Chapter

The Historical Jesus

Robert Carroll and Stephen Prickett

in The Bible: Authorized King James Version

Published in print February 1998 | ISBN: 9780192835253
Published online April 2009 |

Series: Oxford World's Classics

The Historical Jesus

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There are many midrashic and literary factors at work in the gospels.102 Perhaps made by people who had never known Jesus, and very likely based on fragments of traditions, sayings, memories, and legends handed down or invented in circumstances now beyond our recovery, these highly constructed writings, together with the non-canonical material, constitute most of what we know about Jesus. Like all major works of history, they bear the imprint of their authors' creative imaginations, and we read them now through a theological tradition quick to read into the pages of the New Testament beliefs constructed in the centuries after Jesus. Early traditions about Jesus are still important, however much the search for the historical Jesus becomes a chimera of biblical scholarship.103 Not surprisingly, the half-glimpsed, enigmatic, but dynamic character of Jesus, whose words and deeds have echoed down the centuries of Western and Byzantine civilizations to our own time, remains an enigma. Yet what we have are a series of attempts to describe a figure who, over the centuries, has become one of the most formative characters in human history. Between one- and two-billion adherents of Christianity trace the origins of their religion back to the Jewish rabbi, Jesus. The organizations created by his followers gave rise to the monumental Church of the middle ages and to many ecclesiastical forms throughout the world: Roman Catholic, North African, Coptic, Greek and Russian Orthodox. Centres, such as Byzantium and Rome, were followed after the Reformation by Geneva, Amsterdam, Edinburgh, and Canterbury. Moreover, strange as it may be to compare the Jesus of the gospels with the dogmatic Christ of councils and creeds, the original figure is never quite lost. Like Socrates and Buddha, Jesus never wrote a word, yet as the writer of the Fourth Gospel observed: ‘And there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written’ (John 21: 25). John, it seems, wrote better than he knew. If Jesus, who had lived and died a Jew, did not create a new religion or denounce the Judaisms of his day, his earliest followers proclaimed his death and resurrection among non-Jews in terms befitting those new cultural contexts. In time the main Christian communities developed and flourished in non-Jewish (that is, heathen) environments. Eventually communities of Jews and Christians came into fierce conflict across the Roman Empire, and whatever the Jewish origins of the Jesus movement may have been, the two distinctive sets of communities parted company. With the development of belief in Jesus as God among communities of Christian converts from heathenism, the Jewishness of Jesus faded further into the background. Traditions of the Jewish rejection of Jesus made worse the growing antagonism between Christians and Jews, and when Christians came to power in the Roman Empire in the fourth century, the writing was on the wall for Jews. The rest is history.

Chapter.  1045 words. 

Subjects: Religious Studies ; Biblical Studies

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