The Search for Jesus

In this ABC Peter Jennings Hosted documentary, the historical Jesus is examined by a number of scholars. The points they make can be summarized as follows:

  1. The Gospels should not be taken literally. They are at best clues to how people were thinking two thousand years ago. You then have to guess as to what the authors were trying to communicate.
  2. Jesus in his lifetime was, by most measures, a failure. His own family wanted him to stop being a troublemaker. He never got more than a dozen or so people to follow him. He probably preached to only a couple of thousand people over his lifetime. He ran around with outcasts and violated the cultural and religious taboos by doing such things as consorting with prostitutes and touching lepers. He held no office, commanded no troops, and died painfully and early in the way Rome designed for such troublemakers. (Rome chose torture and crucifixion as they felt it was one of the most horrible ways to punish a person and thousands were killed this way both before and after Jesus. You usually died when your lungs collapsed under the weight of the body thus suffocating you. They then left the body on the cross to rot.)
  3. Although many images of Jesus have been crafted by artists, he most likely was around five feet one or two inches tall, dark complexioned, weighed only about 110 pounds, and had a scraggly, untrimmed beard. Why did he look this way? Because that is the way the poor appeared in those days and nothing informs us that he looked any other way.
  4. Jesus had seen at least two revolts as he was growing up and the results of these efforts to free themselves was numerous crucifixions. The people were eager to see an end to Rome's rule because it was literally killing them. 30% of the babies died before they were age one and 30% more died by age six. Those who did survive rarely lived past 25. At the same time, Herod and his wealthy friends were doing very well.
  5. The above leads one to wonder why, given the situation, did Jesus succeed after being crucified when he was largely a failure and lots of others had come and gone with messages of change? The possible answers are that he performed miracles and that Jesus' message was unique in terms of its inclusion of everyone and love for all.

Some examples of misunderstanding the Gospels:

  1. The priests are often seen as the bad guys. A case for this can be made, especially since they were profiting by the arrangement they had with Rome where they were go-betweens helping to keep order. However, it can be seen rather differently. Jesus chose Passover as the time of his entry into Jerusalem. Passover is a weeklong Jewish celebration of their liberation from Egypt---clearly a time when revolt was more likely. Therefore, the priests anticipated that this rebellious preacher would cause the Roman's to violently put down (crucify and kill) hundreds of people. By giving them Jesus they saved lives.
  2. When we interpret Jesus' message as a sacrificing of himself for our sins, we miss his powerful political message of empowerment and inclusion. He was a revolutionary.
  3. When we interpret the slapping of the cheek as a message of submission, we miss the point entirely. Remember, this was a message to peasants who had very limited options. The first slap was with the back of the hand. By turning the cheek, the person trying to humiliate you was then forced to slap you the second time with an open hand. In the culture of that time and place, the second open-handed slap would in effect be ego deflating for the person doing the slapping. It was a subtle way to resist.