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The Historical Jesus and the Kingdom of God

Jewish and Graeco-Roman Sources on Jesus

“… he assembled the sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others, [or, some of his companions]; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned: but as for those who seemed the most equitable of the citizens, and such as were the most uneasy at the breach of the laws, they disliked what was done…” (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 20.9.1)

“Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man; for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was [the] Christ. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day.” (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 18.3.3)

“Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular.” (Tacitus, Annals 15.44)

“Since the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus [a misspelling of “Christ” or a local person in Rome?], he expelled them from Rome” (Seutonius, Claudius 25).

“What are we to say, when the wise are dragged by force by the hands of tyrants, and their wisdom is deprived of its freedom by slander, and they are plundered for their superior intelligence, without the opportunity of making a defence? They are not wholly to be pitied. For what benefit did the Athenians obtain by putting Socrates to death, seeing that they received as retribution for it famine and pestilence? Or the people of Samos by the burning of Pythagoras, seeing that in one hour the. whole of their country was covered with sand? Or the Jews by the murder of their Wise King, seeing that from that very time their kingdom was driven away from them?” (Mara bar Serapion letter)

“… on a stated day they had been accustomed to meet before daybreak and to recite a hymn among themselves to Christ, as though he were a god…” (correspondence between Pliny the Younger and Emperor Trajan, Letters 10.96)

Christian Sources on Jesus

  • Jesus was miraculously conceived by Mary and born in Bethlehem before Herod the Great died in 4 BCE (Matthew 1-2; Luke 1-2). His family was known in his hometown village of Nazareth (Mark 6:1-6; Matthew 13:54-58) and his brother James became a leader of the Jesus movement in Jerusalem (Acts 12:17; 15:13-21; 1 Corinthians 15:7; Galatians 2:9, 12; James 1:1; Jude 1; Josephus, Antiquities 20.9.1; Thomas logion 12; Hegesippus, Eusebius Ecclesiastical History 2.23.4-18).
  • Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River by John (Mark 1:4-11; Matthew 3:1-17; Luke 3:2-22; John 1:19-34) and frequently compared to him (Matthew 11:1-19/Luke 7:18-35; Mark 6:14-16; 8:27-28; John 3:22-30).
  • The Synoptic Gospels record Jesus mainly ministering in Galilean villages  (e.g., Capernaum, Nazareth, Chorazin, Bethsaida, Genessaret, Sea of Galilee) and in the Decapolis, without noting if he visited urban centers like Tiberius and Sepphoris, and records his last visit to Jerusalem. John’s Gospel records multiple visits to Jerusalem to celebrate Jewish festivals.
  • Jesus had a preaching, healing, and exorcism ministry. He chose twelve apostles (“sent ones”) representing Israel’s twelve tribes (Mark 3:13-19; Matthew 10:1-2, 5-42; 19:28; Luke 6:12-16; 9:1-6; 22:30; John 6:70).
  • Jesus’s table fellowship with tax collectors and “sinners” (cultically impure, Torah transgressors, or rich oppressors?) was criticized (Mark 2:13-17; Matthew 11:19/Luke 7:34; cf. Deuteronomy 21:19-20).
  • Jesus triumphantly enters Jerusalem (Mark 11:1-11; Matthew 21:1-11; Luke 19:28-44; John 12:12-19).
  • Jesus stages a provocative act of overturning the tables of the money changers in the outer court of the temple, symbolically foreshadowing future judgment on the temple (Mark 11:15-19; Matthew 21:12-17; Luke 19:45-48). Note that John’s Gospel places this act near the beginning of Jesus’s ministry (John 2:13-22) and has the resurrection of Lazarus precipitate the plot against Jesus (John 11).
  • There is debate over whether the Last Supper was a Paschal meal (compare Mark 14:12-26 with John 13:1; 19:31-37). The Synoptic Gospels record Jesus’ words about the bread and cup (Mark 14:22-25; cf. Matthew 26:17-30; Luke 22:16-20; cf. 1 Corinthians 11:23-25), while John records Jesus washing the feet of the disciples (John 13:1-17).
  • Jesus was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, put on trial before the Jewish Sanhedrin, and ordered to be executed by crucifixion by the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate.
  • Jesus was given a dishonourable burial by the Jewish council member Joseph of Arimathea (Mark 15:42-47; compare with John 20:38-42).
  • The tomb was discovered empty by a group of Jesus’s female disciples (Mark 16:1-8; Matthew 28:1-10; Luke 24:1-11; John 20:1-2) and inspected by Peter and his companions (Luke 24:12, 24; John 20:3-10). The disciples believed that the risen Jesus had appeared to them (1 Corinthians 15:3-8; Matthew 28:16-20; Luke 24:13-51; John 20:11-29).

The Quest for the Historical Jesus Criteria

Assuming form and redaction criticism, scholars developed the “criteria of authenticity” to distinguish what Jesus said and did from the later traditions about him circulating in the Christ congregations or added by the Gospel writers.

1.  Double Dissimilarity: it cannot be ascribed to Jesus’ Jewish predecessors or contemporaries or his followers.

  • “Let the dead bury their own dead” (Matthew 8:21-22; Luke 8:59-60)
  • “Love your enemies” (Matt 5:44/Luke 6:27; but see Proverbs 25:21, 22 and Romans 12:14, 20)
  • Why the disciples do not fast: “Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them?” (Mark 2:18).

2.  Embarrassment: sayings or actions that the Christian tradents or the evangelists may explain away since they seem counterproductive to their theological viewpoints.

  • In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John. (Mark 1:4, 9)
  • Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” (Matthew 3:13-15)
  • [Herod] shut up John in prison. Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized… (Luke 3:20-21)
  • “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks before me, for he was before me.’ I myself did not know him; but for this I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel.” And John bore witness, “I saw the Spirit descend as a dove from heaven, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him; but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.” (John 1:29-34)
  • “In the Gospel according to the Hebrews… But He [Jesus] said to them, ‘what sin have I committed that I should go and be baptized by him’ (Jerome, Against the Pelagians 3.2)

3.  Multiple Attestation: it is found in multiple sources that are literarily independent of each other.

  • John Dominic Crossan’s “An Inventory of the Jesus Tradition by Independent Attestation” (also here, here, and here) has been uploaded online, but his results depend on his controversial decisions about the early dating of some Gospel texts/fragments and their literary independence from the New Testament Gospels.
  • See the multiply attested divorce saying (Mark 10:11-12; Luke 16:18/Matthew 5:31-32; 1 Corinthians 7:10) under the post “The Ethics of Jesus.”
  • See the multiply attested threat of the temple’s desecration or destruction (Mark 11:17; 14:57-59; John 2:19; Acts 6:14-15; Thomas logion 71) under the post “The Passion and Resurrection of Jesus.”
  • See the multiply attested theme of the Son of Man’s eschatological return (e.g. Mark 8:38; 13:26; Luke 17:24/Matthew 24:27; Matthew 10:23; Luke 18:8; 21:36; cf. 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16) under the post “The Christological Titles of Jesus.”

4. Aramaic reconstruction:

  • Jesus’s use of Abba (cf. James Barr, “Abba Isn’t DaddyJournal of Theological Studies 39.1 [1988]: 28-47) in praying to God the Father (Mark 14:36; cf. Romans 8:15; Galatians 4:6)
  • See the discussion about the reconstruction of an Aramaic idiom underlying the Greek title “The Son of Man” under the post “The Christological Titles of Jesus.”

5.  Coherence: it coheres with traditions that passed the criteria tests.

6.  Historical Plausibility: contradicting double dissimilarity, it fits the context of Second Temple Judaism and explains later Christian beliefs or practices

  • “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” (Matthew 6.9)
  • “Father, hallowed be your name. Your Kingdom come.” (Luke 11.2)
  • May His great Name grow exalted and sanctified (Amen.) in the world that He created as He willed. May He give reign to His kingship in your lifetimes and in your days, and in the lifetimes of the entire Family of Israel, swiftly and soon.” (the Kaddish)
  • Then comes the end, when he [Christ] delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. (1 Corinthians 15:24)
  • “…as the Lord commanded in his Gospel, pray thus: “Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy Name, thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, as in Heaven so also upon earth; give us to-day our daily bread, and forgive us our debt as we forgive our debtors, and lead us not into trial, but deliver us from the Evil One, for thine is the power and the glory for ever.” Pray thus three times a day. (Didache 8:2-3)

There has been a major challenge to the criteria approach in Chris Keith and Anthony Le Donne, eds., Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity (New York: T&T Clark, 2012). The memory approach does not attempt to go behind the Gospel texts, but takes the social memories about Jesus represented by the texts themselves seriously and asks what kind of reconstructed historical figure could have generated those memories.

Case Study: The Already, Not-Yet Kingdom of God

Did Jesus expect a dramatic divine intervention in the future to establish the kingdom of God or did he believe the kingdom had already arrived in his ministry (i.e. future or realized eschatology)?

Kingdom of God #1

He also said, ‘With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.’ (Mark 4:30-32; see also Ezek 17:23; 31:16; Dan 4:10-12.)

‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’ (Matthew 5:3); Then he looked up at his disciples and said: ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. (Luke 6:20)

From the days of John the Baptist until now the Kingdom of Heaven forcefully advances, and men of violence take it by force.  For all the prophets and the Law prophesied until John (Matt 11:12-13); The law and the prophets were until John; since then the good news of the Kingdom of God is preached, and every one enters it violently. (Luke 16:16)

Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, ‘The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, “Look, here it is!” or “There it is!” For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you’ (Luke 17:20-21)

But if I cast out demons by the Spirit of God, then the Kingdom of God has come upon you. (Matthew 12:28); But if I cast out demons by the finger of God, then the Kingdom of God has come upon you (Luke 11:20)

The disciples of John reported to him about all these things. Summoning two of his disciples, John sent them to the Lord, saying, “Are You the Coming One, or do we look for someone else?” When the men came to him, they said, “John the Baptist has sent us to You, to ask, ‘Are You the Coming One, or do we look for someone else?’” At that very time he cured many people of diseases and afflictions and evil spirits; and he gave sight to many who were blind. And he answered and said to them, “Go and report to John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news proclaimed to them (Isa 26:19; 29:18-19; 35:5-6; 42:7, 18; 61:1). Blessed is he who does not take offense at me.” (Luke 7:8-23; see also Matthew 11:2-6)

Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.’ (Mark 10:15); Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above… Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. (John 3:3, 5)

His disciples said to him, “When will the kingdom come?” “It will not come by watching for it. It will not be said, ‘Look, here!’ or ‘Look, there!’ Rather, the Father’s kingdom is spread out upon the earth, and people don’t see it” (Gospel of Thomas logion 113)

Kingdom of God #2

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God has drawn near; repent, and believe the good news.” (Mark 1:14-15)

And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out; it is better for you to enter the Kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched. (Mark 9:48)

‘Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.’ (Mark 9:1)

I tell you, many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 8:11)

… for truly I tell you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes. (Matthew 11:30)

‘Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man is seated on the throne of his glory, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life.  But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first. (Matthew 19:28-30); I confer on you, just as my Father has conferred on me, a kingdom, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and you will sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel. (Luke 22:29-30)

Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in clouds” with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.  From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he [or “it”] is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place… ‘But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. (Mark 13:26-32)

Truly I tell you, I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.’ (Mark 14:25)

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