A Familiar Jesus?

A Familiar Jesus? March 5, 2018

My book Crucible of Faith recently received an extremely positive and generous review, and I want to argue strenuously against it.

Well, not exactly, but here is what happened. In the British Catholic Herald, Michel Duggan gave the book just an excellent review, but he made one point that troubled me – not troubled that the reviewer was making the point, but because it raised an issue I really should have addressed more explicitly. My book described the emergence of new ideas in the Jewish world in the two or three centuries before Jesus’s time, in what I call the Crucible era – ideas about the messiah, the afterlife, the forces of good and evil, angels and demons, Adam and Satan, and so on. I then stressed how closely and thoroughly Jesus and his movement reflected and exemplified those ideas. Because of that, Professor Duggan then remarks that “The Christ who emerges from these pages is a severely diminished, compromised figure. He is not a radical break with the past or a new voice in human history, coming from a divine source.” To over-simplify, his reason for writing this is that “my Jesus” really says nothing that is obviously radical or innovative.

That brought me up short. In one way, Duggan summarizes my view precisely, which is that in very few ways did Jesus and his first followers depart from beliefs that were firmly established in the Jewish world, or at least in some school within that world. I was arguing against an idea that surfaces in many sermons, namely that a particular passage in the New Testament represented a radical departure from the older Jewish ideas – which is fine until you track that idea down to the Old Testament, or to some inter-Testamental writer, or some rabbi more or less contemporary with Jesus.

The extent of connections with that contemporary Jewish world became all the clearer with the translation of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Apart from the inherent significance of those texts, the Qumran texts also threw a new light on other already-known works that Jesus’s followers (and Jesus himself) likely knew, including the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs or the Psalms of Solomon.

The more we know those recent precedents, the less we are surprised by many New Testament ideas, or and the fewer claims we should make about their novelty. Thousands of sermons through the years have made the point that the Jews of that era were expecting a military conqueror or king, not a simple preacher. Well yes, but the Qumran texts make it obvious that various Jews expected a range of different messiahs, with very different qualifications. Nor was Jesus saying anything that would have startled contemporaries about (say) Judgment, or angels, or the afterlife, or the virtues of the poor and oppressed. Even the idea of a son of God (or a Son of God) can be traced. In instances where we cannot find a direct contemporary parallel or precedent for a saying, that might well be because we have not yet located it.

Repeatedly, we see that themes and ideas that past generations would once have characterized as “Hellenistic borrowings” were in fact standard components of the Jewish thought-world of their time. That insight has fundamentally changed our understanding of John’s Gospel.

Looking at the gospels, there are not many passages where Jesus’s listeners exclaim, in effect, that his ideas are really new and radical. They say that Jesus presents his views with authority, unlike his more respected contemporaries, and they might be surprised that he adopts one position rather than another. One of the few exceptions to this rule occurs in John 6, when Jesus makes the still-astonishing statement about eating his flesh and drinking his blood, compelling his listeners to protest that “This is an hard [skleros] saying. Who can hear it?” (John 6.60). Yes, in this instance, the teaching is new and radical, and people hate it. They are just as puzzled, and repelled, by the notion that he might be claiming to have come down from Heaven. When, a bit later, the Ioudaioi are astonished by his teaching, there is no suggestion that it represents any kind of departure from familiar Jewish norms. Rather, they are amazed that this man should have accumulated so much learning (John 7.14-15).

We don’t need any more sermons based on the idea that Jesus was so attractive a figure because he presented views utterly different from those of his harsh, judgmental, and un-spiritual Jewish contemporaries.

What I was not in any sense saying in my Crucible book was that Jesus was merely a conventional figure, reciting standard rhetoric and familiar clichés. If I had said such a thing, that would certainly diminish him. But to say that his ideas were so familiar raises quite different questions. Was it perhaps that very familiarity that gave Jesus an entrée for his message, among groups already primed to hear those particular ideas?

More directly, if his ideas were so familiar, then what was it about the delivery of those words – or about the speaker – that attracted such amazing attention and devotion? What was it that led people to understand that he had authority that other leaders of the time did not have? Was Jesus a uniquely powerful or eloquent speaker? Did he have a charismatic quality that contemporaries recognized, whether or not they wanted to do so? How was that understood or appreciated? I just make these as suggestions, as the answers are basically unknowable. How can any mere writer describe charisma?

Presenting ideas that are established or familiar is not bad in itself, and it does not diminish or compromise the speaker, nor does it say anything about the divine source of his authority. What it does mean is that we have to be very scrupulous indeed about any claims we make about the novelty of Jesus’s views as they are recorded. And then, we can think very seriously about what other factors led followers to believe in that radical new authority – that new voice in history.

I am very grateful to Michel Duggan for encouraging me to explore and clarify these thoughts about a really significant issue.



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