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.

The theory that Jesus was a rebel against Antipas’ supposed economic Romanization leads the authors to discuss landlessness as a major issue. Landlessness—whether with or without Roman urbanization—was indeed a problem. Crossan and Reed seem ignorant, however, of its root cause. The problem was population growth. The Jews practiced a system of inheritance by which daughters received a dowry, while the land was divided among the sons. Frequently more than one son survived to inherit, and small holdings therefore became smaller. Ultimately, someone had to look for work off the farm, and steady employment was hard to find.

This system produced a potential social danger, since a large number of unemployed or underemployed young males can cause trouble. Doubtless some farms did pass into the hands of the well-to-do, particularly from Jews whose land had been divided until it could barely produce a living, and who borrowed money to try to keep going and finally lost the land entirely.

Crossan and Reed quote the eighth-century BCE Jewish prophet Amos and other ancient Jewish prophets on the iniquity of wealthy landowners who “add field to field” and on the need of land reform. One can go back much further, to the time of Hammurabi, a thousand years before Amos, to find references to landlessness and the need for reform.7 Biblical law addressed these chronic difficulties by requiring the forgiveness of debts every seven years and providing for the return of land to its original owners every fifty years. It appears that at least the first of these laws was in effect in first-century Jewish Palestine.

Periodic forgiveness of debt was not entirely effective,8 however, and in any case it could not eliminate the problem of families having too many sons. Wise rulers tried to reduce the number of unemployed young males in two ways. They could increase the size of their armies and conquer more land; or if this was not practical they could carry out building projects. Herod the Great maintained a substantial army, but his main social effort was to build on a grand scale. We have some idea of how such construction reduced the number of the unemployed. Decades after his death, when one of his largest projects, the Temple in Jerusalem, was finally completed, 18,000 men were thrown out of work. His great-grandson, Agrippa II, employed them to pave the streets of the city.

Herod Antipas followed a similar policy, though on a much smaller scale. He had a modest army, and he also became a builder. As already noted, he rebuilt part of Sepphoris, and he founded a new city, which he named Tiberias in honor of the emperor. Crossan and Reed propose that Antipas’ cities had “Romanized” the countryside and thereby “dislocated the ancient safety nets of peasant kinship, village cohesion, and just land distribution.” One of the main arguments of the book is that Antipas was responsible for the destruction of an ancient system of equality in rural areas. On the other hand, the authors recognize that inequality had existed at the time of Amos. In fact, in a region with very limited agricultural land the problems of unequal distribution and unemployment were chronic. Crossan and Reed wish, however, to blame Antipas, and so they propose that it was only his Romanization that led to problems. They also ignore his efforts to reduce unemployment. The authors want to present Jesus as addressing landlessness, supposedly created by Antipas, directly. If Jesus can’t be a Cynic who was critical of wealth and power, perhaps he can be a Hebrew critic of wealth and power like Amos. Unfortunately, there is no mention of landlessness in the gospels.

The authors then turn to food, the product of land, and here, as we have already seen, they find textual evidence. The Mission Charge, in which Jesus is depicted as instructing his disciples to heal freely and to receive free food, was, for them, Jesus’ attack on the problem of unequal distribution of land, food, and money. We are left to suppose that landlessness would not have been such a problem if only farmers had been willing to give their food away.

In the authors’ view, Jesus’ effort at social reform was a deliberate and well-recognized assault on Antipas and Rome. Jesus opposed Antipas’ Romanization and equally attacked “the imperial Kingdom of Augustus or Tiberius.” Jesus’ program of resistance “must eventually have resulted in a fatal collision with official authority.” The threat was so clear that Crossan and Reed must ask why Jesus was able to get out of Galilee alive. They suggest that Antipas was cautious. He had already executed the popular prophet John the Baptist, and he thought that this was enough for a while. Thus Jesus lived until he went on pilgrimage to Jerusalem for Passover. He fell into trouble there and was executed.

This account rests on dubious economic premises: that the only source of money for a city was the rural areas, whose resources had to be taken over if cities were to exist, and that Antipas, spurred by Rome, ruined the prosperity of the countryside by building. In fact, the workers were paid in cash, which they spent; money circulated and thereby improved the local economy. A high percentage of the workers’ wages went to buy food, which should have led to an increase in rural prosperity. Moreover, the growth of cities increased trade, which led to commercial profits and increased governmental revenues from tariffs.

Crossan wants to argue that Jesus’ policy of healing people and giving them food was potentially a fatal conflict which threatened the foundation of the empire. But this is unpersuasive. One might think from Crossan’s argument that Rome and Antipas actually required that healers charge for miraculous cures and forbade them from sharing food. Since they did neither, however, Jesus’ view that healing and food should be free is not rebellion against Rome. An effective social program of free food—such as the emperors provided for the city of Rome itself—would, of course, have far- reaching implications. It would, for example, lead to an increase in taxes to pay the farmers for food, since they could not afford to give it away. But Jesus gives his admonition only to his closest followers—to whom, we are told, he gave the power to heal, which would justify their receiving free food—and he makes no address to the public that calls for a general social policy. The absence of a demand for reorganizing taxes and the food supply seems to leave us with the proposal that Jesus’ followers were an ineffective little group behaving oddly—very much like wandering Cynics in the more Hellenized parts of the empire, who were not rounded up and executed. Although Crossan has dropped explicit use of the Cynics as a model for Jesus, his view of Jesus as a minor social deviant and critic has not changed.

Possibly the authors realize that the Mission Charge of the gospels does not provide convincing evidence that Jesus was an economic reformer. If they can show that Palestine in Jesus’ time was full of clear signs of resistance, perhaps, they apparently think, their proposal will seem less unlikely. In order to prove that there was widespread popular resistance to Rome, and to the Jewish rulers under Rome, they attribute to the lifetime of Jesus (about 4 BCE–33 CE) the same sort of social and political unrest that occurred in the period between 44 and 70, when there is evidence of serious unrest, especially among two classes of people. There were “brigands,” who may have been opponents of Roman rule, and would-be messianic prophets who offered to show “signs of deliverance” from foreign domination, but who were quickly dispatched by Roman authorities. There is also, for the first time, evidence of popular hatred of a few aristocratic priests.

The authors do not acknowledge that there were great changes in Jewish Palestine in the 40s CE, several years after Jesus’ execution, which altered Jewish attitudes toward Rome and the emperor. The first three Caesars—Julius, Augustus, and Tiberias—had supported and protected Jews both in Palestine and in the rest of the empire. However, during the reign of the fourth Caesar, Gaius (nicknamed Ca-ligula), the Greeks in Alexandria carried out a vicious pogrom against the Jews and were not punished. Worse, around 40–41 CE Gaius ordered that his statue be placed in the Temple in Jerusalem. This desecration of the Temple was canceled, and shortly thereafter Gaius was assassinated. Although his successor, Claudius, restored Jewish rights in Alexandria, the pogrom and Gaius’ threat to the Temple changed Jewish attitudes toward the empire. It was only after the year 40 that numerous signs of resistance began to appear in Jewish Palestine.

Crossan and Reed correctly observe that Jewish practices of ritual purification were different from those of the Gentiles. They then argue that the Jews’ persistence in following their own customs amounted to “resistance.” This view implies that the Jews were regularly exposed to Gentile purification practices and rejected them in favor of their own. Having previously argued that there were few Gentiles in the Jewish areas of Palestine, the authors now find that they had a strong presence after all. Suddenly pagans surround, interact with, and rule over the Jews, and occupy their country. According to the authors, artifacts show that the Jews were “a people different from those who lived around them and even among them.” This relapse into Crossan’s former view—that Galilee was substantially Greco-Roman—would require not only the presence of a great many Gentile residents but also pagan temples, because people purified themselves as part of the practice of worship. In fact, however, there were not large numbers of Gentile temples. In maintaining their purification rituals, the Jews were not engaging in widespread resistance.

It is true that many Jews resented Roman domination. They did so even though Roman legions did not occupy the land,9 even though Gentiles did not worship pagan gods in Jewish Palestine, and even though Rome in many ways gave Jews throughout the empire preferential treatment. But to accept the minor proposals of the Mission Charge—heal for free and accept free food—as a noticeable attack on Herod Antipas and his Roman backers, we must think that the whole culture was so attuned to resistance that any small individual actions that differed from the norm constituted a threatening assault on the empire. The authors’ efforts to make this case are not persuasive.

Why do Crossan and Reed sporadically propose that Jesus lived in a world of pagan occupation? The model that seems always to have been in Crossan’s mind when discussing Jesus is that of Ireland, his own country, which the British conquered and colonized, exploiting the indigenous population.10 The Roman Empire in Palestine was actually much different from the British colonization of Ireland, but “colony” has been and remains one of Crossan’s favorite words for Jewish Palestine in the Roman period. This is misleading. Greco-Roman colonization required several different elements: a city with surrounding farmland; colonists from the imperial country who settled in the city and were given land; a constitution based on Greco-Roman models; and some of the institutions required by Gentile culture, such as pagan temples, Greek schools, and amphitheaters.

In Jesus’ day there were no colonies in Jewish Palestine.11 At one point Crossan and Reed correctly note that Jerusalem was not made a colony until Hadrian was emperor in the 130s. Why then are the Jews in Palestine said to live in a colony a hundred years before Hadrian? One may hazard the guess that the word “colonial” is rhetorically useful, giving the impression of powerful foreign intruders who owned the best land and dominated and abused the local peasants. This would lead to resistance on the Irish model. In fact, all the rulers of Palestine, whether Herodian or Roman, kept the Jewish and Gentile areas separate and treated them differently.

In the midst of this confused presentation—some parts of the book accurately describing archaeology and history, other parts misrepresenting both—we have a description of Jesus as a mild economic reformer, futilely trying to overthrow the Roman Empire by advocating free healing and food. One may sympathize with the effort to find support for economic reform in the ministry of Jesus. It is frustrating to see inequality and injustice in the world today and not to be able to call on Jesus to support the many changes that are so badly needed. The basic problem for such a thesis is that evidence is lacking. It is easy to show (though the present book does not do so) that Jesus’ ministry was aimed at people like himself and at those who came from still worse circumstances: the poor, the meek, and the lowly. Jesus thought that God cared about these people. He contrasted the world of Palestine with the Kingdom of God, which would change the present order.

The principal difference between the Jesus of Crossan and Reed and the Jesus of Matthew, Mark, and Luke is the role of God. In the first three gospels, the main character in Jesus’ message is God, on whose behalf he speaks. God’s kingdom, he tells his followers, is near at hand, God will bring it soon, and it will be God—not his own little group—who will make the last first and the first last. The Jesus of the gospels looks forward to a great reversal that will be accomplished by the only power equal to the task. The kingdom will not be brought about by the slow improvement of social reform, but by a great climactic event that will change the world forever. Even the poorest will receive daily bread, and God’s will will be done on earth, just as it is in heaven. That is what Jesus prayed for and what he hoped for. The power of the Jesus of the gospels is his vision of the kingdom that God would bring to the world.

  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.

  7. 7

    H.W.F. Saggs, The Greatness That Was Babylon (London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1988), p. 177. For the problem, see further pp. 143, 146–150, 195, and 252ff.

  8. 8

    Rabbinic tradition attributes to Hillel, the great Pharisee who was an older contemporary of Jesus, a rule called the prosbul, by which the borrower arranged to repay a loan despite the arrival of the sabbatical year. This shows that lenders became reluctant to lend as the seventh year approached, and so the biblical law, which aimed at a degree of egalitarianism, sometimes had adverse results. Without borrowing, the farmer often would not be able to plant and live until harvest.

  9. 9

    There were no Roman soldiers in the Jewish parts of Judea of Galilee. About three thousand locally raised “Roman” troops resided in the pagan city Caesarea on the coast.

  10. 10

    For an explicit use of the model, see Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, (HarperSanFrancisco, 1995) p. 105.

  11. 11

    The definitive study of Roman colonization in the East is Fergus Millar, “The Roman Coloniae of the Near East: a Study of Cultural Relations,” in Roman Eastern Policy and Other Studies in Roman History, edited by Heikki Solin and Mika Kajava (Helsinki: Societas Scientiarum Fennica, 1990), pp. 7–58.