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…

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