Jesus’ Life As He Would Have Remembered It
a paper by Abram Epstein
The following is an extrapolation of key biographical episodes in the life of Jesus reconstructed with textual evidence in my forthcoming book, A Documented Biography of Jesus Before Christianity. Those interested in my textual analysis supporting argued assertions, other than Matthias’ role which is provided below, should refer to the book.
Before beginning the drama of Jesus’ historical life, the reader is encouraged to become familiar with Matthias, named by Simon to replace Judas Iscariot after the crucifixion. I assert he was not only a regular companion of Jesus, as Simon says in Acts I:21, but was the only one who witnessed everything that happened to Jesus firsthand from the time of his arrest. Further, as his friend and confidant, Matthias’ recollections are well-preserved as subtext beneath the Christianizing enhancements of the Gospels. His voice is once again heard in my work.
My position holds that Matthias’ name was expunged –in a fashion not dissimilar to the suppression of his entries–because he rejected the fledgling theology anointing Jesus messiah king, and celebrating his death as a model of salvation. The overwhelming evidence for this supposition is the story of Jesus’ life as it emerges from beneath the layers of midrashic theology superimposed by the earliest devotees in their postmortem desperation to messianize their fallen teacher. That story, as you will now read, is completely contrary to the church message in every major tenet of its doctrine–leaving little doubt its author, Matthias, had been exorcised as if he were a demon in their midst. The preservation of what he contributed is owed to one inescapable truth: His recollections were of what Jesus said and did. Therefore, they could be Christianized, but not deleted.
(NOTE: This paper does not include a historical account of the crucifixion, entombment, or the aftermath, which Matthias also witnessed and recorded. His version of postmortem events, as detailed in my book, comprises a serious challenge to standard Christian theology.)
A brief summary of relevant facts supporting the Matthias-source as a subtext in the Gospels and asserting he was the only witness among the disciples at the Caiaphas hearing, and judgment by Pilate:
Matthias, a personage of importance in Jesus’ life, according to Acts I:21 became the twelfth disciple replacing Judas Iscariot after the crucifixion. His choice as a replacement of Judas Iscariot is documented in the New Testament (Acts 1:21–26). The relevant passage describing the moment reads:
[Simon said] “We must choose someone who has been with us the whole time that the lord Jesus was traveling around with us, someone who was with us from the time when John was baptizing until the day when he was taken up from us—and he can act as witness to his resurrection…” then they [voted]…and Matthias was listed as one of the twelve disciples [also called “apostles” after Jesus’ death].
Matthias’ role in creating the “new testament” is explicit. Simon says as much, with the words, “He can act as witness …”
Based on further documentation, one may infer he was expected to record the disciples’ recollections of Jesus’ teaching and life. As the group’s scribe, he would take down their “witnessed” testament.
(Note: Fictionalized in my historical novel, The Matthias Scroll, Matthias eventually sets about writing his own private scroll, determined to faithfully preserve Jesus’ memory, recording the events as they actually happened.)
More Footprints Leading to Matthias’ Historical Identity
In John 13:23, at the “Last Supper,” Simon asks “the disciple Jesus loved” to inquire of Jesus who he meant would betray him.
Sitting at his side during the dinner, this mystery disciple’s relationship with Jesus is such that he is presumed by Simon to know more about Jesus’ preoccupation with the betrayal and impending arrest than any of the others.
After Jesus’ arrest, when he is taken to the fateful hearing before Caiaphas, Simon is excluded, but “the disciple” is permitted to enter. Only when “the disciple” intercedes with a formal request, based on knowing Caiaphas personally (John 18:15–16), is Simon permitted to even enter the gated exterior courtyard. The relevant passage indicates the individual’s administrative stature, plainly a man with authority, such as that of Matthias, purportedly a Sanhedrin scribe.
Simon-Peter and another disciple followed Jesus to Caiaphas’ house (the hearing chamber). Since the disciple was known to the high priest (he) went with Jesus inside, but Simon was standing outside the door (courtyard gate). So the disciple, being known to the high priest, went out, spoke to the woman watching the gate, and brought Simon in (to the courtyard).
There, a fire had been lit and Simon was able to stay warm, along with the “servants and guards.”
Several significant conclusions concerning the identity of “the disciple” emerge in this Gospel setting. First, he remained at Jesus’ side, just as he had several hours earlier at the Last Supper. Therefore, we may infer it was the same person. Furthermore, having the stature of a scribe, he enabled Simon to enter the gated courtyard of the high priest. Of undeniable importance, the so-called disciple has enough political weight to be included at the hearing to witness the proceedings.
No other member of Jesus’ circle is present as the interrogation begins—and plainly, only that individual could later provide any information about what occurred.
Recognizing his scribal status, one may logically infer that whatever record the Gospels make pertaining to Jesus’ appearance before Caiaphas is drawn from the account subsequently offered by “the disciple”–arguably Matthias– and revised in Simon’s version.
Not only was Matthias the single member of Jesus’ entourage to witness the hearing before Caiaphas, but he, alone among the group, saw the grotesque mockery and derision at Pontius Pilate’s Praetorium and Gabbatha scene of judgment.
Therefore, his detailed account would again constitute the only record of the event.
Two more chronicled appearances place him at the scene of the crucifixion and at the “empty tomb,” with both accounts concealing the actual history beneath a heavy theological gloss.
As the only witness among Jesus’ companions at the Caiaphas hearing, the judgment by Pilate, and the crucifixion, one may conclude that Matthias, having the skills of a scribe, could render a historical account of what actually occurred.
Why was his name expunged from the Gospels?
As noted above, the evidence indicates he refused to exalt a glorified, supra-human Jesus.
As common sense suggests, whatever occurred to terminate Matthias’ function as the group’s scribe must have been tantamount to an emotional rupture. Almost certainly, the rift would have been accompanied by anger and, quite probably, mutual recrimination.
This author’s surmise that Matthias had been Jesus’ friend suggests he well-knew and rejected the messianic enhancement by Simon. More spiritual perjury than a simple act of exaggeration, Simon’s postmortem exaltation of Jesus exhibited the very same reverence which ultimately enabled Antipas to charge him with sedition. On the road to Jerusalem for that fateful Passover, he had warned Simon to stop proclaiming him God’s chosen king, or he would be killed. After his death, Matthias would not have helped spawn that twisted memory of who he was, a glorified image which Jesus had tried desperately to dispel.
In the Gospels, it is worth noting that the Greek for “disciple,” “mathetes,” may indicate lack of belief in a teacher. In Acts 19:1, the term is applied to those who were ignorant of the holy spirit. Based on the Greek usage, one may conjecture that the Last Supper reference to “the disciple” originally relied on a finely drawn, disparaging vernacular.
Finally, there is the post-Crucifixion “Parable of the Wedding Banquet” (Matthew 22:11-14). According to the text, the wedding of “the king’s son” is “crashed” by a guest who the king recognizes as an interloper, conspicuously not wearing the proper wedding garment (of belief in Jesus as the son of God). As he is thrown out, the king declares, “many are called, but few are chosen.” The only disciple “called”–that is, invited, was Matthias, by Simon, to fill the place of Judas Iscariot. The others were “chosen” by Jesus when he was alive.
For those who may not be familiar with the New Testament, the canonized Christian scripture comprises four Gospels, each a separate version of Jesus’ life, and a partially historical work perhaps by the author of Luke, called “Acts,” followed by Epistles, letters to early church communities, authored mostly by Paul, a major apostle and shaper of early Christian theology, as well as seven letters by others, and the so-called Book of Revelation. All four Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as they are called, tell the same general story: Jesus, a young man, was baptized by his cousin John, undertook a ministry of miraculous healings, taught a group of disciples and devotees lessons about righteousness, was castigated by Galilean adversaries for equating himself with God, traded insults with local Jewish leaders labeled, “Pharisees,” and revealed his true identity as God’s son to those who would have a role in the coming Kingdom of God. Finally, he was arrested and crucified and disappeared from his tomb–a sign that his life and death was a model of salvation. This pretty much sums up the main drama according to Christianity on which its theology is based.
This paper will offer an altogether different account –and, as noted earlier, does not include my elaborate treatment of events during and after the crucifixion, portrayed in my novel, The Matthias Scroll and analyzed in my forthcoming documented biography of Jesus.
We may with some measure of certainty open the curtain on the gloomy sequence of events around the year 30. Tiberius was emperor as he had been since 14 when his predecessor, Augustus died. Under Augustus, Herod the Great’s three sons, Archelaus, Antipas and Philip inherited what had been a unified principality of Judea, with each granted administrative rule over a discrete region. Archelaus was given the lion’s share, as ruler of the south, including Jerusalem and holding the high title “ethnarch,” until the year six when he was ousted by the Romans and replaced by the first of Jerusalem’s Procurators, Coponius. That was likely the year when Jesus was born. Antipas was made Tetrarch of the Galilee, Perea and the Decapolis, with Philip having the area mostly to the north and east of Hula, including Caesaria Philippi.
Here I ask the reader to indulge my penchant for occasional prose as a literary vehicle suited to vivid description.
Imagine, if you will, the personal pride Antipas was feeling. Perhaps sitting looking out one of his palace windows set in the heights of Tiberius, founded by him in honor of the new emperor, his heart would be pounding at the thought of what was about to happen. For the first time he was truly in love. His amour, Herodias, daughter of Aristobulus, would join him in a matter of days–for news had just reached him that Rome had granted her a divorce despite the fact her still- living husband had refused. His half brother Philip, and fellow tetrarch, was always so unreasonable! Yes, that’s right. Antipas, the tetrarch of the galilee, was marrying the wife of his half-brother Philip–though he was still quite alive and had never agreed to give her a divorce.
Who else, you may wonder was opposed?
Well, for one, there was Phasaelis. She was the esteemed daughter of the renowned Nabatean warrior King, Aretas–referred to by Jesus as “The Camel.” Phasaelis was at this very juncture (one imagines) on the lower floor closing her last bag for her courtiers to load on the wagon which was about to depart poste haste for the outskirts of Macherus, and a waiting escort by a Nabatean general to her father’s consoling arms. She was Antipas’ current wife, now humiliated to the point of regional warfare.
Of course you might expect the strictly observant community of Galilean Jews, lumped together by the Gospels with more liberal Pharisees of the south, to also vehemently protest the conjugal heresy so imminent.
Who were they?
The Gospel of Matthew (23:5), says the so-called regional Pharisees wore extra-long tephillin (phylacteries) and extra-long tsee tzeet (ritual fringes) and stood all the time while praying, which echoes a passage in the Talmud (Sotah 22b) disparaging the type of Pharisees who performed their religious obligations ostentatiously. The Talmud lists their many exhibitionistic traits and labels them “foolish Pietists.” Hasidim, or Pietists as I think we should call them, traced their roots back to the group of observant Jews who fought alongside Judah Macabee in the Hanukkah War two centuries earlier. And we know that is how they saw their personal history from the way they reacted to Herodias.
You would think they would demand Antipas’ future bride be given a divorce by her husband Philip according to Torah law–in order for them to approve their wedlock. Least of all should it be a divorce sanctioned only by the Roman court! Still, you’d never know it from their apparent glee as their long payot, one imagines, waved back and forth while they raced about telling each other the good news.
They were ecstatic. Herodias, as it happened, was a true daughter of Macabbean royal lineage. It might be adultery if she married Antipas. It might even be incest. But she would be their Jewish queen! What is more, they would hardly protest the marriage when the tetrarch expressed his gratitude for their support by selecting their leaders as administrative advisors, earning them the derisive label, “Herodians,” in the Gospels.
And that brings us to Jesus’ cousin John, known to Christianity as “the Baptist,” who certainly did protest.
By publicly deriding Antipas and insulting Herodias, for marrying his halachically (that is, according to Jewish law) undivorced wife, John had allied himself with supporters of Aretas, as he prepared an attack on the Galilee to avenge his daughter’s humiliation. According to Josephus in Antiquities (book 18 chapter five) John’s strident incitement of his fairly large following was soon to become the basis for a charge of sedition.The Gospel of Mark (6:17-18) corroborates the risk John took in ridiculing Herodias, so that Antipas had found a legal basis for avenging the perceived insult to his new wife.
Turning the sundial forward, we arrive at late spring of 31.
Jesus, a young man about 26 years old, had been joined by a group of acquaintances, mostly fishermen from the Kinneret village of Beit Zaida, whom he adopted as his students. Before long, their number would grow to twelve and they would become known to us as his disciples.
Telling from his curriculum, they were ignorant of Torah law, synagogue prayer, and had no special reverence for the Jerusalem Temple. But they knew that the coming Rosh ha-shannah of the year 31CE–the seventh in the tithing cycle–many Galileans were expecting to witness the advent of God’s prophesied Kingdom and they didn’t want to be left out.
During the early months of Jesus’ ministry, he would attempt to teach them Torah mitzvot (commandments) as well as correct Hebrew prayer and synagogue custom.
As Jesus taught his group the Ten Commandments (Matthew 19:16-19:20), perhaps on Shavu’ot (the Feast of Weeks), the Galilean Pietists were preparing for God’s arrival, elevating the purity of their houses to the level of the Jerusalem Temple, anointing themselves a pseudo-priesthood.
All the while, Jesus was inculcating his students with various concepts concerning the Jewish style of prayer, correct behavior in a synagogue, and giving charity (Matthew 6:5-6:8; Luke 6:30), but his frustration at their ignorance and detachment was obvious, so much so that
on one occasion, after Shabbat services, he told them, “Don’t babble like Gentiles when you pray (Matthew 6:7). Quite likely he was similarly motivated to subsequently note Isaiah’s more ancient edict that there was nothing wrong with praying in private (Matthew 6:6).
But Jesus persisted, observing rituals associated with “shemitah”–the Seventh Year of the tithing cycle (occurring that fateful year, 31-32 CE) and instructed his devotees to end all grudges and debts, exactly as the Torah commanded. Much of his teaching concerning prayer and tradition was to enable his disciples to join in observing the Jewish holy days (especially Rosh ha-shannah, the New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement). The traditional Yom Kippur message was clear: To be forgiven by God –and be worthy of entering the Kingdom –one had to forgive debts and grudges toward acquaintances.
Further emphasizing the Torah’s commandments, he proclaimed the towering importance of the “Shema” which states, “Listen Israel, Adonai your God, Adonai is your only God. You shall love Adonai with all your heart…” which Jews then and now recognize to be a central Covenantal vow, and he added Torah’s profound call to social morality: “You shall love your neighbor as you love yourself” (Matthew 22:36-40 quoting Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18).
Sukkot (the Feast of Booths) was the expected occasion of God’s return to the midst of the People. As the prophet Zechariah (14:21) had said: “(On that great Sukkot) every metal pot in Judah and Jerusalem shall be holy to the Lord” (meaning clean as Temple vessels) and outside Jerusalem, too, hands would be washed before eating, just as they would be in the Temple precincts.
Such was the state of Pietist preparation for God (though it was not even Sukkot, much less the “Great Sukkot”) when Jesus and his students entered a courtyard of a house for supper. Seeing some of his disciples failed to wash their hands under the entrance cistern spigot, one of the Pietist neighbors asked Jesus how it was they did not follow the tradition but ate with defiled hands (Mark 7:1).
Aware the Torah specifically said it was permissible to eat in an unwashed state outside of Jerusalem (Deuteronomy 12:15), Jesus responded to their criticism (in essence):
“You wash the inside of your pots–but your own insides are filthy. You give tithes to the Temple letting your own parents go hungry. You say these students are unclean? What goes into their mouths and into the sewer is not nearly as unclean as the crap that comes out of your mouths” (Matthew 15:10-12; Mark 7:11-7:13).
Talk about politically incorrect. But he was young, audacious–and knew Torah law.
The Pietists, in turn, venting aggravation at Jesus for teaching Torah to a group they considered doubtful Hebrews, challenged him by referring to themselves as descendants of Abraham–as if his disciples were not (John 8:39 and 8:41).
In fact, ignorant locals living in the north, especially those who knew nothing about Torah or prayer, were considered “doubtful” Hebrews by the Pietist community. Transplanted populations had been forcibly intermixed by Assyrians and Babylonians during eras of conquest and their progeny were not only the Samaritans, but others suspect of hybrid ancestry. The label attached to locals like Jesus’ disciples was often am ha-aretz, “locals,” which could imply Torah ignorance–or doubtful lineage.
Jesus, on more than one occasion found himself replying to their insinuation saying, “you can tell the tree by the fruit (that is, their Hebrew lineage by their righteous deeds) (Matthew 7:15-20).
But the Pietists refused to eat with them, touch them without washing, invite them to their homes…even talk to them…and Jesus’ disciples soon doubted they would be welcome in God’s Kingdom, despite their teacher’s assurances. Determined not to lose their allegiance, Jesus began to exaggerate his spiritual authority in public, sometimes in contests with the Pietists.
One example was his healing of those seeking his touch on Shabbat, which rabbinic rulings discouraged unless of an emergency nature. Making his point halachically, Jesus argued that Torah permitted Shabbat care of hurt animals–and therefore so too, human beings (Matthew 12:11-12:12).
If respect from his group was what he sought, Jesus got more than he bargained for.
To his students, who resented being ostracized by observant Jews, he actually had demonstrated he was master over the Shabbat and had the authority to change Torah law.
An even more consequential impression Jesus gave resulted from his offering consoling
words and a soothing touch to people with lifelong infirmities, supposed diseases of punishment. When Pietists accused him of thinking he could forgive these afflicted individuals their sins, he hesitated to continue giving that impression. But when his disciples saw him reluctantly show compassion to a leper, a man known to require God’s forgiveness, letting him grasp his tsee tseet, they began to whisper he had special powers. Their sense of awe that their teacher had turned out to be the messiah was mounting.
Socially excluded from the community of observant Hebrews, Jesus’ utterly ignorant disciples were thus comforted by the realization they were the chosen courtiers of God’s messiah king on earth.
To others, more typically a shomer-Shabbat (observant) merchant class of the Galilee, Jesus was suspected of having an evil agenda. One such person happened to be attending a service at the Kfar Nahum synagogue just prior to the Rosh ha-shannah of 31CE when Jesus and several of his disciples entered. Immediately becoming irate, perhaps terrified by rumors he had heard, the congregant started screaming, “I know who you are! You have come to destroy us!”
Jesus, doing what any good rabbi–in those days–would do, put his hands on the man and said, “come out of him.” Unfortunately, the fellow was not possessed. He was just misguided and very upset. So, when he collapsed on the floor, seized by terror, the result was that everybody insisted that Jesus intended to silence the poor soul to prevent his exposing his satanic identity.
What a Rosh ha-shannah that turned out to be. As Jesus and his disciples made their way to the Nazareth family synagogue, catcalling Pietists were mocking him, saying, “It’s you who needs an exorcism. Why don’t you do to yourself what you did to the man in Kfar Nahum!” (Luke 4:23) And many readers may be familiar with his retort, “If Satan is divided against himself, how will his kingdom stand?” (Matthew 12:26) meaning, “if I were satan why would I want to get rid of one of my employees–a demon in my own workforce…” so to speak.
A short while later, inside the Nazareth synagogue, where there were neighbors who still had not come to resent or fear him, he read from the Torah and the haftarah from Jeremiah as knowledgeable congregants still do, chanting God’s promise that those who once suffered exile would be forgiven by God, and returned to the Hebrew family. They were words that cried out against the social stigma of Covenantal doubt, a wall of separation ostracizing his disciples.
Approaching the synagogue toward the conclusion of the service, accompanied by several of Jesus’ siblings, just as he exited, his mother Mary took hold of his tunic. She was angry. She had had enough of his drawing attention to himself and made a determined attempt to separate him from pleading supplicants seeking his touch.
Perhaps one may single out this moment as a turning point when Jesus began to truly ponder the impression he was making on others.
Rosh ha-shannah of 31 was over–and Yom Kippur’s curriculum mostly comprised teaching the commandment of forgiving others in order to be forgiven by God. Jesus indeed set the example by escorting his disciples to a family wedding in Cana, ostensibly forgiving any grudge toward his mother for humiliating him in public outside the Nazareth synagogue.
On the way, he called attention of his students to the Sukkot (hut-like shelters for the Feast of Booths) just being built in yards they were passing. Referring to the rumors and gossip (“winds”) about himself, he said, “…the winds blew…and everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand”(Matthew 7:25-26).
When they arrived, the wedding party was all but over and his mother met him at the door, expressing her annoyance. Seeing he brought a (conjectured) wineskin as a gift, she said, “It’s already too late.”
His answer, as I have reconstructed the Christianized text, reflected a still chilly relationship. It was, “What’s it to you or me, woman? It’s not my wedding.”
As you may be aware, though the passage occurs only in the Gospel of John, we have reached a famous moment.
Retrieving the historical pearl of truth inside the Christianizing midrash, one may surmise Jesus poured his wine gift into the entrance vessel used for hand washing prior to eating. Mixing water and wine (though not in vessels meant for hand washing) was standard practice at meals, and festivities, but the less wine you had, the more watery the mixture became.
People who thought Jesus was pretending to be like God –having heard the rumors that he claimed to forgive sin and to be the master of Shabbat –would likely have joked his “turning the water to wine” was meant to show he was like the High Priest in Jerusalem. On Sukkot, just a few days away, the High Priest would mix water and wine on the altar in a libation ceremony asking God to turn the rain of winter to bountiful vineyards and wine.
(Note: The Christianized version in John describes Jesus turning water to wine as the first great sign he was the messiah. I regard the historical underpinning of this episode to have major significance and it is fully reconstructed in my book, A Documented Biography of Jesus Before Christianity.)
Laughing at him behind his back, for acting like he had divine powers, taking him for a “shetufi,” a crazy person, Jesus’ mother, Mary, knew what they were really thinking: “Shetuki is shetufi.” A popular idiom meaning, a person who does not know the identity of his father acts like a crazy person.
And so she apparently went over to him, and said something. We have only his irritated reaction in the Gospels (reconstructed) and it was: “What do I care. It is not my time to get married.”
Inferring from these supposed words of Jesus, the gist of her remark must have been: “If you keep acting like this, no one will marry you.”
They were not simple words. They meant, “If you keep acting like this, people will say you do not know who your father is.” In short, no woman with established Hebrew lineage would marry a man whose paternity was doubtful, and could have been contaminated by foreign or sinful ancestry–as they were already gossiping about him.
My carefully reconstructed sequence of events makes this significant assumption: It was this very exchange with his mother when he first knew that Joseph was not his biological father.
The results were an emotional explosion. As an immediate result, the following things happened:
1. His disciples suddenly left without him, probably made uncomfortable at the sight of Jesus coming apart at the seams. (The possibility the disciples joined him and his family as they all went together to Kfar Nahum is minimal given John 7 indicates his disciples had gone on without him.)
2. As the party came to an abrupt end, Jesus joined his mother and several sons of Joseph, cousins he had mistaken for half brothers, departing together for a (presumed) lakeside residence in Kfar Nahum.
Their conversation is recorded in the Gospels:
3. Sarcastically, his supposed “brothers,” that is Joseph’s sons, said to Jesus: “Why don’t you go to Jerusalem and work your magic there for the whole world to see? Somebody like you shouldn’t keep it a secret!” (John 7:2-7:5)
4. Deeply hurt, he replied, “The world cannot hate you. But the whole world hates me. I am not going to Jerusalem for the Festival.” (John 7:7)
The world could not hate Joseph’s sons because their lineage was Hebrew beyond doubt –whereas Jesus’ lineage, as he now knew, was contaminated by an unknown paternity, possibly foreign and most certainly sinful, since his mother had committed adultery and he was its progeny.
Still, in a remarkable scene, known as the “Adulteress Woman” Jesus apparently related a vision to Matthias, a vision in which he refused to condemn an adulteress brought before him for judgment. Mine, I believe, is the first study to identify her as his mother (John 8:1-8:11).
Left alone in Kfar Nahum, he did finally decide to go to Jerusalem. It was Sukkot, the Feast of Booths, prophesied to commence God’s Kingdom. And it was the occasion when every Jew was determined to overcome yetzer ra, the satanic voice beckoning from within to follow temptation.
Having reached Jerusalem, Jesus ascended the Temple mount and stood on the precipice. With his brothers’ words still ringing in his ears, it was the first time that he was clearly aware how others saw him. On that Sukkot, his yetzer ra, tempting him, was, in the words of the Gospels, offering him the chance to replace God and rule all creation (Matthew 4:9). And he recognized the voice. One may infer he felt his unknown father, the adulterer who spawned him, had tempted him to mislead others. If Jesus had exaggerated his healing powers, or given others the impression he could forgive sin, that defamed God – even if unintentionally. If his disciples believed he was superior to Torah law and could overrule Shabbat halacha (law)–that too was a terrible sin…and if he had misled them to think he was the messiah? Let them find him dead on the rocks below as proof he had no divine authority, and was no son of God! Desperate to show he was only a mortal like others, to silence forever that self-exalting paternal voice tempting him from within–and end their falsehood that he believed himself imbued by God with any super-human divine powers, Jesus was about to commit suicide. That was to be his atonement. Then something happened. He suddenly sensed God was accepting his cry for forgiveness; that he was granted his teshuvah (second chance). Stepping back from the steep precipice, as a last recourse, he made his way to his cousin John, who was immersing pilgrims in the Kidron below.
Greeted as “my dearest cousin,” and immersed by John in those purifying waters, Jesus felt that if he had no father he knew, God would be av ha-rahamim –a father of mercy and he, like Solomon, born of adultery, would be loved by God. It was the single most important moment in Jesus’ life. He had been redeemed. And his cousin John had become God’s instrument in saving him. He would love John for that more than any other person in the world. John’s reassuring words were: “God can raise descendants of Abraham from these river rocks” (Luke 3:8).
(To the traditional Christian, Baptism emulates Jesus’ death through the meta-symbolic act of drowning and his rebirth into the immortal, saved state, that manifests in the individual’s emergence from the watery tomb to the “born-again” life. Notably, these exegetical understandings were part of the post-crucifixion theology. Baptism was never explained or advocated by Jesus during his life, not his own, nor as having a ritualized purpose for others.)
The satan within Jesus–to call it that –namely the voice of his unknown paternity met its match.
From the time of John’s mikveh (Jewish ritual immersion, later called the “baptism”) Jesus never again did anything to call attention to himself as a supposed miracle healer. In fact, he did no more historically authentic healings. All other Gospel accounts of “amazing cures” and dramatized episodes of his divine intervention, including the resurrection of Lazarus, were messianized miracle stories intended to win proselytes.
Only on one occasion was a paralytic brought to him, and he refused to open Matthias’ door so that, according to the Gospels, the roof had to be broken open for him to be lowered inside. And then Jesus told him (Luke 5:19-23 as reconstructed): “(on God’s Day) Your sins will be forgiven,” and in a personal display of compassion and his own human limitations, he expressed a near-maudlin disappointment that this afflicted individual was beyond his ability to help. The reconstructed text states: “It’s easier to tell him his sins will be forgiven, than to get him to stand up and walk.”
As for teachings that could be twisted to suggest he considered himself master over Torah law,
Jesus delivered one of the Gospels’ most powerful orations (Matthew 5:17-18 reconstructed):
Think not that I am here with you to abolish the Torah and prophets. I am not with you to abolish them but to teach you to keep them. For truly I say to you heaven and earth will pass away before a yud (Hebrew’s smallest letter) or tittle (diacritical Torah markings)will pass away from the Torah…Therefore, whoever breaks the least of these commandments will be called least in the Kingdom of Heaven. But whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the Kingdom of Heaven.
Following this diatribe intended to end all doubt about his self-exaltation and divine prerogative to supercede Torah law, Jesus got word of John’s arrest for sedition. The die was cast. His harangues against Antipas’ adulterous marriage to Herodias, as Jesus knew, were the real reason. But John had crossed a line by encouraging popular allegiance to Antipas’ half-brother, the northern tetrarch, Philip, preceding the incursion by Aretas to avenge Phasaelis humiliation.
Among John’s followers were many who knew of Jesus, and there was a risk that he too might be a target if he was rumored to be cut from the same cloth, saying anything against the marriage.
Extremely careful not to express political antipathy which could be labelled rebellious against Rome or the tetrarch, Jesus despaired over John’s incarceration. Reflecting his apparent trepidation to espouse God’s imminent Kingdom in too literal terms, wary that his words would be twisted by eavesdroppers to sound like a political call for Antipas’ overthrow–Jesus resorted to lessons given only in metaphorical parables.
In some of literature’s most poetic passages, he generally represented God as a landowner or king, with the main theme being Adonai’s promise to return the downtrodden to the Covenantal fold. Even as he encouraged his disciples to claim their Hebrew heritage, most of the twelve lacked the literary acuity to grasp the symbolic allusions and thought Jesus was giving them coded messages, prompting them to further spread the so-called “good news” God’s anointed had come among them.
Increasing his difficulties, the three lakeside villages, Chorazin, Beit Zaida and Kfar Nahum banished him for creating a public disturbance, and he told the disciples to go their own way while he retreated to Matthias’ house.
Worth noting is Christianity’s explanation that this episode constituted the “Sending Away of The Twelve” the early church precedent for apostolic activity after Jesus’ death (Mark 6:7-13).
The winter of 32 had just given way to spring when word reached him that John had been executed.
Recovery of scattered text comprising Jesus’ lakeside eulogy for John represents, what I submit, is an important advance in Gospel analysis.
Elaborately reconstructed in both The Matthias Scroll and my next book, A Documented Biography of Jesus Before Christianity it began: “No greater man than John has ever been born.”
Towards the end of his mournful remarks, Jesus courageously echoed the very same sentiment which led to John’s execution, declaring to the assembled crowd, “It is unlawful for a woman to divorce her husband.”
In fact Jewish women in 1st century Judea never did, and Jesus had only one possible woman in mind when he made his proclamation: Herodias. With Herodians in the crowd keeping an eye on him, word of his apparent insult quickly travelled to Antipas.
Back at the lake, Jesus had turned and entered the Kinneret to clambor aboard his disciples’ fishing boat –but was impeded by John’s memorial crowd, following him into the water, grasping at his tunic–and most significantly, hailing him “King of the Jews”–a coronation which would empower Antipas to avenge the insult to Herodias, just as he had with John, for presumed sedition. According to the Gospels, he desperately tried to free himself from their grasp (John 6:15).
A fugitive, Jesus received word from Joanna, whose husband Chuza worked in the Tiberias Palace “Antipas says you’re another John and wants to kill you…” Jesus replied, “Go tell that fox, I have no intention of dying at his hands” (Luke 13:31, reconstructed).
Fleeing, Jesus, the fugitive departed Ceasaria Philipi where he had found brief sanctuary, making the Pesach pilgrimage to Jerusalem. En Route he asked Simon, “Who do you say I am?” When Simon finally admitted “You are King of the Jews,” Jesus said: “If you keep telling people that, I will be arrested and killed. And if you keep calling me lord, even if you say we ate and drank with you… I will say I never knew you!…You are walking at the side of a man–not a god! Get behind me satan!” (Luke 13:22-27; Mark 8:33 with clarified wording.)
All of which brings us to the final tragedy which in its misshapen, historically eviscerated form became a dogmatic cornerstone of Christian religion. Jesus entered Jerusalem as a fugitive, not in the fashion of a prophesied messiah heralded by crowds shouting “hosannah,” and he did not turn over money changers tables –but, sat with Matthias next to him at the Passover meal, and soon realized Judas was departing to inform the authorities he was there. Seeking refuge in the Garden of Gethsemane, he prayed not to be arrested.
But, of course, he was.
Inside Caiaphas’ the High Priest’s residence, a hearing was held. It was late Thursday night, the first night of Passover, 32CE. No disciples of Jesus were there. Simon, who gained entrance to the exterior courtyard, thanks to Matthias’ political connections, warmed himself alongside servants at an open fire. Inside, Jesus was brought forward and interrogated, with witnesses, possibly Herodians who had been at the eulogy.
(Note: The identity of these Jewish witnesses is uncertain. If not Herodians, they may have been officials of the three towns who banished Jesus for being a troublemaker, perhaps summoned by Antipas to appear at the hearing, and not there of their own volition.)
The charge was that Jesus claimed to be King of the Jews.
Asked by the High Priest, Caiaphas to say whether he was or was not the messiah-king, Jesus replied, “You have said it…”
This phraseology was the legal counter-accusation that those testifying against him were “bearing false witness. ” Jesus’ rejoinder would likely have made a stunning impression. The nearby Jewish witnesses, whatever their flaws, would have been loathe to violate one of the Ten Commandments–and according to Torah law be subject to the very punishment their false testimony would cause the accused.
Still, one may wonder why Jesus didn’t simply say: “I do not claim to be, nor am I the messiah.”
In fact, though the textual restoration is conjectural, he may have answered the question, saying:
“No matter what I say, you will think I am guilty. If I tell you I have never claimed to be King of the Jews, nor thought of myself as such, you will not believe me” (Luke 22:67).
Whether or not he spoke in his own defense, according to Jewish law, a death sentence required at least two eye-witnesses. Two would have to say, “I saw and heard him claim to be King of the Jews.”
Amazingly, according to the Gospels, none of the witnesses said so.
Selectively, here is how the Gospels describe the problem in getting the Jewish witnesses to provide testimony supporting a guilty verdict: “Now (Caiaphas) sought testimony against Jesus necessary to put him to death, but could get none–and their testimony did not agree” (Matthew 26:59-60; Mark 14:55-56).
Despite the High Priest’s determination to obey Torah law regarding witnesses, he had failed. Caiaphas, paying little heed to what else the witnesses said, since it didn’t matter, tried to get Jesus to confess to the actual charge: “Tell us if you are the messiah/King of the Jews!” he ranted.
But seeing his demand still went unanswered, he then declared to those who apparently refused to bear false witness, “It is better that only he die–than all his followers with him” (John 18:14).
And, with that, Jesus was mocked and slapped and led to Pontius Pilate the “procurator” and adjudicator of capital cases heard in the environs of Jerusalem.
The text (Luke 23:6-16) describes Pilate as facing a legal issue since Jesus was a Galilean and “belonged to Antipas’ jurisdiction.” As a result of Jesus’ place of residence, the passage states, Pilate “sent him over to Antipas who was in Jerusalem at the time.”
Antipas is then said to have interrogated Jesus, as he and his own soldiers “treated him with contempt and mocked him, then arraying him in gorgeous apparel, a purple robe of royalty, sent him back to Pilate” (Luke 23:11).
If one wonders whether Jesus had been a fugitive from Antipas, the passage stating, “(Pilate) sent him over to Antipas…” leaves no doubt he was nearby waiting for him with his contingent of personal guards.
So it was, that sharing a laugh at the sight of the foolish-looking king, according to the Gospels, “Antipas and Pilate became friends with each other…for before this they had been enemies” (Luke 23:12).
In consonance with his role as tetrarch, as we now discern, Antipas had charged, according to Roman law, that Jesus claimed to be King of the Jews. The evidence is Caiaphas’ demand for his specified confession to claim to be king; Antipas deriding his “kingship” by bedecking him in royal apparel and treating him as a mock king; and, the charge itself spelled out on a wooden sign affixed to the top of the cross, “Jesus of Nazareth King of the Jews.”
Sadly, his disciples had ignored Jesus’ reprimands of their misguided reverence, coronating him king and providing Antipas a legal basis for doing to him what he had done to John, having him arrested and executed for the same reason, the insult to his adulterous marriage, articulated during the eulogy.
Here then we arrive at the moment of the great lie–when Jews were blamed for the death of Jesus.
Contrary to historical verities, the Jewish role as depicted in the Gospels’ scene of judgment before Pilate is a theological atrocity.
Although the Jews who refuse to testify against Jesus are no longer present at the trial before Pilate–and no Jews accompany Jesus as he then drags the cross to Golgotha, out of nowhere there appear a hateful mob of ghoulish elders and priests to drool at the sight of his travail. Intending to demean Jewish elders and priests, the Gospels all join in the invention of Barabbas, a murderer (Mark 15:6) whose release is requested by the fictitious, bloodthirsty Jews instead of Jesus (fulfilling the emperor’s customary pardon of a criminal in honor of Passover).
Inherent in his criminal nature, Barabbas is more than just a rebel against Rome, he is covenanted with a different power–the devil, not God. This idea is expressed in the fantasy name “Bar-Abbas,” meaning “son of the father.”
As tormented and twisted as Jesus on the cross, Christian scripture invents the mob of demonic Jews, choosing to save the devil’s son instead of the son of God.
Stylistically, the author of the Barabbas libel, has undammed rivers of bloody hatred, with Passion play choirs singing “crucify him, crucify him,” as if there was even one such ghoul present, when every Jewish eyewitness refused to testify that Jesus claimed to be king.
What blame for Jesus’ fate do those Pietist “Herodians” pandering to Antipas deserve? Probably less than his own disciples deserved for setting the wheels in motion leading to the cross.
Whether they were the witnesses at the high priest’s hearing, or it was other Galilean Jews summoned to testify, the Jewish refusal to testify to Jesus’ sedition was an attempt to mitigate his punishment–suggesting, as they did at the hearing, that they knew him only to be a rabble-rouser, hardly a capitol crime.
As for Caiaphas, his remark made as an aside, “better that one man die than all of them” suggests Pilate had let him know prior to the arrest that handing over Jesus was a tradeoff for the lives of his companions. One should judge him accordingly.
As a disheartening epitaph of the luminous young teacher, I offer this reflection:
Even as Jesus’ last Christianized gasp on the cross in John 19:30 reverberates, “it is accomplished” the Gospel coverup becomes a requiem for the historical Jesus, and a thematic interment of everything he believed.
In the aftermath of Jesus’ crucifixion, rather than admit they unintentionally fostered the charge of sedition, leading to his arrest and execution, his disciples declared he was still alive in heaven. Promoting a salvation theology, they thus saved themselves from the unbearable truth of what they had done; abetting the murder of their beloved, remarkable teacher, one they believed God had sent to save them; one who should never have died for them or anybody else.
But I would not end with what others did wrong–rather with the magnificent example of courage Jesus showed, truly an example to us all. When he chose to speak out against a woman divorcing her husband at John’s memorial gathering, echoing John’s fateful criticism of Herodias for her incestuous and adulterous wedlock to Antipas–we bear witness to Jesus’ true character. He would not let the cousin who had spoken up for him–giving him a restored lineage and Covenantal purification– be a voice silenced. As John had spoken for Jesus, so Jesus now spoke for his deceased, beloved cousin. It was a decision that cost him his life, as he knew it could.
Not that his courage to speak out for what he believed should surprise us. Jesus’ teaching students who were fully ignorant of Jewish religious culture, and were considered to be of doubtful Hebrew lineage, was bold, if not brash, in that era.
Demonstrably, he recognized a likelihood his intentions could be misunderstood, repeatedly stating his instruction was meant for Jews, not Gentiles. His goal was to restore to the Hebrew community some whose ignorance had caused their appreciation of the Covenant to become frayed and forgotten.
Among his disciples several may well have felt a renewed appreciation of their ancient Covenant, returning to observance of Torah law and tradition as he taught and demanded. But the majority, under Simon’s sway, did not, rather seeking a different path to redemption, especially after his death. The postmortem consequence of Jesus even teaching disciples of doubtful lineage cannot be understated. The fledgling church, with the aid of its arch theological alchemist, Paul, eventually changed Hebrews of uncertain lineage to all people, universalizing Jesus as a messiah sent to save mankind.
But was Jesus a universalist?
Yes and no. As a Jew, he absolutely was. The Torah and the prophets envision all mankind
as fully equal before God. The ruach ha-kodesh, the holy spirit, in Jewish tradition and Torah is the “great equalizer” giving all people the same potential to find fulfillment and inherit the blessings of life. But as a Torah-observant Jew, Jesus would never have abdicated his heritage and history in order to attract gentile proselytes, nor would he have “universalized”the supposedly provincial Jewish religion as a prelude to any other belief system’s ethereal realm of salvation.
Four years after his death, Antipas and Caiphas and Pontius Pilate were banished by Rome.
Maybe God was watching.