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Paula Fredriksen


The Origins of the New Testament Images of Jesus


Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

These two books are best taken together because they cover similar territory. Although Fredriksen says that the conclusions she reaches in her second book run counter to those of all other current work on Jesus, including her first book, the difference between the two does not seem to me as striking as she implies.

The general theme of both books is that Jesus was an apocalypticist. She therefore agrees in this respect with many other scholars (see Bart D.Ehrman (Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium). Both Jesus himself and his followers expected the transformation of the world to occur almost immediately, and this idea persisted for a number of years in the early Church; it is prominent, for example, in Paul's writings. Only when it became evident that the Second Coming had been indefinitely postponed did Christianity begin to be transformed into the world religion that it is today.

This transformation has profoundly affected the way that Christians have thought about Jesus. Today he is often pictured as primarily advocating ethical or social values, but this is not what he himself thought he was doing. Fredriksen is seeking for a historical rather than a theological view of Jesus. Many people want to project their own social and ethical preoccupations onto Jesus but "the more facile the ethical or political relevance that a particular construct of Jesus presents, the more suspect its worth as history." Backward projection of this kind, though common, is anachronistic.

Another type of anachronism occurs when we allow our knowledge of later events to colour how Jesus would have thought. After his death the Church increasingly became detached from its Jewish roots and even developed hostility to Judaism, but it is a mistake to think that Jesus was already tending in that direction. Like all of us, he was of his time and place.

Fredriksen treats the Gospels as literary texts, almost as if they were plays or novels. So we get Mark's Jesus, Luke's Jesus, and so on. These literary creations give us all we shall ever know of Jesus the man. In this respect Jesus is like Socrates, about whom we know nothing more than Plato chooses to tell us. And the Gospels are not biography or history; they were written for religious reasons, to convey a message. Fredriksen's presentation of the ways in which the different Evangelists altered their stories to bring out their particular theological viewpoints is illuminating and sometimes entertaining.

For the non-specialist reader the earlier book, From Jesus to Christ, is probably the more approachable of the two. It has three main sections. The first looks at the world of the New Testament, covering Hellenistic paganism and Hellenistic Judaism and the differences in the way the Gospels and Paul present Jesus. Part 2 is about Judaism and Jesus's place in it. Part 3 looks at Christianity in the early years after the death of Jesus. Fredriksen's summary of Jesus and his mission is as follows:

What Jesus had hoped would be the final Passover of the world turned out, instead, to be the last for him. Interrogated briefly by the High Priest, Jesus was condemned by Pilate, who executed him as a messianic pretender together with other enemies of the imperium. Thus Jesus' ministry, begun in such confidence, motivated by such a great hope—the restoration of Israel and the redemption of the world—ended in violence on a Roman cross.

In Jesus of Nazareth she again presents a historical as opposed to a religious view of Jesus, and again she provides much illuminating and often surprising information about first-century Judaism. One of Fredriksen's main aims in this book is to decide why the Romans crucified Jesus but did not take any measures against his followers. Her answer, in short, is that crucifixion was used as a means to impress the population at large with the undesirability of rebellion.

Here she goes against much modern scholarship in finding John's Gospel more helpful in some ways than the Synoptics in understanding the events leading up to the crucifixion. She thinks that Jesus made repeated visits to Jerusalem at pilgrimage times in addition to the final one, which would explain why the chief priests and the Romans knew of him.

The Romans did not regard Jesus as dangerous; neither he nor his disciples claimed openly that he was the Messiah. So why was he executed? Fredriksen's theory is that on this final visit to Jerusalem the crowds became excited and proclaimed him as Messiah. Pilate became alarmed and had him executed, publicly, in order to quell any possible uprising; crucifixion was the standard Roman way of doing this. So Jesus was used as a warning to the excitable populace. This was probably a summary execution, with no trial either before the High Priest or before Pilate. The "cleansing" of the Temple is probably also fictional.

If Pilate had merely wanted Jesus out of the way he could have arranged for a quiet assassination. "The point of the exercise was not the death of the offender as such, but getting the attention of those watching. Crucifixion first and foremost is addressed to an audience."

There is a lot of detailed information in these books, more than most non-specialist readers would probably require. The writing is clear, however, and with occasional pleasant touches of mild irony; thus, of one particularly baffling text in Paul's letters she says: "Even by Pauline standards, this is a snarled passage." But her own attitude to the facts she so painstakingly unearths is left, at the end, undeclared.

5 August 2007

%T From Jesus to Christ
%S The Origins of the New Testament Images of Jesus
%A Fredriksen, Paula
%I Yale University Press
%C New Haven and London
%D 1988
%G ISBN 0-300-04018-0
%P xii + 256pp
%K religion

%T Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews
%A Paula Fredriksen
%I Macmillan
%C Basingstoke and Oxford
%D 2000
%G ISBN 0-333-78331
%P xvii + 327pp
%K religion

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