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More on Jesus



To the editors:

I was delighted to see that my letter to your tabloid found its way into print [July 14]. However, I was disturbed by the heading under which it appeared. I would also like to take the time to further explain the point I was trying to make (obviously not too well) in the original letter.

I never criticized Mr. Sheehan ["The Gospel According to Thomas Sheehan," April 21] for engaging in "amateur theology." My criticism of him was exclusively limited to the historical claims that he was making regarding Jesus of Nazareth. The reason for this is that I am engaged in an historical enterprise and my concern is with what Mr. Sheehan is asserting on this level not his theological persuasion or the degree to which he conforms to the "liberal consensus for interpreting the Scriptures."

Secondly, the reason that I selected the "barrage" of names was, as the letter stated, to offer a set of exempla which demonstrate the fact that there is no scholarly consensus on the "facts" Mr. Sheehan claims. Mr. McClory's response in this latter respect sounds quite shrill, unless he is willing to admit that three men (including Sheehan) make for a consensus in a field where thousands labor.

As for example of this lack of scholarly unity (since Mr. McClory obviously still has not done his "homework"), I will leave you with a quotation taken from Mr. Mack's Myth of Innocence (Philadephia: Fortress Press, 1988), p. 10, n. 4, which offers a summary of the current state of debate regarding the circumstances which led to Jesus' death. (I should also mention that I am not particularly sanguine about Mr. Mack's general thesis nor all of the evaluations he makes in the subsequent note, but I believe that all that is necessary is to demonstrate a lack of consensus--which this quote manifestly does.)

"4. The crucifixion. There is no scholarly consensus on why Jesus was crucified. The proposed solutions have run from Jesus' activity as a 'Zealot,' his 'messianic' claims to be the rightful king of the Jews, and less politically intended actions taken in and against the temple, to inadvertent threats against civil order created by the crowds he attracted and their unruly ways, the practice of magic, and speaking in parables. Few accept any longer Mark's story that the Pharisees were so angered by Jesus' teaching and Sabbath behavior that they plotted to have him killed, of course, but the assumption still persists here and there that it was 'the religious leaders' who found Jesus intolerable (Sheehan's view). The problem has always been to relate Jesus as the preacher and teacher in Galilee with some reconstruction of civil disturbance in Jerusalem.

"In his book Jesus and the Zealots, S.G.F. Brandon argued the Zealot hypothesis. Martin Hegel refutes this hypothesis in Was Jesus a Revolutionist? albeit from a Christian apologetic point of view. See also Hegel's Victory Over Violence (Mr. Mack could have also made mention of a series of essays edited by Ernst Bammel and C.F.D. Moule entitled Jesus and the Politics of His Day which were all written as a direct response to Brandon's thesis). In a recent set of studies, particularly in 'Popular Messianic Movements,' Richard Horsley has shown that the very notion of Zealots as a typical phenomenon rest upon a mistaken reading of Josephus (a first century CE Jewish historian and apologist). The contenders, whom Josephus called Zealots, were actually leaders of guerilla bands, better called sicarii, and best limited to the period immediately prior to the Jewish War in the sixties. The most forthright attempt to solve the problem comprehensively is E.P. Sanders, Jesus and Judaism. Sanders' view is that Jesus fully expected an apocalyptic event in which the Jerusalem temple would be destroyed and in which he would be installed as king to "restore' the kingdom of Israel. Sanders regards Jesus' 'cleansing' of the temple portrayed in Mark 11:15-18 as historical, an act borne of apocalyptic vision, not political programme, an act arising from a claim well enough understood both by his disciples and the Jewish establishment to have triggered the histories unleashed. Jesus threatened the Jews, according to Sanders, not the Romans, and the Jews arranged to have him killed. Jesus' disciples accepted his vision, and they accordingly produced the church, continuing the belief that Jesus was the Messiah-king of an otherworldly kingdom yet to appear.

"All scholarly reconstructions include critical 'evidence' taken from the passion narrative of the Gospel of Mark. It should be emphasized that, apart from Mark's passion narrative, there is no indication that Jesus or his early followers looked for the destruction of the temple. Neither is there any indication before Mark, either in the pre-Markan memories of Jesus or in the Pauline documentation of the Christ cult, that Jesus' death was understood by his followers to be the result of a 'messianic' conflict with the Jerusalem establishment. Sanders struggles with this problem throughout the book, but resolves it by interpreting Jesus' message as thoroughly apocalyptic, thus claiming historical plausibility for a great deal of the gospel accounts. His work can be viewed as the Anglo-American counterpart, eighty years later, to Schweitzer's 'thoroughgoing apocalypticism' of Jesus in The Quest of the Historical Jesus." (All comments in parentheses are my own.)

I believe Mr. McClory only asked for one, but if he finds this insufficient then he is more than welcome to call me (since calling Mr. Droge proved too taxing) and I would be more than happy to discuss (to the best of my capabilities) all six "facts" Mr. Sheehan claims as historically factual.

J. Andrew Foster

S. Everett

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