Essential Guide to the Historical Jesus: Introduction (James H. Charlesworth)

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by Neil Godfrey

This book is an essential guide to the life and thought of Jesus . . .

That’s James H. Charlesworth’s opening line in the preface to The Historical Jesus: An Essential Guide, one title in Abingdon Press’s Essential Guide series.

James H. Charlesworth is George L. Collord Professor of New Testament Language and Literature and Editor and Director of the Princeton Theological Seminary Dead Sea Scrolls Project, an internationally recognized expert in the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old and New Testaments, the Dead Sea Scrolls, Josephus, Jesus Research, and the Gospel of John.

In the twenties of the first century C.E., this man walked out of the hills of Nazareth and into world culture. (p. xiii)

Scholars say Jesus avoided large and cosmopolitan cities (until the last week of his life) so I look forward to learning what Charlesworth means by Jesus stepping out into “world culture”. At the same time Charlesworth describes Jesus as one who happened to “stand out as one of the most Jewish Jews of the first century”.

Jesus was driven by one desire: to obey God at all times and in all ways. For him, not a word of Torah may be ignored or compromised.

I’m not quite sure how one “stands out” for being “most Jewish” among other Jews. But the message Charlesworth wants to convey is clear.

More accurate historical knowledge

Charlesworth explains that today it is possible to “more accurately retell the story of Jesus” than it was 2000 years ago. This is because today we have more accurate historical knowledge of Jesus’ world of Second Temple Judaism than the authors of the Gospels did.

Jesus lived when the Temple defined Judaism and the cosmos for most Palestinian Jews, even though there were many creative definitions of Judaism. Mark, Matthew, Luke, and the author of the Gospel of Thomas forgot, or never knew, the vibrant, exciting, and diverse Jewish culture that shaped and framed Jesus’ brilliantly poetic insights. . . . John may be intermittently better informed of Jesus’ time than the first three Evangelists. . . .

It seems obvious now, given the date of the Gospels and the struggle of the Evangelists to establish a claim that was unpopular to many Jews and Gentiles, that the Evangelists missed much of the dynamism in the pre-70 world or Jesus and the Jewish context of his life and thought. These are now clearer to us because of the terms, concepts, and dreams preserved in the Dead Sea Scrolls . . . (p. xiv)

My question is this. What would happen if we study the Gospels as if they are drawing upon post-70 C.E. understandings, concepts and interests and the Jesus narrative with all his deeds and sayings, though set in the past, is really addressing questions and issues that preoccupied the post-70 world? Would we find a coherent explanation of the Gospels this way and, if so, what need would there be to postulate a narrative based on an earlier time and setting that introduces anomalies and problems? Now that is what many form critics have believed to a large extent anyway, but even they have worked on the assumption that there was a good deal of oral tradition originating with Jesus that formed the underlay of much of what they wrote. Is there any reason not to see what happens if we work with a model the first Jesus narrative was entirely a post-70 creation?

Charlesworth explains his view of how the gulf arose between what Jesus meant and what later Gospel authors (mis)understood:

Terms such as God’s Rule (the Kingdom of God), the Son of Man, and the Messiah are found in pre-70 Jewish writings that have been recovered in the past three centuries. Since Jesus’ closest followers were fishermen or workers, it seems unlikely that they had access to such documents or were conversant with such concepts and terms. (p. xiv)

Is Charlesworth here saying that the average commoner Jew of the day was unfamiliar with concepts like the Kingdom of God or The Son of Man or even The Messiah? Don’t so many scholars say that Jews of the day were all eagerly expecting a Messiah to come and overthrow Rome and establish the Kingdom of God from Jerusalem? I look forward to seeing how Charlesworth clarifies his meaning.

In the meantime, he continues:

However, because he was inquisitive, and occupied himself by discussing Torah with Pharisees and others, and was obsessed with knowing God and the traditions of Israel, Jesus probably knew such learned traditions and even perhaps some of the early Jewish documents that have been rediscovered in the past two centuries. While many of Jesus’ terms might have been unfamiliar to his disciples, he might have clarified their meaning in private conversations (as in Mark 4:34). Also, one must not overlook that Jesus’ followers are not portrayed asking him about the meaning of the terms he used. (p. xiv)

Charlesworth nowhere argues that Jesus grew up anywhere but the village of Nazareth. He will later point out that Jesus’ interests were the farming and fishing life of rural Galilee. At the same time he was not poor otherwise he would have no time to reflect on all he was learning about the Scriptures and his own destiny or mission. I am personally unaware of any evidence that Pharisees were common in Galilee generally until after 70 CE (the fall of Jerusalem) — and would be very surprised to find a persuasive argument that they frequented the village of Nazareth during Jesus’ growing-up years.

I would also be very interested to know how even a genius (as Charlesworth describes Jesus) was able to find opportunities to become not only literate, probably bilingual, but to have access to copies of the Scriptures and other texts — and learned teachers — in Nazareth. But Jesus was known, according to the tradition, as “from Nazareth”. And it’s not only copies of the Scriptures that Jesus is said to have accessed: Jesus is said to have been “deeply influenced by early Jewish theology . . . teachings, traditions” (p. xv). And how does one living in Nazareth in those days earn enough to have the luxury to have the time to become the equivalent of a philosopher or rabbi?

Charlesworth (henceforth JHC — not to be confused with the Journal of Higher Criticism; or should I just use JC?) himself does not raise these questions but they do come to mind nonetheless.

But JHC does also attribute to Jesus a number of “creative” and “revolutionary concepts”.

His concept of suffering was extremely challenging to those Jews who expected a triumphant Messiah. His inclusion of the outcasts and the marginalized was unprecedented and especially offensive to many priests in Jerusalem. (p. xv)

Again I find JHC’s points intriguing. One of my favourite studies is the place of the Akedah (the binding/offering of Isaac) and its development throughout Second Temple (pre 70) Judaism, especially in the context of the suffering of the Maccabean martyrs. Even the Davidic Psalms are largely devotional reflections on the need for suffering until God rescues the afflicted. But according to JHC, if the everyday commoner Jew was “not conversant” with concepts like the Kingdom of God or the Messiah then what was offensively or startlingly challenging to this very commonplace Stoic idea in the Hellenistic-Roman imperial world where most people were long attuned to the need for less than fulsomely abundant lives? And what offense to “many priests in Jerusalem” was a Galilean preacher whose outcast and marginalized followers were likewise confined to the area of Galilee? Besides, if those “outcasts” stopped being prostitutes and tax collectors and experienced healings then why would they be offended?

More objective methods

There is another reason JHC says is a reason we can write a more accurate story of Jesus than the Gospel authors did: we have more objective methods.

The Gospel authors (Evangelists), according to JHC, who wrote “biographies” of Jesus

did not have the inclination to explore historical issues or ponder the complexities of Jesus’ life. They belonged to an ostracized and insignificant “sect” within the Roman Empire, and they were struggling to survive. They knew it was necessary to focus solely on Jesus and to proclaim Jesus’ relation to God and his place within God’s final plan of salvation. (p. xv)

That is why, says JHC, they told wrote narratives depicting Jesus as “the Son of God, the Good Shepherd, and, especially, the long-awaited Messiah” and not historically-true biographies.

Not even “inclined” to enquire and record anything about the “real” Jesus? One may wonder if there might lie at hand a simpler explanation for their interest in proclaiming “the Son of God, the Good Shepherd, and, especially, the long-awaited Messiah”.

But JHC points out that modern historians have no such excuses.

We may, and should, ask questions the Evangelists could not ponder.

One wonders if conditions facing the authors were so dire that they “could not ponder” what Jesus may have been like in reality then how was it they were able to compose the works they did at all.

We should be more self-critical, especially in the light of the perennial penchant to create a Jesus who is admirable, even worthy of worship, because he is like us. We have access to new scientific methods for asking historical and sociological questions. We should not be blind to the fuller landscape of Second Temple Judaism and Jesus’ place within it.

To peer through history to Jesus’ time, as with a telescope, now seems possible, thanks to monumental archaeological discoveries and refined historical sensitivities and methodologies.

JHC has described Jesus as someone renowned for “brilliant poetic insights”, “a genius” in the first two pages of chapter one but we will resist the perennial penchant to create a Jesus is who admirable because he is “like us”. 😉

I especially look forward to learning of our “new scientific methods for asking historical and sociological questions.” Sociological questions are certainly something new to our era. What disappoints me, however, is JHC’s apparent blindness to less “scientific” and more “artistic” questions such as the nature of literary compositions in the first and second centuries C.E. The modern world has also seen remarkable advances in literary studies that potentially open up ground-breaking insights into the nature of the Gospels and other early Christian literature. Studies in intertextuality, mimesis, midrash, pseudepigrapha, genre have surely opened up major new understandings of the nature of the Gospels as both literature and theology. Why do we even assume that the narrative is genuinely about a real person and event from a generation earlier, to begin with, and not a personification from the get-go designed to address post 70 issues? Add to this the advances made by the “Copenhagen School” and so-called “minimalists” in studies of the Old Testament that have brought OT studies more frequently in line with normative non-biblical historiographical studies, and we have a whole new paradigm through which we may construct hypotheses for the origin of the Gospel literature — even Christianity itself.

Some readers may be wondering how archaeology casts lights on Jesus, so JHC explains:

By perceiving how small a “lamp” was in Jesus’ time, we can comprehend why the young women lost the light of their lamps and were left in darkness (Matt. 25:1-12). Archaeology and sociology thus become important methods for re-creating and imagining Jesus’ time and society.

Later JHC will suggest that we are not interested in mundane details that archaeology might offer us — such as a piece of pottery recording how much wheat JC might have threshed in a day — but only “meaningful” things he said and did. Don’t misunderstand. I’ve been in love with archaeology since my high school years. And if archaeologists ever uncovered a shard that suggest Jesus the son of Mary and Joseph/Jahweh so much as looked at a handful of wheat I would be far more interested than any of those Evangelists who were so “struggling to survive” that they could not write a word about Jesus that was anything less than worshipful. Imagine the literature that would generate!

Disappointing conclusion

JHC concludes his “Introduction” with sub-headings like “Purpose”, “History and Christian Faith” (a subsection in which JHC savages the very notion of ‘Existentialism’), “Faith and History” and “Why is Jesus Research Necessary?” I will bypass these and conclude on JHC’s remark that all this is necessary because, in JHC’s own words:

How much reliable history can be discovered behind the proclamations concerning the one announced to be the Messiah? That question seems central, especially for Christians, since Christian faith is based on historical facts.

As an atheist who has read a little by Albert Schweitzer that statement does disappoint me. Does not this relegate Christianity to a very worldly religion? But that is something for Christians to sort out among themselves. But it does not bode well for a neutral observer’s confidence in any studies of Christian origins undertaken by anyone of the Christian faith. But let’s continue. I may be proved wrong.

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16 thoughts on “Essential Guide to the Historical Jesus: Introduction (James H. Charlesworth)”

  1. I have not read Charlesworth’s book, but I am not inclined to agree that Jesus’s saying should be characterized as “brilliantly poetic insights” or as valuable explanations of Jewish society’s relationship to the Temple.

    Practically none of Jesus’ sayings are brilliant, poetic, wise or even useful. His most remarkable sayings are the pacifist ones, and they are impractical guides for living and have had to be explained away for the past 2,000 years.

    As for the Temple, it is clear that Jesus did not like the money-changers who worked there, but we do not know why he did not like them. Jesus did like it when a poor widow donated a cheap coin to the Temple. As far as I recall, that is about everything that Jesus said about the Temple as an institution in Jewish society.

    As a whole, Jesus’s teachings are not systematic or even clear. Mostly, we have a lot of various parables that are puzzling, more or less.

    The sayings that are important are the ones about how a person can obtain a blissful, eternal afterlife. A person can be “born again” for such an afterlife if he accepts a spirit from above. Jesus compared this rebirth to surviving a poisonous snakebite by looking at a bronze sculpture of a snake held up high on a pole.

    That teaching about obtaining eternal life by looking at a figure held up on a pole is his teaching that is really brilliant, poetic and valuable — not any of the other teachings about how to live on Earth or about the role of the Temple in Jewish society.

    1. Excellent points.
      Whatever was quoted from Charlesworth above was not very inspiring, rather boring in fact. No special insight, and that dreadful academic rhetoric making long-winded plodding sentences to say little.

      1. In his next chapter he covers 300 years of scholarly quests for the historical Jesus. Names like J.D. Crossan, J.P. Meier and Paula Fredriksen are dismissed in 2 or 4 lines each, but he concludes the history with a climactic 36 lines on all of his own contributions to the world’s knowledge of the historical Jesus!

    2. As for the Temple, it is clear that Jesus did not like the money-changers who worked there, but we do not know why he did not like them.

      Mark is the first writer to depict Jesus’ hatred for the Temple, and he sandwitches the cleansing of the temple with the cursing and withering of a fig tree… in the vicinity of a town supposedly called “the house of unripe figs” (bethphage).

      It seems more likely to me that this entire Temple-cleansing scenario is Mark’s commentary on how the sacrificial system of Judaism is no longer producing fruit. The withering of the fig tree and Jesus’ command that it “never bear fruit again” is probably harkening “back” to when the Temple was destroyed and never to be rebuilt.

      So it seems as though it is actually Mark who didn’t like the Temple, not Jesus.

      1. I concur. Much is made of the money changers, probably because it’s such an arresting image, this furious burst of violent activity. But two actions are specified in Mark: it’s often overlooked that Jesus also “would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple.”

        Now, the money-changing is as legitimate an operation of the temple apparatus as carrying the items and supplies needed for sacrifice around within the temple. So what we have here is a symbolic shut-down of operations, in the logic of the narrative, a rejection of the entire cult practice of Temple-oriented Judaism. The ahistoricity of this should be obvious, but of course it sadly is treated as anything but. Never mind the absurdity of one man actually bringing the whole temple to a halt; the only remotely likely outcome of such actions would have been immediate apprehension by the authorities.

          1. Evan: “I’ve not seen anyone argue coherently against this position.”

            And you’re not likely ever to see it. The problem, of course, is that for many HJ scholars (e.g. Sanders) the Temple “Disturbance” is the Jenga block that sits directly under the arrest, trial, and crucifixion blocks. You’re asking them to pull it out and risk knocking over the tower.

            We “know” the crucifixion is true, so there must have been a trial. Since we “know” there was a trial, there must have been an arrest. Why was he arrested? It must have been that thing that happened in the Temple — not a full scale halt to business, but a demonstration of sorts. Big enough for people to “remember” it and pass it on orally, but not big enough to cause the Temple goon squad to haul him down to the station.

        1. it’s often overlooked that Jesus also “would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple.”

          Which is interesting because I think this goes back to Jesus’ possession by the holy spirit. Jesus not only drives out the money changers, but also the people selling doves. Doves were the animal used for sacrifice… Jesus, of course, is possessed by the dove-like holy spirit until his (its?) death at Jerusalem.

          1. Mark uses the same word for “cast/drive out” here as he used for the dove-spirit driving Jesus out into the wilderness. Perhaps this is one more of the very many reversals we find once we enter this last half of the story.

      2. I dream of the day when someone will read stories like the temple cleansing in the gospels without any religious-cultural baggage and will instinctively dismiss it as fictitious as Tell’s shooting the apple on his son’s head. The idea that anyone ever needed a raft of “scholarly arguments” to demonstrate its fictitious nature will be risible.

  2. Was Jesus really a genius, cleverer than Sherlock Holmes? If you read the accounts of Sherlock Holmes written by Dr. Watson, you will be astonished at the insights of Holmes.

    ‘They knew it was necessary to focus solely on Jesus and to proclaim Jesus’ relation to God and his place within God’s final plan of salvation. ‘

    You can hardly read documents like the Epistles of James and Jude without being amazed by the relentless focus on Jesus….

    As Doherty points out, Paul time and time again leaves simply no room for any ministry of a Jesus in God’s final plan of salvation.

    Romans 3’What advantage, then, is there in being a Jew, or what value is there in circumcision? Much in every way! First of all, the Jews have been entrusted with the very words of God.’

    Sole focus on Jesus???

    ‘But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify.’

    So where is the Jesus testifying to this righteousness that has been made known?

  3. The professional or academic theologians run a closed shop in order to protect themselves from close scrutiny,and let outsiders see the intellectual shell game they are perpetrating.

    Nazareth/Nazarene are not place names, not Jesus place of origin but garbled Greek transliterations of a nickname. Nasi (prince) or Netzer (crowned) as the origin of these terms. The theologians will not consider this since they have a political significance and they want to keep their Jesus as a spirit man , not engaged with his time and place, that they can use a a bogey man to threaten small children into behaving, and to mulct tithes from the gullible.

    An explanation for Jesus hostility to the Temple can be found in the PseudoClementine Literature. These are texts the devout theologian do not want the unwashed to know about since they create cracks in the facade of the New Testament Jesus they promote. They do not want to admit early christianity was non unitary, and that their version exists only because of a series of accidents. This is an exercise for the reader, as I do not have the reference at hand, but there is a passage in either the Clementine Homilies or the Recognitions that says Jesus did not want a physical Temple and sacrifices since that gave foreign invaders a place they could hold hostage. This of course is a non spiritual politically motivated Jesus talking, one that the academic christian propagandists do not want to acknowledge.

    As for the Temple assault. The professional dogmatic theologians want it understood purely in spiritual or allegorical terms. They also exclude all texts except for the NT and a few vague pagan references from the list of those that can be profitable studied, in essence making it impossible for one of their students to be exposed to a non NT dominated view of Jesus. Here again if you go looking for them you can find a plethora of texts implying Jesus led a violent and bloody attack on the Temple.. For a start there is Sossonius Heirocles stating that Jesus led a large band of outlaws. There is a relatively early Jewish text that states Jesus heavily armed followers seized the Temple after much bloodshed and heavy resistance. A Samaritan text says Jesus led two demonstrations against the Temple. There are some interesting Coptic texts. Reliable translations of the texts are available, so you do not have to spend time learning ancient languages from a biased theologian, The provenance of these texts are well documented, photos of the original manuscripts are readily available, or you can travel to the library that holds them and see them for yourself,

    The academic theologians need to be confronted and asked why they are accepting in many cases public money to pay their salaries, yet they are not busy making old text available, do not discuss competing theories of a Jesus who was a minor “lestes”, who had his five minutes of fame when the Romans whacked him after he created a Passover week disturbance. No one ever heard of Jim Jones until he had his followers drink the Kool Aide. If some had survived and been enterprising enough they could have founded a Jim Jones death cult where people would worship an image of a tub of purple liquid. In Jesus’ case obviously some one was perspicacious enough to see the possibilities and they started a Jesus death cult which took off. Religion is good business, if you can start a successful cult, you get housing , good food, people give you money and you get women. Look what starting a religion did for Ron Hubbard, who before making himself the wealthy high priest of Scientology was a broken down hack writer.

    Anyway the academics need to be challenged about why they are not doing theirproper job, translating and publishing texts,instead of using a university sinecure as a pulpit from which to spread religious propaganda.

  4. F.P.: “Nazareth/Nazarene are not place names, not Jesus place of origin but garbled Greek transliterations of a nickname. Nasi (prince) or Netzer (crowned) as the origin of these terms.”

    Nezer means crown. Netzer means sprout or branch. Some apologists try to link the Nazareth to the branch that will spring forth from the stump of Jesse. Seems pretty strained to me.

    It’s interesting that Stephen was stoned for saying the Temple would be destroyed and that στέφανος means crown. Or perhaps it’s just one of those odd coincidences.

  5. Not just apologists. I considered the Netzer etymology an interesting solution for the etymology of Nazarene until J. Quinton pointed out that the semitic Tzade almost always is transliterated with Σ in Greek and not Ζ as in Sadducee from Zadokite.

    That was from considering the village Nazareth a Markan creation based on a preexisting sect called the Nazarenes who identified their sectarian natures by calling themselves a branch, a separate shoot, with the allusion serving as an implication that their “branch” was the true shoot from the stump of Jesse. Mark’s frequent use of quotations and allusions from Isaiah making it all even more coherent (in my mind at the time that is). I still have some sympathy with the idea.

    Not that the transliteration observation is dispositive. Such assignments of one letter to another in different orthographies were (and are) conventions, but they could also be the result of choices made by individual translators. It might make a difference if one was a native speaker of a Semitic language or of Greek, or a speaker of Greek as a second language and a Semitic language as a third, etc.; it also might make a difference whether it was the initial letter of the word or not whether it sounded to greek ears more like a Σ or more like a Ζ.

    I hadn’t ever noted that Stephen meant “crown”. Interesting.

    1. C.J: ‘I hadn’t ever noted that Stephen meant “crown”. Interesting.’

      Yes, and as “the Crown” is dying he utters a variation on two of the Passion quotations — viz., “Do not hold this sin against them” and “Receive my spirit” — while Saul/Paul watches.

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