20th-century assumption that cultures are evolving toward a necessarily better future. Suppose we think a humanistic future is “better” somehow than a religious one. It doesn’t follow that people will actually leave religion. It seems far more likely that the face of religion will continue to shift and change, because it is the system by which many/most people still find their organizing principle, their reason to be.

        Last Fall, in an interview, Westar Fellow Joe Tyson said something to the effect of: “We’ve got to reach out to the churches. They care about this history. They are the people who will care about it in the future.”

        I also don’t want to lose sight of the argument that Christianity need not be left in the hands of those who want to make Jesus into a superman. I grew up with Christianity as a deep, influential part of my life. It brings with it lessons that have helped me and have helped me to support others. If we stop engaging with the tradition, with historical consciousness, we lose some right to claim it.

  7. Gene Stecher says:

    Returning to Jesus’ sense of his death and apocalyptic:

    The human experience level: In my opinion, anyone going to Jerusalem with an anti-establishment message would have known of the danger that awaited. In that sense HJ brought on his own death.

    Gospel writer level I: Did he also think that action would kick-in an apocalyptic event? The synoptics give him credit for that, actually two events: predictions of his own resurrection and his return in the coming of the Son of Man. GJohn adds the coming of the Paraclete.

    Gospel traditions level: We have to account for the more subtle parabolic images that occur along side the gospel writer visuals, such as the inconspicuous beginnings and huge endings of the sower’s seed, the mustard seed, and the leaven. These might be called ‘implicit apocalyptic’ or ‘hedge-your-bet apocalyptic’ or ‘apocalyptic without explicit claims of judgment.’

    I’m thinking that Jesus was likely apocalyptic in this latter sense and likely pointed out conditions and advocated wisdom/behavior that he thought was consistent with participation in the huge ending. A non-violent approach to the enemy could very well have been one of those behaviors.

    This notion of apocalyptic is quite different than the judgment scenes of the gospel writers, which for moderns can only make sense if turned into metaphors for the longing of humans for justice.

  8. Dennis Dean Carpenter says:

    Did Jesus bring about his own death? Silly me. I don’t, can’t know or even think I know what another one thinks in stories others have written about a figure they didn’t know. I can only make assumptions based on what would be reasonable thoughts of a first century leader of a group of people. I can assume that Antipas was glad to see Jesus leave Galilee. He had already, according to Josephus, had John the Immerser killed because he attracted too many people and was seen as a threat. (That is assuming Jesus died first. The “chronology” of Josephus is interesting.) Jewish sources Philo (who lived in Alexandria) and Josephus credit the Roman governor Pontius Pilate with extreme brutality. If one applies this knowledge to Jesus, uncomfortable plausibility is all that exists. Either Jesus was a fool, or he knew the risks involved in gallivanting about Palestine promoting himself could have brought about death. If a fool, the Gospel writers were geniuses. If he knew the risks involved, as one could reasonably expect would be the case of a Galilean, he either was striving for martyrdom (bringing about his own death) or he thought that God would protect him, that he was ushering in the kingdom of God. A fool, a proto-Christian martyr, or delusional apocalyptic instigator. Not a good choice, is there?

    The Fall 2003 “Forum” consisted of one proposal, a paper called “The Two Jesuses” by Theodore Weeden Jr. He made a strong case that the Passion stories were a conscious effort to imitate Josephus and his story of Jesus son of Ananias found in Josephus’ “Wars of the Jews,” 6.300-309. It is impossible, I believe, for an unbiased well-read person not to see this as probable. It didn’t go over too well during the Fall 2003 vote tally, though. If Weeden is correct, we know virtually nothing about Jesus and a road trip to Jerusalem. He could even have died from dysentery in Galilee, a common cause of death in some areas of Palestine. It turns the Passion stories into theological fiction, as would befit a virulently anti-Judean group after the first Jewish Roman war. It makes sense.

    To look at it in another light, if there was a historical Jesus, he died. All extra-christian sources of Jesus or Christ were written between around 95 ce and 120 ce. The very infinitesimal amount they say about the death of Christ or Jesus is probably not independent of at least the Gospel of Mark and probably others, which gives the same information as Josephus and Tacitus, per Pilate. The Paulines are even more ambiguous, just saying that he died. In the other sources, Pontius Pilate is named. A reasonable hypothesis is that this story probably originated with Mark. Let’s get consistent and apply this to another of the “death” stories. Most scholars see the Markan “empty tomb story” probably as the author’s creation, primarily because Paul did not mention it. Since “Paul” didn’t mention Pontius Pilate, to be consistent this “death by Pilate” would probably be a Markan creation! But, biblical exegesis isn’t always consistent.

  9. Cassandra says:

    I see one disjoint happening between our discussions in the comments here and on Facebook, and David Galston’s trajectory in the book. That is, we’re still getting tripped up—for appreciable reasons—on the existence of Jesus at all.

    I’m recalling, however, that Galston already addressed some of these concerns in his opening chapter. What we don’t want is to collapse right back into a neo-orthodox interpretation, where anything goes but nobody wants to admit that’s the case.

    Also, remember that Galston is writing specifically with the thought of how to bring the historical Jesus, especially the momentum of the Jesus movement as evidenced in the parables, to church.

    • Gene Stecher says:

      Cassandra, I am being quite candid here with no ulterior motive or desire to be difficult. Am I correct in understanding that, for the purposes of this discussion, we are to consider it a given that there was an HJ who spoke parables? Are we also assuming that the red/pink JS choices are preferred, or are all the parables equally on the table?

      In order to bring that Jesus to church there needs to be sermons and educational materials that present and interpret said parables, as well as practical examples of application and influence as might have occurred in the congregation. Where is that happening, and could the leader of the happening be invited to share in this dialogue? Speaking for myself, which is very limited of course, I can’t remember the last time I heard a sermon or attended a class with a specific parable(s) as its subject matter.

      • Peter Kane says:

        Gene: FYI, one of the most successful adult discussions I ever led used Brandon’s Reimagine the World. Bringing in some Galilee historical background, plus leaving the point of the parable open ended and ambiguous was something totally new for most people, raised on the typical heaven has gold bricks interpretations frequently heard.

        • Gene Stecher says:

          Sounds great Peter: I for one would be really interested in hearing a lot more about the specifics of your experience and what interpretations were floated (or not) of various parables. Maybe we could even get a human interest story, something like ‘my life before and after learning about parables.’ I’m serious!

          • Gene Stecher says:

            Peter, thought you might be interested in this quote, which speaks to the idea of ‘zealot revolt’ history found in Aslan’s book referenced in one of your earlier posts. It’s from Scott’s article in Profiles of Jesus (2002) “The Reappearance of Parables,” (38):

            “Jesus’ revolt takes a very special form. He revolts in parable. I see no evidence that Jesus was leading a political revolution or that he had a social program in mind. He clearly affected the lives of people, but he was not a social organizer or activist. Although the idea is now out of fashion, Jesus the oral story-teller seems to me closer to a poet. The activist will always be dissatisfied with the poetic vision, but change comes about because a creative individual has had that vision.”

  10. Dennis Dean Carpenter says:

    Gene, Peter, as I mentioned last week, I think it is important to understand what goes on with the construction of parables (and aphorism). One should write one’s own sayings and riddles. One learns by experiencing. (That’s how I taught English for many years. You can deconstruct and parse till you’re blue in the hands, but that won’t teach one to communicate through writing.) Seneca (the Stoic philosopher, not the Native American) considered one who relied on other’s witty sayings to be slothful or worse. (I can’t find the reference to that right now, but I have it somewhere.) Parables have one primary object – instruction. Comparison (metaphor, simile, analogy) is the way people learn. I stressed that in a teacher education course I taught for a few years. Writing one’s own constructions, sort of like you were saying Gene, gets one step deeper into cognition.
    (Of course, this is probably off-topic, but I was trying to add to Peter’s use of parable and Gene’s ideas.)

  11. Peter Kane says:

    We were returning from a Maine vacation, following the Garmin through the back streets of Boston to the rental car return at Logan. I was a bit stressed by the time pressure and the fact that some of the roads looked more like alleys than streets.

    The Garmin turned out to be trustworthy, but because of the time we still were a bit stressed as we boarded the shuttle bus to terminal A. A nice young Spanish lady gave Lenore her seat on the crowded bus, and then a dark middle age Mediterranean fellow gave me his seat.

    I thought to myself, damn, we have reached that stage in life when people feel they need to help us out. Then I relaxed a bit, and reconsidered what had just happened.

  12. Dennis Dean Carpenter says:

    One parable deserves another, Peter.
    Life is like salsa. Determined to cut down the amount of weeds in one of last year’s garden beds, he carefully cleared and tilled thoroughly, getting rid of all foreseen weeds, planting onions. Despite this, when he weeded he noticed at least a dozen persistent currant tomatoes crowding into the onion row. He put down the hoe and planted cilantro beside the peppers.

  13. Cassandra says:

    Phew, I am keeping busy with Fall Meeting registrations, folks! I’m back to the conversation now, and glad to see some parables floating here.

    Gene, to answer your question, I don’t think we have to assume there’s an actual historical Jesus out there saying the parables. I talked a bit with David yesterday about this question because it has recurred in several of our discussions in each chapter. He agreed that it’s not necessary, and suggested he could put together a blog post about the question of the mythic Jesus.

    So with that hopefully in the works, I revisited his opening chapters and would suggest we see our aim rather as carrying “the momentum of the Jesus movement” into a life practice and philosophy, keeping in mind we’re trying to keep the earliest layers of tradition in view, the pre-allegorical readings. Of course there is an element of relativity and openness to all interpretation, and Peter has quoted Brandon Scott as saying.

    Dennis, it seems doing history is also like salsa. 😉 We’re inevitably going to end up with a mix of ingredients, not necessarily a bad thing as long as we acknowledge it. In this sense I find Joe Bessler’s observation in A Scandalous Jesus apt: “[Quests for the historical Jesus] have, in their differing ways, sought to argue that the central figure of Christian faith continues to hold open the horizons of religious and cultural life” (5).

    Speaking of which, I have a video clip of an interview with Joe that may be ready to post. That could be a good conversation, too.

  14. Dennis Dean Carpenter says:

    Cassandra, the “mix of ingredients” is correct. When one looks at writings that are almost two millennia old, one chooses to emphasize those ingredients that are part of one’s experience, to which one can relate, minimalizing those which are foreign to experience or which are uncomfortable. Thus, one sees fairly divergent “visions” of the historical Jesus in the guild. There were divergent views in the early Christian literature. My view is not “mythicist” as I understand the term. I look at the Jesus stories as literature. The protagonist of the stories is certainly “mythical,” in the same sense of Elijah, Elisha, Moses and the cast of heroes of the Tanakh. Does the character matter more than the wisdom imparted? Does Jesus as “wisdom teacher” (wisdom wasn’t considered a genre until the 20th century, according to my Tanakh) interfere or in any way occlude Jesus as “apocalyptic?” I don’t think these (apocalyptic/wisdom) can be disentangled, especially if one strips the context from the sayings. And, if one does, one is left with a two-dimensional caricature of a human. In my opinion.

    Incidentally, do y’all still send membership renewal forms? (I haven’t received one.)

  15. Gene Stecher says:

    Some more things to think about in the wisdom/ apocalyptic dynamic:

    (a) Wisdom guides the present toward the future.
    (b) Apocalyptic involves justice for the present.
    (c) Apocalyptic involves justice for the future.

    (a) The gospels report sayings and stories.
    (b) The gospels report healings and exorcisms.
    (c) The gospels report resurrection following crucifixion.
    (c) The gospels report a future gathering of the faithful.

    (c) The Paulines report resurrection following crucifixion.
    (a) The Paulines report decision making rationales.
    (b) The Paulines report spirit replacing flesh.
    (b) The Paulines report faith replacing law.
    (b) The Paulines report fruit replacing disobedience.
    (c) The Paulines report a future gathering of the faithful.

  16. Dennis Dean Carpenter says:

    I found it interesting, as I was reading, to discover that “meshalim,” (or “mishlei,” in another source), Hebrew name for Proverbs, is plural of mashal, which can mean anything from an parable to an aphorism to a riddle or fable and that the use of parables was common in the first four centuries of the common era, used not only by Jews (Rabbi Meir, beginning of the second century, was a well known parablist), but by Syrians and non-Jewish Palestinians. (The Authentic Gospel of Jesus, Vermes, chapter four). Parables and aphorisms are not necessarily anything that would distinguish Jesus from his Palestinian contemporaries. So, there would have easily have been “meshalim” available to the authors of the Gospels.

    • Gene Stecher says:

      Found this info by googling “parables”:

      In “The Challenge of Jesus’ Parables” (2000) by Richard N. Longenecker (54-61), we find, “There are approximately ten parables in the Old Testament that loosely resemble those spoken by Jesus (cf. Manson, Teaching of Jesus; Gerhardsson, ‘Narrative Meshalim in the Synoptic Gospels’ 339-63).” Those five indicated by an* are the only ones meeting the definition of biblical parables, “a short religious allegory,” used by the Jewish Encyclopedia.

      Judges 9:8-15 (The Trees)
      2 Sam 12:1b-4 (The Ewe Lamb)*
      2Sam 14:1-13 (The Woman of Tekoah)*
      Isaiah 5:1-7 (The Vineyard)*
      Ezekiel 17:2-10 (The Eagles and the Vine)
      Ezekiel 19:1-9 (The Lioness)
      Ezekiel 19:10-14 (The Vine)
      Ezekiel 21:1-5 (The Forest Fire)
      Ezekiel 24:2-5 (The Seething Pot)

      1 Kings 20:39-40 (The Prophet’s Disciple)*
      Isaiah 28:24-28 (The Farmer)*

  17. Cassandra says:

    FYI, David has put together a post about the Jesus as myth issue. I’ll post that in the next few days, after he has a chance to approve it for the blog.

    I like the question Dennis has posed, “Does the character matter more than the wisdom imparted?

    Does it matter whether Jesus was a historical figure versus a character in stories? I think it does not have to matter for any one person engaging in historical inquiry of the Christian tradition, but from the way I understand David’s specific project of bringing the historical Jesus into the church, it definitely matters in this context. (But David will have his own thoughts on this shortly.)

    We have to go back to where he began in the book: If we drop back into neo-orthodox theology, which abandoned the historical Jesus for the cosmic Christ, we lose the most natural anchor point of Christian theology and open it up practically any interpretation. We happen to live in an era in which Christianity is becoming increasingly narrow and rigid, and where essentially it has come to be defined by evangelical claims.

    If it is possible to anchor theology on a historical figure, it’s worth doing so because it gives greater historical weight, in turn, to the teachings most associated with that figure, teachings that happen to be very different from mainstream Christian tradition. To be able to say, “Yes, this can be traced back and here’s my logic for it,” gives greater force to moral claims in the Christian tradition today.

    In the broader context of historical Jesus research, outside the purview of David’s book, whatever interpretations and emphases we work with have to fall within the circle of the probable. Otherwise, yeah, the interpretations have a lot more range and possibility.

    Gene, it seems like your breakdown of apocalyptic and wisdom reiterates a theme I’ve heard throughout the conversation that wisdom shares one important thing in common with apocalyptic thinking: hope.

    I think where I’m drawing a line is that the apocalyptic imagination is also highly destructive and often violent. I don’t think wisdom requires that, though it obviously responds to violence. I appreciate Dennis’ questioning of the use of such genre/categories at all. Joe Tyson brought up the complexity of genre in the study of Acts, for instance, at the Fall 2013 Meeting. On the other hand, it’s an interpretive lens available to us. We just have to recognize some of the dangers of retroactively applying it to Jesus. Mainly I brought up the distinction to ask whether we see Jesus as fundamentally violent in orientation or not.

    (P.S. Dennis, you should have received an update on the membership form question from Alisha but if not I’ll forward you that info.)

  18. Dennis Dean Carpenter says:

    I’m just not sure it is accurate to say that we live in “an era in which Christianity is becoming increasingly narrow and rigid.” How long is this era? The entire “Christian era” has been replete with rigidity and narrowness, depending upon how these two terms are defined. I would not use the word “increasingly” to modify them. Maybe a sect can be found more rigid than it was ten years ago… But two hundred, three hundred? From the “strange doctrine of Satan” by Ignatius to tongues cut out in colonial Massachusetts and the England of that time period to the Princeton Presbyterians and their “fundamentals,” and Southern segregated churches of the sixties and seventies, the whole Christian era has been rather repressive.

    • Gene Stecher says:

      I’m still waiting for delivery of the current text, so I went back to a 2008 article which Dr. Galston wrote for the July-August FourthR in which he responded to Richard Dawkin’s book “The God Delusion.” On the positive side of Christianity, here’s a quote:

      “Historically, Christianity, in large measure, is responsible for the virtues associated with democracy… It was Christianity, after all, that brought an end to slavery, that emphasized the intrinsic value of all human beings as the image of God, and that (for better or worse) demythologized the natural order, thus allowing nature to stand before the human subject as an object (this attitude being the foundation of scientific investigation). The value of the individual, the freedom of consciousness, and the objective inquiry into the operation of nature…”

      But, since in this dialogue were mostly interested in the human Jesus, I hope that David will share, for the sake of discussion, how much credit Jesus gets for the above contributions of “Christianity” and/or for the negatives that you’ve outlined, Dennis.

  19. Dennis Dean Carpenter says:

    I was speaking to the narrowness & rigidity aspect, Gene, and my belief that Christianity has always been that way. It is part of the reason the “Christian culture” has survived. Those few of many examples were of Christians’ behavior against other Christians.

    Gene, I started an essay and if I finish I’ll post it to Hodos about Evangelical Christianity that will surprise. Of religious groups, Americans rate Evangelicals – ten percent of the Christian population in America – along with Catholics and Jews the most favorable of all “religious” groups, with atheists (and Muslims) at the bottom (a Pew Research survey done last month). Since I worked around Evangelicals all my life, live around them, and most relatives and friends are, the essay asks (and speculates) why. I believe I can put a face on the stereotypical notion of “Evangelical” that neither belittles nor is turned into a prejudice. Maybe. I hope.

  20. Gene Stecher says:

    No Exit and No Return:

    A young man went to his father and said, “What is the secret of love at first sight?” The father said, “Don’t fight its power over you.” Soon after the same young man became giddy in the presence of an attractive woman and three weeks into a whirlwind courtship they were married. A number of months went by and the young man noticed that his wife’s breasts had become smaller, her waist larger, her legs less shapely, her words sharper, her mind duller, and her behavior more needy. At the same time her best friend somehow became more attractive and the young man’s guilt was palpable. Thirty years later there was still no exit (allusion to Sartre).

    A young boy went to his father and said, “Teach me how to throw a baseball.” The father took the boy out and showed him how to grip a two-seam and four-seam fastball, and they practiced for hours. Summer came and this twelve year old threw blazing pitches which his opponents could not hit. Two years later the other players were now taller, heavier, stronger, and faster, and the boy found himself sitting on the bench haunted by the prospect of no return to baseball glory (allusion to the Peter Principle).

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] Chapter 3 of 9, “The Jesus Voiceprint,” Embracing the Human Jesus (EHJ) series « Chapter 2    Chapter 4 » […]

Comments are closed.