The Historical Jesus in Contextby Amy-Jill Levine
The Historical Jesus in Context is a landmark collection that places the gospel narratives in their full literary, social, and archaeological context. More than twenty-five internationally recognized experts offer new translations and descriptions of a broad range of texts that shed new light on the Jesus of history, including pagan prayers and private/i>
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The Historical Jesus in Context is a landmark collection that places the gospel narratives in their full literary, social, and archaeological context. More than twenty-five internationally recognized experts offer new translations and descriptions of a broad range of texts that shed new light on the Jesus of history, including pagan prayers and private inscriptions, miracle tales and martyrdoms, parables and fables, divorce decrees and imperial propaganda.
The translated materialsfrom Christian, Coptic, and Jewish as well as Greek, Roman, and Egyptian textsextend beyond single phrases to encompass the full context, thus allowing readers to locate Jesus in a broader cultural setting than is usually made available. This book demonstrates that only by knowing the world in which Jesus lived and taught can we fully understand him, his message, and the spread of the Gospel.
Gathering in one place material that was previously available only in disparate sources, this formidable book provides innovative insight into matters no less grand than first-century Jewish and Gentile life, the composition of the Gospels, and Jesus himself.
"A very useful introduction to the historical background of Jesus and the Gospels...A valuable resource for historical Jesus studies."Michael Bird, Journal for the Study of the New Testament
"It is a major research tool and an education in its own right. Highly recommended."Robert M. Price, Religious Studies Review
"In general, this is a volume especially useful as a resource for teaching about Jesus in his historical context."Bruce Longenecker, Theological Book Review
"This collection of essays is a very useful introduction to the historical background of Jesus and the Gospels. The translation of a number of primary texts in one volume makes it a valuable resource for historical Jesus studies."Michael Bird, Journal for the Study of the New Testament
"The heart of the matter is in the ancient texts themselveslet the reader understand! For this reason, the student of Christian origins and/or the historical Jesus will find this book eminently worthwhile. There is, as far as I know, no other book on the market that brings the primary textual backgrounds on Jesus together in one place."Nicholas Perrin, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society
"An excellent addition to any librarywhether scholarly, pastoral, or devotionalthis is an illuminating volume with easy to follow, concise essays that deal with a variety of subjects or aspects of the world in which Jesus lived and the gospels written. Excellent for scholars, students, those charge with pastoral responsibilities or the interested reading public, The Historical Jesus in Context provides background and insights that illumine the gospel record in delightfully unexpected ways."Stephen Morris, European Legacy
Robert M. Price
Read an Excerpt
The Historical Jesus in Context
Princeton University PressCopyright © 2006 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.
Interest in the "historical Jesus" has continued unabated since the Enlightenment. Each year new books and magazine articles appear, the media offer new programs, and since the 1970s, college courses on the topic have been overflowing in enrollment. No single picture of Jesus has convinced all, or even most, scholars; all methods and their combinations find their critics as well as their advocates.
This volume does not offer yet another portrait of the historical Jesus-indeed, we editors each have our own view of Jesus' agenda, of what can be considered authentic material, of how he perceived himself and how others perceived him (whether our diverse views stem from our training, our ages, our experiences, even our different religious backgrounds, cannot be determined). Rather, this volume provides information on cultural contexts within which Jesus was understood and perhaps even understood himself. This collection explores Jesus' contexts not only through presenting select primary sources (most in new translations) but also by offering commentary by experts on those sources. By looking directly at the sources from the period-Jewish and Gentile, literary and archaeological-this volume allows readers to construct the setting within which Jesus and his earliestfollowers lived.
The point of this search is not to find "parallels." Comparison is often an extremely subjective judgment: where one scholar finds a connection, another finds disjunction. Nor is it to suggest that Jesus simply recapitulates conventional sayings and deeds; to the contrary, had he not said or done some things that proved memorable, distinct, or arresting, it is unlikely we would have records of his teachings. Nor, however, could he have been completely anomalous; were he so, he would have made no sense either to those who chose to follow him or to those brought into the movement after his crucifixion.
All literature, be it historical report, biography, comedic anecdote, religious pronouncement, even deed of property, conforms to set patterns or what biblical scholars typically refer to as "forms." Those who recorded the stories of Jesus would have presented their materials according to the forms of their time, and in turn their readers would have understood the Gospel accounts in light of these forms. Jesus too would be familiar with both Hellenistic (Gentile) and Jewish forms: how one prayed and taught; how one was expected to act; how initiation rites such as baptism functioned; when and how one used apocalyptic language; recountings of miracles and martyrs. Further, the repertoire of stories available to Jesus' followers from both Jewish and Gentile traditions, as well as their own experiences, served as a source for adapted and even new stories of the man they considered the Messiah.
We cannot always determine which came first: a historical event or a literary creation. In some cases, Jesus may have been influenced by the scriptures of Judaism (e.g., the miracle-working prophets such as Elijah and Elisha, the suffering servant described by the prophet Isaiah, the apocalyptic "son of man" mentioned by Daniel as well as 1 Enoch), as well as by Jewish accounts of martyrs, teachers, prophets, sages, and visionaries; yet it is equally possible that his followers, themselves steeped in these accounts, conformed their understanding of Jesus according to these narrative models. In other cases, those who told stories about him may have drawn from the rich traditions of the Greek and Roman worlds, from Homer to Aesop to Apollonius of Tyana and Apuleius of Madauros. In teaching and debating, Jesus would have used forms familiar to his audiences, such as parables and appeals to legal tradition or practice. Further, his audiences would have drawn upon this same repertoire in order to understand him.
Given its focus on an individual, or at least the records of him, this volume in the Princeton Readings in Religions series departs slightly from the focus of the earlier volumes, where the controlling factor has been a geographic region. The shift is not substantial, however. To investigate the context within which Jesus lived and his stories were told is already a focused investigation of both culture and period. The historical man from Nazareth cannot be understood fully if he is divorced from his context; the spread of the Gospel cannot be comprehended unless one appreciates its adaptations to the cultural expectations of its proselytes.
The focused approach of this collection also responds to a situation not addressed directly in the other volumes. A number of scholars working in biblical studies have insisted that we have an "ethical" responsibility to engage in historical Jesus research. Millions of people cite Gospel texts as moral guides. Consequently, it becomes imperative to determine to the best of our ability the situation in which those pronouncements were made. Do Jesus' comments on divorce or the construction of the family, for example, respond to a specific situation, perhaps one that no longer prevails, or are they universal injunctions? Are his comments on eschatology-the end of the present age-to be seen as metaphoric or literal? How are his values, or those of his followers, reflective of the Platonic dualism marking much of Hellenistic society? Did he in fact issue all the statements attributed to him, or were some added by his early followers and attributed to him, just as both Gentile and Jewish writers attributed material to prominent teachers? Are the Gospels to be assessed by criteria distinct from those applied to non-Christian material: for example, are Jesus' miracles "fact," whereas reports of the miraculous deeds of the Rabbi Honi the Circle-Drawer or the Pagan teacher Apollonius of Tyana the airy stuff of legend?
In order to locate the historical Jesus, access is needed not only to the Christian canon but also to the ancient primary sources that may confirm, complement, or complicate the canonical portraits. Today, the noncanonical Gospels and Patristic sources (writings of the Church Fathers) easily are available both in print and online; another volume in this series, Richard Valantasis's Religions of Late Antiquity in Practice, offers many of the late first-century and subsequent Christian as well as non-Christian texts. But even with the several source books available, the scholarly community still lacks a comprehensive volume that not only records the sources but also discusses their connections to the historical Jesus. This volume in the Readings in Religion series redresses that gap.
The History of the "Quest"
The so-called Quest for the historical Jesus seeks to understand the man from Nazareth as he was understood in his own context and as he understood himself. Its practitioners can be pictured as located on a spectrum ranging from positivism to skepticism. The positivistic side regards the Gospel accounts as accurate or at least relatively accurate reports, and the burden of proof is placed on those who would claim something attributed to Jesus was not historical (although the demand to "prove a negative" creates a logical fallacy: it is impossible, in most cases, to prove that Jesus did not say or do something the Gospels attribute to him). As we move toward the skeptical end, we find questors who presuppose a distinction between the "Christ of faith"-the resurrected Lord, second person of the Trinity, the divine man proclaimed in the pages of the New Testament-and the Jesus of history. The understandings of the man from Nazareth vary according to the investigator's personal interests and also vary depending on the method used, the aspects of Jesus' life highlighted, the construal of Jesus' social situation, even the investigator's theological worldview (e.g., does it accommodate miracles? does it presuppose the biblical texts are inerrant?).
Those interpreters who regard the Evangelists (the authors of the Gospels, known as Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) as inheritors of oral tradition as well as authors in their own right seek to strip away the layers introduced by the Gospel writers as well as by Jesus' early followers to reach the pristine historical core of what he actually said and did. One conventional way of describing this distinction is to say that whereas Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of heaven, the Gospels proclaim Jesus. In this view, not every saying and deed, perhaps fewer than a half or even a quarter, the Gospels attribute to Jesus has a claim to historical authenticity. The materials are regarded as having developed among Jesus' followers, men and women who retrojected their experiences-disaffection from local synagogues, distrust by and of the Roman government, concerns over marriage, debates with other followers of Jesus as well as with both Gentiles and Jews who did not accept their claims-back to the story of Jesus himself. On this side of the spectrum, the burden of proof for claiming something historical rests with those who regard the Gospel text as reliable. But this procedure requires a skepticism that is not usually applied to comparable texts, such as Suetonius's Lives of the Caesars or Josephus's Antiquities of the Jews. Nor in either case is it clear what would constitute "proof."
There is a consensus of sorts on a basic outline of Jesus' life. Most scholars agree that Jesus was baptized by John, debated with fellow Jews on how best to live according to God's will, engaged in healings and exorcisms, taught in parables, gathered male and female followers in Galilee, went to Jerusalem, and was crucified by Roman soldiers during the governorship of Pontius Pilate (26-36 CE). But, to use the old cliché, the devil is in the details.
For centuries, there was no "quest for the historical Jesus" per se. The gospels were taken to be trustworthy historical accounts. Although the earliest versions are anonymous, and although no Gospel identifies its author, the traditional attributions of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were accepted as fact. Matthew (Matthew 9:9; the tax collector is called "Levi" in Mark 2:14 and Luke 5:27) was the tax collector summoned by Jesus, and "John" was considered to be the unnamed "beloved disciple" who reclined on Jesus' breast at the Last Supper (see John 13:23). Luke, who wrote both the Gospel bearing his name and the Acts of the Apostles, was considered the companion of Paul, as well as the confidant of the Virgin Mary, and Mark was the companion of Peter. Thus the testimony of the four "Evangelists" (a Greek term meaning "good news bringers"; euaggellion, or "good news," is the Greek term underlying the English "Gospel") was credible, resting on eyewitness testimony. The miracles happened as recorded; whereas supernatural events recorded of Pagan, Jewish, or Muslim individuals were seen as merely legends, those accorded to Jesus and his followers were seen as fact.
Discrepancies were noted: Matthew, Mark, and Luke date the Crucifixion to the first day of the Passover holiday (Matthew 26:17-19; Mark 14:12-16; Luke 22:7-13); John, who refers to Jesus as the "lamb of God" (John 1:29), dates it to the day before, when the lambs to be eaten at the festival meal were being sacrificed in the Jerusalem Temple ( John 13:1; 18:28; 19:31). Mark 10:1-12 depicts Jesus as insisting there is to be no divorce; the Jesus of Matthew (5:32) states that there is to be no divorce except in cases of porneia (the Greek conveys the sense of "unchaste behavior" or "sexual perversion"). Even Luke remarks that whereas others had attempted to compile an orderly account of Jesus' actions, he would present the material accurately (the supposition being that the earlier materials were inaccurate [see Luke 1:1-4]). But apparent discrepancies were easily harmonized by means of allegory, or they were regarded as complementary rather than as contradictory.
Interpreters regarded stories that appeared to be variants of the same incident as accounts of separate events. Thus, Jesus was seen as having "cleansed" the Temple both at the beginning of his ministry (so John 2) and again at its end (so Matthew 21, Mark 11, and Luke 19); Jesus healed a demoniac named "Legion" at Gadara (so Mark 5) and two demoniacs named "Legion" at Gerasa (so Matthew 8). He taught "Blessed are the poor in spirit" (so Matthew's "Sermon on the Mount," 5:3) and "Blessed are you poor" (so Luke's "Sermon on the Plain," 6:20). Even today, these matters remain debated. For some scholars, Matthew adapted Luke's "more original" Beatitude to stress personal attitude rather than economic situation; for others, Jesus spoke both Beatitudes, but on different occasions to different audiences.
The "Quest" itself formally began with the Enlightenment's questioning of both theological dogma and religious authority and in particular with the English Deists. H. S. Reimarus, a German historian whose On the Intention of Jesus and His Disciples (published posthumously in 1768 by the philosopher G. E. Lessing) usually is credited for starting the "Old Quest," although his arguments substantially repeat the idea of the Deists. Reimarus, who viewed the gospels as human products rather than inerrant and noncontradictory "truth," distinguished between the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith. His image of the historical Jesus was of a failed revolutionary whose disciples stole his corpse, as well as invented both the Resurrection and the Second Coming (the parousia) to keep their movement going.
Following Reimarus, many scholars concluded that even if the gospels did contain some eyewitness testimony, the stories had been adapted and expanded to fit the needs of Greek-speaking, increasingly Gentile churches. The task was to separate the chaff of legendary development from the wheat of historical accuracy.
Aiding in this effort was the rise of source criticism, that is, the recognition that the first three canonical gospels-Matthew, Mark, and Luke-share a common literary basis; they became known as the "Synoptic Gospels" because they "see together." But while the connection among the three was acknowledged, the specifics of that connection remained contested. The "Griesbach hypothesis"- named after its first major proponent-held that Matthew was the first Gospel, Luke followed Matthew but added material from his own sources, and Mark epitomized the two. That Luke had access to sources is indicated by the Gospel itself, for as noted earlier, Luke speaks of the "many who had attempted to compile a narrative of the events that have been accomplished among us" (Luke 1:1).
Yet Griesbach's theory had its challengers. Why, some wondered, if Mark is a summary of Matthew and Luke, are Mark's individual stories longer (e.g., Mark tells the story of the Gerasene demoniac in twenty verses [5:1-20]; Luke's version takes fourteen [8:26-39], and Matthew uses only seven [8:28-34])? Why did Mark omit such major materials as the Beatitudes and the Lord's Prayer? Why are there no nativity or resurrection accounts (Mark 16:9-20, the so-called longer ending of the Gospel, is an addition to the earliest texts)? Numerous other indicators, from grammatical infelicities to errors of fact, also contributed to the weakening of support for Griesbach.
Complicating the scholarship may well have been apologetic interests: did the church really want the first Gospel to be so "Jewish": Matthew foregrounds Jesus' Jewish ancestry by beginning with a genealogy that highlighted Abraham and David (1:1-17); Matthew depicts Jesus as insisting that he had "come not to abolish but to fulfill" the "Law and the Prophets" (5:17); Matthew has Jesus restrict his mission to "the lost sheep of the house of Israel" (10:6; 15:24). Mark, on the other hand, lacks a genealogy, depicts Jesus as declaring "all foods clean" (7:19), and indicates that Jesus engaged in a Gentile mission (7:24-8:10). By arguing for Marcan priority, scholars could also argue for a more de-Judaized Jesus.
Excerpted from The Historical Jesus in Context Copyright © 2006 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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What People are saying about this
James C. Vanderkam, University of Notre Dame, author of "The Dead Sea Scrolls"
Kathleen Corley, University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh
James Charlesworth, Princeton Theological Seminary
Scot McKnight, author of "The Jesus Creed"
Meet the Author
Amy-Jill Levine is E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Professor of New Testament Studies at the Divinity School and Graduate Department of Religion of Vanderbilt University. Dale C. Allison Jr. is Errett M. Grable Professor of New Testament Exegesis and Early Christianity at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. John Dominic Crossan is Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at DePaul University.
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