Ancient history

Jesus:Prophet or Rebel?

Last updated:2022-07-25

Portrait of Christ on an icon of Mount Sinai, dated to the 6th century • WIKIMEDIACOMMONS

Jesus announced the coming of the kingdom of God and performed miracles. He was perceived in his time as a prophet, in the continuity of those inspired in the history of Israel, whose oracles the Bible preserved. But was he a rebellious prophet or rather a beneficent thaumaturge? It is not easy today to grasp something of the historical Jesus, under the multiple reconstructions which theology and history have proceeded. Indeed, the Gospels are not biographies, and their testimonies must be contextualized to be used as historical data. Thus, they lack realism:reputed to be the son of a carpenter, Jesus appears to us rather as a peasant through his parables, concrete and anecdotal stories by which he illustrates his message. The risk would be to read the Gospels as the journey of a life, or even to find there the transformation of a prophet into a rebel, without confronting what is a matter of theological interpretation with the realities of the time and the environment.

Convicted after a legal trial

The historical reasoning is based on cross-referencing of documents. Thus, the only way to understand Jesus is to use everything that was said about him in his time, reinserting these representations into the local realities of his time. We must start from the reason for the condemnation of Jesus, which appeared, according to custom, on the sign of the cross. Many had seen this document, the text of which the evangelists could not reinvent. "King of the Jews":this was the title granted by Rome to Herod, the last sovereign of an independent Judean state. This seems to rank Jesus among the pretenders to royalty, who rose up after Herod's death against the Roman occupiers, like Athrongès, and against the Herodians, like Simon, or who took the lead in an anti-tax revolt, like Judas. the Galilean. Crucifixion was the penalty for high treason to the state. Jesus was therefore indeed condemned by the Roman power at the end of a legal trial, of which the Gospel of John has kept traces; if he had been killed by the authorities of the Temple, for blasphemy or profanation, he could only have been killed in flagrante delicto and summarily executed.

Also read Pontius Pilate, the controversial judge of Jesus

For Roman opinion, Jesus was memorable only by his death, presented by historians as a political fact. By contrast, the events of his life disappear under symbolic rewritings and interpretations. The qualifier "Nazarene" (or "Nazarene") is ambivalent in the Gospels, where it can refer to the village community of Nazareth, to which Jesus belonged, but also function as a messianic designation, used by the Jews to distinguish the disciples of Jesus. As for his birth, the date remains imprecise within a range of ten years, prior to the death of Herod in 4 BC. J.-C. or contemporary of the census of Quirinius in 6 apr. J.-C. To have Jesus born in Bethlehem at the cost of an incredible family trip is a messianic announcement due to the prophet Micah. The theme of a miraculous birth, surrounded by prodigies, is expected to qualify a king, but the first Christian communities interpreted the event differently. The Gospel of Luke puts it in synchronism with a universal census to inscribe it in the peaceful and ecumenical horizon of the Roman Empire; on the contrary, it functions as the announcement of a work of liberation in the Gospel of Matthew, where Jesus is presented as a new Moses, and Herod, as the avatar of Pharaoh, who puts to death the newborns of the Jews.

Rome is afraid of revolts

The execution of Jesus was a political act. But was it an immediate concern to maintain order or should we deduce the revolutionary character of his preaching? Roman repression was generally intermittent and ad hoc. The governor of Judea especially dreaded large gatherings of pilgrimages like that of the Passover, especially after a Feast of the Palms had turned into a royal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. We can think that the Roman administration had an eye on the Davidic descent, to which Jesus belonged, which is attested under Domitian still at the end of the I st century AD. AD

But if the condemnation of Jesus was Roman, the initiative to arrest him came from the Jewish authorities. Not because of his messianicity, which must be considered a Christian reconstruction, since other earlier messianic personalities had been spared. The grievances likely to have brought together the unanimity of the Sanhedrin, the supreme Jewish institution, and designated Jesus as a troublemaker are rather to be sought in the authority with which he radicalizes the divine commandments (“I tell you” ) and, even more, in his threats and violence against the Temple. The expulsion of the merchants from the Temple is placed as the primary cause of Jesus' death at the opening of the Gospel of John. The case of Jesus of Nazareth appears quite comparable to that of his namesake, Jesus son of Ananias, handed over to Roman authority by the Sanhedrin in 61 AD. J.-C. because he prophesied the fall of the Temple.

A flowering of prophets

Deducing the revolutionary action of Jesus from his condemnation rests above all on the possibility of inscribing his preaching in a popular, more general movement, whose leaders claimed to be prophets and gave themselves out as legitimate by performing wonders that updated the gesture of the Exodus and the conquest of the Promised Land:retreat into the desert, dry crossing of the Jordan, demolition of the walls of Jerusalem like those of Jericho. Added to this was the pooling of goods, like a return to nomadism which undermined the heritage foundations of society. Their preaching readily led to the announcement of a politico-religious upheaval and the establishment of a new order. They gathered thousands of people. Should this be seen as an expression of the class struggle, resulting from the multiplication of latifundia (large estates) and the impoverishment of the peasantry in the Galilee, opposing faithful and pious villagers to secularized and impious notables?

Revolutionary movements are not contemporary with Jesus, who preached in a period of prosperity and social peace, without violent crisis.

This theoretical analysis is contradicted by archaeology. In the fine mansions of Galilee, the identification of purification basins and amphorae of kosher wine proves that Romanization and modernization did not involve idolatry or de-Judaization. Above all, the revolutionary movements are not contemporaneous with Jesus:they stopped after 6 AD. J.-C., once realized the passage of Judea under Roman administration, and did not start again until 54 apr. AD, with the formation of the Zealot party. It is therefore anachronistic to identify two of Jesus' disciples – Simon “the Canaanite” and Judas “the Iscariot” – as a zealot and a sicarius. Jesus preached in a period of prosperity and social peace, without violent crisis.

Certainly, the Baptist movement within which the Gospels situate Jesus must be considered as a movement of prophetic protest. But does that mean he should be called revolutionary? John the Baptist proclaims the imminence of the final judgment which will engulf Israel, but he lets his converts participate in the established order, engaged in the administration or in the Roman army. He was an ascetic prophet, who preached radical Judaism by retiring to the desert, but many others did so then. The Jewish historian Flavius ​​Josephus, a contemporary, distinguishes him from the prophets of renewal, likened to "brigands" and guerrillas, by presenting him as a "good man" who urges the Jews to reform their lives in the direction of fairness and piety. He attributes his execution by a Jewish prince – about which he gives no details – to his influence as an orator and leader of men. The spectacular killing of the Baptist during a royal banquet, as reported in the Gospels, takes up a commonplace of Greek historiography which thus exploits the confrontation between the king and the philosopher to denounce tyranny by using freedom of speech pushed to the most extreme limit. This made it possible to update the function of the biblical prophet, the essential critic of royalty.

A “Galilean Socrates”?

By assuming the title of prophet, Jesus risked being seen as a political opponent too. He therefore had to stand out, as the Gospels emphasize. He is not an ascetic. He returned to the world after his baptism and a brief retreat in the desert, and he inaugurated in Galilee a preaching of proximity, joining people in their daily lives. Jesus is the prophet of personal conversion, which engages a dynamic of love rather than being part of a spiral of violence. He gives signs, certainly, but these are miracles of benevolence, which have an immediate effect, and not manifestations announcing divine punishment, like those of the prophets of renewal. He acts more often as a healer of disease or physical infirmity than as an exorcist chasing down evil. He brings the dead back to life. Jesus announces a kingdom of God to come, but by making it already present by his miracles. This gives it a distinctive and unique place in Judaism.

This prophet was also recognized as a sage, as the present Flavius ​​Josephus, rallied to Rome:an exceptional man, a master who made many disciples, with doctrines of good quality... but a living paradox, since he was crucified. For the Jews of the time, the "crucified sage" was part of the tradition of the persecuted prophet, abundantly taken up in the I st century by unpublished accounts of the martyrdoms of the prophets and of the pilgrimages to the supposed places of their tombs. The pagan world also reflected on this paradox of the "crucified sophist" (like Lucian of Samosata and Celsus in the II e century) – which does not always condemn its message, quite the contrary.

For a Syrian scholar of the III th century, Mara bar Sarapion, the “killing by the Jews of their wise king” assimilates him to the unjustly persecuted Greek philosophers, like Socrates or Pythagoras. Voltaire will take up this consensual configuration of Jesus as a popular philosopher much later – a “Galilean Socrates! – as Anglo-Saxon historiography often does today by erasing the features of the prophet of the end of time. However, rather than radically opposing prophet of the kingdom of God and master of wisdom, we should no doubt consider them as two complementary faces of the historical Jesus. The Gospels have systematized this rapprochement, which helped to lift the scandal of his death.

Preaching forgiveness to enemies

In the Gospels, Jesus multiplies concrete teachings and willingly resorts to the aphorisms of popular wisdom. He effectively poses as a master, since he is the one who can tell how to observe the law of Moses without going through traditional and recognized channels. But he takes on the role of a charismatic authority, which makes him an atypical Jew. He takes the initiative to change certain institutional elements of the law, such as the divorce, the oath and perhaps the maintenance rules. His formulas often reverse the system of values ​​of the society of the time, where honor and shame held an important place; by choosing the life of an itinerant and celibate preacher, he himself had renounced the honor of his first state of life, that of the son of a carpenter.

The commandment of mutual love already functioned as the golden rule of the Jews and the Greeks, but Jesus gave it its greatest extension by preaching forgiveness to enemies, refusing the practice of retaliation and the spiral of violence. The famous adage "Render to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's", which can just as well justify a theocracy as the separation of religion and politics, in any case leads the disciple of Jesus to take perspective and to have a critical view of politics, while remaining a loyal subject of the Empire. It is not the maxims of Jesus in themselves that have a subversive character, but the implementation of his teaching that involves an urgency, that of the proximity of the kingdom of God.

Jesus, as his contemporaries knew and understood him, appears to us as a controversial prophet and as a teacher of wisdom. He was undoubtedly a special Jew, a marginal Jew (“a marginal Jew”) according to the expression of John P. Meier, a charismatic “son of God”, both herald of the end of time and beneficent thaumaturge. To which social figure can he be attached:that of a revolutionary or that of a religious reformer? He himself never defined himself as Messiah, but he was recognized as such. Far from the media and the sensational, Jesus resists all ideologization and remains an enigma. One of the contributions of recent historical research on Jesus is perhaps to have established that he cannot be reduced to a known model.

Find out more
A certain Jew, Jesus. History data (4 volumes), J. P. Meier, Cerf, 2004-2009.
Bible and history. Judaism, Hellenism, Christianity, M.-F. Baslez, Folio histoire, 2003.
A story of the Messiah, M. Hadas-Lebel, Albin Michel, 2014.

4 BC. AD

Death of King Herod after a bloodthirsty end to his reign. Birth of Jesus. Royalist insurrectional movements.
6 apr. AD
Judea becomes a Roman province. Census of Quirinius, presented by Luke as contemporary with the birth of Jesus.
28 apr. AD
Defeat of the tetrarch Herod Antipas, who governs Galilee, before the Nabataean Arabs. Killing of John the Baptist.
30 apr. AD
Possible date of the execution of Jesus, under the mandate of Pilate, prefect of Judea since 26 AD. AD 33 is another possibility.
AD 66-70. AD
War of the Jews of Judea against Rome, led by the Zealots and the Sicarii. Capture and sack of Jerusalem, destruction of the Temple.
70-90 AD. AD
Writing of the Gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke (70-80), then of John (90-95). Writing Judaic Antiquities of Flavius ​​Josephus.
Around 200 a.d. AD
The Church fixes for the first time the Canon of sacred Christian books, from which are excluded the apocryphal Gospels which appeared in the II e century.

Israel in the I st century:the time of the messiahs
Jesus was not the only messiah of the I st century in Judea and Galilee, as indicated by the reading of The Jewish War by Flavius ​​Josephus, which deals with the Jewish revolt of 66-73 AD. AD Apart from John the Baptist and Jesus, there are at least nine messianic figures between 4 BC. AD and 66 AD. J.-C.:Simon, who set fire to the palace of Jericho; Athrongès, a shepherd who, supported by his four brothers, proclaimed himself king and tried to raise Judea against the Romans; Judas the Galilean; a Zealot leader who died in 44; Theudas (or Thaddée) of whom the Acts of the Apostles speak (5, 36); an “Egyptian prophet”; Eleazar ben Dineus, a "bandit" (meaning a guerrilla or messianic pretender) who lived 20 years in the mountains; Menahem, proclaimed king and high priest before the fall of the Temple in 70; Simon Bar Giora, charismatic leader of the Zealots, who was captured by the Romans after the destruction of the Temple. Not to mention other anonymous characters, of minor importance, whom Flavius ​​Josephus cites without concretely describing their actions.

Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's?
In the Gospel of Mark (12, 17), Jesus, when asked whether to pay tribute to the emperor, replies:"Render to Caesar what is Caesar's and God's what belongs to God. Did Jesus authorize the payment of taxes in Rome? The phrase could indeed mean the opposite:we must render to God what is God's; now, Israel belongs to God, and paying the tribute to the emperor supposes that one gives to the sovereign of Rome what belongs to Yahweh. Perhaps Jesus was opposed to the tribute, but he remained sufficiently ambiguous not to have any problems with the authorities, even if the Gospel of Luke (23, 2) reports certain accusations made against him:"We found this man causing trouble in our nation, he prevents paying the tribute to Caesar and calls himself Messiah, king. »