Was Jesus a Zealot?

If you are remotely familiar with the Gospels, you have probably heard about Jesus and his tirade at the Temple, where he overturned the money-changer tables during Passover. Pretty radical stuff, right? Some conspiracy circles view this as a subversive attempt by Jesus and his band of zealots to take over the Temple. Let’s lay out a few bullets on this issue. 

  • It is not totally out of the question. In his book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, Rena Aslan makes a good case that Jesus was one of many militant leaders roaming ancient Palestine. More specifically:
    • Jesus followed John the Baptist. Both preached the imminent arrival of a physical kingdom of God to take over the earth. 
    • Jesus opposed Rome, the Temple priests, the wealthy Jewish aristocracy, and Herod. 
    • Tthe Gospels say that Jesus actually used phrases about about bringing the sword to the world, not peace. 
    • The grand entry into Jerusalem as described in the Gospels is not exactly a low-key event. 
    • One of Jesus’ followers is called Simon the Zealot. James and John were nicknamed “Sons of Thunder.” And many scholars think that Judas was a zealot, and one of the reasons for the betrayal was that Jesus was not willing to take a hard stand against the Romans. 
  • But maybe not. Jesus also said taxes should be paid to Caesar per the law. And if Jesus had been the leader of a band of insurrectionists, it seems likely that the Romans would have arrested the entire gang, instead of just Jesus, on the night of his arrest. And realistically, it is not likely the table-turning event was an attempt to overthrow the Temple. The Temple itself was huge — at least 4×4 city blocks. So even if Jesus and his disciples had wanted to foment a riot, they would not have created a security threat … at least for very long. 
  • So why was Jesus crucified? We are not quite sure. The Gospels are inconsistent (for another 3BT post). Left alone, the Romans may not have cared one way or another about an itinerant preacher from Galilee with a small group of followers. One plausible theory is that the Jewish High Priest, Caiaphas, invented a story about Jesus that offended most traditional Jews, and simultaneously planted enough concern in Pilate about a possible mass insurrection. That would do it. 

Fun fact. And it is not clear if the money-changer table incident took place in the early part of Jesus’ ministry, or in the last week. All four gospels agree that it was during Passover. But John has it early in the ministry. The other three have it in his last week.

The Gospel of Thomas and Gnosticism

This week when we ran across a new site (to us) called Religion for Breakfast. It is produced by Dr. Andrew Henry. Despite being a doctor in religious studies, Dr. Andrew works with more secular publications such as The Atlantic. The Chief Editor believes this gives him additional credibility. Plus he is a younger guy and sports some awesome facial hair.

This week he talked about the Gospel of Thomas, which is as good a reason as any to post three bullets about it here.

  • Summary please. The Gospel of Thomas was found in Egypt in the 1940s as part of the Nag Hammadi texts. The texts date back to the 2nd or 3rd centuries CE, possibly earlier. It’s 114 sayings of Jesus. No narratives. No sermons. Some of the sayings are similar to Matthew, Mark, and Luke. But many scholars believe the G of T was produced by the Gnostic splinter group of early Christians. 
  • Gnostic splinter group? Yes, contrary to most Christian church publications, there was not a uniform system of beliefs that evolved spontaneously after Jesus’ life on earth. One of these groups was called the Gnostics. They had an interesting set of beliefs:
    • There were two Gods — one good (Monad) and one not-so-good (Demiurge). The bad one set up Adam & Eve for failure in the Garden.
    • There was no physical resurrection, but the soul of Jesus (and everyone else) escapes the wretched physical body at death and continues on in the ethereal realm.
    • There were some secret sayings by Jesus that only a few people know about. For example, Judas and Jesus had a ‘talk’ in private right before the betrayal.
  • Why did the Gospel of Thomas miss the cut? A few reasons. 1) the primary four gospels had already been making the rounds and had gained an exclusive fan club in the Christian community before the G of T was published. 2) The early church leaders considered the Gnostic system of beliefs to be the arch-heresy of all heresies. 3) The early church leaders thought the Gnostics ate babies during communion. 

Well, that was fun.

When Did Jesus Become a Deity?

Back in Mrs. Wilson’s 5th grade Sunday School class, we were taught that Jesus was the Son of God. And when Jesus kneeled down to pray, that’s who he was praying to. By the time we got to high school, Mr. Wilson (spouse) taught us the Gospel of John, where Jesus and God were described as the same thing. Hmmm.

  • OK, so there’s gotta be a story here. Yep. Jesus himself never really said he was a god … or THE God. The disciples did not think Jesus was a god.  Paul never said Jesus was a god in any of his letters. And the very first Christians did not think Jesus was a god — at least while he was here on Earth.
  • You left some wriggle room there. Agreed. As time went on, the followers developed a belief system where Jesus became a god when he was taken up to heaven after his resurrection. As the number of followers increased approaching the 2nd century (i.e. more cooks in the kitchen), the deification of Jesus kept getting earlier and earlier. We can see this in the Gospels themselves. The first Gospel Mark says nothing of note about Jesus being a deity (maybe with his baptism). Luke and Matthew added a virgin birth story to their narratives as an indication that Jesus must have been a deity when he arrived on Earth. John takes it back even further, clearly saying Jesus was around with God from the beginning. 
  • This makes it sound like the early followers may have made Jesus a deity. We will not stray into theological territory here. But Professor Bart Ehrman speculates that if Jesus had not been declared God, the Christian group would have remained a small Jewish sect and may have even died out. By making Jesus a deity, the Christians attracted a large number of Gentiles into the group. And by the time we get to Constantine’s conversion 300 years later, the Christians have recruited a size-able critical mass of followers, which made his conversion politically palatable. And the rest is history.

But you still did not address how the Christians addressed the conundrum of Jesus being the Son versus Jesus being equal to God. We’ll do that next week. We’ve exhausted our three bullets this week.

Did Mark Write Mark?

We’ll get back to Moses next week. But the Chief Editor opted to spend last Sunday afternoon listening to Professor Bart Ehrman lecture on the Gospel of Mark. Yep … it’s come to this for how to spend Sunday afternoon. But the lecture itself was  pretty good. And here are some key insights on Mark that the Chief Editor learned:

  • Who was the author of Mark? It was not until about 180 CE that the church elders labeled the author of this gospel as Mark. The author never identifies himself as Mark. And no one knows who he was. Only that he wrote the gospel in Greek, probably wrote it in Rome, and was not Jewish, but more likely a converted pagan. 
  • Do we have an original manuscript? We do not have anything close to the original manuscript of Mark (or any of the books of the Bible). The oldest reasonably full manuscript is from around 200 CE, and the first truly complete manuscript is from 370 CE. That means there were several decades of re-copying and editing before getting to what we see today. Professor Ehrman emphasized that the copyists were not professional scribes, and had no idea they were creating something that was going to be considered a holy book for future generations. The typical copyist was more likely some retired guy who volunteered to help out by making a few copies for some of the other churches in the area. 
  • The ending of Mark. Professor Ehrman discussed the original ending of Mark (shown in the panel below with the parchment background) vs the later addendum (also shown below). The short ending corresponds with the tone of the rest of Mark — people were afraid, and Jesus kept warning people not tell anyone about his miracles. But later on, the Christian elders wanted a narrative about a resurrection … plus some other things. So one of those scribes added the rest of the verses (scholars can tell they are different by the writing style). This is where we get the endorsements for snake handling and drinking poison. We wonder if those folks who practice these rituals today know that it was most likely some retired guy recruited as a scribe who inserted that sentence in the back of the gospel of Mark?

Mark on the last days of Jesus

We will return again to Egypt, Joseph and more sheep shearing next week. This week let’s go back to the Gospels — specifically Mark, the first Gospel written. The following observations are based on the ideas of Bishop Shelby Spong. He argues that Mark did not intend for his Gospel to be a historically accurate account of Jesus’ life. Nor of his death. 

  • Mark was written in the late 70s CE. This would have been after the destruction of the Temple by the Romans. Equally important, it was also written before the split between the Christian church and Judaism. (It was not called the Christian Church at the time, but Followers of the Way.) This split occurred around 88 CE, 58 years after the crucifixion of Jesus! The significance:  Christianity arose out of the traditions of Judaism. It did not start as a separate religion all on its own.
  • 40% of Mark deals with the last week in the life of Jesus. Mark’s account of the crucifixion in Chapters 14 and 15 are the first descriptions we have of the final hours of Jesus’ life. Paul wrote his letters 20+ years earlier. But he is very cryptic, saying only that “Jesus died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures.” Maybe that was all anyone really knew, since even Mark says that “they all fled” when Jesus was arrested. This would mean we have no eyewitness accounts. (Also, regarding the Resurrection, the original Mark is also very cryptic, saying in the last verse that there was an empty tomb … period. The last several verses were added later by someone else.) 
  • Mark’s Intent? Probably what Mark is doing (and we were not there) is back-casting the story to fit the scriptures from Psalms and Isaiah. Mark never intended it to be a historically accurate account. Psalm 22 in particular (written 400 years prior to Mark) talks about mocking crowds, thirst, piercing of hands and feet, and soldiers casting lots for clothes. There are similar parallels in Isaiah.

    So, there we go. If we picture Mark in his environment in the late 70s CE, the entire Gospel takes a different meaning. It does not mean the Christian faith is invalid (and Spong is still a bishop in the Episcopal church). But it points out that the Gospels were not meant to be read from a literal standpoint.

Fun Fact:  Spong thinks the gospels provide several clues to indicate the crucifixion took place in the Fall, not the Spring.

Who Saw Jesus First — Mary Magdalene or Peter?

This week’s question of the week:  Who saw Jesus first after the empty tomb — Mary Magdalene or Peter? 

  • Mark says that Mary Magdalene, along with two other women, find the empty tomb on the third day. But the original Mark stops there and has no appearance stories at all. Interesting side note: We say “the original Mark stopped there” because most scholars think verses 9+ from the last chapter, depicting appearances of Jesus afterward, were … how do we say … appended later by someone else.
  • Matthew and John both have Jesus appearing to Mary Magdalene before any of the disciples. Mary Magdalene and the ‘other’ Mary find the empty tomb, and later on Jesus appears to the women. It is not until after the disciples escape toGalilee that Jesus appears to them.
  • Luke leaves the women out of the picture, writing that Jesus appeared only to the male followers. But Luke also wrote Acts, Paul’s major marketing pamphlet. And Paul did not like women to have any kind of power in the church, let alone be the first to see Jesus. Paul’s sparse account of the resurrection also makes no mention of the women, and succinctly says that Jesus appeared fist to Peter.

This Peter vs Mary thing continues in some of the “other” gospels that did not make the cut. For example, in the Gospel of Thomas, Peter asks Mary to leave because, “women are not worthy of life.” And in the Gospel of Mary, Peter argues that surely Jesus would not have revealed his secrets to a woman.

So there’s that. 

Even More (and the last) Fun Facts About the New Testament

This week we finish up with three final things taken from a pop quiz that New Testament Professor Bart Ehrman gives his University of North Carolina students at the beginning of the school year. 

  • Name four gospels not in the New Testament
    • Gospel of Peter. Containing a detailed account of the resurrection.
    • Infancy Gospel of Thomas. Jesus could be a brat if he wasn’t picked first for the kickball team.
    • Proto-Gospel of James. About Mary’s birth and conception.
    • Gospel of Thomas. A collection of sayings of Jesus. No narrative.
    • Gospels of Philip, Mary, and Judas. These are all Gnostic gospels.
  • What does the term “Gospel” mean? It’s an old English term for good news, or evangelical books. The significance here is that they are not called histories or biographies, and were not intended to be read that way.
  • Who carried Jesus’ cross? It depends. Mark, Matthew and Ike say that Simon of Cyrene carried it. John says that Jesus himself carried it all the way. In one of the movie versions (Greatest Story Ever Told) the producers resolve the problem by having both Simon and Jesus carry it. Ok, then. But that’s not in the gospels.

Well, that was fun. We’ll return to Paul next week.

And if you want to see what the Chief Editor wrote about Gnosticism, check this out (it’s short and fairly interesting for a topic on Gnosticism):

MORE Fun Facts About the New Testament

We received a lot of positive emails last week about our random facts post. So we’re continuing this week with three more random things taken from a pop quiz that New Testament Professor Bart Ehrman gives his Univeristy of North Carolina students at the beginning of the school year. 

  • When was Jesus born? You’d think that would be an easy one. Nope. First, there is no Year Zero. We go from 1 BCE (Before Common Era) to 1 CE (Common Era). Sooooo, even if it were accurate (which it isn’t), which was it? It used to be BC (Before Christ) and AD (Anno Domini) when the monks did up the first Christian calendar. But that Christian way of dating fell out of favor in academic circles several years ago.
  • Four years off. And while we’re at it, a monk named Dennis the Short calculated the starting point for the birth year of Jesus, counting back from his place at the table in the sixth century. Somewhere he must have transposed a number. His new calendar started with Jesus’ birth in Year 1. But the Gospels indicate that Jesus was born during the reign of King Herod, who died in 4 BCE. We’ll bet that made for a bad performance review for Dennis that year.
  • Who wrote each of the Gospels? First, the title of each Gospel was based on the following:
    • Matthew. A disciple of Jesus.
    • Mark. Peter’s secretary.
    • Luke. Paul’s traveling companion.
    • John. A disciple of Jesus.
    • But none of these books were actually written by the people they were named for. They were all anonymous. The author never identifies himself in any of them. And the first actual record we have of the names of the four gospels is not until around 185 CE, a century after they were circulating. 

Birth Stories — Why Bethlehem?

Luke and Matthew are the only two Gospels that have a birth story. They both link Jesus’ birth to late in the reign of King Herod, which would put it around 4 BCE. Both Gospel writers also felt compelled to connect Jesus’ birth to Bethlehem (it’s complicated and has to do with the Old Testament prophecies and the lineage of King David). But they go about it in different ways.

  • Luke says Mary and Joseph were originally from Nazareth. Luke gets them to Bethlehem by creating a census (there’s no independent record of a census ‘of the whole world’ or even in the area in that time period). After the birth, they have him circumcised, go to the Temple in Jerusalem down the road, and return to Nazareth a few weeks later. No flight to Egypt. No wise men. 
  • Matthew says that Mary and Joseph were originally from Bethlehem. No census. Wise Men, but no stable. And there is a flight to Egypt and a return back to a different town — Nazareth. So in both accounts (and in Mark), Jesus starts his ministry from Nazareth.
  • Why the inventions? The Gospels are not intended to be read as historical accounts. The authors were creating mythical birth stories about their Messiah 50 years after his death. This was not an unusual practice in many religious traditions. 

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Did Mary Magdalen write Mark?

Last week we posited that it might be feasible (albeit a long shot) that the Gospel of Mark was written by a woman. Let’s look at this a little more.

  • Bumbling Disciples. Mark continually casts the 12 disciples as characters who do not understand the teachings of Jesus. All of them even flea at the end when Jesus is arrested, leaving three women to discover the empty tomb.
  • Righteous women. In contrast to the disciples, Mark has several stories where women are the prime exemplars of righteous behavior. Featuring women in a favorable light was very unusual for the time.
    • First, there’s the woman who is healed instantly by touching Jesus’ cloak.
    • Second, there’s the Gentile woman who challenges Jewish tradition (Jews and Gentiles did not usually speak) to ask Jesus to heal her daughter. Jesus readily grants the request and then goes into a parable about a dog and crumbs under the table (where does he get these things?).
    • Then there’s the well-known story about the poor woman who put everything she owned (two copper coins) into the treasury of the Temple. Jesus commends her for her actions, while in contrast the disciples exit the Temple talking about how nice the building is (Mark 13:1).
  • Did Mary Magdalene write Mark? Finally, and this is where the speculation gets interesting, there is the story about the woman who anoints Jesus with expensive oil shortly before his trial and crucifixion. This is clearly a symbolic story emphasizing the expectation of Jesus’ return as King. Archaeologist and Biblical scholar James Tabor (Jamestabor.com) argues that this last woman could be Mary Magdalene herself, making a cameo appearance in the gospel as its author — just like Alfred Hitchcock.

Dan Brown has nothing on Three Bullet Thursday.