Jesus as Yeshu from Nazareth
The historical Yeshu / Jesus and the Christ of faith are two different persons with two different stories. When we try to re-conciliate the first we can do irreparable damage to the second, if we are not careful. Jesus or Yeshu, Josuah (that is the same name) means Savior, and it is the Christian belief that one of the many men who were known under that name was the Savior, that he was the incarnation of God, being born of a virgin in a stable in Bethlehem to save the world of its sins. Although he revealed his true identity only to a small number of followers, the Savior told the world how to live. The price to pay to save the people from the consequences of their sins was his own painful and humiliating death on the cross. To reveal his triumph over sin and death Jesus rose again, three days later, revealing himself to his friends before ascending to Heaven where he sits at the right of God. At the end of the world he will come back to decide who is going to heaven and who is going to hell. This, in short, is the Christian faith, to be taken as told, without asking question of any sort, and without putting any doubt on its historical accuracy as told in the Bible.
The Gospel according to Luke dates Jesus’ birth at the time when Caesar Augustus ordered a census in all the Roman Empire, when Quirinius was Governor of Syria, and Herod King of Judea. This would seem to set the story at a well-defined period. If we brush up our History we discover that Herod died in 4 BCE, that Quirinius was not Governor of Syria during the reign of Herod, and that Augustus did not request any census!
However Flavius Josephus tells us that there was a census in Judea in 6 CE. In the same way there is no trace in the Gospels that Jesus was born in a stable in Bethlehem. This is a myth too. Moreover the historical Jesus was not, in all probability, born in Bethlehem, but in Galilee, where he grew up. We must admit that tradition has much more appeal that the historical facts could have. The sacred communion that derives from the Last Supper, as we know it, does not stand historical research either. Christians have always claimed that Jesus invented Eucharisty.
This is an important claim as it means that Jesus invented Christianity and founded the Christian Church. However, if we look at the first Christian documents, Paul’s Letters, they have a different set of beliefs about Jesus. He was writing for the Gentile, or semi-Gentile, audiences from Corinth, Thessalonica and Rome. He believed that by dying on the cross Jesus became a new Passover Lamb. In the same way that the Jews commemorate their deliverance from Egypt by killing and eating lambs, the Christians commemorate their deliverance from sin eating the body and blood of Jesus represented symbolically by bread and wine. Paul adds, too, that this new Christian Passover tradition goes back to the night when Jesus was betrayed. If we remember that Paul was writing about 20 years after Christ’s death, we can assume that he knew the truth.
The four Gospels agree that Jesus died at the feast of the Passover after inviting his closest friends for a Last Supper. The first three Gospels say that the Eucharist was created during, or after, the Jewish Passover meal. If this is the case, it is difficult to believe that the Jews left their most sacred traditional feast to arrest, process, and execute Jesus. The fourth Gospel tells us that the meal took place well before the Passover. If it was not a Passover meal then the institution of the Eucharist must be put in doubt; this is the main contradiction between religious and historical truth. Even if we believe that Jesus wanted to create the Christian religion, as we know it, we still would have difficulty to believe that he instituted Eucharist at Passover time as Paul, and the Gospels, say. If we remember that Eucharist is at the heart of the Christian religion, it is not a small thing to even think that it has no connection with Jesus of Nazareth.
It is probably true that a man called Jesus created some disturbance in the Temple, over-throwing the tables of the moneychangers. This happened in a city, Jerusalem, where the Romans, and even the Sanhedrin, always feared an uprising of the people. Both sides wanted Jesus arrested and sent to trial, although we do not know how it happened. The Gospels blame the Jews for the death of Jesus. This is due to the fact that Christianity started as a Jewish heresy that led to quarrels between the traditional Jews and the early Christians. However, persecution of dissident groups within Jewry is historically unknown in Jewish history. It is an invention of the early Christians that they were persecuted by the Jews, and from this grew the story that Jesus was persecuted for his religious beliefs. All Jesus’ friends admitted that they escaped when he was arrested and, if only for this reason, they did not witness an eventual trial by the Jews. The trial before Pilate is more probable since the Romans were afraid of any troublemaker. He would not have been interested in Jesus’ religious philosophy, but the mere mention of “Kingdom” and “Empire” would have touched his political nerve.
Josephus, the Jewish-Roman historian, tells us a similar story that happened in 62 CE, some 32 years after Jesus’ death and four years before the first major Jewish uprising that lead to the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans. Another prophet also called Jesus, the son of Ananias, caused some disturbances during the Feast of Tabernacle. He was duly flogged but he went on preaching the doom of the city. The religious Jewish authorities handed him to the Roman Governor and Albinus, the Procurator, had him flayed to the bone, but Jesus went on preaching and the Romans let him free having decided that he was mad. Jesus Christ, the son of Joseph, behaved the same way 30 years before but he was crucified. Nobody in the Judea of that time could have imagined that this Jesus who died on the cross would be known as the emblem of a new religion. This image of Jesus dying on the cross is the strongest clash between the mythological Christ of religion and the historical Jesus of Nazareth. The mythological Christ, the second person of the Trinity, was born in a stable, instituted the Christian Eucharist, and founded the Catholic Church.
There is no need to explain Him, the New Testament, which was written between around 50 and 100 CE for his disciples and the official faith, do that and no discussion is allowed. To throw some light on the historical Jesus we must also refer to the New Testament and admit that very little is known with certainty. We must also bear in mind that the Gospels are not history books. They were written by some early believers who wrote what they believed, or wanted to be taken as the truth. For instance, Matthew believed, on the base of Micah’s predictions in the Hebrew Bible, that Jesus should be born in Bethlehem and so, he wrote that Jesus was born in this town, although it is not very probable from a historical point of view. It is fairly impossible to know what is historically true in the Gospels, and what is Tradition. Mark, who believed that Jesus came to admit the Gentiles in the Kingdom of God, says somewhere that Jesus thought that the Gentiles were “dogs” to whom he had nothing to say. It is among these obvious contradictions that the Gospels have to be analyzed to sift the historical truth from the myth.
The search for the historical Jesus started when the unbelievers put in doubt the divinity of Christ. The first historians were hampered by prejudice, as were their Christian predecessors. All of us, believers and non-believers, have their own a-priori image of Jesus. We should always remember that the only Jesus available to us is the Jesus described in the New Testament. The Christian Orthodox does not dare to take into consideration the results of the recent research on the New Testament.
The modernists take these researches into consideration but, in the end, they say that religion and religious practices are more important that knowledge, even if they recognize, in opposition with the Orthodox, that the New Testament is mythology. It is difficult to believe to day, as it was for a Jew at the time of Jesus, that a first-century holy man could think that he was the second person of the Trinity.
The New Testament does not say anywhere that even Jesus thought so, or preached it. Jesus was a kind of Galilean “Tzadik” or Holy Man, an heir of the prophetic tradition, who had a great knowledge of the relationship between man and God, and a healer. He was probably born in Galilee in 4 BCE and he died in Judea in about 30 CE. He wrote no book and we do not know what he looked like, if he was married or not, even if it is probable that he was knowing the habit of the time. It is more probable too that it was Paul who “invented” the Christian religion.
The Child Jesus
The world at the time Jesus was born was, of course, very different from what it is now. People did not know much and they still blamed the devil for things that they did not understand: epileptics were possessed by the demons, and the only way to cure deafness or palsy was also to drive the demons out. They thought that he world was of finite duration and that it would come to an end, probably within their lifetime. We can assume that the writers of the New Testament saw the things they wrote about. There is no need to assume that it was written decades later by people who never knew Jesus. However, if a modern man had been present, he would have seen something else, as his knowledge and perception are different compared with the limited and, for us, naive state of the people of the first century CE. It is very strange that the figure of Jesus is still the same for us as it was then, even if Christianity appears to be on the decline, at least in the western world. It is impossible to know if the words attributed to Him in the Gospels are his own, or those of the writer. It is a fact that the writers of the Gospels, knowing that Jesus has left no book, try to impose their own point of view. All the same, the sayings and stories attributed to Jesus are remarkable and powerful when taken one by one, or as a whole. The same can be said of Jesus’ life-story. Even if what is said did not always happen, the content of the message is important.
To the Orthodox Christian believers the boy Jesus, from his younger age, was invested with all the knowledge and the power that his mission on earth required. He was a divinity and this belief lasted for 1800 years. Up to a point this belief is understandable as the whole life of Jesus, from his miraculous birth to his death on the Cross-, is a continuous legend. Jesus’ story invades history, even if this does not mean that it is “historical” in the sense that it can not be proved by modern historical analysis. Luke’s Gospel, for instance, tells us that Jesus was born in Bethlehem during the reign of Herod from his Virgin mother, Mary. The Holy family had to travel from their home town of Nazareth (Galilee) to Bethlehem (Judaea) as this was the city of Joseph’s ancestors, that included King David, to take part in a Roman census organized by Caesar Augustus when Quirinus was Governor of Syria. However Quirinus was not Governor of Syria during Herod’s reign (37-4 BCE). On the other hand the fourth Gospel states that Jesus was not born in Bethlehem and that he was not of David’s line! As the Hebrew Bible predicted that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, the possibility that he was born in Galilee would tend to put some doubts on Jesus’ credentials. These contradictions are not uncommon and we cannot say that the fourth Gospel is more accurate that the others. Luke’s Gospel looks like history at first sight, but a deeper analyze shows that it is more a collection of legends and traditions.
The assertion that Jesus was born of a virgin mother was unknown to the early Christians. No mention of it is to be found in Mark’s Gospel, or in Paul’s Epistles. All the New Testament Gospels agree that Jesus was brought up in Nazareth. It is then probable that he was born there rather that in Bethlehem during a non-existent census at this period of time. If he was born during Herod’s reign then this must have been before 4 BCE when Herod died. The Pagan philosopher Celsus wrote in about 178 CE that Jesus was the illegitimate son of Mary and a Roman legionary. There is an old tradition in the Talmud that Yeshu, or Jesus, was the son of a Roman legionary called Panthera, Pantera or Pandera. The name Jesus was common at that time and we are not certain that the Talmud was mentioning the Jesus of the New Testament.
The Book of James (assumed to be Jesus’ brother) says that Mary was one of seven Temple Virgins kept by the High Priest in Jerusalem. Moreover James states, as does Matthew’s Gospel, that it is Mary who was from David’s line, and not Joseph. She was already six months pregnant when Joseph met her and he was held responsible of this fact by the High Priest. James adds that Joseph had been married before, that he was going to Bethlehem to register his first children in the census, and that he did not know what to do about Mary’s child. The fact that Jesus was born in a cave, or a stable, was due to the fact that Joseph was ashamed to take his pregnant fiancé to a normal inn. However he found a midwife, and Jesus was born there. Jesus’ birth is only mentioned in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Matthew found that the nativity of Jesus was foreseen in the book of Isaiah in the Hebrew Bible, as well as by the prophet Micah, even if this last prophecy is not very clear. According to Luke some Angels first told some shepherds of Jesus’ birth. The New Testament does not say where Jesus was born and, more specifically, never mentions that it was in a stable. Luke then tells us that, like all Jewish boys, Jesus was circumcised on the eighth day. Mary and her family went to Jerusalem where they met Simeon who told them that Jesus was the Messiah Israel was waiting. Afterwards they went back to Nazareth where Jesus grew up. Matthew gives us more detail about Jesus’ birth as, for instance, Herod’ jealousy when he heard that a rival King was born in Bethlehem. As a result he ordered all male children under two years of age to be slain. To escape the massacre Joseph took his family to Egypt, as foreseen in the old prophecy from Hosea. However we have no proof that Jesus ever went to Egypt.
In Thomas’ Gospel, written in the fourth century but based on a second century Greek Gospel, Jesus was two years old when he escaped to Egypt with his family. Thomas agrees with Matthew that an Angel informed the Holy Family of Herod’s death. They could then go home safely, first to Capernaum, then to Nazareth, where Jesus, as a grown-up, started preaching. The Gospels tell us very little or nothing of Jesus’ childhood. The apocryphal writings are more explicit and tell us that his education was not without problem, as he knew of his divinity. He revealed his power by first making people mad, deaf or blind before making them well again. He is also assumed to have stricken people dead only to bring them back to life again. His teacher, Zacheus, thought that he was a sorcerer, a God or an angel. He was not behaving as a perfect obedient child, even with his parents. In Luke’s Gospel we are told that he went to Jerusalem with his parents for Passover when he was twelve. After the feast his parents set off home, and he stayed behind without informing them. They had assumed that he was somewhere with their party but, when they realized that he was missing, they had to go back to Jerusalem. They found him in the Temple and, as any parent would, they remonstrated with him. He answered “Did not you know that I must be in my Father’s house”. They already knew, of course, that he was a special child. However, even in the Gospels, he always appears to be very rude to his mother and to his family; at some point they believed that he was mad. Even if the Gospels do not say anything on this subject, it seems that Joseph had been already married before he met Mary. This would explain why Mark’s Gospel could speak of Jesus’ large family.
According to this book Jesus had four brothers (James, Joset, Simon and Jude) as well as some sisters. This assumption could explain the Roman-Catholics beliefs that Mary remained always a virgin. Tradition tells us that James was the leader of the first Christians in Jerusalem. However we do not know anything for certain about Jesus’ home life with his brothers and sisters. Only the legends and traditions, as well as some medieval writings, tell us more details, like the possibility that Jesus visited Britain as a boy with Joseph of Arimathea. Very little written evidence about Jesus survives, even in the non-Christian sources. This has led many historians to think that such a person, as Jesus never existed. Tacitus in his Annals, Pliny the Younger and the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus made some slight remarks about Him, but not enough to prove anything. They described Him more as a wise man that as a God. The Christian Church has filtered all the other evidences that reached us. After Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire during Constantine rule (he died in 337 CE), all the evidences that contradicted the Orthodox views of Jesus were destroyed or modified. Everybody must decide for himself if Jesus has been invented by some mythmakers or, if he really existed as described in the Gospels.
The documents found in 1945 near Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt, and those found near Qumran in 1947, help us to broaden our knowledge. These Gnostic Christian Writings include the Book of James, the Apocalypses of Peter and Paul. In addition the Dead Sea Scrolls contain versions of the Scriptures, rules of religious life, work of Astrology, Messianic prophecy, apocalypse and moral teaching, … written by a monastic community at the time of Jesus at Qumran, about twenty miles from Jerusalem. These documents are very similar to some of the New Testament writings, in particular to the fourth Gospel. Semitic studies have also brought deeper knowledge of the life at the time of Jesus, as well as the hope that a portrait of the historical Jesus will be possible one day.
One of the first miracles of Jesus took place at Ca’na, in Galilee, where he turned water into wine at a wedding ceremony. However, why did the servants go to Jesus when they realized that the wine was about to run out? Normally this problem is to be solved by the host or by the bridegroom. In this case would it mean that this happened at Jesus’ own wedding? The New Testament never mentions that Jesus was unmarried. In fact it would have been most unusual for a young Jewish male, at that time, to be unmarried. We presume that he was not a member of the Qumran community so that he was not obliged to follow the strict celebratory rules of the Essenes. According to the Gospels he was not ascetic and, probably, the contrary. The Gospels tell us very little about Jesus. We do not know what he looked like, or if he was married and had children.
Mark and John’s Gospels do not even mention his birth or childhood. He enters their stories after they have introduced his forerunner, John-the-Baptist. John was much more popular that Jesus then and he preached his own religion that survived until about 50 CE, as told in the Acts. For instance, when Paul arrived in Ephesus he noticed that the “disciples” there had never heard of Jesus or the Holy Spirit. They only knew John-the-Baptist and they thought that “The Way”, as the religion of these early believers was known, meant following “The Baptism of John” as their first preacher, Apollos, had told them, and as he had told the Corinthians too.
From the New Testament, we learn that John had many followers and that, like Jesus, he was arrested and condemned to death. When Herod first heard of the popularity of Jesus he thought that John had risen from his grave. If Paul had not been such a strong believer in Jesus the new religion could have been that preached by John, and it would not have been very different. In this case the New Testament would have been interpreted as saying that John was Divine, but this did not happen. Some historians have wondered if John-the-Baptist was an Essene but there is no clear answer to this question. What we can say is that his teaching was not Essene since he believed that all people could be saved, whereas the Essenes thought that this was only possible for the Elects. However he could have been associated with this sect some time before, as his teaching seems to be inspired in part by their beliefs. John thought that the end of the world was near, and that a Messiah was on his way to save the people who had first to be purified by water and repentance. It is through his dealings with people that we can understand what sort of man Jesus was. He is accorded the authority of the exorcist and healer. Once Jesus met a very strong wild man who was living in the mountain and he soon realized that some “devils” were living inside him. Jesus commanded the devils to come out of the man and to go inside a herd of pigs nearby. The pigs became so frightened by the devils, or the man’ shrieks, that they jumped off the mountain and killed themselves. The Gentile farmer asked politely Jesus to go and perform his miracles somewhere else; he could accept that the Jews were not eating pigs, but to destroy them was too much for him to accept.
Jairus (Yair), the ruler of the synagogue in Capernaum, was desperate because his daughter was very ill and ready to die anytime. While Jesus was on his way, a woman suffering from hemorrhages touched Him and was healed. When he arrived at Jairus’ house the funeral was in progress, but Jesus said that the girl was not dead and everybody laughed. He asked the people to leave and he told the girl to get up and she did it. Thinking that the girl would be hungry he told his parents to feed her, and not to tell anyone that she was healed. By contrast with St Paul and the early Christians, Jesus was not afraid of women and he treated them as equal to men although that was against the customs of that period.
Near Capernaum was the town of Magdala where about 30 to 40,000 people lived at that time. Mary Magdalene came from this town and she became one of his followers after he chased “seven devils” out of her, meaning that she probably was epileptic. She was wrongly identified in the early Church as the prostitute who anointed Jesus’ feet in the house of Simon the Pharisee. She was also identified with another Mary from the village of Bethany, near Jerusalem. There is no evidence in the New Testament that she was a prostitute, a sinner, Jesus’ wife or his lover, or that she immigrated to France where she was buried in Aix-en-Provence. Her closeness to Jesus is shown, as she was a witness to his resurrection, as mentioned in the Gospels. The presence of so many women among his followers is an indication that Jesus was not planing an armed insurrection against the Romans. Once Jesus went to the house of Simon, the Pharisee. A woman known as being a sinner came in with some ointment. She went down on her knees and, with her tears, she wet Jesus’ feet, dried them with her hair, kissed and anointed them with the ointment she had brought in. The Pharisee Simon protested that Jesus, if he was a Prophet, should have known which woman she was and sent her away. Jesus told Simon that nobody, but this woman, washed his feet, dried and kissed them after he came into his house. As a result, her sins, which were many, were forgiven.
This story is similar to that told in the fourth Gospel of the woman who committed adultery. Brought by the Pharisees in front of Jesus for judgement, he was reminded that the Law of Moses said that she should be stoned to death. He refused to do this and told the crowd: “He that is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone at her“. After the Pharisees had left he sent her away without condemning her, but only after he told her to stop sinning. Many stories in the Gospels represent Jesus as being friendly with the sinners. In his parables, and in his life, he preached for their forgiveness, and he admitted them in the Kingdom.
This was the authentic Jesus’ teaching and it was not the teaching of the early Church, nor St Paul’s. For instance the “Acts of the Apostles” made it clear that sinners were not welcome in church: Ananias and Saphira were killed by St Peter, after being baptized, for giving only have of their worldly goods to the Church. He wanted all!
One of the most intense moments in the Gospels is the Transfiguration, that is when three friends of Jesus saw Him shine with light and they realized that he was one of the Enlightened, like Moses and Elijah. This story and the miracle of the loaves are important because they help to define Jesus in the eyes of other people. They help us to understand not only how these stories fit in the Gospels but also the formation of the Gospels, as well as how they determine the course of Jesus’ life. The Transfiguration does not appear in the fourth Gospel, as it is not necessary from a theological point of view.
The healing and the teaching go together with Jesus; people came to Him not only to be healed but, also, because in the process of healing they came to understand more the love of their Creator. It is why Jesus, as other healers, proclaimed the forgiveness of the sick person’ sins. The Pharisees objected to this, as well as those who believe that sin can only be forgiven by the death of Jesus on the cross. They were wrong, as Jesus’ message was that the Heavenly Father had forgiven them.
The Pharisees and the Essenes who believed that forgiveness could only be offered to the Pure saw this as a scandal. Nevertheless he had achieved a high degree of pureness and enlightenment himself, even if the Gospels tell us that Jesus often lost his temper, quarreled with his family, and made mistakes. In other words he is described as a human being. The episode called the “Loaves” is very important to understand Jesus’ working method. According to the fourth Gospel Jesus crossed the Sea of Galilee to the sea of Tiberias.
Jesus climbed off the boat and sat with his disciples. Although it was near Passover, a crowd was following Him. Jesus wanted to find some bread to feed them but all His disciples Philip and Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother could find were five barley loaves and two fish that a young boy was carrying and this was not enough. Jesus asked the five thousand people present to sit down and forget their differences. He then took the five loafs and the fish and, after giving thanks, his disciples saw that there was enough to feed the crowd. Afterwards he told his disciples to collect the remains and these filled twelve baskets.
Like the Pharisees, the Essenes and many others, Jesus believed that Israel should return to the Lord in a spirit of penitence and joy. But unlike the others Jesus thought that any Jew could turn back to the Lord and not only the Chosen Ones. It only required trust in God, love of God and respect of the neighbors as told by the Torah. In the crowd that followed him in the desert there were all kinds of people: “Sicari”, Zealots, Pharisees, … and ordinary people. By making these five thousand men to sit down Jesus made them forget their problems, their desire to attack the Romans, their greed, their violent instincts, their sectarism, … He was, in fact, obliging them to behave peacefully. When he preached to them about a “Kingdom not of this World” they saw Him as their natural leader against the Romans and they wanted to make Him, whom they identified as their Messiah, their King. But he refused as his is the Kingdom of Love found in Heaven, and he never pretended to be the Messiah they were expecting.
The Final days
The fourth Gospel tells us that Jesus was travelling all the time between Galilee and Jerusalem, and that his conflict with the Jews and the Pharisees had already reached a high level a few months before the final confrontation. The confrontation between Jesus and the Jewish priests about ritual purification and the observance of the Sabbath happened in Galilee where the Scribes and the Pharisees also wanted to put him to death. The last journey to Jerusalem of Christ and his followers took place towards the end of March in the year 30 CE, in time to be present at the feast of the Passover. He arrived in Jerusalem from Galilee with his disciples the Sunday proceeding the Passover 30 CE. Mark implies that Jesus knew something that his followers did not know. He presents Jesus as a Galilean who did not know the city although, through his description of the Triumphal Entry in Jerusalem and the Last Supper, we know that Jesus had arranged the program in advance. Jesus stayed in Bethlehem, three miles out of Jerusalem. He instructed his followers to go and get a donkey from his owner living in the village, with whom he had made arrangements, unknown to his disciples. For the first time we learn that Jesus will ride a donkey as foreseen by Zechariah in the Scriptures. In this way the King was coming to Zion on a mission of peace. The Messianic Kingship of Jesus was about to be revealed to the people. It looks as if Jesus was not making sense anymore. At the Feeding of the Five Thousands, in the desert, he had urged the people of Israel to forget their differences, to abandon political terrorism, and to submit to God. When the people tried to make him a King he refused, arguing that His Kingdom was not on earth but in Heaven. And here He is behaving as a King, pulling the attention of the authorities on himself as never before. The exact role of the Twelve in all this is not clear. At the Last Supper Jesus made a remark to Judas that was not understood by the others, as if he knew that he would soon be arrested. Matthew tells us that Judas went to the High Priests offering to betray Jesus for a sum of money. All this confusion tends to show that Jesus’ followers did not know what was going on in the last days of his life and that, even afterwards, they were not able to make sense of his actions. Obviously Jesus was in contact with people in Jerusalem with whom he was planning something unknown to the twelve. He was involved in some actions that would lead inevitably to his death.
We do not know if Jesus knew what was going to happen but, if he did, he was certainly going to use it to demonstrate the power of God to start the Messianic Age. The Zealots and the other rebels were preparing more riots and, for them, Jesus was the best leader to unit Jewry against the Romans. On the other hand the upper class priestly Sadducees would try to stop the creation of another heretic sect (Jesus admitted the sinners in his Kingdom) and, what is more, led by a Galilean. The Romans, always afraid of the Jews, were also ready to stamp out any riot. His closer disciples, the Twelve, thought they knew what was going on but only a few knew (Judas?). Most were left in the dark. Jesus was imitating Simon Maccabeus who also rode into Jerusalem on a donkey in the second century BCE. The large crowd, cheering and following him must have known in advance of Jesus’ entry. The faithful were supposed to walk into Jerusalem at Passover and, by choosing to ride a donkey, Jesus made himself stand out. Mark tells us that on the first day Jesus entered the city, went to the Temple, looked around and showed himself to the public because, if he was popular in Galilee, here in Jerusalem he was practically unknown. Later that day, after his “triumphal entry”, he went back to his friends in Bethany where he lived the last week of his life.
The Feast of the Unleavened Bread was near and Jesus, his disciples, thousand of pilgrims, as well as the 25 to 30.000 inhabitants of Jerusalem, were getting ready for the Passover. The Paschal Lambs had to be eaten within the limits of the city and, as it was forbidden to eat it outside, hundred of thousand of people came in the city for their meal. Although it could be very cold in Jerusalem at that time of the year many pilgrims had to eat outside, near their tents, on rooftops, or in the Temple Courts near the spot where the lambs were sacrificed. Mark tells us that the Jewish authorities were already plotting Jesus’ death but there is no proof that this was the case. Mark wrote that the disciples asked Jesus where they would eat their Passover meal on the Unleavened Bread feast first day (7 April 30 CE). They were afraid that they would have to eat it outside with the poorer pilgrims. Jesus, who was staying in Bethany outside the city limits, told them to go to Jerusalem, to look for a man carrying a pitcher of water, to follow him until he went into a house, and then to ask him “where is the Master’s guest-chamber, where he shall eat the Passover with his disciples?”. They would then be shown a large upper room furnished and ready. We do not know whom the man carrying the water was, who paid for the meal, although it is a fact that Judas was managing Jesus’ money. That day everybody ate the same meal, prepared as described in the Scriptures to remind them of the faithful Jews that had been freed from slavery in Egypt. Mark tells us that Jesus announced to his disciples that week that his end would happen during this Passover. The Twelve gathered in the upper room in a state of great suspense. Jesus removed his clothes and draped himself in a towel, then, like a slave, he washed the feet of his guests. Simon Peter objected to this reversal of hierarchies, forgetting that Jesus had said that in the New Kingdom “the first should be the last, and the least the greatest”. Jesus fell alone that night as the disciples failed to understand him. He knew that he would be arrested soon and that one of the disciples would betray him.
The meal began with no women present as he thought that the evening would finish in violence, and he did not want his mother and the other female followers to be present. Wine was served as required for that feast (it is known that Jesus liked to drink some wine, Matthew 11:1). At the end of the meal Jesus sent Judas Iscariot out, the disciples did not know why, but he was on his way to betray the Master to the authorities. There are many explanations for Judas’ actions: he was bribed by the high priests, according to some, or he had political disagreements with Jesus on the participation in the revolt against the Romans. It is also difficult to understand why identification by Judas was required if He was so notorious. However it was a dark night and Jesus’ head would have been covered.
The authorities knew that a revolt was planned before Passover and Judas’ participation in it. As they needed the help of somebody who knew Jesus’ whereabouts to recognize him in the narrow and crowded streets of Jerusalem, they arrested Judas, who chose to betray his master rather that the rebels. Jesus was thought to be the head of the rebellion and the authorities decided to arrest him at night when the pilgrims were still eating their sacred meal, rather that during the day, when he was preaching or walking in the Temple Courts as this could have led to a public outcry. After Judas had left, Jesus talked at long to his disciples and prayed to the Father. For the fourth Evangelist, the Supper was not the Passover meal but a preparation meal. For him, Jesus is the true Pascha Lamb who dies on the cross one day earlier that the Synoptic Jesus, that is at the same time the lambs were sacrificed in the Temple. John did not mention the Eucharist, although it is known that even the first Christians met to break bread and bless the wine, and this was not an ordinary meal. Twenty-five years after Jesus’ death, St Paul was writing to his converts in Corinth to remind them the ritual of breaking bread and drinking wine that Christ initiated at the Last Supper: “This is my body which is for you… this cup is the new covenant in my blood… Do this in remembrance of Me...”. However we do not know what came first, the cult that survived until now, or the story that explains the origin of the cult.
The present day Christians still believe that Christ lives in the holy bread that they share, as it is to be expected from one who founded a new religion that was to spread beyond the confines of Jewry to the entire Gentile world. But as we know that Jesus did not intend to launch a Church that would spread to the Gentile world, then the origins of the Eucharist seem more doubtful. By not mentioning that Jesus blessed the bread and wine and told his disciples to do this in memory of Him, John implies that this did not take place at Last Supper, even if they ate together. All the New Testament writers present Jesus in his last days as fulfilling the stories and prophecies of the Hebrew Bible. He becomes the Pascha-lamb, and the blessing of the bread and wine becomes a sacrifice, the offering of this Lamb. The imaginative and emotional power of the rite, as well as the fact that it is still the focus of the religious life of so many people to day, blinds us to the fact that Jesus most probably did not institute the Eucharist also known as the first mass. It would only make sense if he had founded a Church for the Gentiles, with its present organization of cardinals, bishops, priests and sacraments. If Jesus was coming back to-day he would not understand what was going on in any Christian Church as there is a big difference between his teaching and modern Christianity. On the other hand, the teaching of St Paul about the Eucharist is still the credo of the Church now, and Jesus could not anticipate it. After he finished talking, his disciples sang a hymn, and Jesus went to Gethsemane (John 18:1), the Mount of Olives, a place where Jesus liked to go, and known to Judas.
This garden and the olive trees still exist to day. Did Jesus know that he was going to die, nobody knows. If he knew then we must assume that he did something that was forbidden, some capital offences that we do not know, but that would lead to his condemnation. But he knew that his last day had come and he was filled with fear and sorrow. We must not forget that Jesus was not a theologian, or a philosopher, but a visionary, and so he knew. He also foretold the later destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple that came in 70 CE. We do not know why he sent Judas out of the Upper Room, and if he betrayed him.
He could have been sent to ask some people -the Zealots?- to come to Gethsemane to talk perhaps about the planned uprising (to cancel it or to organize it, and he could have been caught by the high priests and obliged to lead them to Jesus). Or even he could have sent him to the Jewish authorities to try to find a way to cancel the rebellion. We will never know the truth. The agony in the garden of Gethsemane is the most poignant moment of the passion. Now Jesus is alone with Peter, James and John, the same disciples who witnessed the Transfiguration. They fell asleep having drank too much wine; Jesus was on his own with nobody to witness His suffering and the confrontation with His Heavenly Father that led to his sweat becoming great drops of blood. A young man wearing a shroud appeared to Jesus in the park. Whether he was dressed like this to be baptized, or because he had heard that the End of Time was coming, we do not know.
Many theories have been put forward about what happened within the last twelve hours of Jesus, also known as his Passion. The truth is that we know little. At the supper all his disciples have sworn loyalty to him, although he said that one of them would betray him. Peter protested that he would stand by his Master but Jesus replied that “before the night was out and the cock had crowed twice, Peter would have denied him trice“. Then as Jesus was waiting alone, light of torches could be seen approaching with the typical noise of armed men advancing on him. According to the Evangelists these armed men had been sent by the chief priests to put Jesus under arrest.
The Synoptic Gospels tell us that Judas kissed Jesus to identify him to the soldiers. According to Luke, Jesus said- “Judas, would you betray the Son of Man with a kiss“? It is difficult to see how the disciples knew that Judas betrayed Jesus. As we have been told, those close to him were asleep. It could very well be that Judas was first arrested and forced to identify his Master. Simon Peter drew his sword and hit on the ear the high priest’ servant, Malchus, who supervised the arrest. Mark said that the ear was cut off and Luke adds that Jesus stuck in back on. It has been suggested that Malchus and Paul was the same person. Peter ran away in the darkness with all the other disciples and followers. The soldiers took hold of Jesus and a young man in a shroud that, however, was able to escape naked, and Jesus was left alone with his captors.We have been told that Judas received thirty pieces of silver for his help. Later on he threw them back to the priests and the money was used to buy a piece of land called “Potter’s field”.
Pontius Pilate, the Prefect of Judea from 26 to 36 CE, lived normally in the seaport of Caesarea. When there was any sign of possible disturbances he used to go to Jerusalem with many soldiers. There he would stay in the castle built by Herod the Great on the western hill of Jerusalem. The knowledge that somebody had been proclaimed King of Galilee, even if it was outside his jurisdiction, and the huge gathering in the desert, must have alarmed him. Now he was told that this man was in Jerusalem. He was told of the demonstration of his Kingship when he rode into the city on a donkey, of the disturbances at the Temple when he turned over the moneychangers’ tables. He was also told that Jesus had quarreled with the scribes and the Pharisees about ritual observance, but this was no news for him as the Jews always disagree between them. He knew too that Jesus attracted large crowd as a miracle-worker, a healer and an exorcist; this he must not have liked as large crowd meant troubles. He was also aware that among his followers there were Zealots and “sicari”. For all these reasons it could be possible that it was he who had Judas arrested with other Jewish patriots already condemned being crucified next day. To avoid rebellion he would not have hesitated to crucify Jesus too. The details of Jesus’ arrest and of his so-called trial are not known with accuracy as the only possible witnesses, his disciples, fled into hiding when they saw the soldiers coming, even if one or two followed him at a safe distance. His family was not present either during the trial and we have no trace that they spoke to him before he was crucified. The Gospels’ authors must then have invented the trial scenes, and the only proven historical fact is his crucifixion after being condemned by the Romans. The early Christians tried to hide this out of fear of the Romans and they tried to blame the Jews, who would have condemned him for blasphemy or for plotting to destroy the Temple. In the Gospels, Pontius Pilate is described as unwilling to condemn Jesus but urged to do it by the chief priests and the Sadducees. This explains, in part, the 2000 year old Christian anti-Semitism.
The Gospels must be treated with circumspection but it does not mean that we must dismiss them. However we must admit that the versions of the last hours of Jesus are different in John, Luke and in Matthew and Mark. We do not know anything from the moment Peter denied Jesus in front of the high priest to the moment when Jesus was shown to the crowd, dressed like a parody of a King, and after being tortured. As Peter, the Romans that mean that they were not involved in the plot or the armed insurrection did not arrest James and John. That also means, as the Gospels suggest, that Jesus had some contacts in Jerusalem that his disciples did not know. They did not know many things such as: the man who supplied the donkey for the triumphal entry in Jerusalem, the man who put the large upper room at their disposal for the Last Supper, on what charge Jesus was sent to Pilate or the reasons why he was condemned to death.
All the Gospels agree that after his arrest by Roman soldiers and Sanhedrin police, Jesus was taken to the house of the High Priest. Three terrorists had already been arrested during the disturbances that took place before Jesus was arrested; probably Jesus was involved, or believed to be involved, in them. We only know the name of one terrorist, Jesus Barabas. A large crowd had assembled in the courtyard of the house of the High Priest who was interrogating Jesus. Peter stood among them and a servant-girl (or was it the servant of the High Priest that was present at Jesus’ arrest and believed to be Paul) recognized him, but he denied knowing Jesus before and the cock crew. The servant, and the people present, insisted that Peter was a member of Jesus’ group but he denied again and the cock crew a second time. Peter recalled what Jesus had said about denying him and he wept. The high priest found that Jesus was guilty of blasphemy, believing two false witness testimonies. The first one swore that he wanted to destroy the Temple and rebuilt it in three days, and the other, that he identified himself as the “Son of Man”. These ideas are, of course, Christian ones. Under Jewish law it was not blasphemous for somebody to believe to be the Messiah, even if the religious authorities did not recognize him.
According to Josephus, the chief priests mediated between the Romans and the Jewish crowd. If “King Jesus” was going to start a rebellion the Romans would hold the high priests accountable for not informing them, not arresting the leader and not handing him to the proper Roman authority. At first the chief priests said that the leaders of the rebellion could not be identified. The Romans replied by killing some Jews in the Market place and arresting some others to crucify them. The chief priests asked the crowd to refrain from any provocation.
Jesus’ trial took place in this environment. The Christian tradition says that, after his arrest, Jesus had to walk among the screaming Jews who did not know him. Later on the Christians blamed them for His death that brought salvation to the world. It did not really matter if he was guilty of plotting against the Romans, what really mattered was that a crowd had proclaimed him King, that he had ridden into Jerusalem on a donkey to pull the crowd’s attention, and that he was responsible for some disturbances in the Temple. This was enough to arrest him and to give him to the Romans as a scapegoat. It is obvious that the Jewish authorities regarded him as guilty of a capital offence. That they arrived to this conclusion before or after his interrogation is not known. As the Jews had no power to execute him under the Roman law, they handed him to the Romans. As a result he was brought before the Supreme Governor as required by the law. It is at this point that Matthew tells us about Judas Iscariot’ suicide.
It is really a legend, as none of the disciples knew why Judas left the Supper, or was present when he received the bribe, or when he came back later on to throw back the thirty pieces of silver to the High Priest. The story had been written in this way to follow Zechariah’s prophecy. Matthew goes on to say that the High Priests used this money to buy the potter’s field, that is known at the present time as the Field of Blood. Afterwards Judas committed suicide but if this was due to remorse, or to avoid torture and crucifixion, is not known. The trial of Jesus before Pilate took place in the Practorium next morning. The priests told Pilate that Jesus was a criminal and that he deserved to be killed. Pilate first tried to avoid taking a decision by saying that it was a religious crime for which the Jews had jurisdiction; when he was told that Jesus was a Galilean he wanted to hand him to Herod. Obviously Pilate did not understand this Jewish problem and was afraid that if he had a popular “King of the Jews” killed, the probability of an uprising was increasing. He asked Jesus “Are you the King of the Jews?” His answer “My Kingdom is not of this world” meant that he was not interested to be the secular King of the Jews, that his Kingdom was unknown to Pilate, and that in the end his Kingdom would be the stronger. The New Testament tells us that at Passover the Romans had the habit to amnesty one prisoner. If the choice between Jesus Barabbas and Christ was left to the crowd, or if it was decided by the priests and Pilate, is of no importance. It is a fact that Jesus Barabbas, a terrorist accused of murder, was released to appease the people and Jesus Christ was condemned to death, scourged in Herod’s Palace, and tortured by the Roman soldiers. He was then shown to the crowd with a crown of thorns on his head, Pilate asked the Jews if they wanted him to crucify their King, and the priests answered that their only King was Caesar. This, probably, was done to save as many Jewish lives as possible since, after Pilate was asked to intervene, the problem was between the Romans on one side, and the Jews, including Jesus, on the other. It was expedient that one man should die to save the others from reprisal, and Jesus was the ideal scapegoat, the “Savior” of his race or, in other words, their representative. We do not know if other Jews where arrested that night, nor why Jesus was chosen as an example. It seems that no disciple of Jesus was arrested. This proves that Jesus and his followers were not involved in a plot because, if they had been, all of them would have been arrested and crucified.
After the horrible parade in front of the crowd Jesus was obliged to drag his cross to the place of execution, Golgotha. A man called Simon helped him. Eusebius, the fourth century historian, was present when the Holy Sepulchre and Golgotha were “discovered in 336 CE beneath a Venus temple erected by the Romans after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. A tomb, or sacred cave, was found beneath the temple and the Empress Helena and her fellow Christian soon “found” the True Cross, the Crown of Thorns and the spear with which the side of Jesus was pierced. However we do not know if this was the true site where Jesus died. All we know is that it was outside the city walls as the present Church of the holy Sepulchre, former temple of Aphrodite, would have been outside the city walls at the time of Jesus.
The chief priests complained because Pilate gave order to nail the following inscription in three languages -Latin, Greek and Hebrew- on Jesus’ cross: “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews“. It is obvious that he wanted to humiliate them. All the Gospels mention that the Roman soldiers cast lots for Jesus’ clothes after he had been nailed on the cross. From what we know they were expensive clothes. If we also take into consideration the results of the excavations of the house where he lived in Capernaum we must conclude that Jesus was far from being poor, even if he died as a rebellious slave.
Christian devotion to the figure of Jesus on the cross began a thousand years after the crucifixion when Anselm, the Archbishop of Canterbury from 1093 to 1109 introduced the rite. The adoration of a dying man on the cross has then a medieval origin whereas the Byzantine way of representing the Calvary depicted Christ in triumph robed and crowned on the cross like a high priest. The scene of his death must have been horrible for the witnesses, even if the Romans used frequently this punishment. One of the two criminals crucified alongside Jesus recognized his power and prayed him “Lord, remember me when you reach your Kingdom“. Other witnesses include his mother, Mary, his brothers, Mary of Magdala, Jose, Salome and John, the author of the fourth Gospel. As we notice, his family reappeared after being absent during his entire ministry and a kind of reconciliation is taking place. John also tells us that Jesus was thirsty, and how a Roman soldier put vinegar on a sponge and held it to his lips at the end of a long pole. He also tells us that Jesus talked to his mother and entrusted her to the protection of his “Beloved Disciple”, John. After drinking the vinegar, Jesus prayed and finally died after saying his famous words: “my God, my God why have you forsaken me?” One can say that Jesus in his passivity defied not only Pilate and the chief priests but, also, God himself. He came to the world and told the Jews that God was the Heavenly Father who loved his children as Jesus loved children whom he held in his arms and blessed in many occasions. He healed them and even raised them from the dead. He also healed the blind, the lame, the deaf and the mad.
He had foretold the coming of a Kingdom of Love and that Israel would find peace and unity. The life and death of Jesus can only be seen as the ultimate declaration of monotheistic faith, that God not only created the world, but that he sustains and loves it. Jesus had put his trust in God and was certain that the day of the Lord would come and, with it, justice to the poor and healing to the innocent sufferers. He also put himself in the position of the poorest of all, a slave to all. His reward had been arrest, torture, public humiliation, death on the cross and the Kingdom he prayed for did not materialize. Jesus was alive on the cross until the ninth hour, that is until 3.00 PM.
During the preceding three hours, darkness had fallen on Jerusalem. As he was already near collapse and exhaustion due to the torture, it is thought that he died within three hours after being nailed on the cross. He was made the figurehead of a popular movement in Galilee and, as he did not want it, he went to Jerusalem. But there too the same thing happened, and his entrance in the city on a donkey was triumphal. Probably he did not sleep much his last week and in Gethsemane he sweated blood. After his arrest he was interrogated for a whole night and tortured. There have been cases of crucifixion lasting three days, but most victims died before by asphyxiation. In the late afternoon the soldiers came to break his legs to speed his death and allow his family to bury him before sundown as prescribed by Jewish law. But Jesus was already dead and instead of breaking his legs the soldiers pierced his side with a spear and blood and water rushed out.
Burial, Resurrection and After
The Gospels are telling us that strange things happened in Jerusalem after Jesus’ death. The veil that separates the Inner Sanctum, the Holy of Holiest of the Temple, was torn apart. This was a symbol of the destruction of Judaism and the opening of the direct access from man to God as the result of Jesus’ death. Several tombs opened and the dead walked again.
According to Jewish Law a dead person should be buried before sundown, and Jesus’ family was very unhappy that he could not be buried in Galilee. Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, two rich and powerful members of the Sanhedrin as well as secret followers of Jesus, helped to take Jesus down the cross. Joseph is described as Jesus’ cousin who asked personally Pilate to be authorized to bury Jesus in a tomb he had prepared for himself. This shows us that Jesus had some acquaintances in Jerusalem, if not close associates, who had little to do with his Galilean fishing-friends. According to tradition, Pilate was surprised that Jesus was already dead. The tomb offered by Joseph of Arimathea was cut in the rock in a garden not far from where Jesus had been crucified and had never been used before. It is strange that Jesus, who had been led to his death by the Jews, was buried and anointed according to the Jewish tradition on the eve of Passover by such two powerful members of the Sanhedrin, with or without the help of some women.
A stone was then put across the entrance of the cave. From what we have learned Jesus was a man of his time and preoccupied by problems that have no more meaning to day. His universal appeal is also due to the fact that we know very little about him, besides the fact that he probably was an innocent man sent to trial first, and then condemned to death, for his ideas or merely for the convenience of the Jewish religious hierarchy. Paul, later on, saw the enormous imaginative appeal of the story of redemption through the atoning death of Jesus. He led us to believe that the Cross-was the focus of religious consolation and fascination, even if we know next to nothing of the man known as Jesus. Jesus remained within the tradition of the Jewish Prophets, preaching that God could only be pleased by human goodness and kindness, but he went as far and saying that religious observance was not enough. Mysticism, exorcisms, healing or casting off devils were not substituted for justice and virtue. This led him to mix with sinners and to forgive them in the name of God. When Christianity became a world religion it took these principles to itself. In other words he must have been an extraordinary person, but we do not really know why. Mark tells us that on the Third Day Mary Magdalene, Mary the Mother of James, and Salome came to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body with sweet spices.
They noticed that the stone that closed the entrance had been removed and that the cave was empty. A young man, or an Angel, told them that Jesus was not there anymore and they ran away in sheer terror. This, in itself, did not mean that Jesus had risen. His body could have been moved somewhere else, for instance in Galilee for burial. While escaping, according to Matthew, the women met Jesus who told them that he had risen and that he was going to Galilee. Later he appeared to the Twelve on a hill in Galilee and told them to go into the world, to teach all nations and to baptize them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. In this version Jesus would be the founder of the Catholic Church. This could explain why the Catholics insist that Matthew wrote the first Gospel. Luke also tells us the story of two men on the road to Emmaus.
They are disappointed because Jesus, whom they trusted before his death, did not redeem Israel as they expected him to do. A stranger joined them and convinced them that He fulfilled the predictions of the Jewish Scriptures. They invited the stranger in their home and he ate with them before disappearing from their side. For the believers this stranger was Jesus, but for anyone else he could have been somebody looking like him, for instance his brother James. The fourth Gospel has its own three resurrection stories. In the first, Mary Magdalene goes alone to the tomb on the Third Day and finds it empty. She runs to call Peter and the “other disciples that Jesus loved” but, they too, find the tomb empty and they go home. Mary then sees two angels sitting on the Sepulchre; she goes into the garden where she meets a stranger that she assumes to be the gardener, but it is Jesus. Strangely enough she does not recognize him and asks him where he has put the Christ’s body. Of course it is very strange that she did not recognize him. The only explanation is that it was not really Jesus himself but his brother, James, who looked very much like him, or even a spirit. The second story tells us that Jesus walked through a wall, or a door, into the room where his disciples were hiding in fear of the Jews.
Thomas, who was not present, refused to believe it and Jesus appeared to him and said – “reach with your hand and put it in my side and be a believer” and Doubting Thomas answered “My Lord and My God”. In his third resurrection story John takes us to Galilee where Jesus meets his disciples on the shore of the lake after one night where they did not catch any fish. He tells them to throw their nets on the right side of the boat and they bring back 153 fish. Here again, as with Mary Magdalene, and in the encounter on the road to Emmaus, the Disciples do not recognize Jesus. By that time Jesus wants to make Peter the head of his Church and he does it by telling him to “feed my lambs”. As the Gospels tell us, Jesus sent the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, fifty days after the Resurrection, to guide the Church. It is a known fact that at the beginning the Christian Church was not united and several groups, that did not share a common faith, thought they were the true heirs of Jesus. In the “Acts of the Apostles” we are told of Stephen, a Greek Jew, who did not believe in Temple-worshipping and blamed the Jerusalem religious hierarchy for most of the problems of the Jews. He did not suggest that Jesus was divine, or that he rose from the dead, even if he was a great Prophet. Stephen was later stoned to death for blasphemy at Paul’s instigation. The Twelve Apostles remained in Jerusalem under the leadership of James, Jesus’ brother; they did not share Stephen’s views but, on the opposite, they were worshipping in the Temple. Philip and the Hellenizers went to Samaria, a country between Galilee and Jerusalem. Jesus was very tolerant with the Samaritans whereas Paul persecuted them and they had to leave Jerusalem and go North in search of converts.
According to tradition Jesus died for our sins, was buried, rose after three days, first appeared to Mary Magdalene and Cephas, then to the twelve Apostles and, according to Paul, to more than 500 disciples and finally to James. Must we not rather believe that Jesus survived as a cult figure? At least this is found in three traditions.
First, to the Jewish “Church” of Jerusalem that remained in the traditional Jewish stream, the belief that Jesus had created a new church made no sense. These early Christians remembered Jesus as a Prophet and a holy man, even if this is only barely mentioned in the New Testament. We know from the “Acts of the Apostles” that the Jewish followers of Jesus reacted negatively to the preaching of “Jesus the Messiah” to the Gentiles, and to Paul suggestion to break away from Jewish rituals and traditions. These early followers of Jesus were Jews and remained such. However they disappeared with the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 CE. None of their writings, if any, survived to this day. Some quotations can be found in the New Testament and in the writing of the early Christians Iranaeus, Clement and Jerome who said that The Ebionites thought Paul was a heretic.
The cult preached by Paul, in a different form and to different people, mainly Gentiles who would not have understood the credo of the first-generation Jewish followers of Jesus. Among other things these Jewish followers rejected the idea to have Gentile Christians. Paul insisted to accept them and, in the end, he won after preaching in Asia Minor, Greece and Rome. The Gospels of Mark and Luke, and to a lesser extend that of Matthew, reflect Paul’s ideas.
The fourth Gospel reiterates the religion of a mystic Christ but refers equally to the authentic memory of Jesus as he actually lived on earth. In other words it describes the historical Jesus. That Gospel leads us to believe that the “Fourth Gospel Christians” did not agree with the idea of Gentile Christians, nor with the Jerusalem church. It would seem that these first Christians could be the only ones, who knew what He really was, although it is not certain that they would have told us the truth. It would, however, be a mistake to think that nothing can be known about Him. Research on contemporaries, or near-contemporaries, has told us a lot about Him. From these studies Jesus comes out as a first century “Hasid”, that is a Holy Man who went on healing the sick, casting out devils, controlling the weather and quarrelling with the official Jewish priests in Jerusalem. His teaching is based on his belief in God and in Judaism.
Jesus, the great apocalyptic prophet, the visionary teacher, the popular exorcist and healer was bound to die crucified by the Romans in Jerusalem. This was the most important period in Jesus’ life on earth and it justifies the Gospels in dealing mainly with it, leaving little space for his early and middle age years. We must always remember that the Gospels were written for the early Christians who, most probably, would have disagree with the creeds of the later Church, such as the Nicene creed of 325 CE. They believed, for instance, that Jesus would soon come back to earth to lead his followers in Heaven. The Gospel of Luke, and the Acts, were perhaps the first books to realize that this event had been delayed for one reason unknown. The Gospels were based on the belief that Jesus had risen from the dead, had left behind an empty tomb to prove it, and that he had later on appeared to some of his followers. The belief that Jesus was the Prophet described in the Scriptures, or the Evangelists in their writings have denied the Messiah. They know that the true story of his early years is very poor, as he did not achieve any of the things he wanted to do. He was in conflict with the mainstream of Judaism but we do not know what it was about. He was killed by the Romans who, forty years later, destroyed the Temple, the symbol of Judaism.
The failures of Jesus in his life, and the fact that his unknown mission ended on the cross, lead the Evangelists to two opposite conclusions.
The first one describes Jesus as a vulnerable being who is victim of the circumstances. He is betrayed by one of his followers and abandoned by the others. He begs the Almighty to deliver Him of his fate but even his Heavenly Father forsakes Him. Only his family is willing to take down the corpse from the cross. It has never been clear why this happened to Jesus. After all there were many false prophets in Judea at that time and they were not killed or even worse, crucified, the punishment for those who had offended the Romans. The Evangelists were embarrassed as they were writing for the Gentiles, in a world where the Jews were persecuted by the Romans for not accepting their conquerors. They tried as hard as they could to blame the troublemaker Jews for Jesus’ death, even if he was killed by the Romans for being a thread to Rome. From the doctrinal point of view, if they chose to believe that he was the prophet chosen by God to preach a new religion, his premature death is a problem. To solve this problem they tell us that Jesus foresaw his death and resurrection. Why then was he so afraid at the time of his arrest if he knew he would come back within three days? As we see, historical facts are mixed with doctrinal interpretations and it is difficult to separate them. We must also ask ourselves how it is possible that a group of poor and frightened followers, whose leader has been crucified, can be transformed in an active group of preachers ready to be killed for their faith? The explanation that all this is due to the “Pentecost”, or Resurrection effect, is not very credible. The Resurrection is important not so much for the changes in the disciple behavior but, above all, in the change it seems to have brought in Jesus and to his family. Although Jesus quarreled with his family, they alone were present at the end, burying his body and taking over his teaching after his death. Jesus quarreled with his family because he did not conform to their idea of what a prophet should be, or they expected him to be the Messiah that he was not. His teaching that sinners could be admitted to the Kingdom, and his readiness to mix with them, must have disappointed his family. Such scenes as a prostitute bathing Jesus’ feet with her tears, of drunkards asking for salvation at the dinner table, of devils being led out of lunatics into pigs, of tax-collectors being welcomed, must have been unbearable to them.
The second sees Jesus taking some very dangerous political risks by getting involved with rebels. This kind of association could even have unwanted repercussions on his family. Until the miracle of the Loaves Jesus was prepared to encourage the Zealots and the “Sicari”, of whom Judas was a member. After the crowd wanted to make him a King he realized that he was wrong. The people did not really understand that the “Kingdom” he spoke about was not of this world, whereas the rebels were thinking about Israel as a state. Moreover the Romans, when they heard Jesus talking about his Kingdom, became afraid. However Jesus the Prophet had not finished his teaching. If he gave all these lessons, as the Synoptic Gospels suggest, in his last week on earth, or over a longer period of time, is not known and is not important. It is probable that he overturned the tables of the moneychangers in the outer court of the Jerusalem Temple that he wept over the city and that the Romans would have destroyed the Jews and the Temple if they had not changed their ways. It is more difficult to believe the Evangelists when they say that Jesus foresaw his arrest and death. It is easier to accept that his followers forsook him after his arrest, that he was condemned by the Romans, crucified, buried in a tomb that was found empty three days later. In many occasions later on, his disciples became very excited when they saw a man whom they identified as Jesus. It reminded them of Herod who, upon seeing Jesus, thought that John the Baptist had risen from the dead. It is possible that the man seen by Mary in the garden, by the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, and by the fishermen near the lake of Galilee, was not Jesus but James, or another of his brothers. James and his other brothers carried on Jesus’ work, led his group of followers and taught them an austere Gospel that was more in line with the orthodox Jewish belief. This little group did not want to break away from Judaism, or admit Gentiles, and met regularly in the Temple. James was the perfect leader who gave them the confidence to await the coming of the Kingdom they were still expecting after the disillusion of the crucifixion. After the new ideas brought forward by Jesus, the little group settled in a routine of austerity that was similar to the Essenes and the Pharisees’ rules.
Fourteen years later they were much surprised to hear of a new “religion” preached by Paul, a Jew they had never met, in the synagogues of the Diaspora. This doctrine was completely different of that taught in the Church of James, a doctrine that made no difference between Jews and Gentiles. The dietary laws were forgotten as well as circumcision and even the Old scriptures had lost their primary importance. The Jerusalem Church asked Paul to come for a clarification meeting in Jerusalem.