Professor James Dunn gave a class yesterday at the London School of Theology for a mixed group of undergraduates, research students, and the teaching body. The topic was “Jesus according to Jesus”, which was taken from his forthcoming book Jesus According to the New Testament. He took us on a leisurely stroll in search of a familiar “historical” Jesus, by way of three main sections: what early Christianity learned from Jesus; the distinctive features of Jesus’ ministry that cannot easily be attributed to the Evangelists; and Jesus’ self-understanding.
In the discussion that followed he asked the class what we thought was the most important lesson that the early church learned from Jesus. As I recall, the priority of love and the presence of God with his people were suggested, along with a few other incidental features of his ministry. But on the evidence of the Synoptic Gospels the answer surely has to be that Jesus proclaimed the coming of the kingdom of God within a generation as an event that would profoundly impact and transform Israel. I’m glad that one young woman got it right.
But arguably, these marvellously dense accounts have had the effect of obscuring our view of the earliest significance of Jesus, with all their circumstantial narrative detail. It’s too easy for modern readers to zoom in on the beatitudes, or the greatest commandments, or the requirement of love for enemies, or his compassion for the sick, or his friendliness towards social pariahs, or his disdain for religiosity, and assume that these apparently humanistic themes, so congenial to the modern religious sensibility, are what Jesus was all about. We miss the tight connection of these teachings and practices to the central and persistent prophetic-apocalyptic argument about the kingdom of God and impending régime change.
The other places to look for answers to the question are the letters of the New Testament and Luke’s account of the spread of the movement in Acts. The story about Jesus is told several times in Acts, and I want to consider these passages here. They suggest that what the earliest church learnt from Jesus was really quite limited and sharply focused. The letters, Paul and Hebrews in particular, would, I think, yield similar results.
Peter on the day of Pentecost (2:22-39)
The man Jesus was from Nazareth. God did “mighty works and wonders and signs” through him, Peter tells the men of Judea and Jerusalem, which attested to the validity of his ministry to Israel. The Jews had him crucified by the hands of lawless men, but God raised him from the dead, exalted him to his right hand, and gave him the “promise of the Holy Spirit”, which he has now poured out on his followers in Jerusalem to empower them for their prophetic witness against this “crooked generation”. Pentecost is not the beginning of the church; it is the transfer of prophetic responsibility for warning Israel to the disciples.
The exalted status of Jesus is interpreted by reference to Psalm 110:1: ‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.”’ Peter, therefore, informs the house of Israel that the kyrios who is YHWH has made the man Jesus of Nazareth “both Lord and Christ”. If they repent and are baptised in the name of Jesus Christ, their sins will be forgiven (there is no “atonement” as such), they will receive the same gift of the Holy Spirit, and they will escape the destruction that is coming on the current wayward generation of Jews.
Peter in Solomon’s portico (3:12-26)
Jesus was the “holy and righteous one”, the “originator of life”—the persecuted “son of God” who preempted the resurrection of righteous Israel (cf. Wis. 2:17-20; 3:1-6). The Jews exchanged him for a murderer and had him killed, but God has raised him from the dead. Jesus was the “prophet” like Moses raised up from among his brothers, with the prospect of judgment and national catastrophe clearly in view: “And it shall be that every soul who does not listen to that prophet shall be destroyed from the people” (cf. Deut. 18:15, 18, 19; Lev. 23:29).
Again Peter invites repentance, that their sins may be forgiven and that they may receive the “refreshing” Spirit. At some point in the future God will “send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus”, when “all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago” will be restored (apokatastaseōs). This is the restoration (apokathistaneis) of the kingdom to Israel that the disciples ask about in Acts 1:6. It will be a coming with the clouds (cf. Acts 1:11) in keeping with Daniel’s vision of the vindication and enthronement of the “one like a son of man” (Dan. 7:13-14). In this context, too, Peter’s earlier quotation of Psalm 110:1 points to a future when the enemies of this exalted “Lord and Christ” will be defeated.
Presumably, Paul is still preaching the coming of this kingdom to the Jews in Rome at the end of Acts: “From morning till evening he expounded to them, testifying to the kingdom of God and trying to convince them about Jesus both from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets” (Acts 28:23).
Peter before the Jewish council (4:8-12)
The rulers of the Jews crucified Jesus Christ of Nazareth, but God raised him from the dead. He is therefore the stone rejected by the builders, which has become the cornerstone. There is “no other name under heaven given among men” by which Israel must be saved.
Stephen before the council (7:51-56)
The current generation of Jews has treated Jesus in the same way that their fathers treated the prophets. They have betrayed and murdered the righteous one, who now stands as the Son of Man at the right hand of God.
The story that Peter tells Cornelius (10:36-43)
God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power and sent him to Israel with “good news of peace”. Beginning in Galilee he went about doing good and healing those who were oppressed by the devil, “for God was with him”. The Jews put him to death, but God raised him from the dead and “caused him to appear” to those who had been chosen as witnesses. God has commanded them to preach to Israel that “he is the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead”. Peter presents this entirely as Israel’s story, so the statements about judgment and forgiveness through Jesus’ name may have only Israel’s future in view (cf. Dan. 12:2-3). But there may also be Paul’s announcement in Athens that Jesus is the one who has been appointed to judge the pagan oikoumenē (Acts 17:29-31).
Paul in Antioch in Pisidia (13:23-41)
Jesus is a descendant of David, brought by God to Israel as a saviour, preceded by John who proclaimed a baptism of repentance to Israel and told of one who was to come after him, “the sandals of whose feet I am not worthy to untie”. The people of Jerusalem and their rulers did not recognise him as the one prophesied and condemned him. Despite his innocence, they persuaded Pilate to execute him, but God raised him from the dead, and “for many days he appeared to those who had come up with him from Galilee to Jerusalem, who are now his witnesses to the people”. According to Paul (according to Luke), this was a fulfilment of Psalm 2:7: “You are my Son, today I have begotten you.” Like Psalm 110, this is an affirmation of the rule of Israel’s king over his enemies. Forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to Israel through this man; those who believe in him are “freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses”. But if the Jews continue to “scoff”, they will suffer the sort of fate predicted by Habakkuk: invasion by a powerful nation as punishment for a catalogue of social injustices (cf. Hab. 1:5 LXX).
Paul in Athens (17:29-31)
The risen and exalted Jesus has been appointed by God as judge of the Greek-Roman oikoumenē. He is the one who will bring centuries of pagan civilisation to an end.
Lessons to be learned
The impression given by Luke is that the apostles were little interested in the details of Jesus’ prophetic activity in Galilee and Judea. His significance for them was simply that he had done what they were now doing. Jesus brought a message to Israel from God about a coming judgment and the possibility of peace, the truth of which was confirmed by the miracles and signs that God did through him. The Jews had rejected both the message and the messenger, but God had raised Jesus from the dead, which had convinced his followers that he was indeed the one appointed by God to judge and rule over not only Israel but also the Greek-Roman world.
The rejection of Jesus by the people and their rulers in Jerusalem is of obvious interest because it foreshadowed their own experience as his witnesses. What was the most important lesson that the earliest church learnt from Jesus? That they would get the same treatment as him as they went about his business. It’s in the beatitudes. You can’t miss it. “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matt. 5:11–12).
And what lesson should we learn today? Not to take things out of narrative-historical context.