Over at The New Oxonian, R. Joseph Hoffmann,who has not exactly been a friend of this website, reports that he is writing a book that will at last tell us the historical truth about Jesus. In his piece, “Jesus: The Outline,” Hoffmann previews what his researches have revealed:
I am going out on a limb, this last day of 2012, unprotected by footnotes, to offer a few paragraphs on what I think the gospels tell us that we can be relatively sure is “true.” I have been persuaded by a few friends to lay all of this out in a book at the end of this year, so I will. With any luck, it will be shorter and easier to read than any of the books I have read on the subject in the last two decades. Think of this as a preview; I’ll save persuasion, argument and evidence for later.
Here are some of the “facts”, and I quote Hoffmann directly:
- “Jesus of Nazareth was born toward the beginning of the common era to a peasant woman named Miriam. He was from the region known as the Galilee (ha-Galel: Josh. 20.7), and according to an early but dubious tradition from ‘Nazareth.’”
- “By far, in making sense of the synoptic gospels, the likeliest scenario is that Jesus was taken by his mother to Jerusalem as a boy, a tradition preserved in the unlikely and legendary story of the journey to Jerusalem in Luke 2.42-51. While in no sense ‘liberal,’ Jerusalem was populous and rustic scandals could be glossed over. As a teenager, he probably found work in the building projects associated with the reign of the Herodians. He listened to apocalyptic preaching and became an ardent opponent of the Roman occupation of Palestine.”
- “In specific ways, the political message of Jesus seems identical to the person described by Josephus (Ant. 18.1) as Judas of Galilee, who opposed the tax structure imposed on the Jews following the census of Quirinius mentioned by both Luke and Josephus. The geographical coordinates of Jesus and Judas coincide in important and suggestive ways.”
- “On one of his preaching ventures, accompanied by the followers who had come to believe he was a deliverer (perhaps believing it himself) Jesus was arrested, accused of fomenting rebellion against Roman rule, and (possibly) with the capitulation of Jewish leaders, executed.”
- “The ‘displaced tradition’ of Jesus’ attack on the temple cult in John 2 (which violates the Markan chronology, if it knows it) comes closest to giving us an accurate picture of how Jesus was remembered by the earliest community, as a prophet, trouble-maker, and critic of the religious regime of the Pharisees and priests.”
- “In Jerusalem, Jesus was remembered as a charismatic outlaw. A tradition, such as the Judas [Iscariot]-tradition, while partly legendary (including the name) is entirely plausible from the standpoint of Roman tactics. It was a snare, or a set-up, that tradition recasts as betrayal. The legal process against Jesus needed witnesses; the self-contradictory gospel insistence that ‘no one could be found’ to testify against him suggests that the Romans conducted his trial with dispatch. It would have been handled by a magistrate and not by the governor of the province.”
- “As to his teaching, certain elements seem secure. Rather than a raw political apocalypticism such as we find in the preaching of John the Baptist, known to be an enemy of the Herodians, Jesus seems to be a typical purist member of ‘the fourth sect,’the religious group Josephus associates with the final troubles leading to the wars of 66-70.
To be sure, Hoffmann also tells us what he thinks Jesus did not do, like preach the gospel of love (he claims that Jesus’s authentic preachings were about the denigration of ritual and promotion of social equality). Yet how can one reliably tell which teachings are real versus made up after the fact?
Now Hoffmann gives only an outline in his article, butI still can’t see how he can advance Jesus scholarship in this way. Most of his material seems to derive from what he claims to be credible parts of either the Bible or stories about Jesus written long after he died—if he even existed.
Hoffmann is no “mythicist,” for he obviously feels that a historical Jesus (though not a divine one) did exist. But the materials for such a historical analysis have been there for a long time, and Hoffmann doesn’t seem to adduce any new ones.
While I haven’t yet read his book, since it hasn’t been written, Hoffmann’s analysis seems to be more a matter of opinion and plausibility rather than of solid historical documentation. And, when it comes to the existence of Jesus, “plausibility” arguments are all that historicism can adduce. They’ve never settled the issue, or even come close.