by Young Oon Kim
The Historical Jesus
The New Testament provides almost the only reliable information we have about Jesus, yet throughout the book its materials are highly colored by the doctrines and worship of the later churches. 21 Even so, for a contemporary Biblical critic like Gfinther Bornkamm, it is still possible to recover "the rough outline" of Jesus' person and history. 22
Bornkamm, a New Testament scholar at Heidelberg and a disciple of Bultmann, published the first full-length life of Jesus in the "new quest" for the historical Jesus after World War II. Professor Norman Perrin, the noted American Biblical scholar, praised Borrikamm's Jesus of Nazareth as a "magnificent" picture of the life and teachings of Jesus and easily "the best book on Jesus currently available." 23 For this reason we summarize Bornkamm's conclusions.
What biographical data do we possess? Jesus' home town was Nazareth in semi-pagan and despised Galilee. His father Joseph 24 was a carpenter. Perhaps Jesus followed the same trade. His four brothers were James, Joses, Judas and Simon. He had sisters but their names are unknown (Mk. 6:3). No member of his family was one of Jesus' original followers.
Like all Galileans, Jesus spoke Aramaic but he could also read the ancient Hebrew scriptures. Greek was widely used in first-century Palestine by merchants and public officials. However, we do not know if Jesus or his disciples were able to speak or understand it. Jesus centered his ministry in the smaller villages and hamlets in the hill country and around the sea of Galilee. We can therefore assume that he had minimal contact with Greek philosophy and the Hellenistic life-style.
At about age 30, Jesus was baptized by John and began his own preaching ministry. The evangelists' account of the Baptist are 25 reinterpretations for apologetic purposes. Thus, we cannot know what Jesus thought of the rite. Like John, he became a prophet of the coming messianic age, preaching in Galilee while John preached in the Jordan River valley. Unlike John, Jesus' ministry focused not on baptism but on the spoken word (especially parables) and the helping hand (primarily faith cures).
We cannot be certain how long Jesus' activity lasted. Possibly a few months or maybe a year. 26 The Gospels do not give us a reliable 27 chronology of Jesus' life. Nevertheless they tell us a great deal about his preaching, his acts of healing, the opposition he aroused, and his popularity among all classes of Palestinians.
Bultmann 28 states that with a bit of caution we can see from the New Testament that Jesus was an exorcist, that he broke the commandment against working on the Sabbath, that he abandoned the traditional ritual purifications of Judaism and engaged in a polemic against Pharisaic legalism. Jesus also astonished his contemporaries by his fellowship with social outcasts like tax collectors, harlots, Roman soldiers and Samaritans. Furthermore, he was different from most rabbis because of his regular association with women and closeness to children. Unlike John, Jesus was not an ascetic. Hence, his critics accused him of being too fond of feasting and drinking wine. Probably it is significant that his small company of followers included women. This remarkable fellowship with outcasts, women and children may have been in Jesus' mind a sign of the dawn of the messianic age. 29
For Bornkamm, the final decisive turning point in Jesus' life was the resolution to go to Jerusalem in order to confront the capital city with the message of the imminent kingdom of God. What happened in Jerusalem is, however, interwoven with legendary elements and the doctrinal interests of the later churches. Thus, we can have very little 30
certain knowledge about the last chapter in Jesus' life. It was the post-Easter Christian faith which insisted that he entered Jerusalem to die in fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies (Mk. 8:31, 9:12, 9:31, 10:33, 34).
Most people assume that the Passion narratives are fundamentally in agreement, because the trial and death of Jesus was such an important aspect of Christian preaching from the earliest period. But if one looks carefully at the Synoptic Gospels and compares them with the Johannine reports he will be amazed by the radical differences. Furthermore, there are major additions, omissions and alterations in the story told by the three Synoptics.
First of all, let us note the fundamental contradiction between the Synoptics and John over the triumphal entry into Jerusalem. According to Mark, Matthew and Luke, the triumphal entry and cleansing of the temple by the expulsion of the money changers occurred at the beginning of Jesus' last week on earth. Yet according to the Fourth Gospel (Jn. 2:13-25), the cleansing of the temple took place at the opening of Jesus' ministry, immediately following the miraculous changing of water to wine at the marriage feast in Cana.
Secondly, why did Jesus' enemies plot to kill him? According to the Synoptics, the chief priests and scribes sought how to kill Jesus after he had started teaching in Jerusalem (Mk. 14:1,2), although Herod Antipas may have tried to seize and dispose of Jesus while he was preaching in Galilee (Mk. 6:16; Lk. 9:9, 13:31). However, in the Fourth Gospel, the high priest Caiaphas decides to kill Jesus as soon as he hears that Lazarus has been miraculously raised from the dead (11:49 ff). Was the crucifixion made necessary because the high priest feared a popular miracle worker? Or because Jesus aroused the enmity of the scribes and Pharisees? Or because he threatened to destroy the temple, as the witnesses at the trial claimed? Or because the Galilean ruler Herod Antipas was afraid of a second John the Baptist? Or because the Romans sought to suppress a revolutionary messianic pretender? The four Gospels give different answers.
Thirdly, we should recognize the different additions which Matthew and Luke make to the original Markan Passion story. Matthew adds to Mark several very important incidents: a description of Judas' suicide (27:3-10), Pilate washing his hands to show his innocence in regard to Jesus' execution (27:24,25) and the resurrection of many dead Jewish saints during the earthquake following Jesus' death (27:51-53). Luke also supplements the Markan narrative with significant details. According to Luke alone, Jesus weeps over Jerusalem (19:41-44) and asks his disciples to arm themselves with swords (22:36-38). Luke alone tells us that Jesus miraculously restores the ear of the man who was attacked by the disciples when the soldiers arrest Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane (22:49-51). Only Luke reports that Jesus was tried before Herod Antipas as well as Pilate and the Sanhedrin (23:4-16) and that a great crowd of wailing women accompanied Jesus on the way to Golgotha (23:27-31). Without trying to decide whether such additions which Matthew and Luke made are historical, one can see how the Markan Gospel was elaborated upon by the two other Synoptics.
Fourthly, examine carefully the different versions of the Gethsemane incident. Mark describes the three-fold agonizing prayer of Jesus that God save him from the cross of martyrdom: "Father, all things are possible unto Thee; remove this cup from me; however, not what I will, but what thou wilt" (Mk. 14:36). This moving event poses two important problems. How do we know what happened in the garden, since the disciples slept and Jesus was immediately separated from his followers by his arrest? More importantly, the incident has some unsettling theological implications. Was there a period, however brief, when Jesus lost faith in the providence of God? According to this Gethsemane incident, Jesus prayed desperately to be spared the pain of the cross. Or perhaps Jesus prayed that God protect him from his enemies and save him from his fate.
Recent Biblical scholarship increasingly recognizes the violence and horror of Jesus' last week. As a Jesuit professor from the Gregorian Pontifical University in Rome has noted, Jesus did not accept from the outset his predetermined crucifixion. He did not begin his mission by proclaiming, "My crucifixion is at hand; repent and believe the good news of my atoning death." Surely in the Gethsemane prayer Jesus reveals the jagged edges of pain as he meditated on his future. In his final hours before his arrest Jesus loses his nerve and looks for a way to escape doom, this Catholic theologian tells us. 31
It is therefore illuminating to examine the very divergent ways the later evangelists place a curtain over the agony of Gethsemane, how they mitigate the pain of Jesus. Mark uses the incident as an illustration of the disciples blindness regarding Jesus' feelings. When his heart was filled with so much agony, those closest to him fell asleep. Matthew suggests that Jesus need not have been arrested, for he had a whole legion of angels to rescue him (26:53 ff). That is, Jesus voluntarily accepted his fate as a dutiful son. Luke uses a different approach, adding that Jesus was comforted by a visiting angel (22:43). The Fourth Gospel omits Jesus' petitionary prayers. Explicitly contradicting Mark, John puts into Jesus' mouth the words, "The cup which the Father hath given me, shall I not drink it?" (18:11). This brief discussion of the garden scene demonstrates how the Gospel traditions were revised and reshaped to suit the dogmatic and apologetic aims of the developing Christian community.
At this point, let us look at how Unificationists explain the Gethsemane prayer.
1) Jesus had come to relieve the divine sorrow and establish the kingdom.
2) Unable to complete his mission, he was almost overcome with anguish.
3) He knew that his death on the cross would block God's plan for His people.
4) Humanity's suffering would be indefinitely prolonged, and his disciples would be forced to carry a cross like his own. Filled with such desperate thoughts Jesus prayed for some possible way to fulfill the divine mandate.
In the fifth place, one must raise the troublesome matter of Roman involvement in Jesus' death. Were his countrymen or was the imperial government responsible for the crucifixion? Repeatedly Jewish spokesmen (and others) have tried to lay the blame on the Romans. The New Testament attempts to disguise the fact that Jesus was tried by Pilate and executed as a political troublemaker whose cross was erected between that of two Zealot martyrs. Numerous books have been published in this unending controversy. While no resolution of the problem appears to be near, everyone agrees on one basic fact. 32 As a result of the disastrous Palestinian revolt ending in 70 A. D., Christians would be very much interested in covering up any possible connection between Jesus' messianic movement and the Zealot cause. From Mark's time to the later period of Matthew, Luke and John, the Gospel traditions were increasingly reworked to exonerate the Romans and blame the Jews for Jesus' death. Finally the Coptic Christians venerated Pontius Pilate as a saint. Consequently, today we are well aware of the apologetic tendencies at work in the development of the Passion narratives.
Lastly, we should recognize the fundamental alterations made in the Gospels' portrait of Calvary. It has long been customary to meditate on Jesus' "seven last words" from the cross. Yet not one of the Gospel writers supports such an interpretation. The so-called seven last words represent a composite tradition created by the later Church.
What do the Gospels report? Mark says that Jesus spoke only once from the cross: "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" (15:34). Since that verse from Psalms 22:1 could easily be misunderstood as a cry of God-forsaken despair, Luke and John felt constrained to make additions which seemed more fitting. Luke portrays a noble martyr. When fastened to the cross, Jesus' first prayer is to grant pardon: "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do" (23:34). To the penitent "thief" (presumably a Zealot terrorist), Jesus promises, "Today, thou shalt be with me in Paradise" (23:43). Then at the end, he serenely approaches reunion with God: "Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit" (23:46). In portraying his distinctive theology of the cross, Luke reports only these three last utterances of the dying Jesus. Matthew, however, prefers to copy Mark. Probably because he was fascinated by proving that Jesus was the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, Matthew retains Mark's quotation from the Psalms. For him there was nothing theologically awkward about the cry of abandonment, provided it was seen as one more Biblical prediction at last come true. According to Matthew, Mark was correct: Jesus spoke only once from the cross. Quite different from this is the Johannine report. Instead of Mark's quotation from Psalm 22 or Luke's three utterances, this author records three (or four) new sayings: "Woman, behold thy son"; "Behold thy mother" (19:26,27); "1 thirst" (19:28) and "It is finished" (19:30). In John's theology of the cross, Jesus ends his earthly ministry with a cry of victory because his death is a moment of glorification, enabling him 33 to draw all men to God.
21 For a very useful survey of contemporary views, see the anthology by Harvey K. McArthur, In Search of the Historical Jesus (1969).
22 For Bultmann's attitude toward this, see his 1959 lecture in McArthur, pp. 161-163.
23 N. Perrin, The New Testament, An Introduction (1974), p. 303.
24 For a different view and that of Unification theology, see the section on the virgin birth in Y. O. Kim, Unification Theology and Christian Thought (1976), pp. 127-131.
25 For a very skeptical view, cf. M. Enslin, Christian Beginnings (1956), pp. 149-153. J. Jeremias, New Testament Theology (1971) gives a more generally accepted interpretation, pp. 43-49.
26 Many Christians assume that Jesus' ministry lasted three years. Where did such an idea come from? Not from Mark or Matthew and Luke. According to these sources, Jesus was in Jerusalem for Passover only once after he began his ministry, although Jewish law of the period required that all celebrate this festival in the holy city The Fourth Gospel does refer to three Passovers. (Jn. 2:13, 6:4, 11:55). The question then is, can we rely upon John against the three older evangelists? Bornkamm and others rely on the Synoptic tradition. Hans Kfing says Jesus' public ministry lasted at most three years, or perhaps only one year, or a few dramatic months (On Being a Christian, (1976, p. 150).
27 H. Conzelmann, Jesus (1973), pp. 20-25.
28 See Bultmann's lecture in McArthur, p. 161.
29 Cf. Ernst Fuchs, Studies of the Historical Jesus (1964), pp. 11-31; see R. H. Fuller, The New Testament in Current Study (1962), p. 34.
30 M. G. Bornkamm, Jesus of Nazareth (1960), pp. 154-158.
31 G. O'Collins, The Calvary Christ (1977), pp. 30,32,37,39.
32 Cf. H. Ming, "Jesus in Conflict: A Jewish-Christian Dialogue," Signposts for the Future (1978), pp. 64-87.
33 Cf. R. E. Brown, The Gospel According to John (1970), vol. 2, pp. 922-931.
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