In last month’s Observer, I interviewed author Tom Harpur, who argues that Jesus was a purely mythological figure. I cited you as someone who takes the historical Jesus seriously, and his response was that you don’t offer “a shred of evidence.” Well?
A I’m not going to spend a lot of time opposing Tom. I live in the world of scholarship. But let’s look at the question, “Could Jesus be simply a kind of mega-parable?” Certainly, a huge amount of what we have about Jesus is parabolizing history. But external arguments for his existence come from the Jewish historian Josephus at the end of the first century and the Roman Tacitus early in the second century. Neither is particularly interested in Jesus, but they do try to explain this weird group called “Christians.” They both say the same four things: one, [Christians] followed a guy called Christ; two, this guy led a movement; three, they executed him to eliminate the movement; and four, it didn’t work. So I consider that common knowledge by the end of the first century.
Q What about biblical evidence? Does Scripture support your case?
A What really convinces me is this: if you’re making a story up, at least get it right the first time. The truth is, the New Testament does not like the Jesus it is forced to admit existed. Biblical writers start with a magnificent vision of Jesus but then immediately start to qualify, soften, make it more acceptable. We see this pattern in all the Gospels and in Paul. This doesn’t fit the pattern of myth-making. We’re dealing with a historical figure so important he is surrounded with layers of parable and story, much like Julius Caesar in his time. I’m completely convinced Jesus was crucified; various sources tell different stories, but the event was real.
Q You argue that understanding the “matrix” within which Jesus lived is a crucial task for Christians. Why?
A “Matrix” is the common knowledge about what words mean. . . . You will not have a clue what the language of the New Testament means unless you understand the matrix. Words like “justification,” “grace” — even Jesus’ word “kingdom” — had very specific meanings in Judaism and in Rome.
Q So what was the matrix within which Jesus lived?
A As long as the world was thought to be entirely Christian, it worked to think of Jesus in a strictly Christian matrix. But after the Holocaust, Jews said, “But Jesus was a Jew.” So we said, “Okay, okay,” and we put him back in a Jewish matrix. That was just polite. No big deal. But I take the Jewish matrix seriously, because that gives us all the stuff about justice and eschatology — that’s what it means to be a Jew. But it’s not enough to say Jesus was a Jew — so was Caiaphas! Then the next layer is the Roman Empire. And that’s where scholarship is today.
Q So Jesus was a Jewish kid raised in the village of Nazareth. How would his life have been influenced by the presence of Romans in that region?
A As best we can guess, Jesus was born about 4 BCE. Around that time, there was an explosion of revolts in the Jewish homeland; it was bad enough for the Romans to send the legions. One legion burnt Sepphoris to the ground; Sepphoris was four miles from Nazareth. There were 6,000 crack troops in Jesus’ backyard. He couldn’t grow up without the Romans being the major topic of his youth.
Q How do you think that shaped Jesus as a young man?
A Jesus grew up with a Jewish tradition of God intervening, saving. So I don’t know how you could grow up without asking, “Where was God the day the Romans came? What about violence? Why didn’t God help us?”
Q So how does Jesus reshape Jewish tradition based on that experience?
A The next stage is John the Baptist. He assumes that a vengeful God will violently come and overthrow the Romans. “And you should be ready for it, wait for it, pray for it.” We can be certain that John baptized Jesus. Jesus starts out under John — he’s one of John’s crowd. And Jesus remains respectful of John but comes to differ profoundly with him. I think what happened is that God didn’t intervene, and Jesus changed. Jesus learned that God doesn’t work like that. God’s not violent.
Q So John says, “God’s going to come. God’s going to violently overthrow the empire. We’ve got to wait.” Jesus ends up saying, “No, no, we can’t wait. We have to get involved.”
A Collaborate! Participate with a non-violent God!
Q But if Jesus is just saying, “Let’s work with this nice, gentle God,” how does he become such a threat to the Romans?
A The Romans knew two types of threat. One was violent threat, and they were dynamite with that. That’s what the legions were for. But a non-violent threat is still a threat. Jesus is gathering people around the Kingdom of God. That is a pointed term. He could have chosen other terms — “kinship,” “family,” whatever. But he chose “kingdom.” Only Rome could appoint the King of the Jews — and that king was Herod. So it all makes sense. Pilate would have agreed that if someone is talking about the Kingdom of God, he must think he’s the king. One empire, two kings — and that’s trouble!
Q What’s the difference between the empire as proclaimed by Rome and the kingdom as proclaimed by Jesus?
A Rome wasn’t a bad empire; we could do worse, and perhaps are doing worse today. The clearest distinction is in John’s Gospel, in the conversation between Jesus and Pilate. Jesus says, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my companions would be in here fighting to get me out.” That’s crystal clear to me. Jesus is saying, “The difference, Pilate, between you and me, is that your kingdom is based on force and violence. Violence is your default principle. My default position is that God is not violent. God will not force you.”
Q You talk about the Kingdom of God as “the Great Divine Clean-Up,” the idea that God will make everything right in the world. It would seem like Jesus thought this transformation was going to happen soon — and it hasn’t. What’s going on?
A [The Kingdom of God] is a program. Neither Jesus nor Paul nor anyone else had any blueprint for this. They’d been told there’d be an intervention — zap! Now they’ve decided it’s going to be a period, and we have to participate, collaborate with God. Most of them thought it would be over soon. They were all wrong — it’s at least 2,000 years. But the program is still valid.
Q Are we getting anywhere with that program?
A Well, there are huge hopeful signs. If we believe in the incarnation, and that’s what we’re supposed to do — here’s God in sandals — then this man is the revelation of God. God is not violent. Jesus is the norm in the Bible. And that’s a non-violent norm.