Monday, October 7, 2013

Did Jesus Really Exist? A Brief Defence of the "Historical Jesus" Theory

The problem with studying ancient history is that the sources we have for any given individual or event are invariably fragmentary, late (that is, penned many years after the fact) and ideologically compromised. This problem even exists in the ancient cultures that were relatively meticulous record-keepers, including those of ancient Egypt and Rome. The problem is even more exaggerated for the most part when studying the events of Roman Palestine, since almost everything we know about it comes from a single historian, Josephus, whose major works date to the latter part of the first century. Although Josephus does mention Jesus twice in passing (one of these passages is contested in terms of its authenticity), this leaves us with very little external, objective evidence with which to appraise the origins of Christianity.

As the "Jesus mythicists" will happily tell you (and I should emphasise that such individuals lie very much outside the boundaries of mainstream scholarship) this leaves us with only the gospels and other early Christian writings to work with. Because such works are the products of a particular theological mindset and for the most part lack even the pretence of historical objectivity, this leaves us with virtually no incontestable evidence for Jesus Christ or the early years of the movement which bore his name. For the mythicists, this lack of evidence proves decisive: if there is no unambiguous evidence for Jesus, then epistemological prudence must push us to the position that either Jesus did not exist, or - at best - that we cannot say he existed with any confidence at all. While those claiming such a position are undoubtedly correct about the paucity of quality evidence available to us (and you would do well to keep this in mind every time Jesus is discussed in this thread), I think the conclusion they have reached is a little extreme and ultimately ends up raising more problems than it solves.

In the first place, our demands for hard, incontrovertible evidence cannot be as strict in the study of ancient history as they are in the study of modern history. The reason, simply, is that - barring the occasional chance archaeological find - hard evidence for the events of the ancient world usually haven't been preserved down to the modern day. Even events that have been meticulously documented by quality historians - the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides, for example - must be treated with a skeptical eye, leaving us with comparatively little that can be said with absolute certainty about events of even this magnitude. The reason such accounts must be treated skeptically is because the standards of modern historiography - with the need for meticulous sourcing and the drive for objectivity - just weren't an active concern for ancient historiographers. Thucydides, for example, would invent speeches out of whole cloth for dramatic effect (we know this because he tells us). Herodotus - the father of history - believed strongly in the influence of the divine over the progress of history, and would attribute the incidence of many events to the intervention of the gods. In the Roman world, Tacitus was as much a moralist as a historian, happy to engage in rumour and innuendo if it would better serve his ends.

And so on and so forth: no matter where you look, no matter how important an ancient event was, we usually only know about it today through the lens of an ideologically compromised ancient historian or two... and that's if we're lucky. If paucity of evidence were enough to make dubious the people and events of ancient history, we could probably compress everything we know with absolute certainty about the ancient world into a single book. If we can dismiss the existence of Jesus on such grounds - a figure whose public life played out in perhaps the space of a year or less, in an obscure, undocumented part of the world in front of perhaps a few dozen followers - we should probably dismiss the existence of Pythagoras, Socrates, Hannibal and whole host of other ancient figures as well.

With respect to Jesus, it is clear that virtually everything we know about his life is to be found in the gospels. These books obviously cannot be read with naive credulity, as though they were written with the aim of faithfully transcribing actual historical events, but that is not to say that they do not contain nuggets of reliable history that can be mined from the text if we would only use the appropriate methodological tools. Just as we can't dismiss everything Herodotus has to say because he believes in divine intervention, or everything Thucydides has to say because he has a penchant for making things up, we shouldn't dismiss everything the gospels have to say simply because their construction was heavily influenced by the theology of their authors. I won't go into detail about the kind of historical-critical tools we can use to distinguish fact from fiction in the gospels (here is something I wrote earlier if you want such detail), but it can be admitted that we aren't left with much we can say about the historical Jesus with any certainty once these methods have been applied. In my opinion, we can say that Jesus was an itinerant prophet, preaching an eschatological message in Palestine in the first century. He was likely born in Galilee, was likely a disciple of John the Baptist, and he likely ended his ministry in Jerusalem. Here he attracted notoriety (perhaps due to his sacking of the Temple), was apprehended by the Romans (possibly with the assistance of the Jewish authorities) and sentenced to crucifixion by Pontius Pilate. For me, that is about all that I would assert about the life of Jesus with any confidence: everything else I have to say about the man comes with a big asterisk next to it.

On the other hand, it's still something. These facts go a long way to explaining the shape and nature of early Christianity as preserved in the writings of Paul and others. And this is the important fact I want to emphasise to the mythicists, or those who find their arguments compelling: it's all very well and good to assert that there is no direct evidence for Jesus, but it cannot be denied that there was a movement which existed in his name barely two decades after the putative date of his death. If you wish to deny the existence of Jesus, then it is surely incumbent upon you offer some coherent explanation for how this body of belief and literature could have possibly grown up in his name in such a short space of time. This is not an easy prospect, and I'm yet to encounter any compelling alternative theories to the one that Jesus of Nazareth existed as a flesh-and-blood human being.

Now, at this point most mythicists will play the usual denialist game of throwing up their hands and saying "hey man, just asking questions!", but I think this tactic is a little intellecually dishonest. It's easy to attack, with simply untethered skepticism, a historical theory that is working with necessarily fragmentary evidence, but it's much more difficult to posit alternative theories for the evidence available that are more probable and less convoluted than the original theory. The parallels here between Jesus mythicism and other denialist movements like those of the "climate change skepticism" or 9/11 truthers are pretty easy to identify, much as it may gall the mythicists. All denialist movements are ultimately ideologically motivated, and all involve the highly selective use (and criticism) of the available evidence. More importantly, as valid as denialist criticisms of the prevailing theory may occasionally be, their ability to present an alternative theory - which better explains the evidence, with a minimum of superfluous pluralities - is generally laughable. The mythicist case is no different.

Basically, regardless of the details, the rejection of a historical Jesus necessitates the positing of some other historical origin for the early Christian movement. This, for most mythicists, necessitates the claim that Christianity was actually created by Paul, who by this logic believed in a purely heavenly Jesus, and that the flesh-and-blood Jesus of history was a mere literary contrivance of the four subsequent gospel authors. Now I can't detail all the problems with this assumption, because we'd be here all day, but a few difficulties off the top of my head would include:

  • What was Paul's motivation for creating these beliefs? Where did he get the idea of a heavenly messiah, beaten and crucified in heaven to atone for our sins, when such beliefs had no precendents in either Jewish or Hellenic thought?
  • Why does the most natural reading of Paul appear to strongly suggest that Jesus was someone who walked on the face of the Earth, with not a single unambiguous indication anywhere in his letters of a belief a pre-resurrection heavenly Jesus?
  • What happened to such beliefs as time passed? Why does not a single Christian in the first two centuries of Christianity - or any time since then - profess belief in a Jesus who never walked the face of the Earth? How did Paul's theology get so thoroughly garbled and misunderstood so quickly?
  • Where did the gospel authors get their historical details concerning the life of Jesus from? Why would they have been motivated to situate a heavenly redeemer on the Earth if they didn't believe that to be the case? More to the point, if the gospel authors were merely inventing historical details to furnish the theology started by Paul, why (with the possible exception of Luke) do they show so little awareness of Pauline thought?
  • Why did none of the early critics of Christianity - who left almost no area of the faith immune from criticism - make no mention of the idea that Jesus never existed? Surely this would have been a useful polemic for them to use if it had ever existed in the cultural millieu of the time?

Now note that these are entirely contrived problems, unique to the theory of Jesus mythicism. The only inherent difficulty with the historical Jesus theory I can find concerns the lack of solid evidence, but the mythicist theory also has this problem (as I said, not a shred of incontestible evidence that a single Christian ever believed in the purely heavenly Jesus of the mythicist theory!) in addition to the problems listed above. So really, I can only ask which seems more plausible: the idea that there was an itinerant prophet called Jesus - the man that the early Christians wrote about - or the contrived and convoluted jumble of illogic found above? Even if we presume that the evidence for both claims is equal (something that I would dispute), which explanation is the most parsimonious, requiring the smallest number of pluralities and presumptions to explain the data? Without pre-empting your answer, I think it's telling that the mythicist explanation requires so many more leaps in logic or unfounded presumptions than the supposedly tenuous theory it seeks to replace. So, when someone asks me why I believe that there was a historical Jesus, this is the answer I give them: it's simply by far the most probable explanation for the available evidence that we have. Perhaps the day will come when a better alternative explanation offers itself, but until then the "Jesus as historical figure" theory is the only one to explain the data without resorting to fantastic assumptions or contorted chains of logic.

The History of the Bible: A Brief Overview

1500-1200 BC: Settlement

In the second half of the second millennium BC, the land of Canaan (a region comprising modern Israel, Palestine and parts of Syria, Lebanon and Jordan) was comprised of a series of loosely affiliated city states, distantly overseen by the Egyptian Empire. The culture was relatively homogeneous, and closely related culturally to other ancient near-Eastern polities. At some time in the 13th century BC, the entire region was thrown into chaos by a series of migratory movements originating (likely) somewhere to the north-west. Exactly what caused this upheaval of population is not known for certain, but we know from Egyptian records that a mass of immigrants (deemed "sea people" by the Egyptians) landed periodically all around the Mediterranean coast sometime in the 13th century BC, attacking many key Egyptian outposts - as well as key centres of other empires - in the process. The on-going battle between the Egyptians and the sea people needn't concern us further, but the importance for Israel and the subsequent Biblical narrative lies in what happened as a consequence on the modern day Gaza strip.

The "sea people" who landed here immediately embarked on a wave of destruction and displacement, a pattern attested to today by the archaeological record. This period marks a severe decline in the size and strength of the greater empires in the region (especially Mesopotamia and Egypt) and allowed for the emergence of smaller states. The sea people came to settle the Gaza strip (and became known to subsequent generations of Israelites as "Philistines") and the previous settlers were forced off this relatively fertile land by the coast into the more desolate, arid, mountainous region to the east. The land appears to have been largely uninhabited prior to this, so the new settlers - refugees from all over the Levant - were able to create settlements with relative ease. At this early stage we can't yet properly speak of an "Israel" (though we know from Egyptian records that there existed a people called "Israel" by around 1200) because the material culture of the region was still indistinguishable from the wider Canaanite material culture. Well, indistinguishable it so happens with one important difference: the almost total absence of pig bones in the proto-Israelite sites.

1200-1000 BC: Tribes and Judges

Little is known for sure about this part of the region's history. We know that the Egyptians were forced to withdraw their influence from the region due to their on-going battles with the "sea people", various states and other internecine conflicts, so we can imagine that the loose coalition of city states that existed in Canaan likely fragmented during this time. According to the Biblical accounts, this was a period of general lawlessness, violence, and competing tribal chiefs (or "judges" in the Biblical terminology). Although the historicity of most of the narratives in Judges have long been questioned by scholars, we can probably say that the Biblical account probably has more than an element of truth to it: as closely related as all the "tribes" in the region were (in terms of religion, language and culture) there can be little doubt that this was a period in which they jostled violently for land and power in the vacuum of Egyptian influence.

With respect to religion, we know that these proto-Israelites continued to believe in at least aspects of the Canaanite pantheon of gods: namely in El (the "head" god) and his 70 children. That El was integral to the religious culture of the proto-Israelites can be determined by his presence in theophoric titles (Isra-el, El-ijah etc.) and that it continued to be the name of "God" in the northern kingdom for centuries later. In the part of the Torah that is suspected to have been penned in the northern kingdom (that is, the E Source"), "Elohim" is the name used for God in the narrative until he reveals his name to be "YHWH" in Exodus (in truth, this appears to be a later attempt to conflate two different gods under the same name: even relatively late Biblical texts appear to suggest that YHWH was originally a member of a divine council of gods (elyon) - Dt. 32:8-9). In the south, however, the use of theophoric titles involving the name YHWH from a relatively early date suggests to us that YHWH was the patron god of Judah from the very beginning.

We are told that the land (or at least, it's northern part) was ruled by a man named "Saul" in the later part of this period, though exactly what territory he might have laid claim to is not clear. The Bible tells us of the continued presense of foreign tribes in the land nominally claimed by Saul, and we also know from Egyptian records that the land was terrorised during this period by large, well-organised groups of bandits known as "Hapiru". So, if the legitimacy of a state truly rests in its capacity to impose a monopoly of violence in the region under its control, we probably can't yet call the Israel of Saul a true state just yet. Scholars once tried to make a etymological link between the word "Hapiru" and the word "Hebrew" - which would raise the possibility that the Hebrews entered the land originally as marauding bandits - but this explanation seems to have fallen out of favour.

1000 BC - 930 BC: David and Solomon

Sometime in the late 11th century BC, it appears that a tribal chief named David achieved prominence in the southern regions, uniting enough of the population to take over Jerusalem and to establish a state there known as "Judah". According to the Biblical accounts, he was once in the employ of Saul, and after Saul's death found himself in control of a "united monarchy" - that is, both the northern and southern parts of the region (or Israel and Judah). Exactly how seriously we can take these Biblical accounts is unclear, and a matter of acrimonious debate among scholars. At one end there are those who suggest the Biblical account is almost entirely trustworthy, and the other end are those who would deny David ever existed (although the latter are now in shorter supply after the discovery of the Tel Dan Stele). I'm obviously not qualified to resolve this issue here, so I'll give you the facts as I see them and let you make your own mind up.

In the Biblical account, it has long been noted that David comes across as a very flawed and (consequently) a very human figure. Despite the reverence with which he was treated in later periods, the Biblical accounts are scarcely unequivocally positive in their descriptions of him. One potential explanation is that the material (in the Book of Samuel anyway) comes from two different sources: one from the north and one from the south, that were later redacted into a single narrative. The southern account is predictably more positive, because this is where David was based and where the majority of his support came from. The northern account is rather less effusive in its praise because there may have been a residual tendency to see David as something of a violent usurper: he did, after all, apparently murder Saul's son to end the northern monarchy and to stake his claim to the entire region. If this interpretation of the Biblical texts is correct, then it would seem to lend some support to the general historicity of the accounts because they have been preserved down two independent sources. That this is the case, though, is far from clear.

What we do know is that David was remembered for (firstly) siding with the Philistines against Saul and then fighting off and subduing the Philistines. Again, there is no inherent reason to suspect the truth of these accounts. Kings and states do not just appear from thin air: generally in history, the rallying of a people around a central leader - and their granting him the authority and resources to lead them - doesn't happen for no reason. Frequently, such centralising tendencies can occur in response to perceived threats, as happened in Greece, Rome, China and doubtless many other places. The emergence of David as the sole leader of once disparate groups of people may well have been a response to the perceived threat which emanated firstly from the northern kingdom of Saul and - subsequently - from the Philistines. That David switched allegiances should also not be a surprise: this was a frequent tactic employed by kings in the ancient world (to side with the more powerful force, regardless of past relationships with other powers) and it happened frequently in the subsequent history of Israel and Judah. The Biblical account has the benefit of explaining the emergence of a monarchy in the southern region and its subsequent history, so again, I see no reason to doubt it.

One question mark lies with just how "unified" the northern and southern parts of the kingdom were under King David. In fact, many scholars will deny (quite credibly) that there was ever a unified kingdom of Israel at all. They would argue that it was merely a work of theologically inspired propaganda created by later Judahites to justify their claims to the northern lands after the fall of Samaria in 722 BC. This might be taking it a little too far, but what can probably be said with confidence is that the south simply didn't have the resources to bring the north reliably under its control. Archaeologists put the population in Judah at the time of David at perhaps no more than a few thousand, and given the relatively poor agricultural conditions in the region it seems difficult to believe that Judah could have produced the economic surplus necessary to produce an army capable of subduing and occupying the much larger, much wealthier region to the north. In other words, whatever claims David might have had on the northern kingdom were surely somewhat tenuous, and the idea of a unified kingdom may well have been more an ideological claim than one realised in practice. That the unified kingdom lasted no longer than 70 years (according to the Biblical account) would surely be evidence of this.

Solomon is another enigmatic figure. In the Bible he was remembered for producing books of great wisdom (i.e. the Book of Proverbs) and incredible building feats, but it now seems likely that he produced neither. The Biblical wisdom literature probably dates (for the most part) to the post-exilic period (that is, four centuries after Solomon at the earliest) and the major building projects in the northern kingdom that the Bible attributes to Solomon were likely built during the time of the divided kingdom, when the the northern half was comparatively rich and powerful. The possibility remains that Solomon constructed the first Temple in Jerusalem (as tradition maintains), but the relevant archaeological site currently lies under the Al-Aqsa mosque so it is not possible to confirm for sure. What else we can say about Solomon with any certainty is unclear, but what is apparent is that after his death whatever fragile unity there was between the north and south fractured, and the next period of history is one that of the "divided monarchy".

930-734 BC: The Age of Israel

After the fracturing of the (potentially) once united kingdom of Israel, the two kingdoms went down quite separate paths. The northern kingdom (Israel) grew rapidly, developing a rich and relatively advanced material culture, as well as developing strong military and economic ties with neighbouring powers. Beginning perhaps with the great king Omri in the early 9th century BC (foreign powers referred to the northern kingdom as "the House of Omri"), the archaeological record tells us that this was a period of exorbitant building projects and extensive trade for Israel. We also know from the rather severe admonitions of the prophets active at the time - such as Isaiah, Hosea and Amos - that such plenitude also produced gross inequality and economic exploitation in the kingdom. The influence of foreign trade and diplomatic ties also brought the unwelcome (for these prophets) influence of foreign religious practices. The accounts of the northern kingdom in the Book of Kings (written by unsympathetic southern scribes some centuries later) paints a picture of abject moral depravity in the region at the time. Whatever the truth, the population in the north may have been as much as 8 times greater than that in the south, and the wealth of the regions are almost incomparable.

In the south at the time, this marks a period of almost total obscurity and lack of development. There is little evidence of literacy in the region (which would be a sign of economic development and a strong central state) and the land was likely populated almost exclusively by small, marginal agriculturalists and nomads. Although it seems that Judah was able to remain an independent state during this period - and there is no indication that they were required to pay tribute to their northern neighbours, despite the late attempt by the north to enforce one - there is simply no doubt that Judah was the little brother in this partnership. But for the intervention of foreign powers, it likely would have stayed this way, and Judaism, Christianity and the Bible - at least in any recognisable forms - would never have had to chance to emerge.

734 - 592 BC: Assyria and The Fall of Israel

At the peak of their strength, the Israelites made the ill-fated decision to stand with the city of Damascus against the now powerful Assyrian empire. The Assyrians - led by the infamous King Tiglath-Pileser III - reacted swiftly in anger, invading Israel, deposing the king and replacing him with a leader of their own choosing. After the death of King Tiglath-Pileser III, Israel again rebelled, hoping to use the resultant power vacuum as a chance to pursue their freedom from the empire. Again, though, the Assyrian response was swift and brutal. After a prolonged siege of the capital Samaria, Israel finally fell in 722 BC. The royal house of Omri was completely destroyed, and its population was either sent into exile or forced to flee for safer territory in the face of the advancing Assyrian army.

For many of those who took flight, Judah was the most logical destination. They shared nearly identical cultures, afterall, and Judah - under its king Ahaz - had signed a suzerain treaty with the Assyrians, sparing them from direct conquest in exchange for the provision of onerous tributes. (It's worth mentioning that in the decade or so before the fall of Israel, this technically made Judah and Israel enemies at war.) And the refugees did indeed flood into Judah in great numbers: the archaeological record suggests that the population of Jerusalem may have increased almost 12-fold in little less than a century. Quite apart from the population boom in Judah that this migratory influx obviously caused, there were a number of other important effects as well. Firstly, the religious traditions of Israel and Judah - which had been diverging for at least two centuries by this point - were brought back into contact. This may well have been when the J/E conflation took place (i.e. the penning of the majority of Genesis and Exodus) as religious scholars sought to reconcile the sometimes minor differences between the two mythical traditions.

Another important effect was the rise of literacy in Judah during this period, another fact attested by the archaeological record. Normally literacy only enters a society once a certain level of economic complexity has been reached, thus necessitating the creation of more complex forms of accounting and record keeping (it does appear that the majority of the earliest instances of written language performed exactly this function). Judah, prior to this point, was an almost entirely rural region, with very little (it seems) in terms of political centralisation or urbanisation, and literacy therefore was not a pressing need prior to the 8th century. Israel in the 8th century, by contrast, was a large, heavily urbanised society that engaged routinely in foreign trade, thus necessitating an institutionalised scribal culture to keep track of trades, contracts, inventory and so on. After the fall of Israel, these scribes - and other instruments of complex government - were brought south to Judah and would have made possible the creation of texts used in religion and government. In other words, it is probably at around this time that we can finally imagine that the material and intellectual resources necessary for the construction of complex texts finally arrived to Judah, and it is probably around this time that some of the Biblical texts we are familiar with today were first penned.

Perhaps the most important development during this period was the ascension of King Josiah, who - with the exception of King David - is probably the most important king in the history of Judah and the religious traditions it came to produce. He came to the throne as an 8 year old in 640 BC, and in approximately 622 BC introduced a serious of religious and social reforms that would forever shape the nature of the Hebrew religion. His most important move here was in the centralisation of the religious faith, so that all religious practice would now be centred on the Temple in Jerusalem, and all other outlets of religious expression - the so called "altars" and "high places" - would be destroyed, their priests slain and their practise forever suppressed. 2 Kings 23 gives us some great detail about just how thorough, violent and wide-spread the enforcement of this edict needed to be. The shear scale of the "abominable" religious practices present in Judah prior to Josiah's reforms should, however, give us a clear indication of just how pluralistic and variable Judahite religion was prior to Josiah, and puts lie to the fact that the Hebrew religion was ever an inherently monolithic / monotheistic one.

Another important move made by Josiah during his reign was the empowerment of the priestly caste (specifically the Levitical caste) and the reduction in the power of the King. Penned some 1800 years before the Magna Carta, the book of Deuteronomy represents an extraordinary concession of power on behalf of the King of Judah, including the promise to follow piously the "Laws" of scripture (i.e. the king was now a follower of law rather than a prescriber of it) and to not "exalt himself above other members of the community" (Dt. 17)! This diminishing of the power of the king and the strengthening of the power of the priests would have a number of important consequences in the post-exilic period and future of the Hebrew religion.

592 BC - 539 BC: The Exile

After the fall of the Assyrian empire at the hand of the Babylonians in the late 7th century BC, Judah was faced with a problem. To the north they now had the Babylonian Empire, one that was probably more aggressive and expansionist than the Assyrian Empire they replaced. To the south they had the still large (though perhaps declining) Egyptian Empire. To make matters worse, the two empires were open enemies, leaving Judah in the middle and needing to choose one side to protect it from the other. For a period of two decades, it seems as though the kings of Judah vacillated almost capriciously from one side to the other, as the fortune of each empire grew and waned. Eventually, though, after abandoning a recently-penned treaty with Babylon to side with the Egyptians, the Judahites were left to face the full brunt of the Babylonian army. They expected the support of the Egyptians, but the Egyptians never arrived. In three successive waves of invasion, concluding in 582 BC, Judah was smashed by the Babylonians: its cities were destroyed, its population scattered and its elite members carried off into exile.

The human scale of this drama is preserved in unnerving detail in the Bible. The siege of Jerusalem in 587 BC was, like all other military sieges in history, a event which imposed almost imaginable strains on endurance and suffering. With access to outside food sources closed off by the Babylonian army, the people of Jerusalem were "pierced by hunger", the "women... boiled their own children":
Even the jackals offer the breast
and nurse their young,
but my people has become cruel,
like the ostriches in the wilderness.

The tongue of the infant sticks
to the roof of its mouth for thirst;
the children beg for food,
but no one gives them anything.

Those who feasted on delicacies
perish in the streets;
those who were brought up in purple
cling to ash heaps.

In truth, the aftermath was little better for those who stayed behind. Agricultural production ground to a halt, cities were abandoned and many fled the land permanently, Egypt becoming a particularly popular sanctuary. Those who were carried into exile (including the royal court, the priests and members of the aristocracy) bemoaned their fates in moving Psalmic elegies for their lost land, the most famous being that of Psalm 137 ("By the rivers of Babylon..."). In truth, the conditions faced by those exiled to Babylon (exact numbers are difficult to gauge by the way, but 10% of the Judahite population would be as good a guess as any) were perhaps not so bad: they were, after all, apparently free - at least in certain cases - to continue their religious practices, to perform trades and to marry into the local populations. In addition to certain Psalms, important prophetic works such as Ezekiel, Jeremiah and deutero-Isaiah were likely written (at least in part) during the exile, the first two notable for their almost complete lack of hostility towards the Babylonians, and their correlated disdain towards those Judahites who remained in Judah or (much worse) who had fled to Egypt.

Theologically this marks an important time for the Hebrews, so much so that many scholars use the terms "pre-exilic" and "post-exilic" theology to denote the significant changes the forced exile imposed. Firstly, the Jerusalem Temple - literally the dwelling place of their God - had been destroyed, leaving serious questions about their proper mode of worship and practice in its absence. Secondly, the unimaginable suffering heaped on the Judahites so soon after the enactment of the supposedly pious reforms of Josiah was difficult to explain: why was God so angry at us? The first problem likely contributed to the growth of belief in a universal deity (that is, a deity who could be with one even in a foreign land) and - eventually - unequivocal monotheism (the first unambiguously monotheistic Biblical passage was likely written during this time: Isa. 44:6). It also contributed to the centrality of the Law in the Hebrew religion, because it could still be followed even where the possibility of worship and sacrifices - the central praxes of the old religion - were no longer possible. The second problem was explained by the reality of deferred judgement - that present-day generations could be punished for the inequities of past generations. This was an important development in the conception of sin, and would eventually lead to the idea of "original sin" so important to later Christian theologians.

539 BC - 323 BC: The Persian Period

Following the over-running of the Babylonian Empire by the Persians, the Judahites in exile were finally free to return to their homeland. For his role in this - and his relatively tolerant and liberal attitude towards the expression of religion - Cyrus was deemed to be a "Messiah" by the author of deutero-Isaiah (Isa. 45:1). In truth the return to Judah was little more than a slow trickle initially: the archaeological record seems to indicate only a slow growth in population during the century or so after the fall of Babylon. In reality, it's not difficult to understand why: the majority of the Hebrews living in Babylon had never seen Judah, had their own families and trades in Babylon, and there was little to go back to in the now destitute and economically backward hinterlands of Judah. But they did make their way back slowly.

The first to come (including Zerubbabel, the governor and Haggai the prophet) were shocked by the conditions they found there. The so-called "people of the land" had fallen into a state of apparent moral degradation, abandoning the religious practices instituted by Josiah (and further refined by the Babylonian exiles), adopting gods and wives from neighbouring tribes. The land was destitute and unproductive, the cities lay in ruins, completely undeveloped from the time of the Babylonian invasion more than four decades prior. The first task involved the rebuilding of the Temple, a project that seems to have run into many difficulties along the way. (These interruptions are blamed partly on the Samaritans - refugees from the Assyrian invasion of the northern Kingdom who had returned along with the Judahites. This enmity between the Hebrews and the Samaritans would continue until the time of Jesus, hence the "Good Samaritan" story.) It was eventually built, though, and this period through to 70 AD is therefore referred to as the "Second Temple Period". Strangely, while many facets of pre-exilic life were resumed in Judah during this period, the re-establishment of the monarchy doesn't seem to have been one of them. While members of the royal court form part of the narrative in the earliest period of the return, they henceforth disappear without explanation, with royal titles, ceremonies and functions passed onto the high priest. The Davidic monarchy was never to be restored, the powers of government now resting for the majority of the Second Temple period with the priests and governors appointed by foreign powers.

It was during this period that the texts of the Hebrew Bible reached essentially their modern form - few of the major texts from the Tanakh can be dated reliably to after this period, though the texts themselves did continue to evolve. The Torah and the Deueronomic histories (that is, the first 9 books of the Bible) were likely edited / composed into their definitive form during the 5th century BC (perhaps by the prophet Ezra) and the theology of the time is perhaps best represented by the "Priestly (or "P") Source" within the Torah. The theology of this source evinces evidence of the universal god developed during the exile (in contrast with the more parochial god of earlier texts) and the centrality of assiduous priestly procedure to the religion, in keeping with the realities of post-monarchical Judah.

323 BC - 63 BC: The Hellenistic Period

This was an extremely complex time politically in the region, so it will be difficult to do justice to it in just a few paragraphs. It started with Alexander the Great's defeat of Persia, and the transfer of the lands of Palestine into the hands of his armies. With Alexander's death in 323 BC, however, the inheritance of his nascent empire was fought-over by his generals, a squabble which took a long time to reach a definitive conclusion. The land of Palestine was contested between Ptolemy I and his neighbouring rival Seleucus, with the former eventually laying definitive claim to the land in around 301 BC. Almost immediately he set about Hellenizing the region, introducing a complex governing bureaucracy and other cultural institutions in line with Alexander's earlier desire to introduce homonia (that is, a universal Hellenistic culture) to the lands he brought under his control.

As a consequence of Ptolemy's reforms (and those of his successors), the period marks one of relative peace and prosperity in the region, as evidenced by the growth in populations, agriculture and trade in the region. It wasn't however, a happy period for everyone. Those in the upper-classes tended to benefit more from Hellenism than the rural classes did, so they tended to adapt to Greek thought and institutions much more readily. As a consequence, an internal rupture emerged among the Jews (and it is here that the word Jew first came into use: it was a Greek title for the population of Judea) during the Greek and Roman period. Generally, we can now speak of the privilaged classes (merchants, priests, royalty etc.) supporting (or at least acquiescing to) the occupiers and patronising their institutions (including gymnasia and so on), with the less privileged classes rebelling against the imperial forces and holding zealously to their religious traditions. The latter would eventually become radicalised, and it is in such an environment that the ministry of Jesus - and subsequent developments in the history of Judaism must be understood.

The Ptolemies eventually lost control of the region to the Seleucids in 223 BC, and this marks the beginning of a period of great instability. The Seleucids were involved in ongoing conflicts with the growing Roman empire, and needed to extract higher and higher tributes to support their war efforts. This involved further exploitation of the already disenfranchised rural poor and the raiding of the sacrosanct Jerusalem Temple for its treasures. When the Seleucid king Antiochus IV (with the help of his lackey high-priest) established an "abomination" (namely Pagan worship) in the Jerusalem Temple in the year 167 BC, and outlawed certain other Jewish practices, the impoverished population revolted under a religious banner in an event known as the "Maccabean Revolt". After 3 years of often gruelling guerilla warfare, the Maccabeans emerged victorious and established an independent Jewish state for the first time in over four centuries, an event celebrated down to the modern day in the festival of Hannukah. This new Hasmonean dynasty struggled to definitively secure a grip on power, however, due predominantly to Roman influence and internecine conflicts, resulting in a century of further relative instability. The independence of the kingdom was officially ended when Pompey invaded in 63 BC and established the territory as a Roman client Kingdom.

The restlessness of this age gave rise to some relatively new ways of thinking within Jewish circles. For the impoverished and disenfranchised, the dismay they felt over their constant subjugation at the hands of foreign powers was channelled into eschatological thought: namely, the idea that God would shortly intervene to put an end to the evils of the present age. This is most prominently displayed in the Book of Daniel and the books of Enoch / Ezra. This is another important indication of the influence that historical events can have over the trajectory of theology. Many other people - particularly in the upper-classes - were heavily influenced by Greek thought during this period, as demonstrated in the Book of Ecclesiastes and other so-called "Wisdom" literature. This also marks the first point at which we can identify a belief in the afterlife (or resurrection, more specifically) amongst some of the Jewish population. It seems to have emerged in reaction to the perceived iniquity of the fact that those who died gloriously during the Maccabean revolt would not live to see its fruition. All of these new theological developments would be important in the development of early Christian thought.

63 BC - 70 AD: The Early Roman Period

The early periods of Roman rule were overshadowed by developments in Rome, including the battles waged between Pompey and Caesar, and later between Antony and Octavian. The Romans did stamp their authority on the region, however, with the installation of Herod the Great as a puppet king in 37 BC. Herod was a prolific builder - most prominently his massive additions to the Temple complex - and enjoyed a close relationship with the Romans, neither of which ingratiated him to the local population. He is remembered as a brutal and capricious ruler by later authors, though much of this reputation can probably be attributed to the politically motivated polemic of his later detractors. Matthew's claim that he killed every firstborn child in Judea (as the Romans called it) can be safely dismissed as theologically-driven fiction. Shortly after Herod's death, Judea went from being a client kingdom to being absorbed as a Roman province.

As in the earlier Greek period, the Jews of the Roman period found themselves split between those who acquiesced to the Roman occupation and those who actively opposed it. On the pro-Roman side, we have the Sadducees, those of the ruling priestly caste who ran the Temple and actively co-operated with their Roman overseers. On the other side we have the Pharisees, a distinct priestly caste who were legal traditionalists and enjoyed a much closer relationship with the Jewish people. Finally we have the Essenes, a shadowy group about whom little is known. It seems that they were originally a disaffected priestly caste, who left (or were excluded from) their regular priestly duties at some point in the Hellenistic period, perhaps due to disagreements with the occupying powers. It seems they produced strange, almost unclassifiable religious literature (including likely the Dead Sea Scrolls) and lived an ascetic lifestyle at the fringes of society.

Groups like the Essenes likely gave rise to movements such as those of John the Baptist in the Roman period, who preached an eschatological message and railed ceaselessly against the powers-that-be. Jesus, likely originally a disciple of John, can be placed in the same category. Although the Gospel authors tend to soften any potentially obvious anti-Roman sentiments in their texts, Jesus is best understood in the historical reality of Roman Judea: that is, one of imperialism and social disenfranchisement. The Romans (and their backers among the Jewish ruling classes) imposed often onerous taxes on the rural population of Judea, and many of the latter were left destitute as a consequence. Many could no longer turn to traditional religious sources for consolation, because those who represented such sources (namely the Sadducees) were seen as being complicit in the Roman occupation. Many therefore turned to more exuberant and rebellious religious alternatives, which generally promised liberation from the strife of the present period in the form of some future cataclysmic act of divine intervention, which would deliver the world from the hands of the powerful into the hands of the downtrodden. Such eschatological beliefs were the basis of Jesus' teachings.

Others had different solutions to the problems of Roman occupation, however, and organised themselves into militant groups. Most prominent among these were the "Zealots", who could apparently count one of their number among the disciples of Jesus. The Zealots aggressively targeted Greek and Roman interests in Judea, using tactics that would probably be described as "terrorism" in the modern parlance, including the targeting of otherwise innocent Greek and Roman civilians. Perhaps even more bold were the "Sicarii", named for the daggers they carried, who terrorised those Jews who dared to co-operate with the Romans. Such movements emerged, Josephus tells us, at least partly in response to the tax reforms enacted by the Romans at the beginning of the 1st century, though religious factors must surely have been a pertinent factor as well.

Such divisions were in some way mirrored in the early Christian sects. The only surviving Christian texts we have from this period are those of Paul, and much of his writing is devoted to attempting to bridge the gap between the Jews, Gentiles and their various subgroups in the nascent faith. The duties one faces to the empire, the concern for the poor and the eschatology of marginal Jewish groups are also major pre-occupations of Paul, which all serve to place early Christian theology firmly as a continuation of late-Second Temple Judaism. Until 70 AD, Christianity was just one of its many branches.

After 70 AD: The Late Roman Period and Diaspora

Eventually, the militant groups described in the previous section led a fateful revolt against the Romans in 66 AD. The violence was initially ad hoc and indiscriminate, before gradually escalating into a full-blown war against the Roman Empire. After 4 years of fighting - including another horrific siege of Jerusalem - the revolt was quashed and the Temple was destroyed, creating a crisis within the Jewish faith. The Temple had for so long stood at the centre of Jewish religious practice, and its absence created the need to innovate new theological solutions to keep the faith going. Essentially, from the first century onwards Judaism became a faith centred around the Torah (that is, "the Law") and its scholarly exegesis. With the Sadducees dislodged from power, the opportunity fell to Pharisees (or, at least, their successors) to lead this reinvigoration of the faith and they came to produce what is now known as Talmudic Judaism (derived from the name given to the body of scholarly interpretation produced by Rabbis), a critical step in the development of the Judaism with which we are familiar today.

Within Christianity, the fall of Jerusalem likely marked the first of its many significant fractures with Judaism. To begin with, the Jerusalem Church - hitherto probably the centre of the Christian missionary movement - simply disappears from history. The apostles at the head of this church - most notably James, "the brother of the Lord" - were extremely important in maintaining the Jewish influence within the early Christian movement, and insisted upon the continued observation of dietary laws and circumcision. For this position they ran into constant arguments with Paul and other early evangelists who insisted that gentiles should not be required to observe these central requirements of Judaism to be admitted into the faith. With the destruction of the Jerusalem Church (or at least its inability to retain its earlier influence) the gentile-friendly Christianity of Paul and his successors became dominant, and would remain normative for the rest of Christian history. While Jews previously tolerated the evangelising of proto-Christians in synagogues, the crisis caused by the destruction of the Temple created a rather less tolerant attitude and these proto-Christians now found themselves excluded from synagogue services. This situation is anachronistically depicted in the Gospel of John, which - together with the anti-Jewish polemic in other NT texts - suggests quite clearly that Judaism and Christianity were already starting to go their separate ways by the end of the first century.

The Judean province remained a politically restive region, however, and after several periodic skirmishes the situation again boiled over into full-blown war in 132 AD with the famous Bar Kokhba revolt. Under the leadership of Simon bar Kokhba - a self-proclaimed Messiah - the Jewish population rebelled against the Roman Empire and for a short period were seemingly successful in establishing Israel as an independent state. The Roman response was typically ruthless, however, and the revolt was quashed in an orgy of violence by the year 135 AD. The majority of Jews in the region were likely to have been killed, sold into slavery, or - if they were lucky - sent into exile. Hadrian forbade them from entering Jerusalem (except for specially sanctioned ceremonies) and this marks a critical stage in the Jewish diaspora. The Jews would from this point have no homeland until the creation of the modern state of Israel in 1947.

Eschatology in Early Christianity: A Response to Liberal Criticisms

There are few scholars involved in Biblical scholarship today who would be moved to deny the eschatological basis of early Christian beliefs. It's simply to difficult to make sense of the NT texts or the breathless urgency with which early Christian evangelising was carried out within its first few decades. In my experience, the objections to Jesus ever having preached an eschatological message come primarily from those who tend towards the more "liberal" side of scholarship, probably best typified by the outlook of the Jesus Seminar. Such scholarship tends to view Jesus as a wandering sage, or a (pacifistic) political provocateur and argues that the eschatological material in the NT is a consequence of later generations retrojecting their own eschatological beliefs into the mouth of Jesus (I don't think any would dispute the claim that Jesus is at least presented as having eschatological ideas in the Gospels, for example). However, there are many problems with this view that I intend to explore here.

Firstly it seems beyond doubt that Jesus spoke frequently of something called "the Kingdom of God", as implied by the prominence of the phrase in Mark and Q. According to the anti-apocalypticists, we should interpret this term not as the expectation of some future eschatological event (God literally imposing his Kingdom on Earth) but rather as a kind of by-word for Jesus' power over evil spirits (cf. Mt. 12:28; Lk 11:20) and his pursuit of divine justice. According to this view, Jesus believed that the Kingdom of God had already arrived, and that it resided (metaphorically?) within those who followed his example (Lk 17:21). However, it is clear that the term is not used exclusively in this way in the gospels, and such an interpetation appears to be too reliant on gnostic (and therefore later and de-eschatologised) interpretations of "Kingdom of God" (e.g Gospel of Thomas sayings 3 and 113). Given the inconsistency with which this term is applied, it is undeniably difficult to say with certainty which of the divergent meanings can be attributed to Jesus and which can be attributed to the Evangelists, but I think we have to view "the Kingdom of God" as referring to some future state that Jesus believed was already imminent. The phrase "the Kingdom of God has drawn near" can be found in both Mark and Q (Mk 1:15; Lk 10:9,11; Mt 10:7) and although the use of the perfect tense ("has drawn near") tells us that this process has already begun, the use of "near" clearly implies that it is yet to fully arrive.

Another example of imminent eschatological expectations within the early Christian community is that of the Lord's Prayer, which - by its distinctive use of the word abba (as I discussed above) - few scholars doubt can be traced back to Jesus. Here the exortation for God's Kingdom to "come" (Mt 6:10; Lk 11:2) again implies some future expectation, which Matthew further elaborates as arriving "on Earth as it is in Heaven". The imposition of divine will on Earth, with God arriving literally as a "King", is the very essense of an eschatological belief, and clear parallels can be drawn with the Jewish eschatologies of Jesus' time. Again, the anti-apocalypticists may demure that we needn't read eschatological beliefs into such passages and that in exhorting God's Kingdom to "come" Jesus was merely praying for some kind of divine justice, but even then it's difficult not to envisage this form of justice as necessitating some great eschatological shift.

For instance, Jesus is regularly portrayed as envisioning a future in which "the last will be first, and the first last" (Mt 20:16), where "the meek... shall inherit the earth" (Mt 5:5) and other similar reversals of fortune. This feature of Jesus' teaching - where the order of the current age is replaced with a new, completely inverted one as a consequence of divine intervention - is the very definition of an eschatological belief, hence the terminology given to such beliefs in the parlance of Biblical scholarship - inversionary ethical eschatology. Other elements of Jesus' ethics are so extreme ("if a man takes your shirt, give him your cloak also"; "if you want to follow me, sell all your possessions and leave your family" etc.) that its sometimes suggested that they could only be considered workable if we presume that Jesus thought they would only need to be followed for the short period of time before the eschaton. In any case, it's simply impossible to make sense of certain elements of Jesus' ethics without presuming some eschatological corollary.

Elsewhere in the Gospels, Jesus is regularly depicted as talking about "the Son of Man", an expression that is difficult to define precisely (in part because it is used in many different ways, both in the OT and the Gospels) but its use in the Gospels appears to be shaped by Daniel 7:13, an apocolyptic text. The term is used some 80 times in the Gospels, though the Jesus Seminar voted literally every instance of its use as either black or grey (meaning these sayings probably can't be traced back to the historical Jesus). This glib dismissal of an extremely well-attested tradition is based on the assumption that "the Son of Man" motif was a Christological title retrojected into the accounts by the Evangelists, who admittedly did frequently refer to the LXX for passages that they could apply to Jesus as they composed their Gospels. So, by this account, we should simply view the "Son of Man" passages as a consequence of OT prophecy-mining undertaken by later generations of Christians eager to find the most apt ways available to describe Jesus' nature.

But, of course, such explanations fail upon closer examination:

  • Firstly, the "Son of Man" expressions are only ever remembered as being spoken by Jesus and - therefore - were presumably remembered as characteristic of his teaching. The "Son of Man" does not appear anywhere else in the narratives of the Gospels.

  • In contrast to other Christological titles ("Lord", "Christ", "Son of God" etc.) Jesus is never given the appelation of the "Son of Man" either in the narratives or by other characters in the Gospels. If it was intended as a Christological title, it's difficult to explain why it is almost never used that way, either in the NT or in other early Christian writings.

  • Although Jesus is depicted as conflating himself with the "Son of Man" in the gospels (especially when prefiguring his future suffering and other soteriological themes) in the earlier traditions (namely Mark and Q) Jesus often seems to be clearly referencing this "Son of Man" as a third person, invoking him in an eschatological context (see Mk. 8:38; 13:26; 14:62; Lk. 12:8,10,40). This is the inverse of what we should expect to find if the "Son of Man" motif was a consequence of later Christological theorising. (The anti-apocalyticists partially attempt to explain this away by suggesting Q was composed in three layers, with a sapiential layer being penned first and the apocalyptic layer coming only later. Such a precise layering of a still hypothetical document stretches the evidence too far, and is too dependent on comparisons with the likely much later Gospel of Thomas.)

  • Possibly the most important bit of evidence against the idea that the "Son of Man" motif was a retrojection into the tradition by later Christians is that these later Christians seem almost completely oblivious to it. The Gospel authors seem confused by its meaning (does it refer to Jesus or some third person?) and the term appears just three times in the NT outside of the Gospels-Acts complex (Heb 2:6; Rev; 1:13, 14:14), and even then only in an eschatological context recalling Dan 7:13. If the "Son of Man" is the result of later Christian thought, why doesn't it ever seem to appear in said later Christian thought?

Speaking of Christian thought, the prominence of eschatology from the very first Christian writings is also very difficult to explain if it cannot be traced back to Jesus. Paul writes expansively on explicitly eschatological themes like the parousia, a generalised resurrection of the dead, the coming of a "new age" (in contrast to the current "evil age") and the arrival of God and his angels on Earth in future judgment of the human race, and these themes are present from his earliest writings, barely 20 years after the death of Jesus. What is more, it must be stressed that such ideas were comprised of imminent eschatological expectations.

The fourth chapter of 1 Thessalonians makes it quite clear that Paul expected the intervention of God in the affairs of the world very soon, and that at this moment the faithful "will be caught up in the clouds together... to meet the Lord in the air" (4:17). Similar eschatological urgency can be noted in 1 Cor 7:29-31, and can be inferred from other scattered passages throughout his epistles. The fact that such predictions ultimately failed to manifest themselves can be posited as one of the major motivations for later authors forging epistles in Paul's name.The "contested" Pauline epistles (2 Thessalonians, Colossians, Ephesians) all contain aortist subtexts (that is, the belief that the eschatology had already been realised), and relevant passages are not difficult to adduce (e.g. 2 Thess 2:2; Col 1:13, 2:12-13, 3:1; Eph 1:4; 2:5-6). In Paul's corpus as in the gospels, then, it seems relatively clear that the most urgent eschatological exhortations come from the earlier material, with the more circumspect or anti-eschatological material being composed later.

So where could he have gotten such ideas from, if not from the tradition surrounding Jesus? The Pharisees (the Jewish sect of Paul prior to his conversion) didn't share such eschatological beliefs, at least in the context of  resurrection. Given that, it's difficult to see where Paul could have inherited his eschatology from if not from the early Christian community, and it's difficult to see where they could have got their eschatological beliefs from if not from Jesus.

As noted above, the eschatological themes are strongest and most urgent in the early gospel layers of Mark and Q - i.e. those dating closest to the life of Jesus. The urgency of the situation was apparently such that Jesus is depicted as saying (at the conclusion of the so-called "Little Apocalypse of Mark 13) that "this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place" (Mk 13:30; cf. Mk 9:1) and in Q the eschatological situation is depicted by Jesus as being so urgent that apparently a mourning son doesn't even have time to bury his father (Mt 8:21-22; Lk 9:59-60)! After decades of apparently unrealised eschatological expectations, why would the gospel authors have been moved to place such expectations on Jesus' lips with such embarrassing and unnecessary urgency if they cannot be traced back to him? Note also that the truly late books of the NT (i.e. gJohn, the Pastoral Epistles) contain almost no eschatological themes, further evidence against such themes being a later Christian development.

So if we can presume as well that John the Baptist had an eschatological theology (as the Gospels indicate - Mt 3:2,7; Lk 3:3,7) then it seems that Jesus is sandwiched on either side by strong eschatological beliefs. The most natural fit for this data is that eschatological teachings were a common feature of John's teachings, which Jesus inherited and passed onto his own followers, who wrote about them at length, before they were slowly softened or abandoned by later generations of Christians as the expectations remained unrealised. It's difficult to coherently explain this data if we assume that Jesus' teachings were not in a large part defined by his eschatological beliefs.

The Christology of Early Christianity: A Brief Overview

Put simply, Christology is the study of the titles that were attributed to Jesus both during his life and in the post-easter period. It basically begins with a study of the earliest Christian texts (in the NT these include the authentic Pauline Epistles, the Gospel of Mark and the "Q" segments of gMatthew and gLuke) to see what titles were attributed to Jesus by the earliest Christians and what their understanding of such titles might be. This may seem like a simple task, but uncovering the specific understanding that a 1st century Palestinian may have had of a term like "Son of God" is actually a rather difficult process. Where in modern Christian theology such titles for Jesus are largely interchangeable and have largely converged in meaning (it is of little theological importance, for instance, whether I call Jesus my "Lord", my "Messiah" or my "Saviour" - the theological claim I am making is in each case identical) we cannot make the same presumptions for the earliest Christians. The use of different titles for Jesus in the New Testament is telling, and we can probably assume it to be of great significance what the earliest Christians did or did not choose to call Jesus at different places at different times.

Of these various titles, the most widely-attested appellation for Jesus is that of the "Christ" and we can therefore probably presume that it was applied to Jesus almost immediately after his crucifixion, if not before. The word "Christ" is derived from the Greek word christos which means "anointed one" and is a translation of the Hebrew word mashiach (anglicised as "messiah"), which means the same thing. Now exactly how we should interpret this term in the context of early Christianity is a matter for debate, in part because the meaning of the word (or at least how it is used) seems to have changed throughout the history of Judaism. In the Old Testament, the term is used almost exclusively in relation to the divine appointment of kings and high-priests in Israel, who were literally "anointed" with oil as part of a religious ritual. David, for this reason, is seen as the first Messiah (see 1 Sam 16:12-13; 2 Sam 23:1), and it seems to have been used in this early period as a title to affirm the divine sanction of Judahite kings. Later, in the post-exile period when the royal house of David failed to be re-established, the term was applied more generally to other offices, including that of the high-priest (Zech. 4:14), prophets (Isa. 61:1) and even the Persian king Cyrus (Isaiah 45:1). There are then signs in the prophetic OT literature that there was a general expectation among the Israelites for the re-establishment of the Davidic royal line at some point in the undefined future (a new "Messiah"), but these expectations have of course not been realised.

A re-emergence of interest in Messianic theology emerged in the 2nd and 1st centuries BCE, doubtless partly inspired by the first independent (though non-Davidic) Jewish royal-line to emerge in Israel for over 400 years. The Hasmoneans ruled from 140-37 BCE and during this time (that we may crudely term the "inter-testamental" period) Messianic expectations of prophetic literature were revived, fueling a lasting belief that eventually one from the line of David would ascend to power in Israel and institute a golden age of peace and prosperity. This was also a period of enhanced eschatological speculation, which centred not merely on a historical epoch shift initiated by the Messianic claimant, but by the direct intervention of God. Although these themes would come to be woven together in early Christianity, it should be pointed out that Messianic expectations and eschatological expectations were largely kept separate in Judaism. However, we do find that many of the Jewish beliefs of this time appear to anticipate early Christian theology, for instance the idea that the Messiah would be killed as a preface to a general, universal resurrection of the dead (4 Enoch 7:28-34 and 2 Baruch 30:1) which is similar to the eschatology advocated by Paul in his early letters (e.g. 1 Thess 4:13-16) and elsewhere in the NT (e.g. Mt 27:52). Other Jewish literature from this period perceives the Messiah as a powerful figure, coming to rule in judgement over Jew and Gentile alike (Psalms of Solomon 17:23-35), perhaps sitting on a divine throne at the right-hand of God (see 1 Enoch, esp. 48:10 and 52:4) themes that also appear to have had some influence on the trajectory of Christian thought.

Such Messianic expectations took on a more practical importance during the 1st century CE, when there were apparently several claimants to the kingship during the first Jewish revolt (66-74 CE) and the second revolt, where the military leader Bar Kochba was explicitly hailed as the Davidic Messiah (132-135 CE). Luke even appears to suggest that the Messiah question was alive during Jesus' lifetime and was being applied to other individuals (Lk 3:15). Such facts tell us that the "Messiah" question was alive and well both immediately before, during and after the ministry of Jesus, though the earliest Christians appeared to envisage a more eschatological Messiah (see the numerous "Son of Man" passages in the gospels) than a political or military one. So anyway, what can all this tell us about Jesus?

In the first place, we must ask to what extent these Messianic "expectations" in Judaism may have affected how the early Christians viewed the significance of Jesus' ministry, and also - perhaps - how Jesus himself may have viewed it. Most scholars now accept that we can't draw a direct path from these heterogeneous Judaisms to the emergence of Christianity, and would also accept that simply pointing to Jewish Messianic expectations at the time of Jesus (as I have just done) tells us little about what the first Christians thought specifically about Jesus. Did they view him as a royal heir to David's throne, for instance? From the desire of NT authors to place Jesus into the Davidic genealogy (Rom 1:3; Mt 1:1-17; Lk 3:23-38) we can probably say yes. Such a perception may also explain (presuming the gospels' reliability on this point) the reason why Jesus was crucified under the ironic epithet of "King of the Jews" (Mk 15:26 etc.). That is, Jesus may well have been hailed as a Messiah in the traditional mould (as one claiming a particular political office) and this may have been why he was viewed as such a threat by the Romans.

But the traditional understanding of the word "Messiah" apparently does not exhaust the understanding the early Christians had about the term, as whatever royal claims were made of Jesus during his life, they were plainly never realised by any conventional meaning of the term. Nor were the hopes that the enemies of the Israelites would be smashed, either through divine retribution upon the death of the Messiah, or by the armies of the Messiah himself. However, we should note that whatever hopes Jesus may have failed to realise, this apparently was not cause for wide consternation among the early Christians: that is, rarely in the early writings are these failed expectations (or how they should be adjusted in view of this) ever raised. They were able to adapt the meaning of the word "Christ" into something new, something better adapted to the circumstances they now faced.

So within the first 20 years of Christianity Jesus had undoubtedly come to be considered "the Messiah / Christ", though probably not the kind of Messiah we can unambiguously identify in either the OT or the inter-testamental literature. Whether or not Jesus would have personally accepted this title during his own life is a little dubious: he is presented with many opportunities to affirm his status as the Christ in the synoptic gospels, yet only once is he depicted as doing so (Mk 14:62). Even then this account must be considered problematic from a historical perspective because this affirmation was supposedly given in a private audience before the Jewish high-priest (and who would have been present to witness such a conversation?), the "I am" is used as a springboard for Jesus to relay his "Son of Man" eschatology (which may be at odds with Messianic claims?) and the parallel accounts in Luke and Matthew (Mt 26:64; Lk 22:70) have Jesus giving a much more ambiguous and cryptic response. So, even by the testimony of the gospels, if Jesus was ever considered the Messiah during his own life, it was apparently a title that he was not keen to publicly embrace or advertise. In any case, we can probably suggest that the idea that Jesus ever considered himself as heir to the Davidic throne runs counter to our understanding of his teachings which express (at best) a deep ambivalence towards institutional power, and his eschatological beliefs that the powerful would suffer in the coming Kingdom of God and that it was better, therefore, to approach the kingdom like a child or a slave (that is to say, as one completely devoid of power) rather than as a king.

Other Christological titles are even more problematic. Probably the next most common title applied to Jesus in the NT is that of "Son of God", though again this is a phrase that can be interpreted in a number of ways. We know that such a title was used in Judiasm under a variety of circumstances, as I have previously explored on this blog:

Our understanding of the phrase "son of god" is unfortunately clouded by its rather literal use in gMatthew and gLuke, where Jesus' mother is impregnated by the Holy Spirit (Mt. 1:18, Lk. 1:26-35) making Jesus quite literally "God's son". However, this understanding of the phrase "son of god" occurs nowhere else in the New Testament and so we should not assume that the phrase means the same thing for Mark as it does for Matthew and Luke. Indeed, although the phrase "son of god" is often used in the New Testament as a unique title for Jesus (i.e. "the Son of God") it is a phrase with a long history and a wide variety of meanings.

In the original Hebrew of the Old Testament, for instance, the expression "sons of god" can be used to describe angels (or "heavenly beings" as it is rendered in many English translations - see Gen. 6:1-4 and Job 1:6) or holy men blessed by god (i.e. priests and kings, especially of the Davidic line – e.g. II Sam 7:14, Ps. 2:7; 89:26). The Jewish author Philo, writing in the same century as Jesus, used the expression "sons of God" in a very general way to refer to the entire Jewish people. And the expression doesn't only have a history within the Jewish faith: the Roman emperor Augustus (who was almost certainly emperor during Jesus' lifetime), for instance, was also given the title "Son of God" (from divi filius in Latin) during his long reign.

Yet even if we interpret this title as implying that Jesus was "[the only-begotten] Son of God" rather than merely "[a] son of God", the issue doesn't end there, as the exact nature of this "sonship" was a matter of often quite vitriolic debate during the first few hundred years of Christianity. The contemporary Christian understanding of Jesus as the pre-existing, "only-begotten" Son of God, descended from heaven, was of course the view that won out in the fallout from these debates, but there were other competing claims, such as those held by the "adoptionists". Such Christians held to the idea that Jesus only became God's son at the moment of his baptism at the beginning of his ministry, as Paul (Rom 1:4) and the Gospel of Mark (Mk 1:10-11, referencing Ps 2:7) may appear to imply. As for Jesus' own disposition to such a title - or whether he may have accepted it for himself - it may be telling that he had an apparently distinct and unusual of way of addressing God in prayer: namely, his use of the Aramaic word abba. In most modern English translations this is translated as "father", but it was actually a much more intimate form of address than that. A more apt translation might be "daddy" and such a degree of familiarity that apparently left its mark in the memories of subsequent generations (and is retained even today in the Lord's Prayer). So while Jesus may have considered himself (and his disciples?) to be [a] "son of God" in some significant way, the evidence that he considered himself the "only-begotten" Son of God is almost completely absent from the synoptic gospels.

Of the other Christological titles attributed to Jesus in the NT, their historicity suffers from the fact that they are only sparsely attributed in the NT and then largely absent from other early texts. It is sometimes claimed that Paul may have conceived of a high-Christology - based on possible allusions in his writings to Jesus' pre-existence (Gal 4:4) or divinity (Phillip 2:16-11; Col 1:15-20) - but these claims probably stretch the available evidence too far. Paul was generally explicit and repetitive in his enunciation of other Christological themes, and if he genuinely conceived of such a high-Christology then its presence in only a couple of ambiguous passages is difficult to explain. That is, if Paul believed Jesus to be God incarnate, we might be entitled to ask why he didn't say so more emphatically, given how important such a claim would surely be to his wider theology.

As for the undeniably "high" Christology of the gospel of John, again we must note that the language and titles the author uses are highly idiosyncratic (that is, to be found almost nowhere else in early Christian literature) and were likely confined only to the community from which the author wrote. In part this may be a consequence of normal Christological development (i.e. gJohn, as the last gospel to be written, was always going to have a more advanced view of Jesus' nature than the other gospels) but John's Christology seems unique not just within the NT, but among all early Christian literature. Of course John's Christology would come to play a disproportionately important role in the formation of later Christian theology, but this does nothing to ameliorate the fact that his writings (the gospel and the three epistles) were representative only of the beliefs of the somewhat ostracised sect from which he was writing, and cannot be considered at all normative within early Christianity. Other Christologies - such as the Trinitarian formula - find literally no support in the NT at all.

So the evidence is complex, and difficult to summarise properly in one post, but if you want to ask me what my opinion is of how Jesus viewed himself and his ministry then I think we have to see that Jesus clearly viewed himself as having some (uniquely?) special relationship with God and that he saw himself as an important cog in some wider eschatological process, but beyond that it's difficult to say with certainty. He was a preacher, likely a disciple of John the Baptist, who continued to preach his mentor's message of repentance in the face of the coming eschaton, but who pursued no institutional aims or titles beyond his leadership over a small, but committed group of disciples. As per the conclusion reached by Raymond Brown, if he believed himself to be the Messiah then he likely had a rather different interpretation of that term as compared to the interpretations that came before him (in Judaism) or after him (in orthodox Christianity). If he believed himself to be anything else (e.g. the divine logos or God incarnate) he doesn't seem to have shared such beliefs with the world.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

How Did Early Christians Conceive of the Afterlife?

Finding meaningful answers as to what the early Christians believed about heaven and hell is not easy. To put the problem in perspective, consider how difficult it is to even form an answer to the questions about what a modern Christian believes about heaven and hell. The question depends on many factors, both doctrinal and personal. The doctrinal differences can include factors such as the denomination of the believer (Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox etc.), whether they attend "liberal" or "conservative" leaning churches and so on. The personal factors are almost too difficult to mention, but include everything from upbringing, to what literature has been read, to the scope of one's imagination, to mere personal preference. It would be no great exaggeration to suggest that there are as many different conceptions of heaven and hell in Christianity as there are Christians, and the creation of a meaningful definition of these terms which would satisfy all believers would be literally impossible.

Given that, imagine how much more difficult it is to probe the beliefs of early Christians. The ancient mind was as variable and as subject to individual circumstance as our own, and exactly the same kind of factionalism existed between early Christian groups as exists presently between modern Christian denominations. The titular question is rendered even more difficult to answer because systematic theology is largely absent from the earliest Christian writings (Romans and Hebrews perhaps come the closest to being so), which means that our understanding of the earliest beliefs must be deduced entirely from the passing references to heaven and hell that exist in the surviving texts, which obviously leaves a lot of room for ambiguity and guesswork. So, in addition to the kind of definitional problems that preclude us from answering the question about what modern Christians believe about heaven, we can't know for sure what the first Christians believed about heaven and hell because they never actually bothered to tell us. (Although this realisation in itself may be significant: the peripheral treatment of heaven and hell in the NT may tell us that it was not an issue of great interest to the earliest Christians, at least not in comparison to questions of the Law, eschatology, Christology and so on.)

Having said that, we can probably say with some certainty what the earliest Christians didn't believe about heaven and hell and that might be the best place to start. The modern idea that Christians go to heaven by virtue of their faith in Christ is a Protestant idea that postdates Christian origins by some 1500 years. It comes from Martin Luther's concept of sola fide ("by faith alone"), which was a reaction to the then prevailing Catholic view that entry to heaven was governed by performance of the Sacraments, which themselves required the mediation of priests. In modern times this concept of sola fide has been taken to a particular extreme by certain Protestant fundamentalists who appear to believe that entry into heaven depends solely on whether or not one assents to the metaphysical claim of Jesus' divinity. I think the best that we can possibly say about such a theology is that it's a lazy one, but in any case it certainly isn't Biblical. In fact most of the ideas affecting modern Christian views on heaven and hell are post-Biblical, inspired largely by later systematic theology and the vivid medieval imagery of Dante and others. The Biblical references are - as I have already mentioned - sparse, inconsistent and often confusing.

The first Christians were obviously influenced first and foremost by Judaism. The Israelites of the OT period didn't really have a concept of an afterlife, although they did, of course, believe in a "heaven". This heaven, though, was literally God's home - a great Kingdom existing above the firmament in the sky - which he shared with the angels (and the other Gods?) in something resembling a great city or palace. This was a place completely closed to human entry, with the exception of the two prophets Elijah and Enoch, who apparently ascended there without ever dying. There was also belief in a shadowy netherworld referred to as "Sheol" that one may have found oneself in after death, but it was apparently not seen (uniformly) as a place of either reward or punishment, and nor is there any indication that existence there would be a permanent or eternal one. In this respect, it shared a great deal in common with other near-Eastern views of the afterlife from the same period. So how did we get from such beliefs about the finality of death to the apparently common belief in the NT that one could - under certain conditions - enter God's Kingdom and be granted eternal life?

To answer this question, we need to look at the theological developments in Judaism during the so-called "inter-testamental" period, roughly 200 BCE - 70 CE. For reasons that aren't entirely clear (though it may be related to the perceived "injustice" of the righteous dying during the Maccabean revolution before their vision of a new Kingdom was realised), the Jewish belief in the resurrection of the dead became common (though by no means universal) during the inter-testamental period, and it is usually found interwoven with the eschatologies that also became common during this time. With the restoration of the New Jerusalem, the dead would be raised to share in its glory, not in some higher spiritual plane (it seems) but right here on Earth. More to the point, the dead would be physically raised - that is, they would be resurrected to walk the Earth in physical bodies much like their old ones. Did such beliefs concerning the afterlife carry-over into early Christianity, or did expectations change in the post-easter period?

Responding to the Corinthians, who were apparently concerned that the dead would not get to see the coming Kingdom of God, Paul assures them:

1 Corinthians 15:12-20:

Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ—whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.
But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died.

Note firstly that this passage (and others in Paul's letters) refer to this resurrection of the dead as a future event, as something that will happen at a singular and definitive moment in history (namely when "the trumpet will sound" 1 Cor 15:52), and also that such happenings were not yet current at the time of writing (though the resurrection of Jesus was the sign that such an event was imminent). The idea of a resurrected soul at the moment of death (which is what the current Christian understanding of the afterlife amounts to) has not yet entered the zeitgeist of Christianity, and won't for quite some time yet. In any case, quite how we should understand an expression like "resurrection of the dead" in Paul's writings is open to debate, but he wrote extensively enough on the subject for us to hazard some timid assumptions. The first and most important is to explore what the nature of this "resurrection" really was, and if it differed in any substantial way from the Jewish beliefs that preceded it.

Paul says to the Corinthians that the dead will be raised into "spiritual bodies" (1 Cor 15:42-44), but a contrast with Paul's other writings tells us that such a belief was not necessarily normative in Paul's writings, let alone among other early Christians. It is true that Paul believed the resurrected body would not be identical to the earthly body (i.e. it will be "transformed" at this moment - Phil. 3:21), but he also makes it quite clear that the resurrection will involve the "mortal body" (Rom 8:11). This is consistent with his wider belief that the resurrection of Jesus marked a fundamental turning point in history, and that everything to come would be fundamentally "renewed" through God's grace (e.g. 2 Cor 4:16-17). So although we repeatedly find tension in Paul's writings between "the spirit" (pneuma) and "the flesh" (sarx), we shouldn't assume that Paul held a kind of Platonic dualism, where the immortal "spirit" and the perishable "body" were held as strictly demarcated entities. Paul was moved to write the above passage in response to the skepticism of the Corinthians ("how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead?") who shared more typically Greek conceptions of immortality - if Paul believed that Greek philosophy was right to scorn the prospect of bodily resurrection in favour of the immortality of "the spirit" then he would have indicated so here. That this passage exists is proof enough that Paul (and so, presumably, other early Christians) generally believed in a bodily resurrection and were motivated to defend it against the charges of its more stubbornly Hellenic adherents.

This idea of a "physical" resurrection is more clearly demonstrated among the writing that would later become the New Testament corpus. The empty-tomb tradition and the subsequent appearence of Jesus in his physical, still wounded body (cf. Jn 20:25-28) seems to indicate as much, as well as other similar scattered passages that clearly refer to the physical resurrection of the dead in the NT (e.g. Mt 27:52-53). The upshot of all this is that while in late-2nd Temple Judaism and early Christianity we have unequivocal signs of a belief in an afterlife, it's still not one recognisable to modern Christian theology. Souls aren't floating gently up to heaven in this scenario, rather the dead are expected to literally be revived to once more walk the Earth.

Connected to the belief in the resurrection of the dead was the belief in some future involvement of God here on Earth that would radically and eternally transform it to make such a development possible. Such beliefs can only be termed "eschatological" and it was such eschatological beliefs that informed new understandings of heaven among the early Christians. As I have said in earlier posts, Jesus (and his later followers) seem to have believed in a future state where the Kingdom of God would be literally implemented on Earth and it was in this future reality (still part of the world, though a drastically transformed one) that eternal life might be possible, though - again - the mechanics and terminology of this event seem a little confused. Can we so easily equate "Kingdom of God" with "Heaven" with "Kingdom of Heaven"? Will heaven come down to us (the Synoptics?) or will we be raised to heaven (Paul and Hebrews)? Such questions defy easy answers, and it makes it difficult to talk about what the precise beliefs of the first Christians were with respect to heaven and life after death with much confidence.

A further confusing factor is the influence of Hellenistic philosophy and how it may have influenced early beliefs over and against those of Judaism. Paul, the earliest surviving Christian writer, seems to have been influenced by Hellanistic philosophy on these matters to at least some extent (e.g. his reference to a "third heaven" - 2 Cor 12:2 - appears to be derived from Platonic schemata of the heavenly realm) but it's not clear what significance we can draw from such observations. As mentioned earlier, Paul plainly doesn't subscribe to the wider Greek philosophy concerning the eternal nature of "the soul". One important Hellanistic influence on early Christianity, however, seems to be the notion of hades - the Greek underworld - most commonly translated as "Hell". This, obviously, was a fiery place of torment where the souls of the unrighteous were fated to go, though I'm not sure if it's clear how or why such a concept was incorporated so early into the Christian tradition (it is regularly mentioned in the Synoptic Gospels though not - perhaps tellingly - in either Paul's letters or in gJohn). Can such a belief be traced back to Jesus?

Probably not directly. Familiarity with Hades and a willingness to incorporate it into one's world-view would have required a familiarity with Greek philosophy that probably would not have been accessible to a marginal Jewish peasant like Jesus. Likely it was something invoked by the Synoptic Gospel authors to better illustrate to their gentile readers a concept that Jesus likely did talk about in his time - that of Gehenna (e.g. Mk 9:43-48 etc.). Now exactly how this term was understood in Jesus' day is still being debated, but it bears emphasising that it was a real location, situated in a valley outside the boundaries of Jerusalem, that was associated with Pagan sacrifice and the burning of dead criminals (i.e. those who had died in sin). If we presume that Jesus had similar understanding of this place, then we can (with some caution) speculate that Jesus believed that this was the destination for those who were not fit to inherit the Kindgom of God. In other words when the Kindgom of God was to be implemented on Earth (in the form of a "New Jerusalem"? cf. Rev 21:2) those who had lived up to God's expectations would be admitted, but those who didn't would be consigned to Gehenna to burn. However, even if such an interpretation portrays accurately the beliefs of Jesus, we should note that Gehanna should be treated as a different place to that of Hades, and that it is misleading for modern English Bible translations to translate both terms as "hell". Our current understanding of hell would almost certainly seem foreign to Jesus and other Jews of his day.

So, to recap, modern Christian understandings of heaven, hell and the afterlife in general are predominantly later developments, though they do have their seeds in the theology of the first century. The ambiguity of terms, mixed expectations of the authors and paucity of references in the NT, however, left plenty of flexibiltiy for later theologians to both re-interpret and embellish these early accounts with some degree of freedom, which they clearly have taken advantage of. If you want some clear insights into the nature of heaven, hell and the afterlife, though, then the Bible probably won't help you much.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

The Historicity and Significance of the "Cleansing of the Temple" Episode

One of the most curious episodes from Jesus' life as depicted in the gospels is that of the "Cleansing of the Temple". This is one of the few narratives and biographical details to occur in all four gospels (Mk. 11:15-19, 27-33; Mt. 21:12-17, 23-27; Lk. 19:45-48, 20:1-8; Jn. 2:13-16) and also one of the few to depict Jesus in a violent and aggressive light, making it all the more worthy of our attention.

Though specifics of the incident differ between the gospels, the core of the story remains relatively consistent: Jesus and his followers travel to Jerusalem for Passover, enter the Temple (the centre of Jewish religious and commercial life at the time), accuse those present of being "thieves" and disrupt commercial activity by overturning the tables of merchants. For many, the story paints relatively simple moral message concerning the need to avoid the corrupting influence of money and to show due deference to that which is holy. For others - particularly in European churches since the middle-ages - the story could be set forth as an example of Jesus' denunciation of Jewish avarice and the gratuity of the old Jewish sacrificial system, rendered obsolete by Jesus' ultimate sacrifice. Both of these interpretations are a little anachronistic though, and both fail to cut to the likely historical context of the incident. Before we turn to that question, though, we must pose a more immediate one: did this episode actually occur?

On the balance of probability I'd say this event was likely historical, even though I wouldn't be moved to place it among the most "certain" facts we have concerning Jesus (his birth and early mission in Gallilee, his crucifixion in Jerusalem etc.). Good cases have been made both for and against its historicity.

On the positive side:

  • The event is attested by multiple sources, including all four canonical gospels. There is also a strong tradition both within the NT (gospels and Acts) and in external literature (Gospel of Thomas etc.) linking Jesus to provocative sayings and deeds concerning the Temple. Such a well-attested theme must have had begun somewhere, and a memorable event like this would be as good a starting point as any.
  • The event explains why Jesus may have been targeted by both Jewish and Roman officials during his ministry, and why he eventually came to be executed (the fifth of J.P. Meier's "Criteria for the Historicity of Jesus". Trashing the Temple - the most sacred and important site in Judaism at the time - would certainly have raised the ire of Jewish officialdom and probably would have been viewed as valid grounds for the pacifying intervention of the Roman authorities.
  • The event could be seen as embarrassing or provocative to the proto-Orthodox Christians, who were - remember - attempting to "convert" (for want of a better word) Jews in the Palestinian area. The Gospels were penned shortly after the Temple was destroyed in 70 CE (a singularly traumatic event in the history of Judaism), and the claim that Jesus was earlier involved in its ransacking would not have served as a terribly effective apologia. Similarly, the claim would not have done much to win the confidence of those who already viewed Christ's execution (and thus his criminality) as a "stumbling-block" or "foolishness" (1 Cor 1:23). The gospels go to great length at times to downplay Jesus' ultimate culpability in the crimes for which he was killed, and this episode (where Jesus clearly engages in "criminal" activity) does much to undermine this message. In short, there is no clear motivation for the authors of the gospels to have "invented" this story if there wasn't some clear memory of an actual historical event.

On the negative:

  • Although it is cited in all four gospels, the details of the incident in the latter three gospels all appear to be drawn almost entirely from the account in gMark. None of the later gospels include any credible detail not mentioned by Mark, which indicates that there were no "parallel" or external traditions for these authors to draw on. In other words, what at first glance appears to be a reliable, multiply attested tradition may in fact just a single tradition derived almost entirely from gMark.
  • The episode may be recapitulating OT prophecy, and may therefore have been created as a means of portraying Jesus as somehow fulfilling said prophecy. In the text of gMark (and consequently gMatthew and gLuke) Jesus cites Jeremiah 7:11 in denouncing the Temple as having become a "den of theives" (Mk 11:17). Jeremiah is significant in that it also depicts YHWH as driving his believers from the Temple (Jer 7:15) which means the narrative follows the same trajectory as that in gMark (Temple condemned as "den of theives", all are "cast out"). Jeremiah also contains allusions to "rotten figs" (Jer 24:3,8; 29:17 etc.) which must surely remind us of the peculiar fig-tree incident that Mark prefigures the Temple cleaning event with (Mk 11:12-14). In other words, could it be that Mark has just invented these events (the cursing of the fig-tree and the Temple cleansing) to link Jesus with OT prophecy?

    (The alternative explanation would be the Mark simply used OT prophecy to whitewash, or contextualise, an otherwise unsavoury event in the ministry of Jesus. It was clear that the gospel authors used OT prophecy to explain events in Jesus life, even resorting (it seems) to inventing prophecy where no suitable prophecy could be found (cf. Mt 2:23). John, for instance, makes no reference to Jeremiah (neither the fig-tree nor the "den of theives" line), so is it possible that an independent tradition of the incident - one seemingly divorced from OT prophecy - circulated, that would lend greater credence to its historicity? Or has John just expurgated Mark's account to remove its "Jewishness", in keeping with his theological interests elsewhere in his gospel? Such competing ideas are difficult to assess reliably.)

So clearly the historicity of the Temple Cleansing incident is contested, which makes it difficult to make definitive historical claims about it with any confidence. If, however, we proceed with the assumption that it did happen (as I take to be the most probable assumption) we can then ask the pressing question as to why it happened. What was Jesus' motivation here? What message was he trying to send and to whom? The chronology presented in the Gospel of Mark - if it is accurate - may give us a clue.

Where the incident has been depicted in contemporary Christian film and literature, it is usually presented as a hot-headed act of passion: an otherwise placid and irenic man is driven to violence by the tragic sight of his holy Temple overrun with avaricious merchants. The evidence from gMark, however, points to something different. We are told that Jesus actually entered the Temple the day before and "looked around at everything" (Mk 11:11) before returning the next day to "overturn the tables" (v.15) and "teach" (v.17). The fact that the act succeeded is also an indication that it must have taken some degree of planning or forethought. The Temple complex was a seat of Roman power as much as it was Jewish, and during the often febrile atmosphere of the Passover holiday it must have been crawling with Roman guards ready to intervene at the first sign of trouble. The ability to cause such a memorable raucous there would surely have required group co-ordination: an individual acting impulsively would surely not have had the time or the power necessary to "drive out" merchants (v. 15) or the carry out an embargo on goods being carried through the Temple (v. 16) (to say nothing of his "teaching" there!).

Presuming this account contains kernels of genuinely remembered history, we cannot possibly classify the incident as an act of mere hot-headedness; a "crime of passion". We must - rather - view it as a deliberate and pre-meditated act: in short, as a political statement. The gospel authors (and subsequent generations of Christians, for that matter) were motivated to de-politicise the actions of Jesus in order to make his ministry more palatable to Gentiles within the Roman Empire, and - indeed - to avoid unwanted attention from the Empire itself, which may explain why Mark is hesitant to avoid any implication that Jesus had a wider political intention here. However, if this was a deliberate political statement, what could it mean? What was he protesting against?

The most obvious solution - that he was simply angered by the presence of merchants making a profit in a holy place - doesn't really square with the facts. The merchants played an important role in the day-to-day running of the Temple, by supplying pious pilgrims with the offerings they wished to give there (the money lenders would exchange foreign currency for the Hebrew shekels, the form of payment that all adult males were required to make there). They were not in the Temple proper, and there is little indication that their role was ever otherwise the subject of moral scrutiny. As J.D. Crossan points out, Jesus' line about "den of robbers" doesn't square particularly well with the idea that Jesus was angered by their role in the Temple either, as he doesn't seem to be accusing them of thieving at that moment: a "den of thieves" is where thieves would retreat and hide, after all, not where they would do the actual thieving!

Given that - and this is now my speculation more than anything else - Jesus was making a statement to the Jewish priestly class who were in charge of the operation of the Temple (especially the Sadducees), who were closely allied with the Romans and who abused this position of power to collaborate in the dispossession of the already impoverished classes of Judea and its surrounding areas. From the beginning, Jesus centred his ministry on concern for the poor and regularly denounced the accumulation of wealth ("Blessed are you who are poor... But woe to you who are rich" - Lk 6:20,24) and the exploitation of the poor in the context of Temple offerings (which were often exorbitant) would have been an issue in keeping with his wider concerns. The ruling classes "hid" in their "den" (the Temple) and - from behind this veil of piety - were able to collude in the further disenfranchisement of an already marginal class. This also explains the focus in the narrative on the "dove sellers (e.g. Mk. 11:15) - doves were offered as sacrificial animals to the poor who were unable to afford more substantive animals to offer up.

It's difficult in providing such an explanation to avoid the impression that I'm retrojecting modern left-wing politics into an ancient problem, but it is simply impossible to read the message of Jesus in the gospels - moderated as it often is - and come away with anything other than the conclusion that his primary concern lay with the lot of the poor. Given that, in lieu of more obvious explanations, it makes sense to try to fit otherwise troubling, inexplicable incidents like this into his wider philosophy: the Temple incident was a political protest on behalf of the poor and disenfranchised.