Wednesday, July 10, 2024

Jesus Remembered: A Gadfly on Israelite Religion

There is a rhetorical question, often asked: Why would anyone want to kill someone who wandered around the community telling charming stories, reminding neighbors to love one another, healing the sick, exorcizing evil spirits, and even supporting the Roman tax paid to Caesar (Mark 12:17)? The answer may lie simply in the fact that Jesus was remembered by the tradition, in part, as a critic of the religion in which he was reared, before he became, in the faith of the later Jesus gatherings, the savior of the world and much later, the second person in a divine trinity.

In the pronouncement stories Jesus is often quoted being critical of aspects of his own religious tradition.1 A pronouncement story in the gospels is a brief narrative told for the purpose of housing a saying attributed to Jesus. For example, in Mark 2:23-27, Jesus is challenged by the Pharisees because his disciples “harvested” grain and ate it on the sabbath day, violating sabbath restrictions (Exod 20:8-11). Jesus replies that even David broke a taboo by eating consecrated bread (1 Sam 21:1-6), lawful only for priests to eat. The Sabbath was meant to serve humankind rather than being an ornery chore.

In another pronouncement story (Mark 3:1-6) Jesus attends a synagogue and met there a man with a withered hand. People watched him to see what he would do. He asked them, is one allowed to do good on the Sabbath? And he healed the man. His critics then conspired to destroy him. Both of these stories put Jesus in the position of challenging a basic aspect of the institutional religious tradition of his day, sabbath observance.

            Mark 11:15-192 is a story of Jesus in the Jerusalem Temple creating a disturbance by chasing-out the vendors and shoppers and saying that the religious philosophy allowing such practices has turned God’s house from a house of prayer into a hangout for crooks (Isa 56:6-8). It resulted in the chief priests and scribes planning on getting rid of him for challenging the institutional religion.

            I am inclined to call the settings of such narratives about institutional religion housing an antithetical saying attributed to Jesus, stories about the criticism of institutional religion that portray Jesus attacking, gadfly-like, Israelite religion.3 Such stories are traditional. That designation means they were products of oral recall, at some point between the public career of Jesus (around 30 C.E.) and the composition of the Gospel of Mark (around 70 C.E.). Mark found the stories in the stream of oral tradition, having been remembered, and passed around orally for about 40-50 years, and eventually repeated to him. Mark edited them to his tastes, and perhaps invented others. The historical character of the settings of the three stories discussed above is mixed. The Jesus Seminar/Westar book on the Acts of Jesus judges the setting of Mark 2:23-28 as likely to be historical (printed in the book in pink); Mark 3:1-6 was printed gray (likely not historical). The incident in the Temple (Mark 11:15-19) is multi-colored, although all seem to agree that an incident in the Temple took place at which time when Jesus rousted vendors and shoppers from the temple; the incident is likely historical (pink) other aspects of the story are gray and black, historically questionable.4

I am arguing that the settings of these traditional stories about institutional religion have historical value in themselves for informing the reader about how the life situation of Jesus was remembered. The memory that produced the setting is historical whether or not the settings reproduce a particular occasion in the life of Jesus or the sayings they house are considered to have originated with Jesus. The settings are not husks to be discarded; they describe social contexts in which Jesus was remembered. Bultmann describes the value of the traditional settings for the stories in this way:

The individual controversy dialogues may not be historical reports of particular incidents in the life of Jesus, but the general character of his life is rightly portrayed in them, on the basis of historical recollection.5

In other words, in such stories Jesus harped about the religion of the Israelites.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1Vincent Taylor, The Formation of the Gospel Tradition (London: Macmillan, 1960), 63-87.

2Taylor refers to this narrative as a “story about Jesus,” 151, 179.

3R. Bultmann described the three stories I discussed above as controversy/scholastic dialogues. The History of the Synoptic Tradition (trans. John Marsh; Oxford, Blackwell, 1963), 11-69.

4The Jesus Seminar of the Westar Institute made a study of the stories about Jesus, evaluating whether the settings might be claimed to contain authentic memory of the time of Jesus: R. Funk, The Acts of Jesus. The Search for the Authentic Deeds of Jesus (San Francisco: Harper, 1998).

5Bultmann, History of the Synoptic Tradition, 50.

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