Just in Time for Easter – Who was the real Jesus?

No matter the holiday, at least the Christian ones, our ‘educational’ channels which we pay for as consumers, like to pick apart those believes that we hold dear. Granted, it’s almost expected now. It’s like the Christmas lights – you just have to have them. This year, there is a move to undermine the ‘historical Jesus.’ Suddenly, everyone got it wrong, and history is a grand conspiracy by men in white hats.

Biblical scholar Rachel Havrelock is a MythBuster in her own right, dispelling popular beliefs about Christianity. The University of Illinois at Chicago professor traveled to the Holy Land to co-host the Discovery Channel documentary “Who Was Jesus?” which premiers April 5, Palm Sunday.

Havrelock recently sat down to speak with Discovery News’ Jennifer Viegas about the historical Jesus, what she feels are some common misconceptions, and the role women played during Christianity’s earliest years.

Discovery News: What do you think is the most common misconception today about the Bible and its teachings?

Rachel Havrelock: That it was meant to present a very conservative, traditional viewpoint. You must remember that the concept of God was, and perhaps still is, a radical social idea. Rather than being beholden to an oligarchy, an individual can now answer to a deity. It created the possibility of an egalitarian society.

The core of Jesus’ message was directed to the economically downtrodden, the poor farmers, laborers and others who had little power in their own lives. Jesus presented a radical social proposition that meant society could be reconfigured to allow for less inequity and more sharing.

DN: For Christian believers, there is no doubt that Jesus existed. Is there a strong argument for an historical Jesus, though, having lived sometime around the first century A.D.?

RH: Yes, I think there is. The evidence comes from the Bible itself, but not in the way you might suppose.

DN: Please explain.

RH: Certain details of Jesus’ life simply don’t fit with idealized notions of a Messiah. He’s baptized by John the Baptist, a lesser figure according to the Gospels. He addresses women in his teachings and through his actions. He’s from a backwater. These are aspects that seem to speak to the historical figure of Jesus of Nazareth.

DN: What information do we have about the “idealized Messiah?”

RH: The prophets of the Old Testament speak of a future king who will restore the Jews to their land and establish order and peace. This savior-king was projected into the future and gave rise to the idea of a Messiah.

Texts that are written in the time between the Old and New Testaments, like the Dead Sea Scrolls, the book of Enoch, and the writings of Philo, develop the messianic idea. There are notions of what people need to do to prepare themselves for the Messiah to arrive and usher in the future.

Due to the prophecies, it was expected that the Messiah would come from Bethlehem and be a son of King David, who was the second king of the United Kingdom of Israel, according to the Hebrew Bible. That perhaps is one reason why the genealogy in Matthew links Jesus to the House of David.

DN: But Jesus is said to have been born of a poor family in Nazareth, and he conducted much of his ministry at the Sea of Galilee?

RH: Precisely. There is no reason why Jesus should have come from Nazareth, which was never mentioned in the prophecies, or that he should have begun his work at the Sea of Galilee. These are just two of the incongruities that did not conform to the preexisting beliefs about the Messiah. It is therefore likely that Jesus actually did exist, since there is no reason for these mismatches.

DN: Why do you think Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist was yet another incongruity?

RH: Matthew has Jesus saying to John the Baptist, “Permit it at this time; for in this way it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Jesus was then baptized.

But the wording of the baptism accounts reveals embarrassment. Why should a son of God have to be baptized, since he should have been born without sin? It appears that John the Baptist was involved in creating another movement at around the same time as Jesus.

RH: There were many competing movements during this period. There was the Pharisees social movement, which later was re-established as Rabbinic Judaism, becoming Judaism today.

There was the Dead Sea Scroll community, which may have been a dropout, radical group that preferred to live outside of traditional society. All in one way or another addressed the oppression that the Jewish people felt, being colonized by the Roman Empire. The Jesus movement wound up displacing some of the others at the time.

DN: Is there any direct evidence for Jesus’ existence outside of the Bible?

RH: Josephus, a first century Jewish historian, wrote of Jesus in the Greek version of the “Antiquities of the Jews.” He described Jesus as a “wise man” and a “doer of wonderful works.” The fact that Josephus referenced Jesus reveals that stories about Jesus were already gaining momentum.

DN: What permitted Christianity to spread so quickly?

RH: Paul the apostle was a marketing genius. The notion of conversion targeted everyone, and along the way the message of Jesus was universalized. According to Paul, you didn’t have to be ethnically Jewish, or follow the laws of Judaism, in order to follow Jesus.

DN: Who funded and supported Paul?

RH: He was supported mostly by wealthy widows. These were women with both money and autonomy. They bankrolled early Christianity. They also kept the teachings alive by holding services in their homes. Such “house churches” were common before cathedrals and other central meeting places were established.

DN: What were some of their names?

RH: Mary, or versions of that name were popular then, so there were a lot of Mary’s! The Bible also mentions Priscilla, Rhoda, Dorcas and so many others.

DN: Were there any female disciples?

RH: Mary Magdalene was one prominent disciple. It’s definitely a myth that there weren’t any women disciples. And there is nothing in the Bible supporting that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute. For some reason, her story was confused with an anecdote about a prostitute washing the feet of Jesus.

DN: What other Biblical-related myths, in your view, should be busted?

RH: It’s commonly thought today that the heterosexual family, with a mother, father and children, was the only family unit sanctioned by the church. The early Christians instead put more emphasis on community that allowed for gender equality and where everyone was equal in the eyes of God.

Post By Joel Watts (9,934 Posts)

Joel L. Watts holds a Masters of Arts from United Theological Seminary with a focus in literary and rhetorical criticism of the New Testament. He is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of the Free State, working on the use of Deuteronomy in the Fourth Gospel. He is the author of Mimetic Criticism of the Gospel of Mark: Introduction and Commentary (Wipf and Stock, 2013), a co-editor and contributor to From Fear to Faith: Stories of Hitting Spiritual Walls (Energion, 2013), and Praying in God's Theater, Meditations on the Book of Revelation (Wipf and Stock, 2014).

Website: → Unsettled Christianity

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