2 April 2021
What is the ‘true meaning’ of Easter? Neil Faulkner peers through 2,000 years of theological fog in search of the real Jesus.
The New Testament records the work of a first-century Jewish Messiah and the fate of the millenarian sect he left behind. In my view – notwithstanding some radical comment to the contrary – there is no doubt whatsoever that Jesus Christ existed, that he was a charismatic mass leader, and that The New Testament is an immensely rich source of information about his life, work, and times.
It is equally my view – notwithstanding 2,000 years of Christian tradition – that he was not God, never claimed to be God, and could not have made such a blasphemous claim before a contemporary Jewish audience without condemning himself to political oblivion.
The gospels were written a generation or two after Christ’s death (in c.AD 33) by Greeks or Hellenised Jews of the Diaspora who had never knew him – Mark probably in Rome in the years around AD 70, Matthew possibly in Alexandria, Luke in Antioch, both sometime between AD 70 and 100, and John perhaps around AD 100 at Ephesus (though the debate about time and place in each case is far from settled).
The gospel-writers inhabited a milieu that was less Jewish and more Hellenised than the context of Christ’s own life and mission, and, moreover, one that was overshadowed by the Roman terror against millenarian radicals in the wake of the Jewish Revolution of AD 66-73. In the period they were writing, Christianity was emerging from the wreckage of the revolution as a universal cult of spiritual salvation which viewed Christ as a living god.
This new form – essentially a religion invented by St Paul (who, like the gospel-writers, had never known Christ) – can be seen overlying an earlier tradition of revolutionary millenarianism in the gospels. The authors had transformed Christ from Jewish radical prophet into Hellenistic saviour-god, and had replaced down-to-earth political Judaism with a personalised dream-world.
The gospel according to … who exactly?
Fortunately for us, they did the job messily, leaving many patches of early text unaltered and in place. The gospel-writers did not invent the gospels. They did not write straight fiction. They worked from primary sources in whose essential authenticity they believed, and because of this, enough of the earlier versions survive for us to try stripping away the Christian gloss to get at an underlying historical truth.
This is more easily done partly because we have four gospels and they do not always agree, and partly because we can distinguish elements in the texts which jar with Christian interpretation and are therefore likely to be earlier. An original text may be evident in one of two situations: first, where the gospels share a common element (which, as it happens, excludes virtually all divine, fabulous, and mythological features, these tending to appear in only one of the texts); and second, where the gospels contradict, either internally or with each other, and one of the versions lacks a Christian gloss.
‘Blessed be ye poor, for yours is the kingdom of God,’ Luke has Jesus say in the Sermon on the Mount. ‘Blessed are ye that hunger now, for ye shall be filled… But woe unto you that are rich, for ye have received your consolation. Woe unto you that are full, for ye shall hunger.’
But it is not quite like that in Matthew: ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven… Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled.’ For Matthew, it is not the poor as such, but the poor in spirit who will be saved; not a kingdom of God which might be of this world, but definitely a kingdom of heaven; not everyday hunger and thirst, but hunger and thirst after righteousness; and nothing at all about how rough it is going to be for the rich. The clarion call of class war has been transformed into a spiritual opiate.
The New Testament, then, can be read as a revolutionary millenarian text. Indeed, if it is studied not as a religious work containing universal ‘truths’ but as an historical source for Palestine in the 30s AD, this is the only way to read it, since the evidence for Jesus having been a millenarian radical is overwhelming. What can such a reading teach us? How close can we get to the ‘historical’ Jesus?
A millenarian radical
We know that he was a Galilean Jew from Nazareth born around the time of King Herod’s death in 4 BC. He probably worked with his father as a carpenter, but he was almost certainly educated above average and may have been a Pharisee (a member of a strict but mainstream religious sect).
When he was about 30, he seems to have undergone some sort of conversion experience, probably to a form of Essenism (a radical religious confession), or something closely allied. He was baptised in the Jordan by the ascetic prophet John the Baptist, becoming a sort of ‘born-again’ Jew, and after that he spent time in the Wilderness seeking spiritual enlightenment.
His return coincided with the arrest of John, which may, in a sense, have cleared the field for Jesus’ own ministry, especially if John had played the role of precursor prophet and recognised Jesus as the Messiah (a crucial role in radical-millenarian belief). The ministry lasted about three years. Jesus operated as faith-healer, exorcist, preacher, and prophet – all well established roles for an itinerant holy man – mainly, but not entirely, in Galilee.
His general message appears to have been very similar to that of the Dead Sea Scrolls. It was addressed to Jews only – ‘Go not into the way of the Gentiles,’ he told his disciples – and, among Jews, to the poor of small towns and villages, to peasants mainly, to those Jesus described as ‘the salt of the earth’, because their humility made them virtuous. Before them he defended the fundamentals of Judaism – faith in God, obedience to the Law, respect for the Prophets, purity of mind and deed – arguing that ‘righteousness’ in such things was the only route to salvation.
By contrast, he railed against the backsliding, hypocrisy, and empty formalism of people like the Pharisees, and, more generally, against the rich and powerful, men whose smug corruption put them largely beyond redemption. ‘Ye cannot serve God and Mammon,’ Jesus declared. The choice, it seems, was wealth or holiness; and class hatred runs like a red thread through the gospels.
The people attracted to Jesus were farmers and fishermen, artisans and petty traders, even beggars and outcasts. Essenes, Zealots, and other radicals were probably also among his audience, for Jesus never attacks these groups, in marked contrast to Scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees (members of an exclusive upper-class sect).
What did he offer his listeners? He was a convincing Messiah – a caring, charismatic, powerful leader – and he was building a mass movement to overthrow the Jerusalem ruling class and their Roman backers. The movement had its dedicated cadre: there were the 12 disciples (one for each of the legendary Twelve Tribes of Israel perhaps), to whom Jesus passed on his ‘powers’, and who renounced their homes, families, and property to go forth as itinerant preachers and ‘gather the lost sheep of Israel’. A further 70 were later added, whom ‘he sent two and two before his face into every city and place whither he himself would come.’ There were not enough of them – ‘the harvest truly is plenteous, but the labourers are few’ – yet the movement still grew fast.
The doubtful were impressed by the size of the crowds, seduced by the messianic excitement, won over by the revolutionary vision of the leader. And soon there was critical mass and a millenarian momentum hurtling towards its essential consummation: either the Messiah would enter Jerusalem and overthrow the Old Regime, or he was a charlatan and this was not the Apocalypse after all.
Millenarianism was a form of pre-modern radicalism rooted in religion. In the Judaeo-Christian-Islamic tradition, it typically centred on the idea of a special kind of prophet and religious leader, the Messiah (or Mahdi), and a cataclysmic ‘End of Days’ confrontation, the Apocalypse, which would involve the cleansing of the world of all forms of oppression and the restoration of an imagined primeval golden age.
This was not the idea of a cranky fringe, nor of a particular moment of crisis; it was deep-rooted in the Judaic tradition, resurfacing repeatedly in Jewish history, and was predicted and described in detail by many of the biblical prophets. There are apocalyptic passages in all of the following biblical books: Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Zechariah, Malachi, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Baruch, 2 Esdras, and, of course, Revelation.
Judaism (like its Christian and Islamic offshoots) was a highly teleological faith: it rejected the cyclical views of time which dominated pagan thought, seeing history instead as a linear progression, in which God’s design gradually unfolded and his people were led towards a predetermined end. This end was the Apocalypse.
In the Christian reworking of the myth recounted in Revelation, the appearance of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse – Conquest, Slaughter, Famine, and Pestilence – heralds a period of cataclysmic disasters which will destroy the existing world. The beasts and their riders are dream-symbols for the earthly forces which would, unwittingly, do God’s dreadful work of punishing the wicked and ridding the world of corruption.
Jesus stood in this tradition. So, in the tragic climax of his mission, he led his followers to the Mount of Olives and established a camp there. This was partly force of circumstance: it was festival time and the city was full of pilgrims; accommodation was hard to get and expensive. But the Mount had also been predicted by Zechariah to be the site of miraculous signs heralding the Apocalypse.
He then entered Jerusalem itself riding on an ass (in fulfilment of prophecy) at the head of a procession of millenarians. The pilgrim crowds greeted him ecstatically, spreading clothes and branches in his path, and acclaiming him ‘Son of David’, ‘King of Israel’, and ‘the King that cometh in the name of the Lord’.
This was not some innocuous religious gathering. The Judaeo-Christians quickly established themselves in effective control of the Temple Mount, where Jesus denounced the money-lenders and traders in the precincts and had his supporters throw them out. ‘My house shall be called the house of prayer, but ye have made it a den of thieves.’ The ‘righteous’ were on the offensive, and the authorities appeared to be losing control. More and more it must have seemed that the Apocalypse had really begun.
We cannot at this distance judge the balance of forces and the real strength of the messianic movement. But there is no question that the authorities feared a popular uprising. The millenarians camped out on the Mount of Olives were armed and there was brief resistance, but this was quickly overpowered and Jesus was arrested and led away. He was hauled before the high priest Caiaphas and his close associates for interrogation – it is unlikely there was a full meeting of the Sanhedrin (the Jewish religious council) – but he was then passed on to the Roman procurator Pontius Pilate for a final decision about his fate.
This probably means that he was cleared of any charge of heresy – a special responsibility of the Sanhedrin – and was condemned and executed by the civil power as a political subversive and disturber of the peace. It may be significant that the four gospels, which disagree in so many other details, concur that the Roman inscription pinned to the crucifixion cross read ‘King of the Jews’ – Christ, on this evidence, had been a Messiah, a prophet-king to lead the Jews in the apocalyptic struggle at the end of time. He died on the cross – like thousands of other Jews in the first century AD – not because he was a blasphemer who claimed to be God, but because he was a revolutionary who threatened the authority of Rome and its Sadducean allies.
The invention of Christianity
His mass movement then collapsed, leaving a rump of confused and demoralised followers, who somehow managed to hold themselves together as a group. Central to their survival, almost certainly, was their belief that Christ was not really dead and would reappear at any moment to lead them. Messianic hope was thus held in suspension. Ideologically rearmed in this way, the Judaeo-Christian cadre regained their confidence and continued preaching – apparently with great success, membership rising from 120 to over 8,000 in a few years, if we can trust the testimony of The Acts of the Apostles.
One way or another, millenarian ideas formed the core of revolutionary conviction among first-century Jews. There were many variants, many different messiahs and sects claiming a monopoly on truth, and many unresolved arguments about the meaning and relevance of the numerous prophecies recorded in scripture. But the belief that a Messiah would come, the Apocalypse follow, and the Rule of the Saints result was the common currency of Jewish radicals in the first century.
When Christ denounced the Pharisees, it was not simply because they denied his messianic claims; there was the wider problem that they denied the very possibility of a Messiah. For them, the Apocalypse was a delusion, an invention of fanatics and demogogues which had no basis in Torah and was bound to lead to disaster.
Attitudes to the Apocalypse divided the moderate mainstream, which might not like Roman rule but were resigned to it, from the radical sectarians, who wanted to overthrow it and believed it could be done. The Apocalypse was the touchstone distinguishing compromisers from revolutionaries. It is pretty clear from any unbiased critical reading of the ancient sources on which side of that divide Jesus of Nazareth took his stand.
This article is based on extracts from Neil Faulkner’s Apocalypse: the great Jewish revolt against Rome, AD 66-73 (2002/2011), which is readily available from online booksellers.