Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 9 May 2010

9 May 2010 at 10:00 am

The Reverend Robert Reiss, Canon in Residence

Reading: Psalm 8

I am using the series of Matins sermons this month to look at the question of what we can realistically believe about Jesus Christ. Last week I looked at one view of Jesus produced by the author Philip Pullman, in which he was quite openly content to rewrite the gospel stories to create a rather different picture of Jesus from that contained in the Gospels. This week I want to look at another author who again uses the form of a novel to examine Jesus’ life, but does so with a very different purpose.

Gerd Theissen was a professor of theology in Copenhagen before moving to the University of Heidelberg as Professor. In his academic career he has developed a considerable reputation as a scholar knowledgeable about the politics, sociology, and customs of Palestine at the time of Jesus, and he brings all that knowledge to bear on the novel he wrote, first published in Germany in 1986 and then published the following year here in England under the title ‘The Shadow of the Galilean’. It is an unusual book of biblical scholarship in that it is immensely readable, even at times exciting!

It concerns a wholly fictional character, Andreas, who is a wealthy Jewish merchant living at the time of Jesus in Sepphoris, the administrative capital of Galilee, which is never actually mentioned in the Gospels, which shows how far Jesus was essentially a man of the country rather than the town. By a series of events Andreas gets forced into the role of being an informer for the Roman authorities, who are anxious to know what he can find out about the itinerant preacher Jesus, who is causing a stir in the country, and so the novel is the story of Andreas trying to find that information, and in the process Theissen sets Jesus very firmly into the context of first century Palestine. Indeed he says that he is ‘most averse to write anything about Jesus that is not based on sources’ and he goes on to say ‘There is nothing about Jesus in my book which I have not also taught at the university.’

Perhaps it is for that reason that Andreas only once sees Jesus, and that is just after Jesus has died on the cross. Theissen certainly does not make up any stories of a living contact with Jesus, but instead reports what he has heard from a variety of people within Palestine, and in the telling of that story Theissen conveys a wholly believable and realistic picture of Jesus and his effect on those who did encounter him.

The book certainly shows a disturbed and often violent country, where many of the Jewish inhabitants live very fragile and unhappy lives against the background of political unrest and profound economic uncertainty. Although Andreas is typical of the wealthy Jewish merchants of Jesus’ time most of the Jewish population are poor, with little opportunity of escaping the grinding poverty of their circumstances, and Jesus is presented as being essentially a man of the poor countryside rather than the more wealthy towns, although he is financially supported as an itinerant preacher by some more wealthy Jewish people. And in particular Theissen shows some of the deep divisions that were there in that society and how Jesus fitted in to that context.

First of all, for example, there is the conflict between those who collude with the Roman rule, like the ruling royal family of Herod Antipas in Galilee, and, to a lesser extent, some of the Temple authorities in Jerusalem, and on the other hand those who rebelled against Roman rule and were, in our more modern terminology, essentially terrorists, like the Zealots, one of whom, Simon the Zealot, was a disciple of Jesus. At one point in the novel Andreas is captured by a Zealot group and becomes their prisoner until he manages to do a deal with them aided by one of the Zealot party, Barabbas, who in the novel was already known to Andreas.

Now in that conflict between those two groups Theissen certainly shows clearly why the Roman authorities would be concerned about Jesus; anyone who attracted messianic hopes would have been very suspect to them. Theissen stresses that Jesus’ words, for example, about how leaders should treat people was about how the whole of Israel should behave; Jesus was not concerned about forming a church but reforming Israel, and that too would have been of concern to the Roman authorities, who would have suspected a connection with the revolutionary policies of the Zealots. But Theissen also shows why Jesus would have been unacceptable to the Zealots, his command, for example, to ‘love your enemies’ and ‘to turn the other cheek’ to those who strike you would have been very contrary to their view on how to live, and his ambiguous answer to the question about taxes, ‘render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, but to God the things that are God’s’ would not have pleased a real Zeolot, who would think that downright opposition to all things Roman was the only way for a true Jew to behave. In the novel Simon the Zealot was perceived as being a traitor by the other Zealots when he chose to follow Jesus.  In that conflict between the Romans and the Zealots Jesus could not be pigeon-holed.

And neither could he in a second area of conflict within Judaism concerning the Temple. On the one hand the Essene community, living on the edge of the Dead Sea, believed that the Temple was in the wrong hands, so they rejected the Temple worship and lived in their isolated community, What, if any, contact they had with John the Baptist is not known, but John worked in the wilderness, well away from the Temple, and he proclaimed a baptism of repentance that did not obviously require Temple sacrifices.

But then, on the other hand, there were the Temple authorities, deeply committed to the blood sacrifices of animals in the Temple and seeing the Temple as the essential centre of Jewish religious life. And what does Jesus do about the Temple? Well, he submits to John’s baptism, which itself would have been a public statement, he is reported as talking about the Temple being destroyed and rebuilt in three days, which would have been seen by the Temple authorities as deeply subversive, and, of course, he caused uproar by overturning the tables of the money changers and thus challenging the whole structure of those in charge. But his complaint against the Temple was not that it existed, but that it was being misused. At the very least Jesus was a radical reformer of the Temple practices.

So why, then, was he crucified? Well, it was partly because of his disruption of the Temple that the Temple authorities would have been opposed to him and may well have wanted him arrested. But also, as Theissen shows, the whole of Jerusalem would have been crowded for the Passover, and the Romans would naturally have been nervous of anyone who was believed at least by some to have messianic pretensions, and Jesus was executed on the orders of Pilate because he seen as a royal pretender, hence the title ‘The King of the Jews’ placed above the cross.

So what Theissen’s book does, very effectively in my view, is to set Jesus into his historical context, to explain why some would have wanted so much to follow this itinerant teacher, but also to explain what a very dangerous path Jesus took in his life. Why, then, did his later followers come to see him in a different way, as the second person of the Trinity, and what are we to make of the gospel picture of him as a miracle worker?  That latter question I shall look at next week.

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