The Human Journey
The Axial Age

Post-Axial Thought


The Historical Jesus

Pages 12

Painting of John the Baptist by Titian
Painting of John The Baptist. By
Tiziano Vecelli or “Titian” from 1542.

It has often been speculated that both John the Baptist and Jesus were at one time members of this Essene community. They were definitely figures of this period. Professor John Dominic Crossan gives a description of their different roles, which seem to reflect Professor White’s description of the two Messaiahs above:

The difference I see between John the Baptist and Jesus is, to use some fancy academic language, that John is an apocalyptic eschatologist. An eschatologist is somebody who sees that the problem of the world is so radical that it’s going to take some kind of divine radical solution to solve it. That type, for example, is John. God is going to descend in some sort of a catastrophic event to solve the world. There is another type of eschatology. And that's what I think Jesus is talking [about]. I’m going to call it ethical eschatology. That is the demand that God is making on us, not us on God so much as God on us, to do something about the evil in the world. In an apocalypse, as it were, we are waiting for God. And in ethical eschatology, God is waiting for us. That’s, I think, what Jesus is talking about in the Kingdom of God. It’s a demand for us to do something in conjunction with God. It is the Kingdom of God. But it’s the Kingdom on earth of God.” (John Dominic Crossan).

“Who do men say that I am?”

In the gospel of Mark (8:27), Jesus asks: “Who do men say that I am?” At the time of writing this, we googled “Who Was Jesus?” and came up with 44,800,000 entries!

Originally, there were likely hundreds of accounts of Jesus by people who told and retold his stories, parables and sayings. There were probably also dozens of accounts written about him and his work. It is impossible now to arrive at an answer to this question to satisfy each of us: scholars, religious people of all denominations and seekers of all persuasions. We must all come to our own speculations or conclusions.

Matthew (5:17-18) stresses that Jesus was part of a continuous tradition of Jewish teachers that go back to the prophets, to Abraham, Moses, Isaiah and most recently before him, to Hillel.

“The Prophet did not necessarily foretell the future although some did.  He was first and foremost a proclaimer of God's truth with a social message. … Prophets were men who by the nature of the profession placed upon them were men of truth.  They were extremists and consequently they told the absolute truth.  They brooked no excuse, no compromise; they thundered their passionate denunciations and their demand for absolute justice. All of this can be said about Jesus.” (Rabbi Moshe Reiss).

Eminent scholars such as A.N. Wilson in Jesus: A Life, and Geza Vermes in Jesus the Jew also firmly place Jesus in the Jewish prophetic tradition, as does David Flusser of the Jerusalem School for the Study of the Synoptic Gospels: “He represented a humanistic trend in Judaism that was then developing out of the liberal wing of the School of Hillel.”

The twentieth century humanitarian Albert Schweitzer, and other more contemporary scholars like Bart Ehrman,  claim that Jesus can best be understood as a first century apocalyptic prophet, who fully expected the end of the world was at hand when God would come down and throw out existing corrupt institutions and impose a new order on the earth: the Kingdom of God.

In contrast, others claim that Jesus’ life and teaching were influenced by Buddhism, citing close parallels between early Buddhist texts, the “Q” materials and the extensive penetration of Indian culture and ideas into the Bible lands up to the time of Jesus.  Scholars such as Burton Mack and Dominic Crossan conclude that Jesus is best described as a Jewish Cynic. He lived at a time when these philosophical teachers were active in the area, and the Greek-oriented city Sepphoris was not far from Nazareth. Like the Cynics, Jesus does seem to have been an itinerant teacher who questioned not only authority, but hypocrisy everywhere and anywhere.

Such parallels, though useful as an aid to understanding what these Teachers of Wisdom might have in common,  in the specifics may be merely coincidental, since parallel traditions may emerge in different cultures  without direct influence, just as they appear to have done in the Axial Age.

Still others, such as S.G.F. Brandon in Jesus and the Zealots (first published in 1967) picture Jesus as a politically aware activist vigorously working against the Palestinian “Establishment” which, of course, were the Roman occupying forces and Jerusalem’s collaborationist Jewish aristocracy. As a champion of the poor, says Brandon, Jesus went so far as to lead an abortive raid on the Temple treasury to dispossess its money-hungry directors. The raid, disguised in the Gospels as a one-man assault on the profane money changers, quickly led to Jesus’ denunciation by the high priests and then to his Roman trial.

Brandon claims that far from dying ignominiously as a Jew rejected by his nation, Jesus in effect died a patriot’s death, a rebel-martyr for his people. Jesus is represented as urging his hearers to repentance because only through this and the observance of the Torah would the Jewish people reach a state of moral and spiritual readiness for the coming of the kingdom of God. “How he conceived of his own role in this is not clear. An interminable discussion revolves around the meaning of the expression ‘Son of man’ and Jesus’ use of it, and no certain answer can be given to the question whether he considered himself to be the Messiah; that his followers so regarded him is, however, beyond serious doubt.”