Influences on the Historical Jesus

Influences on the Historical Jesus

James F. McGrath
Butler University

For many, the idea that one can speak of 'influences' on the historical Jesus and his thinking is tantamount to a denial of his divinity, and therefore likely to upset people. But let us turn the topic around and look at it the other way: historic Christianity has always maintained (in theory if not in practice) that Jesus is fully human. And so to deny that Jesus learned things from his parents and from others is tantamount to a denial of his humanity. If one wants to maintain historic Christianity, then one must maintain a genuine humanity and not just divinity. If one is not committed to historic Christianity, then neither will particularly be an issue. But the study of the historical Jesus is essentially the study of a human figure. That it is not inappropriate for Christians to think about Jesus in this way or to ask such questions is clear from Luke 2:52, which says that Jesus increased in wisdom, stature, and favor before God and before other people. How and whether such ideas can be harmonized with the belief (expressed in John's Gospel and in the creeds) that Jesus is 'God incarnate' is a theological problem, but it is not a problem the historian needs to be concerned with. The method of historical inquiry will treat Jesus as a human being - as essentially like every other human being, but as his own person. Questions about whether Jesus was more than a human being go beyond what historical study can investigate. And so let us continue in pursuing knowledge about the background and upbringing of this important individual who lived almost 2,000 years ago...

Growing Up… The Influence of Joseph and Mary

What kind of home was it that Jesus was raised in? Can we presume that, like other Jewish males (and as the combined evidence of Mark 6:3 and Matthew 13:55 suggests) he learned father’s trade? Did Joseph die while Jesus was relatively young, as is often suggested? Were they observant Jews? Were they ‘Judeans’? Ancient biography is relatively disinterested in these sorts of questions about psychology and childhood influences, when compared with modern biographies and modern interests, and so the Gospels tell us little about the formative years of Jesus’ life. Yet it is worth scrutinizing what little evidence we have, in the hope that it may turn up clues that will help us to better understand, and to better reconstruct, the life of the historical figure of Jesus of Nazareth.

John P. Meier notes that, in addition to the fact that Jesus’ family apparently traced its roots to the family of David and to Judea, the names of Jesus’ siblings that are recorded in the Gospels may also be significant. The names recorded are as follows: Jacob (=James), Joseph, Judah (=Jude=Judas), and Simon (=Simeon), as well as sisters whose names are not given. Meier notes (A Marginal Jew vol.3, p.616) that all these names hark back to the early days of the people of Israel: Jacob the patriarch later renamed Israel, names from the sons/tribes of Israel (Joseph, Judah, Simeon), and Joshua (=Jesus=Yeshu) the successor of Moses. Meier speculates that in this period in history, when Galilee had (in the late 2nd or early 1st century B.C.E., under the Hasmoneans) been united politically with Judea in a Jewish kingdom for the first time since the time of Solomon in the 10th century B.C.E., this may have created quite a religious fervor, an expectation of a mythical ‘return to the beginnings’. This is speculation: these may simply have been popular names. However, it is not illegitimate for a historian, on the basis of Joseph and Mary’s choice of so many religiously and historically significant names, to speculate about their religious views. This was a family that was presumably proud of its Jewish roots, to say the least, and of its claim to be of Davidic descent. Joseph’s and Mary’s parents would probably have been alive at the time when Galilee was incorporated into a Jewish state. Their names, and the names of their children, suggests that there was certainly a degree of patriotism and religious enthusiasm in this family into which Jesus was born and in which he grew up.

There is an additional piece of evidence that is suggestive concerning the kind of Judaism practiced in Jesus’ family. In his time, as in ours, there were ‘liberal’, ‘conservative’ and ‘ultra-orthodox’ Jews, although none of the modern groups associated with these names is exactly like its ancient counterpart. Nonetheless, there were degrees of ‘observantness’ as regards the Jewish law. The names of the members of Jesus’ family already suggests that this would have been a family of observant Jews. The reaction of his family to his ministry (they thought he was nuts), and the fact that James later became the ‘hero’ of law-observant Jewish Christianity, likewise confirms our supposition that this was a family of law-abiding Jews. They were presumably not Pharisees, but hardly anyone in Galilee was. Were they more law-observant than most other Jewish families in Galilee? It is hard to say. But when Josephus tells how James, the brother of Jesus, was put to death after being accused of breaking the Law, he makes it clear that it was a trumped-up charge, and that “as for those who seemed the most equitable of the citizens, and such people as were the most uneasy at the breach of the laws, they disliked what was done” and complained to King Agrippa about this abuse of authority by Ananus, who was high priest then, and a Sadducee (Antiquities 20.9.1). This suggests that popular opinion did not consider James likely to be a lawbreaker. Of course, it is possible that James and subsequent Jewish Christianity made leaps and bounds in the direction of stricter observance of the Law of Moses, in response to the increasing concern on this issue and intolerance of laxness in the decades leading up to the Jewish war against Rome. But if nothing else, it indicates that James’ brother was up to such a task and considered suitable to lead Jewish Christianity in such a direction.

One thing that an insight from comparative anthropology will suggest is this: for Jesus’ interaction with the unclean, the sinners, and other such people to have been shocking, scandalous, and provocative, Jesus himself must have been assumed to not belong to any of these categories. Just as there would be no scandal in an untouchable in India interacting with other untouchables, likewise for a known non-observant Jew to interact with other non-observant Jews in non-observant ways would not have led anyone to bat an eyelash. Only on the supposition that Jesus was expected and presumed to be of good Jewish stock, observant of the Torah, the Law of Moses, does the scandalous nature of his interaction with the unclean, the marginalized, the sinners and outcasts, make any sense whatsoever. Jesus’ association with John the Baptist serves to further confirm this: John called people to repentance and led an ascetic lifestyle. This suggests that, prior to engaging in his own public ministry and moving in another direction, Jesus was attracted by a brand of Judaism more morally rigorous and ascetic than the common Judaism practiced generally by most Jews. We shall have more to say about Jesus’ relation to John the Baptist later. But for our present purposes we may simply note that Jesus’ connection with John the Baptist suggests something about Jesus’ Jewish background. Of course, he could have been a Jew from a non-observant family that repented and for this reason accepted John’s baptism. However, the consideration of other evidence about Jesus’ family suggests that his family was one of “law abiding citizens”, which in the case of Jews meant observant of the Law of Moses. This background, plus his association with the even more rigorous movement led by John the Baptist, helps us to understand why Jesus is lambasted by his opponents as a ‘friend of sinners’ rather than simply being denounced as a sinner himself (cf. e.g. Mark 2:16). This accusation only makes sense if he was not generally perceived as a ‘sinner’ himself – in spite of hints of blasphemy (cf. Mark 2:7), allegations of demon possession (Mark 3:22), and practices that would have left him open to accusations of not observing the Sabbath (Mark 2:23 – although here he defends his disciples’ actions rather than his own). He may have been viewed as a ‘sinner’ in the eyes of the Pharisees or Essenes or other groups whose particular views he did not share, and he certainly does not appear to have defined things like “work on the Sabbath” in exactly the same way that certain others of his contemporaries did. But all things considered, the evidence suggests that, as regards his observance of the Law of Moses per se, he was not an obvious lawbreaker in any blatant manner that would have left him open to accusation, penalization, and sanction by the religious authorities.

Psychological portraits of Jesus often pay close attention to Joseph, and ask whether Jesus’ distinctive awareness of his heavenly Father was in any way affected by his relationship to his earthly father. It is a legitimate question, but one for which we have insufficient information to answer it with. Nonetheless, the fact that Jesus, after returning from his time spent with John the Baptist, chooses Capernaum rather than Nazareth as his base, plus the lack of any mention of Joseph after the infancy narratives and the rest of his family’s ambivalent attitude to his new-found ‘career’, all are highly suggestive. Some have suggested that Joseph died while Jesus was still relatively young; however, the evidence (albeit in the form of silence) perhaps points to Jesus having been effectively disinherited by his father. According to rabbinic tradition, this was not an uncommon parental reaction to one’s child deciding to become a rabbi and study Torah (See Martin Hengel, The Charismatic Leader and His Followers, Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1981, pp.31-32 for sources and further discussion).

            At any rate, Mark 6:1-6 tells us that Jesus visited Nazareth on at least one occasion, and those there recognized him. Their reaction (which, being unfavorable, probably has some historical basis in reality, although no one would claim that their exact words are recorded here) tells us a few things: (1) their question regarding his identity indicates he had not lived there or visited there for some time; (2) their reference to his mother and brothers suggests that either Joseph was away from home for some length of time, or perhaps was no longer alive. In either case, Jesus’ absence, and his return when his father is no longer there, may be suggestive. Jesus’ discipleship with John the Baptist rather than continuing in his father’s business may have been a decision made against his father’s will, and this could easily have led to Jesus leaving Nazareth on the condition that he not return.

            If our speculation is accurate, then perhaps Mark 3:20-21,31-35 suggests that when Joseph was dying or ill, his family thought that they might make one last attempt at reconciliation, bringing Jesus home by force and begging Joseph to accept that he is out of his mind and not simply a disobedient son. But when they try to get a message to them, he insults them too: I have other mothers and brothers now, those who do the will of God (which presumably his own family, in rejecting and doubting his ministry, did not). Jesus’ relationship to Nazareth and his family must be studied and interpreted in the context of family relations in that cultural context, rather than assuming that it was perfectly acceptable for a man Jesus’ age to remain unmarried, leave his family business, and attach himself to a radical, unkempt Judean preacher regardless of his family’s wishes. Presumably if Jesus made the radical statement “Let the dead bury their dead” as a challenge to someone else concerned with family commitments, he had already practiced what he preached. Perhaps those words were first uttered with his own father and family in mind. This is far from certain, but it certainly fits what little evidence we do have from our earliest sources concerning Jesus’ relationship to his family, and his call to those who follow him to leave behind and even ‘hate’ their families. It is not unreasonable to presume that Jesus did first what he also subsequently asked his followers to do.

            Up until that point, however, it is not inconceivable that Jesus worked as a carpenter. Mark 6:3 calls Jesus ‘the carpenter’, and it is reasonable to conclude (as the author of Matthew does in 13:55) that this was the profession of his father Joseph too. A tekton, if he worked in wood, was someone who made wood products of all sorts: he would not have worked primarily on houses, however, since homes were not normally made from wood. For the most part he would have made wood furniture like tables, chairs, and beds, as well as door frames, crates, and farming tools such as yokes, plows, and even carts and wagons.

Marcus Borg asserts that a tekton or woodworker was on the lower end of the social spectrum, a family that at some point had lost its land. He further states that a carpenter would have been a step below rather than a step above the typical subsistence farmer (Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1994, p.26). If this is correct, this sheds some light on Luke’s alleged connection of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem to Quirinius’ census: it is unlikely that this family had property anywhere other than in Nazareth, and thus the census is unlikely to have had any effect on Joseph and Mary whatsoever. It should be noted, however, that in Greek tekton can mean any kind of worker or artisan who works in any hard substance, whether wood, stone, or ivory. Nevertheless, its universal translation as ‘woodworker’ in the ancient versions of the Gospel (e.g. into Syriac, Coptic, etc.) and the universal interpretation of the early Church Fathers all indicate that in the two Gospel references in Mark and Matthew it has its most usual meaning in ancient Greek, namely ‘woodworker’. But here we must beware of reading modern meanings of poor back into the ancient world: most people then were roughly equally poor, and Jesus was not in the situation of a day laborer or slave, and so John Meier (A Marginal Jew, vol.1, p.282) places Jesus as roughly at the lower end of that middle majority group (which emphatically does NOT mean ‘middle class’) between the extremes of very rich and very poor. Jesus therefore would have been roughly ‘in the same boat’ as pretty much everyone else in Nazareth. And it is very possible that the numerous large construction projects associated with the rebuilding of Sepphoris in the early 1st century C.E. may have had a beneficial effect on the family’s situation.

Jesus’ Social Status

Jesus’ status was not, however, that of ‘abject poverty’ any more than this was the situation of the majority of his contemporaries. Jesus inherited a profession that was honorable, and he was apparently able to support his family (for a time at least) by practicing this profession, and thus to preserve the family’s honor. Jesus was thus poor only in the sense that 90% of his contemporaries also were ‘poor’, and he was not among the ‘poorest of the poor’ as were day laborers, slaves, and beggars (so John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew. Volume 3, New York: Doubleday, 2001, p.620).

His profession and other indications (particularly in Luke’s Gospel) might suggest that Jesus came from a relatively low social class and lived in relative poverty. Yet as we have just seen, this may or may not be the case. But at any rate, even if Jesus were to be classed as ‘poor’, certainly by the time he is engaged in public ministry, he cannot be viewed in this way any longer in any simplistic sense. The Gospels unanimously portray Jesus as being in contact with both the affluent and the poor, the Pharisees and the unclean, with chief tax collectors and women who can afford to spend an average person’s annual wage on perfume and pour it all on Jesus in one go (as is noted by John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew. Vol.3, pp.27-28). We must therefore focus on the social realities of itinerant, charismatic healers and teachers in an ancient context, and the ability of charismatic authority to transform one’s social status.

Education and Language

Aramaic, Greek, Hebrew

Galilee, the Romans, and the Revolutionaries

Galilee was not under direct Roman rule, and so it seems unlikely that Jesus growing up in Nazareth had much if any direct contact with Roman soldiers. As John P. Meier puts it (A Marginal Jew vol.3, pp.618-619), “Upon Herod the Great’s death in 4 B.C., Galilee became part of the tetrarchy of Herod’s son, Antipas. As a mere tetrarch or minor prince, Antipas was in a more delicate and vulnerable position than his father. Yet, like his father, he retained basic autonomy in internal affairs. Most important, he maintained his own army. Contrary to the absurdities of TV movies, there were no Roman armies stationed in Galilee during Jesus’ lifetime. Moreover, Antipas minted his own money, and he carefully avoided printing on his coins human figures or animal figures offensive to Jewish sensibilities. Antipas himself collected taxes from his subjects and turned around to pay tribute to Rome. He thus acted as something of a soothing buffer; his individual Galilean/Jewish subjects, unlike their coreligionists in the imperial province of Judea to the south, did not have to pay direct tribute to Rome.”

How much did Galileans talk about what was going on in Judea and Jerusalem? That is another question. At any rate, even with its degree of semi-independence, Galilee still had to pay tribute to Rome, even if not Roman taxes, and so there may nonetheless been as much resentment of Rome and desire to have full independence as there was during most of Israel’s history, when Israel was in the similar position of being a semi-independent vassal in a larger empire and obliged to pay tribute, whether to the Assyrians or the Babylonians.

            Contrary to popular belief, there were no Zealots (with a capital ‘Z’) in this time. An organized group with this name only appears in connection with the outbreak of the Jewish revolt in the 60s C.E. Prior to that, there were individual figures who proclaimed a political, revolutionary, and occasionally a messianic message. One notable example is Judah, nicknamed ‘the Galilean’, who stirred up trouble at the time of Quirinius’ census in Judea. But one figure nicknamed ‘the Galilean’ does not provide sufficient indication that Galilee was a “hotbed of revolutionary unrest” as is sometimes claimed. Later, under direct Roman rule, Galileans and Judeans would eventually collaborate in their revolt against Rome, and some of the influential figures would be Galileans. But in Jesus’ time, prior to Roman rule, we have no evidence of any united organized group with revolutionary aims, much less one that would have had any influence in the still independent Galilee.

            To what extent was Galilee ‘Jewish’? That Judea ‘annexed’ Galilee during the Maccabean period is clear. What is less clear is the extent to which the local populace considered itself to have a fundamental allegiance to the people of Judea, and to the temple and any king ruling in Jerusalem. As descendents of the northern tribes, they may not have looked back with nostalgia to the allegedly ‘good old days’ under David and Solomon. If anything, the time of Solomon were for the northern tribes bad old days when a king in Judah exploited the peoples of the north. Jesus’ own views do not really come into consideration here, since he was apparently of Jewish stock (i.e. from Judea) and more specifically of the lineage of David. His own views may have been typical of expatriates from Judea, but may not have been typical of the general populace who traced their heritage to Galilee rather than Judea. That the population considered itself to have a common heritage with the people of Judea seems very likely. But this was true of the Samaritans and the Judeans in the ancient world, and is true of the Jews and the Arabs today, yet this fact does not guarantee that they get along, nor that they see eye to eye on religious matters. And so it must be recognized that we really do not know, and therefore should be cautious about assuming, that Judean Judaism was the dominant religion in Galilee, even among those who considered themselves descendents of the tribes of Israel.

Proximity to Sepphoris: Nazareth joins the ‘burbs’

Jesus is often presented as a ‘hick from the sticks’. But Nazareth, while a small village of around 1,600-2,000 inhabitants, was only a few miles from Galilee’s largest city, which at that time under Herod Antipas was also its capital: Sepphoris, which had a population of around 40,000 inhabitants. The fact that Jesus is not said to have gone there in the Gospel narratives is a subject that also needs to be considered, but not until we focus on the proximity of Nazareth to a small but nonetheless significant hub of Greco-Roman culture. To put it bluntly, Jesus was not like a farmer from rural Idaho; he was more like someone from the home of my ancestors in Oranmore, Co. Galway in Ireland. It is a small place, easily missed, and one could imagine someone from a city asking (to paraphrase Nathanael), “Could anything good come from Oranmore?” (to which the answer is, of course, an emphatic “Yes!”). But while the place is small and insignificant in and of itself, its inhabitants are close to one of Ireland’s major cities. In fact, tourists pass through Oranmore all the time (they rarely stop, though), because it is right on the road from Shannon Airport to Galway City. Nazareth was thus more like ‘the Burbs’ than ‘the Sticks’. Yet here we need to be cautious: there was nothing like modern suburbia, in the sense of a place where people live in slightly more up-market homes who commute into the city to work. But a woodworker from Nazareth might potentially have had opportunities to work in a city of this size, and would certainly have occasionally gone in to trade. Would he ever have attended the theatre? The likelihood is hard to judge, but even if we decide it was unfeasible for economic reasons, a young person from Nazareth would have been in contact with people who had gone to the theatre, and who had studied in Greek schools. What else would he have seen? The city was not home only to Jews, and Galilee did not have the special dispensation Judea had prohibiting images, so Jesus would have seen Greco-Roman cultic objects in his youth as well. He was exposed to Greco-Roman culture, as all Jews in this period were, regardless where they lived, but not in exactly the same ways. The magnificent splendor of the city of Sepphoris, described by Josephus as “the ornament of all Galilee”, was visible from the village of Nazareth, and the walk to Sepphoris would have taken about an hour. “A city on a hill cannot be hid.” We must assume that Jesus knew the city and felt its influence on his life.

            In addition to Sepphoris there were four other cities within about 15 miles of Nazareth.

Links relating to Sepphoris:

Incense Shovels at Sepphora

The Targums and the Synagogue

Bruce Chilton presents Jesus as a mamzer, an Israelite of uncertain legitimacy who is thus not allowed to participate in the synagogue. Yet ironically, Chilton’s earlier research focused precisely on the influence of the synagogue and the targumic traditions passed on therein on Jesus! We know very little about synagogues in Galilee in this period, but we have sufficient evidence to assert their existence. Beyond that, most of what we assert will by hypothesis and speculation.

Links relating to the Targums

What Version of the Bible did Jesus Read?, from Christianity Today  

Honi the Circle Drawer and Galilean Piety

Honi’s sense of sonship, miracle-working, refusal to pray against enemies.

Historicity of these figures, reliability of sources.

On this subject see further: Geza Vermes, Jesus the Jew, New York: Macmillan, 1973; William Scott Green, “Palestinian Holy Men: Charismatic Leadership and Rabbinic Tradition”, Aufstieg und Niedergang der Römischen Velt 2.19.619-647).


G. J. Goldberg, Honi the Circle Drawer

From Interfaith Online: Honi the Circle Drawer/Honina ben Dosa

Information from 'Into His Own' about Hanina ben Dosa

John the Baptist

What made Jesus head south, and attach himself to the band of John’s followers? Presumably his preaching, his message. One can draw a number of lines from John the Baptist through Jesus to the early Church, and when these are points of divergence between John and the rest of Judaism, the attribution of these ideas to John has a high probability of authenticity. We shall focus attention on John the Baptist, his movement, and the beginnings of Jesus' public ministry in the next lecture...

The Essenes?

Jesus in Egypt? Jesus in India?

Marcus Borg puts these suggestions in perspective: there is nothing to prove that he didn’t go to these places in his youth, but there is nothing whatsoever in the Gospel tradition that requires a visit to Egypt or India to explain it (Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1994, p.40 n.6). Yet that having been said, it is hard to imagine someone having Jesus’ insight into his own culture without having traveled to another culture and gone through culture shock. And so on this basis, I would judge it highly likely that Jesus traveled abroad at some point in his life prior to the start of his public ministry. But we have no reliable information as to where it might have been. How far would one have to go from Nazareth in order to get culture shock? Probably only to one of the Gentile towns not far away; perhaps only to Sepphoris. Perhaps he accompanied his father on a long work-related trip of some nature. We shall never know, and so it is unwise to speculate further.

* * * * *

For further reading:

Batey, Richard A., Jesus and the Forgotten City: New Light on Sepphoris and the Urban World of Jesus, Grand Rapids: Baker, 1991.

Freyne, Sean, Galilee from Alexander the Great to Hadrian 323 B.C.E. to 135 C.E., Wilmington: Michael Glazier/University of Notre Dame Press, 1980.

Horsley, Richard A., Galilee: History, Politics, People, Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1995.

"The Religious and Social Environment in which Jesus was Raised"

Is This Where Jesus Bathed?

[Ron comments: This study has been around for a while, but the information is useful. Many of the original links are dead now, so I updated those I could find and deleted or replaced others.]

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