Jesus as a Real-Life Insurrectionist

Biblical miracles about Jesus the virgin birth, walking on water, the resurrection have caused rationalists to dismiss his very existence as just an ancient myth. But there is another possibility, that a real historical figure emerged as a doomed but popular leader and his followers then padded the story, as Rev. Howard Bess explains.

By the Rev. Howard Bess

A revolution is taking place among Christians with the evolving, emerging Christian believer asking more questions about the historical Jesus. Sadly, the typical minister of a Christian church is not sharing with his/her congregation the information about the historical Jesus that is now readily available.

For the first 18 centuries after the death of Jesus, people did not read the Bible through the eyes of literary or historical criticism. That changed in the 19thCentury with a few German scholars, but little note was taken until Albert Schweitzer took a hard look at the Matthew, Mark, and Luke gospels. He found discrepancies, inconsistencies and gaps.

El Greco’s depiction of Jesus driving the money-changers from the Temple in Jerusalem.

In 1904, Schweitzer published the results of his studies, translated into English in 1910 under the title of The Quest of the Historical Jesus. His key conclusion was that a historical Jesus could not be found in the gospels in the New Testament. Some Christian scholars and leaders protested his conclusion; others simply ignored his work. The practical result was that the search for the Jesus of History was abandoned and did not resume for about 50 years.

Times changed and a new generation of scholars began looking for the historical Jesus, but they devised a different approach. They attempted to construct a Jesus of History through his words and deeds. In retrospect, the second quest for the historical Jesus was doomed from the start and affirmed Schweitzer’s conclusion. This second wave of scholars also did not find a plausible historical Jesus.

So, the first quest had tried to find the Jesus of History through the study of the Bible and failed. The second quest attempted to find this historical figure through a reconstruction from his actions and words, and failed as well. At that point, in the words of one scholar, the search for the historical Jesus was a dead-end street.

That view remains widely held and was reflected in a recent conversation that I had with a gentleman who told me that there is no evidence that a person named Jesus actually lived. However, when I asked if he was familiar with modern critical studies of Jesus and the Bible, he confessed that he was not.

Finding the roots of that third quest for the historical Jesus is difficult. No single name can be cited as its leader. However, the 1980s produced a variety of studies of Palestine in the First Century, leading to scholarly articles about the Galilee of Jesus’s times. The result was that we learned a great deal about the era’s politics, economics, religion, culture and social structures.

The area was economically impoverished; the people were hostile toward the Temple rulers in Jerusalem and despised the Roman rulers. Galilee was the base for the Zealots, a movement that advocated violent overthrow of the Romans.  With this new information, a different Jesus emerged. The stories Jesus told suddenly made sense. The economic and social conflicts became understandable. His relationship with the Judaism of the First Century also became clearer.

Jesus emerged as not just a religious figure but as a political leader who advocated for the poor. Ironically, this third wave of scholars did not go looking for the historical Jesus; the historical Jesus simply began to appear.

Among most Christian scholars, there now is little doubt that Jesus grew up in rural Galilee, became a local rabbi of note and a political activist, and recruited disciples. The entry Jesus made into Jerusalem, riding a donkey when the rich and the powerful rode horses, fit within this context. He was mocking them with a form of street theater.

The incident that he instigated at the Jerusalem Temple also meshed with this new interpretation. He was protesting the corruption that came from the merging of authority between the Temple hierarchy and the Roman occupiers. His crucifixion took on a new meaning, too. After he provoked these disturbances challenging the Temple and Roman power structures Jesus was condemned as an insurrectionist and was crucified by Roman soldiers.

Of course, the traditional teaching of Christian churches is that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine. Most Christians think of him as the divine son of God, the second element in the Holy Trinity. Christian worship and confession have centered on this divine Jesus, with the celebration of Holy Communion emphasizing the spiritual presence in the bread and wine.

Yet, there is nothing about the quest for the historical Jesus that should take away from Christian belief that Jesus had a miraculous entry into earthly life, that he died for the sins of the world, and that he rose from the dead. People can choose what they want to believe about those episodes recorded in the Gospels.

However, in the light of the third quest for the historical Jesus, it becomes exceedingly difficult to be a follower of Jesus and to be indifferent to the needs of the poor and to remain uninvolved with the politics of this world.

The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister, who lives in Palmer, Alaska.  His email address is [email protected].  

8 comments for “Jesus as a Real-Life Insurrectionist

    April 22, 2013 at 17:11

    It seems indisputable that there was an actual Jesus upon whom the Christian mythology would later be constructed. He was a charismatic Galilean faith healer who attracted a great following among the simple rustics of that region, and whose message was that these times were in fact the end times. He came to grief when he took this message to the cosmopolitan metropolis of Jerusalem. The humorless Romans unfortunately saw his popularity as a threat to their power so they cruelly murdered the poor man – but, note, they harmed none of his followers, which says that they knew he was not the leader of an organized movement at all.

    His heartbroken disciples in their grief contrived the idea that the Kingdom whose coming he had promised “in this generation” was really a metaphorical one in some metaphysical time to come. Note that the word that means literally “thousand” in the Greek language of the Scripture, the source of subsequent Millennial cultism, also carries the connotation of “number too great to count.”

    I think what happened then has a direct parallel in Jewish history to when the First Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians six centuries earlier. Instead of arriving at the logical conclusion, that Yahweh was a weak god inferior to Nebuchadnezzar’s gods, the Jews of that epoch reinterpreted their defeated local god as an all-powerful universal god who guided the Babylonians to conquer, in order to punish his people for their transgressions!

  2. mich
    April 18, 2013 at 06:56

    Our starting point in the quest for the historical Jesus needs to be the quest for historical life, looking at the Jacks Hills zircons, the period of the orbit of a particular nearby yellow dwarf around the centre of its galaxy, the numbers and sizes of the other galaxies in the same clump as that one, the date of the origin of life on one of the planets of that yellow dwarf, the date of the origin of human life relative to that of any life, the locust-like explosion in the population of the human species during the relatively microscopic period of its existence, and the gregarious nature of that species.

    The fact that God created Tyrannosaurus Rex in his own image and somehow a hundred million years later (relatively speaking a tiny number of seconds ago) individuals of the human species began to appear is another factor to consider.

  3. Leland Fred Mellott
    April 17, 2013 at 18:42

    In a dream, I am being interrogated about Jesus of Nazareth. I say, “He killed no one.”

    Jesus experienced Divine Madness or the Second Birth or Birth Into Eternity in body vessel and in this world, as have I, in October 1981.

    We have entered Humanity’s Next Cycle. This is not another 2,000 year out-breath of That Which Is Intelligence. It is a Turn To Source. The Second Coming would have been like a dove leaping into a pond compared to the cycle we have entered, which is more like a galaxy being born.

    Jesus himself never claimed to “be-God” because he knew it wasn’t true. This has never happened in the Throughout Of Being and it never will.

    In the body of Jesus male and female were made one.

    The Jesus Miracles in the Bible took place in dreams or in the imaginations of people.

    In closing, we were never created, but always have been and always will be; we are immortal beings. There will be peace on this earth. Love is the power and the way. There is no other way.

    We have entered the Age Of Woman. Who am I? I am Son Of My Mother, nothing is higher than this.

  4. Rick
    April 16, 2013 at 23:25

    Well is it not that every prophet comes into the world as a “divine” failsave against institutionalized and runaway corruption or tyranny and thier puppets (men of perdition)…Rev 17 -The woman you saw is the great city that rules over the kings of the earth.” This is why most are empowered with superhuman traits in the area of physical endurance and strength as well as unfathomable high IQ’s couple with the spiritual gifts. Is this not what the gifts of annointing means? Most governments accumulate dumbed-down pawns (paramilitary) to do their dirty work and as such most do not stand a chance against men of higher intellect. Governments can go after minor prophets, but do not stand a chance against those beings manifested with the soul purpose to destroy these evil embodiments. ~Aumni7

  5. Curtis McCosco
    April 16, 2013 at 15:09

    Of course the so-called Passion Play was staged to incite revolution. Clever revolutionaries stitched together ancient myths and prophecy so the lead actor would be recognized as the Messiah. The final choreography was worked out at the Last Supper; Judas you sell me out, another disciple was to deny knowing Jesus. Jesus was so doped up at the trial he barely spoke. When he asked for water while on the cross, the women put a sponge soaked in some bitter liquid; dope to simulate death. There’s more evidence available in a 1965 book called The Passover Plot.
    btw, the revolution fizzled, but 70 years later erupted only to be crushed utterly and the Temple of Solomon razed.

  6. F. G. Sanford
    April 16, 2013 at 05:12

    “Yet, there is nothing about the quest for the historical Jesus that should take away from Christian belief that Jesus had a miraculous entry into earthly life, that he died for the sins of the world, and that he rose from the dead.”

    Now there’s a delusional proposition if I ever heard one. Forget about rational thought, science and reason. Why don’t you throw away penicillin while you’re at it?

  7. rosemerry
    April 15, 2013 at 15:46

    The so-called christians found in profusion in the USA are a far cry from this historical figure. If only christians behaved as we think Jesus did, the world would be vastly different.

    • Frank Plucinski
      April 16, 2013 at 10:55

      To hold Jesus in the position of being the God, we relieve ourselves of the responsibilty to follow in his mortal steps; ‘it would tak ‘Gods’ to show so much respect and kindness while relinquishing their own self indulgent quests, this is not a course for mere mortals.

      Rev. Bess sounds so much like other ministers I have known from various Christian faiths who, upon retirement, began to speak what they personally came to believe rather than being the purveyors of institutional thought.

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