Jesus the Man

Edited by Lewis Loflin

As confidence in human reason and hope for happiness in this world waned in the last centuries of the Roman Empire, a new outlook began to take hold. Evident in philosophy and in the popularity of oriental religions, this viewpoint stressed escape from an oppressive world and communion with a higher reality. Like the so-called mystery religions, Christianity evolved from this setting of declining classicism and heightening otherworldliness.

Christianity offered a spiritually disillusioned Greco-Roman world a reason for living-the hope of personal immortality. Christianity marked a break with classical antiquity and a new stage in the evolution of the West, for there was a fundamental difference between the Hellenic and the Christian concepts of God, the individual, and the purpose of life.

My purpose here is to present a balanced view of Jesus, but from a secular viewpoint. I do believe Jesus lived and walked the Galilee, and most of His teachings clearly fall into combination of both Essenes (John the Baptist does as well) and Pharisees. Jesus spoke of a kingdom "not of this world" (John 18:36), a spiritual Kingdom. The Apostle Paul and the Gnostics separated the Jesus sect from Judaism by the 2nd century.

Origins of Christianity, Judaism in the First Century

A Galilean Jew named Jesus was executed by the Roman authorities during the reign of Tiberius (A.D. 14-37), who was Augustus' successor. At the time, few people paid much attention to what proved to be one of the most pivotal events in world history. In the quest for the historical Jesus, scholars have stressed the importance of both his Jewishness and the religious ferment that prevailed in Palestine in the first century B.C. Jesus' ethical teachings are rooted in the moral outlook of Old Testament prophets and must be viewed as a logical extension of the Hebrew Scriptures...a product of the whole religious environment of which Jesus was a part. Jesus defined himself as a Jew, was highly conscious of the Jewishness of his message and would have found it impossible to conceive of himself as anything but Jewish.1

The teachings of Jesus, then, must be placed squarely in the Jewish religious context of the time.

In the first century B.C., four principal social, religious parties or sects existed among the Palestinian Jews: Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes, and Zealots. Composed of the upper stratum of Jewish society-influential landed gentry and hereditary priests who controlled the temple in Jerusalem-the Sadducees insisted on a strict interpretation of Mosaic Law and the perpetuation of temple ceremonies. Challenging the Sadducees, the Pharisees adopted a more flexible attitude toward Mosaic Law; the Pharisees allowed for discussion and varying interpretations of the Law and granted authority to oral tradition as well as to written Scripture.

Unlike the Sadducees, the Pharisees believed in life after death; the concept of personal immortality, a later addition to Hebrew religious thought probably acquired from Persia, had gained wide acceptance by the time of Jesus. The Pharisees had the support of the bulk of the Jewish nation.

The third religious party, the Essenes, established a semimonastic community near the Dead Sea. Like the Pharisees, they believed in the physical resurrection of the body, but gave this doctrine a more compelling meaning by tying it to the immediate coming of God's kingdom. Another sect, the Zealots, demanded that the Jews neither pay taxes to Rome nor acknowledge the authority of the Roman emperor. Devoted patriots, the Zealots engaged in acts of resistance to Rome.

In addition to the afterlife, another widely recognized idea in the first century B.C. was the belief in a Messiah, a redeemer chosen by God to liberate Israel from foreign rule. In the days of the Messiah, it was predicted, Israel would be free, the exiles would return, and the Jews would be blessed with peace, unity, and prosperity. Jesus (c. 4 B.C.-c. A.D. 29) performed his ministry within this context of Jewish religious-national expectations and longings. The hopes of Jesus' early followers encompassed a lower-class dissatisfaction with the aristocratic Sadducees, a Pharisee emphasis on prophetic ideals and the afterlife, an Essene preoccupation with the end-of-days, a belief in the nearness of God and the need for repentance, and a conquered people's yearning for a Messiah who would liberate their land from Roman rule and establish God's reign.

Jesus: The Inner Man

Historians are able to speak with greater certainty about social-religious developments in Judea at the time of Jesus than they can about Jesus himself. In reconstructing what Jesus did and believed, the historian labors under a handicap, for the sources are few. Jesus himself wrote nothing, and nothing was written about him during his lifetime. In the generations following Jesus' death, both Roman and Jewish historians paid him scant attention. Consequently, virtually everything we know about Jesus derives from the Bible's New Testament, which was written decades after Jesus' death by devotees seeking to convey a religious truth and to propagate a faith.

Modern historians in quest of the historical Jesus have rigorously and critically analyzed the New Testament; their analyses have provided some insights into Jesus and his beliefs. Nevertheless, much about Jesus remains obscure. Very little is known about his childhood. Like other Jewish youths he was taught Hebrew religious-ethical thought and the many rules that governed daily life.

At about the age of thirty, no doubt influenced by John the Baptist, Jesus felt called upon by God to preach the imminent coming of the reign of God and the need for repentance- a moral transformation so that a person could gain entrance into God's kingdom. "Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, and saying, 'The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel.' " (Mark 1:14~15)*

*The biblical quotations in this chapter are taken from the Revised Standard Version of the Holy Bible.

For Jesus, the coming of the kingdom was imminent; the process leading to the establishment of God's kingdom on earth had already begun. A new order would soon be established in which God would govern his people righteously and mercifully. Hence the present became critical for him-a time for spiritual preparedness and penitence-because an individual's thoughts, goals, and actions would determine whether he or she would gain entrance into the kingdom. People must change their attitudes, he said. They must eliminate base, lustful, hostile, and selfish feelings; they must stop pursuing wealth and power; they must purify their hearts and show their love for God and their fellow human beings.

Like the Hebrew prophets, Jesus saw ethics as the core of Mosaic Law: "So whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them; for this is the law and the prophets." (Matthew 7:12) Jesus did not intend to lead his fellow Jews away from their ancestral religion:" 'Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them.' "(Matthew 5:17)

Although Jesus did not seek to break with his past, he was distressed with the Judaism of his day. The rabbis taught the Golden Rule, as well as God's love and mercy for his children, but it seemed to Jesus that these ethical considerations were being undermined by an exaggerated rabbinical concern with ritual, restrictions, and the fine points of the Law, and that the center of Judaism had shifted from prophetic values to obedience to rules and prohibitions regulating the smallest details of daily life. Such legalism and ritualism, Jesus held, distorted the meaning of prophetic teachings.

The proliferation of rules, Jesus felt, dealt only with an individual's visible behavior; rules did not penetrate to the person's inner being and lead to a moral transformation. Observing the Lord's command to rest on the Sabbath- for example, by not eating an egg laid on Saturday or by not lifting a chair on that day-did not purify a person's soul.

The inner person concerned Jesus, and it was an inward change that he sought. " 'For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a man.' " (Mark 7:21-23) Individuals must feel again that God is at hand; they must choose God's way by conquering their sinful selfishness and pride and by demonstrating compassion for their neighbors. To Jesus, the spirit of Mosaic Law was more important than the letter of the Law, and right living and a pure loving heart were more important than legal quibbling. With the fervor of a prophet, he urged a moral transformation of human character through a direct encounter between the individual and God.

By preaching active love for one's fellows and by stressing a personal and intimate connection between the individual and God, Jesus associated himself more with the Hebrew prophetic tradition than with the Hebrew rituals, rules, and prohibitions that served to perpetuate a national and cultural tradition of a distinct people. We have seen that Hebrew history reveals both universal and parochial components; Jesus' teachings are more indicative of the universalism inherent in the concept of the one God and in the prophets' teachings.

It was inevitable that Jewish scribes and priests, guardians of the faith, would regard Jesus as a threat to ancient traditions. To Jewish leaders, Jesus was a troublemaker, a subversive who was undermining respect for the Sabbath and religious rites, an arrogant man who claimed that he above all other men was favored by God, another in a long line of messiahs who had been condemned and executed.

To the Romans who ruled Palestine, Jesus was a political agitator who could ignite Jewish messianic expectations into a revolt against Rome. (It is likely that several of Jesus' early followers were Zealots, and the Romans may have viewed Jesus as a Zealot leader.) After Jewish leaders turned Jesus over to the Roman authorities, the Roman procurator, Pontius Pilate, sentenced him to death by crucifixion.

Some Jews, believing that Jesus was an inspired prophet or even the long-awaited Messiah, had become his followers-the chief of these were the Twelve Disciples. At the time of Jesus' death, Christianity was not a separate religion, but a small Hebrew sect with dim prospects for survival.

In the years immediately following the crucifixion, the religion of Jesus was confined almost exclusively to Jews, who could more appropriately be called Jewish-Christians. The word Christian came from a name given Jesus: Christ (the Lord's Anointed, the Messiah). Missionaries of this dissenting Christian movement within Judaism were called Apostles-those sent out to preach the gospel, or good news, about Christ.

They addressed themselves to Jews and to converts to Judaism who, because they did not adhere fully to Mosaic Law, were not wholly accepted by the Jewish community. Before Christianity could realize the universal implications of Jesus' teachings and become a world religion, as distinct from a Jewish sect, it had to extricate itself from Jewish ritual, politics, and culture. This achievement was the work of a Hellenized Jew named Saul, known to the world as Saint Paul. Paul would define Jesus and His purpose in a way Jesus never did.

Marvin Perry, Western Civilization, Ideas, Politics, and Society, 2nd edition. Pages 150-67 1985 Houghton Mifflin Company.

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