The Bible and Culture

The Bible and Culture

The Historical Jesus—- Sean Freyne’s View


The latest issue of the magazine I write for, Biblical Archaeology Review,  is now out, and has an interesting and extended interview in it of Sean Freyne, now emeritus Professor of Theology at Trinity College Dublin.  This post will interact with some of his remarks.  Let it first be said that though interest in the topic of the Historical Jesus continues, its celebrity status has waned a bit in the last few years, what with the Jesus Seminar moving on to other topics, and the spate of major scholarly Jesus books slowing down to a trickle (a notable exception would be the recent publication of the next volume in John Meir’s A Marginal Jew  series).   I don’t see this as a bad thing.  Maybe its time to come up for air and take stock of the situation a bit.

Let’s start with something Freyne says near the beginning of the interview with Hershel Shanks,  “Some people confuse the notion of the historical Jesus with the notion of the actual or real Jesus. I think the historical Jesus is construct, a theological construct, really.  Its the figure of Jesus as he is represented in the documents of Christian faith as a historical person.”    Though this distinction is often made in scholarly circles, it often comes as a surprise to the lay person not conversant with the ongoing scholarly discussion.   Sean is in fact saying several things at once here: 1)  that the historically recoverable or reconstructible Jesus (using the historical method)  is at best a subset of the historical person Jesus, and a subset therefore of the real Jesus.   What we can say about Jesus using the historical method is certainly less than what is true about the real or historic person named Jesus of Nazareth;  2) both the modern reconstructions of who and what Jesus was,  and the images of Jesus we have in early Christian literature, including the Gospels, are a step removed from the real Jesus.  They are both reconstructions.   3)  though some scholars would not own up to it,  a reconstruction of Jesus, whether minimalist or maximalist is a theological construct, not least because there is an irreducible amount of theological subject matter and substance imbedded in our sources about the real Jesus.  A non-theological Jesus is as much of a non-starter as a non-Jewish Jesus.   It is interesting that in response, Hershel says “I thought the historical Jesus was opposed to the theological Jesus”. This is a common misconception, but even those who try to present a purely social and non-religious portrait of Jesus, in fact are engaging in a theological enterprise, namely the deconstruction of the irreducibly theological character of the Gospels.

One of the areas of Sean Freyne’s expertise is the archaeology and social setting of Galilee, and one of the things he is very clear about is that the archaeology done in Galilee has confirmed not merely the Jewishness of Galilee in general, but probably also the Jewishness of Jesus to some extend.  Freyne is right that early Judaism absorbed the blow of the Hellenistic invasion,  adopted and adapted some of its cultural ways, including a certain use of Greek, and of Greek dining practices and educational practices (e.g. rhetoric) but without renouncing its monotheism, or its own religious praxis.  This is the right and balanced way to evaluate the relationship of Judaism and Hellenism, as was shown long ago by Martin Hengel and others.  Jews in Galilee remained Jews and did not become totally assimilated to Hellenism, though they certainly were affected by it in important and obvious ways.  No one who has visited the synagogue at Sephoris and seen the incredible astrological wheel mosaic in the synagogue floor could doubt that.   Freyne puts it this way “It accommodated itself to Hellenism in various ways. But it also vigorously resisted abandoning its own distinctive world view.”   This is correct.   It is this balanced perspective that is lost in the work of people like Brad Young on the one hand, who wants to read Jesus in the light of later rabbinic Judaism, and it is equally lost in the work of those who would like to turn Jesus into an itinerant Cynic philosopher.  He was neither a rabbi nor a Cynic philosopher,  he was a Jesus sage and seer, combining the wisdom and apocalyptic traditions in his ministry,  as Freyne rightly notes (drawing to some extent on my two books— Jesus the Sage and  Jesus the Seer.   

Freyne stresses Jesus’ close relationship with John the Baptizer  (please don’t call him a Protestant  Baptist,  though he certainly protested and baptized). Freyne is of the opinion that John 3.26 suggests that for a time Jesus was a member of the Baptizer’s movement, and this theory is used to explain the baptism of Jesus by John.  The problem with this view is several fold: 1)  many were baptized by John who did not become his disciples; 2)  John 4.1-2 specifically denies that Jesus ever baptized anyone, a practice the followers of John did do, and 3) the message of Jesus, as Freyne accepts, was dramatically different from John’s in various respects. It was John, not Jesus, by and large, that proclaimed the imminent judgment of God upon Israel.  Jesus by contrast preached the Good News of divine liberation, and inbreaking salvific Kingdom.   Freyne is probably right however, that we should connect John the Baptizer with the Qumran community.  It surely can’t be an accident that the theme verse of the Qumran community from Isaiah (‘the voice of one crying: ‘In the wilderness prepare a highway for our God….” is the same verse used to introduce John to us in the Gospels, and its base camp locale by the Dead Sea  is the same sort of place we find John plying his trade, as opposed to in the Temple in Jerusalem, even though his father had done so.

Next Sean emphasizes that Jesus had a new view of family.  Not the family of kinship ties, but rather the family of faith, those who follow Jesus and seek to do God’s will and are his spiritual kin,  are seen as the primary family now that the Kingdom is breaking into human history  (see e.g. Mk. 3.31-35).  About that text Freyne says “For me, those are some of the core moments in trying to reconstruct the way I see Jesus developing a new vision within the contemporary varieties of Judaism in Galilee.”    I agree entirely with this assessment.  Interestingly,  Freyne things Jesus is deeply indebted to the Servant material in Is. 40-66, and to the more universal vision of salvation found there.  He says “The Jesus movement is thus a renewal group built around the figure of the servant of God, as depicted in Isaiah who is not militantly opposed to foreigners. Yet he addresses his message to Israel.”    I think this is part of the picture, but what is notable for its absence in Freyne’s answers is any discussion of Jesus’ indebtedness to Daniel 7 and the early Jewish Son of Man traditions.  This I would suggest is a major oversight. Yet Freyne argues that while Jesus retains the apocalyptic world view that John stresses,  he is less indebted to it than John.  Jesus puts far more emphasis on the wisdom tradition, as his parables show.  It seems to me that one has to realize Jesus is equally indebted to sapiential and apocalyptic traditions, and indeed various of his parables focus on things apocalyptic or eschatological.

One of the interesting and welcome conclusions of Freyne based on the archaeology of  Galilee is a corrective to those who want to see the situation in Ga
lilee as one of supreme oppression of the poor and the peasants by the overlords, both Herod and Rome.  The archaeology simply does not bear out this conclusion, any more than it bears out the conclusion that Galilee was highly Hellenized in a non-Jewish way.  What the archaeology shows is that there was considerable prosperity in Galilee in Jesus’ day, that lots of ordinary people including farmers and fishermen were making a good living (see the palatial fisherman’s villa at the archaeological site at Bethsaida), and so the attempt to turn Jesus not a peasant or a leader of a peasant revolt, or some sort of Che Guevera figure, simply is not historically accurate.  For one thing,  Jesus is literate— he can read scrolls, which puts him in the top 10% of the culture in terms of literacy.  For another thing he is a artisan living in a village next to a boomtown where there was plenty of work for such folk— Sephoris.

Freyne, like many other scholars of his ilk, thinks there is some historical substance in the birth narratives, but that at the end of the day, Jesus was likely born in Nazareth, not in Bethlehem. He thinks the birth narratives are more theologically embellished than the ministry portions of the Gospels. He does allow that Jesus’ family may have originally been Judean, with connections to Bethlehem, he even suggests his family may have moved from Judea to Galilee.  What he does not note is that the town Nazareth has as its name -‘Netzerit’  which means Branch town, an appropriate name for a town largely inhabited by the descendants of the root of Jesse  (see my forthcoming little harmony of the Gospel—- The Gospel of Jesus).

To me the most disappointing part of the interview comes at the end, where Sean is asked point blank, ‘Do you envision a physical resurrection [of Jesus]’  and he replies “No, absolutely not. Resurrection from the dead should not be confused with resuscitation of a corpse even when some of the appearance stories give that impression as part of their narrative realism.”    The problem with this answer is several fold: 1) Tom Wright has shown in huge detail that what resurrection meant in early Judaism is something that happens to a physical body after death  (see his Resurrection and the Son of God);  2)    he is however right that what happened to Jesus was not merely a resuscitation of a corpse, say like the case of Jairus’ daughter.  Jesus did not return to a merely mortal frame still subject to disease, decay, and death.  Jesus went forward into a new sort of embodied existence that was immune to the 3 D’s just mentioned, and to suffering as well. In short Jesus is the first, and so far, the only person to have a resurrection body.  Everyone else who has ever been brought back to life have gone on to die again in the same mortal skin.   Resurrection is more than resuscitation of a corpse, but at the same time, it is something that happened to the body of Jesus, transforming it into a new kind of bodily existence,  which while still tangible  ‘and physical’ gained some unique properties in the process.   


Comments read comments(17)
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David H.

posted November 4, 2010 at 1:24 pm

Dr. Ben,
It always strikes me as odd when (presumably) believing commentators make statements like “Freyne, like many other scholars of his ilk, thinks there is some historical substance in the birth narratives, but that at the end of the day, Jesus was likely born in Nazareth, not in Bethlehem.”
If you’re going to throw out things like the birth in Bethlehem, what else do you throw out? Do you go through the miracles and decide which ones you find plausible? Do you parse the parables to determine which ones He actually said?
It seems to me that either the Bible is the Word of God, divinely inspired and inerrant, or it is just an interesting historical and religious document. If it’s just a document, why would you base any belief on any part of it? To me, it’s an all or nothing proposition. I always question why anybody would bother to study the Bible as their life’s work only to decide which parts to ignore. Why bother?

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ben witherington

posted November 4, 2010 at 3:42 pm

Hi David
While I understand this sentiment, you are not thinking about the Nt like historians do. Whether one believes this ir that passage of the Bible or not, no one can deny the historical importance of Jesus and his movement which led to early Christianity. It is of enormous historical importance due to its impact, for example on Western culture, even if there were errors in the Bible. Many Jews and Moslems and indeed historians of no particular belief reckonize that the Bible is an unimpeachable source for at least some verifiable historical data, and on that basis alone it is worth studying. Of course I would say much more than this about the Bible, and indeed am convinced it is inspired, but I am able to talk to other historians about it using the historical method of studying any ancient document and find much of worth and much common ground. So its never an all or nothing proposition.

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Dr Wesley B Rose, ThD, DD, DCA

posted November 4, 2010 at 5:04 pm

It never ceases to amaze me on how some people attempt to become famous. There are different types of fame, none of which Sean Freyne seems to be seeking by his comments. I also enjoy the statements of someone who as spent a great deal of time to find things everybody already knows and has been written about in many millions of words.
I should think that scholarship would introduce some new thoughts or ideas about any selected topic. In this case, I’m not sure the subject individual is even aware of the foolishness to which he has committed himself. Come on, you should be able to do better.

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posted November 4, 2010 at 10:27 pm

“It seems to me that either the Bible is the Word of God, divinely inspired and inerrant, or it is just an interesting historical and religious document. If it’s just a document, why would you base any belief on any part of it? To me, it’s an all or nothing proposition.”
In that case it has to be nothing. There are any number of errors in the Bible as any number of sites on the Internet point out.

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posted November 5, 2010 at 9:20 am

I wonder if it is reasonable to expect to find archaeological evidence that there was a large, unsatisfied, poor population. From a textual perspective we have ample evidence that Jesus’ message addressed money as one of the primary topics and that his kingdom agenda involved a power (and hence riches) inversion. It is woe to the rich and the full, they will be sent away hungry. This has no interest to people in Galilee if they are all living quite well on fish and grain.

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Jonathan Daniel

posted November 5, 2010 at 9:26 am

There are many millions of very religious Christians who do not need the divinely inspired sentiments of the Bible to represent inerrant historical fact.
This is convenient, because different passages within the Bible contradict each other. It would be impossible, in that conventional “reality-based” metric we sometimes use, for every word to represent historical reality.

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Aslan Cheng

posted November 5, 2010 at 10:20 am

Hi Ben,
Some scholars said ,”resurrection dosen’t occur ‘in space and time’,” for instance, Hans Kung, John Meier. I have noticed they almost are Catholic scholars.
Is this correct?
Why they thinks this way?

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James Lung

posted November 5, 2010 at 12:45 pm

Our local Jesus Seminarian (Greensboro, NC) used to smugly state (when teaching in my church) “The resurrection is not and cannot be an historical fact.” This is because he assumes that a supernatural event cannot be real.

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posted November 5, 2010 at 8:16 pm

“This is because he assumes that a supernatural event cannot be real.”
As assumptions go, in this day and age, that’s a good one.

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posted November 6, 2010 at 9:23 am

JESUS is no fable, legend, or
mythical figure. HE is reality!!

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ben witherington

posted November 7, 2010 at 2:02 pm

I think there is a serious problem with trying to suggest that the resurrection of a person has nothing to do with history. We can reasonably argue that either it did or it didn’t happen, but what we cannot say is it transpired in a realm other than history.
Why not? Resurrection by its early Jewish definition is the raising of a formerly alive human being back to life in a physical body in space and time (see the detailed study of the use of the term in early Judaism and early Christianity by Tom Wright, in Res. and the Son of God). No open minded person can rule out apriori such a thing can happen in space and time, not least because we do not know what the limits of possibility are in the space-time universe. That being the case, one must rule on the matter on the basis of EVIDENCE not philosophical or epistemological aprioris.

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Isabelo S Alcordo

posted November 8, 2010 at 7:18 pm

As a Bible-reading Christian, this is my understanding of my resurrection. Please correct me if I am not being Biblical.
Nowhere in the Bible says “resurrection of the body.” That statement is creedal and not supported by scripture. Scripture says “RESUURECTION FROM THE DEAD.” Properly understood, it could mean “RESURRECTION FROM THE GRAVE.”
Now, there are two types of death, hence of grave also: biological death (with the earth as its grave) and spiritual death (with its grave somewhere in the world of the spirits).
The death of the biological body has been declared irrevocably by God: “From dust you were taken to dust you will return.” This, however, was not said of the soul – which, upon the death of the biological body, becomes DISEMBODIED and goes into its own “state of death;” into the GRAVE of disembodied souls.
Thus,RESURRECTION FROM THE DEAD then does not mean “biological resurrection” but the “raising of the disbodied souls” to be embodied with “spiritual bodies” fit for the heavenly realm where there will no more “marrying” according to Jesus. Since “marrying” implies biological sexual reproduction – an intrinsic nature of biological bodies – Jesus in effect denies “biological resurrection.”
Spiritual resurrection should be the kind of resurrection that Christians should expect and the churches should teach.

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marisol diaz

posted November 10, 2010 at 5:55 am

Well why the heck Yeshua(Jesus) would then need Thomas to touch him?
when he showed himself to the other disciples and why does the Bible mention that ‘witness’ that saw him ( about 500)?
What did he do during that time?
Besides appearing to the 11 disciples on the eve of his resurrection, he also appears to two other disciples near the city of Emmaus, and walked them through a study in Old Testament prophecies about him.
He had a private meeting with Peter, of which no details are given
He had a private meeting with his brother James, who would be the first pastor of the Jerusalem church
He appeared to the 11 again in the Upper Room a week after his resurrection
He appeared to Peter, John and some other disciples near the Sea of Gallilee two weeks after the resurrection
He appeared to a crowd of over 500 people at some point during those 40 days (according to Paul). It is possible that this was at the time of his ascension
He spoke to 120 disciples, taught them about the Holy Spirit, and sent them to Jerusalem to await the day of Pentecost.

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marisol diaz

posted November 10, 2010 at 6:09 am

I love this post.!!, More should about it please! Congrats and blessings to Ben. Freyne and Isabelo, sorry U guys need to review Bible again. This excerpt from above is GOLD as that is the whole point Yeshua(Jesus)was trying everybody to understand and experience:
“Jesus is the first, and so far, the only person to have a resurrection body. Everyone else who has ever been brought back to life have gone on to die again in the same mortal skin. Resurrection is more than resuscitation of a corpse, but at the same time, it is something that happened to the body of Jesus, transforming it into a new kind of bodily existence, which while still tangible ‘and physical’ gained some unique properties in the process.”

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Barry Spears

posted November 11, 2010 at 5:07 am

For the record…Baptists are NOT Protestants. The Baptist denominaton did not spring from the Protestant reformation…was never a part of the Catholic Church and is therefore not “Protestant.” Just sayin’

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karen millen uk

posted June 2, 2011 at 9:17 am

Great article about this topic, I have been lately in your blog once or twice now. I just wanted to say hi and show my thanks for the information provided.

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John Mayer

posted August 7, 2013 at 12:24 am

May God always shine his countenance upon thee. Farewell my wandering Irishman may you rest in peace

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