Jesus – a radical guide

So who was #Jesus? Neil Faulkner investigates

The following article is an edited extract from the book Apocalypse: the great Jewish revolt against Rome, AD 66-73[1]. First published ten years ago, a new edition is currently being printed. First published in COUNTERFIRE

The New Testament records the work of a first-century Jewish Messiah and the fate of the millenarian sect he left behind. In my view – notwithstanding some radical comment to the contrary – there is no doubt whatsoever that Jesus Christ existed, that he was a charismatic mass leader, and that The New Testament is an immensely rich source of information about his life, work, and times.

It is equally my view – notwithstanding 2,000 years of Christian tradition – that he was not God, never claimed to be God, and could not have made such a blasphemous claim before a contemporary Jewish audience without condemning himself to political oblivion.

Who wrote the gospels?

The gospels were written a generation or two after Christ’s death by Greeks or Hellenised Jews of the Diaspora who had never know him – Mark probably in Rome in the years around AD 70, Matthew possibly in Alexandria, Luke in Antioch, both sometime between AD 70 and 100, and John perhaps around AD 100 at Ephesus (though the debate about time and place in each case is far from settled).

The gospel-writers inhabited a milieu that was less Jewish and more Hellenised than the context of Christ’s own life and mission, and, moreover, one that was overshadowed by the Roman terror against millenarian radicals in the wake of AD 66. In the period they were writing, Christianity was emerging from the wreckage of the Jewish Revolution as a universal cult of spiritual salvation which viewed Christ as a living god.

This new form – essentially a religion invented by St Paul (who, like the gospel-writers, had never known Christ) – can be seen overlying an earlier tradition of revolutionary millenarianism in the gospels. The authors had transformed Christ from Jewish prophet into Hellenistic saviour-god, and had replaced down-to-earth political Judaism with a personalised dream-world.

Fortunately for us, they did the job messily, leaving many patches of early text unaltered and in place. After all, they were not deliberate fakers. They knew their job was to produce a standardised text out of a disorganised heap of material, much of which was obscure or contradictory, and some of which, to their minds anyway, was downright dubious.

Faced with this, confident that they were about God’s work and that he would guide their hands and prevent error, and knowing in their hearts that Christ was divine, that his kingdom was not of this earth, and that his message was a universal one, they produced a version of the texts which depoliticised and denationalised Jesus. They made a new Jesus for their own time and place.

But that is as far as it went. The gospel-writers did not invent the gospels. They did not write straight fiction. They worked from primary sources in whose essential authenticity they believed, and because of this, enough of the earlier versions survive for us to try stripping away the Christian gloss to get at an underlying historical truth.

A contradictory text

This is more easily done partly because we have four gospels and they do not always agree, and partly because we can distinguish elements in the texts which jar with Christian interpretation and are therefore likely to be earlier. An original text may be evident in one of two situations: first, where the gospels share a common element (which, as it happens, excludes virtually all divine, fabulous and mythological features, these tending to appear in only one of the texts); and second, where the gospels contradict, either internally or with each other, and one of the versions lacks a Christian gloss.

‘Blessed be ye poor, for yours is the kingdom of God,’ Luke has Jesus say in the Sermon on the Mount. ‘Blessed are ye that hunger now, for ye shall be filled… But woe unto you that are rich, for ye have received your consolation. Woe unto you that are full, for ye shall hunger.’

But it is not quite like that in Matthew: ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven… Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled.’ For Matthew, it is not the poor as such, but the poor in spirit who will be saved; not a kingdom of God which might be of this world, but definitely a kingdom of heaven; not everyday hunger and thirst, but hunger and thirst after righteousness; and nothing at all about how rough it is going to be for the rich. The clarion call of class war has been transformed into a spiritual opiate.

A millenarian text

The New Testament, then, can be read as a revolutionary millenarian text. This requires some explanation.

Revolutionary millenarianism has been a recurring feature of protest in pre-industrial societies throughout history. Norman Cohn wrote a classic study of such movements in medieval Europe: The Pursuit of the Millennium (1957). He defined the millenarian sect as a group with a quite specific view of salvation: as being something collective (not personal), earth-bound (not heavenly), imminent (not distant in time), all embracing (not limited in scope), and involving supernatural intervention (not just human action). Such sects had a particular appeal to the atomised and rootless, especially in periods when many people were left insecure and impoverished by changes in a traditional social order.

Most of the time the sects were small and isolated, but their existence ensured that millenarian ideas survived as an undercurrent, perhaps for centuries, within some medieval societies. At certain moments of crisis the sectarians would attract a mass audience and revolutionary millenarianism would flare into social revolt. But this never lasted for long: the movement might rise like a rocket, but it would then fall like a stick. Only the message – the expectation of deliverance – bound the disparate membership together, so the movement quickly burnt itself out and collapsed when the Millennium did not come.

So central, indeed, was the message that millenarian movements depended heavily for success on an effective messenger: a charismatic leader able to convince large numbers of otherwise unconnected people that the Millennium really was about to happen. Millenarian movements, in other words, were also messianic: they required a messiah to lead them.

If The New Testament is studied not as a religious work containing universal ‘truths’ but as an historical source for Palestine in the 30s AD, the only coherent way to understand it is as the record of the mission of a messianic leader of a millenarian sect. The evidence for Jesus having been a revolutionary is overwhelming.

What can such a reading teach us, and how close can we get to the ‘historical’ Jesus?

The historical Jesus

We know that he was a Galilean Jew from Nazareth born around the time of King Herod’s death in 4 BC. He probably worked with his father as a carpenter, but he was almost certainly educated above average and may have been a Pharisee. When he was about 30, he seems to have undergone some sort of conversion experience, probably to a form of Essenism, or something closely allied: he was baptised in the Jordan by the ascetic prophet John the Baptist, becoming a sort of ‘born-again’ Jew, and after that he spent time in the Wilderness seeking spiritual enlightenment.

His return coincided with the arrest of John, which may, in a sense, have cleared the field for Jesus’ own ministry, especially if John had played the role of precursor prophet and recognised Jesus as the Messiah. The ministry lasted about three years. Jesus operated as faith-healer, exorcist, preacher, and prophet – all well established roles for an itinerant holy man – mainly, but not entirely, in Galilee.

His general message appears to have been very similar to that of the Dead Sea Scrolls. It was addressed to Jews only – ‘Go not into the way of the Gentiles,’ he told his disciples – and, among Jews, to the poor of small towns and villages, to peasants mainly, to those Jesus described as ‘the salt of the earth’ because their humility made them virtuous.

Before them, he defended the fundamentals of Judaism – faith in God, obedience to the Law, respect for the Prophets, purity of mind and deed – arguing that ‘righteousness’ in such things was the only route to salvation. By contrast, he railed against the backsliding, hypocrisy, and empty formalism of people like the Pharisees, and, more generally, against the rich and powerful, men whose smug corruption put them largely beyond redemption. ‘Ye cannot serve God and Mammon,’ Jesus declared. The choice, it seems, was wealth or holiness, and class hatred runs like a red thread through the gospels.

He [Jesus] sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.’ (Mark, 12.41-44)

Preparing for the Apocalypse

The people attracted to Jesus were farmers and fishermen, artisans and petty traders, even beggars and outcasts. Essenes, Zealots, and other radicals were probably also among his audience, for Jesus never attacks these groups, in marked contrast to Scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees.

What did he offer his listeners? He was a convincing Messiah – a caring, charismatic, powerful leader – and he was building a mass movement to overthrow the Jerusalem ruling class and their Roman backers. The movement had its dedicated cadre: there were the 12 disciples (one for each of legendary Twelve Tribes perhaps), to whom Jesus passed on his ‘powers’, and who renounced their homes, families, and property to go forth as itinerant preachers and ‘gather the lost sheep of Israel’; and a further 70 were later added whom ‘he sent two and two before his face into every city and place whither he himself would come.’

There were not enough of them – ‘the harvest truly is plenteous, but the labourers are few’ – yet the movement still grew fast. The doubtful were impressed by the size of the crowds, seduced by the messianic excitement, won over by the revolutionary vision of the leader. And soon there was critical mass and a millenarian momentum hurtling towards its essential consummation: either the Messiah would enter Jerusalem and overthrow the Old Regime, or he was a charlatan and this was not the Apocalypse after all.

So he led his followers to the Mount of Olives and established a camp there. This was partly force of circumstance: it was festival time and the city was full of pilgrims; accommodation was hard to get and expensive. But the Mount had also been predicted by Zechariah to be the site of miraculous signs heralding the Apocalypse.

He then entered Jerusalem itself riding on an ass (in fulfilment of prophecy) at the head of a procession of millenarians. The pilgrim crowds greeted him ecstatically, spreading clothes and branches in his path, and acclaiming him ‘Son of David’, ‘King of Israel’, and ‘the King that cometh in the name of the Lord’.

The struggle for Jerusalem

This was not some innocuous religious gathering. The Judaeo-Christians quickly established themselves in effective control of the Temple Mount, where Jesus denounced the money-lenders and traders in the precincts and had his supporters throw them out. ‘My house shall be called the house of prayer, but ye have made it a den of thieves.’ The ‘righteous’ were on the offensive, and the authorities appeared to be losing control. More and more it must have seemed that the Apocalypse had really begun. As Jesus explained it to his senior cadre:

‘Ye shall hear of wars and rumours of wars … For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there shall be famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes, in diverse places. All these are the beginning of sorrows. … When ye shall therefore see the abomination of desolation, spoken of by Daniel the prophet, stand in the holy place … Then let them which be in Judaea flee into the mountains … For then shall be great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world to this time, no, nor ever shall be. … Immediately after the tribulation of those days shall the sun be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken. And then shall appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven. And then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn, and they shall see the Son of Man coming in clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And he shall send his angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they shall gather together his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other. … Verily I say unto you, this generation shall not pass till all these things be fulfilled. (Matthew, 25)

The crucifixion of a revolutionary

We cannot at this distance judge the balance of forces and the real strength of the messianic movement. The authorities may have been taken by surprise, or perhaps they wished to avoid a bloody clash in the streets; either way, there was a delay, and when they struck, they did so in secret.

The millenarians camped out on the Mount of Olives were armed and there was brief resistance, but this was quickly overpowered and Jesus was arrested and led away. He was hauled before the high priest Caiaphas and his close associates for interrogation – it is unlikely there was a full meeting of the Sanhedrin (the Jewish religious council) – but he was then passed on to the Roman procurator Pontius Pilate for a final decision about his fate.

This probably means that he was cleared of any charge of heresy – a special responsibility of the Sanhedrin – and was condemned and executed by the civil power as a political subversive and disturber of the peace. It may be significant that the four gospels, which disagree in so many other details, concur that the Roman inscription pinned to the crucifixion cross read ‘King of the Jews’.

Christ, on this evidence, had been a Messiah, a prophet-king to lead the Jews in the apocalyptic struggle at the end of time. He died on the cross – like thousands of other Jews in the first century AD – not because he was a blasphemer who claimed to be god, but because he was a revolutionary who threatened the authority of Rome and its Sadducean allies.

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Neil Faulkner Written by:

Neil Faulkner is a freelance archaeologist and historian. He works as a writer, lecturer, excavator, and occasional broadcaster. His books include ‘A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics‘ and ‘A Marxist History of the World: from Neanderthals to Neoliberals‘.

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