Monday, May 12, 2008

Monday Thoughts: Historical Jesus in Brief

When I am done with the Synoptic Gospels in New Testament Survey, I stop and take stock of the essence of Jesus mission and message. Here is the outline I present at this point of my New Testament Survey courses. Of course what I write below goes in a somewhat different direction from anything I say in class, approaching the question from a more "historical" perspective.

1. Jesus preached the coming of the kingdom of God.
Mark features the coming of the kingdom of God as Jesus' central message. This is an apocalyptic message with political overtones. In its Jewish context it would have implied the restoration of Israel as a nation and likely the arrival of a messianic king.

This doesn't surprise us as John the Baptist placed himself at the location of Joshua's entrance into Canaan. Motifs of the return of Israel from captivity seem close at hand. Indeed, the themes of gospel, rule of God, and return from captivity all come together in Isaiah 52:7.

2. Jesus cast out demons as part of that arrival.
The Synoptics all make it clear that part of Jesus' activity in the Galilee included casting out demons. We should relate this important part of what Jesus did to the coming of the kingdom of God. The coming of the kingdom for Jesus was not just political but it was spiritual. The demons he cast out were a demonstration that the kingdom of God was arriving (cf. Luke 11:20). Jesus was the "Normandy invasion" of the kingdom, kicking Satan "out of Dodge" in preparation for the coming rule of the LORD.

When we think of the Jewish groups to which such an emphasis has greatest affinities, the Essenes come to mind, although other aspects of Jesus' ministry diverged drastically from them. It is nevertheless possibly significant that some aspects of John the Baptist also seem similar to them.

3. Jesus targeted the lost sheep of Israel in Galilee.
The narrow scope of Jesus' activity is striking. He seems to have spent little time ministering outside of Galilee. Indeed, he seems to have spent most of his time around the villages north of the Sea of Galilee: Capernaum, Bethsaida, Chorazin.

He interacted minimally with "the righteous" but focused rather on the outcasts of Israel. The amount of space given to the Pharisees in the Gospels seems disproportionately large in comparison to how much time Jesus actually spent interacting with them--they do not seem to have had much of a permanent presence outside of Jerusalem.

We can see this ministry as an extension of John the Baptist's call to repentance in preparation for the coming of the kingdom. Jesus was calling all of Israel to be part of the restored people of God.

The gospel of Luke perhaps gives us a somewhat abstracted perspective on this mission. Its focus on Jesus ministry to the poor, widows, orphans, the oppressed, the maimed, the physically "defective" was no doubt in context a ministry to these members in Israel. Things like purity laws and other parts of the Law paled in importance next to the importance that all Israel be a part of the renewed people of God. We wonder how the Galilean milieu fostered less focus on minute particulars of the Mosaic law.

Jesus' healing ministry was likely part of the restoration of God's people to wholeness.

4. Jesus preached love of neighbor and enemy.
We wonder if this focus of Jesus' teaching is also somewhat abstracted from our current perspective. Love of neighbor in context surely related first to the love of all who are within Israel, whoever they might be.

But it also makes sense that Jesus saw Israel as the light to the nations as well, that he expected the Gentiles also to flow to the God of Israel. Perhaps we should hear in Jesus' admonition to love one's enemies an admonition in context to hope that the nations outside of Israel would also flock to Israel's God.

5. Jesus saw himself, including his death, as instrumental in the coming of the kingdom.
Of the things we have said thus far, this point is the most debated. The Gospel of Mark clearly distances Jesus from conventional understandings of a military messiah. On the other hand, Jesus appoints twelve disciples to symbolize the restoration of Israel. Yet he is not one of the twelve. Could this mean that he is the king over the 12 tribes?

The synoptics also indicate that Jesus refered to himself as the "Son of Man." It is an ambiguous phrase about which some Jewish speculation existed at the time of Christ. It could indicate that Jesus saw himself as the king who would rule over nations as in Daniel 7 and 1 Enoch. Jesus' entrance into Jerusalem could also indicate a self-understanding of himself as the king.

The last supper tradition, found earliest in 1 Corinthians 11, points toward an understanding on the part of Jesus that he was about to die for Israel. The Corinthians know of Peter and Jerusalem, so it is highly unlikely that Paul is making this tradition up. It is a strong indication that Jesus did in fact anticipate his death and did see it as instrumental in the restoration of Israel.
I realize that most of my readers will find most of this post as obvious and, indeed, as vast understatement. I have written it "following the rules" of historical research, which of course does not take us nearly as far as reading the gospels through the eyes of faith.


Angie Van De Merwe said...

Could it be that experiencing Jesus in "that time" was different than reading about Jesus within "this time"?

The Jewish religion was a religion of compassion and nuture at its roots, but became a religion of legalities, judgments and prohibitions. All religions become prohibitive and confining when they loose the broad-range meaning of is about humanity, as much as it is about God...

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Might I add that just as Jesus was called to the outcasts, the "Academy" is called to the "religious"....for the "religious" have lost the true meaning of religion....humanity.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Sorry to take up another portion of your "blog space", but it occurs to me, as I am struglling to come to a "reasonable faith", that Wim struggled to come to faith from reason....Wim's struggle was of a secularist to understanding the reasons 'for faith" whereas, my journey has been "from faith" to reason...I think the interjuxposition of faith and reason has always challenged the Church, because faith journeys are different.