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Who Was Jesus?

In the study of the historical Jesus two of the most important issues, both addressed by John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan Reed, are Jesus’ surroundings—what first-century Jewish Palestine was like—and his “type”—Was he prophet, magician, ethicist, sage, social reformer, utopian visionary, or some combination of these? Crossan, a former priest and an emeritus professor of religious studies at DePaul University, is the leading member of the influential group of scholars called the Jesus Seminar and has written numerous publications about Jesus, including especially The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant.1 Reed is a young archaeologist who has recently published a book on Galilee and Jesus.2 The task they set themselves is an important one: to clarify the setting in which Jesus lived and worked, and to explain him within that context by combining the study of archaeological and other findings with historical analysis of the gospels and other ancient texts.

The archaeological descriptions are brief, accurate, and helpful. Jesus’ home village, Nazareth, was, the authors write, “a peasant village in an agrarian society.” Between two and four hundred people lived in houses so modest that there are few physical remains. The culture of the village was entirely Jewish, and the residents adhered to “the Temple-oriented Judaism” of the day. The Nazarenes did not have much “interaction” with “the large royal estates” or with the countryside near Scythopolis, a Gentile city on the west bank of the Jordan. The authors describe the town of Capernaum, near which the gospels set much of Jesus’ activity, and Sepphoris, only a few miles from Nazareth, where Jesus grew up. They also give accounts of Herod’s main pagan city, Caesarea Maritima, which he built in a region that was not traditionally Jewish, and of the Temple in Jerusalem.

The book’s illustrations, including photographs and reconstructions of ancient sites, are plentiful and excellent. The authors describe archaeological evidence from a fairly wide chronological period and include examples of Roman architecture dating from the third and fourth centuries. It is instructive to contrast these remains with those of the earlier layers, before Rome stationed a legion in Galilee around 130 CE and Roman influence became more widely evident.

Crossan and Reed’s interpretation of texts suggests that the most important aspect of Jesus’ message and mission was that he favored free healing and free food. The key passage in the gospels is the “Mission Charge”3—the instructions on how to behave in carrying out the mission of Jesus. This passage is usually regarded as heavily influenced by Christian missionary efforts after Jesus’ crucifixion, but its words are always at the center of Crossan and Reed’s portrayals of Jesus. Jesus tells his disciples, “Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’” For Crossan and Reed, free healing and shared food are more than merely an important aspect of Jesus’ work, they are central to that work; they are so significant that their book refers to only a few other aspects of the gospels.4

It turns out, however, that according to the authors this primary passage does not accurately convey Jesus’ teaching. In their view the exchange of healing for food in the Mission Charge should be interpreted as a distinct social policy. It was, they say, part of a socioeconomic protest that was aimed at “resistance against the distributive injustice of Roman-Herodian commercialization.” The passage shows that Jesus favored “the just sharing of food as the material basis of life.” Jesus and his followers

sought to restore [their] society, fractured by Herodian Romanization, urbanization, and commercialization, from the bottom upward, and they did so as consti-tutive of the Kingdom of God, a divine realm in confrontation with the narrower realm of Antipas within the wider realm of Caesar.

That is to say, Jesus, by favoring free healing and shared food, showed himself to be a socioeconomic reformer who intended his movement slowly to change the world for the better. The people who joined the reform movement became members of “the kingdom of God.” In Crossan and Reed’s view, Jesus’ economic program was consciously opposed to that of the ruler of Galilee, Herod Antipas, who governed from 4 BCE to 39 CE, and his Roman backers.

It becomes clear that Crossan, to whom we must attribute this view of Jesus, is assuming that Jesus was living in a Romanized Galilee; but the archaeological sections of the book, obviously written by Reed, show a different Galilee, in which Roman culture was not pervasive. This discrepancy between parts of the book arises from a major issue in the study not only of Jesus but also of Palestinian Judaism.

One of the questions about the social setting in which Jesus lived, and an important topic in previous books by Dominic Crossan and other members of the Jesus Seminar, is the degree to which Jewish Palestine was “Hellenized” and “Romanized.” All of the regions conquered by Alexander of Macedon (fourth century BCE) acquired at least a few Hellenistic traits. When Roman conquests replaced the Greco-Macedonian kingdoms, some of the conquered peoples added peculiarly Roman institutions, making the empire east of Italy “Greco-Roman.” The question of the extent of Hellenization or Romanization in Jewish Palestine has been much debated. The view of Galilee as deeply Greco-Roman competes with the opinion that its culture was traditionally Jewish, with only a few characteristics of Gentile civilization on the surface.

Implicit in this debate are value judgments about Judaism and Hellenism. For many New Testament scholars today—and this is a very welcome change, since it is a departure from Christian anti-Judaism—the connection with Judaism is a positive one. The New Testament should be seen in continuity with the Hebrew Bible, Jesus in continuity with the great Hebrew prophets. For others, however, including some members of the Jesus Seminar, what is Greek is good. Jesus should be separated from the Jewish rabbis. Especially to be rejected is Jewish eschatological prophecy—the expectation that God would intervene in history to save the Jewish people and alter the world. Worst of all for such scholars is the idea that a heavenly figure, the Son of Man, would come with a divine mandate and gather the elect. This view must not be attributed to Jesus because it is crass, lurid, ancient, too Jewish, and wrong: it did not happen. Jesus could not have held such a view. It is much better to see him as a Hellenistic philosopher, sagely offering advice about how to get along in a difficult world, and trying slowly to make it better.

In his previous books about Jesus, Crossan put himself firmly in the small group of scholars who interpret Jesus in the light of Hellenistic and Roman culture. Jesus, in his view, was a Jewish Cynic; that is, he shared the views of a school of Greek philosophy that scorned materialism and power. He was definitely not a Jewish eschatological prophet. This argument is difficult to make in view of the great many Jewish eschatological themes in the gospels; it depends on accepting the view that Galilean Jews lived in the midst of a basically Hellenistic culture. Both of the cities of Galilee—Sepphoris and Tiberias—were, according to this interpretation, “Greek-oriented,” and Sepphoris in particular was “a Greco-Roman city.” For Crossan in his previous books, the cities determined the culture of the rural villages.5 Nazareth was close enough to Sepphoris that, according to Crossan, “sight and knowledge of Cynicism are neither inexplicable nor unlikely.”6 Assuming that this was the case, Crossan could argue in The Historical Jesus that Jesus adopted some of the views and many of the practices of radical Cynics, who lived the life of itinerant mendicants, opposed to Roman power.

The view that Galilee was deeply Hellenized is largely based on material remains dating from the third and fourth centuries. As has been said, Rome stationed a legion in Galilee around 130 CE. Thereafter, signs of Gentile pagan culture appear in the archaeological record—as one can see from the archaeological sections of the book by Reed and Crossan. At Sepphoris we can now see, for example, the remains of Roman-style houses decorated with pagan motifs. In the archaeological layers from Jesus’ time, however, none of the signs of Gentile paganism appear. For archaeologists as well as for students of the gospels and other literature, the debate about Hellenization is basically over. At the time of Jesus, the culture of Jewish Palestine was thoroughly and traditionally Jewish. There were extremely few Gentiles in Galilee, Jewish law was in effect throughout, and the people were loyal to the Bible and the Temple in Jerusalem.

In the present book, Crossan tacitly abandons (although not entirely) his earlier view that Jesus was surrounded by Greco-Roman culture. Herod Antipas, the authors write, “preserved an essentially Jewish character” throughout Galilee; in population Galilee was “almost exclusively Jewish”; Tiberias and Sepphoris were “inhabited primarily by Jews.”

This changed conclusion about Hellenization, while welcome, does not mean that Crossan has given up his previous view of Jesus. Jesus, he believes, must still be seen as a social and economic reformer; and so Crossan, having dropped cultural Hellenization, now seeks signs of economic Romanization in the actions of Herod Antipas, to whom Augustus assigned the government of Galilee and Perea after the death of Herod the Great in 4 BCE, approximately the year when Jesus was born. Antipas, the authors now argue, imposed a Roman economic system on the region.

What are the signs of this Romanization? In Excavating Jesus, the authors give only two clues: (1) Antipas erected some buildings, restoring the town of Sepphoris and founding Tiberias; (2) archaeologists have discovered that the streets of a part of Sepphoris were laid out in a grid, the standard Roman style. These findings prove that the city was “urbanized” and that the region was “commercialized.” One reads again and again that “Romanization” meant “urbanization” and “commercialization”; and that building a city, or even constructing new buildings in a city, produced Romanization and commercialization in the countryside. The words “urbanization” and “commercialization” are never precisely defined, but the overall argument is quite clear: new buildings in a city can be paid for only with funds supplied from the surrounding agricultural land and from those who farm it. Urbanization, therefore, meant that the city got a bigger share of the profits of agriculture; as a consequence, small farmers were forced to sell, estates grew, and landlessness and poverty became worse. Crossan and Reed try to apply the principle that construction leads to the impoverishment of farmers even to Herod’s great port, Caesarea, where it is evident that the money in circulation came from trade.

We do not know the actual sources of money in Sepphoris, but it had been a city for many decades, and there is no reason to think that Antipas introduced measures that led to the ruin of small farmers. The authors give no evidence or argument that he did so. Their claim, moreover, seems contradicted by the literature of the period. According to the Jewish historian Josephus, Galilee was exceptionally prosperous; the gospels themselves suggest that Galilee contained people who were a few steps above subsistence farmers and fishermen. The farms were prosperous enough to let the land lie fallow every seventh year, and farm families sometimes could afford to travel to Jerusalem to observe one of the pilgrimage festivals.

  1. 1

    HarperSanFrancisco, 1991. For a discussion of the Jesus Seminar with respect to other approaches to the study of the historical Jesus, see my article “In Quest of the Historical Jesus,” The New York Review, November 15, 2001.

  2. 2

    Archaeology and the Galilean Jesus: A Re-examination of the Evidence (Trinity Press International, 2000).

  3. 3

    Mark 6:7–11; Matthew 10:5–16; Luke 10:3–12.

  4. 4

    Besides the Mission Charge, the other passages that receive detailed discussion are the birth narratives, Luke’s story of Jesus in Nazareth (Luke 4), and six sayings found in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, most of which are also in Luke. The sayings are: do unto others; love your enemies; be better than the sinners; turn the other cheek; give without return; live so as to be children of the heavenly father.

  5. 5

    Crossan, The Historical Jesus, p. 19.

  6. 6

    Crossan, The Historical Jesus, p. 421.

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