Free Documentary Online | Jesus: The Final Days

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Genre(s): Biography
Jesus: The Final Days

The images of Jesus throughout history are as varied as the people who have embraced him-the Son of God, the Divine Word by whom the world was created, the Passover sacrifice on behalf of the people, the Suffering Servant who takes on the sins of the world, the new High Priest, or more recently, Jesus the intellectual genius, the liberator of the oppressed, or the feminist. Each group and generation sees in Jesus a reflection of itself.

that is the connection between these personae and the historical Jesus, the flesh-and-blood preacher of ancient Israel executed by the Romans? Not much, scholars have often said. “There is nothing more negative than the result of the critical study of the life of Jesus,” said Albert Schweitzer, a key figure in the early “quest for the historical Jesus.” Yet, as we approach the beginning of the twenty-first century, a new pursuit for information about the historical Jesus is energizing scholars and lay people alike.

Christians are sometimes puzzled and hurt by the allergic reaction of many Jews to Jesus — even to the mention of his name. But the energy is not really to Jesus the person, about whom Jews (like everyone else), know very little, but to his appropriation by the church and the oppression of Jews in his name.

Yet Jews have also been fascinated by Jesus. When Jews began to think about their own history, they had to consider him as part of it. Sporadic references to Jesus in the Talmud are less than complimentary. The host of nineteenth-century scholars who investigated Jesus included the Jewish historians Heinrich Graetz and Abraham Geiger. The British Jew Claude Montefiore wrote a two-volume commentary on the Synoptic gospels in the early part of this century, and What A Jew Thinks about Jesus, published in 1935. The Lithuanian Jew Joseph Klausner wrote Jesus of Nazareth in Hebrew in 1922. Translated into several languages, it is still the best-know book on Jesus by a Jew and is quoted approvingly in John Meier’s widely praised 1994 volume on Jesus. More recently, other Jews have written on Jesus, including Samuel Samuel, Geza Vermes, Jacob Neusner, and Paula Fredriksen.

Jewish writers typically separated Jesus the Jew from the Christianity that incorporated him, approving of the former but disliking the latter. They have often characterized him as simply another Jewish holy man, unexceptional beyond his later public-relations image, or so unlike Jewish expectations of a Messiah as to make his lack of acceptance by most early Jews utterly unsurprising. The present generation draws a bold line between Jesus the Jew and Christianity’s picture of him. Just as earlier generations of scholars often separated Jesus from his Judaism, present-day scholars, Jewish and Christian, distance him from the Christianity that claimed him.

The last few years have seen an explosion of books on the historical Jesus.

A recent browse in my local seminary bookstore turned up seven books on Jesus published in 1994. The second volume of John Meier’s trilogy on the historical Jesus, A Marginal Jew, more than 1,000 pages in length, was already sold out. Last year, two scholars, a Jew and a Christian, packed an auditorium at Fordham University with their topic, “the Jewishness of Jesus” The April 1995 issue of Theology Today is devoted to this scholarly debate.

Popular works, such as Barbara Thiering’s fanciful Jesus the Man or A.N. Wilson’s idiosyncratic Jesus drew much publicity, but had no impact on the scholarly world. A number of Wilson’s innovations are commonplace to scholars, and the speculative reconstructions Thiering and Wilson offer are not grounded in responsible methodology or common sense.

But even the more sober works have found a popular audience. Meier’s book, even with its copious footnotes, is a case in point. John Dominic Crossan recently published Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, a more popular and readable version of his densely-packed scholarly work, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant, but the original itself sold more than 50,000 copies. Marcus Borg, in frequent demand as a lecturer, recently published a popular work, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, which stems from his scholarly work, Jesus, A New Vision. Last year, HarperCollins and the Trinity Institute sponsored a discussion between Borg, Crossan, and another Jesus scholar, Burton Mack, that was broadcast to churches and colleges across the country.

Both the church and academia have gotten along successfully without the historical Jesus for centuries. The historical Jesus, the human being who walked the roads of ancient Israel, gathered disciples, and was executed by the Romans, is often contrasted with the “Christ of faith,” a supra-historical figure whose presence in the world enlivens and nourishes Christian communities. The latter has always been far more important for most Christians.

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