Would the Real Jesus Please Stand Up

Jeremy Sig

What if the Jesus we know from the gospels is more a fabrication of the mind of a reformed Pharisee than an actual character in history? I am not the first to pose this question. However, as I continue to study the sacred scriptures of the New Testament its validity continues to grow. Some scholars have proposed that the rabbi Paul should be credited with the creation of the religion of Christianity. While this question is oversimplified, it may contain some elements of truth.

There is little doubt among biblical scholars that the early Christian church consisted of two separate bodies. The first of these bodies was a largely Jewish sect founded by the historical character of Jesus and propagated by those Jews who called themselves his disciples. The other body, though linked in some way to the first, was a separate group consisting primarily of gentile converts to Jewish principle. From what biblical record we have this second group seems to have been founded by the Jewish rabbi Paul during his missionary exploits. These two groups seemingly coincided with each other until shortly after the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 CE. After this time the Jewish Christian body which was seemingly founded by Jesus himself seems to fizzle out while the gentile body founded by Paul continues on. The rest is well documented history. This gentile Christian body would continue to grow eventually picking up the endorsement of the empire and solidifying itself as the most powerful theocracy in the world for hundreds of years.

What is most interesting to me is that the picture of Jesus that we get in the bible is from gospels that seem to have been written by the gentile church. In fact, at first glance it seems that the original Jewish Christian sect had very little influence on the picture of Christ that emerges from scripture. It is because of this that some scholars argue that Paul not Jesus was the founder of the Christian church. Many scholars have assumed, in spite of the lack of Jewish sources, that the picture found in the gospels of Jesus is a fairly accurate depiction. With no seemingly contradictory text scholars were left to assume that the gentile church, which spawned from the original Jewish movement, had preserved the heart and essence of the person and teachings of Jesus. However, recently there has been a further combing of the New Testament scriptures to find traces of the original Jewish bodies influence on the text. Many scholars attribute gospel material found in the undiscovered gospel of Q to be the remnants of the early Jewish body’s texts. While this is certainly possible another even more intriguing option has emerged.

Some scholars have begun to claim that an entire book of the New Testament can be ascribed to the early Jewish Christian church. That book is the highly controversial text known as The Apocalypse or Revelation. Based on the highly Jewish content of the book, and the seeming condemnation of compromising Christians, which we know to be a point of contention among the two bodies, it now seems possible that the text of Revelation is the sole surviving manuscript of the Jewish Christian sect that was started by Jesus. To be fair this is still a highly controversial viewpoint, and I do not have the time nor desire to expound on the intricacies of the argument. Rather, I would like to take a step back and hypothesize about the meaning of this discovery were it found to be true. Of all of the things that would come from this, the most startling is that the Jesus we know is not the Jesus who was.

Revelation paints a very different picture of the character Jesus than the one found in the gospels. The Jesus of Revelation is a warrior prince destined to lead the armies of God against the forces of evil. This Jesus is not the “love your enemy, turn the other cheek” Jesus of the gospels. Rather he is a hard liner, dogmatic, extremist who cast not only the evil but also the compromising into the lake of fire. He is seen to stand against Christians who do not follow the strictest of Jewish laws and seems bent on destroying the Roman Empire by force instead of by servant hood. This Jesus is far from the one that welcomes little children to him in the gospel. In fact this Jesus is more like the zealots that are condemned in the gospels than the loving son of God sent to save the world from bondage.

What is most intriguing to me is that the Jesus of Revelation, if the hypothesis is true, is closer to the actual Jesus than the one found in the gospels. If indeed the book of Revelation is the last remaining text of the early Jewish Christian sect, then it is uniquely closer to the historical Jesus than the gospels. If this is the case, then the Jesus we have come to know and love is more a fabrication of the rabbi Paul than a picture of the man himself. Faced with this conundrum I too would choose the rabbi’s fabrication over the historical man. Furthermore, maybe we should be attributing to Paul the creation of one of the greatest religions ever. For if he was able to take the historical character of Jesus, found in Revelation, and mold him into the gospel character that we know and love, then he truly is a rare kind of religious genius.

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7 Comments

  1. It goes to show that often our understanding of the primitive Church is shaped by the authors that we read. Not only do I find your assesment of the two clearly defined racially divided churches to be an oversimplification, but also inaccurate. According to Acts the Jerusalem church was quickly divided between Greek and Aramaic speaking Jews. That is long before there were Gentiles in the mix. Perhaps we should speak of three Churches. There is also, in Acts evidence of Christian sects which included Gentiles before Paul is converted and takes off to “Arabia.”

    And one need not resort to the incredibly speculative ‘early Q’ churches (for which we have no actual evidence) to find a “Jewish Jesus.” He is right there in all of the four canonical. The opening of Matthew begins: “An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham” Totally not Jewish to be sure. He then begins the ‘family’ tree starting with Abraham. My Oxford Annotated (hardly an ‘Evangelical’ book) starts the introduction by saying: “The Gospel of Matthew highlights the Jewish origin and identity of Jesus”

    And so it is with Mark. Considering it possible that the beginning (and most assuredly the end) has been lost the Gospel starts off calling Jesus the “Son of God” and moves on to quote Isaiah 40.3 bringing a new Exodus and covenant renewal. Certainly a very Jewish theme. Also, as Reed is sick of hearing, “Son of God” in 1stc. Israel means nothing even close to “the second person of the Trinity” but refers to Daniel and his interpretive paradigm concerning the nations and a suffering servant who is exalted to share in the throne of the Most High (very much like Revelation, which you say is holding on to the ‘real thing’) The ending of Mark contains the so called “Markan Apocalypse” is certainly tapping a deep Jewish root as Apocalyptic was developed by Jews waiting for the return of YHWH and the defeat of the oppressors of the people of God.

    Luke begins with the story of the birth of John the Baptist. The story purposefully echoes the birth of Samuel. The genealogy of Jesus begins with Adam for goodness sake.

    So it is with John. No Jew could read εν αρχη (in the beginning) without immediately understanding the the author was trying to tell a Jewish story. A story of Creation and YHWH’s involvement with the world. The idea of the λογοσ (logos) of God is rooted deep in the wisdom and apocalyptic traditions of intertestamental Judaism. And this continues through 1 John as well.

    It is an odd idea to hold Paul as a creator of an ‘alternative’ Jesus as he barely if ever actually recalls Jesus stories in any of his letters. And his letters are thoroughly Jewish in explaining the significance of the suffering and resurrection of his new Lord. Romans recalls creation and the plan of God to renew a fallen creation. Galatians recalls the story of Abraham and of faith. 1 Thessalonians, interprets Jesus in the same way as does Mark with Apocalyptic imagery. It seems strange to call Paul a Rabbi as he never describes himself this way, neither does the early Church. Not all Pharisee’s were Rabbi’s neither were all who were ‘zealous for Torah’

    Both James and Jude have long been described as Jewish exhortative and moralistic letters.

    Hebrews is of course obsessed with Jewish hero stories and of the Priesthood of Jesus.

    And so it looks as if all of the Gospels, Paul, James, Jude, John, Hebrews, and Revelation at least are thoroughly Jewish. With the others of course drawing from the same well.

    It is also odd to me to attempt to create a historical Jesus out of Revelation as it is not even about a pre-resurrected Jesus and so has a completely different focus than a ‘bio’ (such as the Gospels) would.

    The historical Jesus’ actions must be interpreted according to it’s likely context. I lack the time to go into the themes of a recreated and renewed Israel, going from the wilderness through the Jordan, centered around Jesus and his kingdom agenda, climaxing in the triumphant entry to Jerusalem to pronounce judgement on the Temple and apostate Judaism who refused his way. Certainly similar to Paul who proclaims that “all things will be subjected” to Jesus (1Cor 15)

    Just some thoughts.

    Reply

  2. Tony thanks for the quick response. I had a feeling you would be the first to speak out on this topic. I agree with you that the distinction between the early church sects was over simplified in my post. My purpose wasn’t to get all of the facts of the argument out in a post. That would be impossible. Rather, I wanted to take a moment to stop and consider the claims that have been made by some that Paul not Jesus was the founder of the Christian religion. I should state that I am unsure of my personal bent on this line of argumentation. However, there are some very valid points that must be addressed. The reason that I brought up Q is because some believe that this is the original Jewish gospel as Mark is the original gentile gospel. I understand this is a simplistic way to put it but just bare with me. There is no arguing that the other gospel accounts were most certainly written after the Jewish Christian church had ceased to exist. This is not to say that there was no Jewish influence, but rather that the majority of Christians by this time were gentiles. These same scholars see the gospels as propaganda for the church more than anything else. If this is the case, then the picture of Jesus in the gospels is not meant to represent him as a person but rather an ideology. It is argued that this ideology was based in large part on the teachings of Paul on the meaning of Jesus life and sacrifice. They argue that the riff between Paul and Peter was a microcosm of the larger separation that happened. There has to be a reason that Paul’s side of the argument is really the only one told. There also has to be a reason why Paul, not a disciple, is the largest contributor to the NT. I agree that the picture of Jesus in Revelation is not a historical picture either. However, even the theology around this figure seems to contradict the gospels (see Luther on Revelation). In fact the Jesus of Revelation seems to fit better into the Messianic expectations of many of the Jews in this time. Thus there is a possibility that this picture of Jesus is a truer representation of the teachings of Jesus while he was alive.
    Finally I would like to make a point of clarification in regards to all of the texts that you alluded to. Obviously the theologies of Jesus proposed by Paul would be Jewish in origin. Paul was a Jew. However, he has a uniquely gentile emphasis on his Jewish views. In Jesus he creates or has a character that is Jewish yet offers a link to the gentile world. This explains all of the Jewish themes and symbols in the NT text. Finally, it is obvious that there was some sort of compromise between the two sects, if they existed. No matter how gentile the church got its founding figure was still Jewish. Concurrently, it would be important to create a character that appealed to both crowds. As a side note this explains the author of Revelations disgust at those who are seen as compromisers. Obviously this is something that must be fully teased out in person, but i enjoy getting your perspective on it.

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  3. Jeremy,

    I can appreciate that this isn’t the place to expect detailed footnotes and full-book commentary, but I think that for me, it would be beneficial if you could give some examples of the types of things you are talking about. Even if you are not fully committed to these ideas as you say, because you are more familiar with their full argumentation I am going to aim the questions at you since you are proposing the topic.

    It is argued by the vast majority of scholars that Hebrews, Jude, James, the works of the Johanine community, Revelation, Matthew, and all of Paul are written by Jews, not just later disciples of Paul who lean in a Jewish direction. James for instance is almost hostile to an excessive Pauline doctrine. Not the sort of thing to come from a Greek who liked Paul.

    I also think that in comparing Jesus and Paul the argument fails to put either of them on the map historically. To be honest I think that the picture; the quaint and nice Jesus which is a product of Paul found in the Gospels and Epistles to be lacking any actual argument from the Gospels and Epistles themselves. The root of the whole theory seems to hang by a thread on an exaggerated claim that all the NT comes after a severe split between Jew and Greek whereby all real Judaism was left aside and all that remained was a bit of ‘influence.’ It seems so simple as to suggest that these teachers are teaching their graduate students on a flanelgraph rather than through detailed exegesis.

    So for my sake, since you did say that you are starting to lean in this direction ….FROM READING SCRIPTURE ITSELF…could you give perhaps a brief example of a)how the Messianic Jesus is lost in the Gospels b)that the Gospels are a product of Paul (indirectly of course) c)that the NT was not written by Gentiles influenced by Judaism rather than by Jews themselves d)actual examples from Scripture

    Then at least we could have something to go off of for further discussion.

    Thanks,

    Tony

    Reply

  4. The Question: “What if the Jesus we know from the gospels is more a fabrication of the mind of a reformed Pharisee than an actual character in history?”

    My Answer: I’m not sure that it would matter very much–not to me at least.

    The problem with this question is that its form echoes any number of the “what ifs” that confront the scholar who attempts serious historical Jesus study. “What if Jesus was a traveling Cynic-philosopher?” “What if the author of Mark had a secret agenda that won out over the ‘truth’?” “What if Q is the ‘real story’ of Jesus, devoid of an impossible resurrection, bothersome miracles, and weird Apocalyptic predictions?”

    Every single suggestion has a degree of merit, but possesses nothing compelling enough to deliver a finishing blow to the others–or orthodoxy for that matter.

    It’s not that I don’t find this discussion valuable or important, I just think we have to put it in the proper perspective. No amount of historical inquiry will ever be able to rock the foundations of Christendom. (I don’t necessarily believe you were arguing this, Jeremy, but I think there is an inherent amount of “I’m going to start a revolution”-type thinking to all assertions like this.

    Christianity is built not just merely on who Jesus was historically, but who he is spirituality. We get this picture from the the Apostles, almost 2,000 years of Christian Tradition, and the personal experiences of millions of people.

    With that said, in regards to Paul, I am inclined to side more with Tony(i.e. our sage, N.T. Wright).

    There were three tensions (not two) in Early Christianity: 1)Jewish, 2)Gentile/Pagan, 3)and Empire (Rome). Throughout Paul we see the interplay of all these worldviews. More than any other NT writer, Paul was adamant on the unity of these views and showing how Jesus as Messiah/Christos/Kurios could work for all.

    Villianizing Paul and putting him on a certain “side” is popular for would-be reformers, (“Paul Lied. People Died”). But as soon as you put one of these emphases above the others, you begin to lose something of who Paul is.

    For me, Paul is Jewish enough to represent the strong Jewish voice in Christianity without there having to be a secret “Jewish-Christian Jesus” that puts our 4 evangelists to shame. He’s also gentile enough without their having to be excessive speculation behind Q, an early Thomas, and an early Peter.

    It’s important that we remember that a lot of these theories are dependent on hypothetical communities and documents. (Q especially). At first, the idea that Revelation could represent a Jewish counter-Christ is attractive, but we must remember their footing isn’t as sound as Orthodoxy. (Tony shows us this very well.)

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  5. I feel like my argument has gotten a little lost in translation. The main point that I was attempting to make was that Revelation could be a text which shows how the Jewish Christian church, which ceased to exist after 70CE, developed its theology of Jesus. I feel like my title was a bit misleading. I should not have tried to attach an argument for this picture over the gospel picture. That was purely my conjecture after considering the possibility that Revelation could represent this type of source. I realize from both arguments so far that this is not as cut and dry a leap as I made. The question that I have is if Revelation does represent a picture of the theology of that early Jewish sect, then how did it get to that position? For sure the apocolyptic Jesus can be found in other NT books. However, non of these pictures is as developed as the Revelation one. Obviously the early Jewish sect seems to have drawn heavily from the OT apocolyptic tradition. The question is why this was the case. Furthermore, if this theory of Revelation is true then does this represent the teachings of Jesus original followers or an outerlying group which quickly developed after his death? Of course all of this can be dismissed if one reads Revelation as the writings of an isolated mad man, but that is not a very interesting starting position. So I guess I am ceading the point to you TOny and Reed. To assume there is two differant Jesus’ is highly problematic. That said I would appreciate your input into the Revelation aspect of the hypothesis. I chose this topic because I knew that Dan would like it. Dan, your words were profound. Thank you

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  6. Been following this thread all week, and while I don’t care to comment in detail, I would pointedly disagree with the assertion that the Jewish Christian community simply ceased to exist after 70 CE. For one, this assertion is misguided because it assumes that the diasporic Jews, who had significant communities throughout the cities of the Roman Empire, would have somehow disappeared with the destruction of their temple in a backwater town (est. population, 70CE, about 40,000 – compared with Antioch’s 225,000). This is simply false.

    In his book The Rise of Christianity, sociologist Rodney Stark has argued that the Jewish Christian community was a significant political force within larger Christianity through the 4th century CE. While I don’t know as that I am entirely compelled by that argument, to date the ‘disappearance’ of Jewish Christianity prior to the Jewish revolts of the 2nd century – at the earliest – is a highly tenuous proposition.

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