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BAR interviews Sean Freyne: Jesus of History vs Jesus of Tradition

Sean Freyne is director of Mediterranean and Near Eastern Studies, as well as emeritus professor of theology, at Trinity College Dublin. His research focuses on the integration of literary and archaeological sources for understanding the social and religious world of Galilee in Hellenistic and Roman times. Editor Hershel Shanks sat down with Professor Freyne in New Orleans to discuss what archaeology and Biblical studies can tell us about the historical Jesus.

BSBA360603700 Hershel Shanks: Sean, I take it you’ve come to New Orleans for the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature?

Sean Freyne: That’s true, Hershel, but also I’m retracing my footsteps of 30 years ago and more, when I taught here in New Orleans at Loyola University. My first daughter, Bridget, was born here. So I have very special memories of New Orleans.

I’m glad to be able to talk to you. My only fear is that our typist won’t be able to understand your thick Irish brogue.

No, no, I speak very clearly. I speak slowly and clearly in my best Americanese. [laughter]

You’re a senior scholar. What do you get out of these meetings of the Society of Biblical Literature?

Well, I found coming to the SBL was a very stimulating experience even as a young scholar. I had been trained in Europe, of course, in Rome and Jerusalem and then subsequently in Germany. And when I came to teach in the States, I found that the discipline [of Biblical studies] here was different from Europe. While I don’t always agree with everything I hear from the United States in the field of Biblical studies, nonetheless I always find it very challenging and very stimulating. And so I see myself as kind of bridging a European, more theological, approach with a more secular one, particularly in regard to historical Jesus studies. In America there is a greater emphasis on sociological methods, which can be very helpful, but which also can be quite restrictive.

You are an expert in historical Jesus studies. I have always wondered about that name. Are there nonhistorical Jesus studies, or unhistorical Jesus studies?

[Laughing] That’s a good question. Some people confuse the notion of the historical Jesus with the notion of the actual or the real Jesus. I think the historical Jesus is a construct, a theological construct, really. It’s the figure of Jesus as he is represented in the documents of Christian faith as a historical person.

I thought it was just the opposite, that the historical Jesus was opposed to the theological Jesus.

What we’re trying to do, I think, in this quest for the historical Jesus is to find the figure who stands behind the gospel narratives as a historical figure. If we look at the Gospels, all we have, in the case of the Synoptics [Matthew, Mark and Luke], is one year of his public ministry. If we include John, we make it three years. It’s a bird’s-eye view of this figure who walked the roads of Galilee. We have no record whatever of Jesus’ early life. We have the infancy gospel stories, which of course are highly theological and highly literary, made up later. So we really can’t build anything historical on those narratives.

In Hebrew Bible studies, there’s a big question about whether Solomon and David lived. Archaeologists have now found an inscription that actually refers to David’s dynasty. So that’s settled. But Solomon is still an open question and of course there is no archaeological evidence of Moses. Yet you never hear about historical Moses studies or historical Solomon studies or even historical David studies. Why the contrast? You have it only with Jesus.

Someone has said that if Moses didn’t exist, we’d have to invent him. He stands behind a whole tradition. We know very little about him. So little in fact, that as an historical person he is virtually lost to history too. But I think the Israelite tradition as it developed, as well as later Jewish tradition, weren’t as dependent on one figure as the Christian tradition was on this figure of Jesus of Nazareth. I think that’s why the historical Jesus becomes a real battleground theologically and historically, because so much is at stake in terms of the Christian proclamation.

If we say Jesus is purely a construct, without any historical roots, then Christianity itself would be in danger of collapsing. The same is true for the traditions of Israelite origin. If we can’t somehow put some trust in the early traditions—the legal traditions, the Exodus tradition, the origins in Egypt and so on—if we can’t put some trust in those, then it seems to me the whole story, as a religious expression, would be in danger of collapsing also.

So I think, in other words, something of the historical roots of the tradition, both the Israelite tradition and the early Christian tradition, are important for the kind of theological religious claims that are invested in those figures and those histories. But I think we have to recognize that our ancient sources cannot be judged by the standards of modern historiography. We have to try to work with historical methods and try at the same time to recognize the literary creations, be it about Jesus or about Israel.

I thought there was a more intense debate and acrimony among those who are arguing over whether there was a United Monarchy ruled by David and Solomon than there is in New Testament studies about the historical Jesus.

No, no. There is quite an intense debate in the historical Jesus studies as well.

Some New Testament scholars say Jesus was a magician.

They use that term. But a lot depends on how you use the word “magician”. Is it a pejorative term? Some people have said Jesus was a shaman, others say he was a Hasid [a very religious Jew]. We have a whole range of images of Jesus floating around. “Magician” is used as a way of discrediting somebody in antiquity. According to Celsus [a second-century C.E. Greek philosopher], Jesus went to Egypt and learned magic there, and came back and deceived the people. I think we have to try to balance a negative account with what we can establish historically. And I think that “magician,” for me, is not the appropriate title.

Another characterization of Jesus is as a Greek-style philosopher, who is a Cynic.

Yes. The Cynics were traveling popular philosophers that were to some degree counter-cultural figures. When some scholars say that Jesus was a Cynic, there is often the implication that he wasn’t Jewish, or only marginally so, since the Cynics were a phenomenon of the Greco-Roman urban environment. That is where I think the archaeology of Galilee can help. When I wrote my first book on Galilee, I came across a book published in German in 1941 by Walter Grundmann, a professor of New Testament. The title was Jesus der GaliläerJesus the Galilean—which claimed that because Galilee in Jesus’ time was heathen, with great probability, “Jesus kein Jude war,” “Jesus was not a Jew.” Although it was published in Germany in 1941 at the height of the Nazi period, there had been that scholarly tradition going back to the 19th century, and to some extent it is still with us, as in the Cynic Jesus hypothesis: The Greek world was enlightened; the Jewish world, the Semitic world, was backward and outdated. In a sense, making Jesus Greek was a way of saying Jesus is not tied to the particularities of his Jewish tradition. It was making him a figure of universal significance—that was the dominant trend of 19th-century Jesus studies.

Has archaeology helped to counter that view?

Absolutely, very clearly.


In a number of ways. First and foremost it has shown that the reception of Greek influences in the Near East from the time of Alexander the Great [fourth century B.C.E.] was not a hostile clash of civilizations, as has often been asserted. The question is at what point, or to what extent, were the unique claims of the Jewish tradition, for instance that of Yahweh as the only God, abandoned in favor of a polytheistic understanding of the divine? Archaeology has shown that the Jewish identity maintained itself despite the dangers of total assimilation, but Jews also benefited from the advantages of the Greek world. The Jewish diaspora was Greek, and the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek in the third century B.C.E. already. Philo of Alexandria, one of the great Jewish philosophers, was heavily influenced by Greek philosophy in first-century C.E. Alexandria. So Greek culture was not necessarily hostile to the Jewish tradition, which came under the impact of Hellenism in various ways. But it also vigorously resisted abandoning its own distinctive world view. It accommodated itself to Hellenism while at the same time it retained its own distinctive identity. That, to me, is crucial to the understanding of Jesus also.

Archaeology, I think, has shown us that there was indeed a strong element of Hellenization in terms of trade, language, military and administrative strategies, etc. It was to some extent a case of acting Greek without becoming Greek, as somebody has put it.

You seem to be saying that Galilee was Jewish but absorbed Hellenistic culture at the time of Jesus and yet was not overcome or overrun by it.

It didn’t lose its distinctive Jewish identity. In the interior of Galilee, for instance, you do not find any of the things that we associate with a Greek or Roman city in terms of monumental buildings or statues of the gods.

You feel that Jesus was imbued with Jewish culture?

Absolutely. To my mind there’s no question about that. Locating him more precisely within that culture is another question. Jewish culture at the time was not monochromic. There were different varieties of Judaism—diaspora, or Greek-speaking Jews, the Sadducees, proto-rabbinic Jews such as the Essenes and the Pharisaic movement, etc. Where we locate the Jesus movement in this matrix is the big question historically.

What are the alternatives?

Well, for me, one of the important things is to start with Jesus’ relationship with John the Baptist. We know from John’s gospel that, later, the Jesus and the Baptist movements were in opposition, since their disciples were in competition for members (John 3:26). In this gospel the Baptist is apologetically presented as being the first witness to the Christian gospel (John 1:29–34). In the much-earlier synoptic account, Jesus says that “nobody born of women is greater than John the Baptist” (Matthew 11:11; Luke 7:28). These are the words of an admirer of John. Jesus has left his Galilean village culture of Nazareth and joins the Baptist movement in the desert, it would seem.

Now how do we understand the Baptist movement in the desert? I see it as one movement among various strands in Judaism that are beginning to be disaffected, not just politically but religiously. Herod changed the high priesthood. He got rid of the Hasmoneans [the previous Jewish rulers] and brought in replacement high priests from outside, from Egypt and from Mesopotamia.

I think we can see some disaffection here; the symbolic system of the Temple was not functioning as well as it might have in terms of being the religious center for the whole people. Luke presents the Baptist as the son of a country priest (Luke 1:5–8). Now, if John’s the son of a country priest, what’s he doing in the desert, preaching forgiveness of sins? He should be in Jerusalem talking about how people should come there on Yom Kippur. Instead, he’s undermining the system that is functioning in Jerusalem, just as the Qumran people [where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found] are as well, by claiming that they are an alternative temple. We have to see that kind of movement in the first century in this larger context. I would want to locate Jesus as well within that general environment.

Where within that context?

All the Gospels say that once John was arrested, Jesus moved into Galilee. Now that move is very important. He’s going back to Galilee, going back to his own roots, but he’s not going back to settle in Nazareth.

There’s a famous story in Mark where Jesus is in a house with people gathered around him, and they say to him, “Your mother and brothers are outside waiting for you and calling for you [Mark 3:32].” Mark had made a very unexpected assertion that [his family] thought that Jesus was out of his mind [Mark 3:21–22]. But Jesus does not go out to meet them. Instead he makes this amazing statement, asking “Who are my mother and my brothers?” Those who do the will of my father, he says, are my brothers and sisters and mother [Mark 3:33–35]. In other words, he’s establishing a new kind of family that is based not on kinship, but on following his way of understanding what God’s will is. 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.

The prophet Isaiah was very important for Jesus, as he was for all these renewal movements, including the people at Qumran. The remains of several different Isaiah scrolls have been found in the caves there, including one complete scroll and another nearly complete.

In Isaiah you have a clear sense of the remaking of Israel after the Babylonian Exile and the hopes that that engendered. The servant figure will bring light to the nations as well as restore Israel. There’s a sense of the universal in Isaiah. I tend to see John the Baptist more focused on Israel, and Jesus as adopting a more open and inclusive approach to renewal. They are both building their visions of what Israel’s role is, even when the emphasis is different. 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. The servant figure is deeply embedded in a tradition of Jewish piety associated with the anavim or “pious poor” whom we meet in the Prophets and Psalms [Isaiah 3:14–15; Ezekiel 18:12; Psalms 9:13, 10:12, 25:9, 34:3]. They are often depicted in Isaiah as suffering at the hands of the ruling elite associated with the temple, yet especially dear to God (Isaiah 58:1–14, 61:1–3, 65:13–14).

Did Jesus initiate his own unique renewal movement or was he part of another renewal movement?

I think Jesus began within the renewal movement that was associated with the desert and with John the Baptist, as I have been saying. And then his strategy changes from John’s. John’s world vision is of an imminent judgment, that God is going to come and separate the good from the wicked, a highly apocalyptic world view. He remains in the desert summoning people to come out and prepare themselves through repentance and baptism. Jesus seems to be less influenced by the apocalyptic view of history. He retains it, but he’s not as influenced by it. So when he goes into Galilee, he attempts to wed the apocalyptic world view with a “wisdom” one, as he moves around the villages preaching and healing. In other words, he recognizes that this world is essentially good. You can examine many of his parables, for example, where he talks about nature reflecting God’s ways with the world, as in the parables of growth [Mark 4]: seeds falling into different kinds of soil. It’s not a vision of God coming in thunder and lightning. God is in the world already. So I think Jesus operates out of what I would call a creation tradition, where true wisdom is about understanding the ways of the world and recognizing God’s active presence in its processes. I think Jesus puts more emphasis on the wisdom tradition than the purely apocalyptic one. In that sense he is less a John the Baptist figure, more a prophetic one who is able to extend his calling not merely to Israel but to the nations also, accepting that the nations, too, can share with Israel’s blessings.

Was this unique to Jesus or was this part of another Jewish movement?

That was already in Isaiah. In Isaiah 49:6 [in so-called Deutero-Isaiah or Second Isaiah], for example. Yahweh [Israel’s God] is addressing the servant. “It is too little a thing,” he says, “for you to restore the tribes of Israel. You must be a light for the nations that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” So the servant figure, when Israel is restored, will be a light unto the nations. That is Isaiah’s vision of “all peoples” coming from the various points of the compass to the great banquet described in Isaiah 25:6. In the latter part of the book (Trito-Isaiah, i.e., Isaiah 56–66), this same universal perspective is retained alongside the special role of Israel—long before Jesus.

Was Jesus alone in this, or was he part of a larger Jewish movement?

The Isaiah tradition kept being reworked in one way or another. We see it in the Book of Daniel, as well as in 1 Enoch and in the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs [both in the Apocrypha]. There’s a lot of reworking of the tradition going on. We have no evidence, however, of another movement quite like the Jesus movement. I use the term “Jesus movement” because it’s very difficult to distinguish between Jesus as a historical figure and the movement that emerges in his name in Galilee. I think that Jesus’ first followers continued to imitate his lifestyle, a wandering, charismatic figure. We don’t have any parallels to this.

That brings us back to the archaeology of Galilee, to try to understand why such a movement happened at that particular juncture of Jewish history and the role that the social and cultural context might have played. It’s a historical fact that in the first century this group emerged in Galilee. We don’t know of any other movement in Galilee like it. We know of certain prophetic movements in Judea, but not within Galilean Judaism of the same period. So the question, as a historian, would be: What were the circumstances in Galilee that provide a context to this? And can the historian say anything about that? There archaeology can help us greatly.

Recently archaeologists have been discussing the social conditions in Galilee. Some say Galilee was impoverished by the Herodians, and Jesus is standing up for the peasants against the new ruling class. Other scholars say Galilee wasn’t like that at all, and that Antipas’s reign brought prosperity to the peasants; there was much intervillage trading and a lot of commercial activity. Villages like Cana, Yotapata, Bethsaida and Capernaum weren’t on the decline; they were prosperous villages. So if Galilee was doing well, why would the Jesus movement emerge just then? Where is Jesus coming from? How is he going to fit into this context? Are there any niches, if you like, that we as historians might fit him into?

All this is reconstruction of course. But it is clear from the material remains that you had different economic and social strata in these villages: Some people are doing better, and others are suffering as a result. The Jesus movement, it seems to me, is addressing the wealthy as well as the poor, and saying that the blessings of Israel are for all Israel. That is the inclusive vision that is at the heart of the Jesus movement. And its message was not very acceptable to those who were better off. “Woe to you, Chorazin, woe to you Bethsaida, woe to you Capernaum” [Matthew 11:21, 23; Luke 10:13, 15]. These villages in Galilee that we associate with the Jesus movement are condemned because they didn’t follow his message, it would seem. It is no coincidence that they are all located close to the lake and bordering the Plain of Ginnosar, whose fertility the Jewish historian Josephus praises highly, suggesting their prosperity. The rejection suggested in the woes addressed to these villages suggests that the Jesus movement gradually moves out of the region of lower Galilee and begins to move up toward Syria, as we can discern from the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, written after 70 C.E. [when the Romans destroyed the Temple at Jerusalem].

Let me go back to something you referred to earlier about the birth narratives. It sounded to me as if you had reached a negative conclusion as to their historicity.

Well, yes and no! Luke [1–2] and Matthew [1–2], the only Gospels with birth narratives, are so different in the ways they tell the story. Maybe the fact that they are so different, and yet agree on some elements of the story, might give the historian pause, to say, “Wait a minute, hold on. There is some historical reality here!” I think that may well be the case.

But I think you have to recognize that once you get into the public ministry of Jesus, that is, from John’s baptism of Jesus to the Passion, the gospel writers do not deal quite as freely with the traditions about Jesus as they do in the birth narratives. The birth narratives were trying to fill in the gaps in the narrative by providing a theological introduction in story form. Matthew has the flight to Egypt; Luke knows nothing about that. Luke has the whole story of Mary going down to Elizabeth and visiting her; Matthew doesn’t.

The two accounts are so very different, it seems to me that we have to be very careful in trying to collapse them into one and claim we know the details of that part of Jesus’ life.

Was Jesus born in Bethlehem?

My sense would be no. He was born in Nazareth, I believe. He’s never called “Jesus of Bethlehem”; he is called “Jesus of Nazareth.”

Now, that said, what I would want to add is that he comes from parents who may well have roots in Bethlehem. From the second century B.C. onward, we know that émigrés from Judea settled in Galilee. And therefore there are strong links between Galilean Judaism and Jerusalem. There’s a lot of archaeological evidence that points to continuity between Galilean and Jerusalem practices. So I would say Jesus’ family may well be a Judean family who moved to Galilee. Therefore one can’t dismiss entirely the possibility of links with Bethlehem [just 5 mi south of Jerusalem]. Of course, for the Christian evangelist later, the links to Bethlehem are particularly important because King David was from Bethlehem. And Jesus is called a son [a scion] of David [Matthew 1:6; Luke 1:27]. For the early Christians, that was clearly a part of the reason to say he is the Messiah. The Messiah was to come from the house of David; he’s the son of David, and he, like David, was born in Bethlehem. Jesus is made to fill all the categories. But Nazareth is the more likely place in purely historical terms.

I think your question is a good one because it points to the problem we have of trying to distinguish between what is theological reflection and its development, on the one hand, and historical realities, on the other. Instead of splitting them apart and saying that’s theology and that’s history, I think the Bible as a whole gives us theologically interpreted history. It’s the same with the origins-of-Israel question that we talked about earlier. There is an ongoing kind of reflection on historical events and rethinking them and reframing them and reinterpreting them, constantly reworking Biblical tradition itself in the process. That’s why it’s so hard to pull out the historical Jesus or the historical Israel and say there they are.

Where Jesus was born doesn’t really affect theology, but the virgin birth comes closer ...

It does.

And resurrection is really right there.

At the heart of it.

What are the “historical Jesus” views of these?

Do you want me to have a go at answering this? Okay! Okay! People will tell me that as a historian I can’t touch these questions. But I like to think that I’m a theologian as well, so I’m going to make an effort.

I think the virgin birth is the easier of the two because, although we don’t quite have parallels, we do have some stories very like it. The idea of the birth of a hero like Heracles and Dionysus and the various myths of the newer gods within the Greek pantheon—the newer gods as distinct from the old Zeus and the nature gods. You have this idea of the mingling of the mortal and the immortal going on. So I think there’s a tradition there in Hellenistic religious history where the story of the virgin birth would fit in very well, once people sought to attribute divine status to Jesus.

As to the Resurrection story: The tradition is very early. In 1 Corinthians [15:3–8] Paul, writing before 50 A.D., says “I handed on to you what I received,” that is, a very early tradition had been established. Paul then recounts Jesus’ post-Resurrection appearances. But Paul’s account doesn’t match the stories in the Gospels, where we have the empty tomb stories as well as the appearances to women and men [Matthew 28; Mark 16; Luke 24; John 20–21]. Eventually, the two types of stories get combined into a single narrative. You have to trace the traditions back and see—can you separate out the lines of these developments?

Now what lies behind them is something that no historian can verify. That’s for sure. We are dealing with a religious claim that somehow God has approved of this man’s life, approved of him in such a way that the language of “resurrection from the dead,” as this was understood in Jewish circles then, was deemed to be entirely appropriate. The Book of Daniel (12:2–3) envisions that the maskilim [12:3], the pious [or wise] ones who have been persecuted, will shine like the stars forever. Within a Jewish framework, we see the ultimate triumph of goodness, and this can be affirmed of one man in the expectation that all the just would share in this victory.

That would be the background against which I would see the development of the post-Resurrection stories. There’s an experience or claim that certainly can’t be verified historically, in which somehow or other the belief arose that God has approved in this way of this man Jesus. What can be established historically is the transformative effect of the claim on Jesus’ first followers.

If you look at Paul—and Paul is a Jewish figure, however much he may be seen to be on the margins of Judaism for later Christian readers—Paul cannot conceive of the resurrection of one individual without the resurrection of the whole group. Read 1 Corinthians 15, and you see that Paul is doing his damnedest to try to get at the notion of the whole people about to share in the resurrection experience. And he uses the examples of the seed, the stars, whatever. He’s struggling, struggling, struggling. In the end he says, I will tell you a mysterion, that is, a hidden message of the divine plan for humankind. On the one hand, he shows his Jewishness that there isn’t a resurrection of an individual but of a group. But secondly, that the manner of this triumph has ultimately to be left in the hands of God.

So I think that theologically we shouldn’t shy away from these issues. And historically we shouldn’t just dismiss them all as later developments that appear totally irrational to the modern mind. I think we can see them within the context of different forms of renewal Judaism at a very early stage, where apocalyptic hopes and wisdom traditions are intermingling and developing. The hopes associated with these expressions are all brought to bear on understanding the figure of Jesus, his life and death.

Do you envisage a physical resurrection?

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.

What do you do with the story after the resurrected Jesus returns from Emmaus [Luke 24:36–42]? And they give Jesus some broiled fish to eat to demonstrate that he’s physically resurrected, not just an apparition or a spirit. What do you do with that?

There’s no question about it, as stories develop—I could tell you some really good stories in Irish folklore about filling out the details of some wondrous deed or some experience that’s deemed to be supernatural or preternatural. It’s been vividly told, with all the details. You have to allow an oral culture to develop stories in that way. They don’t create any problem for me. What we have is a tradition trying to develop that sense of the reality, the identity, that the earthly Jesus whom they knew had triumphed over death.

Thank you very much, Sean.

Source: Biblical Archaeology Review [BAR 36:06, Nov/Dec 2010]


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