Friday, September 6, 2013

Christology in Context: When, Where, and Who was Jesus?

Three billion Christians can't all be wrong. I mean, they could be, but still, if 3 billion people follow your teachings 2,000 years after you're dead, that's pretty influential.[1]


A Household Name

I find Jesus fascinating. Two millennia after his birth, people are still talking about him, studying him, arguing about him, and using his name to sell books and express frustration. He never conquered anything, never ruled any country, and never wrote or built anything that lasts today. Yet over two billion people[2] regard him as relevant to their lives today. That's remarkable! And I am no exception. I grew up in a Christian household, raised by Christian parents. I attended church regularly throughout my childhood and into my adult life. I was baptized to become a Christian, and now I have put "Christian" as my religious views on Facebook. Yet none of that has bearing on why I find Jesus fascinating.


There's More to the Man

I see in myself a tendency to take Jesus for granted, as though he is a cog in the clockworks of systematic theology or a two-dimensional mouthpiece for a set of philosophical axioms. Yet, if Jesus is relevant to our lives, then we ought to have an understanding of him as what he was: a person! I find Jesus fascinating because I know he walked, ate, slept, was surprised, got angry, had friends, lost friends, and had faith in God. I can always learn something new about him, which informs my understanding of God, others, and myself. Understanding Jesus as a person is powerful for me and engages my heart. I hope that it will engage yours too. That's why I'm inviting you to help me answer some questions over the next several weeks.


Our Road Map

I want to get the straight facts about Jesus of Nazareth by looking at his life, his teachings, and his actions. If we can understand him first in his context, then I think we can find out if and how he is relevant to our own contexts.

Here’s what I want to know:
  1. When, where, and who was Jesus?
  2. What did he say?
  3. What did he do?
  4. How did he do the things he did?
  5. Who was he, really?
  6. Why might Jesus be relevant to us?


Starting Questions

For this week, we’ll focus on the first questions: who was Jesus, and when and where did he live? The “who” question is a subject of debate. Christianity, Islam, Baha'i, and even some Hindu and Buddhist sects each ascribe a different identity to him. “Who is he?” and “where did he come from?” are recurring questions throughout Jesus’ biographies, the Gospels. For the moment, we’re going to leave the theological part of that question aside. To understand who Jesus was, I suggest that we should try to understand the context in which he lived, spoke, and acted.


By JWooldridge, via Wikimedia Commons

Getting the Bigger Picture.

Jesus was a Galilean Jew, born in 4 BCE.[3] We have to understand that his ethnic, cultural, and economic background is vastly different from yours and mine. We can’t assume that Jesus’ words and works are going to immediately make sense to a middle-class reader in a post-modern, post-industrial society. (That’s me, and probably you, too.) Galilee was a province north of Judea in modern-day Palestine; both were under the control of the Roman Empire. From about 160 years before Jesus’ birth until about 140 years later, it was a hotbed of political, economic, and religious conflict. Galilee had recently seen peasant revolts at the death of King Herod in 4 BCE in response to sixty years of oppressive tributes to Roman Empire, royal taxes, and tithes to the Temple.[4]


Monolithic Institutions

After the success of Maccabean revolt around 160s BCE, Judea rejected Hellenistic rulers and culture, reinforcing of the power its own institution: the “Temple-state.”[4] Although we may talk about the effects of religion on politics, there is no parallel in our culture to the power of the Jewish Temple in Jesus’ day. It was the center of the Judean economy, where people would send their crops as an offering to God, and where an aristocracy of priests would gather the tribute due to Rome. In the conflict and conflux of these “political-economic-religious”[5] institutions – the Herodians, the Temple, and the Empire – the people of Galilee in Jesus’ day were caught in the middle. Mostly peasants, they had virtually no political, economic, or religious agency, save for the occasional violent uprising.[4] Jesus lived in a time where people were regularly exploited for their resources and their labor. Security and social mobility belonged to the wealthy minority. Most people could not read, much less write[6] or understand the scriptures of their own religion.[4]


Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?

Who was Jesus? He was a native of a poor community, under the thumb of political and economic oppression. He was member of the religious community in his area, which was removed from the dogmatic powers of the Temple. However, Jesus seems to have been something more than the product of his environment. As the first century historian Josephus records:

[He] was a doer of startling deeds, a teacher of people who receive the truth with pleasure. And he gained a following both among many Jews and among many of Greek origin.[6]

Knowing the when and where of Jesus’ life gives us a clue to who he was. But I don’t think it stops there. As we start to ask, “what did he say?” we need to use Jesus’ context as our starting point for understanding his teachings.


Now It's Your Turn

What do you think about Jesus’ (earthly) origins? Is this familiar to you, or do you have a different perspective?  I’d love to hear what you have to say, so please add your comments, insights, and questions.  Sincere thanks from me for reading.


[1] Stein, Joel. Time, "The All-Time TIME 100 of All Time." Last modified April 18, 2012. Accessed September 4, 2013.,28804,2111975_2112269_2112278,00.html.
[2] BBC, "Christianity: Christianity at a Glance." Last modified June 30, 2011. Accessed September 4, 2013.
Dunn, James D. G. "Jesus." In The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome. : Oxford University Press, 2010.
[4] Richard Horsley, Jesus in Context: Power, People, and Performance, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008), 25-37.
[5] Richard Horsley, Jesus and the Powers: Conflict, Covenant, and the Hope of the Poor (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011), 7-10.
[6] Bart D. Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth, (New York: HarperCollins, 2012), 43, 61.