We’ve been having a lively discussion about the historical Jesus (a pet topic of mine) on an earlier post, The “Jesus family tomb”. I would like to pick up on a couple of issues that were raised, and approach them from a different perspective.
The first issue came from Addofio, who commented, “People see what they want to see in the (extremely sketchy) evidence” about Jesus. I responded by arguing that I think the broad strokes of Jesus’ life are clear. But Addofio has a point, which will emerge in a moment.
The second question came toward the end of the discussion, from Whig. By that point, we had focussed on the narrow issue, Was Jesus married or celibate (or both)?
Whig argued that Jesus would not have been celibate because he was a Jewish Rabbi. And this is an interesting way of framing the issue. If we knew what title to apply to Jesus, we might be able to make an educated guess about whether or not he was married.
Possible titles for Jesus:
The New Testament depicts Jesus executing a variety of offices:
- healer / exorcist
- prophet / social reformer
- THE prophet / end-time prophet
- King like David
- Messiah / Christ
- Lawgiver like Moses
- Sage like Solomon
- Saviour / martyr
The New Testament is content to depict Jesus in all of these ways, indiscriminately, as if they’re all perfectly consistent with one another. But in fact some tension exists between the various offices. For example, end time prophet vs. social reformer: if you believe the world will end within a generation, why would you set out to improve the social safety net?
Scholars prefer to pigeon-hole Jesus. They dream of a single category that captures what Jesus was really about. Nor do they limit themselves to the New Testament alternatives. Scholars have argued that Jesus was a revolutionary, a Pharisee, a magician, a Cynic, etc.
This is where Addofio has a point: each scholar slots Jesus into a different pigeon hole, thus reaching different conclusions about him.
Messiah / Christ:
Allow me to comment on just a couple of these pigeon holes. First, the most contentious office of all: Messiah / Christ.1
Jesus’ followers were persuaded that he was the Messiah. They speculated about it during his ministry; they had second thoughts about it when he was crucified: but all their doubts evaporated when God raised Jesus from the dead. “God made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36).
What Christians thought is clear. The difficult question is, What did Jesus think? Did he believe he was the Messiah? Did he claim the title publicly? Did he evade the issue in public but whisper the truth to his disciples? In my view, the question is less important to history than it is to faith.
From a historical perspective, it is perfectly obvious that Jesus did not fulfill the standard Jewish expectations. He did not become King; he did not throw off the Roman overlord; he did not trample the Gentile (pagan) nations underfoot and establish a world-wide theocracy; he did not restore a legitimate priesthood.
Maybe Jesus was the Messiah despite everything I’ve just said. But, if so, someone radically redefined the word Messiah. Messiah now means, the one who rode into Jerusalem on a donkey (instead of a warhorse), as a harbinger of peace. The one who meekly submitted to crucifixion at the hand of the ruling authorities and trusted God to vindicate him. The one who died for the sins of the world and, in a stunning denouement, was subsequently raised from the dead.
We can’t get back far enough to explore Jesus’ psyche, as a modern biography would attempt to do. (Not so, the ancient bioi.) Perhaps Jesus did not think of himself as Messiah, and therefore he didn’t try to act like one; or perhaps Jesus thought of himself as Messiah, but he meant something radically different from the Messiah of popular expectation. A historian does not have adequate grounds to answer that question.
Nonetheless, the outline of events is clear. Jesus did not set out to lead an armed insurrection: to become a mighty Warrior-King akin to David. On the contrary, he was politically passive: he expected God to intervene to turn the existing social order upside down.
That’s the Jesus of history. Whether he merits the title, Messiah, is a question of faith.
The other title I’d like to discuss is end time (apocalyptic) prophet. This is arguably the most significant rift between New Testament scholars: did Jesus expect the world to end, or did he set out to reform society — in particular, to get a better deal for the poor?
The dispute has a long history. The “liberal” scholars of the 19th century disposed of Jesus the apocalyptic prophet. Albert Schweitzer resurrected him in the famous work, The Quest of the Historical Jesus, first published in 1906. More recently, Domenic Crossan, Richard Horsley and others have set out to rehabilitate the non-apocalyptic Jesus.
I have no doubt that Schweitzer and those who follow him are right. Here are three quick arguments:
- The apocalyptic interpretation aligns Jesus with those who came before him and those who came after him. Before Jesus came John the Baptist, who preached an imminent, fiery judgement. After Jesus came the first century church, which again was thoroughly apocalyptic in its expectations. Apocalyptic bookends to the ministry of Jesus, we might call it.
- Schweitzer argued that scholars rejected the apocalyptic Jesus out of personal bias. The apocalyptic Jesus seems alien and irrelevant to modern Westerners. This is what misled the 19th century liberal scholars, and I think it misleads Domenic Crossan et al today.
- The apocalyptic Jesus corresponds to the Jewish Jesus. Scholars who seek to avoid the apocalyptic interpretation tend to align Jesus with Greek culture. (Crossan tries to blend the two by referring to Jesus as a Jewish Cynic — on the face of it, an oxymoron.)
On the third point, I simply note that the Jewishness of Jesus is abundantly clear. The Jesus of the New Testament believed in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; he ministered almost exclusively to Jews; he cited the Hebrew scriptures from memory; he debated theology with the Pharisees and Sadduccees; and he celebrated the Jewish passover with his disciples.
As mentioned, Jesus the Jew fits with the apocalyptic Jesus. In the centuries immediately prior to Jesus’ birth, Jewish writers composed a body of apocalyptic literature. Some of the major apocalyptic works were included in the Dead Sea scrolls, plus other apocalyptic texts specific to the Qumran community.
Celibacy fits the paradigm:
I have taken a long, circuitous route, but now I’m ready to return to Whig’s question. The problem, as Whig sees it, is this: Why was Jesus celibate if he was a Jewish Rabbi? This is the very issue that has roiled scholarship: what pigeon hole shall we slot Jesus into?
Jesus was, first and foremost, a Millenarian Prophet. This is yet another way of saying end-time or apocalyptic prophet.
I have lifted the term, Millenarian Prophet, from the title of a book by Dale Allison. It leaves me a little cold, since it has a whiff of “crackpot” about it. But Allison’s argument is a strong one.
The point I want to make is this: Jesus the celibate Rabbi does not make sense, as Whig correctly points out; but Jesus the celibate millenarian prophet makes a great deal of sense.
First, let’s identify some of the characteristic traits of millenarian groups:
Like many Pacific cargo cults, Jewish messianic groups, Amerindian prophetic movements, and Christian sects looking for the end of the world, Jesus’ program
- addressed less fortunate people in a period of social turmoil;
- promised redemption through a reversal of current circumstances;
- divided the world into two camps, the saved and the unsaved;
- broke hallowed taboos associated with religious custom [Jesus brushed aside food laws and Sabbath laws, and enjoyed table fellowship with "sinners"];
- replaced traditional familial bonds with fictive kin;
- took a passive political stance in expectation of a divinely wrought deliverance; and
- may have promoted egalitarianism of the sexes.
(adapted from Allison, pp. 61-64)
I agree with Allison: this paradigm has great explanatory power. It makes sense of Jesus’ public ministry, but also of his personal characteristics. For example, his celibacy:
Religious celibacy frequently reflects estrangement from the normal structures of society. This is why it so often appears, as it does in the Jesus tradition and in later Christian monasticism, beside renunciations of family and work in the world.
We have no difficulty understanding why Jesus and his followers — like so many millenarian enthusiasts after them — let go of their possessions [Mark 10:28-31], their businesses [Mark 1:16-20; Mark 2:14], their families [Mark 3:33-35]. They did not need this world when they were soon to enter another, and they certainly did not have to worry about extending their community into the future through raising children. Their eschatological dualism — the present order will be eclipsed by another order — encouraged detachment from this world. (Allison, p. 204)
What emerges here is a consistent pattern of renunciation. (“Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me”.) Work doesn’t matter; material security doesn’t matter — God provides for the lilies of the field, doesn’t he? — and family doesn’t matter.
Jesus as celibate apocalyptic prophet — it makes perfect sense.
As is so often the case, the Dead Sea Scrolls provide helpful historical context. The Qumran community had similar traits to those we have sketched for Jesus: Jewish, apocalyptic, and celibate.
1The terms are interchangeable. Messiah is a Hebrew word, Christ is a Greek word: both mean, “Anointed One”. Both refer to a specific individual who was expected to fulfil various prophecies from the Hebrew scriptures. But people’s expectations of the Messiah were not uniform. Of particular interest, the Dead Sea Scrolls refer to two Messiahs, one a priest and the other a king.