- Why have we so long ignored the first twenty years of the Jesus movement?
- Why has the church been built upon the stories of the death and resurrection of Jesus instead of upon his teachings?
- Why has the search for the historical Jesus produced so little solid information?
- Is there any historical justification for belief in the "real" Jesus?
- Is there a spiritual foundation for commitment to the "real" Jesus?
- Where can the "real" Jesus be found?
- What impact will this view of Jesus have on the Christian faith and the church?
The bottom line is that Fry has produced an original and cogent case for a new vision of Jesus, the "real" Jesus who can shine a bright light on your future.
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The Man of LightWhere Can I Find the Real Jesus?
By Stanley A. Fry
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2010 Stanley A. Fry
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Movement Begins
Some will be offended by the suggestion that we cannot trust everything the New Testament says about the life and ministry of Jesus. Others may have harbored the feeling that there was much there that was very problematic, for example, the miracles of healing and interference with the laws of nature. But most of the rest has gone unquestioned. Those who have further doubts about the veracity of the biblical accounts are often looked upon with great suspicion. I must say immediately, however, that I fully understand the skepticism of some and ask your patience as I seek to make clear the reasons for my suggestion. At the same time, I welcome the ready acceptance of others.
In the church we have often raised the question, without answering it, as to why the biblical learning that pastors receive in their seminary training seems to have been largely ignored when they assume their roles as pastors of churches. For example, how many parishioners have never known that the books in our New Testament, which are called "canonical," are a very small part of the literature which was produced by the early Jesus movement? Seminarians were taught that. We were also taught the history of the process by which those books were chosen to be included. But that process was rarely ever questioned, and it was much too disturbing to question it with our laymen. We had an institution to serve, as well as a congregation to protect, and perhaps we did not want to face the questions ourselves.
However, there comes a time when we must do so. As we enter the twenty-first century on the run, as it were, we are already beginning to smell the dust, and our churches are dropping farther and farther behind the world in which they are attempting to live. So I invite you to undertake, with me, an adventure that promises a new understanding and a more profound spirituality.
* * *
The name "Palestine" is the name that the Romans gave to a certain geographical area in the Middle East for purposes of governance. Most of Jesus' followers in the first generation after his death were the Jews who lived in the Palestine of the Roman occupation. They had all inherited certain expectations. Ever since the return from exile in Babylon five hundred years earlier, the Jews had experienced the occupation of their land by the Egyptians, the Greeks, and finally the Romans. By 225 BCE (signifies "before the Common Era"), they began to believe that the Day of the Lord would come, and the golden age of David would return, when the yoke of foreign oppression was cast off. They had been waiting for almost three hundred years for that day. Many charismatic personalities had appeared and were hailed as the one who was to come-a new prophet, a new king, a messiah who would deliver the people from their slavery. Jesus, almost certainly, was one of them. Matthew says he came announcing that "the Kingdom of God has come near," just as John the Baptizer had done before him
What happened in the earliest days of the Jesus movement just following the death of Jesus can best be understood in terms of Michael White's distinction between sect and cult. Of a sect he says, "A sect is a separatist, or schismatic, revitalization movement that arises out of an established religiously defined cultural system with which it shares its symbolic worldview." The Jesus movement began as a Jewish sect, a part of Judaism with its own unique take on the worldview and religious tradition of Judaism which it continued to claim. White explains that since the Jesus movement continued, in the beginning, to share the Jewish worldview, it was threatened with reabsorption and consequently developed its own rhetoric which, in turn, tended to separate it from its original worldview.
But, says White, a cult differs from a sect: "A cult is an integrative, often syncretistic, movement that is effectively imported (by mobilization or mutation) into another religiously defined cultural system, to that it must seek to synthesize its novel symbolic world view."
That is, a cult attempts to introduce a new world view into an existing world view. In order to do this, its followers try to soften the resulting tension by stressing the similarities between the two cultural worldviews.
Several different branches of the Jewish Jesus sect appear to have existed in Palestine during the first years after Jesus' death, though they left no written record. Paul's letters refer to those whom he calls the "judaizers." He also visited the Jewish church that still existed in Jerusalem for counsel. Roman sources also refer to them. Eventually, however, the Jesus movement began to transform itself from a Jewish sect into a Gentile (non-Jewish) or Roman cult. Central to this transformation was the adoption of Greek concepts into the explanations of Christian teachings, thus lessening the conflict between world views. This transformation had to proceed before the Jesus movement could find its own unique identity as a separate religion. The Council of Nicea in 325 CE may be seen as the terminal act of self-identification in this process.
Factors in the Transformational Process
One clue to this transformational process is seen in the contrast between the Gospel of Matthew, which probably was written for Jewish followers of Jesus soon after the destruction of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 CE, and the Gospel of Luke, written for Gentile followers of Jesus, perhaps in the following decade of the 80s CE. Luke's companion work, known as the "Acts of the Apostles," describes the ministry of Paul that had taken place three decades earlier in the 50s CE, when the Jesus movement was first entering the Gentile world. Therefore, Paul was already planting the seeds as the Jesus movement began to change from sect to cult.
Much of what we can guess about Jesus has been deduced from our knowledge of the time in which he lived. For instance, we know that Aramaic was the common language of the people in Jesus' day. It was a cognate of ancient Hebrew and had been the language of the Jews since the Babylonian captivity. Thus, we can be sure that Jesus spoke Aramaic. Did he also know Greek? Possibly, if he had worked with his father in the construction of the Greek city of Sepphoris over on a hilltop near Nazareth. But there is no evidence of that. Did he know Hebrew? Not likely. It was the language of the learned in the law, and there is no reason to think Jesus was one of them. Most of the common people, in fact, were illiterate. Was Jesus illiterate?
It is also pretty clear that Jesus' compatriots would have been asking whether or not he was the coming deliverer, the true herald and precursor of The day of the Lord. Those who followed him were either convinced or wanted to be. Furthermore, they believed that deliverance was imminent. The Day was at hand. This expectation is known as the "apocalyptic hope." It promised that a theistic God would one day intervene in the affairs of the nations to strike the yoke of Rome off the necks of the Jews.
However, many had wanted to take things into their own hands. More than once, violent rebellions had broken out. The Zealots of Jesus' time were still fomenting revolution, but mixed in with the rebellion was the apocalyptic hope. Jesus, like many before him, probably expected the coming of the Kingdom in some form. Therefore, the followers of Jesus would have constituted a movement within Judaism. Jesus may have been put to death primarily by the Romans in the interest of peace in the land-perhaps because, confusing the two, they might have taken his apocalyptic message as a call for revolution.
We also know that in Roman culture, which in some ways had replaced Greek culture, the gods were rejected and the ruling religious duty was to imitate the natural law of God. Their idea of God, however, was what the historian, Williston Walker, characterizes as "pantheistic monotheism. That is, God was identified with the natural world in which one could find his will embedded. Thus the Jewish worldview, and at least initially that of Jesus, was fundamentally at odds with the world view of the Gentiles. In Rome the embodiment of God was the emperor. Therefore, in Palestine, the seeds of conflict between worldviews were already germinating in Jesus' world.
All this, of course, is a common sense view of the situation derived primarily from our knowledge of Jewish history. It is not precisely the picture we receive from reading the four gospel accounts of Jesus' life and ministry in the New Testament, but that is understandable in view of the fact that those accounts were each written more than forty years after Jesus' death by non-contemporaries. Moreover, two of the four gospels were clearly written by non-Jewish persons, and each of them has its own perspective and unique purpose because all were written after the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE.
In fact, many scholars today believe the development of most of the earliest Christian literature, some of which had found its way into the New Testament by the end of the fourth century CE, may be traced to the impact of the failure of the apocalyptic hope. And that failure was widely identified with the failure of the rebellion that resulted in Jerusalem's fall. So how did that event come to occur?
Following Jesus' death, the Roman Empire was already in a boil. The Jews never had been comfortable under Roman rule, and the hope of freedom now drove the fledgling Jesus movement. When Paul began his ministry, twenty years had passed since Jesus' death and things were beginning to churn dangerously. The Jews had a reputation for being an obstreperous people. Many years before, Syria, and then Rome, had to put down rebellions led by the Maccabees, and there was always someone or other to stir up the people, raise arms, and threaten to attack Rome again. Followers of Jesus, who were seen as Jews gone mad, had come under pressure from Rome, and occasional outbursts of persecution had taken place in the empire. But before the unrest erupted into open rebellion, Paul showed up on the scene.
Paul's Role in the Separation from Judaism
So what about Paul? Clearly his letters were written prior to the ill-fated Jewish revolt and also prior to the writing of the gospel accounts recorded in the New Testament. I'm guessing he may have despaired, from the beginning of his ministry, of the success of any armed rebellion against Rome. But, as a good apocalyptist, he all but ignored Jesus as a teacher and treated him almost exclusively as the herald and executor of the coming Kingdom of God. Early in his career, Paul's moral teachings focused on the Old Testament law, which was to be obeyed in the Spirit rather than to the letter. Almost no attention is given to anything Jesus said. So far, the law had served as a disciplinarian, but now, Paul says, "The only thing that counts is faith working through love." This is not the way Jesus likely would have talked about it, but we shall see that it may not be very different from what we may tentatively assume Jesus to have taught.
For Paul, the Kingdom was not reserved for Israel, but belonged to the Gentile world as well. In Romans he writes the following:
I am talking to you Gentiles.... If the part of the dough that is offered as first fruits is holy, then the whole batch is holy; if the root is holy, so are the branches.
Moreover, his interpretation of the coming Kingdom was otherworldly. It was "not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit."
He took the historicity of Jesus seriously, but not the content of his life and teaching. Not even his birth counted for anything. Primarily, his death and resurrection were seen as the occasions of his messianic work. Of course, he does attribute righteousness to Jesus, but it was the righteousness defined either by obedience to the law or by Jesus' obedience to God in going to the cross.
Of the twenty-seven documents in our New Testament, twenty-two were written either wholly or partially in letter form. Letters were the primary form of literary communication in those times. Of the letters traditionally attributed to Paul, there is still debate about the authorship of Ephesians, Colossians, and 2 Thessalonians. It is highly doubtful that Paul wrote 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus. Hebrews was not written by him. The seven letters now attributed with certitude to Paul's authorship are Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon. In them, I find only the broadest hints that Paul may have had some acquaintance with the traditions about Jesus' teaching. For example, here is a quick look at a few of Paul's letters. You may want to take your own look at the rest of the letters that are securely assigned to Paul.
1 Thessalonians (50-51 CE)
The earliest of his known letters was 1 Thessalonians, written circa 50-51 CE. Paul's first reference to Jesus speaks of
your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ ... they tell how you turned to God from idols, to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from Heaven, whom he raised from the dead-Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath..
There is no word about Jesus' teaching-only about his coming from heaven.
Paul also says,
You became imitators of us and of the Lord.
Now we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus to do this more and more. For you know what instruction we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus.
His readers were to imitate Paul and Jesus in the way they lived until Jesus came from heaven. But just what that means is unclear. Does this suggest that Paul's readers were already well acquainted with Jesus' teachings? Or is he implying that by imitating him (Paul), they are also imitating the Lord Jesus, thus learning their behavior from Paul's example rather than from Jesus' teachings? Is that why he doesn't quote anything from Jesus?
There are a few exhortations to love one another, but never a word quoting Jesus' teachings. It seems highly likely that he intends to head in another direction altogether. The Gospel, which literally means "good news," of the Lord of which he writes is clearly the apocalyptic hope.
For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, and with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord. And so we will be with the Lord forever.
This is Paul's message to the Jesus people in Thessalonika. There is an urgency here that seems to diminish with the later letters, but is still present in increasingly modified form and with a more individualized content.
1 Corinthians (53-54 CE)
Paul's first letter to the Corinthians was the next of the seven letters to be written. Once again, the promise is that
he will keep you strong to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.
That day has been guaranteed by Jesus' death on the cross and his resurrection. His cross as "the wisdom of God" is compared to the "wisdom of the world," which is powerless.
For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, not with words of human wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.
Then he quotes Hebrew scripture, not Jesus:
I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.
There was another tune (Gnosticism) within the Jesus movement that a little later began to exercise great influence. In that movement, the life and teachings of Jesus were considered to be the wisdom of God. Whether that movement had begun to raise its head in Paul's time is not known. However, it appears that the wisdom of God, which Paul says Jesus became, had nothing to do with Jesus' teachings, but rather with the claim that his death and resurrection were themselves the wisdom of God. Of course, they were wisdom only in the sense that they were God's substitute for the wisdom of the world, and somehow that wisdom was the source of every blessing.
It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption.
Excerpted from The Man of Light by Stanley A. Fry Copyright © 2010 by Stanley A. Fry. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents
Introduction Who Was Jesus Really?....................ix
Chapter 1 The Movement Begins....................2
Chapter 2 The First Great Split....................19
Chapter 3 What We Can Know and Can't....................30
Chapter 4 How the Church Tried to Define Him....................51
Chapter 5 What Can We Do with Him Now?....................65
Chapter 6 The Man of Light-a Mythic Tale....................80
Chapter 7 Jesus for Today....................87
Appendix A: A Jesus Timeline....................97
Appendix B: A Homily-My Man, Jesus....................102