Jesus Christ: The Jesus of History, the Christ of Faithby J. R. Porter
Illuminating the life of Jesus-his historical context, his religious teachings, and the changing perceptions of him over the centuries-this lavishly illustrated volume offers one of the most comprehensive and authoritative accounts available of this great and charismatic man. Featuring some 180 illustrations (including 5 full-color maps) and numerous boxed and sidebar features that shed light on interesting facets of the story, Jesus Christ paints a vivid portrait of Christ's life from the Nativity to the Ascension. Drawing on the Gospels and other evidence, J. R. Porter disentangles many of the mysteries and confusions surrounding the life of the historical Jesus-such as the role of women in his career and the political issues surrounding his trial-and paints a detailed background, portrait of all aspects of society in first-century Palestine, from the fishing communities of Lake Galilee to life under Roman rule. Porter also explores the teachings of Christ, looking at his use of parable, his view of Hebrew Scriptures, his attitude toward the law, and his thinking about the Kingdom of God. The book assesses the many interpretations of Christ through the ages, from his immediate impact on the early Church, to the changing image of Jesus in art and illustration, to his perceived role as apocalyptic preacher, revolutionary, mystic, and prophet. A marvelous gift at Easter time or for a child's confirmation, this attractive, informative volume gives us an inspiring portrait of one of the most complex figures in world history.
About the Author:
J. R. Porter is Professor Emeritus of Theology at the University of Exeter, England and former Fellow of Oriel College, Oxford
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Read an Excerpt
It need hardly be said that Jesus has always been a figure of great fascination and interest, and by no means only for Christian believers. Over the centuries, a vast amount of literature has been produced about him, and the flow shows no sign of abating. Contemporary research into Jesus is largely conditioned by the developments of the last two centuries, which have tended to detach the historical Jesusthe man who lived and acted in the Palestine of the first century CEfrom the Christ of Christian faith. The question "Who really was Jesus?" has produced a bewildering variety of answers. It has been variously claimed that Jesus was essentially, to quote just a few examples, a Pharisaic rabbi; a charismatic Jewish wonder-worker; an apocalyptic prophet; a philosopher similar to one of the ancient Cynics; a social reformer; and a political revolutionary.
The present volume considers several of the more plausible and suggestive theories concerning the "real" Jesus. Its aim is not primarily to present another biography of Jesus, but rather to highlight some of the factors that have inspired the continued quest, among present-day New Testament scholars and others, to discover the man Jesus of Nazareth.
One of these factors is our greatly improvedand growingunderstanding of the world and society in which Jesus lived. Archaeology in particular, but also sociological studies and the work of historians specializing in the Roman empire, have shown how deeply Jesus' life and teaching were affected by his environment. Thus, thefirst section of this book (The Setting) deals with the general geographical, political, religious, economic, and social contexts in which Jesus operated. Here and throughout, there is a special emphasis on the Judaism of Jesus' day, which is now much more fully appreciated than was often the case in the past.
The following section (The Life) deals with the career of Jesus from the Nativity to the Ascension, as presented in the four canonical gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Again, the object is not to construct a biography of Jesus in the modern sense but to provide some evaluation of his life and deeds as recorded by the evangelists. How the birth narratives, trials of Jesus, Resurrection, and other episodes are to be assessed remains the subject of intense scholarly debate, as does the value of the gospels as sources. Nevertheless, it does seem possible to provide at least an outline of the course of Jesus' earthly life which would be accepted by a majority of scholars and historians today.
As important as what Jesus did is what he taught and this is the subject of section three (The Teachings). This begins with a survey of Jesus' distinctive teaching methods, as seen in his parables and sayings, which are closely linked to his Palestinian setting, and in the use he made of sources such as the Hebrew Bible and the Jewish law. Here, again, Jesus' background in Judaism is highly significant. The rest of this section is devoted to the main themes of Jesus' message, as these are presented in the four gospels. Overall, the third section raises one of the main areas of contention in New Testament studies: the extent to which it is possible to recover the actual words of Jesus, as opposed to those utterances whichalthough attributed to Jesus in the gospelsreally derive from the early Church. This vital question will also be considered below.
The fourth section (Interpretations) focuses on how the person of Jesus has been understood over the centuries. It begins with an overview of what, according to the available evidence, appear to have been the principal elements of Jesus' own self-consciousness. There follows a series of descriptionsinevitably brief and selectiveof some of the many ways in which Jesus' character and mission have been approached and interpreted down to the present time.
The fifth, and final, section (Jesus in Art) is an illustrated survey of the rich and varied traditions of Jesus in the history of Christian art.
It is important to appreciate fully the fact that the gospels constitute not one but four separate and distinctive accounts of Jesus' life and teaching. Each gospel was written to be of use to a particular early Christian community: it was produced to meet that community's needs and concerns and to give expression to what it believed to be the essential truth of the Christian faith.
The Jesus of the gospels, therefore, is a figure seen through the eyes of the early Church. Full weight must be given to the creative activity of the first Christian communities and to the possibility that they may have invented some sayings and episodes in order to bring out more clearly their own understanding of Jesus.
It has become commonplace in New Testament scholarship to distinguish between the "Jesus of history" and the "Christ of faith," and to stress that all the information about Jesus in the gospels is provided by people who were not his direct disciples and whose view of his significance was, crucially, shaped by their belief in his physical resurrection. Any attempt to discover the historical Jesus depends on whether or not the early Church preserved any material that authentically came from Jesus himself and, if so, how this can be sifted from material influenced, or even created, by his first followers. Several scholars would say that such an endeavor is largely unavailingin fact, that we can only ever meet with the Christ of faith.
Yet it seems likely that the gospel writers worked with a body of existing traditions about Jesus that had many points in common and must, in numerous instances, have derived from the disciples who knew him. Many students of the gospels, therefore, still consider it worthwhile and highly important to look for elements in this material that may be traced back to Jesus himself. They hope thereby to discover a core of authentic sayings of Jesus that encapsulate what he really taught and how he really saw himself.
Once again, this is no easy undertaking. Over the years, scholars have adopted various criteria by means of which they have soughtoften, perhaps, with a degree of overconfidenceto prove, or at least suggest, authenticity (see p.194). The most thoroughgoing and widely publicized project to identify the real sayings of Jesus, largely employing the criteria just mentioned, has been that of a group of scholars in the United States known as the "Jesus Seminar" (see sidebar, p.56). The Seminar found that only very fewsixteen percentof Jesus' recorded words could be considered in any way authentic. It is perhaps unsurprising that, in their own presentations of the historical Jesus, some of the Seminar's individual scholars produce a somewhat minimalist picture. They find little evidence to suggest that Jesus ever thought of himself in the terms suggested by the gospels, such as Son of God, Messiah, performer of miracles or apocalyptic prophet. For them, the Jesus of history must be freed from any theological framework and seen as essentially a radical social reformer.
But many scholars would question how far the Jesus Seminar's findings can be considered definitive and would prefer to conclude simply that it will always be difficult to establish which gospel traditions really go back to Jesus. It may be objected also that the Seminar's researches focus too narrowly on a literary analysis of the gospels, at the expense of other potentially illuminating sources such as the Jewish heritage and the contributions of archaeology and sociology. Also, the contrast between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith can be exaggerated. A particular saying of Jesus in the gospels may not be formulated in his actual words, but its substance may accurately reflect his teachingit must not be too easily assumed that the first Christians generally misunderstood their master.
In the end, anyone who attempts a reconstruction, however tentative, of the life and intentions of Jesus cannot avoid a degree of subjectivity. Every idea about Jesus has to be tested by the wide range of criteria and sound historical methods that present-day biblical scholarship has at its disposal.
THE LAND OF PALESTINE
The main events of Jesus' life took place in Palestine, a region that may conveniently be understood as the land west of the river Jordan, from Dan in the north to Beersheba in the souththe traditional "land of Israel" as defined in the Hebrew Scriptures (for example, Judg. 20.1)and the territory immediately to the east of the Jordan. Ironically, perhaps, the name "Palestine" comes from the Philistines, Israel's great enemies, who in fact occupied only the southwestern coastal area. The term was first used of the wider region by the Greek historian Herodotus (fifth century BCE). In spite of its small size, Palestine's strategic position as a bridge between two continents gave it a pivotal role in the international politics, commerce and culture of the ancient Near East. However, there is little awareness of this wider context in the gospels as compared with the Hebrew Scriptures.
The region is delimited by the natural boundaries of the Mediterranean to the west, Mount Hermon to the north, and the Syrian and Negeb deserts to the east and south. Within these bounds, Palestine falls into four natural regions, each running roughly from north to south. First, the coastal plain stretches from the Phoenician city of Sidon (just north of Palestine as defined here) down to Gaza, interrupted only by the highlands of Mount Carmel and the Ladder of Tyre. There are brief mentions of a visit by Jesus to the region of Sidon and its southerly neighbour, Tyre (Mark 3.8 and parallels), but generally speaking the Mediterranean seaboard lay outside the sphere of his activities.
To the east of the coastal plain, the central mountain range runs from Galilee to Judea. In ancient times this was the heart of the country. It was the center of its trade and agriculturealthough some parts were more fertile than othersand the setting for almost the whole of Jesus' ministry. At the southern end of the range lie the hill country and wilderness of Judea. The hill country encompasses Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and other sites associated with Jesus. The wilderness, to the east of the city, is where John the Baptist began his ministry (see pp.82-3) and Jesus was tempted by Satan (pp.86-7). Adjoining the lower Jordan and Dead Sea region, it is not true desert, but rather uncultivated pastureland, which could provide the Baptist with a sparse diet of locusts and wild honey (Matt. 3.4 and parallels). It was well enough watered to allow some basic agriculture.
The third region is the Palestinian section of the Afro-Asiatic great Rift Valley, through which the Jordan pursues a meandering course from north of Lake Huleh via the sea of Galilee down to the Dead Sea. The Jordan valleywhich is below sea level for most of its lengthis arid terrain except for the verdant margins of the river and freshwater lakes. The Baptist's main activity took place on one or both banks of the lower Jordan, in an area that includes the unlocated sites of "Aenon and Salim" (John 3.23), "Bethany cross the Jordan" (John 1.28), and of Jesus' own baptism (see pp.84-5).
Transjordan is the name given to the fourth broad region of Palestine, the hilly terrain lying east of the Jordan and the Dead Sea. In the north of this region, which is physically quite similar to the central mountain range, the snow-capped heights of Mount Hermon may have been the scene of the Transfiguration (see p.106). It was in Transjordan that Jesus drove an army of demons into a herd of swine, in the region of the Decapolis (Matt. 8.28-33; Mark 5.1-13; Luke 8.26-33; see sidebar, left). The gospel accounts suggest that on his final journey to Jerusalem, Jesus went over the Jordan (Matt. 19.1; Mark 10.1) into the area called Perea ("Land Beyond [the Jordan]"), where he attracted large crowds and performed healings, before crossing the river once more to enter Judea at Jericho (Mark 10.46).
There were two main types of settlement in first-century Palestine: the "town" or "city" (Greek polis) and the "village" (kome). They were not sharply distinguished in terms of size. A kome could have a larger population than a polis and perhaps the only real distinction was that "villages" were usually unwalled while "towns" were walled, such as Nain in Galilee, at the gate of which Jesus restored a young man to life (Luke 7.11-17). Archaeological evidence suggests that most settlements were quite small and inhabited mainly by Jews, while the bigger cities were more cosmopolitan, with large non-Jewish populations.
Towns and villages had a simple ground plan. Narrow streets and alleyways lined with modest houses converged on a large open marketplace, the hub of social and commercial life, which lay just inside the town gate if the place was walled. Mark 6.56 records that the sick were regularly brought into the marketplaces for Jesus to heal. The gospels frequently mention the presence of a synagogue in the towns Jesus visited, but otherwise there seem to have been few, if any, public buildings.
Apart from Jerusalem and its environs (see pp.18-21), Jesus is associated with several other towns in Palestine that were very different from those he frequented in Galilee (see pp.16-17). All the gospels relate an important episode that Matthew and Mark locate in the vicinity of Caesarea Philippi (Matt. 16.13; Mark 8.27), in which Jesus is acknowledged as Messiah (see pp. 106-7). It was a major city at the foot of Mount Hermon in the far north of Palestine, in the tetrarchy of Philip (4BCE-34CE; see pp.24-5). A typical Greco-Roman settlement, Caesarea Philippi was the site of a sanctuary to the god Pan (hence the city's older name of Paneas, modern Banias) and most of its inhabitants would have been pagans. Jesus may have felt able to move freely in this environment, away from his Jewish detractors. But there is no evidence that he visited the town itself.
The gospels attest to a strong tradition that Jesus went to the non-Jewish region of Tyre and Sidon in Syria-Phoenicia, and even visited the latter city. But he is only said to have gone "by way of Sidon" (Mark 7.31) on his way back to Galilee and it would appear that he made a comparatively brief stay in the region, perhaps in an attempt to extend his influence therethe gospels relate that some of the inhabitants had been attracted to his teaching in Galilee (Matt. 4.24; compare Mark 7.26).
On his final journey from Galilee to Jerusalem (see pp.108-9), Jesus is said to have passed through Jericho, from where a direct road led through the Judean hill country to the capital. New Testament Jerichosituated in a fertile oasis just south of the site of the city of the Hebrew Scriptureswas granted ca. 30BCE by the Roman emperor Augustus to Herod the Great, who adorned it with splendid palaces. Luke records that Jesus spent the night there at the house of Zacchaeus, "a chief tax collector" (Luke 19.2)a title indicating that Jericho was a regional administrative center.
Galilee, a region in the north of Palestine, was the principal setting for the ministry of Jesus, especially the area around its lake, commonly known as the Sea of Galilee or Lake Galilee. In Jesus' lifetime Galilee was governed by King Herod the Great (37-4BCE) and then his son, the tetrarch Herod Antipas (4BCE-39CE), both clients of Rome (see pp.24-5). It had long had a mixed population of Jews and Gentiles and was described in the Hebrew Bible as "Galilee of the Nations" (Isa. 9.1). According to one theory, this may have been the original name of the regionGalilee simply means "district" (Hebrew galil). The non-Jewish population increased around the beginning of the Common Era as Galilee's rulers founded new Hellenistic cities. Galileans were distinguished by their accent (Matt. 26.73), and the Pharisees (see pp.34-6) apparently looked down on them as lax in their observance of the Jewish law and incapable of producing the Messiah (John 7.52). The area was also known as a source of political unrest (see p.103).
Galilee includes the most northerly section of the central Palestinian mountain range (see pp.12-13) and is divided into Lower Galilee, the principal area of settlement and main focus of Jesus' ministry, and the largely mountainous Upper Galilee. In the gospels the most important feature of Galilee is the lake and its environs. The Hebrew Scriptures suggest that its earliest name was Lake Chinnereth ("lyre") which derived either from its shape or the name of a town at its northwest corner. In New Testament times, it was sometimes called Lake Tiberias or Lake Gennesaret after two other towns. It is below sea level and surrounded by high hills, a combination that could produce the sudden squalls mentioned several times in the gospels. The lake was rich in fish and its shores formed a fertile agricultural area that attracted a large population.
Apart from Capernaum (see box, above), the place most frequently mentioned as the scene of Jesus' activity in the region bordering Lake Galilee is Bethsaida, just over the political frontier in the tetrarchy of Philip (ruled 4BCE-34CE), another son of Herod the Great. In Jesus' time Bethsaida would have been only a small place, and Mark calls it a "village." But the later gospels call it a polis ("town" or "city"), which may reflect its elevation by Philip in 30CE, when it was renamed Julias in honor of Livia Julia, the mother of the Roman emperor Tiberius. The name Bethsaida means "House of fishing" and archaeologists have confirmed that it was a fishing settlement. According to John's gospel, three of Jesus' original disciplesat least two of whom, Peter and Andrew, were fishermencame from there. Jesus ultimately curses Bethsaida (Matt. 11.21; Luke 10.13) for failing to respond to the miracles he had performed there (for example, Mark 8.22-26).
Meet the Author
J.R. Porter is Professor Emeritus of Theology at the University of Exeter and a former Fellow of Oriel College, Oxford. A renowned scholar, he has served for twenty years as a member of the General Synod of the Church of England and has held many other prominent posts throughout his distinguished career. He lives in the United Kingdom.
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