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Epiphany : a theological introduction to Catholicism

by Aidan Nichols O.P.

Chapter 3: The Historian's Jesus
Part 1

Some prolegomena

So far as non-Christian sources for the life of Jesus are concerned, there is little to be said. The rabbinic materials texts that have come down to us from the Judaism of the period after Jesus' lifetime contain no clear reference to him. Within the first hundred years after his death only three secular authors mention him: The Roman historian Tacitus remarks that Christians were named after a certain Christus, condemned to death by Pontius Pilate. A senior administrative official, Pliny the younger, in a letter to the emperor Trajan, describes Christians as singing hymns to someone named Christus, as to a god (which is therefore not, strictly speaking, a reference to the earthly Jesus of history). The third such reference is more informative. The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, writing, it would appear, independently of the four Gospels but confirming their basic presentation, tells us that during the procuratorial rule of Pontius Pilate there appeared on the religious scene in Palestine a certain Jesus. He enjoyed a reputation for wisdom as expressed in teaching and wonder-working, and acquired a large following which led the Jewish leaders to bring criminal charges against him. Pilate had him crucified but his followers continued in their devotion to him till Josephus's day. For any further first-century information about Jesus one must turn to the New Testament itself.

The New Testament consists of four Gospels or presentations of the essential features of the life, work, and message of Jesus, followed by an account of the beginning of his Church (the Acts of the Apostles). Then comes a set of letters from various individual apostles, and the whole is brought to a close by a vision of the end of time, the Revelation of John. Of these books by far the most important for any reconstruction of the life of Jesus are the Gospels. We are enormously fortunate to have them, for they constitute one of the richest biographical sets of sources there are for any historical figure from the world of antiquity. Though it has been fashionable until recently to deny this, the four Gospels would have been understood by their authors' contemporaries as biographies. The fact that they have a message to present about Jesus does not rob them of their status as biography, in the sense in which that literary genre was appreciated in the ancient world.[1]

We are, however, told by many scholars and popularizers of scholarship that using the Gospels to write a life of Jesus is problematic. Two objections are commonly raised. (1) The evangelists, like the other New Testament authors, were not interested in simply recording bare occurrences for their own sake. On the contrary, those who formulated and preserved the tradition about Jesus did so because they believed his religious claims and considered that they had later seen for themselves the reality that justifies those claims: the risen Lord of the first Easter. In early Christian tradition, therefore, the facts of the historical events were coupled with a new interpretation of those events, stemming from resurrection faith; the history of the pre-Easter Jesus was swallowed up by faith in the post-Easter Christ. (2) The gospel writers did not in any case share the high regard of the modem historian for knowing precisely when and where this or that event took place. Each evangelist goes his own way, except for a broad four-point outline consisting of the witness to Jesus of John the Baptist, a public ministry in Galilee, one or more journeys to Jerusalem, and the death and resurrection there. This is, fortunately, something, but in terms of an overall explanation of how Jesus' life and preaching led to his death (and its amazing sequel), it is not very much.

These are indeed difficulties, but not insuperable ones. First, the objection that the Gospels were from the outset an interpretation by faith for faith (intended, that is, to awaken or encourage faith in others), does not render them valueless as history. An interpretation, after all, is always an interpretation of something: it presupposes some kind of datum. The New Testament authors, responsible as they were both for preserving the traditions about Jesus and for applying them to the practical needs of the Church, were necessarily conscious that their work would be in vain if there was no historical basis for their teaching.

Second, although the evangelists clearly did not regard exact chronology as paramount (literary and theological considerations, as well as, no doubt, confusions or failures of memory, led to much discrepancy in this regard), it is possible to recognize in the Gospels a great deal of authentic historical detail (not simply a grand sweep; though here each section of a Gospel must be judged on its merits). Moreover, the events recorded in the Gospels both in themselves and in certain of their interrelations often reveal a close acquaintance with Palestinian geography as well as with the complex religious and political situation of the time. Furthermore, they frequently appear to form sequences that reflect an unfolding development in the attitudes of Jesus himself, attitudes towards the various social groups whether family and kin, the twelve disciples, Jewish sects and movements, or pagans that constituted his immediate world.

Too often it is forgotten that behind all exegetical assessment of the gospel texts there stands a living person affected by and responding to the events of the time and the society in which he lived. It is the primary task of the historian to recover the features of Jesus in his public . life and teaching, and not to become diverted by an obsession with the analytical dissection of the texts, the delineation of what may have been various stages in their transmission, or the search for the Christological emphases that may have characterized the local communities in the Church where those texts were stabilized in their present form. Fascinating though these adjunct activities are, the historian's chief task is to arrange the relevant data in a narrative form, explaining that data by fashioning a connected story which seems coherent and plausible to the ears of enlightened (which does not by any means signify atheistic) common sense. The making of such coherent, explanatory stories about the human past is the discipline of history. Thus, for instance, no narrative reconstruction of the life of Jesus is plausible that so reduces the amount of what we know historically about him as to leave no clue as to how he aroused the reactions he did.

In these matters of history and exegetical method there is a guideline for Catholic students in the "Instruction on the Historical Truth of the Gospels" written during the Second Vatican Council by a team of scholars under the aegis of the Pontifical Biblical Commission. Its framers open by noting that

"Today the labors of exegetes are all the more called for by reason of the fact that in many publications, circulated far and wide, the truth of the events and sayings recorded in the Gospels is being challenged."[2]

How, then, should these "labors" proceed?

In the first place, the "Instruction" says, the Catholic exegete will wish to draw on the resources furnished by the inherited patrimony of gospel interpretation, especially as that is found in the Fathers of the Church and her Doctors (the latter being theologians distinguished by three marks: learning, orthodoxy of doctrine, and holiness of life). We can take it for granted that such patristic and classical interpretation of the Gospels assumes their substantial historicity. Second, the Catholic scholar will also be happy to use the new aids provided by the historical method, though with a pinch of caution added. Because, as the "Instruction" points out, with particular reference to form criticism (on which more anon):

Certain exponents of this method, led astray by rationalistic prejudices, refuse to admit that there exists a supernatural order, or that a personal God intervenes in the world by revelation properly so called, or that miracles and prophecies are possible and have actually occurred. There are others who have as their starting-point a wrong notion of faith, taking it that faith is indifferent to historical truth, and is indeed incompatible with it. Others practically deny a priori the historical value and character of the documents of revelation. Others finally there are who on the one hand underestimate the authority which the apostles had as witnesses of Christ, and the office and influence which they wielded in the primitive community, whilst on the other hand they overestimate the creative capacity of the community itself. All these aberrations are not only opposed to Catholic doctrine, but are also devoid of any scientific foundation, and are foreign to the genuine principles of the historical method.[3]

What then are the main elements of the historical method, so far as the Gospels are concerned? There are usually held to be four "tools," known (in order of their emergence in the last two hundred years) as source criticism, form criticism, tradition-historical criticism, and redaction criticism. In describing them I will keep in mind our particular interest: the historicity of the Gospels as a necessary condition for answering the question, How do we know about Jesus Christ?

Critical Tools

Source criticism deals with the literary relation between the Gospels and their written sources, if any are detected. Comparing the four Gospels leads to the conclusion that the first three share much common material (they are synoptic, a term first used when the practice arose of arranging their contents in parallel columns), while John is something of a sport. Comparing the Synoptics leads to one of four conclusions. The first, adopted by perhaps a majority of modem scholars but under increasing attack, is that Mark's Gospel is primary, along with an anonymous source for the sayings of Jesus shared by Matthew and Luke though this source, known as Q from the German word for "source," Quelle, could be either a written document, now lost, or just a pool of remembered sayings, an oral tradition. In itself, there is nothing wrong with taking a special interest in Mark. Augustine wrote, Credimus in quem credidit Petrus, "We believe on him whom Peter believed,"[4] and early tradition regarded Mark's Gospel as the direct echo of Peter's catechesis in Rome. Q, however, is much more problematic, since, as a sayings source, it has nothing about Jesus' death and resurrection (the narratives of which figure so prominently in the canonical Gospels). Books can now be written, accordingly, that claim that for the "Q community" a (hypothetical) Church with as much right to be regarded as authoritative as any other in the New Testament world Jesus was a wisdom teacher pure and simple; his death and resurrection were not regarded there as normative for faith. Some source critics would go further and claim that the only reliable Synoptic historical material we have about Jesus is Mark and Q and this would reduce our knowledge of him considerably. There is however no logical force behind this extension of the first solution to the Synoptic problem. Even if Mark and Q were the earliest sources to be crystallized out of the apostolic tradition, that does not mean they must necessarily be our only historical evidence. What about the material that is distinctive of Matthew and Luke? It cannot just be assumed that those evangelists spun it out of Mark and Q by creative imagination.

A second major possibility alongside the two document hypothesis is now steadily regaining ground, and this is the so-called two Gospel hypothesis, according to which the order of the Synoptics is Matthew, Luke, Mark, with Mark writing on the basis of Peter's preaching in order to unify the presentation of the gospel made in the very Jewish Matthew and the very Gentile Luke. Apart from the greater consonance of this theory with what the early ecclesiastical writers say about the order in which the Gospels were composed, it also solves many puzzles that arise if one adopts the two document hypothesis, notably the fact that there are many "minor agreements" between Matthew and Luke over against Mark. This is the Achilles' heel of a theory according to which Matthew and Luke did not know each other, but are only connected through Mark.

A third main possibility, associated with the name of Anglican exegete Austin Farrer, is to retain the priority of Mark but dispense with Q, holding instead that Luke used Matthew as a primary source alongside Matthew's predecessor, Mark.

A fourth and final view is that the Synoptics, despite their large volume of shared material, are in some way independent of each other. For those who take this line, the sharing of formulae in the Synoptic Gospels is to be explained in the first instance by the fact that Jesus formed the disciples into a group whose task it was to spread memorized versions of his teaching and summaries of his actions. After all, this is what appears to be happening in the Synoptic evangelists' own accounts of the relation of Jesus to the Twelve, and it fits extremely well with the known practices of the Pharisees, and later on the rabbis, in a Jewish world where written and oral culture, learning from texts and learning by word of mouth, existed side by side. On such presuppositions there could be many different earlier versions of the canonical Gospels, and our best bet will be, then, a multiple source theory. The Swedish Lutheran convert to Catholicism Harald Riesenfeld and the French Dominican Père Marie-Emile Boismard represent, respectively, the first and second parts of this composite proposal. In the absence of any clear consensus about the direction of literary influence among the Synoptics, this may be the most prudent course to follow.

In any case, in discussing the Gospels we cannot be content with the Synoptics alone. There is such a thing as the "tyranny of the Synoptic Jesus," an undesirably exclusive recourse to Matthew, Mark, and Luke over against John in composing a narrative outline of Jesus' life or an overview of his teaching. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when not so much was known about the archeology and cultural history of the Israel of Jesus' time, it was not recognized that John's exact knowledge of customs and places in Palestine makes him a promising source for the historian's Jesus. The different tones in which the Johannine Jesus speaks may be explained in part by a difference of audience one notes particularly the engagement of the Jesus of John's Gospel with the learned theologians of Jewish parties of the day, and the fact that the lion's share of his private or,"esoteric" teaching to the Twelve in that Gospel is given on the occasion of his final meeting with them, the Last Supper.

Once source criticism on the basis of a majority vote of Protestant scholars for the two document hypothesis had put forward the claim that we can infer the editorial techniques of Matthew and Luke by seeing what they did to Mark, it was fairly inevitable that people should ask whether there might perhaps be signs of similar editorial work within Mark himself. An editorial framework was duly discovered, and, when removed, left behind a series of disconnected units of various kinds. Mark, it was now said, is a snapshot album unconnected snaps of Jesus at various points in various postures, the interrelation (and, therefore, significance) of which we can no longer discern. And just as source criticism had been in fact the application to the New Testament of the methods of historians of texts from the Greco-Roman and medieval European worlds, so now a new method arose which applied to these disconnected units the methods of historians of folk­lore. The tale, the saying, the miracle story, and so forth, were already well known as typical forms of popular folk-culture from Norway in the north to the Australian aboriginals in the south. Focusing on such formal aspects enabled the scholars to identify (to their own satisfaction at least) the original function the units possessed at the oral stage before the author of Mark or the compiler of Q got hold of them. The overall conclusion of form criticism has been summed up as: "In the beginning was the sermon." The units tell us next to nothing about the life of Jesus; rather, they tell us about the life of the community that believed in him. Such radical form criticism, undermining as it does any pretension to know anything much historically about Jesus Christ soon aroused attack, and deservedly so.

In the first place, we can say that the application of the form criticism of folklore specialists whose material has developed over hundreds of years to texts which have a prehistory of only a few decades is distinctly dubious. Secondly, form criticism cannot show, in point of fact, that units were not transmitted for their own sake. Were early Christians really so uninterested in what the Jesus of history had actually said and done? Was the principal effect of Pentecost to turn the apostles' memories into blanks? Thirdly, it is a non sequitur to say that because the form of a unit shows how it was used in the earliest Church (before Mark, say) therefore it originated in the post-Easter period as the "theology of the community." At the most, form criticism has shown how "Jesus material" in the Gospels was affected by the use made of it in the early Church's preaching, liturgy, and apologetics. It has not shown that the early Church had no interest in passing on authentic historical matter about Jesus Christ. The great Catholic historian of ancient education Henri-Irénée Marrou pointed out that the idea and techniques of form criticism are suspiciously indebted to the German romantics, notably J. G. Herder, in ascribing popular literature to the collective, spontaneous creation of communities an almost unconscious expression of the soul or genius of a social group. This romantic theory is today largely abandoned as illusory by other literary historians, not excluding specialists in folklore.

Assuming that form criticism has at any rate some value, we are faced with the question, How can we distinguish words and ideas that the Church has introduced into the forms from the original oral record? Form critics had their own suggestions here. At their most rigorous they put forward two main criteria: a saying of Jesus may well be authentic if (a) it is something a first-century Palestinian Jew could plausibly have said and (b) it is not the kind of thing the early Church set out to say about Jesus but rather something which left that Church slightly embarrassed. The conclusion is that a typical authentic saying of Jesus might be Mark 13:32, where Jesus admits that he does not know the time of his parousia! These criteria are far too restrictive. They state in effect that no saying of Jesus is authentic if in first-century Palestinian-Jewish terms it is original (in other words, Jesus was utterly conventionally minded!), or if the early Church agreed with it (in other words, the apostles got absolutely everything wrong!).

The tradition-historical critics, however, accepted from the form critics that something like these criteria were the right ones and then tried to answer the question, If the language and ideas of the units identified by form criticism did not come from Jesus and the apostles, then where did they come from? Their answer was that the language and ideas at issue came from the surrounding culture within which the early Christian communities lived and prayed.

We can indeed accept that the historical tradition about Jesus was affected by picking up things from the environment, just as it was modified by such internal demands of the life of the Church as preaching. But since we have rejected radical form criticism, we necessarily also reject radical tradition-historical criticism. The problem the latter was devised to answer largely disappears anyway with the rejection of the former.

If form criticism is even partly right about how Mark and Q originally found their materials, it will be possible to ask, Why did Mark (since no one possesses a copy of Q) organize his materials the way he did? That is, we can ask not only about the prehistory of the Marcan units, as in tradition-historical criticism, but also about their subsequent history and this is redaction criticism (named after the German loan-word from the French for "editor," Redakteur). Redaction critics are interested in the author of Mark considered as an original theologian, and likewise with the authors of Matthew and Luke in their editing of Mark and Q. Here we may throw in John for good measure, insofar as it is possible to conjecture what his materials might have been.

Once again, the acceptability of redaction criticism turns on just how radical is its use of form criticism. Once radical form criticism is accepted, redaction criticism makes the Gospels tell us more about the evangelists than about Jesus, just as tradition-historical criticism makes the Gospels tell us more about the contemporary culture than about Jesus, and form criticism makes the Gospels tell us more about the Church than about Jesus. But can we really suppose that the evangelists felt this sovereign freedom to make things up as they went along? As one critic has recently remarked:

"For all his claims to apostolic authority, Paul does not feel free to create teachings and put them in the mouth of Jesus. We might ask, Who in the first generation did?"[5]

In its effort to keep the ship of gospel study on an even keel, the Pontifical Biblical Commission proposed a three-stage scheme as corresponding better both to Catholic teaching and to historical probability. At stage one, it suggested, Jesus deliberately created a group of disciples, a kind of rabbinate, so as to pass on the tradition about him in a culture where oral transmission was still vital in the communication of knowledge. Stage two involves the apostles themselves as they recounted Jesus' life and words but did so in the light of what they knew to have been their final outcome.

It need not be denied that the apostles when handing on to their hearers the things which in actual fact the Lord had said and done, did so in the light of that fuller understanding which they enjoyed as a result of being schooled by the glorious things accomplished in Christ, and of being illuminated by the Spirit of Truth. Thus it came about that, just as Jesus himself after his Resurrection had "interpreted to them" (Luke 24:27) both the words of the Old Testament and the words which he himself had spoken, so now they in their turn interpreted his words and deeds according to the needs of their hearers. "Devoting [themselves] . . . to the ministry of the word" (Acts 6:4), they made use, as they preached, of such various forms of speech as were adapted to their own purposes and to the mentality of their hearers; for it was "to Greek and barbarian, to learned and simple" (Rom 1:14) that they had a duty to discharge.[6]

Here then the oral forms were enclosed within the actual word-of­mouth preaching of the apostles. Finally, stage three was reached when those whom the commission calls "the sacred authors" began to operate and to compose the Gospels out of the material coming to them from the apostolic tradition. The commission speaks of these evangelists as setting down the gospel message in written form in response to the needs of their respective Churches.

Here the "Instruction" seems pointedly to refrain from identifying the apostles (and their co-workers) with the "sacred authors" or evangelists, and in this it appears to have had an influence on Dei Verbum, the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation from the Second Vatican Council. After declaring that the four Gospels are our principal sources for the life and teaching of the incarnate Word, our Savior, Dei Verbum continues:

The Church has always and everywhere maintained, and continues to maintain, the apostolic origin of the four Gospels. The apostles preached, as Christ had charged them to do, and then, under the inspi­ration of the Holy Spirit, they and others of the apostolic age [ipsi et apostolici viri] handed on to us in writing the same message they had preached, the foundations of our faith: the fourfold Gospel, according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.:.. Holy Mother Church has firmly and with absolute constancy maintained and continues to maintain, that the four Gospels just named, whose historicity she unhesitantly affirms, faithfully hand on what Jesus, the Son of God, while he lived among men, really did and taught for their eternal salvation, until the day when he was taken up (cf. Acts 1:1-2). For, after the Ascension of the Lord, the apostles handed on to their hearers what he had said and done, but with the fuller understanding which they, instructed by the glorious events of Christ and enlightened by the Spirit of truth, now enjoyed.

But in the following section, where it would be natural to find a confident assertion of apostolic authorship for Matthew and John, and that of "apostolic men" for Mark and Luke, the language is rather subdued.

The sacred authors, in writing the four Gospels, selected certain of the many elements which had been handed on, either orally or already in written form, others they synthesized or explained with an eye to the situation of the churches, while keeping the form of proclamation, but always in such a fashion that they have told us the honest truth about Jesus.... Whether they relied on their own memory and recollections or on the testimony of those who "from the beginning were eyewitnesses and minister of the Word," their purpose in writing was that we might know the "truth" concerning the things of which we have been informed (cf. Luke 1:2-4) .[7]

By borrowing the phrase "the sacred authors" from the biblical commission's text, Dei Verbum leaves open (probably deliberately) the possibility that the authors of the Gospels were in fact second-generation Christian writers and scribes. At any rate, by prescinding from the question of how, when, and where the apostles committed, their preaching to writing, Dei Verbum made it officially possible for Catholic scholarship to adopt a broadened notion of apostolic authorship though we should note that the historical authority of the Gospels will suffer if that notion is expanded too far: if, for instance, an "apostolic writing" comes to mean merely a writing in which the Church recognizes the apostolic faith. For that may be said of, for example, the autobiography of Therese of Lisieux, or the Code of Canon Law of the Oriental Churches! The most recent Roman pronouncement to take a position on the point, the 1994 document of the biblical commission on "The Interpretation of the Bible," steers a via media in calling the New Testament writings a "genuine reflection of the apostolic preaching" while insisting that this does not necessarily mean all were composed by the apostles themselves.

How then, can we know about Jesus Christ? We can obtain an historical knowledge of him by looking at the Gospels, but we must be canny about how we approach them. Though we can admit that they are deeply affected by the faith of those who wrote them, this does not mean that, as believers, the evangelists or those on whom they relied were uninterested in what actually happened. We can also admit that the evangelists were not historians in the modern sense, and even that, in quite a short time, the tradition about Jesus had been directed to the practical needs of the Church. But this does not mean that the evangelists or those on whom they drew were wholesale inventors of facts, continually put words on Jesus' lips, and retained no sense of the location or order of events and sayings. We can accept that chronological order was not a paramount consideration for them or their sources. Otherwise they would no doubt have taken steps to ensure the transmission and writing down of a more consistent scheme. Arrangement of material by topic was sometimes more important, and this led inevitably to a certain displacement of episodes. But enough of what the contemporary non-Catholic exegete E. P. Sanders has termed "chronological clues" are left to reconstruct an outline chronology using the imaginative hypothesizing essential to all historical explanation.[8]

In sum, the idea that the evangelists, or the early Christian community, were the inventors of much or even most of the story of Jesus is historically implausible. To explain the rise of the Church, a figure of enormous originality and power must be postulated by the most religiously skeptical of historians and it is paradoxical that Christian scholars can sometimes appear less ready to accept this than some of their secular colleagues. Some would call what follows "novelistic," but I prefer to make my own some words of a distinguished Protestant biblical scholar of a new generation:

This approach may rightly be regarded as conservative if by that is meant that it places a premium on considerations of historical plausibility, continuity, and common sense, at the expense of readings which tend to atomize texts into a profusion of sources in mutual social and religious contradiction. We must indeed affirm the multiformity of our evidence, and refuse to rule out the possibility of finding such contradictions. Nevertheless, my inclination here will be to look in the first instance not for clinical detail in source criticism but for a whole picture of both the teaching and the actions of Jesus which makes plausible sense in a first century Palestinian narrative framework.[9]

The Life

Jesus was born in Mediterranean Asia, in a territory known anciently as Canaan, and in his own lifetime as Palestine. It consisted of three regions: Galilee in the north, Samaria in the center, Judaea in the south. Jesus lived there during a period of Roman rule, though this rule was directly exercised, in the period of his public ministry, only in Judaea. Otherwise it functioned indirectly through petty subkings or tetrarchs (rulers of a quarter of a kingdom, whether literally or metaphorically). The Jewish community, though humiliated by this foreign presence, was still permeated by the religious ideas of the Hebrew Bible, which provided the foundation for its culture. These ideas were, however, differently expressed in the various movements characteristic of the rather pluralistic and fluid Judaism of the day. Of these three were notable: (1) the Sadducees, the priestly aristocracy and their followers: conservative and minimalizing in their attitude to the Old Testament but culturally innovative and pro-Greek, and on good terms with the Romans who left certain powers of governance with their council, the Sanhedrin; (2) the Essenes, who were deeply opposed to the acceptance of pagan elements by the Sadducees and withdrew, exteriorly or interiorly, from official society, seeing themselves as the only true Israel who had renewed their Sinai covenant with God and now were awaiting the Day of the Lord, a definitive separation of the righteous from the unrighteous; (3) the Pharisees, an enthusiastic reform party, which maximized the divine revelation by treating the oral law as equally authoritative with the written Bible. They had a revolutionary nationalist wing, the Zealots, which boasted a sufficient following among have-nots to precipitate open warfare with the Romans after Jesus' death.

The father of Jesus' own family was a craftsman, and his circle of relations appears to have lived in the style of the sortis media, neither rich nor poor. More significant is the fact that they knew themselves to be descended from the ancient kings of Judah, the Davidides, to whose line the messianic hope of Israel was intimately linked. The name of the town where the family lived, Nazareth, and the word for an inhabitant thereof, Nazarene, come from the Hebrew root netzer, which refers to the springing of the Messiah as a fruitful "shoot" from the stump of Jesse, David's father (Isa 11:1). Nazareth had been founded in the period just before the Roman occupation; its first inhabitants would have been Jewish exiles intent on resettling the largely paganized Galilee on their return to the Land. Near the end of the second century of the Christian era, the Palestinian writer Julius Africanus records that the blood relations of Jesus in two villages had preserved the Davidide family trees: Kochba, the village of the star, and Nazara, village of the shoot both names deriving from terms closely associated with the dynasty of David. This explains an incident in the Gospels of Luke and Mark: in Jericho, when the blind beggar Bartimaeus is told that "Jesus the man from Nazara" is passing by, his spontaneous reaction is to call out, "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me" (Luke 19:37; Mark 10:47).

The circumstances of Jesus' birth and certain episodes in his childhood were remembered as extraordinary. The narratives of his conception, birth, and infancy have been, alongside those of the resurrection, the main target of skeptical critics in their approach to the Gospels. Not only does the supernatural play a major role in these stories (in the form of angels, visions, dreams, and strange astronomical phenomena), but even the realistic elements in the narratives make, in context, a palpably theological demand upon their readers. Thus some would maintain that the matrix of the infancy narratives (the term normally used to cover all the stories from the annunciation up to, but excluding, the baptism) lies in popular legends which the evangelists found already in circulation. Without necessarily claiming that these stories were historically well founded, the gospel writers saw that they could serve as vehicles for their own theological message.

Alternatively, it may be held that the infancy narratives are a form of the imaginative interpretation of the Old Testament known to Jewish tradition as midrash. This is a recognized genre of book or text in the Palestinian Judaism of the period: examples lie to hand in the Dead Sea Scrolls. But while practitioners of midrash certainly tried to apply Old Testament prophecy to events or developments of their day, there is no reason to think that they considered themselves justified in creating events ex nihilo.

In point of fact, when we listen to Luke's account of his own historical method in the prologue to his Gospel as a whole, he makes it clear that his approach consisted in the provision of an orderly framework for materials derived from what today would be called oral history.

Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things which have been accomplished among us, just as they were delivered to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may know the truth concerning the things of which you have been informed (Luke 1:1-4).

Again, though Matthew makes no comparable statement, the body of his Gospel, while taking perhaps certain liberties with the chronology of events in Jesus' lifetime, is generally regarded as giving access nonetheless to authentic Jesus material thus raising the question whether someone would knowingly synthesize in the same work historically valueless with historically invaluable information.

In any case, what is more probable than that, as writers who believed Jesus to be the Jewish Messiah and the Savior of all peoples, Luke and Matthew would have been curious about his origins, ancestors, birthplace, family circle, and any memories that pointed to his later fate? (It is the absence of such material in Mark and John that requires an explanation.)

However, none of this is meant to deny that the infancy Gospels were also meant to convey a theological message about Jesus' identity and future mission. Scenes have been presented as carefully constructed tableaux, often using props drawn from the Old Testament, so as to convey to reasonably well-informed Jews, or Gentile converts to Judaism, the significance of the child who would be the Messiah of Israel and the answer to the hopes of the nations. It is admittedly difficult for scholars to establish what should count here as historical reportage and what as deliberate dramatization by the evangelist (or his source). Only some wider epistemological framework, skeptical or not, can provide an orientation. The Catholic historian will find this in the mind of the Church which has determined, in her use of the Bible in the liturgy and the construction of doctrine, that the events described in the infancy Gospels are historically based, even though literary techniques may also have been used to draw attention to certain key aspects of their theological meaning.

If the Church is to limit her decisions to what pleases critics she must surrender all claim to divinity. And if she did so she would only please the critics of today. What about those of tomorrow? No one who watches the ebb-and-flow of Biblical criticism can fail to see how the "accepted" positions of a few years ago, the rejection of which stamped a man as a hopeless obscurantist, are now being called in question. How long before "Q" will hear his Requiem sung?[10]

With these preliminary points made, what may the historian assert about the man Jesus before his public ministry began? First, that there was some mystery about his conception and birth: Mark refers to Jesus as "son of Mary" (6:3) a strange designation in so patrilinear a culture. John calls Jesus "son of Joseph" (1:45; 6:42), but he also records a dialogue which seems to imply, in an ironic play on the concepts of earthly and heavenly fatherhood (8:19-41), that he is not. Matthew and Luke, for whom Jesus' Davidic descent through Joseph is crucial, have to settle, by implication, for a purely legal sonship by adoption in putting forward the notion of parthenogenesis from Mary.

Second, he was born in the Judaean town of Bethlehem, once celebrated as David's birthplace, where in all probability Joseph's extended family maintained some form of property. (The "inn" where no room was to be had is more correctly a "house," presumably that of the Bethlehemite members of the clan.) The birth took place during a census. Luke's Greek may plausibly be construed as identifying this bureaucratic intervention of Roman authority as the last before Quirinius became governor of Syria (in A.D. 6). There may well have been a census in 7 B.C., connected with the requirement of an oath of allegiance to the emperor and his procurator: Augustus not only wanted a general stock-taking in the empire, but saw a particular need to tighten control over Palestine and Rome's Eastern frontier. As to the manger-cave, many Palestinian houses had feeding troughs for animals in the vicinity of their main entrance: doubtless this was where Mary laid her new-born child amid the confused as well as straitened circumstances of a clan-gathering in the ancient Near East.

On Matthew's account, Joseph and Mary remained in Bethlehem for up to two years: their stay included an astronomically inspired encounter with wandering astrologers from the pagan cultures to Palestine's east. Though reconstruction is more than usually hypothetical, reference may be made here to the conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter in the constellation Pisces in 7 B.C., and the conjunction of both those planets with Mars early in the following year. There is evidence that Pisces was associated with both the Hebrews and the end of the world, Jupiter with global rulers, and Saturn with the Amorites, the earliest inhabitants of Syro-Palestine; the combination could well have suggested the emergence of an eschatological ruler in that part of the world. A conjunction of planets would of course resemble "stars," rather than "a star": and the Protogospel of James, a noncanonical text that may include some material from early Jewish-Christian tradition, has exactly that.

The negative reaction of the Judaean king Herod the Great to such inquiries is in keeping with attitudes of the period. Where affairs of state were concerned, an astrology still undifferentiated from astronomy was taken very seriously in the ancient world. Astrologers could be forbidden from making predictions about the emperor's health; Domitian executed men born with imperial horoscopes. The massacre of the innocents (the destruction, on Herod's orders, of Bethlehemite children of approximately Jesus' age), was the typical reaction of a cruel and insecure ruler faced with a potentially subversive astrological prediction in a village whose name was charged with symbolism and situated on the doorstep of his key fortress of Herodion.

The "flight into Egypt" of Jesus' nuclear family may have been no more than a short journey across a frontier. Alternatively, it might have entailed a stay in some major center of Egyptian Jewry, accessible, numerous, vibrant, and in frequent contact with Jerusalem as this was.

Visits to Jerusalem by Palestinian Jews were not in the nature of the later pilgrimage by Muslims from the Maghreb to Mecca, a once-in-a­lifetime occurrence. Rather were they frequent features of a well­regulated liturgical life for the devout. Jesus' presentation in the Temple, and his conversation with its resident clergy on the eve of his Jewish coming-of-age, as recorded by Luke, are out of the ordinary only inasmuch as the convictions of the evangelists about the ultimate identity of this child (or youth), based on the events of his adult life, give them a significance they could not otherwise possess. It is to that adult life we must now turn, leaving till the next chapter an account of the inner meaning of these and others of the chief episodes of Jesus' life, a commentary on the fuller, indeed divine, meaning invested in them, as the Church sees them.

The youth grew up to inherit his foster-father's profession (Mark 6:3), but he was soon caught up in the mission of the first postbiblical Jewish prophet, Johanan ben Zechariah. In the context of this attempted religious renewal of the Jewish nation, he began to express in a "public ministry" his identity and role.

At a certain point in early manhood, then, Jesus left his native place so as to associate himself with the spiritual revival initiated by his cousin John the Baptist. John saw his work as a call to repentance in the spirit of the prophet Elijah, and chose to concentrate his activity in places hallowed by Elijah's memory. He preached by the river Jordan near Jericho where Elijah had ascended to heaven in a whirlwind of fire (2 Kgs 2:11-12), and baptized at Aenon near Salim where Elijah had thrown his cloak around Elisha, his successor, as a sign of his transmitting to him the prophetic spirit (1 Kgs 19:19). John first spoke of Jesus to representatives of the Pharisee party at Batanea, "Bethany beyond the Jordan," near the ravine where Elijah had hid from King Ahab in preparation for his great campaign to purify Israel from its sins and errors. Just as in Jewish tradition Elijah was linked to the fulfillment of God's promises for Israel at the end of time (when, it was thought, he would reappear), so John's preaching and the baptism of repentance he offered had as their theme the imminence of an all­encompassing divine judgment. In permitting himself to be baptized by John, Jesus identified himself with these expectations.

To begin with, then, Jesus shared the Baptist's aim which was the reconstitution of God's sacred people, Israel, in view of the coming consummation of world history known in Greek shorthand as the eschaton the last age, the final epoch, the ultimate moment in historical time as hitherto known. Jesus met some of his first disciples Andrew, Peter, Philip, John in the context of the Baptist's activities, as the latter tells us in his gospel (1:38b-39), and the Baptist singled Jesus out as having a special role to play in the great events that were coming (John 1:30). The background lay in the biblical conviction that history, understood as including all our individual life-stories as well as great public events, is the unfolding of a divine purpose for the world. As such it must be construed as a plan, with a beginning, middle sections, and an end. The Baptist taught that the end was close at hand, and would take the form of a painful judgment and thus purgation and remaking of Israel. Therefore he preached repentance the renouncing of any and every claim on God's justice based on one's own righteousness. When the end came, only such repentance would make it (for the individual Israelite) a positive experience rather than a negative one, what the prophets had called "weal" rather than "woe." Jesus, in seconding this affirmation, also approved the method John used to communicate it: a call to repentance which, if answered, led to a symbolic purification in the Jordan. When the Baptist was arrested by the civil authorities, however, Jesus evidently took this as a signal that one significant stage in the events of the endtime had finished. He ceased baptizing and withdrew further north to his native region of Galilee. There he embarked on a new proclamation and ministry of his own.

The Gospels differ as to where to place the public beginning of Jesus' ministry. Luke takes it to be Jesus' preaching in the synagogue at Nazareth, his home town, where he aroused the scornful opposition that befalls prophets in their own country; John locates it at Cana some few miles to the south, the first miracle of Jesus rather than the first sermon. John also reports that Jesus' Nazarene origin did not commend itself to all Jews outside of Nazareth (John 1:46 no doubt Davidides were as slightly ridiculous then as, say, members of the house of Habsburg fallen on hard times would be today). However, Nathanael of Cana, when he actually met Jesus and witnessed this first miracle at a wedding feast in his native town, rapidly changed his mind. Luke and John agree in saying that after the initiation of his ministry, wherever we place it, Jesus transferred his base to Capharnaum, a town on the Sea of Galilee, the native country of his future apostles.

Although the three Synoptic Gospels speak explicitly about only one visit of Jesus to Jerusalem, they hint at others, and John is quite definite that Jesus did go up to Jerusalem for the feast of Passover during the first and last springtimes of the two to three years of his public ministry, and that he attended the Temple for the feasts of Tabernacles and Dedication in the intervening year when Passover found him still in Galilee. Such relatively frequent pilgrimages to Jerusalem are only what one would expect of a devout Jew of this period. After, then, some initial activity in Galilee which need not demand more than few weeks for its performance, Jesus journeyed to the Jewish capital and immediately confronted the guardians of its holiest shrine in the episode of the cleansing of the Temple. John records that the spiritual vigor of this act brought many Jews to his side; perhaps prominent among them were Essenes, who had theological difficulties with the Temple cultus as practiced by the dominant, Sadducee party. Jerusalem would remain of the highest importance to Jesus, not only for the obvious reason that it was the holy city of Judaism, but also because one of his major rivals for the definitive interpretation of the Hebrew Bible the priestly party of the Sadducees were there in strength.

On the other hand, Galilee was the great stronghold of the other principal contender for the right to interpret the divine revelation to Israel. There the Pharisees, both moderates and rigorists, had a devout following as had their revolutionary wing, the Zealots. In Galilee too Jesus would touch the fringes of the pagan world, the Gentiles, whom his proclamation of imminent salvation also concerned. Hearing, then, of the many converts being made by those of his disciples who were continuing to practice John's baptism of repentance, Jesus left Judaea for Galilee by way of Samaria where his conversation with a Samaritan woman reinforced the point that the messianic kingdom would not be restricted to the Jewish people (John 4:42). At the fishing ground of Capharnaum, Jesus relocated certain disciples he had already met in the Baptist's company. The news that John the Baptist had been imprisoned by the Roman satrap Herod Antipas in the Machaerus fortress, far away by the Dead Sea was the cue for his urgent message to these men: "The Kingdom of God is near" (Mark 1:5). Calling two sets of brothers (Andrew and Peter, James and John), Jesus walked the two miles to Capharnaum, his adopted home. There he began to build up a spiritual family in the form of a circle of friends in which he was the rabbi surrounded by his special disciples. Jesus borrowed this concept from the Pharisees, but the closed number of twelve disciples of predilection was his own contribution. It harked back symbolically to the twelve tribes of Israel, a new version of which was in the making. Jesus had no home of his own (Matt 8:20), but seems to have lived in the house of Peter. Recently excavated, it was venerated by Jewish Christians who scribbled the names of both Jesus and Peter on its walls.

Jesus now began to develop a highly personal style of teaching through parables and pithy sayings, and such was his originality that he made an immediate impact. The main motifs of his preaching were: the reign or kingly rule of God; his own role in bringing in that reign; the unique importance of the epoch on which humanity had just entered, thanks to his presence and words; and the task consequently entrusted to his followers. He also taught ethics, reworking in the light of these themes a number of the moral dictates come down from Jewish tradition. Though many of his ideas and values were taken over from the Hebrew Bible, he tended to express them in an absolutely new way. As a result, his teachings caused ill-feeling between himself and the various religious leaders of the Jewish people.

Jesus was first registered as something quite exceptional when he illustrated his message with actions that exceeded normal human capability: notably, exorcisms, healings, and intensifications of the bounty of nature. Contrary to Jesus' intentions, these miracles were popularly interpreted as feats of power indicative of a political renaissance for Israel, and so by implication divine vengeance on the Romans for their rule. It was fortunate, then, that he had gathered around him the group of pupils called the "disciples" for whom he could correct such misconceptions. From their number he chose twelve apostles (the word can be paraphrased as "mandated representatives") to whom he gave a more intimate teaching. This centered on his relation with God, whom he characteristically called "Abba" ("dear Father") and the Spirit of God, whom he referred to as the Paraclete, or Counsellor, and so dealt more fully with his own identity, his special role in the mission of the Spirit from the Father. This more intimate or esoteric teaching also concerned the founding of a new Israel: a new community termed in Greek (a language Jesus probably knew) "the Church." Several remarkable women lent this apostolic group their support.

The novelty of Jesus' approach and the impact he made naturally gave rise to questions about his identity and intentions. The narratives of his baptism and its sequel, the temptations, were partly autobiographical answers to these questions which (we may suppose) the inner core of the disciples were invited to memorize, as they (evidently enough) were trained to commit to memory his formal teaching. Jesus' immersion in the waters had been accompanied by a profound experience of the Spirit of God, and of his own unique sonship of the Father (two vital themes of the esoteric teaching). His free act of solidarity with sinners, as he went down under the waters, may have given him the notion of redemptive solidarity in a suffering and death freely offered for them. Certainly, the gospel tradition knows nothing of the view that only late in his ministry was Jesus aware that he must suffer and die. These experiences led him to forsake his former trade and way of life and go out into the desert. There he felt Satan the angelic figure appointed in the Hebrew Bible to test God's righteousness entice him to try out the various possibilities implicit in the power of the divine sonship he now experienced. Seeking the Father's will through prayer and fasting, he dismissed these promptings as presumptuous and evil. But this did not mean that Jesus had thereby rejected the idea that he himself was central to the working out of the phase of salvation history inaugurated by the Baptist. He referred to John as his Elijah, the "greatest among those born of women," that is, the announcer of the start of the final fulfillment of history (Matt 11:11). Yet the least person in the kingdom of heaven (i.e., the period of God's actual reign as now ushered in by Jesus) must be greater than John. Whereas John had only announced that beginning of the new age, Jesus was actually realizing it by his teaching and activity.

That activity would be concentrated in the area sometimes called the "evangelical triangle," the piece of land between the three towns of Capharnaum, Korazin, and Bethsaida, on the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee. Here, as Matthew records (11:20), most of his miracles were to be performed. Of special importance was the local mountain of Capharnaum, a ridge of hills called by the Gospels "the lonely place" or "the mount." With its superb view over the lake and the surrounding villages, this craggy hill with its own cave, well suited to contemplative withdrawal, enabled Jesus to gather large crowds without inconvenience to local farmers. Its spring covering of anemones and iris led him to reflect on the lilies of the field (Matt 6:28), whose beauty surpasses Solomon's in all his splendor. Matthew prefaces his account of Jesus' sermon on this mount by detailing the regions from which people were streaming to hear him: from Galilee, the Decapolis (ten nearby towns with Greek-speaking settlers), Jerusalem, Judaea, and the region across the Jordan (4:25), while news of him had reached even Syria, far to the north (4:24). Jesus also delivered his new interpretation of the Torah, the divine revelation to Israel, from a boat almost certainly in the inlet now called the "bay of the Parables," halfway between Capharnaum and its fishing ground, where the land slopes down like a Roman theater to the water's edge. Using the extraordinary natural acoustic, his voice could reach thousands in, for instance, the parable of the seed falling on different kinds of earth (a scenario easily imagined by the hearers, for the countryside around them illustrated it). Here we can see the Land as, in Bargil Pixner's words, a "fifth Gospel"-something recognized since at least the fourth century when the historian Eusebius produced his Onomastikon, an explanation of biblical place-names in their scriptural contexts, using records of roads, distances, and so forth available in the provincial headquarters at Caesarea. The Onomastikon extends Eusebius's other treatise, the Demonstration of the Gospel: the testimony of the holy places tends both to substantiate and supplement the testimony of the Bible. As another Greek Christian of the early centuries, Cyril of Jerusalem, would write: "Reverence the place, and learn from what you see."

Already in the early part of the ministry sources of tension can be detected, despite the popular acclaim Jesus undoubtedly received. Clashes with pagans and with his own kinsfolk occur in what is probably the first year of Jesus' public life. Mark describes his crossing over to the pagan, eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee as a challenge to a world under the control of the Evil One. Jesus' quieting of the threatening wind with, it is insinuated, the evil spirit of chaos behind it is followed by his encounter with a possessed man, who embodies both the depravity and the strength of paganism. Challenged by Jesus, the demons maintain their right to remain if not in a human being then at least in the swine, animals associated with paganism because the early Canaanites had sacrificed them to their gods. The confrontation endswith an act of self-destruction at the rock precipice which falls away suddenly into the lake. But the local inhabitants, discovering that the exorcist was an intruder from Israel, implore him to leave the area. Jesus' first attempt to bring the message of salvation into heathen ter­ritory-'had failed, though the exorcised man was commissioned to spread the good news of his visitation among his compatriots. A less conflictive encounter with an individual pagan, back on Jewish soil, is the healing of the woman with a hemorrhage. Almost certainly a pagan-a statue of her meeting with Jesus was erected some while after at Caesarea Philippi, an action only conceivable then in a Gentile cohtext-she knew herself doubly unclean in the ritual outlook of Jews: she was both a hemorrhaging woman and a Gentile. This ex­plains her secret stealing up to Jesus to touch his garment, though he at once makes personal contact with her lest she should feel she had somehow stolen her cure. More encouraging relations with pagans would be established in the middle period of the ministry, but these rather tense and uncomprehending moments point ahead to the final rejection of the earthly Jesus by the pagan world in the shape of the Roman governor of Judaea two years later.



1. R. A. Burridge, What Are the Gospels? A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography (Cambridge, 1992).

2. Insruction on the Historical Truth of the Gospels, 1.

3. Ibid.

4. Augustine, City of God 18.54.

5. J. P. Meier, Jesus: A Marginal Jew (New York, 1991) 46.

6. Insruction on the Historical truth of the Gospels, 8, 2.

7. Dei Verbum, 18-19.

8. In what follows I shall be indebted to the work, along these lines, of the German archaeologist-exegete Bargil Pixner, monk of the Dormition Abbey, Jerusalem. See: B. Pixner, With Jesus through Galilee according to the Fifth Gospel (Rosh Pina, 1992).

9. M. Bockmuehl, This Jesus: Martyr, Lord, Messiah (Edinburgh, 1994) 21.

10. H. Pope, "Assent to the Decrees of the Biblical Commission," Blackfriars 6, no. 61 (1925) 225.

Copyright ©; 1996 by The Order of St. Benedict, Inc., Collegeville, Minnesota. All rights reserved.

This version: 27th April 2010

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