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The Quest for the Historical Jesus

Posted on 03 February 2015, 9:59 the English title of a well-known book by Albert Schweitzer, in which he presents the wildly varying views of a number of great scholars as to what Jesus the historical man “really” taught, what he was “really” like.

The gospels Matthew, Mark and Luke do present Jesus more as a living human being, John a little less so, focusing more on creation, and what it means to be at one with Christ, with Spirit. St Paul does tell of Jesus’ last days, but focuses more on the Risen Christ, who is seen more as the all embracing spirit of God, in which we can all participate. In his picture of Jesus, St Paul is closer to John than to the other gospels.

So is it possible to get some sort of clear picture of what the physical Jesus was really like? Yes it may well be, yet when we look at other people’s pictures it becomes pretty plain that they see in their Jesus their own ideas and ideals. Perhaps the reader is aware of “The Jesus Seminar”, a group of about 150 Bible scholars who met for many years to try to uncover what the Jesus of history was like. The problem with that group was that many of them were philosophical Materialists, not acknowledging the dimension of Spirit. Because of this, the Seminar’s attempted reconstruction of the historical Jesus portrayed him “as an itinerant Hellenistic Jewish sage and faith healer who preached a gospel of liberation from injustice in startling parables and aphorisms. An iconoclast, Jesus broke with established Jewish theological dogmas and social conventions both in his teachings and behaviors, often by turning common-sense ideas upside down, confounding the expectations of his audience.” [Wiki article.] Some members of the Seminar denied the resurrection and an afterlife, and suggested that Jesus was really an atheist. Corporately the scholars were glaring examples of creating a Jesus in their own limited images. As we are all human that could be a warning that I am about to do the same!

Central to Jesus’ teaching is the expression, “the Kingdom of God, Kingdom of Heaven.” This Kingdom is what God rules over, namely all in Heaven and Earth. There is nowhere where God or Spirit is absent. All is together within Spirit.
Here are some quotations that seem to depict such a Kingdom:

“To see a world in a grain of sand. And a heaven in a wild flower, Hold infinity in the palm of your hand, And eternity in an hour.” (William Blake)

Matthew 10:9 “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care.”

What about these words: “Not to be explainers and conquerors, but conscious participants in the universe”?

Or, “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’” (Luke 10:27)

“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; (John 15:5)

“There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all.” (Ephesians 4:4)

Awareness of the true nature of the Kingdom of Heaven is the “Pearl of great price”, in one of the parables of Jesus.

Aldous Huxley, in his The Perennial Philosophy also argues that the reality suggested by the above quotations, is the same reality that all religions point to:

“Philosophia Perennis—the phrase was coined by Leibniz; but the thing—the metaphysic that recognizes a divine Reality substantial to the world of things and lives and minds; the psychology that finds in the soul something similar to, or even identical with, divine Reality; the ethic that places man’s final end in the knowledge of the immanent and transcendent Ground of all being—the thing is immemorial and universal. Rudiments of the Perennial Philosophy may be found among the traditionary lore of primitive peoples in every region of the world, and in its fully developed forms it has a place in every one of the higher religions.” (In more detail)

Mystics of all religions accept this Perennial Philosophy: In mysticism there is a sense of unity or totality; a sense of timelessness, a sense of having encountered ultimate reality; a sense of sacredness; a sense that one cannot adequately describe the richness of this experience. Abraham Maslowe talked of “Peak Experiences” in this regard, the kind of emotional and spiritual high you can get when you have climbed to the top of a high mountain on a sunny day, and as you look down you see the view and life as well, from quite a different perspective.

Albert Einstein wrote, “The most beautiful and profound emotion we can experience is the sensation of the mystical. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead. To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty, which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their primitive forms - this knowledge, this feeling, is at the center of true religion.”

Mystical experiences can come in prayer, in human relationships, through creativity, and they can fill us with a true desire to love and serve others.

To fully justify my suggestion that all this was at the basis of much of the teaching of Jesus would occupy the pages of a large book. Nevertheless, what Huxley writes about the Perennial Philosophy is probably correct, that ALL founders of the world religions have started with the same inner knowledge about the nature of reality. The same picture of reality is now being suggested by prominent physicists. It could follow that if it is always the same picture, then it is also a true one. (Each world religion will also have teachings and beliefs which conflict with the perennial philosphy, no doubt coming from the mouths of less enlightened followers of their Master.)

While the perennial philosophy is prominent in the teaching of Jesus, it would be an oversimplification to leave it at that.

In my previous blog I discussed linguistic evidence which seemed to establish that the Stephen of Afterlife Teachings from Stephen the Martyr was genuinely himself, that he had been an Essene, and that as a young man he had been admitted to an Essene camp in Galilee by Joseph the husband of Mary. Jesus, then would have been born into an Essene family. Now, as I have said, we can make a good case for saying that the main basis of his teaching was the Perennial Philosophy, on the one hand. On the other, however, the Essene Communion Service by which Stephen had been admitted, had an empty seat for the Messiah or anointed one that God was going to send to save Israel. It seems that the Essenes expected that Messiah to come from their midst, and Jesus may well have seen himself in that role. So we must accept that there are two sides to the teaching of Jesus, the mystic perennial philosophy, and that of the role of the Messiah, the Saviour. More conservative Christians today would emphasise the Saviour, less conservative and Celtic Christianity would emphasize the mystic holism of the perennial philosophy.

“The Essene community into which Jesus was born, may itself have actually been the primitive Christian church, the direct ancestor and nurturing ground of what was to follow. They had two well known locations in Israel. One location was at Qumran in Judea in Southern Israel where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered, and the other was in the north at Mount Carmel in Galilee near modern day Nazareth. An important question is about the city of Nazareth, where the Gospel of Matthew says Jesus was brought up. The problem is that when Jesus was alive there is no mention of such a place.

“There is no historical or literary evidence a city named Nazareth existed, the Old Testament and the Apocrypha never mention a city named Nazareth, there is no mention of Nazareth from Josephus or any other historian of the time.
When it comes to archaeology all artefacts found in the Nazareth region dates to well after the time of Jesus. The first literary mention of a city named Nazareth occurs in one of the most problematic passages of Christian scripture, the Gospel of Matthew tells us that:

“And he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, He shall be called a Nazarene.” – Matthew 2.23 No such prophecy has been found, however. [Source of this quotation]

These days, there is quite wide agreement that the Nazarenes were the dominant group of Essenes who lived at the foot of Mount Tabor near modern Nazareth. A kindred group were the Ebionites.

The relation between the Dead Sea Scrolls to the Essenes and other groups is much debated. This blog seems to provide trustworthy information. But this blog takes sides in a big way, but still is interesting. This blog is also of great interest. It mentions that there was an Essene community in Damascus. In the story of Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, he is told to go to “the street called Straight” to the house of Judas, where he was visited by Ananaias. He is called “a follower of the Way”. Elsewhere Christians are referred to as “the sect of the Nazarenes.”

Readers of the material in these blogs will be much enlightened, and will be helped to see Jesus in new ways.

With these thoughts in mind, can we get a clear picture of what the historical Jesus was like? If we accept that he was born into a Nazarene Essene group, we will need to see him as part of that community and sharing many of their beliefs. When he says, “And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life,” (Mt 19:29) he is describing the central tenet of the Nazarenes, who mainly lived a life of chastity, poverty and obedience in separate male and female communities. In prayer and practice they strived for spiritual perfection. Vegetarians, they did not accept animal sacrifice, and therefore did not accept the whole of Old Testament law. Many of the things they said, Jesus is reported as saying. But if it is true that Jesus was a Nazarene, the sect could not fully contain him. The Nazarenes were meticulous in observing such of the Law that they did accept. But several times Jesus said things like, “It was said by them of old time an eye for an eye… but I say unto you, love your enemies”. He was reported as dining with “publicans and sinners” and he had many women friends and followers. The Law should prepare the ground for “Loving God and neighbour,” “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” Jesus was no mere product of his sect, possessed by the Spirit of God as he was. So he may not always have enjoyed the support of the Nazarenes. In Mark we do read this incident, at the beginning of his ministry: “Then Jesus entered a house, and again a crowd gathered, so that he and his disciples were not even able to eat. When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, ‘He is out of his mind.’ And the teachers of the law who came down from Jerusalem said, ‘He is possessed by Beelzebul! By the prince of demons he is driving out demons.’” [Mark 3:20-22]

Such was the nature of Jesus it would not be surprising if there were lack of support from fellow Nazarenes. But we do not have further information.

In short, with regard to the historical Jesus, while new discoveries about the Nazarene Essenes may throw considerable light on him, it will be inevitable that any picture of him will be controversial. We need to know much more.

We also need to distinguish between theological and historical research and living engagement with the God who is in all, through all and above all. Christians can see Jesus as the Hand that points us to true life in Spirit. They can narrow their encounter with Spirit to their encounter with Jesus. They can focus on what it means to participate in the King of Heaven. They can focus on salvation through Jesus’ shedding blood on the cross. They can see Jesus as all too human, they can see him as the Son of God.

My personal opinion is that ultimately the issue is not our theories, theologies, and ideas about the historical Jesus, but the question, What is going on within us in responding to the realm of Spirit?

Michael Cocks edits the journal, The Ground of Faith.
Afterlife Teaching From Stephen the Martyr by Michael Cocks is published by White Crow Books and available from Amazon and other bookstores.
His forthcoming book, Into the Wider Dream will be published Winter/Spring 2015 by White Crow Books.

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Afterlife Teaching from Stephen the Martyr - Michael Cocks

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