The beginnings: a Jewish Messianic sect

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Can we know what Jesus was really like? What did the apostles believe? What does modern historical research reveal about Jesus?

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Professor Keith Ward


The foundation of the gospel faith is that in Jesus God encounters us, calls us to give up all to follow him, heals, liberates and forgives us, exposes our hypocrisies and self-deceits, and thus both judges us and makes us whole. Jesus incorporates us into a new community, ruled by God. He gave his life for us, he overcame death in his own person, and he will in the end eliminate evil and suffering and raise us to live with him forever. He gives us the gift of liberation from evil and life with God, as we surrender our lives to him.

I have begun with this positive statement to make it clear that I think the gospel of Jesus still has the power to speak to us and to change our lives today. We now, two thousand years later, can share with the first generation of Christian disciples this faith that God encounters us in and through Jesus, and unites us to the divine life.


In view of this, it may seem unnecessary and even presumptuous to speak of ‘re-thinking Christianity’. Is the Christian faith not something clear and unchangeable, which might need to be re-stated again and again, but which certainly does not need to be re-thought? However, Christians have hardly ever been content to stay with the basic faith that I have just expressed. They cannot resist providing additional beliefs and interpretations. And these further beliefs turn out to differ from one another enormously. If you look around the world at the varieties of Christian faith that exist, from traditional Roman Catholicism to the Society of Friends (Quakers), from Coptic Christians swinging censors in Egypt to Pentecostalists speaking in tongues in Brazil, it soon becomes very obvious that there are many different sorts of Christian faith – hundreds of them, in fact.

It is a peculiar fact that many of these varieties think that theirs is the only real or true Christianity, and that all the others are mistaken in some way. But I shall simply start from the evident fact that there exist hundreds of different varieties of Christian faith. Not only that, but most of them have changed considerably over the years. The Roman Catholic Church, whose leader, the Pope, in the fourteenth century claimed absolute authority to crown and depose all earthly kings (in the Papal BullUnam Sanctam, of 1302), would be much more likely now to insist on a separation of church and state. The Church of England, which forbade the wearing of vestments in the years after the Reformation, now has many ministers splendidly arrayed in full High Mass kit every Sunday. These are just two small examples, but it would be easy to find examples from almost any Christian church. Beliefs and practices change over time. It would be very odd if they did not.

So there are many forms of Christian faith, and they change in many ways. There is not just one Christian faith, which has remained unchanged ever since it started. But is there perhaps an unchanging core underlying all these differences? That is one question that lies at the basis of these reflections.

To answer it, I will need to go back to the beginning of Christian faith, and at least we know where and when that was. It was presumably in Galilee and Judea, when Jesus of Nazareth was first believed to be ‘the Christ’, the Greek word for the Messiah, by his disciples. The event is even recorded in the Gospels, when Peter, in response to Jesus’ question, ‘Who do you say that I am?’ is recorded to have said, ‘The Messiah of God’ (Luke 9, 20). Strangely, Luke records that Jesus then sternly commanded Peter not to tell anyone. But there, surely, we have the origin of Christian faith, belief that Jesus is God’s anointed.

That seems clear enough. Unfortunately, it is not clear at all. A critical historian, looking at Luke’s text, might suspect that Luke, or his source, had just made up this episode. There are plenty of critical historians who doubt whether Jesus made, or was aware of, any claim to be the Messiah. Since Luke’s Gospel was probably written at least 50 years after the death of Jesus, though it depends on sources that are much earlier, there was plenty of time for early Christians to have invented all sorts of stories about Jesus that were only loosely related to the facts. We know that Luke thought Jesus was the Messiah, and that he thought Peter thought so too. But might this not have been a belief that grew up after the death of Jesus, or perhaps one with which Jesus was rather uncomfortable (thus his command to Peter to keep quiet)?

And this is the problem.

There have been at least three ‘quests for the historical Jesus’, attempts to say what Jesus was really like, underneath what most historians would say were the probably embroidered and partly conflicting accounts in the Gospels. The most famous is perhaps that of Albert Schweitzer, in the book that gave the quest its name. He thought that Jesus was a prophet, preaching that the world would end very soon, within one generation. But Jesus was wrong, and so we certainly cannot today take Jesus’ beliefs as a reliable guide to truth. One current view is that of John Dominic Crossan, who contends that Jesus was a cynic philosopher, teaching renunciation of possessions and family, and a peripatetic life, who was largely misunderstood by his later followers.

The fact is that there are still as many different theories about what Jesus was really like as there are varieties of Christianity. Indeed, there are more, if you include all the non-Christian views. Of course all these theories agree that the Gospels – our only real source of information about Jesus – cannot be taken as historically accurate without a good deal of further argument. And we must agree that, if we are looking at the Gospels as historical documents, any historian would be justified in treating them with the critical suspicion that is appropriate for any ancient document.

The best way to approach the gospels is to possess a synopsis of the gospels, and read all the Gospels in parallel, side by side, to note similarities and differences between them, and to try to account for the sometimes quite large differences of emphasis and presentation between them.

I will take one quite important passage and compare the treatment of it in the four gospels, in order to assess what historical value we can give the gospels. I will take the account of the women visiting the tomb of Jesus. I will divide the accounts into sections, to make comparison easier. It will be seen that there are marked disagreements, which reflect in part the different interests of the gospel editors. The conclusion will be that the differences are marked enough to render the exact original history uncertain. So the critical historian is justified in thinking that the historical Jesus might not be just like the Jesus of the gospels. However, it will also become clear that the gospels were not meant to be literally exact historical records. So I will argue that it is reasonable to take them as generally reliable records of a person who had a unique unity with God, and who understood his life as realising a Messianic vocation. And that, I suggest, is all that Christian faith requires of our knowledge of the historical Jesus.

The accounts go as follows:

· In Mark 16, 1-8, A. three women, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Salome went to the tomb with spices, B. when the sun had risen. C. They saw that the stone had been rolled back. D. Then they saw a young man in white E. who told them to tell the disciples that he would go before them to Galilee. F. But they said nothing to anyone.

· In Matthew 28, 1-8, A. two women, Mary Magdalene and ‘the other Mary’ went to the tomb B. before dawn. C. They saw an earthquake and an angel rolling away the stone, and the guards trembled at the sight. D. The angel sat on the stone E invited them into the tomb, and told them to tell the disciples he would be seen in Galilee. F. They ran and did so.

Matthew’s account differs in almost every detail from Mark’s, though they agree that some women visited the tomb and found it empty, and were told by someone to expect appearances of Jesus in Galilee. Matthew has heightened the miraculous elements in the story. The angel is definitely not just a young man, but descends from heaven with an earthquake. The women tell the disciples at once, and Matthew says that they are joyful as well as fearful. The story in his hands is less cryptic and puzzling than in Mark

· Luke 24. 1-12 records that A. a number of women, including Mary Magdalene and the mother of James, went with spices to the tomb B. at dawn. C. They saw the stone had been rolled back (as in Mark). D. They entered the tomb, and two men in white appeared. E. They do not say that Jesus will appear in Galilee (in Luke’s gospel Jesus appears only in or near Jerusalem ). F. The women told this to the disciples, who did not believe them.

Luke agrees with Matthew and Mark that Mary Magdalene and James’ mother were there, that the tomb was empty, and that there was some sort of apparition, communicating that Jesus had been raised from death. But Luke puts a longer speech into the mouths of the ‘two men’, and does not speak of Jesus appearing in Galilee. This reflects his general tendency to write poetic literary pieces (it is Luke who gives us the songs of Mary, Zechariah and Simeon). He also makes Jerusalem a more important focal point in his telling of the story of Jesus.

· John 20, 1-13, has A. Mary Magdalene come to the tomb alone B. while it was still dark. C The stone was already rolled away. F. There is no angelic appearance at that point, but she ran back to tell Peter and the ‘beloved disciple’. Later, back at the tomb, D. she saw two angels in white, and then she saw Jesus, whom she took to be a gardener.

John has Mary Magdalene, an empty tomb, and angelic appearances. Otherwise, his account is quite different from that of the other three gospels. It concentrates on an appearance of Jesus himself to Mary Magdalene, not recorded elsewhere.

The main point here is to see that the gospel accounts of the same event are different. So they are not literally accurate, but more like different memories collected from different sources, and worked into a larger narrative, the shape of which partly dictates the account that is given. Mark is abrupt and puzzling (Mark’s original gospel, or the original text we have of it, ends here). Matthew is concerned with supernatural wonders. Luke gives a literary flourish, and does not hesitate to omit mention of Galilee, though presumably he had heard of such appearances. John comes from a quite different angle, and is mainly interested in Mary Magdalene as the first person to see the risen Lord.

This short example shows how the gospels present differing perspectives on a core of events, accounts of which have been passed on in different oral traditions. The events as we have them have already been interpreted twice, first by oral re-telling, and then by the gospel writers. So what we have is not how things actually happened, but how different people interpreted the disclosure of God that came to them, or their teachers, through events of Jesus’ life, accounts of which had been passed on orally for a number of years.

The emphasis is on diversity – there are four different accounts - interpretation – each account is from a distinctive perspective - and disclosure – each is meant to evoke a disclosure of the presence and purpose of God. There is no concern for unanimity, matter of fact dispassionate recounting and strict literal historical accuracy. This is enormously important for considering the character of Christian revelation in the Gospels. It is not one coherent literal account of the life of Jesus. Gospel revelation lies in a number of different interpretations of or reflective responses to disclosures of God that occurred in and through Jesus’ life and teachings, accounts of which were treasured because they continued to evoke such disclosures.

Recognising that we are really investigating what the different Gospel writers thought Jesus was like, or how they wanted to present Jesus to others, what then could we say about the historical Jesus? We need to study the different gospels in detail. This has, of course, been done by many Biblical commentaries, and there is no point in doing again here what has been done so often. So what I shall do is to take one standard commentary on the Bible – the Oxford Bible Commentary (ed. John Barton and John Muddiman, OUP, 2001) – as a reliable guide to what most contemporary Biblical scholars would say about the Biblical writings. The contributors to this commentary include Baptists, Anglicans, Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholics, so they are not biased in one direction. The wide degree of consensus among them is testimony to the real gains that have been made in Biblical scholarship over the last 150 years, despite the many divergent interpretations that remain possible.

This reflects the great amount of historical and literary analysis and research that has been carried out, which brings out much more clearly the original contexts and complex layers of meaning in the Biblical texts. No theological assessment of Christian faith can be made intelligently without taking the findings of this Biblical scholarship into account. I would go so far as to say that any exposition of Biblical teaching that fails to refer to and use the conclusions of the scholarly community cannot be taken seriously as an account of the ‘true meaning’ of the texts.

Bearing that in mind, and given that the gospels are the only evidence we have for the life and teachings of Jesus, what sort of picture of Jesus would we come up with? What picture of Jesus do the synoptic gospels, the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, present?

I am sure there will be more than one picture we might have. But we would certainly have to say that Jesus was believed to be the Messiah, so that’s a relief! But what does that mean? There might be a hundred different meanings of the term ‘Messiah’, and in modern Judaism there are. One place to begin is to look at the Infancy Narratives of Matthew and Luke (there are none in Mark and John). Jesus is said to be the ‘son of God’, to save people from sin (Mt. 1, 21), to be King of the Jews (Mt. 2,2), to be the glory of Israel and light of the gentiles (Lk. 2, 32).

His job, according to the Song of Zechariah, is to deliver Israel from her enemies (Lk., 1, 78,79). People are depicted as looking for the liberation of Jerusalem (Lk.2, 38) and Israel from their enemies, for a King of the royal house of David, who will be the ruler of a free Israel, a righteous and peaceful people, with a Temple to which all the people of the earth will go.

The Messiah is King, or ruler, of Israel, able to forgive sin, to punish the enemies of Israel, and to bring peace and freedom to the nation. But there is something odd about his rule. He will ‘rule over the house of Jacob for ever’ (Lk. 1, 33), and his rule will never end. This is to be more than a political revolution. It will transform the conditions of human existence.

Other parts of the synoptic gospels spell this out in more detail. In that transformation, all wickedness and evil will be destroyed – ‘unless you repent, you will all perish’ (Lk. 12, 40). On a cataclysmic day of divine judgment, the righteous will shine like the sun, but the wicked will be cast into a furnace of fire (Mt. 13, 40-43). The Son of man will come in glory with his angels, and the twelve apostles will rule over the twelve tribes of Israel (Mt. 19, 28). When will this be? Jesus, according to Matthew, says that some of those who hear him speak will ‘see the Son of man coming with power in the Kingdom’ (Mt. 16, 28).

It is important to note that when these words were written down Jesus had been dead for some years. What was expected was that he would return in glory with angels, punish the wicked and call the righteous into his Kingdom, centred on a new Jerusalem Temple, with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and the prophets, under the rule of the twelve apostles. Israel will be the ruler of this new world, and its members will be the righteous and those who have repented and been forgiven by God.

The picture is very much centred on Israel, and it seems to stress the importance of moral righteousness, rather than of faith. There is not much said about gentiles, and the main emphasis is on the liberation and cleansing of Israel, though it seems that righteous and penitent gentiles will be admitted to the renewed Jewish community, and the wicked expelled, because of their good or bad deeds, however much faith or belief they claim to have (Mt. 25).

The good news that Jesus proclaimed was that God is coming soon to establish the liberation of Israel, to execute judgment on all hypocrites and oppressors. Now, before that ‘day of wrath’, he offers forgiveness to all who repent, and he promises a restoration of a renewed and purified Jewish faith, when Torah will be kept to the letter (Mt. 5, 18, 19) and in its deepest spiritual sense.

Jesus heals, liberates (exorcises demons) and forgives sins. By these acts, and by his amazing and total power over material nature, the wind and the waves, he shows that the kingdom is already near (‘If it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you’ Lk. 11, 20).

The kingdom comes near in the person of Jesus. It will grow rapidly until the harvest, when good and bad will be separated forever. For Jesus did not come to bring peace, but to bring ‘division’ (Lk. 12, 51), to divide good from bad, the penitent, humble, poor observers of Torah from the hypocritical legalists and the rich. The righteous will enter the kingdom in any case. Jesus’ vocation is to call sinners to repent (Lk. 5, 31), and his mission is only to Israel (Mt. 15, 24).

It is hard to miss the note of urgency in this message. ‘The time is fulfilled’ (Mk. 1, 15). ‘The kingdom is among you’ (Lk. 17, 21). ‘Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees’ (Mt. 3, 10). So the writers of the synoptic gospels wait for the coming of the Son of man in glory very soon – the day or hour is not known (Mt. 25, 13), and he will come unexpectedly (Mt. 24, 50), but it will be in their own generation (This generation will not pass away before all these things take place’; Mark 13, 30). They expect a restoration of Jerusalem, a kingdom of those who are righteous and of the penitent who are forgiven, and the expulsion and torment of all the unjust (the vast majority, it seems – ‘the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few’, Mt. 7, 14). In the new Jerusalem, the 12 apostles will rule the 12 tribes, the prophets and patriarchs will be raised to eat and drink in the kingdom, and though many gentiles will be present, it will basically be a Jewish monarchy under the rule of a transfigured and glorified Jesus, who is the ‘Son of man’.

This seems to be the faith, or part of the faith, that is expressed in the synoptic gospels. I do not think it is possible for anyone to hold this faith today, in the exact form in which it is written. To put it bluntly, in that generation Jerusalem was destroyed and the Jews scattered throughout the earth. These Messianic hopes were confounded by history.

The extraordinary thing is that this did not destroy Christian faith, faith in Jesus as Messiah. But – and here is the vital point – it did change the nature of that faith in major ways. At the very start of Christian history, there was a radical change in Christian beliefs and expectations. Far from being a changeless faith – ‘once delivered to the saints’ – it changed sharply and unexpectedly in its earliest years, in the very first generation.

There may have been changes in faith before the gospels were written. Many Biblical scholars think there were, and that the synoptic gospels are themselves re-writings of earlier beliefs, which may have been both more varied than and quite different in their Messianic views. The non-canonical writings give some hints of this, but we are limited to guess-work, since there is no hard evidence of earlier beliefs. But we are on firm ground in saying that the Messianic beliefs of the synoptic writers – an immanent restoration of the twelve tribes and of true Torah in Jerusalem, under the kingship of Jesus – were rapidly adjusted in quite basic ways, as generations came and went, and Israel was wiped off the political map.

There are five main ways in which this strand of belief in the synoptic gospels was adjusted. First, when the first generation of disciples had all died, it was clear that the return of the Son of man in glory was not something that was going to happen before the apostles had died. The apostles all died, and that belief had to be revised.

Second, the kingdom would not be the return of the twelve tribes to Jerusalem under the rule of the twelve apostles, and the liberation of Jerusalem from Roman occupation. The Romans destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple, and the Jews were scattered throughout the world.

Third, the kingdom would not consist in the restoration of Torah in all its fullness for all those who were truly righteous or at least truly penitent. In fact quite soon (mostly due to the arguments of Paul), Torah was abandoned by Christians, and emphasis came to be placed on faith in Jesus rather than in rigorous moral commitment to justice and the love of God.

Fourth, Jesus was probably not going to return to earth with angels and be a political ruler to whom the whole world would pay homage. History was going to continue for at least a few thousand years.

And fifth, there was probably not going to be a sudden cataclysmic ending of history, an actual day when the dead would be raised and judgment would be executed on living and dead. There would hardly be room on earth for all the dead.

Christians now, two thousand years later as I write, have no option but to give up the first of these beliefs. Fundamentalist Christians claim to believe that the coming in glory may still happen at any moment. But in doing so they are giving up the whole synoptic stress that the time of Jesus was virtually the end of historical time. They are revising the synoptic belief in a major way. They are certainly not preserving unchanged the synoptic belief that Jesus would return before the death of the last disciple. They do not believe what the apostles believed.

The second belief is also historically obsolete, and Christianity has long since abandoned any thought of being a movement for the renewal of Judaism. It has become a totally separate religion, often regrettably and shamefully hostile to its parent faith.

The third belief has been discarded as an almost wholly gentile church came into existence, based on faith in the redeeming death of Jesus and not primarily on moral renewal. It can be a shock to modern Christians to discover that the theme of moral renewal is more prominent in the synoptic gospels than the theme of redemption through the death of Jesus – though of course the synoptic gospels do stress that following Jesus by renouncing all possessions and family ties (not something that the modern churches usually require) is of primary importance.

The fourth and fifth beliefs have not been definitively rendered obsolete, as the first three have been. But the churches have on the whole come to make a distinction between political and spiritual rule, and to accept that political life will continue in accordance with its own principles, while the task of the churches is to preach a ‘spiritual kingdom’ that will leave politics mostly untouched. They do not expect Jesus to be an actual King in Jerusalem.

The notion of Judgment Day has also been displaced from a precise time in history. Considering the vast number of the dead, who could not be accommodated on the earth, the Judgment is normally taken by theologians to symbolise some state beyond history in which humans will be faced with what they have made of their lives, and with how they really stand before God.

What the churches have done to these fourth and fifth beliefs suggests a possibility for re-interpreting the teaching of the synoptic gospels. Jesus is not a political King, it may be said. He is a spiritual king, the ruler of human hearts. His kingdom is not part of the world; it is a fellowship of the spirit. It is hidden from the world, growing secretly within human lives and bearing fruit in lives of active love. This spiritual reality is real, but it is not physical. The king is not a physical person in a physical court. Those are images for the subordination of the human spirit to the divine Spirit, as it was embodied in Jesus. The images are of physical things. But they symbolise realities of inner experience, of the relation of the soul to God, and of the actions of God in relation to the soul.

At the end of history, which will surely come, though perhaps in thousands or even millions of years, all human deeds will be made clear before God. Then, not on earth but in a spiritual realm, love will at last rule purely and solely in the community of those who have loved God truly. And those who have continued to reject God, if there are any, will be excluded from the divine life by their own choice. That is the great division, the ‘harvest’, of which Jesus speaks. But when it will be, what exactly it will be like, or who will be accepted in and who excluded from it, are things we cannot know.

Again, the images are of physical things. But what they symbolise is a reality that is not part of this physical universe. In that spiritual realm, there are real individuals, communities and relationships. It is not just a matter of what goes on in individual minds. But it is a realm beyond this physical space-time, a world in which the presence of God is clear, and inner feelings and attitudes are made clear. It is a realm of clarity, of transparency, when ‘the secrets of all hearts will be revealed’. On this account, Christian belief is about the reality of a spiritual world, beyond this physical cosmos, with different forms and structures, yet touching this world through personal experiences and responses

What is clear from this is that there are many beliefs in the synoptic gospels that we cannot share – where the kingdom would be, what it would do for Israel, when and how it would arrive. Christian faith has changed in important ways since the days of the apostles. But that does not mean such beliefs are always no more than mistakes. We must try to see what the spiritual reality was to which such beliefs may have pointed, and ask how they might be rephrased in the light of new knowledge or contexts in our own day. That is why it is important to re-think Christianity. Christian faith needs to be re-thought in each new place and generation. That is something that should be made absolutely clear by any reflective and informed study of the synoptic gospels and the form of their beliefs about the nature and coming of the kingdom of God. It is part of the essential nature of Christian faith that it should be open to constant change and creative exploration. That is precisely its genius and its strength.


© Professor Keith Ward, Gresham College, 15 November 2005


This event was on Tue, 15 Nov 2005

keith ward

Professor Keith Ward DD FBA

Professor of Divinity

Professor Keith Ward was the Gresham Professor of Divinity between 2004 and 2008.  He has a BA from the University of Wales, an MA from...

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