Did Jesus study with Buddhist monks in India?
Believe it or not, this is the most frequent question I get when speaking about the historical Jesus. Such questioners often assume that Jesus went to India during the so-called ‘lost years,’ the years before he began preaching in Galilee. No evidence of such a trip exists. The lost years are only lost because we do not know what happened.
Since Alexander the Great’s invasion of Persia and India (fourth century BCE), the West has had contact with the East, and later Rome had extensive trade relations with India. But in the ancient world, Egypt was the source of ancient wisdom. Outside the Roman empire were barbarians. Only in the nineteenth century did the West look to the East, and especially Buddhism, as a source of wisdom and the mysterious.
There is no evidence of Greeks, Romans, or Jews travelling to the East on a spiritual quest, although quite a few Greeks did travel there as mercenaries. Jesus was a peasant, almost surely illiterate, as were most Galileans. His social class did not go on extensive journeys in search of wisdom.
The question of Jesus studying with Buddhist monks implies that Jesus’s wisdom is so extraordinary that it cannot have come from Judaism. He must have learned it from somewhere else. This, of course, slights Judaism and verges on anti-Semitism. Jesus’s wisdom makes complete sense within first century Judaism.
Were the official documents from Jesus’s trial before Pilate kept in Rome?
The common assumption is that Jesus was such an important person and so well known in Galilee and Judea that the Romans must have kept records of his trial before Pilate. Since the Romans were very bureaucratic, they kept good records.
The description of Jesus in the gospels drawing large crowds comes from authors’ imagination in the late first century. Drawing large crowds in the Galilee would quickly have drawn the attention of Roman officials. Jesus’s actual ministry took place at meals and small gatherings, not on the mountainside with large crowds gathered around.
That Jesus was a peasant whom Pilate crucified is as close to an established fact as we get when it comes to Jesus. Crucifixion was reserved for insurrectionists and peasants. A formal trial was highly unlikely. Roman justice was rough and ready. The niceties of a trial were reserved for citizens. The Roman empire was highly bureaucratic with lots of correspondence, of which little has survived. But Roman administration in the provinces was light on the ground. When Pliny the Younger was governor of Bithynia (110 CE), his administration consisted of himself and his slave. We should not imagine much more for Pilate.
Finally, according to the gospels, all of Jesus’s disciples fled at his arrest, so who would report what had happened to Jesus? The trials in the gospels are largely fictional, constructed around verses of the Jewish Scriptures in a midrashic style.
Were Jesus and/or John the Baptist members of the Qumran community?
The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the Judean Desert (1946-1957) uncovered firsthand knowledge of a Jewish religious sect from before the Judean revolt and the subsequent destruction of the Temple (70 CE). While providing a great deal of new information, it has also raised many questions and speculations. From the beginning scholars have asked whether John the Baptist and Jesus could be related to the Qumran community.
In the case of John the Baptist, we know very little about him and what we do know is through Christian eyes. John appears to belong to a class of prophets calling for a renewal of Israel in the desert, a second Exodus. Both John and the Essenes at Qumran are apocalyptic, but the Essenes are primarily concerned about the restoration of the Temple in Jerusalem, which they consider to be in the hands of illegitimate priests. John shows no concern for the Temple. Also, he does not belong to a community, but is a lone prophet, crying in the desert.
Jesus does appear to share with the Essenes a concern about the legitimacy of the Temple, which probably explains his temple action reported in Mark (11:15-19). However, Jesus does not attack the legitimacy of the Jerusalem priests, but their administration of the Temple. The Essenes at Qumran are an out of power priestly group consumed about purity. Jesus not only does not belong to a priestly family, he’s a peasant. Moreover, he mocks the purity code. “’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?’ (This is how everything we eat is purified)” (Mark 7:18-19 The Complete Gospels).
The Dead Sea Scrolls help us understand what was going on in first century Israel, but there is no apparent relation to either John the Baptist or Jesus.
Qumran does not represent the whole of Judaism but an eccentric group within Judaism. First century Judaism, a vital and energetic religion, was very pluriform and diverse.
Did Jesus establish the Christian church?
Matthew 16:18 is the key text in this regard. “That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church” (KJV). This verse is inscribed in Latin around the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Matthew 16:18 has provided a proof text for both the church and the papacy.
In the parallel passage in the Gospel of Mark (8:27-33), the naming of Peter as the rock and the giving him the keys is completely missing. Since Mark is the source for Matthew, this means that the author of the Gospel of Matthew added this to the Marcan narrative.
This addition is strange in another way. The Gospel of Matthew is the only gospel to use “church” (in Greek ekklēsia), occurring in this passage and twice in 18:17, which concerns community discipline. “Church” appears in no other gospel. It first appears in the Pauline letters and may have originated in those communities. The author of Luke-Acts does not use it in the gospel but does use it extensively in Acts, reinforcing the notion that church/ekklēsia, even in the early Jesus communities, is not associated with Jesus. Matthew is the only one to use it in a Jesus saying and even that use is sparing. The evidence for Jesus thinking or speaking about a church is lacking. He was about the kingdom/empire of God.
“Church” may not be the best translation for ekklēsia. “Church” in current English means (1) a building for Christian worship; (2) the whole body of Christians; (3) a denomination; and (4) a congregation. The fourth meaning, congregation, has a tangential relation to ekklēsia. The basic sense of ekklēsia is to “call out of.” It was not a religious term but often referred to a city council. It denoted a group of citizens called out of the whole. It can be translated as “community.” If the use of ekklēsia originated with the Pauline communities, they may have used it to distinguish their gatherings from those of synagogue. The ekklēsia were those called out of, while the synagogē were those called together, basically a distinction with no difference.
Matthew 16:18 employs a word play lost in English translations. “You are Rocky and upon this rock I will construct my community.” Petros is not a proper name, but a nickname. Rocky is a better translation than Peter.
Why have we never heard all this about the historical Jesus?
This question comes up all the time, usually in expressions of frustration. The quest for the historical Jesus has been ongoing since the 18th century, but silence from the pulpit is almost total on this topic. Why? If Christianity is about following Jesus, would you not want to learn all you can about him?
Some say the gospels contain everything they need to know about who Jesus was. But the gospels are not really interested in Jesus, the historical Jesus, but faith’s perception of Jesus the Anointed in the life of the community. Moreover, the pictures of Jesus the Anointed in the various gospels are not easily reconcilable. How does one deal with all the variation and at times outright contradictions? The traditional way of handling these problems is to ignore and cherry pick the items desired to create one’s own Jesus Christ. Another approach is the historian’s. But that approach involves a lot of hard work and study. Employing critical methods often can mean letting go of cherished beliefs, which is painful and threatening. Yet it can also be liberating, exposing one to a whole new way of looking at Jesus and his early followers.
Why do we not hear about the historical Jesus from the pulpit? Because it is hard work, controversial, and shocking to many folks. They do not want to hear about a Jesus that is different from what they have grown up with. Yet real faith means letting go and striking out anew and trusting that the truth will make you free.