The Mysterious Disappearance of Jesus and the Origin of Christianity

By: Dr. Ahmad Shafaat



Reproduced from the JOURNAL of THE MRI, March 1997, Vol. 1, no. 4, (ISBN: 1209-8507 © Copyright: For each item by its author, 1997)


Dedicated to all those who have labored or are laboring to find the historical truth behind the Jesus tradition










Chapter 1: A Look at the Life of Jesus


Chapter 2: The Existence of Rival Jesus Groups From the Beginning


Chapter 3: A History of the Earliest Jesus People




Chapter 4: Formative Processes for the Jesus Tradition


Chapter 5: Tradition of Jesus' Disappearance (Hiding/Exile)


Chapter 6: Tradition of Jesus' Execution


Chapter 7: Tradition of Jesus' Ascension


Chapter 8: Tradition of Jesus' Return


Chapter 9: The Earliest Beliefs about the Religious Identity of Jesus




Chapter 10: The Origin of the Belief in Jesus' Resurrection From the Dead


Chapter 11: Paul and the Historical Value of His Witness


Chapter 12: Tradition of Rejecting Jesus' Death and Resurrection




Chapter 13: Proclamations and Predictions of the Death and Resurrection


Chapter 14: According to Scriptures


Chapter 15: Other Religious Interpretations of Jesus' Death and Resurrection




Chapter 16: Events Leading to the Passion


Chapter 17: Sanhedrin's Decision and Jesus' Hiding


Chapter 18: Judas Iscariot and the Betrayal


Chapter 19: The Last Supper


Chapter 20: Prayer and Deliverance/ Distress and Sleep


Chapter 21: Arrest and Desertion


Chapter 22: Peter's Denial and the Jewish Trial


Chapter 23: The Roman Trial and Barabbas


Chapter 24: The Trial by Herod and the Gospel of Peter


Chapter 25: Mocking, Crucifixion and Death


Chapter 26: Death on the Cross


Chapter 27: Burial




Chapter 28: Appearances in Galilee


Chapter 29: The Empty Tomb


Chapter 30: Appearances in Jerusalem


Chapter 31: Words Spoken by the Risen Jesus


















This book arose out of the conviction -- which I share with many writers -- that at present we do not have a satisfactory explanation of how the Jesus tradition originated and how it developed during its earliest stages and that it is possible to find such an explanation. After spending about twenty years examining the New Testament and other writings about Jesus and the early Christian church without any satisfactory results, one day in the summer of 1991 I had a thought which struck me as very promising. I had a strong feeling that I might have finally found a provable hypothesis which provided the key to solving the mystery of the origins of Christianity and hence to a much fuller understanding of the whole Jesus tradition. I started to test the hypothesis (which is stated below in the Introduction) and found that the more I examined the evidence in its light the more the pieces of the puzzle of Christian origins began to fall into place. Sometimes I had doubts but not because of any evidential or logical reasons. My doubts arose entirely from the radical originality of the hypothesis: the hypothesis was so different from what all other writers -- many with amazing learning and impressive intellectual abilities -- have been saying that it may be absurd. But each time I tried to see whether any alternative hypotheses offered by others or any that I could myself think of could explain the puzzle of the origin of Christianity better, my doubts were overridden by the initial realization of the potential of the new hypothesis and I would continue to develop and substantiate it. This process of testing and developing continued for the next five years, culminating in this book.


Despite the originality of the main thesis which required radical revision of many of the views established among scholars of Christian origins, I have naturally benefited immensely from the earlier discussions among those very scholars and some of their conclusions. However, my knowledge of such discussions is not of the same level on all relevant issues, as a result of which the reader will notice a certain unevenness in the degree to which I take the views of other scholars into account. In this connection I take comfort in the fact that the field of Christian studies is so vast that no one can go through the entire literature much less digest it unless perhaps one lived like the ancient biblical figures such as Noah for hundreds of years. Consequently a writer has no choice but either to write on a very specialized subject or to write in ignorance of a large part of what others have written and hence risk making some naive judgments. But the need for works seeking global explanation of the Jesus tradition is at least as important as the need for specialized studies and therefore the risk is worth taking.


E.P.Sanders has talked about the "sweat which comes from the effort to explain history" (Jesus and Judaism, p. 7). Writing this book has made me experience the meaning of these words. I have, however, attempted that no sweat will be necessary on the part of the reader to follow this book. In order to achieve that goal I have not shunned detailed discussions of relevant issues but I have presented the material in as readable a fashion as it was in my power to do. In particular, the need on the part of the reader to read for herself/himself the texts cited is reduced to a minimum by as many quotations of the most relevant texts as was possible without having to divide the book into two volumes.






What historically reliable information about Jesus do the New Testament and other contemporary documents about him and his churches contain? How did Christianity originate and develop to take the forms that it took in the decisive first century and half of its history? These are the two most central problems about early Christianity. They are central regardless of whether we are interested in early Christianity from a historical point of view or from a purely religious point of view.


The early writings about Jesus and his churches, both canonical and non-canonical, and their Semitic, Greek, Roman and Persian backgrounds have been intensively studied in the past couple of centuries. Literally millions of pages of research have been published by scholars of every conceivable background. Yet a satisfactory solution of the two central questions have so far alluded scholars. By a satisfactory solution I mean one that possesses the following three characteristics:


1) Comprehensiveness. This receives more precise definition below. Here we can understand the concept to mean that our picture of the historical Jesus and of the development of the early Christianity must explain all the relevant traditions in our documents and not just a selection from them. If a tradition is historical, our picture should be consistent with it. And if a tradition is unhistorical, then we should be able to explain why and how it was fabricated.


2) Plausibility. This means that our picture of Jesus and of the development of earliest Jesus tradition should be plausible in the light of what we know about human history generally and of the history of the near east in the first century. This does not exclude the possibility of miracles but nevertheless requires that the reports of any miraculous events should pass plausible tests of historicity. The occurrence of unique and very unusual events other than miracles is also not excluded by this criterion; in fact, it is plausible that the life of the founder of a lasting religious movement as well as that of the movement itself will have some very unique and unusual happenings. The criterion of plausibility assumes that despite the possibility of the presence of some miraculous, unique or unusual elements a great deal of the life of Jesus and the development of the traditions about him can be understood like we can understand any other individuals and movements in history.


3) Broad Acceptability. Our answers to the two questions should be acceptable to scholars of many different backgrounds after enough time has passed for those answers to be duly examined. This criterion is valuable only as a confirmation that the first two criteria have been met.


At present there is only one theory that fulfils the first criterion for a satisfactory solution, namely, comprehensiveness and that is the traditional Christian view. According to this view, Christian documents can be divided into two categories: canonical and apocryphal. The canonical documents represent by and large reliable records of events that actually took place. The contradictions among the various traditions are either only apparent or result from some lapse of memory or misunderstanding or some form of human error on the part of the original narrators or reproducers of the original narrations; such errors in any case do not effect the historicity of the main outline. The apocryphal documents, on the other hand, are largely fabrications except where they are dependent on the canonical documents and few other instances where they are consistent with them. This theory is, however, rarely presented in a scientific spirit and when it is, it is clearly seen to lack plausibility, the second criterion for a satisfactory theory. For there are so many contradictions even among the various canonical traditions that to provide plausible harmonization is seen to be impossible. And in many cases separate motives behind the contradictory traditions are so apparent that we cannot attribute the contradictions to failure of memory or any "human error." The traditional view also fails the third criterion, namely, that of broad acceptability to scholars of varied different backgrounds, since this explanation has satisfied only Christians committed to the traditional Christian teachings.


Critical scholars with a more scientific approach have effectively demonstrated over the last couple of hundred years the invalidity of the above-mentioned traditional view but they have not been able to offer an alternative. Any theories they have put forward fail in regard to the criterion of comprehensiveness. This is because until recently scholars were busy in the study of small parts of the early writings about Jesus and his churches. Even when they attempted an overall explanation of all the data, they used largely the parts they had the opportunity to examine in detail. This was necessary because the data were so extensive that it was impossible for individual scholars to fully analyze them in their totality.


Now, however, thanks to the labors of a great many scholars of every possible background most of the relevant facts have been brought forward in readable books and it should be possible for individual scholars to review them and fit a satisfactory theory into them. Yet no such theory seems to exist even now.


This situation has raised the question whether we can ever know the historical Jesus and how Christianity began. The answer to this question is of course in the negative if "knowing" means the ability to answer all questions. We can rarely know anything in that complete way. But the answer is in the affirmative if "knowing" means finding the best explanation of the data that we possess about early Christianity. For every data set there is at least one theory that best explains it and the same must also be the case with the data about early Christianity. To find a "best fitting" theory for these data is to know the historical Jesus and the origin and development of early Christianity.




The Key to a Solution: Explaining the Resurrection


A central part of any theory explaining the set of Jesus traditions known to us must include an explanation of the traditions of Jesus' death and resurrection. And here I mean not just general explanations but detailed explanations which start with certain hypotheses and then show how the traditions took the form in which we find them in the New Testament and other Christian documents of the period. In recent critical scholarship such explanations are almost never provided and when they are they lack comprehensiveness and/or plausibility.


Some books dealing specifically with the resurrection do raise the relevant historical issues and a few such as the one by Gerd Luedemann, The Resurrection of Jesus, to which my attention was drawn by Dr. Marshall D. Johnson, even attempt "honest" and "reasonable" historical explanations of the resurrection (p. vii). But books about the historical Jesus and the origin and early history of Christianity either ignore the resurrection tradition or give very tentative and vague explanations of it. This can be illustrated by reference to the books by Paula Fredriksen (From Jesus to Christ: The Origins of New Testament Images of Jesus), E. P. Sanders, (The Historical Figure of Jesus) and John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus). Meier expressly declares the belief in Jesus' resurrection as outside the purview of his work (Vol. 1, p. 13). This, at first sight, looks reasonable, since resurrection belongs to the period after the end of Jesus' ministry and hence is not strictly relevant to the study of the historical Jesus. But all historical facts about Jesus are to be recovered from the subsequent church tradition and unless we understand how this church tradition, which was based in large measure on the belief in the resurrection, originated and developed, any reconstruction of facts about Jesus can only be tentative.


In Sanders' works what happens in the church after Jesus plays an important part in the reconstruction of historical traditions about Jesus. But he too has to leave the origin and development of the tradition of resurrection unexplained.


        When Jesus was executed, his followers fled or hid, but their hopes were renewed when they saw him alive again. Here I wish to say nothing at all about the disciples' resurrection experiences, which we shall briefly consider in an epilogue, but rather focus on their subsequent behavior. They were convinced that the kingdom that Jesus had predicted would soon arrive, and that he would return. They settled down in Jerusalem to wait. While waiting, they tried to convince others that their Master was the Messiah of Israel and that he would soon return to establish the kingdom of God (The Historical Figure of Jesus, p. 58).


Considerations promised above for the Epilogue consist of general and tentative suggestions of the type that fill the literature on resurrection, with the difference that unlike most writers Sanders admits what he does not know.


        Faced with accounts of this nature -- sharply diverging stories of where and to whom Jesus appeared, lack of agreement and clarity on what he was like (except in negatives) -- we cannot reconstruct what really happened. Throughout this book I have offered suggestions about what lies behind passages in the gospels. On the present topic, however, I do not see how to improve on the evidence, or how to get behind it. (Ibid. , p. 278)


In an earlier book, Jesus and Judaism, Sanders' admission is even clearer: "I have no special explanation or rationalization of the resurrection experiences of the disciples" (p. 320). This means that we can think of Jesus and the church as two ends of a dark tunnel. The tunnel represents the period between the crucifixion and the disciples' experience of the resurrection. On one end of the tunnel is Jesus and on the other the church. Sanders' admission means that we do not know much about what is in the tunnel. But then the confidence found in Sanders' books about our ability to construct certain and probable facts (p. 321) is hardly justified. If our information about what came before the dark tunnel and what came after it was reliable, we would not have to concern ourselves with what went in the tunnel for reconstructing the historical Jesus and the earliest development of the Jesus tradition; in fact by looking at what went into the tunnel and what came out we may even find out what was in the tunnel. But that is not at all the case. There is not much light even outside the tunnel. Therefore, in order to reconstruct the history of Jesus and/or the earliest church, we need to find a way to get under this tunnel with some light.


Paula Fredriksen's book is more about the origin of the Jesus tradition than about Jesus himself. But even she talks mostly of the responses to the resurrection but not of the resurrection itself. The resurrection itself receives the brief comment that "what actually occurred ... is now impossible to say" (p. 133). Other books that expressly deal with the origin and history of early church also have no detailed explanation of the resurrection. In other words, present studies of the Jesus tradition tend either to end before the resurrection or start after it, leaving the resurrection unexplained.


As noted earlier, some of the books that deal specifically with the tradition of Jesus' resurrection do attempt to give a reasonable explanation of the tradition. But at least I find them completely unsatisfactory. The reasons for this are given at various points in this book. Here I will briefly comment on the recent book by Luedemann to which a reference has already been made.


Luedemann bases his proposal on the following two assumptions (The Resurrection of Jesus, pp. 30-31):


a) Paul is our earliest witness and hence the most reliable. It is, therefore, above all from Paul that "we are to expect access to the manner of the appearance of the risen Jesus to the rest of the eyewitnesses."


b) Paul knew Cephas and other leaders in Jerusalem and hence in talking of the appearances of the risen Jesus to them he "must have known what he was talking about."


These two general assumptions enable him to agree with the following more specific judgement of David Friedrich Strauss:


        When Paul there places the christophany which occurred to himself in the same series with the appearances of Jesus in the days after his resurrection: this authorizes us to conclude that, for all the Apostle knew, those earlier appearances were of the same nature with the one experienced by himself. (The Life of Jesus (1836), 1973, p. 740)


But both of Luedemann's assumptions are questionable. In regard to the first assumption: a set of tradition which at first exists in oral form undergoing change and development and are then written as the need arises after a considerable period of time, the earlier writing of a particular version of an event or story may often be just an accident of history and may not represent the most reliable or even the earliest version. Paul only once refers to the appearances of the risen Jesus to the disciples. Had the circumstances in the Corinthian church, in a letter to which this mention is made (1 Cor 15), been somewhat different, we would have been deprived even of this one mention of the appearances. In regard to the second assumption: It is manifestly wrong to draw from the fact that Paul knew Peter and others the conclusion that he must have known about the nature of their experience of Jesus' resurrection. How easy would be the work of the historians and human life generally if we can trust the testimony of every witness about some other persons whom he had met a few times during his life! More specifically, it is generally recognized that the traditions of Jesus' appearances to "Cephas, then to the twelve" (1 Cor 15:5) and to "James, then to all the apostles" (1 Cor 15:7) are rival traditions. Luedemann himself recognizes this when he says: "The text 1 Cor 15:7 arose when followers of James (or James himself) claimed Peter's role as witness for Jesus. To this end they adopted the account of the appearance of Jesus to James to the formula of 1 Cor 15:5 ..." How far can we trust in the personal knowledge of Paul about the persons to whom Jesus appeared if traditions he quotes are rival traditions?


In view of the fact that Luedemann proceeds from questionable assumptions it is not surprising that he arrives at a conclusion which does not explain all the important facts. Paul says in 1 Cor 15:6 that Jesus appeared to more than 500 people at one time, most of whom were alive at the time he wrote. No proposal of the origin of the tradition of Jesus' resurrection can be accepted unless it can explain this statement of Paul satisfactorily. Luedemann's proposal does not pass the test as he has to resort to the explanation that tradition of the appearance to "the more than 500" is based on the Pentecostal descent of the Spirit, an untenable view (see Ch. 28).


This is not a reflection on the scholarship of the writers cited above as examples. Indeed, their books are well written justly acclaimed works, helpful both for scholars and general readers. What the above comments are meant to show is that at the present stage of Christian studies there exists a huge gap in our understanding of the earliest Jesus tradition which begs to be filled if we hope to ever arrive at some satisfactory understanding of Jesus and his movement. And it seems to be possible to fill that gap with reasonable degree of satisfaction. For the process which created the belief in resurrection must in some way lie behind the extant tradition about the resurrection, albeit in a hidden form. The extant tradition is extensive enough so that its careful analysis can be expected to reveal the underlying process which created the belief in the resurrection and at the same time reveal the development of the extant tradition itself.


In this book I offer a radically new explanation of the traditions about Jesus' death and resurrection which, in case of resurrection, goes beyond generalities and, I think, explains almost all the specific details found in the extant resurrection tradition. In a subsequent work I hope to show that starting from this explanation of the traditions of death and resurrection and using the large number of insights that have already been offered by scholars we can provide an overall explanation of the entire extant Jesus traditions.






The Stumbling Block of the Crucifixion


To introduce the theory presented here I start with the observation that, as shown by the history of other fields of knowledge, and also in detective work, when it is difficult to find a satisfactory explanation of the known facts it is because certain assumptions are made that one never thinks of questioning and yet it is those very assumptions that are false and therefore must be rejected in order to arrive at a satisfactory explanation. This book will show that this exactly is the situation in the field of Christian studies. In this field everything from miracles to the existence of Nazareth has been questioned but there are a few traditions that are considered above question. Among these the most important is the crucifixion of Jesus. The only writers who have seriously questioned the crucifixion are those who reject the very existence of Jesus. In other words, the existing attitude is that if Jesus existed he must have been crucified. I hope to show that it is this very assumption that is in the way of our understanding of the origin and early development of the tradition of Jesus' death and resurrection and therefore of Christianity as we know it. The cross may or may not be a stumbling block for faith, as Paul said (1 Cor 1:23), but it is most probably a stumbling block for the historical truth. For, to understand the resurrection we need, surprisingly, to reject the historicity of the very presupposition of the resurrection, which is the cross.


The reason that scholars consider the historicity of the crucifixion above question is not that the evidence in its favor is compelling. The crucifixion is mentioned only in two of our earliest sources: Mark and Paul. It is not mentioned in Q, the set of traditions that are found in both Matthew and Luke but not in Mark and that are widely believed by scholars to come from a very early written source. The non-canonical Gospel of Thomas and the canonical Letter of James, both considered by many scholars as very early, also do not mention the crucifixion even when a mention is almost demanded by the context.


The sort of attestation that does exist for the crucifixion places it in an early stage of oral tradition but that hardly makes it historically certain. The tradition of Jesus' resurrection has as early an attestation as that of his crucifixion but no scholar has argued seriously that this early attestation alone assures the historicity of the resurrection. There is, in fact, no stage of tradition which can be regarded as above all suspicion. As Paula Fredriksen, referring to the studies by G. W. Allport and L.Postman (The Psychology of Rumor), J. Vansina (Oral Tradition) and John Gager ("The Gospel and Jesus") has noted:


        Further, ... even reports going back to eyewitnesses are far from historically secure. Interpretation or distortion between an event and the report of an event occurs almost inevitably, first of all because the observer is human. If the report is communicated through different people over a period of time before it achieves written form (as is the case with the gospels), revision can occur at every human link in the chain of transmission. In brief, though the oral transmission of traditions about Jesus allows us to assume some relation between what the gospels report and what might actually have happened, it also requires that we acknowledge an inevitable -- often incalculable -- degree of distortion in those traditions as well. (From Jesus to Christ, p. 5)


On the basis of the studies cited by Fredriksen and other similar studies (see Ch. 4), one can in fact go further and say that even reports of eyewitnesses themselves are not necessarily entirely trustworthy. If reports can get distorted after being heard, there is no reason why events cannot get reported erroneously after being witnessed. Moreover, not only there is distortion but given the right circumstances creation of reports can also take place at any stage. Among the factors that result in distortion and creativity at an early stage is the degree of the reliable knowledge with which the reporting first starts. The less of this knowledge people have, the greater is the room for distortion and speculation. In case of the Jesus tradition we cannot exclude the possibility that the disciples did not have any firm knowledge about the fate of Jesus (see below), in which case the reliability of the report of the crucifixion despite its early date is put into question. Another factor is the environment in which a story develops and travels. In societies or social classes experiencing great emotional stress, a story may suffer much greater distortion than in societies or social classes where there is relative calm. Palestinian society in which Jesus' movement arose, being torn between the brutal fact of Roman occupation and the stringent demands of Jewish law and history, was under considerable emotional strain. The alienated classes of Gentiles from which most of the early Gentile converts came also lived under a great deal of stress and a profound need for emotional release. Factuality, historicity, even consistency were not their primary concerns, if at all; participating in some group where they could feel some security was their main concern. Under such circumstances the Jesus story could easily undergo profound distortion and abuse within a matter of months. Ernst Renan, more than a century earlier, notes:


        It is the greatest of errors to suppose that legendary lore requires much more time to mature; sometimes a legend is the product of a single day." (Ernst Renan, The Apostles, p. 58).


The truth is that critical scholarship has so far offered no theory about the origin and early development of the Jesus tradition which does not imply some creativity almost from the beginning.


The extensive passion narratives describing in vivid, and often plausible, details Jesus' arrest, trials and the execution also do not constitute a compelling evidence for the historicity of the crucifixion. The historicity of almost every single unit of tradition in these narratives has been questioned. Moreover, two different but extensive "infancy narratives" in Matthew and Luke, whose central themes (the virgin birth, the birth in Bethlehem etc.) are widely regarded as unhistorical, show how lengthy narratives can develop without even their central themes being historical. The extensive and different passion narratives in the gospels could have developed in the same way without the basic underlying tradition of crucifixion being historical. It is true that the infancy narratives are found only in two of the relatively late gospels. But it is possible that the five extant passion narratives (in the Gospel of Peter and the four canonical gospels) are all dependent on only two primitive versions that were written not too much before the infancy narratives (see Part V).


The reason for the solid consensus on the crucifixion is not the compelling force of the evidence but the fact that it is a tradition that is acceptable to traditional as well as critical scholars, to conservative as well as liberal scholars. It is acceptable to the traditional and conservative scholars because the cross came to be a cornerstone of the Christian faith while the critical and liberal scholars find it acceptable because in a tradition dominated by the miraculous and the supernatural the crucifixion is one of the few mundane "facts" that modern man can easily accept. Then also consensus has a great potential for self-perpetuation. Once formed, it has a strong tendency to continue and reinforce itself.


The result of this consensus is that writer after writer either assumes it or supports it with very brief arguments without raising or discussing the relevant issues. This can be illustrated by the books of E. P. Sanders, R. E. Brown and John P. Meier, all three scholars assuming the historicity of the crucifixion without discussion. Two volumes of Meier's book, A Marginal Jew, consisting of over 1500 pages have already been published with a promise of a third volume. Meier gives five primary criteria for deciding whether a gospel tradition is historical. The fifth of these criteria is that authentic words and deeds of Jesus must fit the "historical fact" of Jesus' trial and crucifixion (Vol. 1, p. 177). One would expect that before coherence with the tradition of Jesus' crucifixion can be made a criterion for the historicity of all other traditions, the question of the historicity of the crucifixion itself should be first raised and discussed. But Meier spends about 200 pages of his Vol. 1 on "issues of definitions, method and sources" (p. 13) and yet he nowhere raises and discusses this particular question. Brown, in a parenthetical remark in the Introduction to his The Death of the Messiah describes the crucifixion "as bedrock history" (Vol. 1, p. 13) but to the best of my knowledge his massive two-volume commentary on the passion narratives (!) does not again raise the question of historicity of the crucifixion much less examine it with some care. It is true that Brown's primary goal is to interpret what the gospels say in narrating the passion of Jesus but he does devote considerable space to a careful examination of the question of historicity for various individual items and one should expect some discussion of the most basic of all historical questions raised by the passion narratives, Was Jesus executed? E. P. Sanders in his Jesus and Judaism and The Historical Figure of Jesus does not state coherence with the "fact" of the crucifixion as a criterion for authenticity of a tradition about Jesus but it practically governs his reconstruction of the historical figure of Jesus. He includes it among the facts about Jesus that are "almost indisputable" and that must be explained by "any interpretation of Jesus" (Jesus and Judaism, p. 11). He does support by arguments some of the other "almost indisputable facts" (e.g. Jesus' baptism by John and the choice of the twelve disciples by Jesus, The Historical Figure of Jesus, p. 94 Jesus and Judaism, p. 98-101) but not the crucifixion.


When scholars do spend some space in supporting the historicity of the crucifixion they resort to one or both of two arguments. One is that the crucifixion is incompatible with the belief in Jesus' messiahship and therefore could not have been invented by Christians. In this connection the question is never raised that if the belief in the crucifixion could not have been invented in the face of the belief in the messiahship, then how could the belief in the messiahship have arisen or continued in the face of the crucifixion. Some writers do raise the question, not in connection with the historicity of the crucifixion but in connection with the question whether the belief in the messiahship arose with Jesus or after him. They argue that since the belief in the messiahship could not have arisen in the face of the "fact" of the crucifixion, it must have been based on Jesus' own view of himself, which still does not explain how even Jesus' own claim to messiahship could have continued to be believed in the face of his crucifixion.


There is, however, considerable evidence that Jesus did not himself come forward as the messiah and that the belief in his messiahship arose after him. Be that as it may, even the scholars who face this evidence and accept that the belief in the messiahship arose after Jesus do not explain how this belief could have arisen in the face of firm knowledge of Jesus' reported crucifixion. To be sure, the resurrection or the "Easter experience" is said to be in some sense responsible for overcoming the obstacle that the crucifixion provided to the belief in the messiahship. But since the nature of resurrection itself is left obscure, this amounts to replacing one difficulty by another. Meyer (Aims of Jesus, p.177) says with justification that in the writings of many scholars "'the Easter experience of the disciples' had been turned into a magic top-hat from which, like so many rabbits there unexpectedly emerged the church itself, its messianic proclamation, and its basic soteriology." And there is also some point to the question by A. Schweitzer (The Quest of the Historical Jesus, p. 345): "How can the appearances of Jesus have suggested to the disciples the idea that Jesus ... was the Messiah"? Many scholars (e.g. Edward Schillebeeckx) define resurrection or Easter experience in terms of the revival of the disciples' faith in Jesus after the despair of the cross but this leaves the basic question unanswered: how could the revived faith take the form of faith in Jesus' messiahship? Moreover, it is not clear what provided the motivation for the disciples to overcome the obstacle of the crucifixion and to imagine or "experience" the resurrection of Jesus and to regard Jesus as the Messiah?


The argument that the crucifixion must be a historical fact because the belief in it could not have arisen in the face of the messiahship of Jesus is part of a more general principle employed in sorting out authentic traditions about Jesus from unauthentic ones: if a tradition is dissimilar to the views of the early church and to the Jewish traditions then it is historical. But this principle, even if we ignore its shortcomings (see below) does not apply to the time immediately after the conclusion of Jesus' ministry, since at that time there was no church whose views could be compared with reports concerning Jesus. In that "primeval" period conflicting beliefs could arise and establish themselves to be later reconciled, rationalized, harmonized or synthesized.


Thus belief in the messiahship can be used to argue for the non-historicity of the crucifixion with as much justification as for its historicity.


The second argument used to support the historicity of the crucifixion is that two non-Christian historians, a Jewish one, Flavius Josephus writing in 93-94 C.E., and a Roman one Cornelius Tacitus, writing sometime between 110 and 130 C.E. refer to the crucifixion. This argument is used infrequently. One of the scholars who uses both arguments is John Dominic Crossan (The Historical Jesus, pp.372-376). Crossan is a scholar who has probably contributed more than all others to show that passion narratives are largely fictional. He proposes that "Jesus' closest followers knew nothing more about the passion than the fact of the crucifixion, that they had fled and later had no available witnesses for its details," and that the passion narratives were created out of verses and images in the Old Testament and out of details invented to enhance narrative plausibility. But then if the disciples fled sometimes before the crucifixion and there were no other witnesses, Crossan's confidence can hardly be justified when he says :"I take it absolutely for granted that Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate." As for Josephus and Tacitus, it is doubtful that one can describe them as "two early and independent witnesses". Documents written sixty to ninety years after an event can hardly be "early witnesses" if we want to reach absolute certainty on their basis. We cannot be certain whether the event of Jesus' crucifixion was recorded in any of the Roman sources used by Josephus or Tacitus or whether they were simply reflecting what Christians were saying for more than sixty years before they wrote. Odds are that the event, if it did take place, was too unimportant to be recorded in contemporary records. Crossan himself has observed the insignificance of an execution like that of Jesus: "The elimination of a dangerous peasant nuisance like Jesus need not have involved any official trials or even consultations between Temple and Roman authorities. ... After two thousand years of Christianity, it is hard for us even to imagine the brutal offhandedness with which a peasant nobody like Jesus would have been dispatched in a Jerusalem under Caiphas and Pilate" (Who Killed Jesus? p. 212). If there were no official trials, then the existence of any records for Tacitus or Josephus to use in their references to Jesus' execution becomes highly doubtful. Consequently, in his reference to Jesus' execution Tacitus is in all likelihood dependent on the Christian traditions. In doing so Tacitus would be following a practice common among historians: to use traditions of a group as a source for the history of that group.


It may be asked why Tacitus mentions only one tradition about Jesus, namely his crucifixion. This is explained by the fact that in Gentile Christianity with which Tacitus is expected to be most familiar this tradition stands out most prominently among all those in whom a pagan historian would be expected to take interest. Indeed, we can go further and produce an almost exact parallel between the concentration on crucifixion in Tacitus and in Gentile Christianity. In 1 Cor. 2:2 Paul tells the Corinthians: "For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified." Tacitus has exactly the same combination: Christus and his crucifixion, except that writing about half a century after Paul he is aware of the gospel tradition that the crucifixion was carried out by sentence of Pilate, of which Paul does not give the slightest indication in his letters.


It is worth noting that not all scholars who accept the crucifixion as certain share with Crossan his assessment of the testimony of Tacitus. E. P. Sanders, for example, says: "But knowledge of Jesus was limited to knowledge of Christianity; that is, had Jesus' adherents not started a movement that spread to Rome, Jesus would not have made it into Roman histories at all. The consequence is that we do not have what we would very much like, a comment in Tacitus or another Gentile writer that offers independent evidence about Jesus, his life and his death" (The Historical Figure of Jesus, p. 50).


The situation with regard to the reference to the crucifixion that appears in a passage in Josephus (Jewish Antiquities, 18:63) is similar. All scholars, including Crossan recognize that this passage contains Christian interpolations and some have doubted the authenticity of the whole passage. The part that is considered authentic by Crossan not only refers to the crucifixion but also says this: "For he was one who wrought surprising feats and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks." Josephus must have known that Christians claimed Jesus to be the messiah. It is difficult to see how Josephus after saying that Jesus performed surprising feats and was a teacher of people who gladly accept truth and then not to accept Jesus as the messiah and instead give this role to the emperor Vespasian. Also, the comment that Jesus won over many Greeks along with Jews can be understood to mean that Jesus had Greek disciples which is very doubtful. The best explanation of the comment is that in the time of Josephus there were Greeks among Christians and he had simply assumed that the conversion of Greeks started with Jesus himself. It then becomes quite possible that his reference to the execution of Jesus is also based on what he knew of Christianity of his time. This reference in any case does not come from any independent Jewish records. For Jewish sources talk of Jesus' execution by the Jews through stoning rather than his crucifixion by Pontius Pilate.


An illustration of how even historians could accept the historicity of an unhistorical crucifixion is provided by the passion traditions. Crossan thinks that the accounts of Jesus' arrest on the Mount of Olive, Jewish and Roman trials, Peter's denial, Barabbas and the whole story about him, Joseph of Arimathea and the story of burial by him are all fictional creations, mostly of Mark (Who Killed Jesus? pp. 81,111-112,117,132,159,172,179,188). Now there are many critical historians who believe that Barabbas and/or Joseph of Arimathea were historical persons and some at least of the stories considered fictional by Crossan are historical. Also, some scholars think that the incident known as cleansing of or attack on the temple and Judas and the story of his betrayal are fictional but Crossan accepts both the cleansing/attack and the betrayal as historical (pp. 65,81). Examples such as these show that a story once created can be easily accepted, in part or in full, as historical even by the most critical and objective historians. The same could well have been the case with the story of Jesus' execution and its acceptance by Tacitus and Josephus. To be sure, these two historians were much closer to the time of Jesus than we are but that is hardly a guarantee of superior knowledge on their part.


It is worthy of note that the non-Christian references to Jesus' execution conflict with each other as to who was responsible for that execution. The Jewish Talmud mentions the Jews alone in connection with the execution. The Roman historian Tacitus mentions Romans alone as responsible for killing Jesus. And the Jewish friend of Romans, Josephus, says that the Romans killed Jesus after he was accused by the Jews. The full significance of these facts will become clear in Ch. 6 but they should caution against putting too much confidence into non-Christian references to Jesus' execution and at least raise the possibility that the real answer to the question, Who killed Jesus? may be: Nobody. It is noteworthy that Crossan does not deal with the Talmudic evidence which calls into question the account of both Tacitus and Josephus. Morton Smith, on the other hand, makes the Talmudic evidence as the very basis of his picture of Jesus in his Jesus the Magician.




Proposed theory


The above observations show that the crucifixion is not a certain fact. Evidence in its favor is such that one can tentatively assign to it a high probability of historicity but we must not be prevented from exploring the possibility of getting better explanation of the data as a whole by tentatively rejecting its historicity. This book will show that such exploration does indeed result in a much better understanding of the origin and formation of the earliest Jesus tradition. More specifically, it will be shown that the following scenario explains the data far more satisfactorily than the usual scenario which assumes the historicity of the crucifixion and then explains the resurrection and the origin of Christianity in some way.


1) Jesus was from Galilee where after some initial success he met with indifference from the people, opposition from some scribes and a threat from Herod.


2) He went to Jerusalem, during a feast time, in order to reach Jewish people of many different backgrounds. There a confrontation and a skirmish developed between the temple traders on one side and Jesus and his followers on the other. This put Jesus' life under serious threat from the Jerusalem authorities, who became nervous at the slightest sign of trouble on feast days.


3) Jesus quickly went into hiding and secretly left for Galilee as soon as he could, probably on the Sunday after the feast. Somewhere near the sea of Galilee he saw some of his disciples and relatives who were to subsequently play a leading role in the Jesus movement. He also had a simple meal with a much larger number of sympathizers to whom he entrusted with the mission to preach the nearness of the kingdom of God and of healing the sick, thus launching one of the two main wings of the movement, the other being the wing started by the Hellenists in Jerusalem. Later he disappeared never to be seen again except possibly by a few who have themselves disappeared from history.


4) Jesus' mysterious disappearance made him a hot subject of conversation throughout Palestine during which there was a great deal of speculation as to what happened to him. Some were sure that he was executed, others were equally sure that he had gone into exile while still others were convinced that he was taken up to heaven. (For examples showing that it is possible for reports of an execution that never happened, even when the person is alive and active in another place, to be generated, see Ch. 6).


5) Soon there came forward different individuals or small groups of five to twelve persons with the purpose of continuing Jesus' work. These individuals/groups had heard and seen Jesus at different times and places and so their views of the work of Jesus, his fate and his role were different. Some saw him as a prophet-reformer who for that reason was executed by the Jewish authorities. Some viewed him in more messianic terms, either as Elijah-type forerunner of God who after calling people to repentance before the imminent judgment and salvation has ascended to heaven or as a messiah in exile who will soon return to perform his function as the Messiah or as someone who has assumed the role of the heavenly Son of man and who will soon come in the clouds of heaven.


6) Early, oral Jesus tradition developed out of the conflicting speculations, built on some historical reminiscences, about what happened to him and about the significance of his work.


7) Along with some rivalry between these views, there was also a tendency to produce a consensus by synthesizing them. One such synthesis was that Jesus was the Messiah and a prophet and that he was executed as well as raised to heaven after being resurrected from the dead by God. By the time of Paul this synthesis was well-established although not all Jesus people accepted it or accepted it wholeheartedly. In due course of time this synthesis became the basis of mainstream Christianity. (For evidence showing the inherent plausibility such a synthesis see Ch. 4).


8) In the first century many documents were written, reflecting various other combinations of the earliest rival speculations and beliefs but by and large only those gained acceptance who conformed to the mainstream synthesis.


9) Our gospels are produced from different sources, some of which represent earlier rival views, brought together within the overall perspective of the mainstream synthesis.


In the next thirty one chapters I hope to show that puzzle after puzzle about the origin of Christianity begins to be solved on the basis of the above theory. Why the resurrection tradition conveys a strong impression that there lies behind it some actual event and yet we find it impossible to reconstruct those events? Why in the synoptics we have one trip of Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem while John has more than one? Why some stories appear both in the ministry and as resurrection stories? Why Mark has no resurrection appearance? Where does the tradition of Jesus' appearance to more than 500 brethren mentioned by Paul come from and what happened to it after Paul? Why the last supper of Jesus is presented as a Passover meal in the synoptics while in John it takes place a day before the Passover? Why the attack on the temple occurs in the synoptics in the last week of his ministry while in John it takes place in the first week? How could the Jesus' movement operating by and large well within the thought-world of Judaism have arrived at the belief in the crucified messiah, a belief which in that thought-world is an absurdity? How could early Christians think that the death and resurrection of Jesus took place according to scriptures when the scriptures say nothing of the sort? And so on. Moreover, a continuity expected to exist between Jesus and the Jesus' movement is established. We can see more clearly the processes by which Jesus' work led to the Jesus movement and then see the earliest stages of its development.




General methodology


The methodological approach followed in this book is the scientific approach which is now followed in different fields of learning including physical and social sciences. Its main features include the following:


1) Scientific activity starts with some data consisting of "facts" and construction of hypotheses or theories that fit the data. Since the statement of what we call "facts" is always influenced to some degree or the other by some assumptions that we have already made prior to the examination of the data, it is often necessary, during the process of fitting hypotheses or theories, to restate "facts." The final result of this activity is a restatement of the given facts (the data) together with a set of hypotheses or a theory fitting that data. Apart from the data and the theory which explains it, there is no other way to state any truth. This is not to say that there is no absolute truth but only that such absolute truth which may in some sense be identified with God is not accessible to human intellect.


Furthermore, each theory is as valid as any other provided both explain the whole data set and not just a selection from it. On the other hand, any hypothesis which explains only a selected part of the data is worthless except as a means of one day playing a role in the discovery of a comprehensive theory that would fit the data set as a whole.


In case of scientific studies related to Jesus and early Christianity, the data consist of statements of facts of the form "such and such document, e. g. Mark or Didache, says such and such" and we must devise hypotheses that explain how these statements came to be formed. The "restatement of facts" consists of settling some textual questions and determining the meanings of the statements in our ancient texts, which to some extent is determined by some of our prior assumptions. Along with determination of the original text and meaning of the documents we need to devise hypotheses that explain how the statements came to be formed, sometimes revising our prior assumptions, making it necessary to re-examine some questions of text and meaning, finally arriving at the best combination of interpretations of the texts and hypotheses fitting them. There is no truth about Jesus or early Christianity apart from an interpretation of statements in our documents and hypotheses explaining those statements in their entirety. Every set of hypotheses that explain the whole data set is as valid as any other while any partial explanation is ultimately of no real value.


It has been said that enlightenment comes not with new hypotheses but by new discoveries. This statement at most contains a partial truth when it comes to the study of Jesus tradition. We possess a great deal of data and great deal of enlightenment can come by coming up with hypotheses that better fit these data even if we make no new discoveries.


The truth is that some relatively recent phenomenal discoveries such as those of the Qumran scrolls and the Nag Hammadi documents have not resulted in a solution of how Jesus tradition was formed. These discoveries have greatly enhanced our understanding of some individual pieces of tradition but not provided us with any breakthrough in understanding its origin and earliest development. One can expect that any future discoveries of written documents will also not shed a direct light on this problem, since the secret of the origins of Christianity most likely is hidden in its oral pre-history and there may not be any document in existence which we can discover and from which we can directly read the story of Jesus and of the origin of Christianity.


2) One of the fundamental axioms of the scientific approach is that phenomena in any particular domain in time and space are related. Consequently, what lies outside the domain to which the observed facts belong can sometimes be reconstructed from those observed facts. What happens in the inaccessible past, lives on in some form in the present and what is invisible shows itself in the visible. For example, from the observation of the earth at the present time we can tell what happened to it millions of years ago or by observing visible phenomena we can learn about some invisible particles and forces.


Similarly, in Christian studies even events that took place in the "pre-history" of the Jesus movement with no direct reference in the extant sources in some sense lived on in history and therefore may be found in the extant documents in some form. The more foundational these "pre-historic" events, the more likely they are to lie hidden behind the extant Jesus traditions.


One of the invisible things about which we can learn from extant sources is Jesus himself. Morton Smith has said:


        Trying to find the actual Jesus is like trying, in atomic physics, to locate a submicroscopic particle and determine its charge. The particle cannot be seen directly, but on a photographic plate we can see the lines left by the trajectories of larger particles it put in motion. By tracing these trajectories back to their common origin, and by calculating the force necessary to make the particles move as they did, we can locate and describe the invisible cause. Admittedly, history is more complex than physics; the lines connecting the original figure to the developed legends cannot be traced with mathematical accuracy; the intervention of unknown factors has to be allowed for. Consequently, results can never claim more than probability; but "probability," as Bishop Butler said, "is the very guide of life." (Jesus the Magician, p. 6)


The "pre-historic" foundational processes that led to the formation of the primitive beliefs of Jesus' death, resurrection and messiahship are also expected to lie behind our extant sources and should be recoverable in their main outline with considerable probability by using those sources like "photographic plates". Indeed, the "photos" contained in our documents are more directly influenced by these beliefs and the processes of their formation should be recovered first, before finding the historical Jesus.


3) In various fields of knowledge the phenomena studied are extremely complex. Successful explanation of the phenomena begins with the demonstration of how a relatively few elements combining according to a relatively few and simple principles can produce something like the complexity actually observed. Then such a theory usually requires almost continuous refinement to better explain the facts already known or newly discovered.


Likewise, the theory proposed here about the origin and early development of Christianity is a basis for explaining the data that we possess and even if found adequate by the majority of scholars will almost certainly require refinement.


4) The best fitting theory generally is not a theory that explains fully every individual fact, not even in physical sciences. The best fitting theory is like a line which best fits a set of points. Often not all the points may be on or close to the best fitting line, so that the line does not "explain" them all. This may be either inherent in the nature of a field of inquiry or due to some practical problems. In physics, for example, we can fully explain and predict a great many observed phenomena but not all. Thus we can fairly accurately describe the movements of the sun in relation to the earth and accurately predict its position at different times, but it is difficult to describe accurately the movements of winds on the globe, which is the reason why we cannot predict the weather for tomorrow with the same certainty with which we can predict the time of sunset for tomorrow. Yet most physicists are confident that the known laws of motion best explain all that has been observed so far in the universe. Our failure to accurately describe the movements of the winds and their temperatures etc is either due to the fact that the best explanation of the known phenomena does not necessarily explain everything or due to a practical difficulty of obtaining all the initial measurements that are required to accurately predict the movements of winds.


Likewise when we seek a theory explaining the data we have in the early Christian documents, we do not necessarily seek to explain every single word in the documents. But we must be able to give with reasonable confidence a historical outline of the personality and life of Jesus, an explanation of how the ministry of Jesus led to basic beliefs about him in the early churches such as beliefs in his death, resurrection, parousia and messiahship and then outline the processes which led to subsequent developments in the Christian tradition in, say, the New Testament times.


We can now give a more accurate definition of comprehensiveness than the one used earlier in this Introduction: a comprehensive theory is one that best fits the data as a whole.


Since in the formation and transmission of Jesus traditions many individuals participated with their own complex mental processes, it is possible that some of the statements may not be explainable even by the best-fitting theory. But a comprehensive theory does not concentrate on a part of the data set and ignore the rest. It takes into account the whole data and then may find that some facts are not plausibly explained by it. Usually the facts not explained by a truly comprehensive theory would be randomly distributed in the set.


5) When in science the best fitting theory or a basis for it has been found for a data set, every one with a reasonably objective attitude can see it like one can see when the pieces of a puzzle fit. This then creates wide acceptability among scholars of very different backgrounds. The same must be the case in the field of the early history of the Jesus tradition. It is sometime said that even if someone found the answers to questions about the early history of the Jesus tradition, she or he may not be able to convince the rest of the scholars. But there is no reason why that should be so. To be sure, in the beginning there is resistance to accept any new theory, however successful it may be in explaining the known facts. But sooner or later, this resistance is overcome except in those who use their scholarship to serve particular vested interests. The fact therefore that until now no comprehensive theory of early history of the Jesus tradition has won wide acceptance supports the observation made earlier that no existing theory meets the universal expectations of comprehensiveness and plausibility. A related observation is about the emphasis that in recent times is placed on the background of a scholar. While background is in many ways important, it is possible for scholars of all background to strive for objectivity and reach a consensus when a theory in fact does fit the entire data.


I therefore present my theory here with the conviction that if it is valid, then it will be generally accepted by scholars of many different backgrounds.


6) It is generally thought that in the natural sciences theories are built from facts through a rigid use of logic. In reality, however, the construction of theories requires both a leap of imagination as well as systematic thinking. Once imagination and systematic thinking has suggested a theory it is tested against facts. The theory is accepted if it explains to a reasonable degree all the relevant facts; otherwise it is discarded and a new search begins. The same should be the case in the research about Jesus and his earliest churches. However, in this field there is often the tendency to either use imagination ignoring much of the evidence that lies before us or not to use imagination when the evidence does not provide clear guidance. The result is that we have either imaginative works that propose theories without explaining much of the evidence or very careful works that minutely examine most of the relevant data but serve mostly to expose the inadequacy of proposed solutions without providing a more adequate one. Once we have committed to meeting the criteria of comprehensiveness and plausibility, we can let our imagination free to aid systematic thinking in the search for a suitable theory, for the limits imposed by the two criteria on the final theory would restrain the ability of the imagination to lead us astray.


7) Research in science is often faced with the question of its practical value. Such a question becomes important because of the limited resources available for research. But often it is not easy to decide, especially at the early stages of the development of a field, what line of research would be of immediate practical value. Answers to questions that at first appear, at least to some, as mere theoretical curiosities, can prove of great practical significance.


In case of studies related to Jesus and the early Christianity the situation is the same. Here "practical significance" is significance for the religious life of Christian believers. And theoretical curiosities are what R. E. Brown has called "obsessive history-hunting" (The Death of the Messiah, p. 24) but what may not always be "obsessive". One can take the view that history is completely irrelevant to faith and hold that the New Testament traditions contain some valuable spiritual and moral truths which have significance regardless of whether they are historical or not. Within such a way of thinking it is even irrelevant whether Jesus existed or not. But few if any believers hold such a view. It is, for example, important for most believers to believe that Jesus was a real person and that his resurrection had an objective reality. Even those who may hold that history is completely irrelevant for faith, probably arrived at such a position after a historical judgment that no reliable history can be recovered from the Christian documents. That means that history is relevant to the practical significance of the New Testament. And if history is relevant, then "history-hunting" (pursuing the recovery of the historical as if for its own sake) can be useful.




Criteria for temporal priority of traditions


Scholars have used several criteria to decide about the authenticity of a reported saying or deed of Jesus. In reality, most of these criteria at best enable us to decide whether a tradition found in a document is earlier than the document. For example, scholars often consciously or unconsciously use the "criterion of embarrassment," according to which a tradition about Jesus that created difficulty or embarrassment for the church is authentic. This criterion assumes that "the church" was a homogeneous entity with well defined and uniform views. But such an assumption cannot be accepted without the sort of discussion that must come after the establishment of the criteria for historicity. The reason for this is that extant Christian documents show a great deal of diversity even on the most fundamental issues. Thus while miracles are prominent in the gospels, Paul's letters do not concern themselves with the miracles. In the synoptic exorcisms form the most important core of Jesus' healing ministry, while in John there are no exorcisms at all. In Paul and the four gospels the death of Jesus occupies a central place, while in some documents such as the Gospel of Thomas, Q and the Letter of James the death is not even mentioned. In the synoptic Jesus proclaims the coming kingdom of God but does not say much about his identity. Instead of himself declaring his identity, he wants to know what the disciples and other people think about him. In John the proclamation of the kingdom of God is absent and Jesus is principally occupied with about his identity both in private discourses with the disciples and in the public teaching to the Jews. The identity of Jesus itself has few common elements in various documents. In Q he is the apocalyptic Son of man while this term is absent from Paul. In some synoptic traditions he is the Davidic Messiah while in some Johannine traditions he is a Gnostic revealer who comes from the Father and returns to him. In the Stephenite tradition Jesus was a fiercely anti-temple prophet while in many traditions in the gospels and Acts Jesus and the twelve are represented as being faithful to the temple cult. Paul regards the law as a curse to be dispensed with. But many other traditions regard the law to be still valid. Whatever unity that we may see in our sources may be the result of catholicity that gradually developed instead of being present from the beginning. One may argue that there must have been some set of beliefs and traditions in the beginning on the basis of which the Jesus movement started. We will see in Ch. 2 that this was not the case and that from the beginning there were different groups in the Jesus movement which had nothing in common with each other than the name of Jesus.


Furthermore, there are many traditions that are found to be embarrassing or problematic by some gospels but not the others. For example, Luke and to a lesser degree Matthew remove or tone down some of the negative references in Mark to Peter and the twelve. In Mark the story of Peter's confession in Caesarea Philippi concludes with a severe rebuke by Jesus to Peter, in which Peter is banished and called Satan (8:33). Luke has removed this verse from his gospel. He also removes the reference to the flight of the disciples at the arrest of Jesus found in Mark 14:50. It is possible that what Luke found embarrassing, Mark did not find so. Thus a tradition may be created at one time and/or place without any embarrassment and is found embarrassing or problematic in another time and/or place. The safest conclusion when we notice that a document is having difficulty in dealing with a tradition is that the tradition reached the author from an earlier time and is not his own creation. Similar arguments show that some other commonly used criteria of historicity or authenticity are more logically regarded as criteria of priority in time rather than authenticity. For this reason I use two sets of criteria -- those that decide a tradition's priority in time and those that decide whether what is reported in the tradition is historical. It needs to be noted by way of clarification that the temporal priority is spoken of only in reference to the Christian tradition: we are not concerned here with how early a tradition or motif or phrase existed outside the Christian church but with how early it was found in the Christian church.


There are six main criteria for deciding a tradition's priority in time. They necessarily lead to probable and not certain results, since they all have both theoretical and practical uncertainties. By theoretical uncertainty I mean an uncertainty that arises from the very nature of the early Christian tradition. By practical uncertainty I mean an uncertainty that arises in applying a criterion. After stating each criterion I will illustrate both types of uncertainties.


1) Criterion of earlier attestation. If the earliest attestation of the tradition, motif or phrase A is earlier than the earliest attestation of the tradition, motif or phrase B, then A is earlier than B.


This may look like a tautology, but this is not the case because there exist theoretical uncertainties. One such theoretical uncertainty arises from the fact that oral tradition continued long after the writing of traditions started. In the middle of the second century Papias is on record as saying that he preferred to learn from living voices rather than from written word. Thus it is quite possible that an earlier tradition lived on in oral form only to be recorded in a later document.


A practical uncertainty in case of this criterion is created by the fact that its application requires relative dating of our sources, which in some cases cannot be done with confidence.


2) Criterion of multiple attestation. If a tradition, motif or phrase is found in two or more independent documents, then it was well known before any of the documents mentioning it was produced. If a tradition is not only attested by two or more independent documents but is also attested in different literary genres (miracle story, controversy story, parable, prediction etc), then we can consider it even earlier and more established than we would otherwise.


For this criterion a theoretical uncertainty arises from the fact that a tradition etc. could have been borrowed independently from a non-Christian source by several different documents, in which case as a Christian tradition it is only as early as the earliest document. A practical uncertainty in application can arise from the difficulty of deciding whether two documents are independent.


Many scholars use the criterion of multiple attestation as a criterion of historicity rather than for temporal priority. The logic for this seems to be that a tradition could not have been widely spread among the Jesus followers at a very early time unless it originated from Jesus. In view of the very distinct possibility noted earlier that the creation of traditions started at a very early date, this logic is not sound.


3) Criterion of lack of explanation (within a document) for creation. If a tradition, motif or phrase cannot be reasonably explained in terms of the special purposes of a document, then it is earlier than the document and was well known at least in the community in which the document was produced.


A theoretical uncertainty arises here because it is possible that a piece written by an author at one time may not fit well with the remaining document. A practical uncertainty arises out of the difficulty of determining the purposes of an ancient author.


A particular case of the criterion of lack of explanation for creation is the criterion of embarrassment mentioned earlier: if a tradition etc is problematic in a document, then it was well known before the document was written, at least in the community where it was produced. In this case, the lack of reasonable explanation of creation of a tradition by the author(s) of a document is positively concluded from the "embarrassment" shown by the author(s). Consequently, the conclusion about the earlier existence of the tradition can be affirmed with more confidence than in the case when lack of explanation for creation is supported only negatively by our inability to point to such an explanation.


4) Criterion of knowledge of known events. A tradition which shows knowledge of certain historical events is later than those events.


Once again this is not tautological, since there are theoretical uncertainties. One such uncertainty arises because it is possible to foresee some events. Also, some events used by scholars are vaguely defined and it is difficult to place their occurrence in the Jesus tradition at a unique time. For example, often traditions containing a developed Christology or referring to a developed church organization are used to argue for their late origin. But our sources do not present a simple linear picture on the basis of which we can use such characterizations to relatively date traditions. Thus Christology of Paul is much more developed than that of the later synoptic gospels as is the Christology of John which comes after the synoptic. Similarly, Matthew assumes a much more developed church organization than does the earlier Mark or the later John.


A practical uncertainty arises because sometimes allusions to an event are not clear.


5) Criterion of links to Palestine. A tradition showing contact with Aramaic and specialized knowledge of Palestinian environment of the time of Jesus is earlier than the documents in which it is found. The basis for this criterion is the sound assumption that our documents were originally written in Greek and outside Palestine while Jesus and his closest disciples spoke Aramaic and lived in Palestine.


A theoretical uncertainty is caused by the possibility that a Christian writer could be familiar enough with Aramaic and Palestinian environment to create a tradition influenced by Aramaic and knowledge of Palestine. A practical uncertainty arises because of the difficulty in some cases of detecting traces of Aramaic origin and Palestinian environment.


6) Criterion of being less developed. Of two versions of the same tradition, the one which is less developed is the earlier one.


A theoretical as well as a practical uncertainty arises here from the difficulty to define "developed". One way to define the word is in terms of how detailed and explicit a tradition is. The assumption behind the criterion then is that with time stories tend to become more explicit and definite. In particular, individuals and groups, left unspecified in an earlier version tend to get named in later versions and indirect speech in an earlier version tends to become direct speech in a later version than vice versa. However, details and explicit references can be easily omitted by a later narrator because he found them uncomfortable or too irrelevant to the main theme. The assumption has some validity when we look at a large number of narrations of a story over a period of time. More exactly, we can state with justification that all the narrations, taken together, of a tradition existing at a later time are expected to contain more details and explicit references than all those existing at an earlier time. This does imply that if we select two versions of a tradition belonging to different times, the later version has some likelihood of being more detailed and explicit. But this likelihood seems to be too small to be of much use.


Another way to define "developed" is in terms of the degree to which a tradition reflects later developments in the church. In this case, a theoretical uncertainty arises because not every tradition reflects all the earlier developments. A practical uncertainty arises because of the difficulty of determining "later developments".




Criteria for historicity


The first of the criteria of historicity is the same as criterion 3 above for temporal priority, except that now it is applied to the Jesus tradition as a whole rather than to particular documents.


1) Criterion of lack of explanation (within the whole Jesus movement) for creation. A tradition is historical if no reasonable explanation can be found for its creation by the church as a whole.


A theoretical uncertainty arises because if an explanation cannot be found, this does not mean that it did not once exist. We may be unable to find it because of gaps in our knowledge. If we knew enough about early Christianity, we may be able to see the processes by which a tradition came to be fabricated, but now because of our incomplete knowledge we cannot see any reasonable scenario for the fabrication of the tradition. A practical uncertainty arises from the difficulty of determining what is "reasonable."


We can relate the above criterion with another criterion for historicity that is widely used by scholars, namely, the criterion of originality, dissimilarity, discontinuity or dual irreducibility, according to which a tradition about Jesus is authentic if it is derivable neither from Judaism of the time of Jesus nor from the teachings of the early church. We can understand this as a form of the criterion of lack of explanation for creation if we admit only one of two explanations for creation of a tradition as reasonable -- the tradition was derived from Judaism of the time of Jesus or it was derived from the teachings of the church. If none of these two explanations for its creation is judged to be valid, then the tradition is judged to be authentic. Needless to say that this reasoning is not sound.


2) Criterion of being early without being challenged by another equally early tradition. A tradition shown by various criteria of temporal priority to be well established at a time close to the reported events with no other equally early tradition contradicting it is historical.


A theoretical uncertainty arises because of the strong possibility, raised earlier, that false reports can be generated at any time. Any of the practical uncertainties associated with the various criteria of temporal priority may arise here. Also, whether a tradition contradicts another is sometimes difficult to decide.


For an experimental assessment of the effectiveness of the two criteria of historicity see Ch. 4.


I have not illustrated the individual criteria by examples because these criteria usually need to be applied in combinations to yield any dependable results. Now that I have described all the main criteria, I will illustrate their application with some examples.


Mark describes Jesus as a carpenter (6:3). Mark has no difficulty with this tradition. But both Matthew and Luke find it hard to accept; they in two different ways change this. Matthew has "carpenter's son" (13:55) while Luke omits any reference to the carpenter (4:22), once again showing that what is embarrassing or problematic for one writer may not be so for another. The tradition that Jesus was a carpenter, although attested only by Mark 6:3 in the New Testament is accepted as historical by some scholars (e.g. John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew, Vol. 1) on the grounds that there is no other explanation for it, that is, by the criterion of the lack of explanation for why someone would fabricate the tradition.


The tradition that Jesus was from the line of David (a son of David) is attested by Paul and therefore has an attestation earlier than the tradition that Jesus was a carpenter. The historicity of the tradition of Jesus' Davidic descent, however, has been called into question by the possibility that this tradition may have been the product of the belief in Jesus' messiahship and not vice versa. If we consider this argument valid and if we accept that Jesus was a carpenter, then we have here an example that a tradition with a later attestation is earlier and has more claim to historicity than another tradition with an earlier attestation.


The tradition of baptism of Jesus by John is found in Mark and Q, both being followed by Matthew and Luke. It is also mentioned in some extracanonical traditions that are considered independent of the canonical tradition (The Gospel of the Hebrews 2, Ignatius, Ephesians 18:2). Thus it is quite early by the criterion of multiple attestation. Furthermore, these documents show difficulty in dealing with the tradition and try in various ways to cover the inferior position Jesus took in relation to the Baptist by submitting to him for baptism. Hence the criterion of embarrassment further confirms that the tradition was well established before Q which is dated in the fifties. Some scholars conclude the historicity of the baptism from such considerations but in fact the conclusion is not justified only on the basis of criteria of multiple attestation and embarrassment. It is possible that the tradition of baptism was first created and then found embarrassing by most Christians. A crucial part is played by the criterion of lack of explanation of creation: we conclude the historicity of the baptism because we feel confident that there is no reasonable explanation of how or why the tradition of baptism came to be fabricated, if it is not historical.


The case with the tradition that one of the companions of Jesus used his sword to cut off the ear of the servant of the high priest is somewhat like that of the tradition of baptism, except that it is attested only by the canonical gospels. It does not fit in any of the gospels and they all in their different ways try to dissociate Jesus from it. Mark does that by using the phrase "one of those standing by" for the man who used the sword, in this way suggesting that the man was not a companion of Jesus. Matthew and John make Jesus rebuke the man but in different ways. Luke makes him heal the victim. Clearly the tradition existed well before any of the gospels and since no reasonable motive for its creation is visible, it can be accepted as historical. We will later see that the context of the tradition in the gospels, however, is not historical.


The belief that Jesus is the Messiah is attested in Paul, Mark, Q and John in a variety of forms and therefore was widely established at a very early time. However, Jesus' claim to be the Messiah has far less independent early attestation. This suggests that the belief in Jesus' messiahship came before the tradition of Jesus' claim to be the Messiah. Starting with the belief in Jesus' messiahship we can easily understand how and why the tradition of Jesus' claim to be the Messiah arose: Christians simply attributed their belief to Jesus. But how did the belief in Jesus' messiahship arise? At this point we can judge that there is no reasonable explanation of this belief other than that Jesus himself claimed to be the Messiah. This would require accepting a tradition whose attestation is relatively late to be earlier than a belief which is attested earlier and more widely. Because our criteria only give probabilistic results, it is possible to make exception to them.


However, it has been argued that Paul and the early apostolic preaching in Acts not only do not attribute the claim of messiahship to Jesus but implies that it was after his ascension that he was made Lord and Christ by God. It is suggested, moreover, that Mark knew that Jesus was believed to be the messiah only after his resurrection and tries to explain this embarrassing fact by his theory of the messianic secret. Because the church believed in the messiahship of Jesus, such evidence contrary to its position, if accepted as such, could not have been invented by the church. Consequently, the claim on the part of Jesus to be the messiah is not historical. Notice that the tradition of Jesus' claim to be the messiah is of antiquity comparable to that of the challenging traditions. But on the basis of the criterion of lack of reasonable explanation, the latter is seen to be historical, resulting in the rejection of the historicity of the former.


The tradition of Jesus' execution also has multiple attestation (Paul, Mark and John). By the criterion of multiple attestation, it was well known very early. In this book an explanation is presented in detail how the tradition of execution came to be created. If this explanation is reasonable, then despite its antiquity the tradition of execution cannot be considered historical.


The gospels attribute to Jesus a number of sayings about the Son of man. Some scholars note that the expression "Son of man" is not used as a title of a figure of salvation in Judaism and Jesus is not confessed as the Son of man in early Christian preaching as far as it can be known from the Acts and "apostolic" epistles. Therefore by the criterion of discontinuity or dissimilarity it is concluded that the use of the title goes back to Jesus. However, it is possible to give an explanation of how the reference to the Son of man as an eschatological figure started in the early church without Jesus or Judaism referring to him. The expression "son of man" can be used in Aramaic to refer to oneself out of humility. Jesus referred to himself using this expression as is shown by a number of early sayings. Daniel 7:14, however, talks of a vision in which after seeing a number of beasts the prophet sees "one like a son of man" who represents the Jewish kingdom in contrasts to the beasts in the vision who represent previous Gentile empires. Under the influence of the belief in the early church that Jesus was seated on the right hand of God as the anointed king or Messiah from where he will soon return to establish the messianic kingdom, Jesus' use of the expression "son of man" to refer to himself combined with Dan. 7:14 to create the title "Son of man" as a messianic title as well as the application of that title to Jesus. If this explanation is judged as reasonable, then we cannot conclude that Jesus used "Son of man" as a messianic title whether in reference to himself or to a future figure other than himself. The crucial point in our decision is not whether the tradition is dissimilar to both Judaism and early church teaching, but whether there is an explanation, judged to be reasonable, of how or why it came to be created.


The tradition that Jesus talked about the "kingdom of God or heaven" is attested in Q, Mark, John, Thomas, material found only in Matthew or only in Luke. Paul also talks about the kingdom of God a few times (Rom 14:17, 1 Cor 4:20) but does not attribute its proclamation to Jesus. It was therefore well established at a very early stage. The antiquity of the tradition is further increased if we note that it is found in many different literary genres: miracle story, beatitude, prayer, parable etc. This massive attestation and the great antiquity which it implies strongly suggests historicity. Most scholars have in fact accepted that Jesus did indeed proclaim the kingdom of God, although there is no agreement about how central the kingdom of God was in his work Jesus and what did he mean by it.


In 1 Thess. 2:14-16 it is said that the wrath of God has overtaken those Jews who persecuted the Christians. This seems to be an allusion to the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple by the Romans in 70 C.E. If so, the passage cannot be the original composition of Paul who lived before this historic of a well-known date. Here there is a difficulty in this use of the criterion of knowledge of known events: the expression "the wrath of God has overtaken" may be using apocalyptic way of talking, in which the distinction between past, present and future is often blurred. In that case, the verse does not refer to the destruction of Jerusalem but simply to the imminence and certainty of the divine judgment.


Matthew 16:17-19 is an addition to the Markan version of the story known as Peter's confession (Mark 8:27-30). This raises the possibility that Matthew has himself composed this passage. However, the passage has several Semitic features such as the Aramaic form of Peter's name "Simon bar-Jonah". By the criterion of links with Aramaic and Palestinian environment, we may be more willing to conclude that Matthew is dependent here on an earlier tradition.




The ultimate criterion


The criteria stated and illustrated above are useful in reaching valuable results with some probability but our results must finally meet the following criterion:


        Our conclusions about individual traditions must add up to an explanation of the extant Jesus traditions which is plausible and comprehensive enough to meet in due course of time wide acceptance from scholars of different backgrounds.


This is the criterion that is ultimately the only one that matters. Other criteria are helpful in practice in guiding our thought, but they are not in principle necessary: if by any method we can arrive at a picture of the development of the Jesus tradition which plausibly explains the whole extant set of traditions about Jesus, then it does not matter whether or not we made use of any of the above criteria.




The structure of the book


A brief outline of the contents of the book will undoubtedly help the reader go through them more easily.


The story of Christianity is told in this book by and large in a chronological order. We begin with an account of Jesus' life followed by an account of developments that took place at different successive stages after him. However, since we can often reconstruct the history of Jesus and other earlier stages only by reports that are heavily influenced by subsequent developments, it will be often necessary to look at different stages simultaneously or to go back and forth between later and earlier stages, always dealing with the very distinct possibility that the actual story may be different from what is being reported. Also, sometimes it will be necessary to make statements about an earlier stage that will be more fully supported only when the evidence pertaining to a later stage is more fully examined.


The book consists of six parts.


Part I introduces the most important persons and groups in the Jesus tradition. It begins with a brief look at Jesus himself and then examines such earlier groups as the seven, the twelve and Jesus' brothers.
Part II deals with earliest Jesus traditions such as the traditions of his disappearance, execution, ascension, his return as the Messiah and other views about his religious identity.
Part III is concerned with the early development of the belief in the death and resurrection of Jesus and evaluation of Paul's witness.
Part IV looks at the non-narrative tradition about Jesus' death and resurrection such as the kerugmatik formulas in Paul and the passion predictions in the gospels.
Parts V and VI attempt to explain the formation of the passion narratives and the resurrection stories. In each part the proposed theory finds two types of support: support by direct arguments and support by providing on the basis of the theory a better explanation of the evidence.
Part I






In this first part of the book I concentrate primarily on what we can know with some confidence about the earliest people in the history of Christianity-- Jesus himself, his relatives, the twelve, the seven etc. The study reveals certain diverse brands of tradition existing from the very beginning and profiles the people from whom the brands originated. It is these primitive brands that, after some reshaping, later became the building blocks of the whole Jesus tradition.




Chapter 1






In this chapter I outline the main facts of Jesus' life and ministry. Many of these facts have gained widespread acceptance among scholars of different backgrounds while others will be supported in this and subsequent chapters.






One of the secure facts about Jesus is that he was a Galilean. It is not of great importance to settle the question whether he was from Nazareth whose existence is called into some very minor doubt by the fact that outside the four canonical gospels and Acts this village is not mentioned by any Christian or non-Christian writer and by the fact that even in the gospels and Acts Jesus is often called not "of Nazareth" but Nazarene or Nazarite which originally may have meant something different but which may have out of misunderstanding created the village called Nazareth.


That Jesus was a Galilean is certain because only Luke and Matthew contain the tradition that Jesus was born in Bethlehem near Jerusalem and because in their case not only the influence of such scriptural passages as Micah 5:2 is all too apparent but also they both admit that Jesus' parents settled in Galilee when he was just a child.


What do we know of Galilee and can our information reveal something about Jesus?


Galilee was only finally conquered by the Jewish king Aristobulus I in 104/103 BCE. It was then forcibly converted to Judaism and compulsory circumcision was imposed on its residents. This of course does not necessarily mean that all or most Galileans resented Judaism. People whose ancestors were forcibly converted to a religion or culture can show great commitment to that religion or culture. But it does mean that we can expect the religion of most Galileans to be not as purely and strictly Jewish as in Judaea. Indeed, Galilee was known for its lack of orthodoxy. Rabbi Jochanan ben Zakkai reportedly said, "Galilee, Galilee, thou hatest learning; in the end thou wilt belong to the robbers." This is because there was such a lack of interest in the law that the rabbi "lived in Arab (=Galilee) for 18 years and only two cases were brought to him (for judgment)" (Strack-Billerbeck I, p. 157)


Galileans were also known for a rebellious spirit. The zealots may have originated from the activities of Judas the Galilean and there are instances when the zealots were simply called Galileans.


The situation in the Jewish Galilee at the time of Jesus may be compared to the situation in the Christian Western Europe in more recent times. Western Europe was christianized relatively late. One finds there both a strong commitment to Christianity and an independence of spirit that results in new interpretations of Christianity and even in anti-Christian trends.


The culture of Galilee was a peasant culture which is reflected in many of Jesus' parables. Jesus may have thus belonged to the peasant class, although he himself may have engaged in the manufacture of goods needed by the peasants. In Mark 6:3 people describe Jesus as a carpenter while in the parallel passage in Matthew they call him carpenter's son (13:55). Matthew seems to consider it derogatory to Jesus that he be described as a carpenter, but there is no reason to doubt the description in Mark. Since in ancient times a profession often passed from father to son, it is quite plausible that Jesus' father or step-father was also a carpenter, a fact that Matthew has exploited to deflect the description from Jesus. Since the gospels present no sign of Jesus pursuing the profession of a carpenter just before or after the start of his ministry, it is possible that Jesus left the profession some considerable time before his ministry.


The language of Galilee was Aramaic with some use of Greek. Hebrew may have been used in worship. Jesus certainly spoke Aramaic, probably knew Hebrew and possibly also had some knowledge of Greek.


On the basis of the above picture we may conclude that Jesus was raised in a predominantly peasant and therefore oral culture. The gospels present him as committed to Judaism but not a very strict and orthodox Judaism, which is quite understandable in view of his being a Galilean.




Baptism of Jesus


Mark (followed by Matthew and Luke), Q (=traditions common to Matthew and Luke but independent of Mark) and the Fourth Gospel show that the start of the ministry of Jesus is some way connected with the appearance of John the Baptist. They all start the story of Jesus with the witness of the Baptist. Mark (followed by Matthew and Luke) and Q further tell us that Jesus was baptized by the Baptist. The Fourth Gospel says that the first disciples of Jesus came from among the followers of the Baptist.


The tradition of baptism of Jesus by John is almost certainly historical. It is difficult to conceive of a plausible process of how the tradition came to be formed if it is not based on a historical fact. Those who do not believe in the existence of Jesus suggest that the tradition arose out of the idea that the Messiah is anointed by his Elijah-type forerunner. But apart from the fact that such an idea is not attested in the first-century Judaism it is difficult to see why the forerunner should baptize the Messiah instead of anointing him.


The historicity of the baptism of Jesus has long been recognized by scholars but full significance of this baptism and of the Baptist for understanding the ministry of Jesus has only recently begun to be assessed.


The baptism means that Jesus was a humble man who hoped for the grace and forgiveness of God. It also means that he regarded John as superior to himself, for he believed that the grace and mercy of God for which he looked could come through John. This latter implication of the baptism is confirmed by Jesus' own words recorded in Q and Thomas. Luke's and Matthew's versions of the relevant Q sayings run as follows:


What went ye out into the wilderness to see? a reed shaken with the wind? But what went ye out to see? a man clothed in soft raiment? Behold, those who are gorgeously apparelled, and live delicately, are in kings' courts. But what went ye out to see? a prophet? Yea, I say unto you, and much more than a prophet. This is he of whom it is written, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, who shall prepare thy way before thee. I say unto you, Among those born of women there is none greater than John: yet he that is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he. (Luke 7:24-28)


The law and the prophets were until John: from that time the gospel of the kingdom of God is preached and every man enters into it violently. (Luke 16:16)


What went ye out into the wilderness to see? a reed shaken with the wind? But what went ye out for to see? a man clothed in soft (raiment)? Behold, those wearing soft (raiment) are in kings' houses. But wherefore went ye out? to see a prophet? Yea, I say unto you, and much more  than a prophet. This is he, of whom it is written, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, who shall prepare thy way before thee. Verily I say unto you, Among those born of women there has not arisen a greater than John the Baptist: yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence and men of violence take it by force. For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John.    (Matt. 11:7-13)




























The non-canonical Gnostic Gospel of Thomas has the following parallels to some of the above sayings:


        Jesus said: From Adam to John the Baptist there is none born of woman who is higher than John the Baptist, so that his eyes will not be broken (?) But I have said, He who shall be among you as a little one shall know the kingdom, and shall be higher than John.


        Jesus said: Why came ye forth into the field? To see a reed shaken by the wind? And to see a man clothed in soft raiment? [Behold, your] kings and your great men are they who are clothed in soft [raiment], and they [shall] not be able to know the truth. (Thomas 46, 78)


By comparing the two versions of the sayings in Q it is clear that either Luke or Matthew or both have made changes in the original document. It is also possible that the original document used by the two evangelists itself contained changes to the still earlier tradition, a possibility which is confirmed by a comparison of the Q sayings with the parallels in the Gospel of Thomas even if the latter seems in this case to be secondary. Therefore to recover the most original form of the traditions presented here we must undo what Luke and Matthew have done to the Q sayings and what Q and Thomas did to the received oral or written tradition. This is relatively easy. By carefully comparing the three synoptic gospels we can determine many of the phrases, themes, and theological tendencies that are peculiar to each of the evangelists. For example, Matthew has a definite preference for "kingdom of heaven" instead of "kingdom of God." Also, Luke is particularly concerned with salvation history which he divides into three epochs: the time of prophecy which came to an end with John the Baptist, the time of Jesus and the time of the church which starts from Jerusalem, grows in Judea and Samaria and then moves to the "ends of the earth" (Acts 1:8); he is not sure where to fit John the Baptist and thus puts him in the "twilight" zone between the age of prophecy and the age of fulfillment. By taking into account such peculiar preferences and tendencies we can get closer to the original Q version. Thus it is likely that Q originally had "kingdom of God" as in Luke and not "kingdom of heaven" as in Matthew. On the other hand, Luke's view of salvation history seems to have influenced his version of the saying about the law and the prophets (Luke 16:16=Matt 11:12-13). Luke has: "The law and the prophets (were) until John" while Matthew reads: "All the prophets and the law prophesied until or toward John". Luke has made a much sharper distinction between the age of the law and the prophets and that of the age of salvation than Matthew, in keeping with his tendency to divide history in distinct periods.


We can proceed similarly to try to undo what Q and Thomas did to the earlier tradition: determine their tendencies and then counter them. One clear tendency in Q which it shares with most surviving Christian documents is to subordinate John to Jesus. This is clear from the change made to Malachi 3:1 in the quotation in Q (Luke 7:27=Matt 11:10; see also Mark 1:2, where the quotation is not attributed to Jesus). The passage from Malachi reads: "Behold, I send my messenger and he shall prepare the way before me." The Christians changed "before me" (meaning before God) to "before you" (meaning before the Messiah), thus changing the reference to the forerunner of God to the forerunner of the Messiah, identifying the Messiah as Jesus. (It is, however, possible that this was done under the influence of Exod 23:20-22). In view of Jesus' earlier description of John as "much more than a prophet," it is more likely that the original reference of the scriptural quotation was not Jesus but John. In other words, originally Jesus identified John with the eschatological messenger who prepares the way for the coming of the judgment and kingdom of God. The saying in Matthew 11:13 usually translated as: "All the prophets and the law prophesied until John" can also be translated as: "All the prophets and the law prophesied toward or about John (cf. Jerusalem Bible). In this sense the saying is consistent with Jesus' identification of John with the prophesied eschatological messenger who was seen as prophesied in Exod and Deut (the law) and Isaiah and Malachi (the prophets) (see Ch. 9).


The words in Luke 7:28=Matt. 11:11, "the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he", which completely undermine the high praise of John found in the rest of the verses can be safely attributed to the Christian tendency to downgrade John. These words assume an understanding of the kingdom of God according to which only those can belong to the kingdom of God who are alive when it comes; in other words, the dead do not rise to participate in the eternal life of the kingdom. The idea is that the least of those in the everlasting kingdom of God is better than the greatest of those who are dead and gone forever. This idea probably existed independently before Jesus' statement that John was the greatest of all human beings attracted it in order to serve the Christian need to reduce the stature of John. That there existed Christians who denied the resurrection is shown by 1 Cor.15. But Mark (12:25) and Q (Matt 12:41=Luke 11:32) show that Jesus himself did believe in the resurrection of the dead. If this is historical, then we cannot attribute the words in question to him.


The saying in Thomas 78 is not applied to John the Baptist and there is no reference to the eschatological messenger. However, the passage requires some context and in view of any alternative the context in the parallel Q passage (Matt 11:7-10= Luke 7:24-27) can be accepted as the original one. The version in Thomas probably arose from the fact that the saying does not explicitly mention John the Baptist (not even in the Q parallel). The reference to John was made clear in Q by the saying in Matt 11:11=Luke 7:28 (Thomas, logion 46). Thomas probably received the two passages separated from each other and therefore the passage in which John was not explicitly mentioned lost a reference to him.


Thomas seems to throw no light on the original form of the sayings about John. The Gnostic gospel has simply interpreted the sayings in a Gnostic sense. It has divided time into two ages: the time between Adam and John the Baptist and the time of knowledge (gnosis). John is the greatest of all the human beings only in the age of ignorance. Any one who is like a child (cf. Mark 10:15, Matt 18:3) will have knowledge and will become higher than John the Baptist. The field and the raiment of Thomas 78 refer to this material world and the physical body (cf. logion 21 and Riley, Resurrection Reconsidered, p. 130) and the meaning seems to be: those who go after physical comforts and bodily desires will not know the truth of why they came into this world.


Thus the original form of the sayings used in Q and Thomas can now be approximately reconstructed as follows:


Jesus began to say concerning John:


        1) What went ye out into the wilderness to see? a reed shaken with the wind? But what went ye out to see? a man clothed in soft (raiment)? Behold, those who are clothed in soft (raiment) are in kings' houses. But what went ye out to see? a prophet? Yea, I say unto you, and much more than a prophet. This is he, of whom it is written, Behold I send my messenger before me who shall prepare my way before me.


        2) I say unto you, Among those born of women there is


        none greater than John. For all the prophets and the law prophesied about John.


        3) From the days of John the Baptist the kingdom of God is preached and every one seizes it by force. (Reconstruction)


In the first group of sayings, the meaning is clear: John is more than a prophet because he came to prepare the way for God's coming with his judgment and salvation in fulfillment of the scriptures. The meaning of the two sayings of the second group is similar and also clear. The saying 3) is more difficult to interpret. The most probable interpretation is something like this: Before John the kingdom of God was an object of indefinite hope but with the coming of John started the proclamation of the kingdom as something imminent and accessible. The whole population is gripped by its expectation and everyone is striving hard to be part of it. This is a manifestation of the fact that John is the fulfillment of all prophecy and hence the greatest of all men.


The appearance of John the Baptist is thus an event in the time of Jesus that impressed his mind more than anything that he knew. He was not alone in such a reaction to what John was saying and doing through his baptism. Josephus says of John that people were "impressed to the highest degree by his sermons" (Ant 18:116-119).


In view of the baptism of Jesus by John and his sayings about him quoted above one could describe Jesus as a disciple of John. Neither John nor Jesus came with any detailed system of beliefs and practices which a disciple had to accept. To be a disciple one had to have some continual association with them, believe that their gifts were from God and that their main message which was within the range of acceptable interpretations of the scriptures was correct. From Jesus' sayings about John it seems that he knew him not just from one visit to the Jordan for getting baptized but more closely and of course Jesus believed in the divine origin of John's baptism and his message. We can therefore regard him as Jesus' disciples.




Forty days in the wilderness


Both Mark and Q talk of Jesus' stay in the wilderness for forty days where he fasted (Q) and was tempted by the devil (Mark, Q). The double independent attestation shows that the tradition of the stay in the wilderness is quite early. Its version in Q shows that at one time and place it was the object of considerable legendary speculations. Like the baptism, it is difficult to see why Christians would invent the stay in the wilderness: there is nothing particularly messianic about the story. Even if the Messiah was believed to be the agent for the overthrow of Satan and all his evil powers there is nothing in the common elements in Mark and Q which suggests that such a motif is behind the creation of the story. We can, consequently, accept the stay as a historical fact. But from the gospels it is not possible to understand the motives of Jesus' stay in the wilderness or to link it with the events before and after it. It is possible that the gospel tradition knew only the bare facts of Jesus' baptism and a subsequent stay in the wilderness. Since the stay takes place after baptism and John is also a man who fasted and lived in the wilderness, it is natural to think of Jesus' stay in the wilderness and his fasting there as having something to do with his contact with John. Such a connection is further strengthened by the fact that Jesus, at his baptism by John, receives the Spirit and it is the Spirit that leads Jesus to the wilderness, thus suggesting a continuity from baptism to reception of the spirit to the stay in the wilderness. One can easily think that John instructed some of his closer disciples to go through such a spiritual exercise and Jesus was one such disciple. If so, ignorance on the part of the tradition may not be the reason why the stay in the wilderness is presented to us without any links with the earlier events. Christians' need to make Jesus independent of John may have been the real motivation.


The exercises may have been linked in some way to the wandering of Israel in the desert for forty years and/or with Elijah's journey into the wilderness during which he was fed by the angel of the Lord and his subsequent travel for forty days and forty nights (1 Kings 19). On the basis of these connections John may have fixed the period of the exercises as "forty days" or "forty days and forty nights".


It is expected that one of the main object of the spiritual exercises in the wilderness was to discover and control evil inclinations in man. "The wilderness was traditionally the haunt of evil spirits" (Nineham, Mark, 64). It was a place to face one's demons and to overcome them. Once one had successfully overcome one's demons one became a righteous man or a son of God. Then he could perform extraordinary deeds. This is expressed in the gospels by the statement that Jesus was tempted by the devil in the wilderness or led there to be tempted by him. Nineham notes in his commentary that the "Greek word peirazein is much wider than the English word tempt and can include 'testing' or 'trying' of any sort (p. 63)." It could refer to any process of facing and overcoming the evil spirits. Mark says that Jesus was with the wild beasts and the angels ministered him. Matthew (following Q) says that the devil left Jesus after he had resisted the three temptations. All this has a remarkable parallel in the following passage from the Testament of Naphtali:


        If you do good, my children, both men and angels shall bless you, and the Devil shall flee from you and wild beasts shall fear you and the Lord shall love you. (8:4)


This passage shows that nothing that is said in the temptation story is particularly messianic; such a story could be told of any righteous man. But of course, the similar powers could be attributed to a messianic figure. In T. Levi 18:12 we read:


        And Beliar shall be bound by him (i.e. the coming priest), and he shall give power to his children to tread upon the evil spirits.


The serpents and vipers in the desert are visible incarnations of the evil spirits. So to tread upon the serpents and vipers is like treading upon the evil spirits. Thus when Jesus sends the seventy on their mission, he tells them:


        See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you (cf. Mark 16:18).


Here Jesus may be transferring the powers that he got during exercises in the wilderness to the disciples.


It is possible that in the oral tradition there existed stories about other rabbis as to how during some similar exercises the devil tempted them and how they resisted such temptations. The three temptations in Q may have been adopted from such stories. It is noticeable that the account of the three temptations reveals a high level of skill in the use of scriptural passages such as is expected of scribes and rabbis, thus showing that the story originated among scribal circles.


The above explanations of the stay in the wilderness find some support from the recently published Qumran texts from cave 4 and discussed in Evans, "Recently Published Dead Sea Scrolls and the Historical Jesus," pp. 563-565. One of these texts is 4Q525 5:2-5a. This text is in a very poor state but words and phrases that do survive or can be restored with confidence suggest spiritual exercises in the desert that lead to the revelation of the mysteries of God and power over evil spirits and serpents and vipers:


        serpents in [it, and you will] go to him, you will enter [...] there will be joy [on that day when] the mysteries of God [are revealed] for[ever. ....] burn. By poi[sons] will a serpent weaken his lords [...] of God [ ... vip]ers [...] In him they will take their stand. They are accursed for[ever] and the venom of vipers [...] the Devil (lit. the Mastema) [...] you choose depravity [...] and in him the demons of death take flight ...


The passage is talking about a place where there are serpents and where someone is instructed to enter and is being promised the revelation of the mysteries of God.


The other text is 4Q491 11:1:12-19, which may be a hymn describing someone who has successfully completed the exercises in the desert and to whom the mysteries of God have been revealed.


        [El Elyon gave me a seat among] those perfect forever, a mighty throne in the congregation of gods. None of the kings of the east shall sit in it and their nobles shall not [come near it]. No Edomite shall be like me in glory, and none shall be exalted save me, nor shall come against me. For I have taken my seat in the [congregation] in the heavens and none [find fault with me]. I shall be reckoned with gods and established in the holy congregation. I do not desire [gold,] as would a man of flesh; everything precious to me is in the glory of [my God]. [The status of a holy temple,] not to be violated, has been attributed to me, and who can compare with me in glory? What voyager return and tell [of my equivalent]? Who [laughs] at griefs as I do? And who is like me [in bearing] evil? Moreover, if I lay down the law in a lecture [my instruction] is beyond comparison [with any man's]. And who will attack me for my utterances? And who will contain the flow of my speech? And who will call me to court and be my equal? In my legal judgment [none will stand against] me. I shall be reckoned with gods, and my glory [with that] of the king's sons. Neither refined gold, nor gold of Ophir [can match my wisdom]. (Text as restored and translated by Morton Smith, "Two Ascended to Heaven - Jesus and the Author of 4Q491," p. 296)


The gospel temptation story does not lead to such an ascent to heaven and quasi-deification. It regards the point of the spiritual exercise precisely to overcome the desire for such glory and power. Perhaps the gospel version represents a reaction to this sort of claims of exaltation and glory made by those who went through the spiritual exercises. Or, perhaps it means to combat the accusation that Jesus was a magician (often called a son of a god) who got his powers from the devil during exercises in the wilderness. It is unlikely that the ascent to heaven and the accompanying deification originally followed the story of temptation and was suppressed by the church, for the story of Jesus' transfiguration shows that if ever the story of temptation contained any type of ascent to heaven, it would have been reported.




Healing, exorcising and inspired speech


Judging by the stories of other great men of religion, it is likely that Jesus passed through a spiritual crisis at some point in life. This led him to John the Baptist through whom he came out of his crisis.


Sometimes very soon after his baptism and spiritual exercises in the wilderness Jesus began to perform exorcisms and healings with extraordinary results. By using a later but expressive Christian phrase, he received the gift of healing. This is not unbelievable even if one does not believe in the supernatural: a humble man deeply aware of the power and grace that God can bestow on man, keenly desirous to receive that power and grace is baptized by a man whom he strongly believed to be a channel for the power and grace of God; as a result he does get empowered. Something in his background ensured that the power that was released within him manifested in healing and exorcising. We know too little about Jesus' early years to be able to say what kind of earlier experiences caused the power released within him to take the particular expression that it took. But it is probable that he had seen other exorcists and healers and considered their work a divine gift (Matt. 12:27=Luke 11:19, Mark 3:22-26) and presumably wished that he possessed this gift. It is probable that Jesus' father or step-father Joseph died when Jesus was quite young, since, whereas we continue to hear of his mother even after his "death and resurrection" the mention of Joseph ceases at very early stages of his story. If so, Joseph may have had a relatively short life, having been killed prematurely by a terrible illness. This may have left Jesus, on the one hand, with a need for a father figure, which may have been partly fulfilled by John (although, if we go by Luke, John was only some months older than Jesus) and, on the other hand, an interest in the nature of disease and its cure, which later contributed to his receiving the gift of healing. Probably the stay in the wilderness also played a role in this connection. By facing and overcoming his own demons Jesus developed the ability to drive demons out of others.


Despite the importance of the healing activity in the life of Jesus, it is difficult to recover a historical account of any healing actually performed by Jesus. There is no healing story that is found in all the four gospels: only the words, "Arise, take up your bed and walk", by which Jesus heals a paralytic appear in all canonical gospels (Matt 9:5-6, Mark 2:9,11, Luke 5:23-24, John 5:8) although with variations and in stories that in their Synoptic and Johannine forms are quite different. There are three miracles with possibly double independent attestation. The healing of the Capernaum centurion's servant in Q (Matt 8:5-13=Luke 7:1-10) and that of a Capernaum official's son in John 4:46-54 are probably versions of the same story. The healing of the leper in Mark 1:40-45 may have an independent attestation in the Egerton Gospel (NTA, II, 96-97). And the healing of the blind man in Mark 8:22-26 has some similarity with that of the blind man in John 9:1-7. But this cannot be, and has not been generally considered, enough to confidently affirm the authenticity of any of the four stories.


The reason for the fact that we cannot confidently recover any individual story of healing is not hard to find. When after his disappearance Jesus, due to the belief in his ascension to heaven, had been put in the league of such Jewish miracle workers as Elijah and Moses and pagan divine men the actual healings performed by Jesus could not fit his image. His actual healings were relatively less dramatic and their successes were mixed with complete or partial failures, as is suggested by Mark 6:5. Consequently reminiscences of actual healings had to be combined with stories of established miracle-workers to create new and much more dramatic stories and this process of creation did not take place under any kind of control that could impose some uniformity in stories coming from different sources.


I do not take the view that miracles cannot happen. The crucial question is whether the universe is determinable in the sense that it runs according to laws discoverable by man. There is no possible way to settle this question in the affirmative, since there is a part of the universe, the future events, which we cannot observe. And if the universe is not determinable, then events can occur which in principle cannot fit in any humanly conceivable model of the way the universe functions. Miracles can be defined precisely as such events.


But, of course, the belief in miracles does not mean that we can accept every miracle story. A miracle is an event in time and space and a report about it is like the report of any other event which can be examined as to its historicity. It is when we examine the gospel miracle stories in this way that we find it difficult to put much trust in their historicity.


Naturally, Jesus was much more successful in healing mental and psycho-somatic disorders, since these are far more susceptible to treatment by suggestions. The earliest layers of tradition talk more of Jesus' exorcist activity rather than of his healing more physical ailments. It is true that in ancient times all diseases were attributed to evil spirits and thus perhaps were considered to require exorcism but tradition also knew of a distinction between the two categories of disorders. Luke 8:2 says that Jesus healed people of "evil spirits and sicknesses".


Despite mixed and, relative to the gospel stories, mediocre results of Jesus' healing work, Jesus during his life earned a reputation of being a great healer. This is not surprising. Reputation depends on what else is available and also it feeds on itself. Once reputation is established in a certain circle, the successes are exaggerated and the failures are ignored. Those outside usually have neither the motivation nor the means to investigate the claims of the admirers whose voices therefore generally dominate. When some outsiders do have a motivation to dispute, they usually resort to general type of accusation. In case of Jesus, there were at some stage people who were motivated to undermine his reputation as a healer but they did not try to prove that the miracles did not occur but took the easier route of charging that Jesus performed his healings by the power of the devil.


We cannot recover the historical healings performed by Jesus by the usual method of moving to an earlier layer of tradition through multiple attestation and other criteria of priority in time. But some history can be recovered by another approach. Most of those successfully healed by Jesus are expected to become his disciples and some are expected to become well-known for having been healed by Jesus. Let us, therefore, see if there are some identifiable persons who are said in our sources to be healed by Jesus. Generally the persons Jesus heals in the gospels are nameless or otherwise unidentifiable, but there are two notable exceptions. One is provided by Mark 1:29-34 (followed by Matthew 8:14-17 and Luke 4:38-41) which describes the healing of Peter's mother-in-law suffering from fever. The other is found in Luke 8:2-3, where a number of women disciples are named who were healed of evil spirits and diseases; of these Mary Magdalene is singled out with the comment, "from whom seven demons had come out." We have no reason not to accept that Jesus healed Peter's mother-in-law of fever and Mary Magdalene of serious mental or psycho-somatic disorders. There were doubtless many other similar cases but the names of the persons involved and the details of their healing have not survived in our sources, probably because they did not play any prominent part in the church.


In addition to the gift of healing Jesus also began to talk of religious matters in an enthusiastic, inspired and wise way. As a humble but intelligent and sensitive man who looked towards God's grace and mercy, Jesus probably possessed wisdom before his baptism but it began to come out more and more after the baptism.


It is very likely that Jesus preached and baptized for a while as John's disciple (Robert L. Webb, "John the Baptist and His Relationship to Jesus," 219-223). In his preaching he must have repeated the main elements of John's sermons in his own eloquent words and also proclaimed John as the Elijah-type eschatological messenger, as is clear from the same sayings. Starting with the assumption that Jesus was carrying out a ministry during the time of John and as his disciple we can explain both the Fourth Gospel which says that Jesus was carrying a parallel ministry during the time of John and Mark which starts the ministry of Jesus after the arrest of John: the Fourth Gospel, which alone among the canonical gospels omits explicit reference to the baptism of Jesus, deals with the fact of Jesus' activity as John's disciple by turning that activity into a completely independent, parallel and even rival activity while Mark deals with the same embarrassing fact by ignoring it and starts Jesus' ministry when it does begin to assume some independence, namely, after the arrest of John, which, perhaps, also allows him to more literally present John as a forerunner.




Under and out of the Baptist's shadow


After his arrest, John's movement must have come under a considerable strain. Baptism started by him, even if continued on his behalf by some of his disciples was very closely linked with him. The rite is expected to reduce in popularity with the absence of John from the scene and to be gradually abandoned. Certainly, Jesus seems to have abandoned it and instead concentrated on his healing activity.


Jesus naturally became more and more prominent as an independent leader after the absence of John from the scene. However, even after the death of John, Jesus continued to speak very highly of John, which is a manifestation of Jesus' own greatness. The sayings mentioned earlier were probably spoken after the death of John. In any case, the following two traditions certainly belong to the period after the death of the Baptist:


Parable of the wicked husbandmen (Mark 12:1-12=Matt 21:33-46= Luke 20:20-26=Thomas 65). One plausible interpretation of this parable is that "servants" are the "prophets" while "son" is John whom Jesus considered "much more than a prophet". The point is that after God's eschatological prophet was killed on top of the persecution of many earlier prophets the judgment and kingdom of God was bound to come soon. This interpretation of the parable is also proposed by Aaron Milavec and D. Stern (see Craig L. Blomberg, "The Parables of Jesus," p. 251, n. 97). Blomberg rejects the interpretation on the ground that it is against the "fairly uniform Christian tradition of associating [the son] with Jesus," but this is hardly a fatal objection. In the first place, the Christian interpretation may not be as uniform as suggested by Blomberg, since Thomas does not give us any interpretation; in the absence of any reference in Thomas to the death of Jesus, it is in fact quite possible that Thomas is not identifying the son with Jesus. And in the second place, whatever uniformity does exist in the Christian tradition with regard to the interpretation of the parable can be explained otherwise: the identification of the son with Jesus was natural on the part of Christians and once made it was accepted universally. Finally, we have other cases of a fairly uniform Christian understanding of a tradition which we cannot trust. Thus John's reference to "one mightier than I" has been uniformly understood in the Christian tradition as a reference to Jesus. But on that basis alone we cannot accept that understanding as historical: John may be talking about God or the Messiah without ever thinking of Jesus.


A question of authority. In Mark 11:27-33, when the Jewish authorities ask him, "By what authority are you doing these things?", he points to the authority behind John's baptism. Morton Smith (Jesus the Magician, p. ) correctly remarks that the question by the Jewish authorities is amazingly mild if "these things" refers to the disturbance caused by Jesus' overturning the tables of the temple traders; he suggests that "these things" refers to Jesus' miracles which according to his opponents were performed with the power of the devil. The expression may also include reference to Jesus' preaching. In any case, this incident is put in Mark towards the end of Jesus' ministry and shows how to the very end Jesus defined his own role in terms of that of John.


Not only for Jesus himself but also for many of his contemporaries Jesus remained under the shadow of John for some time after the latter's death. This is indicated by the following traditions:


Jesus as John the Baptist. One way in which some people recognized the debt owed by Jesus to John for his prominence is the opinion recorded by Mark:


        King Herod heard of it, for Jesus' name had become known. Some were saying, "John the baptizer has been raised from the dead, and for this reason these powers are at work in him." (Mark 6:14).


See also Mark 8:28 where some people say that Jesus is John the Baptist.


The bridegroom and his friend. Another way in which people attributed Jesus' rise to John was through the metaphor of the friend of the bridegroom.


The term "Bridegroom" is used for Jesus in Mark 2:18-20 and John 3:25-30 (cf. Matt. 25:1-12, where it is applied to Jesus in connection with his parousia in the interpretation of the parable of the ten virgins) and Thomas, logion 104.


MARK 2:18-20


        18. Now John's disciples and the Pharisees were fasting; and people came and said to him, "Why do John's disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?" 19a. Jesus said to them, "The wedding guests [or friends of the bridegroom; literally, sons of the bride-chamber] cannot fast while the bridegroom is with them, can they? 19b. As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. 20. The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast on that day."


JOHN 3:25-30


        25. Now a discussion about purification arose between John's disciples and a Jew. 26. They came to John and said to him, "Rabbi, the one who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you testified, here he is baptizing, and all are going to him." 27. John answered, "No one can receive anything except what has been given from heaven. 28. You yourselves are my witnesses that I said, 'I am not the Messiah, but I have been sent ahead of him.' 29. He who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom's voice. For this reason my joy has been fulfilled. 30. He must increase, but I must decrease. (Some ancient manuscripts have "Jews" instead of "a Jew" in v.25, which is probably an attempt to make the passage more easy to understand. Since, after once mentioning a Jew the passage starts talking about Jesus, it has been suggested by some, without any manuscript support that the original text of John 3:25 had "Jesus" instead of "a Jew.")




        They said [to him]: "Come let us pray today and fast". Jesus said: "What then is the sin that I have done, or wherein have I been vanquished? But when the bridegroom comes forth from the bridal chamber, then let them fast and pray."


In both Mark and John the metaphor of a "bridegroom" is applied to Jesus in the context of a controversy involving the disciples of the Baptist. In Mark and Thomas the use of the metaphor of the bridegroom is related to fasting, although Thomas also mentions prayer. But in John the issue is neither fasting nor prayer but purification. The metaphor is used by Jesus himself in Mark and Thomas and by the Baptist in John.


How did the metaphor of the bridegroom came to be applied to Jesus?


The Rabbis thought of the community as the bride of God, and they interpreted the Song of Songs in this way but this has no bearing on the use of the metaphor (Bultmann, John, p.173-174, n. 11). Also, neither in Mark nor in John nor in Thomas is there any reference to the heavenly Lamb (=the Messiah) whose marriage is mentioned in Rev. 19:7, 9 or to the messianic marriage of the eschatological community (Rev. 21:2, 9; 2 Cor. 11:2). Hence the metaphor probably did not originate from a messianic understanding of Jesus, although it later acquired such an understanding.


We can better understand the origin of the metaphor if we start with the observation that all the passages quoted above suggest a situation in which Jesus has come out of the Baptist's shadow and his disciples have become a group distinct from that of the Baptist's disciples. This has created some rivalry in which certain objections are raised by the Baptist's disciples regarding the practice of fasting or some purification rite and some comparisons are made between Jesus and the Baptist. In this latter context the metaphor of the bridegroom and his friend was used to describe the relationship between Jesus and the Baptist. The aptness of the metaphor becomes clear in terms of the following observation made by Bultmann: "According to Oriental custom, the 'friend' has an important role to play, both before and after the marriage, in wooing the bride, arranging the feast, etc." (John, p. 173). In other words, the bridegroom owes his very status and prominence to the 'friend.' If we keep in mind that the imprisonment and then the death of John soon began to dim the star of the Baptist while Jesus' star began to rise (John 3:26, 30, 4:1), this observation leads us to the following interpretation of the original use of the metaphor: the prominence of Jesus was entirely due to John as the prominence of the bridegroom is due to his friend. Perhaps the original tradition behind John 3:29 read something like this: He who has the bride is the bridegroom but the friend of the bridegroom makes him the bridegroom. Such a view could have originated from the followers of the Baptist, or even from people generally on the basis of common knowledge of the rise of Jesus and his relation with John. Later, the followers of Jesus shifted the focus from the "friend of the bridegroom" to the "bridegroom" and this latter metaphor was put to various new uses.


In Thomas and Mark nothing of the original motivation for the metaphor of the bridegroom seems to have survived. Instead, the metaphor is used to say something about fasting which is very difficult and artificial. From whatever the gospels tell us about the Baptist, it seems that he did not institute any new regular practices such as fasting but only required morally good conduct (Matt 3:7-10=Luke 3:7-14) within an existing Jewish system of law. Some of those who came to be baptized by him seem to have gone through some spiritual exercises including fasting as is suggested by the story of Jesus' stay in the desert. Perhaps when people thought of the disciples of the Baptist, they thought of such individuals. If a system of fasting was not a fixed part of what the Baptist taught, as seems likely, then Jesus and his disciples were not violating any essential part of Baptist's teaching by not continuing fasting in the form in which it was practiced by some of those baptized by John. Nevertheless some of the Baptist's disciples objected, presumably out of rivalry, to the fact that Jesus' disciples did not combined baptism with a further process of purification through that particular form of fasting that they had gone through. In the church the objection was understood in terms of fasting generally which flew in the face of the fact that early Christians did practice fasting in some form. It was therefore concluded that Jesus and his disciples never practiced fasting of any sort during Jesus' life and that this practice started after Jesus' departure. This presumed fact was then explained using the metaphor of the bridegroom: just as wedding guests do not fast while the bridegroom is with them so also Jesus' disciples did not fast while Jesus was with them.


In John the original metaphor of the "friend of the bridegroom" is still present but the bridegroom has now become the Messiah Jesus and John's role as the friend of the bridegroom has become that of a joyful forerunner and witness of the Messiah.




Jesus' precautions


It is clear and has been suggested often that Jesus must have known of the threat to his life, especially after the arrest of John the Baptist and even more so after his execution. As we read the gospels we do not find any understandable process which ended the career of Jesus. That he faced hostility from powerful people such as Herod is extremely plausible and likely. It is natural to assume assume that Jesus would do everything possible to escape his enemies rather than let their hostility end his life. This simple and natural assumption is the one that a historian should fully explore before turning to any other hypotheses. A look at Jesus' ministry confirms this. It shows that Jesus carefully proceeded to make a maximum impact on the people with the minimum threat to himself. He also learned from the example of John the Baptist and avoided those aspects of the Baptist's ministry that made it easy for Herod to arrest and execute him.


John operated, as far as we can tell, from relatively fixed locations. This was partly dictated by the need to be not too far from flowing or "living" water, which was most suitable for baptism associated with purification, repentance and forgiveness (Lev 14:5-6, 50-52, 15:13, Num 19:17, Deut 21:4, Sib. Or. 4:165-167, Apoc. Mos. 29:11-13). This probably facilitated the Baptist's arrest. Jesus, on the other hand, learning from John's fate did not operate from a fixed location but continuously moved. This probably also contributed to his abandoning the administration of baptism. It also necessitated having people to host him, which in turn led him to have shared meals with his hosts and their guests. A great deal has been made out of Jesus' meals, especially with the tax collectors and other people on the fringes of the Jewish society, in which secrets of some messianic self-consciousness or of his superiority to John is imagined. But the tax collectors and harlots were also welcomed by John, as we learn from Matt. 21:31-32=Luke 14:29-30 (Q). That Jesus ate with them was simply necessitated by the fact that often they were the only people willing to host him.


The fact that Jesus traveled a lot had a far-reaching effect on the development of the Jesus tradition. For this meant that there was no group of persons who were constantly present with him to know all that he did or said. In each place people only knew a small amount of what he said or did. After the conclusion of his ministry, people in different places went by what they knew. This partial information then travels between places, often resulting in a great deal of confusion and misunderstanding.


Another consequence of constant traveling on the part of Jesus was that at times he suffered hardships. A comfortable lodging was not always assured, as we learn from the following saying in Q:


        Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the son of man (that is, this humble one) has nowhere to lay his head (Luke 9:58 = Matt.8:20).


The need to avoid the fate of John also makes Jesus avoid the large urban centers in Herod Antipas' Galilee. Galilee had three cities of substantial size -- Sepphoris, Tiberias, Scythopolis -- but the gospel tradition does not mention any visit to, or activity by Jesus in, these urban centers. He is seen active only in small towns and villages, mostly near the Sea of Galilee. The best explanation of this fact seems to be that Jesus wished to avoid confrontation with the executioner of his mentor.


Thus the evidence suggests strongly that ending his mission in death was the last thing on Jesus' mind.




The proclamation of the kingdom of God


The "spirit of God" released in Jesus after his baptism was also manifested in his speech. He spoke in powerful, memorable way using hyperboles; his sayings about John, with some exaggeration in them provide an example. His first hearers knew that his words were not always to be taken strictly literally, since they were quite familiar with this style.


An important theme in Jesus' sayings is the "kingdom of God." For him, as also in some rabbinical writings, the kingdom of God is something that is always present. It represents the power and grace of God and is manifested in all that is good and wholesome. One can enter into it by faith and by submitting one's will to God. But at present the kingdom of God exists alongside the kingdom of Satan, which is manifested in disease, suffering and all that is evil and harmful. When Jesus talks about the coming of the kingdom of God he means simply the destruction of the kingdom of Satan, which, naturally leaves only the kingdom of God. But when he says that the kingdom of God is "in the midst of you" he is referring to the kingdom of God as it is now present alongside with the kingdom of Satan. He could also have said, if occasion demanded, that the kingdom of Satan is "in the midst of you." Each time when he or any other exorcist casts demons out, the kingdom of God is manifested here and now and the destruction of the kingdom of Satan and therefore the "coming" of the kingdom of God in the near future is foreshadowed.


Like many other Jews before him, including John the Baptist, he did not think in terms of human agents that bring about the establishment of the kingdom of God. He used the term "son of man" as a modest, self-effacing way of referring to himself; we can translate the expression as "this one" (see Ch. 9). This usage by Jesus later played a part in turning Jesus into a messianic figure. For, after his disappearance when the idea naturally developed that Jesus had been raised to heaven alive, it would be extremely easy for some of his followers to think, on the one hand, of "one like a son of man" who in Dan. 7:14 appears in heaven and given power and dominion and, on the other hand, of Jesus' not infrequent use of the expression "son of man" to refer to himself. Jesus' use of the expression also explains another curious fact, of which a great deal is made by some scholars: in the New Testament the expression "son of man" occurs almost always on the lips of Jesus: since it was known that Jesus referred to himself as "son of man" any statement using this expression, even if its original author did not intend it to be a statement of Jesus, was almost certainly going to be attributed to him at some point during its transmission.


In Jesus' view, he himself or John did not come to bring or establish the kingdom of God but to prepare men for it and help them enter it.


How central was the kingdom of God in the teaching of Jesus? Early septennial tradition found in the Gospel of Thomas, Q and elsewhere in the canonical tradition shows that there was more to Jesus than a mere prophet of the kingdom of God. Some scholars have argued that the preaching of the kingdom of God entirely dominated Jesus' preaching. This is a reasonable view if Jesus thought in terms only of a future and imminent kingdom of God, for a proclamation of such a kingdom by its very nature could not but completely dominate Jesus' preaching. However, Jesus' sayings demand that we attribute to him a view according to which the kingdom of God could be both present now and come in the future. The best way to do that seems to be that he viewed the kingdom of God as existing now alongside with the kingdom of Satan and that the coming of the kingdom of God in the near future means that the kingdom of Satan will be destroyed in the near future. This seems to have allowed Jesus to take interest both in the present as well as the future reality of the kingdom of God, the former of the two interests leading Jesus to impart wisdom teaching relevant to the present reality as well as to perform exorcisms and healings.




Rejection in Galilee


Jesus' work in Galilee soon ran into opposition from three sources. First, Jesus did not fit into the established Jewish image of piety. This is not because he rejected the law and the prophets or even Jewish customs and traditions. Rather, Jesus was a healer, a prophet of the kingdom of God and a teacher of wisdom and such men do not fit in established images; in general, they neither reject traditions nor are they enslaved by them. John, before him, also did not fit into any such image. Some of his contemporaries said of him that "he has a demon" (Q, Matt.11:18=Luke 7:23), the ultimate charge of non-conformity. When Jesus' fame increased, the religious establishment of the scribes felt threatened by him and therefore started to attack him as one who was neither pious himself nor encouraged others to piety. As a teacher he led people astray; hence as a prophet he was an imposter and as a healer he was in alliance with the devil. Some other pious Jews, not necessarily feeling any threat from Jesus, also had doubts about him.


Second, the rising popularity of Jesus also alerted Herod Antipas, the tetrarch of Galilee. He became understandably worried that Jesus may excite the crowds because of his recent execution of John. So Herod issued a warning to Jesus.


LUKE 13:31-33


        31.[Some] Pharisees came and said to him, "Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you." 32. He said to them, "Go and tell that fox [or, donkey according to some manuscripts] for me, 'Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, on the third day I finish my work. 33.Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem'".


Here vv. 32 and 33 are two different versions of Jesus' answers, as is shown by the repetition of "today", "tomorrow" and "the third or next day." Verses 32, which says nothing about Jesus' death, is probably closer to the original answer. In this answer, Jesus seems to have replied that he would be active only for a short while, after which he would leave Herod's territory. Such an answer was not acceptable to Christians who either ignored the whole story or modified the answer as in verse 33, which interpreted Jesus' leaving as leaving for Jerusalem but not to escape execution but to be executed!


Third, Jesus also faced indifference from the common people in Galilee. Unlike John, Jesus had nothing tangible to offer. People could go to John and get baptized. But Jesus healed and not every one was sick and demon-possessed. Also, while healings could sometimes be seen to fail, it was more difficult to attribute failure to baptism.


The indifference of the people to Jesus at some stage is attested by both Mark, Q and John. Mark 6:1-6 records a visit by Jesus to the synagogue in his own home town towards the end of the Galilean ministry. The visit ends in people being offended and Jesus saying: "Prophets are not without honor, save in their hometown, and among their own kin, and their own house," an early saying found in different forms in all the canonical gospels (Matt. 13:57; Luke 4:24; John 4:44).


The rejection of Jesus in Galilee is also mentioned in Q:


        Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago. But at the judgment it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? No, you will be brought down to Hades (Luke 10:13-15=Matt. 11:12-14).


John 15:24-25 speaks of the hatred of the world for Jesus. Note that in Q Jesus is rejected in spite of his mighty works while in John he is hated because of them.


Some of the above traditions may reflect rejection suffered by the early Christian mission, but it is almost certain that Jesus' mission, after initially winning him some reputation as healer and prophet, came to a dead end in Galilee.




The disciples


Did Jesus make disciples whom he imparted some kind of teaching or whom he trained to assist in his mission? Several times in the gospels Jesus tells people to follow him or people are said to follow him, but the term is primarily used for people leaving their settled existence to accompany Jesus. In Q (Matt 8:21-22=Luke 9:57-62) a man (identified by Matthew as a scribe) says to Jesus: "I will follow you wherever you go." Jesus replies, "Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests; but this one (lit. "son of man") has nowhere to lay his head." Both the statement of the man and Jesus' reply assume that "following" is understood in a physical sense of going with Jesus. The same is true about the words of the man who said, "Lord, first let me go and bury my father" and Jesus' reply, "Let the dead bury their own dead." In Mark 10:21 the rich man is told to sell everything he has and to give the money to the poor and then follow Jesus. And in Mark 10:28 Peter says: "Look, we have left everything and followed you." Jesus promises that those who have left possessions to follow him will receive hundredfold now in this age and in the age to come will receive eternal life. In Mark 15:41, it is said of the women at the cross: "These used to follow him and provided for him when he was in Galilee ..." Clearly, women had not stopped following Jesus after they left Galilee or even after Jesus' alleged execution except in a physical sense.


It can be accepted as historical that some men and women on occasions accompanied Jesus during his travels, some more often than others. But it is doubtful that Jesus himself made disciples or ask people to be his followers and then taught them any specific set of doctrines or practices. In the passages from Mark and Q cited above only to the rich man and to the man who wanted to bury his father does Jesus say, "Follow me"; but in both cases it is doubtful that words go back to Jesus. The rich man is told: "go, sell what you have ..., and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me." Here after the promise of treasure in heaven, the command to follow Jesus becomes redundant and may be a secondary addition. In case of the man who wanted to bury his father, Matthew and Luke put the command to follow Jesus in different ways and it is not clear whether it was part of the original tradition in Q.


Jesus does not seem to have a program for which one needs disciples and followers. He appears like a great artist who simply gives expression to what is inside him except that his art is religious and political. Some people liked to associate with him and accompany him in his travels but they were not followers in the strict sense that they learnt from him a definite set of ideas and practices and assisted him in carrying out a well-defined program, although we will refer to the people who accompanied him as his "followers" for lack of a better word.


What was the main appeal of Jesus' "art"? His deeds and words lifted the spirits of those who heard and saw him, especially the downtrodden. He lifted people's spirits by giving them faith in the power and grace of God. He lifted their spirits by healing their sick and promising salvation to the poor. He lifted their spirit by pointing to the kingdom of God as it was manifested now along side the kingdom of Satan and as it will be manifested in the near future when Satan's kingdom will be no more. We can be confident that many of those who spent time with him were filled with admiration and wonder and cherished those moments with him.




In Jerusalem


The threat from Herod, opposition from the scribes and indifference from the people led Jesus, probably at the encouragement of his brothers (John 7:3-4), to decide to take his work to Jerusalem. In making this decision he must have been aware of the risk that he was taking. Some scholars have suggested that Jesus went to Jerusalem prepared to die and that he saw in this death some salvific significance. But this view seems to be based more on the influence of centuries of Christian theological reflections on the cross rather than the evidence. Apart from Mark 10:45 and other passion predictions whose authenticity is subject to serious doubt, the only possible evidence for the suggested view is provided by Luke 12:49-50. But the original meaning of this saying is too uncertain to lead to any probable conclusions (see a more detailed discussion in Ch. 13).


There is indeed no reliable evidence that Jesus went to Jerusalem to die. On the contrary, there are two arguments which suggest otherwise. The first of these arguments has already been mentioned: a major consideration of Jesus in the way he carried out his ministry was to avoid the fate of John the Baptist rather than to share it. The second argument is that if Jesus thought that death was somehow necessary for salvation of his people, he could have seen such a function in the death of John. What could his own death have achieved which the death of John, the greatest of all human beings and the messenger of the end-time could not?


It is, therefore, more natural to assume that Jesus, like an overwhelming majority of human beings, both ordinary and extraordinary, did not go deliberately to his death. He was aware of the risk and therefore had some kind of plan to deal with that risk. This plan included the following tactic: to push the authorities only so far as was safe and then hide and escape.


Jesus probably entered Jerusalem, as all the gospels tell us, sitting on a donkey surrounded by a group of followers who joined him in Galilee, on the way to Jerusalem and in Jerusalem itself. Some fame in all likelihood preceded him and he gave his entry as high a profile as he could. He could show this boldness because he had decided that this was his last attempt to move his mission forward; should this attempt fail he would disappear.


The gospels do not allow us to see, despite providing us with many traditions, what exactly Jesus did in Jerusalem. But it is safe to assume that he addressed the crowds, performed some healings, talked about the kingdom of God and spoke on some of the issues that occupied people's minds. His attack on the temple, whereby he suspended all movement of goods and overthrew the traders' tables, although reported by all gospels, has several problems with its historicity: it implies a rejection of sacrifices and therefore of the whole temple cultus which is not otherwise attested in Jesus' sayings; it assumes a mobilization of massive force that is not elsewhere visible in our sources; and the immediate reaction of the authorities is incomprehensibly mild in view of the gravity of the action. The so-called attack probably consisted of a minor skirmish between Jesus and his disciples on the one hand and some traders on the other (see Ch. 16).


There is a huge gap between the events as recorded in the gospels prior to the crucifixion and the crucifixion itself. Jesus' high-profile entry could make authorities nervous and his reported attack on the temple would almost certainly move them to action and yet we see Jesus going about his work as usual after these actions. More than that the two actions are not at all mentioned subsequently during the trials or anywhere else in the passion narratives. The gap between what goes before the crucifixion and the crucifixion itself cannot be filled except by some hypotheses. And there have been many such hypotheses. For example, Brandon, Carmichael and others have said that Jesus had as much force with him as the attack on the temple implies, that the attempted takeover of the temple was not peaceful but violent, that Jesus was arrested during the takeover and duly crucified as an insurrectionary and that the gospels represent an attempt by early Christians, concerned with living peacefully and safely in the Roman empire, to suppress the militant nature of Jesus' mission. This is a very understandable reconstruction of history but it has several problems: 1) it assumes a thorough and highly successful suppression of a major aspect of Jesus' work observed by thousands of people which is extremely unlikely in any tradition, especially a tradition like the Christian tradition whose development did not take place under any central authority; Paul, for example, having never seen or heard Jesus could pursue a mission largely independent of the leaders in Jerusalem and even teach them what the truth of the gospel was (see also Chs. 2 and 3). 2) It does not explain how a militant rebel who was defeated and crucified could become the risen Lord and the coming Messiah; such dead rebels may continue to be remembered by their countrymen as martyrs but they are not expected to become the bringers of the messianic kingdom.


Much more supportable is the hypothesis of Morton Smith who says that Jesus was a magician and was executed for practicing magic. In a general sort of way this view can explain the belief in resurrection: Jesus the magician defeated his executioners by rising again by virtue of his magic. But the hypothesis does not explain the particular form the tradition of Jesus' passion and resurrection took. It is difficult to understand, for example, why it is only in John, and not the earlier synoptic tradition, that we find the statement that Jesus' miracles contributed to his execution.


As our study proceeds, it should become clearer and clearer that the best explanation of the data is that in the gospels the events before the crucifixion do not link up with the crucifixion simply because the crucifixion never happened and that therefore there never was any link in the first place. When Jesus perceived threat to his life he hid himself, left Jerusalem and disappeared leaving little knowledge about his fate. The crucifixion was simply a hypothesis about what happened to Jesus which tradition tried to link with the events of Jesus' last days in Jerusalem but without being able to create a coherent picture. That obscure happenings can excite great interest and become sources of highly meaningful but untrue stories is now demonstrated by the study of rumors (see Ch. 4).


In summary, Jesus was a Galilean of peasant background pursuing in earlier part of his life the trade of a carpenter inherited from his father or step-father. He was a man of humility who hoped for the grace of God. At some point in his life he went through a spiritual crisis. At about the same time John the Baptist came on the scene with his baptism for the forgiveness of sins in preparation for the coming kingdom of God. Jesus was greatly impressed by John and his message in which he saw a new beginning for himself and for his people. He went to be baptized by John in the river Jordan and subsequently he associated with the Baptist. At his mentor's instructions he withdrew in the desert for some spiritual exercises. Jesus came out of his spiritual crisis and attributed this to the grace and power of God mediated through John. He returned to his native Galilee and started to perform healings and exorcisms and also started to talk in a powerful and very relevant way. He talked about the kingdom of God in the manner of John, possibly understood in a somewhat different way. The main thrust of his work was to lift the spirit of his people. During John's ministry, Jesus probably baptized as his disciple. But after the Baptist's arrest and execution, he started to become more and prominent as an independent leader. However, in order to avoid John's fate, he stayed away from the major urban centers in Galilee and limited his activities to small towns and villages. For the same reason he did not operate from a fixed location but moved from place to place, often finding people to host him wherever he went but sometimes having no shelter on his head. The people who hosted him were generally alienated members of the Jewish society such as the poor, the sinners and the tax collectors.


Despite his precautions, it was just a matter of time before Herod Antipas came to know about Jesus and his popularity. The tetrarch of Galilee issued a warning to Jesus. This together with the indifference on the part of people after an initial excitement brought Jesus' career in Galilee to a dead end. At the next Passover Jesus went to Jerusalem to celebrate the Jewish feast and used the opportunity to reach Jews from Judea and other parts of Palestine and beyond. Unfortunately, in Jerusalem a violent confrontation between him and some of the temple traders took place. This made it difficult for him to continue his public activity. He went into hiding and immediately after the Passover left for Galilee, where he met some of his sympathizers a few times and then disappeared without a trace.


Jesus' ministry lasted a very short period, possibly less than a year, and ended somewhat abruptly and mysteriously with his disappearance. One of the appeals of the story of Jesus was that it was only half finished, leaving people to provide the other half from their imagination.