Christian audiences unconsciously assume that Jesus was like them. That he was (is) one of them. Because this assumption operates without our awareness, it is difficult to overcome and impedes our understanding of Jesus. Challenging the assumption that Jesus is ‘like us’ leads to five surprising conclusions.
Since Jesus founded Christianity, therefore, he must have been a Christian.
Christianity as a religion separate from Judaism does not emerge until late in the second century, and Jesus was a Jew.
Jesus perfectly fits within the complexity of Second Temple Judaism. He belongs to the prophetic tradition. ‘Prophet’ is one of the earliest titles applied to him. (See Mark 6:4.) Jesus the Jew reminds us that he is not one of us. And our efforts to colonize him for Christianity betray him.
Conclusion: Jesus was a Jew.
Since Jesus and/or his father were carpenters, most Americans assume that Jesus belongs to the upwardly mobile working class.
No middle class existed in ancient societies. Jesus the carpenter was a day laborer, like those in the parable of the laborers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16). His family belonged to those who, at some point in the past, had been forced off their land. Herod Antipas, the Roman client ruler of the Galilee, was pursuing an ambitious program of land consolidation through taxation to build up exports.
The phrases in Jesus’s peasant prayer requesting the forgiveness of debts (Matthew 6:12) and enough to eat (Luke 11:3) directly reflect the effects of Antipa’s program. High indebtedness and daily hunger were a part of everyday life.
As a peasant without land, Jesus was one of those poor folks to whom the empire of God belongs (Thomas 54, Luke 6:20). In the terminology of the modern anthropologists, he was an expendable, those who are so on the edge that the next famine or pandemic will eliminate him.
Conclusion: Jesus was a craftsman and a peasant. Jesus was not a middle-class person advocating charity towards the poor. He was one of the poor, leading a program of resistance against the status quo as opposed to the will of God.
Jesus could read and write.
Literacy in the ancient world was very limited. In the large urban centers literacy hardly reached ten percent. In rural areas, like the Galilee, the percentage would be much less, three or four percent. Unlike our society, not knowing how to read and write carried no penalty or stigma.
Before the invention of the printing press and the wide availability of cheap paper, finding something to read was difficult. Hand copying everything on papyrus or parchment made reading materials both rare and expensive. Memory was much more important than the ability to read. The written Torah was not the center of Israel’s life; the Temple was.
As a landless peasant dependent on day labor wages, Jesus would not have had the leisure to learn to read and write, nor the income to purchase expensive scrolls.
Arguments that Jesus was literate appeal to the story of his reading in the synagogue in Nazareth (Luke 4:16-30) or writing in the sand in the story of the woman accused of adultery (John 7:53-8:11).
Unlike Mark’s gospel which inaugurates Jesus’s ministry with the calling of his disciples, the author of the Gospel of Luke begins with Jesus proclaiming the good news to the poor in the synagogue of Nazareth. Upon entering the synagogue, he is handed the book of Isaiah and “He opened the book and found the place where it was written. ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.’” (Luke 4:17-8 RSV). This both begins Jesus’s ministry and defines its purpose.
The author constructed this scene from Mark 6:1-6. In the Marcan scene, Jesus does not read. Jesus’s reading is a Lucan creation. Fulfillment of scripture is a major Lucan motif, as well as going first to the synagogue. Paul does the same thing in the Acts of the Apostles. At the scene’s conclusion, the people of Nazareth reject Jesus and attempt to throw him off a cliff. Going first to the synagogue, proclaiming the good news to the poor, and the Jews attempting to kill Jesus summarizes the plot both of Luke’s Gospel and Paul’s story in Acts.
This story provides no evidence that Jesus could read. It shows the author of Luke’s Gospel making Jesus act as the author does.
In the story of the woman caught in adultery (John 7:53-8:11), Jesus “with his finger wrote on the ground” (John 8:6 KJV). The Greek could mean “write,” but normally means to scratch or inscribe. Therefore, it offers no clear attestation of Jesus’s ability to write.
Moreover, this story is highly suspect. Modern editions of the New Testament insert it at John 7:53-8:11, but it is missing from the best and earliest manuscripts in Greek, as well as Latin and Syriac. The style and vocabulary are not Johannine, and it breaks the narrative flow of the gospel. This story originated in the oral tradition and much later scribes inserted it into the written gospels. Besides its position at John 7:53-8:11, it also appears in manuscripts at the end of John’s Gospel, as well as in different places in Mark and Luke.
Literacy is at the heart of protestant Christianity. Reading the Bible is the way to salvation, a notion unknown before the reformation. Naturally we assume that the Bible and reading were at the heart of Jesus’ religiosity. But the Bible in our sense is unknown in the ancient world.
Classism is at work in our reaction to these first three surprises. Christianity has become a bourgeois religion and imagines Jesus in that same image. Since there is a high stigma in our society to illiteracy, Jesus must be literate. Christology also plays a role. As the son of God, surely he could read and write.
Conclusion: Jesus was illiterate.
Jesus was religious.
By the standards of his day, Jesus was irreligious and apparently took pleasure in tweaking his opponents about his disregard of the purity code. He was accused of not properly washing his hands. According to Mark’s interpretation, he declared all food clean (Mark 7:19). “Are you as dim-witted as the rest? Don’t you realize that nothing from outside can defile by going into a person, because it doesn’t get to the heart but passes into the stomach, and comes out in the outhouse?” (Mark 7:18-19). He identified the empire of God with leaven (moral corruption), women, mustard plants (weeds), and told a story in which a Samaritan saved a Jew.
Conclusion: Jesus was irreligious
We know a great deal about Jesus.
While the publications about the historical Jesus are voluminous, the fact is that we know relatively little about the historical Jesus. We have no idea what he looked like, how tall he was, or the color of his hair. (Although Erin Vearncombe has a reasonable suggestion.) The note that Jesus “was about thirty years of age” occurs only in the Gospel of Luke (3:23).
How that author arrived at this number is unknown. It may have been a lucky guess or, as others have suggested, it may be a reference to David’s age when he became king (2 Samuel 5:4), or Joseph when he entered the service of the Pharaoh (Genesis 41:45). We have no firm evidence about the basic details of his life to the point that most scholars recognize it would be impossible to write a biography of Jesus. As a result, his motives or psychology is beyond our understanding.
Scholars debate whether Jesus was an apocalyptic preacher of the coming kingdom of God or a teacher of wisdom about the present kingdom of God. Both positions are defensible interpretations of the evidence.
Yet the core of Jesus’s message is clear. He was a Galilean Jewish peasant who identified the empire of God with the poor and outcast, the unclean and women and lost his life in a struggle against Rome’s empire.
Conclusion: Our knowledge about Jesus is very limited.