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Author Topic:   Reconstructing the Historical Jesus
Member (Idle past 4255 days)
Posts: 318
Joined: 06-08-2007

Message 1 of 560 (462630)
04-06-2008 10:03 AM

The historical figure of Jesus is it's own story, the only factual story that can be told about who Jesus was. The stories themselves are also history as they present a factual historical record of what the story tellers believed Jesus to be. How do you separate the story that is actual history from the story telling? This is a very difficult task, as the only documentary evidence available was written down a generation following the death of Jesus and there are no independent secular documents to work with.

To put the challenge in context:

If you are a Christian, look back to the last sermon you heard. You could certainly present the theme and content of the conversation but it is highly doubtful you would be able to repeat verbatim the actual words that were spoken. Now imagine not just one sermon but many, spread out over a period of three years or more.

After a while, the preacher gains public popularity and the content of the prior sermons are shared verbally among the populace by those who were present. This verbal information slowly works its way around the city then into neighboring cities. This continues for a period of fourty years, at which time someone decides to record the content of the sermons in written form. In addition to the sermons, the populace also circulates information about the preacher himself - his life, his death, and activities. As the written form becomes more popular than the spoken word, others come along and do the same. Pretty soon you have not one document but twenty. Subsequent authors use information in the first document while adding information from the verbal accounts not previously recorded.

After time, one notices that the older the document, the more content it contains. In addition, one notices that not only has new information appeared, this information sometimes is so wildly divergent from the information and content contained in earlier documents that one has reason to suspect it's authenticity.

Two-thousand years later, you, the historian, now have the unenviable task of extracting the reliable details of the sermons and the history of the preacher from the documentary evidence that survives. The preacher himself has left no documentary evidence.

This is not a thread about Theology or one's personal religious beliefs regarding the nature of Jesus. How does one extract reliable History from the surviving documentary evidence available to reconstruct the Historical figure of Jesus? There is also a very small minority who believes the evidence available points to Jesus never existing.

What methods, sources, and approach do you use to reconstruct the history from the story and answer the question 'who was Jesus'?

Please, no preaching. Present whatever argument you wish as long as it is reasoned and based on historical evidence - from any source.

Edited by Grizz, : No reason given.

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Posts: 318
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Message 6 of 560 (462671)
04-06-2008 7:28 PM
Reply to: Message 3 by Blue Jay
04-06-2008 4:11 PM

Re: The Four Gospels
If we assume that the Four Gospels were written independently*, they would serve as four independent witnesses. Therefore, whatever the four have in common is most likely to be most accurate; whatever three have in common is next most likely, etc. You could also see which of the four has the most parts in common with the other three, and thereby decide that that Gospel is most likely the most accurate of the four.

Hey Bluejay, nice icon.

As Percy just alluded to, the popular synoptic Gospels not only draw from one another, but they also tap into the verbal tradition that was not already contained in prior written works. Furthermore, the more recent the Gospel, the more sophisticated and complex is the narrative and information content.

To give you an example, notice the passages below. Take special note of the phrase "And he went out and wept bitterly" in Matthew and Luke. Both of these phrases appear in the original Greek with the same verbage. Historians reconstruct the original verbal Q source by looking at common themes. Notice too that Luke refers to Jesus as 'Lord.' This becomes important later.
Mark 14:72:

Then Peter remembered what Jesus had said to him, "Before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times." And he broke down and wept.

Mark 26:75:

Then Peter remembered what Jesus had said: "Before the cock crows, you will deny me three times." And he went out and wept bitterly.

Luke 22:61:

Then Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said to him, "Before the cock crows today, you will deny me three times". And he went out and wept bitterly.

There are common themes in the canonical texts but the overall number of manuscripts and Gospels is quite large. Not everything being said about Jesus in the first two centuries fits in with Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

I dropped this in another thread, but here is a link containing a list of all main extant texts in use by NT scholars. For purposes of this discussion it will also serve as a chronology. This list does not include the multitude of partial manuscripts or those yet to be translated from the source material.


Also, here is a summary of the hypothetical verbal Q-Source extracted from the common themes present in parallel structures.


It is incorrect to assume that Early Christianity was a united community. By the late first century, the movement was already giving birth to rival sects. Although most saw Jesus as divine, many of these budding communities told their own stories and attached their own significance to the life and message of Jesus. Some communities placed less emphasis on Jesus's divinity and placed more emphasis on his social and religious criticisms and teachings. A few Gnostic communities even denied that the death and resurrection were actual historical facts. Most Gnostics did not tell the traditional story of the passion and resurrection - Jesus went away, after a while he reappeared to his followers, then mysteriously disappeared again. The number of Gnostic and Coptic manuscripts are quite numerous - these were not tiny, isolated sects. Regardless, by the end of the first century, there was more than one thematic story circulating - there were competing stories.

When the author(s) of John wrote the Gospel, it was not simply meant to be a biographical sketch or list of sayings; rather, it was a Christological story for a community that was beginning to develop a systematic theology while also competing with other theologies that were developing - Coptic and Gnostic. It is clear that the author(s) of John are attaching theological meaning to the events discussed in the Synoptic gospels. Essentially, the author(s) is integrating Pauline theology into the narrative stories.

Why did the Gnostic and Coptic traditions differ so vastly from Pauline theology and why did their writings contain content that differed so radically from the canonical gospel accounts? What was the cause for the divergence and where was the Gnostic and Coptic tradition coming from? This is a question historians are still debating. As Johanian theology gained prominence, these groups were eventually labeled as heretics and run out of town, so to speak.

My point here is that when you ignore the Apocryphal manuscripts and only look at the 'official' Canon, you end up short-changing yourself and don't get the entire picture. For centuries, Christians have been seeing Jesus through the filtered lens of the Synoptic gospels.

Combine all extant Christian sources with the secular historical information about the life and times of Judea and Rome(Jospehus, Tacitus, Pliny....) and you can use this as the starting point to begin extracting the history from the story. A lot of assumptions will have to be made, but they are assumptions that are based on a critical reading of the source material and a rational approach to the subject.

Modern scholars have no doubt that Matthew, Luke, and John, and possibly Mark were written after the Jewish revolt and destruction of the temple in 70 CE. Scholars can date manuscripts using a number of methods - textual criticism, style of the prose, penmanship, the type of paper and ink used, or perhaps even a mention of a historical event.

Authorship is unknown in all cases. It is highly doubtfully that the disciples actually penned the gospels. Within Judea, there was a literacy rate of roughly ten percent. In Judea, the spoken word was the norm and writing was something reserved for the cultured and highly educated. All earliest Gospel manuscripts are written in koine Greek and most of them display a sophisticated command of the language and indicate someone with high educational attainment. Based on life expectancy and the fact that tradition indicates many disciples were martyred early on, it is highly unlikely a Judean would have had the time or available resources to learn the language of the gentile - Greek.

Also, it is no coincidence that the written accounts(Gospels) started to usurp the verbal tradition after the sacking of Jerusalem. I will leave this for now as I probably have added too much already.

I should probably give my motive for the thread. I have always been a fan of Greco-Roman history and used to read anything I could get my hands on. I enjoy early Christian History and also have an interest in the textual criticism of the NT. It is kind of like reading a who-done-it novel or piecing together a puzzle. I especially enjoy reading the criticisms of John Crossan and Marcus Borg. My goal in this thread is not to try to negate anyone's faith or 'disprove' the divinity of Jesus. My goal is to try to have a somewhat scholarly and rational discussion on a subject I have always been interested in.

Edited by Grizz, : Correction to content.

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Posts: 318
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Message 15 of 560 (462713)
04-07-2008 5:37 PM
Reply to: Message 8 by Percy
04-07-2008 9:20 AM

Re: The Four Gospels
Consistent with our understanding of how myths and legend build, I think the opposite is the case, i.e., Matthew and Luke both provide more detail than the earlier Mark, and they all provide more detail than the hypothetical 'Q'.

Correct. It came out wrong. I meant to refer to subsequent manuscripts that appear later in the progression.

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Message 16 of 560 (462714)
04-07-2008 6:18 PM
Reply to: Message 10 by ICANT
04-07-2008 10:29 AM

Re: Greek
Since the Septuagint was the Bible of the day. It had been in existence for over 200 years. It was in Greek, why would the disciples not have knowledge of the Greek language?

You are talking about two different worlds. The Septuagint was in use by the Jewish communities in the Disapora - that was the reason for it's creation. The original translation to Greek was written to accommodate the Diaspora in Alexandria, not traditional Jews in Judea proper.

If Greek was so widely used among the common man in Judea, Aramaic would not be the dominant language of the region. That is not to say there were no multilingual speakers in Judea; however, only a Hellenized Jew or the highly educated and aristocratic would be schooled in koine Greek. Jospehus and Paul are two examples.

In Judea, for the non-Hellenized Jews, the scriptures were read aloud in Aramaic or Hebrew. Certainly, many citizens of Judea would be casually exposed to the Greek language as they came in contact with merchants or the Roman Legions, just as English speakers in America come into contact with Hispanic speakers, but certainly not to the level of competency to be able to compose a manuscript. Aramaic was the common language of Judea during this period and there was an extremely high illiteracy rate. The spoken word was the rule.

Furthermore, not everyone had access to their own manuscripts. For most traditional Jews, scriptures were something read in public. Even if each household did have their own manuscript, it is doubtful they could read it, regardless of the language.

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Posts: 318
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Message 18 of 560 (462719)
04-07-2008 10:05 PM
Reply to: Message 17 by ICANT
04-07-2008 8:10 PM

Re: Greek
Hi Grizz,
If everybody was so uneducated how did Alexandra put together 72 Jewish scholars that knew both Hebrew and Greek to translate the Hebrew into the Septuagint?


I never stated everybody in the Diaspora was uneducated. The first Jews who settled in Alexandria were Hellenized and their sons and daughters took on Greek as the primary language. This didn't happen overnight.

Education for most citizens of antiquity consisted of acquiring the necessary skills to partake in a trade. For the most part, students were apprentices. Unlike the modern era, reading and writing were not essential skills required to function in society. Literacy would only be acquired by aristocrats or those destined for a scholarly trade such as medicine, theology, or philosophy. As already stated, Josephus and Paul are prime examples.

Matthew was translated from Hebrew into Greek by James the Less.

I am not sure which manuscript you are referring to. All of the early Gospel manuscripts are written in koine Greek. Regardless, it is probable that James was probably dead by the time Matthew was composed.

Bartholomew translated Matthew from Hebrew or Greek into the language of India. He also preached in many other countries.

Thomas called Didymus, preached the Gospel in Parthia and India,

Simon Zelotes, preached the Gospel in Mauritania, Africa, and even in Britain.

You are speaking of traditions, not recorded history. If such recorded history does exist, I will be glad to discuss.

At the time the New Testament was being written, the language of the common people of the Holy Land was Aramaic, but Greek was the international language used throughout the Mediterranean world.

The common 'blue-collar' citizen of Judea would have no practical reason to speak fluent Greek. It is probable that they had a cursory exposure to the language due to their interaction with merchants and other inhabitants of the Empire. It is highly improbable that such an exposure would go beyond a basic understanding of practical phrases and terminology.

The Jews in Judea proper were traditional Jews who greatly resisted integration into Roman society and culture. This includes resistance to Hellinization. If your trade involved commerce or interaction with those outside Judea, you would be more likely to have a greater level of exposure to the language, especially if one resided near Caesarea in northern Galilee. Also, keep in mind we are referring to the spoken word, not the written. Regardless, Greek was not the common language of Judea at the turn of the century.

The writers of the New Testament quoted the Greek Old Testament.

As already stated, most of the authors of the Gospel manuscripts displayed a near flawless command of Greek and likely were from an aristocratic background or were highly educated converts.

Fisherman, carpenters, and tradesmen would not fall into this class. Their verbal knowledge of Greek would be limited to what was acquired in the course of their trade. Again, speaking and reading are two different things.

The sign above the head of the suffering Christ was written in Hebrew, Greek and Latin, with Latin being the tongue used by the Roman prelates and judiciary.

There were many dialects of Hebrew. Assuming the story is factual, I am not sure which one was used in the inscription and it was not a functional language at the time. During this period, its use surrounded the oration of scripture in traditional circles and very very few would have a working knowledge or written comprehension of the language.

As already stated, the common language of the Jews in Judea proper was Aramaic.

Over the 275+ years the Hellenistic Jews used the Septuagint, it spread amongst the Jews of the dispersion. By the time of our Lord's birth it was the common form in which the Old Testament Scriptures had become diffused.

Again, the Jews residing in Judea proper were traditional Jews who resisted integration and Hellinization. They were not part of the Diaspora, nor did they think highly of Hellenized Jews.

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Posts: 318
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Message 19 of 560 (462756)
04-08-2008 6:56 PM

The Historicity of Jesus:

For a Christian who accepts the Jesus as Divine on Faith alone, the question of whether Jesus was an actual Historical figure is a moot point.

For the secular Historian, the first thing to be addressed is obviously the question of whether there was actually a first century Jew named Jesus that gave rise to the myths and legends that developed in the first century. Is there even a point in trying to separate legend from fact and reconstruct the history of Jesus, or are we just chasing after the wind?

Although the majority of secular scholars do not seriously question the historicity of a Jew named Jesus, the issue itself is at times contentious:



"There are those who argue that Jesus is a figment of the [imagination], that there never was a Jesus at all. I have to say that I do not know any respectable critical scholar who says that any more.” Jesus Now and Then, Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2004


"Van Voorst is quite right in saying that “mainstream scholarship today finds [the question] unimportant” Most of their comments... are limited to expressions of contempt..these interests, both religious and secular, have mounted a campaign against [the myth hypothesis]."

Earl Doherty, "Responses to Critiques of the Mythicist Case: Four Alleged Scholarly Refutations of Jesus Mythicism", January 2008

And those in-between:

"It is not then the existence or the non-existence, of the person that I trouble myself about; it is the fable of Jesus Christ, as told in the New Testament, and the wild and visionary doctrine raised thereon, against which I contend. The story, taking it as it is told, is blasphemously obscene. It gives an account of a young woman engaged to be married, and while under this engagement, she is, to speak plain language, debauched by a ghost, under the impious pretence, (Luke i. 35,)...". Thomas Payne; The Age of Reason, Part 2 Chapter 2


Unlike Scientific inquiry, the Historian is at a distinct disadvantage in that he/she is not dealing with certainties, but probabilities. Our goal is to separate the probable from the unlikely and then use what we have apportioned to arrive at a conclusion, one that is based in reason and guided by the historical factual evidence that is available. It should come as no surprise then when two rational historians, both using the same evidence, arrive at totally different conclusions. We are not dealing with brute empirical facts or deductive proofs, but rather inference, conjecture, and interpretation. This is History, not Physics.

Those who present the myth-hypothesis do a very good job of presenting arguments that show how one can rationally interpret the Jesus Movement as being derived from a fictional character. Unfortunately, they never really supply a compelling argument as to why we should accept Jesus the Jew as myth. Showing the myth-hypothesis to be rational is quite different from showing why one has a valid a reason to believe the conclusion is more probable than the alternative.

Obviously, the same can be said about the corollary.

So, before we can even attempt to reconstruct the Historical Jesus, one first needs to ask on which side do you stand?

As far as direct refutations of the myth-hypothesis, my opinion is it is something that is not needed, as the conclusion is based on hypotheses that are logical, rational, and based on historical evidence. I just do not see the conclusion as probable.

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Message 25 of 560 (462832)
04-09-2008 7:15 PM
Reply to: Message 20 by Percy
04-09-2008 7:42 AM

Science doesn't deal in certainties, either. Certainty is the realm of religion.

Caught me again.

I will rephrase it to something like "..Historical methods lack the precision of the Emperical Sciences...."

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Message 26 of 560 (462833)
04-09-2008 7:22 PM
Reply to: Message 21 by ICANT
04-09-2008 12:19 PM

Re: Greek

The close followers of Jesus did accept Him as the Messiah. They were also Jews. Jesus had 120 members of His Church at His death.

The New Testament was written by 8 men.
Paul was responsible for 14 of the 27 books.
Matthew a tax collector for 1 book.
Luke a physician for 2 books.
Mark 1 book as he recorded the things taught him by Peter.
John, son of Zebedee 5 books.
The Apostle Simon, called Peter 2 books.
James brother of Jesus and Jude Thomas 1 book.
Jude Thomas, brother of Jesus and James 1 book.


Authorship of most documents in the NT Canon are largely unknown, with the exception of many Pauline Letters and a few Epistles.

The practice of assigning authorship to an individual of prominence or high social status was rather common in the literature of antiquity. It was basically used as a marketing tool that gave the work mass appeal and a badge of authority.

Today, it would be considered academic dishonesty, but in the first century it was how one got a manuscript noticed and circulated. There is a name for this phenomenon - Pseudepigrapha.


Regarding the language issue: I have already replied twice and it is obvious we are not going to agree, so I do not see any practical reason to continue to respond any further.


What would you consider recorded history?

Any document you can get your hands on is part of History and is fair game for discussion; however, if you are going to establish the accuracy of certain claims in the scriptures, another valid and reliable source is needed to support the claims. Instead of using the Gospels as self-validating tools, what other sources can you supply to substantiate the claims being made?

Any valid document used in supporting or constructing a historical argument must first be relevant to the nature of the issue under investigation. Secondly, it must be reliable. An unreliable document is one in which a rational person would have reason to suspect a bias and/or have a valid reason to question the accuracy of the information contained therein. Historians argue over the reliability of documents all the time. The majority of the time, however, issues with reliability are quite obvious to the average rational individual.

With that being said, religious documents are notoriously unreliable and invalid conveyors of historical facts since, by their very nature, they are notoriously biased. In general, the more extraordinary the claim, the more scrutiny such a claim will receive and the less the document will be trusted to supply accurate information.

This is not an implication that one can never find valid historical information scattered among the debris usually contained in these documents, it is simply an assertion that you must proceed with extreme caution. Religious documents are very reliable in supplying the Historian with an accurate account of what certain populations believed at the time and place of composition. Outside of that, no secular historian would use such documents as a primary source of information without first validating the information against other known, reliable sources.

The most reliable historical documents usually come from individuals who have no personal stake or claim in the issues being discussed. The authors display an emotional detachment from the subject and do not immerse themselves in story-telling or narrative, but rather they weave facts into a story.

Flavius Jospehus is a prime example and this is why his works are given precedence as a go-to source for accurate historical information from this period. Time and time again his information has been checked against other reliable sources and rarely are there any major discrepancies. Although he does contradict himself on occasion, the issues are minor and do not indicate an intent to deceive or knowingly supply false information. For Historians, he is the most trustworthy source available for information on first-century Judea.

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Message 27 of 560 (463163)
04-12-2008 4:54 PM

Continuing on....

Since nobody is jumping in, I am going to offer the opinions I have formed on the subject. Feel free to jump in or discuss specifics. Once again, no preaching please.

Historical Interpretation and the importance of context:

As my brief exchange with ICANT shows, it is hard to envision the dynamics of a society where the spoken word was the primary means of transmitting information. In such a world, the written word was used primarily as a means to preserve rather than transmit. For those of us in the twenty-first century, we have trouble placing ourselves in a world without newspapers, books, and mass media. In fact, everything about the existence of the period under discussion is so foreign to our way of life that it is inevitable our interpretations of the past will be somewhat tainted by our immersion in the present.

This is a period nearly two-centuries before Newton and the Age of Reason. A world without God would be just as absurd and difficult to comprehend to a first-century Judean as a world without Physics would be to us today. In the first-century, the line between the natural and the supernatural was blurred and the concept of religion as we think of it today simply did not exist. In fact, there was no word for religion in the extant languages of the period. The closest parallel can be found in the terms Sect(Greek haireses, Latin secta) and Cult(Greek heria, Latin cultus). The former was used to refer to a school of thought or a faction, the latter was used to refer to rituals or sacred rites used in worshipping a particular deity.

Paul of Tarsus wrote that, "..only a fool says in his heart that there is no God.." Indeed, atheism was a strange and foreign concept to most inhabitants of the Empire and Paul, being well educated and Hellenized, was no doubt reacting to the strains of Epicurean philosophy that were circulating during this period. For most inhabitants of the first century Empire, the idea that the Earth and Heavens were ordered by themselves would have been total absurdity. It is easy to imagine the eye-rolling and laughter that would ensue as inhabitants sat under a clear night sky and contemplated the claim that these things came about of their own accord.

There was no empirical science to appeal to that could explain the nature of the heavens. There was no physics that guided the planets and stars, no accumulated astronomical data that allowed one to offer an explanation for the nature and origin of the Universe. It was only natural then that many would label as idiots and fools those philosophers who claimed these things were ordered by themselves. For most, the gods kept the world together and were responsible for everything that happened above and below. To suggest anything else would be folly for most.

This is the world of first century Judea and this is the context in which we must work when discussing this subject. Spirits and demons were as real as the guy next door and miracles were accepted as part of the natural order of things -- indeed, the whole of existence was miraculous and run by divine providence. The only question surrounding a claim of magic or miracle would be which deity or spirit was responsible? Except for a few small schools of Hellenistic Philosophy, the world view and cosmology of the first-century was dominated entirely by superstition.

When working to reconstruct the past, we must also consider when and how our current social, religious, and political environments can cause us to form opinions of events based on what we see now, rather than what we see existing then. To give an example of how this might occur, consider the quotation below where the Historian Robert Doran refutes an earlier position on the cause of certain factors surrounding the Maccabean Revolt.

"Bickermann saw the origin of the problem in the attempt of "Hellenized" Jews to reform the "antiquated" and "outdated" religion practiced in Jerusalem, and to rid it of superstitious elements. They were the ones who egged on Antiochus IV and instituted the religious reform in Jerusalem. One suspects that [Bickermann] may have been influenced in his view by an antipathy to Reform Judaism in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Germany. Tcherikover, perhaps influenced by socialist concerns, saw the uprising as one of the rural peasants against the rich elite."
Doran, Robert. "The revolt of the Maccabees.".

Whether or not the view expressed above is true or false is not the point. Doran presents an example where it is possible that the present social and political context is being sewn into the past. On the subject of the Jesus Movement, we can see how a historian in a nation that has undergone recent turmoil or division perhaps would be so influenced by the situation in which he is immersed that he would be more prone to an interpret, for instance, that Jesus primarily was a social reformer and revolutionary. For someone else, they might be more inclined to envision Jesus as an apocalyptic figure whose main goal was to preach the imminent arrival of Divine Justice. The obvious point here is that how we interpret the past is often influenced by how we live in the present. We should always be aware of this when forming our opinions.

When asking who Jesus was, or if he existed at all, in order to form as objective an opinion as possible, we must also divorce ourselves from the baggage we have accumulated in our own exposure to the subject. We all have been exposed to this baggage and it surrounds what our society thinks of Jesus now and how our interaction with these current trends influence our current opinions.

For must of us in Western society, our baggage is the Jesus of Hollywood, the 'Sunday School Jesus'. It is the Hollywood image of antiquity that we must shed. We all know these images as the perfectly groomed and adorned contemporaries of antiquity. The Jesus of Hollywood has a short, trimmed beard, is meticulously groomed with long flowing hair, and is adorned in bleach-white garments. The truth is, the average first-century working class traditional Jew would be a bit unkept and disheveled, somewhat odoriferous, with short hair and a long, un-groomed beard(more ZZ Top than Jeffrey Hunter) containing a smattering of crumbs from the prior night's fish dinner. This would be the Jesus of reality.

This is certainly not the vision many want to see, but it is the vision of reality. Although Christian Theology declares Jesus to be both equally human and equally divine, Christianity tends to do its best to displace the human side of Jesus to make exclusive room for divinity. In fact, most Christians do not like to think of the human side of Jesus at all. It is this preference that ultimately has led to such traditions as the Roman Catholic declaration of the perpetual virginity of Mary. It was abhorrent to think that the womb that delivered the divine would later be used as a vehicle of human pleasure and procreation.

It is no surprise then, that Orthodox Christianity has always considered the Historical Jesus to be a Taboo subject. Not only are some anxious over what they might be forced to contemplate, some are anxious over what they might find. To really discover the story we must not only drop the Hollywood Jesus, we must also drop any bias towards forming our opinions based entirely on the synoptic tradition.

As already stated, Christianity has been viewing Jesus through the filtered lens of the Synoptic Gospels for two centuries. Most Christians have never been exposed to the Apocrypha, nor are many aware of their existence. The Apocrypha opens up a whole new world of information, one that is often at odds with the Synoptics not only on detail, but also Theology. These documents are just as beneficial to our research and the entire story cannot really be told without them.

In order to proceed and interpret the past, we must first do our best to divorce ourselves from our present context and discard all of our baggage the best we can. We must place ourselves into the context of a world without books, cars, TV, and Physics.

Jesus was a Jew, was born a Jew, and died a Jew. The religion we know today as Christianity started as one of many small sects within Judaism. Before we can form an opinion of who Jesus was, or if he was at all, we must first recreate the context in which the Jesus movement took hold. This context is political, social, and religious turmoil.


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Message 28 of 560 (463221)
04-13-2008 1:02 PM


It appears the auditorium is empty but this will give me the chance to present my argument and conclusions without interruption. Perhaps people will debate the issues at a later time. My love of history has given me a reason to continue. Forming an opinion of who Jesus was, or if he was at all, is not a simple task. To take the matter seriously, we really need to get into the details.

To answer why a Jewish working-class peasant who came from a very unpopular region outside Judea would be able to garner a following, we need to look at the origins of the Messianic traditions and the socio-religious context of first century Judea.

The short answer to the question is that the nation of Israel was divided and lacked a clear consensus as to the future. The nation was fractured along religious lines and was undergoing one crisis after another. Israel was desperate for any good news.

The long answer is below....

To create the context in which the Jesus movement first appeared, we need to go back to 586 BCE. It was at this time that the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem and desecrated the Holy of Holies. The Jewish nation found itself in exile or slavery. The cultural and religious tradition of Judaism was greatly fractured and the chosen People of God found themselves dispersed across the Mediterranean, with a large Diaspora forming in Alexandria. This period of Exile also marked the beginning of the Prophetic and Apocalyptic literary genres.

Israel was delivered out of Egypt from bondage to live in this Holy Land that God had set aside for his chosen people. How is it that this covenant came to be broken and how would the Lord of Hosts let the temple be destroyed? Israel was in a state of confusion not only over its identify but also its future. Over time, great shifts in theology and practices began to emerge. As the Temple had been the centerpiece of Jewish culture and worship, the Jews who remained in Judea were forced to take on new traditions. This is the period in which the gatherings known as Synagogue started to become the normal practice.

After centuries of self-rule, the nation of Israel was subject to domination by one occupying force after another. The Persians eventually expelled the Babylonians, followed by Alexander the Great and the Seleucid dynasty. In the quest to answer how this could happen, a consensus began to emerge among Jewish scribes that it was the Sins of Israel that caused God to turn his back upon his people. Israel was being punished for its transgressions and only repentance and the cleansing of Sin would bring on the turn of the Kingdom of David and return the nation to the days of the 'glory of Solomon.' It is from this situation that the Messianic traction was born: One day, God would anoint a messiah who would be from the lineage of David and would restore Israel to its rightful place.

Prophets were busy lamenting the sins of a nation while also describing the coming apocalypse when God would send out his wrath against the enemies of Israel and restore the Temple. Although fundamentalist Christians today find modern Apocalyptic significance in the writings of the Jewish prophets of antiquity, the aim and goal of the literature was focused on the immediate future and the restoration of Israel. The period of exile marked the birth of the apocalyptic traction - the notion that one day soon, perhaps imminently, God would send out his wrath against the enemies of Israel and restore here to greatness.

As decades went by, the prophets became more frustrated and anxious and the writings became more firery and colorful with lamentations over the '..great whore of Babylon.'

Stealing Buzzsaw's biblical quote from another thread....


Zechariah 14:12 And this shall be the plague wherewith Jehovah will smite all the peoples that have warred against Jerusalem: their flesh shall consume away while they stand upon their feet, and their eyes shall consume away in their sockets, and their tongue shall consume away in their mouth.

Zechariah 14:13 And it shall come to pass in that day, that a great tumult from Jehovah shall be among them; and they shall lay hold every one on the hand of his neighbor, and his hand shall rise up against the hand of his neighbor.

Zechariah 14:14 And Judah also shall fight at Jerusalem; and the wealth of all the nations round about shall be gathered together, gold, and silver, and apparel, in great abundance.

Zechariah 14:15 And so shall be the plague of the horse, of the mule, of the camel, and of the ass, and of all the beasts that shall be in those camps, as that plague.

Zechariah 14:16 And it shall come to pass, that every one that is left of all the nations that came against Jerusalem shall go up from year to year to worship the King, Jehovah of hosts, and to keep the feast of tabernacles.


Now, it wasn't until the Maccabean revolt in 164 BCE that Israel hade once again retained somewhat of an autonomous rule, but not for long. Those who stayed in Judea now faced an internal crisis. The Hasmonean dynasty had usurped the Priestly class and the Hasmonean Kings also took upon themselves the status and title of High Priest. The old Priestly traditions were being replaced by a monarchy. Needless to say, the traditional Jews were not happy. If things weren't bad enough already, it was about to get worse with the spread of Imperial Rome under Julius Caesar. Once again, the nation of Israel faced a national identity crisis.

It was into this situation that Herod the Great emerged. Herod was a personal friend to Caesar and upon consent of the Roman Senate, was given rule over Judea in lieu of Roman annexation. Herod was responsible for the remittance of taxation to the Empire and had effective control over this ehtnocracy. To say Herod was disliked by the populace is an understatement. He built monuments to Julius Caesar, built the port of Caeseria for the Romans and rubbed shoulder with the likes of Antony and Cleopatra. He was also known for throwing wild parties.

Upon the death of Herod near the turn of the century, the ehtnocracy was divided among his four sons and the incompetence of Herod Archelaus in Judea eventually led to direct Roman control and annexation. Now , there was once again a foreign occupying power in control and the nation was not quite sure where it was headed. By this time, Judea contained so many reforms and sects that outside of the Temple culture itself, it lacked a clear religious identity.

It is quite possible that in no other period of history and in no other place have so many rival groups and competing interests existed in one place at one time. The number of would-be messiahs, uprisings, and revolts is too numerous to document here. There are literally hundreds of popular figures and revolutionaries dotting the landscape.

With the reconstruction of the temple complex under Herod the Great, the Jews believed prophesy was being fulfilled and there was a collective certainty among most that the Messiah would return to destroy the enemies of Israel. One after the other, would-be prophets and revolutionaries were coming forward to stake a claim. In addition, when bands of nationalist zealots were not finding ways to fight the Romans, they were literally fighting and killing each other over petty disputes and internal power struggles.

Judea was divided into a great number of small sects and a few large traditions that had emerged in the period of Exile. The four main competing religious sects at the time were the Saducees, Pharisees, Essenes, and the Zealots. Flavius Josephus provides great detail of the happenings at the time and supplies accounts of the specific beliefs and practices of each group in existence. He reserves his most scathing critiques for the Zealots, who eventually brought on the wrath of Rome which led once again to the sacking of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE.


"...But of the fourth Sect of Jewish Philosophy, Judas the Galilean was the author. These men..have an inviolable attachment to liberty, and they say that God is to be their only Ruler and Lord. They also do not value dying any kinds of deaths, nor indeed do they heed the deaths of their relations and friends, nor can any such fear make them call any man lord....

.....Besides these, a new species of pest was springing up inside Jerusalem itself,, the so-called [daggermen] who committed assassinations in the heart of the city itself...Besides these, there also arose another body of villains, with purer hands but more pious intentions, who no less than the assassins, ruined the peace of the city. Deceivers and imposters, under the pretense of divine inspiration fostering revolutionary changes, they persuades the masses to act like madmen, and led them into the desert in the belief that God would give them signs of deliverance......A [false prophet] and Charlatan, who had gained for himself the reputation of a prophet, appeared in the country, collected a following of 30,000 dupes, and led them to the Mount of Olives. From there he proposed to force an entrance into Jerusalem, and after conquering the Roman garrison, to rule the people, employing those who poured in with him as his royal guard."

Jewish War 2.254, 58-62


Needless to say, the Romans were tiring of the situation and anyone inside Jerusalem who was seen as a revolutionary or a rabble rouser would meet a swift and certain death, with their bodies left to hang on a wooden plank outside the city gates as a message to anyone else who would enter and cause trouble. After a while, the situation became so out-of-control and dangerous that the Romans simply used the scorched-Earth policy and leveled the entire city in 70 CE. Once again, the people were without a temple and without a promised land. This was the time when the first Gospels started to appear on the scene.

That a Jewish peasant preaching the coming of the reign of God would attract a following is not a surprise. It only takes a spark to start a flame and there was more than enough combustible material available in first century Judea. That this movement survived when others failed was a matter of timing and synchronicity with other events that followed the death of Jesus and the spread of the Jewish sect into the hellenized world. This small Jewish sect was at the right place and the right time and with the right message to create the perfect storm.

Simply reading the Gospel stories at face value will result in us reading into them whatever we wish to see. It is crucial that we consider the social, political, and religious context in which the stories were formed.

The story-tellers were providing contradictory information that obviously was a result of competition between interpretations formed in light of current events and the surviving oral traditions. The story-tellers provided accounts of Jesus telling his followers that the Kingdom of God was yet to come, while at other places in the story, we are being told the Kingdom of God was here now, inside you.

The 'Kingdom of God' is a central theological theme in the Gospel stories and it is quite plausible to make a connection which places Jesus among an extremely popular movement that existed in the early first-century. Josephus provides us with information detailing the popularity of this group and the leader who died at the hands of Herod Antipas.

These are the 'Morning dippers', the Hemerobaptists. A new upstart movement was gaining increased popularity. This movement took the ritual purity of the Temple into the field to cleans and prepare the Land and the People for the coming restoration of Israel, which was seen as imminent.

'.....Hear oh Israel, repent of your sins and make way for the Kingdom of the Lord ...'


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Posts: 318
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Message 29 of 560 (463490)
04-17-2008 5:38 PM

I like to finish what I started and so will continue on with the project and discussion(monologue at this point). Given the complexity of the issue, it is impossible to present an informed historical argument without presenting in detail the entire context of the period under discussion. The goal, whenever possible, is to avoid relying on the religious manuscripts themselves as a source of direct historical information, but rather to use them as a source to extract clues and create inferences that differentiate the improbable from the likely.

The Siege

We have already briefly seen the context and conditions in which the Historical figure of Jesus would have found himself immersed. As the manuscripts of the early Christian communities will be used as a source of information, it is very important to understand the context and conditions under which the story-tellers authored their writings.

In the first few decades following the death of Jesus, information and stories concerning his life were circulated verbally among the population in and around Judea. The Jesus Movement had still not broken free from its roots in Judaism, but there were already small gentile communities starting to appear throughout the Greek- speaking cities in Rome. At this very early period in the movement, there was no practical need or desire for written accounts of the stories. That was about to change.

The tension between the rebel Zealots in Judea and the Romans in the province was reaching a boiling point. The Apocalyptic tide that had sprung from the Roman annexation and the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem had given the Nation of Israel reason to believe the coming reign of God as foretold by the prophets of the exile was coming to fulfillment. A major rebellion fueled by apocalyptic sentiments and the actions of the current procurator Gessius Florus had caused Jerusalem to erupt into widespread violence in 66 CE. Florus had sent word to Nero that the situation was no longer manageable and Nero sent out the future Emperor Vespasian to quell the revolt.

Flavius Josehpus, who was an eyewitness to the events gives a blow-by-blow account of the action and does so in meticulous detail. I supply the links below for the adventurous or curious who wish to read the entire account, from the initial siege to the sacking of the temple.


The competing rebel and zealot groups had all joined forces and had retreated to Jerusalem with the specific intention of provoking the Romans into a final and decisive battle. It was believed by many that the battle of Armageddon as foretold by the Prophets was about to take place. In the eyes of many of the zealot leaders, they were the anointed who had been chosen by God to lead the nation to victory and precipitate the coming kingdom which was promised by the Lord of Hosts. The death of Nero in 68 further emboldened the Zealots and was taken as a sign of divine intervention. Vespasian was appointed Emperor and assigned Titus to take control of Judea.

The siege of Jerusalem was bloody and protracted. Joephus notes that when the Zealots were not fighting the Romans, they were fighting each other over internal power struggles and claims of messianic priority. The situation can only be described as madness fueled by irrational apocalyptic fervor. Pauses in the fighting gave those who saw the madness the chance to escape the city and make their way to the fortress at Masada along the Dead Sea, where a large band of rebels was digging in and fortifying their position.

In the late months of 69 CE, Titus offered a truce and conditions of peace, but the rebels, in their religious fervor, declined. As the siege continued into early 70 CE, starvation and disease began to take its toll and the Romans continued to hope for an end to hostilities in an effort to save the city. By this time, the Roman legions had set up battering rams and catapults outside the city walls and were ready for the final assault, should all else fail. After declining yet another offer for a truce, Titus ordered the final siege, and by the Fall of 70, the city of Jerusalem was in pieces and the temple structure was leveled.

The rebellion also spelled the end of the other major rebel elements situated in Judea outside of the city. The Essene community in Qumran, also fueled by apocalyptic fervor, marched out onto the plains of Jericho to engage in what they also saw as 'the final battle between the sons of darkness and the sons of light'. They too were slaughtered in short order. When the Romans made their way to Masada, the last rebel stronghold, they employed captured Jewish rebels to slowly build up an earthen ramp to reach the fortress overlooking the Dead Sea. When they reached the summit, they found nothing but thousands of corpses strewn throughout the compound.

The Jewish rebellion was over and the cost to Judea was over one-million dead and nearly 100,000 Jewish captives. The Romans took the spoils looted from the temple to Rome and paraded the Jewish captives in front of the Emperor and Senate. The leader of the last band of rebels, Simon bar Giora, was beheaded and, as was customary, numerous rebel captives were crucified, with their bodies left to rot on wood planks that dotted the Apian Way. The message was a clear warning to any others who would rebel against the Empire.

Rome was brutal in its administration of justice and response to rebellion, but it is hard not to side a bit with the Roman Historians who, with obvious bias, placed the entire blame for the debacle on the fanaticism of the religious zealots and their failure to agree to any reasonable accommodations or treaty.

"..all delusional idiots and fools..losing their mind and being [tricked] by any would-be prophet and [mystic] who duped them into behaving like savages.. and declared the best course of action was to provoke [the Romans] inside the city where it was believed they would be delivered from their enemies....they ran amok in the desert like deranged madmen, proclaiming to any that would heed, that their time of deliverance was at hand.." Pliny the Younger Book 8

The Jewish nation had not learned the hard lessons from the first revolt, and once again Apocalyptic sentiment began to dominate the province. In 132 CE, the second major revolt under self-proclaimed Messiah Simon bar Kohkba had begun inside Jerusalem. The result was the same; this time, there were over 500,000 dead and tens of thousands sold into slavery.

Rome had seen enough and the religion of the Jews was now labeled as subversive to the Empire and public assembly was outlawed. Both Jews and Christians were forbidden from entering the city of Jerusalem upon penalty of death. Rome forbade any form of public worship and decreed that anyone in Judea who continued to hold a public religious office would be arrested and executed for sedition. Only a very small Jewish community remained in Judea and most Jews found themselves dispersed across the Empire. This period also marks the time when the split between Jewish and Christian traditions was complete.

There is a lesson here, one that the Jewish community failed to see. It is also a lesson for people of any period who would tempt fate by proceeding with one foot outside of reality and allowing their reason and actions to be guided by Apocalyptic expectations: Those who fail to learn from history are destined to repeat it. The consequences can be quite severe, not only individually, but collectively.

The consequences for Israel were over one-million dead, tens of thousands sent into slavery, and a nation expelled from its homeland for the next two millennia.

The Aftermath.

So, if you are reading this far, you likely are asking yourself what any of this has to do with the historical Jesus? The answer is, quite a bit, for it was after the destruction of the Temple and the failure of the Apocalyptic prophesies that the first Gospels came onto the scene. The written word now began to usurp the verbal tradition. As communities became isolated following the crisis, the Gospel was transmitted in written form.

The destruction of the temple in 70 CE marked the end of the temple tradition that was the center of Jewish culture and theology. It is easy to imagine how the Jew from this period would be shattered both emotionally and spiritually. Three times now, God had abandoned his people. The likely question on every mind was Why? How?. Should we do as Job's wife implores and simply ..''...curse God and die?" It was out of this crisis that the Rabbinic tradition took hold. The Priestly tradition was finished and Jews now gathered in synagogues and these small congregations were led not by priests, but by rabbis. Judaism's centralized identity disappeared and it now became a localized phenomenon that was dispersed throughout the Empire.

For Early Christians in Judea, there was still debate over identity and there was not a clean break from the Jewish roots of the movement. For the early Christian, whether Gentile or Jew, the destruction of the temple and failure of prophecy was extremely important as it bolstered the growing sects contention that it indeed was the New Covenant that God had established. Both Christian and Jew now looked back at the events and asked, what had just happened?, what was the significance of this Apocalyptic failure for not only the Nation of Israel, but for this budding sect?

In this midst of this crisis, the Christian now had the opportunity to preach to both Jew and Gentile that this was proof of their contention that the Messiah had indeed arrived in the person of Jesus and he will in short order deliver his people to a kingdom 'not of this world.' The Christian now had a basis on which to argue with the Jew that God had estalished a new covenant. The strange stories people were hearing would start to make more sense now that Jerusalem had fallen once again and God had failed to deliver Israel up from its enemies. The story of Jesus was now a much easier sell. It is following the revolts that Christianity took off and spread like wildfire throughout the Empire.

It is following these events that early Christians starting to pen the synoptic Gospel stories. It would be plausible to assume that in light of the recent history, the authors now might find new meaning in otherwise misunderstood verbal traditions and stories. We need to keep this in mind when we reconstruct the details.

The Gospels were written to specific communities and specific audiences living under specific conditions. Mark was written for a Greek speaking audience in Rome. Matthew was written for a predominantly Jewish audience in upper Galilee following the first revolt. Luke/Acts was written for a Chrsitian community after the split from Judaism was complete, and is quite anti-Jewish in tone. John was likely composed in the early first century after a common theology was formed.


So, with a bit of background material in place, we can now proceed with the goal of this thread.


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Message 30 of 560 (463900)
04-21-2008 8:28 PM

First things First...

The lack of participation indicates I am either putting people to sleep or there is likely no interest in the subject. I have a feeling that might change once I begin to utilize the Gospel documents.

If anyone is not bored out of their minds and decides to participate, I would ask that they keep it civil and professional.

I am well aware that my views will likely not be shared by many and there is no intention to disparage the beliefs of others. My interest in the subject is entirely academic. Furthermore, I am not an expert on this subject. The real experts are those scholars who have devoted their entire careers to research in this area. My area of concentration is in the History and Philosophy of Science and I certainly would not consider myself an expert there either, as I am a relative rookie. The subject of the Historical Jesus has always been an item of personal interest for me, and having never really recorded my thoughts on the subject, I figured a public forum devoted to serious discussion of scientific and religious issues would be as good a place as any.



"In Historical research, nobody can avoid presuppositions. Nobody can simply dismiss another's presuppositions using the grounds that they are just that. Presuppositions can be rejected only by judgements of inadequacy, illegitimacy, or invalidity. They will then be replaced by other presuppositions, which will be argued as more adequate, legitimate, or valid."

John Crossan

I will start by stating the major presupposition I employ when approaching the subject of the Historical Jesus: miraculous events as described in the religious literature of antiquity, whether it is the Bible, the Koran, or the Iliad, belong to the realm of myth and legend and are not part and parcel of reality. For the purpose of historical argument, this is a presupposition that I consider neither invalid, illegitimate, or inadequate. It is a presupposition based on our twenty-first-century understanding of the Universe and its observed modes of operation. As we do not observe those miraculous events described in the religious literature of antiquity ocurring now, I see no rational or empirical reason to conclude they have occurred in the past.

This presupposition is not to be equated with a claim that it can be inferred from the historical documents that such miracles did not take place. This will always be a presupposition. The secular historian will not look at a claim that 'Moses parted the red sea' or 'Mohammad ascend to heaven from a rock' in the same way they would they would look at the claim that 'Washington crossed the Potomac.' The latter falls within the realm of everyday occurrences and neither contradicts what we know about the Universe nor does such a claim appear within the context of a religious pronouncement. Extraordinary claims will always require great scrutiny.

You may disagree and may approach history with the presupposition that miracles indeed can and do occur, and you are free to do so; however, this is not a thread to argue presuppositions or the existence and validity of miracles. The goal is to attempt to reconstruct a historical figure.

There is no certainty when reconstructing the past, especially when dealing with periods two-millennia distant and with little supporting material. Historians rarely arrive at the same specific conclusions and there are many clues and inferences that might take different historians down divergent paths. All manner of books have been written on this subject and they span the spectrum from the wild and wacky to the serious and scholarly. They range from the secular and parochial scholarship of John Crossan and NT Wright, to the eclectic fringe elements who fill the shelves with popular stories telling us how Jesus gained special magical powers during his lost years in Egypt.

Although we can all construct any number of possible conclusions, we rarely step back and ask ourselves if our conclusions are not only plausible, but also more probable than the conclusions formed by others. So, when engaging in this subject, I am asking you to approach the subject by basing your judgements on what you see as most plausible and probable, rather than what you see most appealing. Without this approach, the chances are quite high that you will end up creating another story rather than creating a story that represents History.


The Stories that are Gospel:

For the secular historian, the history of the person of Jesus, like any other figure of history, begins with a birth and ends with a death. The influence this figure had on society following his death is not the aim of this thread, although it is very important to understand as we attempt to extract specific information from the surviving historical documents that are available. The legend begins with a story of a death, not just the death of an ordinary man, but a man believed by many to be the Messiah foretold by the Prophets of exile, who was not left corrupted by the ignoble decay of the grave.

Within the Gospel stories, we are told that before the Messiah's departure from this world, a message and a promise was left behind for a people in crisis. This message contained a vision that a new covenant had been ordained by God. We are told it is the destiny of those that accept this covenant that they will be delivered from the oppression of worldly things and find themselves ushered into a new eschatological Kingdom not of this world. The members of this new covenant were given a specific mission and duty, and this was to go about the business of spreading this good news of hope to others in order that they too could share in the fruits of this promise. This new covenant is not one of inclusiveness where the benefits of membership would be granted as a birthright to those chosen by God to be his people. Membership in this covenant is granted only to those who chose the path of active participation and acceptance.

This budding apocalyptic Jewish sect was still embedded in the turmoil and circumstances of the current apocalyptic Jewish sentiment and was patiently waiting for this eschatological vision to be fulfilled. For the early Jewish-Christian, the Gospel was exactly what it claimed to be -- good news. For a people accustomed to crisis and despair, and repeated apocalyptic failures, the Gospel was no doubt seen by many as a message of hope amidst the civic turmoil and religious confusion that was first-century Judea.

As Paul of Tarsus writes and was already shared in another thread:

"We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently."

Paul is the first Christian author we need to visit in our search for the Historical Jesus. Prior to the written Gospel, there was only Paul. A decade before the first Gospel was put into writing and two decades following the death of Jesus, Paul found himself breaking with Jewish tradition and undertaking a mission almost exclusively devoted to converting the Gentile to this growing Jewish sect. That Paul was preaching harmony and agreement indicates the early church lacked a common consensus or a clear vision. It is also clear that many of the early Christians believed this new covenant was to be preached only to the Jewish people.

One has to look only as far as the New Testament Canon to find that there was argument and debate between the early church leaders over whether it was proper to admit Gentiles into this circle. It is obvious that this early proto-Christian community had not yet detached itself from its Jewish roots and was struggling to form a unique identity. The community was arguing over such matters as the necessity of circumcision and there seemed to be confusion over whether the Christian was still bound by the laws of the old covenant. It is apparent from the tone of the literature that many in this early circle saw themselves as Jews under a new covenant, not as Christians founding a new religion.

Unfortunately, we can learn very little about the life of Jesus from the first Christian author, but we can gain some insight into the diversity of the early verbal stories that were circulating surrounding the life and work of Jesus. Paul never mentions any of the specific miracle stories later attributed to Jesus in the Synoptics. He never supplies any of the specific dialogue or sermons attributed to Jesus in later Christian writings, nor does Paul supply any details on where Jesus was born, where he preached, nor does he supply specific details of his execution and resurrection. In 60 CE, Paul was writing to a very primitive Christian audience that had not yet created an orthodox theology or dogma.

It is plausible to conclude from the tone and context of Paul's letters that early Christians were concerned with the immediate future and were earnestly waiting for the promised return of the messiah. At this point, Christianity appears to be defined by a primitive shared dogma motivated by the conviction that Jesus would soon return to rescue his followers. Paul simply recounts the obvious extant belief that God, through Jesus, had established a new covenant for his people, was crucified and raised, taken up into heaven, and would soon return to rescue those who stayed behind. He never mentions the specific stories of an empty tomb and supplies none of the details later relayed in the Gospel accounts. Early Christians were likely hearing details of Jesus' life in bits and pieces, with the pieces probably conflicting at times. Paul himself mentions a number of specific details never provided by later Christian writers, such as the claim that '...Jesus appeared to five hundred followers at one time..'.

In the sixth decade of the first century, details likely took a back seat to the eschatological theme of the coming Kingdom that Jesus will establish upon his imminent return. At this point in time, it is plausible to conclude that the early Christian community simply had no need or desire for a common gospel manuscript. That would change, however, after the destruction of the temple in 70 CE and the rapid growth of Christianity.

The first Jewish revolt and its aftermath likely had a profound impact on the thought of both Jew and Christian. It would be easy to see how an early Christian, not yet completely detached from his Jewish roots, would see this apocalyptic event as possibly ushering in the promised return of the Messiah. In the aftermath of this debacle, the Christian and Jew no doubt were sorting out the significance of what had just happened and the Christian was likely trying to understand the meaning of these events for this new budding movement. It must have been a very confusing time.

It is following this crisis that the first Gospel appears on the scenes: The Gospel of Mark, which scholarly consensus estimates was likely written just prior to, or immediately after, the destruction of the temple. The first Gospel is considered a passion narrative with an extended introduction. It contains no account of the nativity or virgin birth, no beatitudes, and no lengthy discourses. The goal of this first Gospel manuscript appears to be not to convince, but to quell misunderstandings, confusion, and counter the hostility and claims that the early Christian community was no doubt facing by detractors and skeptics.

The author of Mark was preaching to the choir, but doing so in a way that indicates the goal was to counter accusation and quell any confusion that might be arising over conflicting verbal information being shared at the time. Outside of the Passion narrative, much of the Markian Gospel deals with dialogue surrounding opposition to Jesus or portrays Jesus and his followers quelling misunderstandings on the part of detractors.

Subsequent Gospels start to take on a more dogmatic and authoritative tone. Following the sacking of Jerusalem and the demise of the imminent apocalyptic sentiments, there would obviously be a need for more practical information that could be quickly shared with new initiates. There would also be a growing need to quell dissent. Questions and conflict would inevitably arise. People would certainly ask, "where was Jesus born?", "What did he really do all his life?" , "I heard another story in Corinth, how do I know this one is true?." These are the questions that will likely be of importance to many, especially to new converts. If consistent and plausible answers could not be supplied, there will likely be divisions and conflict. The synoptic Gospels borrowed heavily from one another in order to retain consistency. The synoptic Gospels can be seen as an adaptation to changing conditions and the desire of the early Christian communities to establish common ground. The verbal traditions, which were likely varied and conflicting at times, would no longer suffice.

Of the three synoptic Gospels, only one author unambiguously explains the reason and purpose for composing the Gospel, and that is Luke. The stated purpose is obviously to clarify and suppress doubt and confusion. None of the authors of the synoptic Gospels claim to be an eyewitness to the events being described.

"Luke 1:1 Forasmuch as many have taken in hand to set forth in order a declaration of those things which are most surely believed among us, 2 Even as they delivered them unto us, which from the beginning were eyewitnesses, and ministers of the word; 3 It seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write unto thee in order, most excellent Theophilus [1], 4 That thou mightest know the certainty of those things, wherein thou hast been instructed. "

The synoptic Gospels mark the appearance of accepted dogma. The popular verbal accounts and traditions will slowly disappear into the background, with some of the old discarded and ignored verbal sayings and traditions likely making their way into the 'heretical' Gnostic and Coptic Gospels in Alexandria. Aside from the Synoptics, another completely different gospel tradition was to develop. It is obvious from the spread of the Gnostic and Coptic traditions, which are plentiful and diverse, that others were seeing things differently. Many of these traditions denied the resurrection accounts in the Synoptics and for some, Jesus simply died on the cross, or he did not die at all but simply disappeared. Unfortunately, the Gnostic gospels contain very little information of a biographical nature.

What we are seeing with the synoptic Gospels is the evolution of orthodoxy and the establishment of common ground. As more and more question arose, more information was needed to counter accusation and quell confusion. The progression of Mark to Matthew then Luke can be seen as an evolution of a story to greater degrees of sophistication and higher levels of information content. The synoptic Gospels would later become the status quo and the standard of refutation of all other claims. Soon, it would become heresy to question the content or accuracy of these documents. For the contemporary of the first Gospels, they were simply manuscripts used for practical purposes. They would later evolve into Canon and become accepted as the work of divine inspiration.

Of the information contained in these documents, what is likely to be fact and what is likely to be fiction? What can we plausibly say about the figure of Jesus, if we can say anything at all?

It is highly implausible to believe that in a verbal society, individuals could later reconstruct the actual verbatim words of a figure that existed a generation earlier. Instead, what is likely to survive are relevant themes, although perhaps mangled ,disjointed, and at times edited to fit immediate needs. Luckily, it is not really the words we are after, but rather the themes. Ideas and events are much easier to remember than words, especially if they have emotional significance or are relevant to the dynamics of the current social environment.

Using subtle clues and rational inferences makes the possibility of extracting reliable information somewhat plausible.

Knowing how and where to look for these clues is the key.....

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 Message 31 by iano, posted 04-21-2008 9:04 PM Grizz has responded

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Posts: 318
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Message 32 of 560 (463910)
04-21-2008 9:42 PM
Reply to: Message 31 by iano
04-21-2008 9:04 PM

Your opinion has been noted. As already stated, however, this thread is not about debating presuppositions, it is about how one goes about historical reconstruction, and more specifically, how does one go about reconstructing the historical Jesus. Presuppositions are mandatory, whether that presupposition is the existence of the miraculous, or it's denial.

If you wish to discuss the plausibility of the miraculous, please open up a new thread and I will be happy to discuss this issue there.

You are of course free to present your own reasoned historical argument based on your own presuppositions, or counter the inferences I make when presenting mine. But I will not debate this specific issue any further. As we will not aggree, it serves asbolutely no purpose whatsoever.

Edited by Grizz, : No reason given.

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 Message 31 by iano, posted 04-21-2008 9:04 PM iano has not yet responded

Member (Idle past 4255 days)
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Message 35 of 560 (464161)
04-23-2008 6:55 PM


Before I start with the 'juicy stuff', and in order to avoid conflict and confusion, I thought it would be prudent to pause for a moment and refer once again to the goal of this thread and the methods being employed.

Although we often use the word history as a synonym for past events, History as a discipline is the attempt to use plausible inductive inferences in response to the question, "What really happened?" The defining term here is "plausible", not "possible." It is certainly possible to construct any number of inferences and scenarios, whether rational or not, that represents a view of the past. Possible does not imply likely, however, nor does it imply certain. Certain is the last thing the History of Antiquity will ever be, regardless of the plausibility of our conclusions.

When attempting to offer plausible inferences regarding the Historical Jesus, I am doing so by appealing to the implicit skepticism which is at the heart of the historical method. In order to reconstruct the past with a necessary degree of objectivity, the Historian must approach any document or source with a degree of initial skepticism. Even when the veracity of a source has been accepted, one still needs to approach the claims contained therein with a questioning mind. It doesn't matter whether the claim is 'Washington Crossed the Potomac, or 'Moses parted the red sea', it is part of the job description of a Historian to be a skeptic. If you are not a skeptic, you are not doing your job.

In historical research, all sources, authors, and claims are assumed guilty until it becomes plausible to judge them innocent. It is only when we have no reason to doubt the veracity, plausibility, or accuracy of an authors testimony regarding a certain claim, should we admit the testimony into our pool of valid data that is used to form our inferences and opinions.

As the Historian has found through experience, and an appeal to common sense would indicate, religious documents are by their very nature notoriously unreliable conveyers of factual information as they are notoriously biased with a specific goal that typically involves proselytization, rather than historical accuracy. When examining them, our approach should be tempered with extreme caution and an extra dose of skepticism.

Unfortunately, It always happens when presenting plasuible obective inferences derived from religious documentation, that after an inference is put forth that contradicts an orthodox interpretation of the texts, someone will come forth, jumping up and down screaming, "That's Wrong !!! Look over here -- I have an argument that shows .....".

Presenting an argument that shows something is possible is not the same as showing how and why it should be accepted as more plausible and more likely than the position being deemed false.

Furthermore, it is not the job of the defense to establish the plausibility of the prosecution. If you disagree with some of my inferences, that is fine, but just don't tell me why, please supply what you believe is the more plausible inference. Only then will we have something substantial to discuss. If you simply say I am wrong without presenting your own possibility, I have no way of judging whether your possibility is more plausible. Do not fall prey to the grievous error of assuming that if one is successful in finding holes in the inferences derived by others, that ones own position is entitled to victory by default.

I am not basing my approach to the subject on my ability to refute other specific claims or inferences, nor should you. If you expend all of your energy in attack mode, you will succeed in nothing but coming across as insecure and reactionary.

Finally, the default accusation, as has already been employed, might be -- "You're just making up a story !" Of course I am; however, I am not naive enough, nor bold enough, to proclaim that my inductive inferences can be assigned the status of truth or historical fact. Everything I am about to offer could be entirely wrong. In fact, I would be quite shocked if all of my inferences turned out to represent the reality that is the past. I am simply offering what I believe to be the most plausible inferences that I can derive from the source material in relation to the our understanding of the social, religious, and political environment of the period under scrutiny.

I can prove nothing. The question to be answered by you, the reader, is not whether my story is true or false. The question to be answered is, after divorcing yourselves from any emotional baggage or sentimental attachments to existing stories, and when evaluated objectively, is the story I am creating more plausible than other possible alternatives? That is for you to judge. There are no absolute right or wrong answers.

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 Message 43 by Buzsaw, posted 04-25-2008 9:23 PM Grizz has responded

Member (Idle past 4255 days)
Posts: 318
Joined: 06-08-2007

Message 36 of 560 (464319)
04-24-2008 7:15 PM

I don't have much time at the moment to work more on the thread, but thought I would add some quick historical trivia:

Linguistics scholars have traced the Anglican rendering of the name Jesus back to the Greek transliteration of the Aramaic word Yeshua, which itself is an Aramaic derivative of the Hebrew word Yehoshua. Yehoshua obviously is what we know today in English as Joshua and was a fairly common name in first-century Judea.

Yehoshua(Joshua) in Biblical Hebrew means 'the salvation of Yahweh.'

The original authors of the Gospel manuscripts used koine Greek, and the Aramaic proper name 'Yeshua' was phonetically transliterated to Greek as lēsous. Early translators of the Greek texts into Latin then phonetically translated the Greek 'lēsous' into the Latin 'lesus'. This name has made its way through many transliterations in various forms, first in the Middle Ages as the Anglican 'Jesu', then today in modern English as 'Jesus'.

So, does Jesus mean Joshua? It may seem a bit confusing, but remember that obviously English was not in existence at this time. Today, the translation of the Hebrew Yehoshua into English is, of course, Joshua. The word Jesus has arrived to us through a large phonetic chain, but ultimately, both names can be traced to the appearance of the Aramaic in the first NT texts. In a dis-ambiguous sense, they refer to the same thing.

We don't use Yeshua(Joshua) today to refer to Jesus of the NT because obviously this is how the name has been presented to us in the literature.

My primary source for this information was:

Interpreter's One-Volume Commentary, Abingdon Press; Sep, 1971. P212,214

There is also a very cursory mention of the translation on Wikipedia.
The Name Jesus

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