New Thinking About the Historical Jesus (Kevin G. Smith)

  (24 March 09)

(New Thinking about the Historical Jesus)


By Kevin G. Smith



"By the end of the first century the memory of the historical Jesus, including his original teaching, had become completely hidden behind the Christ of faith as described by Paul and then by the author of the Fourth Gospel." - Prof. Lloyd Geering Christianity without God, Polebridge Press, 2002, p.82.


"Readers of the gospels speak glibly about the religion OF Jesus because his followers created a religion ABOUT Jesus. It is not at all clear that religion concerns Jesus."- Prof. Robert W. Funk, Westar Institute, Ca.,1975.


Drawing on a relentless microscopic examination by biblical scholars over the last two and a half centuries of texts from early Christian times, new light illuminates modern Christology. As far as observance of his Jewish religion is concerned we perceive that Yeshua ben Adam (Jesus Son of Man) of Nazareth was a reformer. As far as his social status was concerned he was a Mediterranean peasant itinerant subversive wisdom teacher. In this he was acting primarily as a Sage of the Wisdom stream flowing from the First Testament books (including Deutero-canonical): Proverbs, Qohelet (Ecclesiastes), Ben Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) and Wisdom of Solomon.


Until recent years the role of Jesus was regarded essentially in terms of priest, prophet and king, associated with Torah and prophetic scripture. His role as Sage in the Wisdom tradition was not considered to be prime.


Second Testament scholars now distinguish the Messages or teaching of Jesus the Sage, that took place in his lifetime, from the early proclamation (kerygma) of his followers and disciples, the Jesus Movement, which took place during decades after his death.


"Gospel" means "good news". We are dealing here with two different concerns, (i) the Messages/good news of Jesus that he taught during his public ministry, and (ii) the early (quite different) Gospel/good news, proclamation of the Jesus Movement.


The former ((i)) refers to the teaching and Messages of the living historical person, Yeshua ben Adam of Nazareth, as he preached and taught during his lifetime, centering on the theme of God's Kingdom. The topic "the Kingdom of God" is not even mentioned in the later creeds.


The latter ((ii)) refers to what was proclaimed by his followers after Jesus died. These followers, the Jesus Movement, authored proclamations (kerygma) of their understanding of his importance as an envoy of Elohim/God. They considered themselves to be members of the Jewish religion, in no way members of a break-away sect. Most contemporaries would have considered them to be deviant or radical Jews, just another sect. Their early leaders in Jerusalem were James the brother of Jesus and Simon bar Jonah also known as Kephas/Peter/Rocky.


The messages of Jesus

As recorded in the New Testament, or we can also say, according to the scriptures, the revolutionary Messages of the historical Jesus in his lifetime were that:


  • sinners and outcasts are welcome in God's estate, the kingdom of heaven;
  • God's domain is already present, something to be celebrated; God's dominion embraces everybody—Jew, gentile, slave, free, female, male;
  • circumcision, kosher food laws, sabbath observance and ritual cleansing are extraneous;
  • you are clean;
  • your sins are forgiven if you forgive;
  • temple and priests are optional;
  • relationship with our father, God, is unbrokered and access to God is direct; and
  • God has a preferential option for the marginalised, outsiders - now is the time to change your way of thinking.
  • Believe this good news.


These can be called the real Messages of Jesus the itinerant Sage—the good news taught by Yeshua ben Adam of Nazareth.


The Gospel proclamation of the Jesus Movement is not the same.

The gospel of the Jesus movement Rabbi Sha'ul (St Paul) is the first unchallenged author of scriptural texts concerning Yeshua ben Adam of Nazareth. He had been converted to the Jesus Movement three or four years after the death of Jesus and authored his texts quite a few years later. In the epistle to the Corinthians (I Cor. 15:3-5) he refers to the existing proclamation:


"The tradition I handed on to you in the first place, a tradition which I had received, was that Christ died for our sins, in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that on the third day he was raised to life, in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Kephas and later to the Twelve ... ".


Notice that he did not refer to the Messages of Jesus? What had happened is that Jesus, the reforming teacher, had after his death quickly become Jesus Christ the icon. The messenger had become the message!


As the passing years became generations, the Jesus Movement members carried out the process of merging the proclamation of the cult of the person, Jesus Christ, with the proclamation of his Messages. The resulting narrative Gospels were biassed towards the iconic person of Jesus Christ. This caused the teaching and Messages of Jesus to be framed in an iconic interpretation of his person. Thus his Messages were liable to be diminished in importance by a kind of theological mystification or dazzlement. We may wonder whether Jesus would have appreciated that.


Part of the first proclamation of the apostles and disciples of the Jesus Movement concerning Jesus Christ was that he would soon come again SoFiA Bulletin – February 2008 6 to fulfil his role as the Christ, the Messiah, and re-activate the Kingdom of David. However that didn't happen. He didn't return!


In the ferment of remembrance, discussion, prayer, understanding, interpreting and preaching, the disciples of the Jesus Movement recalled the life, death and resurrection of Jesus with agape and eucharistic meals. It was considered over passing time that Yeshua ben Adam of Nazareth's heavenly Father glorified and designated him as Son of God, the Messiah:


  • after his death and resurrection (Rom 1:4) C.E. 33
  • at his baptism by John the Baptist (Mk 1:11) C.E. 30
  • at his birth, in the infancy narratives (Mt & Lk) B.C.E. 4
  • from the beginning, as the Logos/Word, divine Son of God, (Jn 1:1-3) B.C.E. 4004?
  • from all eternity as the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity (Church Councils)


The messages of Jesus (Again)

Let us go back to the time of the historical Yeshua ben Adam of Nazareth. We recall his Messages and his teaching that everyone, repeat everyone, is welcome in the Kingdom of Heaven which is here and now! We also recall the favourites of God according to Yeshua ben Adam of Nazareth. Let us spell it out!


According to Jesus, God's preferred options were underdogs, outsiders! For Jesus, privileged people were those marginalised in his society. Typical persons helped or befriended by Jesus were male and female outsiders and outcasts, people regarded as the unworthy and undesirable.


Let us be specific:

  • infirm, children, profiteers, prisoners, sinners, maimed, paralysed, retarded, halt, blind, burdened, misfits, lowly, poor, brutalised victims, victims of injustice, gentile (i.e., non- Jewish) supplicants, Samaritans, heretics, petty taxofficials/ collaborators, lepers
  • and skin-diseased, and even women who did not observe the social proprieties and therefore were labelled by the code-word "prostitutes" …
  • and, oh yes, the Kingdom of God could also include, as extended family, respectable people, priests, Romans, Pharisees, Sadducees, Levites, clerical ministers, the wealthy, the affluent and even scholars!



NOTE: Much of this article is based on the insights of biblical scholars Prof. Lloyd Geering of New Zealand and of the late Professor Robert W. Funk, a co-founder of the Jesus Seminar and the Westar Institute, as in his Honest to Jesus - Jesus for a new Millenium, Polebridge Press, 1996.




Very interesting line of thinking.

I agree with your main tenet of thought that Jesus' followers have mostly done what he came to abolish - which was religion.

But are you saying that all post historical writing about Jesus is false? Should only the gospels be taken as ... gospel?

Posted by Leon Jacobs

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