Jesus is represented as undergoing the Jewish rite of circumcision, of celebrating the Feast of Tabernacles, the Feast of Dedication, Passover, observing the Sabbath, going to the synagogue and the temple, arguing with Pharisees about Torah (he knew nothing of the books of the New Testament). So how did we get Christian rites, theology, and celebrations out of this Jewish man? In part, it was due to the fact that Jesus was “scrubbed” by the evangelists in their narratives, and then by the later church. Their literary contexts and “Christian” spins of the oral Jesus traditions, which they received, made Jesus more amenable to the Christian Greek mentality.
Most scholars accept that Jesus was baptized by John the Baptizer, but John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Mark 1:4-5). The Christian view (Paul) sees baptism as immersion in the death and resurrection of Jesus, the Christ (Romans 6:3-4). Matthew, on the other hand, was bothered by the suggestion that Jesus might also be thought to have “confessed his sins” like everyone else when he was baptized by John, and completely eliminates this as a possibility by having Jesus explain to John why it was necessary that John baptize him (Matt 3:13-15). In Luke, apparently John does not baptize Jesus, for Luke writes that John was put in prison (Luke 3:19-20) immediately before the baptism of Jesus (Luke 3:21); this appears to be how Luke handled Jesus being baptized for the remission of his sin; he wasn’t baptized by John, but rather at a later time, and who baptized him is left unclear. In the Gospel of John, John’s baptism is not a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins; rather John was baptizing so that Jesus might be revealed to Israel (John 1:31). The baptism of Jesus in John was a baptism of the spirit rather than a water baptism, which John only witnesses (John 1:30-34). On the other hand, in a strange passage John represents Jesus as baptizing others (John 4:1), but then in the very next verse (John 4:2) John actually denies that Jesus is doing the baptizing himself—a statement that contradicts John 4:1!
The sayings of Jesus that pass historical/critical muster (if I can put it that way) do not offer guidance for living, talk about God or salvation, predict the future, warn about the end of the world, anticipate the foundation of an ecclesiastical institution that would last for 2000 years, establish a cult of a dying and rising God, or authorize the change of theology from a radical form of Judaism to an entirely new Greek/Roman religion. Here are three radical sayings that probably originated with Jesus of Nazareth; shorn of their literary contexts they appear to prescribe actions that are completely impractical and unworkable in practice in either the ancient or modern worlds:
Luke 6:27: “Love your enemies.” The seriously radical character of this saying is camouflaged by its literary context—by including it among other plausible but challenging acts one can render an “enemy”: do good, bless, pray. In this way the reader is led to believe that “loving your enemy” means something less than how one “loves” family, wife, parents, friends.
Luke 6:29: When struck on the cheek, offer the other; when someone takes your outer garment, offer your undergarment (which is worn next to the skin); put into practice this act would leave one nude without a stitch of clothing.Another saying camouflaged by its literary context in all three synoptic gospels and the Gospel of Thomas is, “Pay both Caesar and God what is due them” (Mark 12:17). The oblique character of the saying is mitigated by the controversy story. In the context it comes across as an evasive answer by which Jesus avoids the trap laid for him by his interlocutors; in its literary context the saying is a shrewd quip allowing Jesus to best his interlocutors in the exchange. In itself as an oral survival from Jesus’ public career, however, it is simply ambiguous offering no clear guidance, since it does not specify the content of what is due the Caesar and what is due to God. One has to work that out for oneself with no help from Jesus. These types of sayings are characteristic of what most probably originated with Jesus. The literary contexts of the pronouncements in the gospels are not the actual social contexts of Jesus’ public career, but due to the evangelists. As a result, when the literary context is “scrubbed” we are left in general with sayings characterized by perplexing ambiguity or unrealistic idealism.
Luke 6:30: “Give to everyone who begs from you.” Follow this principle literally and how long do you suppose it would be before you find your savings exhausted, the bills piling up, and the mortgage long overdue.
Charles W. Hedrick
Missouri State University