The Gist of Jesus

The Gist of Jesus January 29, 2016

It has been interesting teaching my course on the historical Jesus again. Even in the few years that have passed since the last time I taught it, the strong shift in the academy away from an older approach to the subject has been very noticeable. Much of this is due to the impact of the work of scholars like Dale Allison (emphasizing the need to focus on the gist of Jesus) and Chris Keith (leading a charge to highlight the limitations of the criteria of authenticity and the atomistic approach associated with them).

It caused quite a discussion on this blog some years ago, when I paraphrased a point Allison made in this way:

Even fabricated material may provide a true sense of the gist of what Jesus was about, however inauthentic it may be as far as the specific details are concerned.

The point that Allison was making is that, if authors did not get the gist of a figure correct, they are unlikely to have remembered specific sayings accurately or given the right impression about their meaning. But on the other hand, if they got the gist right, then even inauthentic and imprecise sayings are likely to be pointing in the right general direction.

I illustrated this in class with reference to the fact that, while there are many fake Buddha and Mother Teresa quotes circulating on the internet, and many quotes attached to the wrong person, we rarely if ever have a quote from Hitler, for instance, misattributed to Mother Teresa. Because we have a sense of the gist of Mother Teresa, fake quotes tend to be in the general ballpark of who she was, and sayings by other people that had a very different outlook tend not to be falsely or mistakenly connected with her.

To illustrate the point, here are two quotes from Donald Trump, and one from Hitler, placed next to images of Mother Teresa and the Buddha – people that it is hard to imagine having said these things. Hopefully these will confirm my point – that, as real as the challenges that fake and misattributed quotes present to historians, the way memory works ought to lead us to focus first and foremost on the gist of a historical figure, on their overall impact and the impression they made on others. And when we do that, we are likely to get a sense of who they were that is not too wide of the mark, and also to be able to spot attempts to turn those figures into someone radically different.


I will build a great wall – Mother Teresa

That's one of the nice things about me BuddhaThose who want to live, let them fight Mother Teresa

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  • The difficulty of getting the “gist of Jesus” is that he was a paradoxical thinker, given to sometimes ambiguous statements (at least to us 2,000 years later), and he didn’t seem to hold to a systematic philosophical worldview.
    Few prophets ever do.

    Even in an intense study of the New Testament, it isn’t always easy to tell which statements are actually from the Jesus of history versus the early Christian movement.

    Then there is the difficulty of figuring out which scholarly overall “gist of Jesus” is correct? Was Jesus like a Jewish cynic (John Dominic Crossan), a failed Jewish prophet (Albert Schweitzer, etc.), a representative of God, the literal Son of God, God himself, and so many other contrary views posited and defended by various scholars of the New Testament)?

    • Actually, that is the very thing that makes the gist-first approach so useful. While obviously if we only had riddles attributed to Jesus, we might not be able to get very far. But while one can take individual sayings and find ways to avoid an apocalyptic interpretation, one cannot treat the overall depiction of Jesus in our earliest sources in a way that negates him having been a figure who spoke about the imminent dawn of the kingdom of God in an apocalyptic fashion. And so this approach directly addresses the problems with an atomistic approach that allows for such very varied interpretations and reinterpretations of Jesus.

      • Would you say then that scholars like Crossan are misreading the texts, or reading into the texts, or somehow missing the gist (the forest) because of various seemingly contrary texts (the trees) which appear to have been attached to Jesus?

        The main reason I finally came to the conclusion that Christianity couldn’t be true is because few of the scholars I read could agree even on the most basic concepts of Jesus.

        • I am always amazed that there is such widespread misunderstanding about this point. Academics are required to come up with new ideas as part of our work. That is what research involves. And the only way to do something new in relation to the historical Jesus, unless some new textual or archaeological evidence turns up, is to find new interpretations of the evidence we already have. And so, given the amount of interest there is in Jesus, it is inevitable that there will be lots of attempts to depict Jesus in a new way. But like most proposals in most fields, most of these suggestions will not be found convincing by large numbers of scholars. And so, as in all fields, a layperson needs to look at what the scholarly consensus is, when there is one, or what the few widely-held conclusions are. Anyone who is troubled by the large number of scholarly proposals must not understand what scholars do for a living.

          • It appears that I didn’t explain myself clearly.

            I know the points that you made already– about how scholarship works. Even though I am not a scholar, but a retired literature teacher.

            What I was originally trying to say–sorry I wasn’t clearer– is that based on the many contrary views of Jesus from the first century up through the creedal periods to modern scholarship it would appear that there may be no clear “gist” of Jesus.

            On a side note: Do you have an opinion about the history book, The Human Christ by Charlotte Allen?

          • I think Paula Fredriksen does a good job of addressing your point in her review of Allen’s book:

          • Thanks.

          • Nick Gotts

            Given what you say, would it not be better for scholars to turn to topics other than the historical Jesus, unless and until some new evidence comes to light? There are surely plenty of current or potential research areas which would require much of the same knowledge and many of the same skills – such as your own work on the Mandeans. Turning to such areas might even turn up new evidence relevant to the historical Jesus.

          • Well, it would in principle be great if people would recognize one field as too crowded and move to one where they are sorely needed. But the challenge there is that what one researches is a factor in what one is hired to teach, and so unless someone works on something related to the New Testament, they won’t be hired to teach in that area – at least, not when they are competing for the same job with others whose research is in a relevant area.

  • Philmonomer

    (Some random thoughts/tangential points–also edited for clarity):

    Without knowing who said it, why they said it, and what their agenda was, it would be pretty easy to paint a picture of Jesus that was inauthentic. In this regard, those writing about Jesus (think Paul–or possibly even the Evangelists) may not have been interested in any historical accuracy, rather more interested in their own theological bent/idiosyncratic understandings.

    Also, picking quotes from The Private Writings of Mother Theresa (published after her death), could paint her quite the atheist. For example, imagine an inspirational poster that said “There is nothing but emptiness and darkness. — Mother Theresa”

    • This doesn’t seem to me to take into account the fact that people only bring their agenda to individuals who have made some kind of impact or have some authority. And so there are constraints on the kinds of materials one could fabricate which are already in place by the time anyone is famous enough for it to be worth attributing something to them.

      The last point seems to confirm the point about focusing on gist first and not individual sayings.

      • And so there are constraints on the kinds of materials one could fabricate which are already in place by the time anyone is famous enough for it to be worth attributing something to them.

        Those constraints seem pretty loose when they allow for groups as diverse as the sects of early Christianity to all attribute their own ideas to Jesus. Where, exactly, is there any sign of early opinions about Jesus being constrained? Wouldn’t the gist of Jesus seem wildly different if the Ebionites or the Gnostics had become the dominant Christian sect?

        • As time passes, and one moves further away from the historical context of an individual, often all that is widely remembered is the gist and a few key slogans. And so even today you can find people who know Martin Luther King was opposed to violence and sought to end segregation, but don’t know he was a theological liberal, or what his economic views were. If we had the Gnostic Jesus in the same early period as the canonical Gospels or the letters of Paul, that might indeed suggest that there were fewer constraints on the initial tradition and its trajectory. But in fact the Gnostic Jesus comes into the picture later, and we can see that unfold, rather in the same way we can see the Pilgrims or the Founding Fathers utilized for aims and ends that they almost certainly would not have recognized, much less supported, in their own time.

          In what ways would you say that the Ebionites reflect a radically different view of Jesus than we find in our earliest Christian sources?

          • Nick Gotts

            In the case of King, and of the Founding Fathers (I don’t know enough about the Pilgrims), it seems inescapable that those most prominent in recruiting them to the religious right cause are indulging in conscious and deliberate deception: the documentation of their views is extensive, and judgement on these views does not need to rely on others’ recollections, or on “gist”. Do you think anything similar was involved in the early disputes between Christians – that is, did any of the parties knowingly or recklessly misrepresent Jesus and his immediate followers, or were all the disputes between parties with sincere convictions that they were indeed following his teachings?

            As regards the Ebionites, I know the question wasn’t directed at me, and I know only what I can glean from a quick consultation with Prof. Google; but the Ebionites apparently saw Jesus (as he almost certainly saw himself) as a prophet (and perhaps the Messiah) within Judaism, not as the founder of a new religion which aimed to convert Gentiles en masse. The latter was surely the ideology and programme of Paul of Tarsus, the actual founder of Christianity!

          • Sorry for the delay in replying. I think that the only way to answer your question is to look at the evidence. The Gospel authors tend to add explanatory comments around Jesus’ words, although sometimes they do completely rewrite them – although that tends to happen more and more the further we get from Jesus’ time.

            Paul, if we judge by his own words, was not trying to start a new religion, but to bring Gentiles into his religion – albeit without certain requirements that most people in his religion considered crucial.

            Did you notice that Paul not only emphasizes that he is grafting Gentiles into Israel, but does not even use the name for the religion you claim that he was founding?

          • Nick Gotts

            Thanks for your reply. I should have been clearer about Paul – I’m sure he didn’t think he was founding a new religion, but I think that was the effect of his work. Surely the idea that Gentiles could be “grafted into Israel”, without having to abide by Jewish law, was a crucial step in Christianity’s break with Judaism? Your last sentence raises an interesting point, on which I’m ignorant: when, where and by whom was the term “Christianity” first used?

          • According to Acts 11:26, the term “Christians” was first applied to the group in Antioch, presumably by others.

            The influx of Gentiles is most certainly a major contributing factor to the eventual almost complete separation between Christianity and Judaism.

          • Well our earliest Christian sources are the letters of Paul; there’s quite a contrast between his ideas about Jesus and those of the Ebionites. I think the impression in the New Testament of an anti-legalistic Jesus would be pretty different under the Ebionite view of Jesus as a Jewish prophet who supported adherence to the Mosaic law.

            You mentioned a couple of clear, widely understood positions of MLK (i.e. being opposed to violence and segregation), but are there any positions that we can equally clearly ascribe to Jesus?

            But in fact the Gnostic Jesus comes into the picture later, and we can see that unfold, rather in the same way we can see the Pilgrims or the Founding Fathers utilized for aims and ends that they almost certainly would not have recognized, much less supported, in their own time.

            Doesn’t this contradict your earlier statement though? You said that “there are constraints on the kinds of materials one could fabricate which are already in place by the time anyone is famous enough for it to be worth attributing something to them”; shouldn’t that have stopped the Gnostics attributing their own positions to Jesus? There doesn’t seem to have been any constraint on them doing so.

          • Nowadays in a highly literate context the constraints on how a person might be reinterpreted tend to persist in a way that was not the case in a primarily oral context, after the passage of a century. But even today, when someone is esteemed, there will be those who will try to coopt them as authorities. If we did not have writings of the Founding Fathers, or MLK, surely we would see a wider array of people appealing to their reputation while not accurately representing what they had to say.

            Paul was persuaded that God was bringing Gentiles into the people of God. You will notice that he never appeals to teaching of Jesus to justify that.

          • But that idea of bringing Gentiles in was placed into the mouth of Jesus quickly enough to get into the Gospels. And if it’s easy enough to misrepresent Jesus in an oral culture after a century, it doesn’t seem a great deal harder to do so after the passage of a few decades when the Gospels were being written. Doesn’t that undermine any attempts to understand the gist of Jesus using what is recorded about him in the New Testament? Or in other words, isn’t the gist of “Jesus” in the New Testament really the gist of the early Christian community?

          • We don’t see the Gentiles coming in without observing Torah in the canonical Gospels, which is what Paul was distinctive in teaching. And so the fact that even Luke does not read Pauline thinking back onto the lips of Jesus to much of an extent is noteworthy, is it not?

          • The Great Commission doesn’t specify whether gentile converts are to observe the Law or not. Jesus’ statements in Mark 7 seem to downplay the importance of Jewish dietary law, and the Gospel of Thomas has Jesus speaking against circumcision. Those on the other side of the argument have put anti-Pauline ideas into Jesus’ mouth in Matthew 5:17-20. So people on both sides of the argument seem to have been willing to attribute their ideas to Jesus.

          • Sure, people attributing their ideas to Jesus is the core problem historians have to deal with and around with the present topic of discussion revolves. But even in the statement that what comes out of one’s mouth defiles, you will note that it is only in an editorial comment by the Gospel author saying becomes something in support of Paul’s Torah-free stance. And Gospel of Thomas in its present form is probably not early.

  • Of course it’s possible that a fabricated story could capture the gist of the real historical Jesus. The problem is the want of any demonstrably valid criteria for identifying which stories do so.

    A broken clock may be correct twice a day, but it’s still useless as a timekeeping device.

    • A broken clock may be correct twice a day, but it’s still useless as a metaphor for what this post is about.

    • Ian

      But not, importantly, useless as evidence of time, or timekeeping. Several broken clocks would give you even better evidence.

      We have a broken clock in the gospels, it may be exactly right only here or there, and roughly right for broader gaps, and we can’t know when. But it can provide excellent information about the domain of accuracy, if you don’t assume that it is either taken at face value or discounted.

      • Or there might not be anything right at all.

        It is no doubt often the case that some truth about a historical person survives the fabrication process even if we cannot be sure exactly what it is.

        On the other hand, isn’t it also probable that there are some cases where virtually nothing survives? Isn’t it probable that there are some cases where the agenda of the fabricators so completely carries the day that no meaningful gist of the historical person survives?

        I’m not quite sure what you mean by “excellent information about the domain of accuracy,” but this seems to me to be the kind of case where I cannot be confident that any accurate information about the historical person has survived.

        • Ian

          isn’t it also probable that there are some cases where virtually nothing survives?

          Yes, but that probability decreases, as the amount of data increases, and is further diminished depending on the kinds of data that is present. In this case, I think it very unlikely that it is all manufactured whole cloth. It takes a level of skepticism I just can’t manage, and a skepticism which is bizarrely focussed on Jesus. Because it requires a reconstruction of a particular Evangelists’ theologies that seems to require more confidence.

          The gospels don’t read like ‘just happen to be like that but made up’ to me, so shrugging alone is a cop-out, and the mythicist constructions seem to me to require an assumption of greater historical knowledge. So yeah, seems very unlikely to get where we are based on ‘agenda of fabricators’ without positing rather strange agendas.

          Having said all that, I’ll reiterate that I’m rather more minimalist than many about what I think we can know. I’m mostly at the level of: birth in Nazareth, baptism by John, apocalyptic preaching, parables, exorcism, healing, temple incident at passover, crucifixion as things that are individually likely enough to be useful on their own.

          • I don’t see anything inherently bizarre about skepticism concerning Jesus, although some iterations of it may be. Most people from the ancient world who left a discernible mark in the historical record were either literate or prominent people or they did things during their lives that brought them to the attention of literate or prominent people. We shouldn’t expect to have much certainty about the life of an illiterate peasant who led his life unnoticed beyond a small band of illiterate peasant followers. Moreover, Jesus’ historical footprint is only discernible as a result of supernatural events that were believed to have taken place after his death. I think that puts him in a unique category.

            As a minimalist, I assume you take the position that the historicity of most of the material found in the gospels cannot be affirmed. I agree that the elements you have identified are the most likely to be historical, but I don’t see that they are exempt from the problems that plague all the material that you do not affirm. I don’t see why the fabrication of the former requires one to posit any stranger or different agenda than does the fabrication of the latter.

            I remain unpersuaded by the mythicist reconstruction as well, but I think I still have to allow for the possibility that nothing of the historical person survived the mythologization process. The earliest source is Paul, who seems to have associated a vision he had with the deceased leader of a cult to which he had been opposed. Paul doesn’t seem to have had any interest in the earthly activities of that person because it was only God’s post-mortem exaltation of him that mattered theologically. As a result, I cannot see any way to establish the extent (if any) to which Paul’s understanding goes back to the actual historical person or his actual followers. I think it follows that I cannot be certain that the gospel stories came out of a tradition that went back to Jesus’ actual followers.

          • Ian

            I think there’s a distinction to be made between historical events and earlier claims. I think there’s very good reason to believe that the events I identified are pre-biblical. I.e. the earliest historical records we have of them (Mark, mainly, plus Matt/Luke) are attempts to contextualise and interpret pre-existing claims/material/knowledge. I’m not just talking about a ‘criteria of embarrassment’, but more a ‘criteria of theological awkwardness’. So whenever they arose, they are more primitive than many of the other claims, particularly the supernatural stuff, even the resurrection.

            That’s as far as we can get, I think. So to the extent you might say it puts us no more at a historical Jesus, I think you’re right: there’s a further step needed there (which I’ll come back to). But to the extent you appear to be claiming that that information is on the same level as the rest of the supernatural claims, I disagree strongly.

            So that further step: my assumption of historicism comes from the observations that those primitive elements are far more human than not. The gospels are better read as an attempt to mitigate and theologise those primitive claims than they are of trying to present them alongside the theology. Given that, the loci of reasonable possible Christian origins is rather diminished, enough that I’m very happy to say I think it more likely than not that the constraints arise from the actual life of the historical Jesus.

  • Nick Gotts

    we rarely if ever have a quote from Hitler, for instance, misattributed
    to Mother Teresa. Because we have a sense of the gist of Mother Teresa,
    fake quotes tend to be in the general ballpark of who she was

    Their speaking styles were certainly different, but if they’d happened to be contemporaries, we can be pretty certain she’d have been sucking up to him just as she did to other vile tyrants.

    • charlesburchfield

      keep grinding that axe nick! I love you mang! (*|:D

      • Nick Gotts

        I don’t think you’re fooling anyone but yourself with that claim.

        • charlesburchfield

          every time I read your posts I wonder what you’ve been thru w church & christians that has made you so angry that you continue get in peeps faces w your contempt, distrust & disgust. I just want you to know that I do love you & continue to pray for a way to open up for you to know what being faith based rather than fear based is like. right now I’m going to ask a support prayer team to pray for you and me and the peeps that continue to follow the blogs you & I follow that we mite continue to have something together that’s humane, honest, real & loving. (*|:-o

          • Nick Gotts

            People who are constantly claiming to love others, particularly those they have never met, are like people who constantly declare their honesty: their assurances are worth nothing – or rather, somewhat less than nothing.

            right now I’m going to ask a support prayer team to pray for you and me…

            OK, that seems like a fair division of labour, given our respective abilities – you pray for both of us, and I’ll think for both of us!

          • charlesburchfield

            have you ever looked into 12step programs? (*|:-o

          • Nick Gotts

            This kind of insulting remark* is very revealing – it shows quite clearly that you no more love me, than I love you.

            *Yes, I’ve made insulting remarks to you as well – but I’m not pretending I love you.

          • charlesburchfield

            not meant as an insult button. 12 steps were my salvation cuz I couldn’t relate to Church. looking at your profile I note you’re having some kind of meltdown today. talk to me! I do love you and nothing you can do or say can stop me from loving you. (*|:-o

          • Nick Gotts

            The crass attempt at internet diagnosis – not your first – reveals that you’re either a liar or a fool – or of course, and most likely, both. I am not having any sort of “meltdown” (you don’t, of course, provide any evidence that I am), and if I was, you are about the last person I would consider turning to for help. Nor would I consider the “12 steps” garbage, and you are a remarkably poor advertisement for the brand.

            Incidentally, if you love someone, or delude yourself into believing that you do, but discover that they don’t believe you and find your reiteration of that claim offensive, you stop repeating it. So every time you repeat it, you reinforce the evidence that you do not.

          • charlesburchfield

            my loving you transcends any conflict you may imagine you have with me! (*|:-}

          • Nick Gotts

            You know now, if you didn’t before, that I find your claims to love me offensive. Therefore, you are deliberately choosing to offend me, in a way which cannot on any construction be of any benefit whatever to me. You would not do this if you loved me. I deduce that you are a shameless liar.

            Moreover, you are one without an original or interesting idea in your head. If Disqus had a blocking mechanism, I would block you, as I would have no fear of missing anything of the slightest interest. As it is, I will not respond to any future comment of yours, and will do my best not to read them.

          • charlesburchfield

            That ok I am not offended. Life is long & I look forward to seeing YOUR posts on the blogs I follow. You’ve heard of agape love haven’t you? That’s what I mean by loving you coo! (*|:-o

  • arcseconds

    have you encountered the great legal theorist Denuto on ‘the vibe’, James?

    • I hadn’t seen that – thank you!

      • arcseconds

        It’s from The Castle, which is a delightful movie, and one I highly recommend.

  • John MacDonald

    It was common practice in antiquity for “biographers” to invent speeches by their subjects. These speeches are generally considered to offer windows into the personalities of those personages, even though the speeches are “merely” invented.

  • RbtRgus

    “I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law–”

    There are some bad Jesus quotes. Bad Jesus!! Bad Boy!!

    • charlesburchfield

      having grown up in an alcoholic system & an alcoholic family I see the wisdom in Jesus saying this! (*|:D

      • RbtRgus

        He doesn’t say it’s limited to abusive families.

        • charlesburchfield

          you are correct sir! he doesn’t qualify it. Never the less expierientially it has helped me over the years to feel better about leaving my abusive family & community & starting a new transformation as I shed my codependance for the freedom of being set free! (*|:D

          • RbtRgus

            That is good. The Buddhists would call that non-attachment. Of course, Buddha was around before Jesus, so it is not an original Christian idea, but I’m glad this type of thinking helped you.