Who was the real Jesus Christ?
My latest book, entitled Satan’s Synagogue, has just been released after ten years in the making. Part historical text, part fictional story – or what I call a faux history – this chronicle follows a circuitous route: from Brooklyn to Austria to Rome to Jerusalem to Nazareth, from Elie Wiesel to Auschwitz to the Holocaust to remembrance and history-making, from Mark the Evangelist to Peter to Jesus to Josephus to an Ancient Roman senator named Gaev, from Josephus to Franz Joseph to Josepher. Along the way, there are ancient documents unearthed, and an assassination attempt uncovered, and a bicycle ride made through Galilee and old Phoenicia, or what I’m calling the Tour de Josephus. The book is available here: https://www.amazon.com/Satans-Synagogue-history-Brian-Josepher-ebook/dp/B07PQT7PF3/ref=sr_1_9?keywords=satan%27s+synagogue&qid=1554465399&s=gateway&sr=8-9.
Within Satan’s Synagogue, I reprinted a book previously published two thousand years ago. That book, entitled Against Mark: On the Antiquity of the Jew called Jesus, suggested a litany of questions. Who wrote the book? What was its purpose? Did it succeed? How did the book frame Mark the Evangelist? And perhaps, most importantly of all, how did the book frame Jesus Christ?
A funny thing happened once Satan’s Synagogue entered the world. I received calls for Against Mark to have its own platform. I listened. The book is available here: https://www.amazon.com/AGAINST-MARK-Antiquity-called-Jesus/dp/1082157341/ref=sr_1_fkmr0_1?crid=31RCGI8WA8101&keywords=brian+josepher&qid=1572527651&sprefix=brian+josepher%2Caps%2C611&sr=8-1-fkmr0.
Another funny thing happened. As I documented in condensed form on my twitter feed, Satan’s Synagogue became hot news at the Trump White House. Apparently, Trump put out an order, mandating the “reading of Josephs.” Meaning me. This would be the first time the president mangled my name. It wouldn’t be the last.
I received a dinner invitation from the president and the first lady. For my “Dinner with the Donald,” as I entitled that history, or “Who is the real Donald Trump,” see: https://satanssynagogue.com/2019/11/08/dinner-with-the-donald/.
In support of Satan’s Synagogue (and Against Mark), I’ve been writing a series of profiles. In those profiles, I’ve offered critical evaluations of famous chroniclers (Mark the Evangelist, Josephus of the 1st century, and Elie Wiesel of the 20th century), a different kind of Holocaust survivor named Moshe Lazar, a different kind of presence in the world named Mordechai Shushani, and the pfefferfact vs. the pfefferfiction of Eli Pfefferkorn. All of those profiles are available further down the page. Here, I am profiling the centerpiece. His Hebrew name was Joshua ben Joseph. The Greek version has been passed down to us as Jesus. The Gospels repeatedly declare that Jesus is the Messiah, or Mashiach in the Hebrew. The Greek word for Messiah is Christos. Thus Jesus Christ gained his name. Who was the real Jesus Christ? Here are ten brushstrokes to the Jesus portraiture:
1) Somehow, someway, we need to separate the man from the narrative. It’s an endeavor some 2,000 years in the making. Let’s be clear. The narrative began to form in the immediate aftermath of the man’s death. There was a fight, in fact, for the ownership of that narrative. This was at a time when there were many preachers vying for control of the Jesus movement. This was also a time when the Roman authority wouldn’t permit life to that movement, as Jesus was considered a seditionist. So the promotion of the Jesus narrative took on the quietest public form possible. Otherwise, the promoter would have found himself on a crucifix, asphyxiated up high on a road to Rome.
A fellow named Saul won the day. His name has been passed down to us as Paul. He wrote more than half of the New Testament in a span of seventeen years. But there was a period there, from about the year 61 to 63, when Paul turned incredibly prolific.
What do we know about Paul? The question is extremely relevant, as there’s no knowing Jesus without knowing Paul. Let’s dig into the real Paul. According to Acts of the Apostles, and some letters found in the New Testament canon, he was born in Tarsus, a hub of commerce located not far from the Roman center of Antioch. His birth name, Saul, derived from the first king of Israel. In Romans 2, Paul identified himself as a descendant of the tribe of Benjamin. Early in the lineage of Benjamin, we find King Saul.
We do not know the name of Saul’s father. That’s a significant gap. We do know that Saul’s father was a Pharisee who held Roman citizenship. This was unusual for a Jew, and that citizenship was passed to Saul. That’s an important detail considering the stories around his death.
Like all Jewish children, Saul learned a trade. As he came from the province of Cilicia, known for producing goat hair, he became a tent maker. The point to the story? Great men start small.
Around the age of 10, the family sent Saul up to Jerusalem for his Jewish education. The New Testament then shifted to Saul’s fervent disdain for the early followers of Jesus. As a Pharisee and an educated Jew of means, he persecuted them. His conversion on the road to Damascus changed history irrevocably.
A momentous event occurred during Saul’s missionary work. He was in Cypress, according to Acts of the Apostles, preaching to Greek-speaking gentiles. The author of Acts, known as Luke, began to identify Saul as Paul. In the text, it comes across as a small detail. “Then Saul, who was also called Paul…” In fact, it’s a full glottal stop. In fact, it’s a massive sea change, a parting of the Sea. The Jewish Saul becomes the gentile Paul.
Did Luke initiate the name change to symbolize the transition from Jewish to Christian? Did Luke feel the need to throw off Paul’s early years? Those are good questions, without specific answers.
2) But here’s some new information to consider, and it will come as a shock. Paul’s origin story contains a whopper of a fiction. Tarsus wasn’t his birthplace. Let me backtrack. Back in 2009, while I was doing critical research on the Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, I found a key source who disputed some of Wiesel’s fundamental storylines. His name was Moshe Lazar. For the full story of Wiesel and Lazar, please see my book, Satan’s Synagogue, but Lazar passed on to me something unrelated to Wiesel. He called that something his “secret stash.”
We had a handshake agreement. I would not go public with the contents of his stash in his lifetime. Moshe Lazar died on December 13, 2012. The question for public consumption then became: What was in his “secret stash?”
Lazar was an expert on the language of Jewish Spain, Ladino. In his scholarly journey, he found and translated original manuscripts. His first find was a Jewish prayer book for women, dating to the Spanish Inquisition of the 15th century. Other manuscripts followed. Most of the manuscripts’ authors, according to Lazar, were burned at the stake
But Lazar also found manuscripts and other documents that had nothing to do with Jews of the Inquisition. He deposited them in his “secret stash.” His “secret stash” grew into a sizeable box. The contents are extraordinary. There are documents that unveil the secret life of the Jewish historian known as Josephus. There are documents that speak to the 1st century and the growing movement known to the world as Christianity – called the Jews for Jesus movement in those times. There are documents that detail the lives of Paul the Apostle, and Peter, and Mark the Evangelist. There are documents on a certain Roman senator, who quietly funded and promoted the burgeoning Christian movement. Quietly being the operative word. Had he been exposed in those years, he would have been crucified. Actually, that’s not quite correct. The Romans didn’t believe in capitol punishment for their citizens. They believed in banishment.
There are also documents detailing the true history of the emperor, Tiberius, and his successor, Caligula, and the important emperor of the second century, Hadrian. There are documents pointing to the Silk Road, and how a certain route came into existence. The list of documents goes on. I built my latest book, Satan’s Synagogue, on some of these documents. A future book will continue that trend.
In that “secret stash,” I came upon a letter from a fellow named Gaev to another fellow named Josephus. Let’s identify the players. The second player, Josephus, needs little introduction. He was a historian whose work has been passed down to us. There were many pages in his passport: an educated Jew, a soldier fighting against the Romans, a general of a Jewish army, a prisoner of war, a prophet, a translator, a historian of books, a favorite of Emperor Titus, a citizen of Rome. Apparently, Josephus gained his citizenship due to his close relationship with the Emperors Vespasian and Titus. In fact, Josephus switched his given name to Flavius to fall in line with the Flavian Dynasty.
This profile of the man has come down to us from one source, the man himself. Josephus is the only source on Josephus that we have. That’s a significant gap, as his narrative only tells a part of the story. There was another patron who protected and encouraged Josephus. Which leads us to our first player. There was a Roman senator named Flavius Valerius Gaev Constantinus. For his full backstory, please see Satan’s Synagogue but, in June of 76, the senator wrote to Josephus. Both men were in Rome, serving the Flavian dynasty. Gaev, as he was known, promised protections and funding to Josephus. So while Josephus, publicly, had the endowment of Emperors Vespasian and Titus, he secretly had the patronage of Senator Gaev. If either emperor, or the third in the Flavian dynasty, Vespasian’s second son, Domitian, knew of the agreement, there is no record.
The letter contained extremely important historical information. Consider the date. Gaev talked about the day with “a profundity of grief.” He attributed that grief to the “banishment and sudden death, exactly a decade earlier, to the day” of his “hero” and “teacher.” Gaev then named that cherished figure: “Paul of Giscala.”
Who was this man? According to Gaev, he led the “Jews for Jesus movement. His death, as his ship capsized off the coast of Malta, something of which you yourself are familiar with, sent shock and anguish through the community. Fortunately, his name lives on. I am writing to you now to express my hope that you will add some ingredients that, in turn, will be used to embroider his name for all eternity.”
3) Such interesting word choice: to “add some ingredients,” “to embroider.” Gaev, judging from the word choice, seemed to favor homebody pastimes. But to this knot of multi-layered detail, let’s try to comb through. There’s no definitive name to give the early church movement. Scholars refer to the period as the apostolic age. In Satan’s Synagogue and other writings, I used a different term, the Jesus Century. Gaev pronounced a term then seemingly in common usage: Jews for Jesus. When did the term Christianity officially begin? We first see individuals identified as Christians in Acts of the Apostles, written sometime in the decade of the 80s. We also see those same individuals referred to as Nazarenes in Acts, in accordance with Jesus’s presumed birthplace. We never see them referred to as Jews for Jesus. Gaev’s reference suggested a name that didn’t make it into the canon.
But Gaev seemed to have an unidentified man as the leader of that movement. Or, have we put too much trust around the town of Tarsus? Did Gaev touch on some accurate history? Was Paul, in fact, from Giscala?
Let’s ask the question a different way. Why would the owners of the Jesus narrative choose the town of Tarsus as Paul’s birthplace? First and perhaps foremost, Tarsus was known then as a focal point. There was a reason why Paul identified Tarsus, to a Roman soldier in Acts of the Apostles, as “no ordinary city.” In Tarsus, some fifty years earlier, Cleopatra seduced Marc Antony. They had arranged for a meeting in the city. Cleopatra sailed in on a golden boat, with purple sails flapping high above, and silver oars guiding the boat to shore. When the boat docked, those present, led by Roman Emperor Antony, smelled the exotic perfumes and flowers filling the boat. Cleopatra then emerged in the dress of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love. Marc Antony, like Caesar before him, didn’t know what hit him.
Tarsus wasn’t some Podunk place. It might not have been Rome, or Jerusalem, or Alexandria, but it wasn’t Ashgabat either. Ashgabat, now the capital of Turkmenistan, was once a key outpost on the Silk Road. It’s there, according to a document I possess, that a major assassination took place. But let me save that story for another book project.
The question becomes: if Paul originally came from Giscala and not Tarsus, how would that have altered the legend? Tarsus as Paul’s birthplace and childhood home established the apostle as an outsider. While his lineage was Jewish establishment, his personage developed many miles removed from the Judean center. The narrative could then build the burgeoning Christian movement as a step or two removed from the Jewish establishment. Easter becomes a fundamentally different codification scheme than Passover. With a Tarsus origin, Paul could throw off his Jewish roots on that road to Damascus: his Pharisee lineage, his parentage, his Jerusalem education, all could be shunted. But Paul, apparently, was a Galilean.
Notably, a later chronicler, Jerome, gave Paul’s parents the Giscala address. Further, another letter from Gaev to Josephus delved into Paul’s journey to Jerusalem in the year 50 for a summit with Peter of Bethsaida and James the Just. While the New Testament recorded this interview as a foundational moment in the history of Christianity, that canon missed some detail. According to Gaev, Paul first stopped in Giscala “for a period of repose.”
Why would Paul, on a fundamental mission, first stop at Giscala? Consider the geography. The town was situated in the north of the Galilee, separated from Caesarea by forty-eight miles on today’s roads. To get there from the coast, as Paul did after reaching one of the ports, Caesarea or Joppa or Tyre, would have meant an excursion significantly out of his way. Paul must have had a personal reason for trekking to Giscala, like visiting aging parents.
Is it possible then that the Tarsus-as-origin detail in the New Testament is a fiction, a literary tool? That question segues to Paul’s death. Did he die in Rome, as various sources suggest? How did he die? Was he martyred, as second century missives stated? Why was he martyred? According to source material, the Emperor Nero condemned Paul to death. Legend then sprouted that Paul’s body was buried outside Rome, on an estate owned by an early supporter of the Christian movement. The Emperor Constantine built the first church on those grounds. That’s notable given Gaev’s birth name, Valerius Gaev Constantinus. Was Gaev an ancestor of Constantine? Were Constantine’s Christian sympathies in his bloodlines, so to speak? For the letter from Gaev to Josephus clearly showed Gaev’s allegiance to Paul and the burgeoning Christian movement. Or, why else did Gaev refer to Paul as “hero” and “teacher” and more, as “friend.”
If Paul wasn’t martyred but died in another fashion, did the martyring provide a foundational mooring for the legend? By martyring, he fell in line with the death of Jesus, and so the age that began with martyr involved a second martyr with long-reaching tentacles.
Gaev’s letter provided answers. According to Acts of the Apostles, Paul was shipwrecked three times. Gaev’s letter pointed to a fourth shipwreck, this one resulting in his death. Gaev’s letter also touched upon Josephus’s personal history. But the death date in the letter fell after a “banishment.” Why was Paul banished from Rome? Gaev gave no reason. Certainly Roman citizens were banished all the time. And certainly Nero loved his beheadings, as the legend of Paul’s death was built upon. Gaev himself ran the risk of banishment for his secret association with the early church movement.
But Gaev’s letter left all of these questions adrift and moved on to the mission, or adding “ingredients” to “embroider” the legacy. “The movement needs a historian,” Gaev wrote to Josephus. “As Jesus Christ was presented in a heralded light in Mark, so too must Paul fall within that glow. From his origins to his final days, and all the days in between, he is messenger and portent. He is oracle and apostle.”
The letter continued. “From our time together, I can think of nobody better suited to touch on the early history of Paul, the pre-history to the Jews for Jesus movement, than you. It has come to my attention that you are writing a complete history of the rebellion. If you included a last stand, I would be supremely pleased. I would see your contribution as a quid pro quo. To the pacified country, to the tired 10th sailing home, consider a different history. A final protracted battle in which the overwhelmed rebels fight on against our legionnaires. The rebels lose but along the way a rendering of struggle and tenacity comes into the world, a rendering of righteousness. From these rebels, Paul sprouts.”
Josephus’s immediate reaction to these marching orders remains a mystery. Notably, as Gaev commented, Josephus was in the midst of writing The Jewish War. Where he was in the writing process, we do not know. But the final version of that history provided a roadmap for what Gaev had in mind. Josephus did something incredibly inventive. He built the fortress of Masada into a legend. He named the band of renegades who fought the Romans there. He linked Paul to those renegades. (For the true story of Masada, see Satan’s Synagogue.)
4) There was another fortress not far from Masada. And it’s there, in the Judean desert, where our story needs to go. The fortress was called Machaerus. It was known, in Roman Empire times, as a “sister” to Masada. Like Masada, Machaerus was built on a mesa not far from the Dead Sea. Like Masada, the “King of Judea,” as the Roman senate decreed Herod the Great, fortified the fortress. Machaerus became a refuge in case of revolt, or an attack coming from Cleopatra, and Herod used the grounds to shelter his family during his campaign to secure the throne of Judea. Herod died under the reign of Augustus and his son, Herod Antipas, became the tetrarch.
Antipas did something his father wouldn’t have done. He made Machaerus into a prison. Who did Antipas imprison up on Machaerus? These times were littered with false messiahs gathering large followings and, therefore, running afoul of both Rome and its surrogates. When threatened, Antipas sent this “rabble” to Machaerus. Machaerus, in fact, gained a nickname: the “false messiah haven.”
According to the Gospel of Mark, and corroborated by Josephus, Antipas sent John the Baptist to Machaerus. The Gospels and Josephus then veered, significantly. The schism occurred following a singular event: the death of John the Baptist, or the Dipper as Josephus referred to him. According to Mark, Antipas took the wife of his brother. Her name was Herodias. John took umbrage with this union, as Antipas’s brother was alive, and he made his feelings known to Antipas. This turned Herodias against John. She held “a grudge, and wanted to kill him.” She could not. Antipas “feared” John, believing John to be “a righteous and holy man.” Antipas therefore “protected” John. An opportunity for Herodias, however, eventually arose. During the festival of Antipas’s birthday, Antipas’s daughter performed a dance that delighted the tetrarch. In a mood of elation, Antipas promised to give the girl a wish, anything she liked, up to half his kingdom. The girl consulted with Herodias. The request of John’s head, Mark told us, caused great distress for Antipas. But he fulfilled his oath. A soldier beheaded John, then presented the head on a platter at the banquet. Mark ended this part of the story with his attention on John’s disciples, who took the body away and laid it in a tomb. Mark, of course, ended his story of Jesus with similar colors.
Josephus railed against Mark’s rendition. He wrote a responsum. That book, entitled Against Mark: On the Antiquity of the Jew called Jesus, went out into the world shortly after the printing and distribution of the Book of Mark. So for a time there, there wasn’t a New Testament. There was the Book of Mark, and Josephus’s responsum. It’s no wonder that the Gospels of Matthew, Luke and John then came into the world. As did Acts of the Apostles, and the publishing of all the letters. Following Josephus’s criticism, they needed to reestablish the Jesus narrative.
Josephus’s Against Mark was lost, or destroyed. By whom remains a mystery. But, in a major discovery, I found the book. For that story, see Satan’s Synagogue.
5) Let’s get to the veering. According to Josephus’s rendition of the death of John the Dipper, Mark missed the reaction of Antipas’s wife before Herodias. Her name was Phasaelis and she was the daughter of King Aeneas, known as Aretas, who presided over the neighboring Nabataean Kingdom. Antipas did, indeed, fall in love with Herodias and he planned to marry her. First, though, he needed to divorce Phasaelis. Phasaelis caught wind of Antipas’s plan and she managed to escape and make her way back to her father’s kingdom. King Aretas reacted to the news with enmity. A further quarrel between Aretas and Antipas over boundary issues set the stage for war. Aretas routed Antipas’s forces. During the siege, Antipas had all of his prisoners in Machaerus killed. Given his weakened state, he feared a revolt amongst his prison population. “The Dipper died in that general murder spree, a victim of a wider war,” Josephus declared in Against Mark.
To contest Aretas, Antipas had no choice but to call for help from Rome. Emperor Tiberius, who wanted peace in the region, took his umbrage out on Aretas. He called for the governor in Syria, Lucius Vitellius, to bring Aretas to him in Rome, either alive in chains or dead with his head on a stick. Vitellius mustered his legions and moved against the Nabataeans. However, Tiberius died during the Passover and Caligula recalled the mission. By then, though, the Nabataeans had moved back to their lands across the Jordan. Josephus continued, “Mark missed this entire truth of history with his story. His neglect is glaring.”
But then Josephus added another incredible layer. He wrote, “In my time in the Galilee, I heard the story of Jesus’s death often enough. Herod Antipas’s murder of John and the subsequent rise of Jesus struck fear in the tetrarch. He then repeated his actions: arresting Jesus as he did the Dipper, sending Jesus to Machaerus, ordering the beheading as part of a wider action, as he feared a prisoner revolt.” According to Josephus, Jesus died as an itinerant orator, a subversive in the Antipas orbit, traveling the towns and the countryside of the Galilee, preaching and performing exorcisms amongst his activities. He never made it up to Jerusalem. He never became the Son of Man.
6) There’s a great deal to comb through in Josephus’s incredible layer. Let’s start with his first words, “In my time in the Galilee…” A few years before Josephus’s time in the Galilee, Jewish rebels pushed back against Rome. What started as a protest over taxation led to an uprising. In Rome, Emperor Nero ordered the governor of Syria, Cestius Gallus, to quell the uprising. Gallus, marching into Judea with some 30,000 soldiers, reached Jerusalem. He could not take the Temple, however. He fell back to the coast. On his way, he was ambushed in the hills of Bethoron and suffered heavy losses. For a small moment in time, the Romans lost control of Judea.
That led to a major decision in Rome. Emperor Nero needed a General of Greatness to go and retake the region. He turned to Vespasian who, in his career as general, had led the conquest of Britain and put down rebellions in the Rhine. Upon receiving the appointment, Vespasian traveled overland to Syria. Simultaneously, he sent his son Titus to Egypt to take control of the fifteenth legion and to march into the Galilee. Titus joined the fray at Ptolemais, also known as Acre, a port on the Mediterranean.
Meanwhile, in the Temple compound in Jerusalem, the Sanhedrin held a meeting. War plans were hatched. Rebellion leaders were named to take control of various regions. They gained titles as General Governors. Josephus became the General Governor of the Galilee. That was a major appointment. Consider the geography. Vespasian would be coming from Syria. That would mean a path through the Galilee.
Josephus then began the defense of the region, by building up strongholds and fortifications. We all know how that war ended, with Rome butchering the Galileans and then sacking Jerusalem and destroying the Temple. I won’t delve into the details here, although they are fascinating to be sure. If interested, see Satan’s Synagogue. But Josephus’s time in the Galilee proved incredibly fruitful in uncombing the life of Jesus. For Josephus “heard the people talk of this man named Jesus. Nearly two score had passed since Jesus walked the Galilee and he was still the talk of the nation.”
7) Josephus then gave a biography on Jesus. He was born in a town called Beth Lehem Zebulun. To differentiate this Beth Lehem from the city in Judea, the Galileans added the name of one of the twelve tribes. Beth Lehem Zebulun could be glimpsed from the top of Nazareth. It was hardly a day’s journey from one to the other. Jesus’s family, according to Josephus, made the move to Nazareth. There was a fundamental reason. As Josephus wrote, “Zippori, or Sepphoris as the Romans called it, was nearby, a two-hour walk. The town was under construction. There was work there.”
“There was work there.” It’s such a simple statement, yet it tells the tale of a migratory family in need of sustainable work. Compare “there was work there” to what the Gospel writers Matthew and Luke did. Matthew placed the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. Matthew, who opened his Gospel by tracing an ancestral through line from Jesus back to King David to Abraham, needed Bethlehem. David was born in Bethlehem and that city became the expected birthplace of the Messiah. Luke came along and took the Bethlehem reference further. He noted the census taking place throughout the Roman Empire. According to Luke, the decree by Augustus, that “all the world should be registered,” was the first of its kind. A man named Joseph then traveled to Bethlehem to register, as he “was descended from the house and family of David.” With him went Mary, who was expecting a child. Luke then put forth the notion of the manger, as there was no room at the inn. Let’s leave that detail behind to focus on the census. First of all, Luke was wrong. Earlier censuses took place during the Roman Empire period. Luke was also wrong in his dating. Judea was declared a Roman province in the year 6 CE. The Roman senate called for a census in the new territory for tax purposes. That task fell to Sulpicious Quirinius, the legate of Syria.
But the Romans, as per their mandate, made it hard on the locals. The Romans declared that each person had to register in his city of ancestery. Meaning: there was a great uproar in the wide movement from town to town. The roads were filled with travelers who had to return to their ancestral homes for the simple reason of complying with Roman decree.
According to Luke, Joseph had no choice but to travel to Bethlehem. Notably, Matthew did not include this detail in his Gospel. It’s a rather sizeable omission. Matthew, a resident of Capernaum, was a tax collector. As the reason behind the census had to do entirely with taxation, wouldn’t that detail have been important to a tax collector? According to Matthew, Joseph traveled to Bethlehem to fulfill the Biblical commandment. But here’s another interesting detail. Matthew lived in the Galilee. As a tax collector, he probably had traveled to Nazareth many times. From Nazareth, he probably had looked toward Beth Lehem Zebulun. He probably had traveled there. But Matthew eschewed the Beth Lehem Zebulun of Josephus’s reference to offer the Bethlehem of David’s birth. Luke, who wrote from the Syrian center of Antioch and might not have known Galilean geography, piled on to Matthew’s detail. And the story went out into the world… until John and his Gospel.
Writing some ten years after Luke, John turned the entire Bethlehem narrative on its head. John positioned Jesus as a Galilean by birth, not a Judean. In that mooring, John could then have the Jews of that time question Jesus as Messiah, as scripture declared that the Messiah must come from the family of David, with rooting to Bethlehem. But let’s be clear about what John was doing. John was writing in a political time and place when Rome clearly ruled. The rebellion had been put down a generation earlier. John then wasn’t interested in David and the warrior Messiah model, as earlier Gospels, written closer in time to the rebellion, were. The story he unfolded was less political, as there was no possibility of the restoration of the Jewish nation.
There’s also another detail to consider. Perhaps John read Josephus?
8) In his Gospel, Mark chronicled the missionary work of Jesus, traveling the Galilee and beyond while laying down the gospel and curing a nation of sick with both touch and word. Along the way, masses formed around his personage and the new movement known as Jews for Jesus was born. But something dangerous came with it. Mark touched on that danger with a parable. He positioned Jesus at table in his house, seated beside tax collectors and sinners and scribes who were Pharisees. The scribes questioned his choice of guests. Mark eventually came to the nub, as Jesus answered, “‘The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath.’” The words and tone must have struck the Pharisees as a rebellion to the old world order. That seemed to be Mark’s point, as he immediately followed with another parable. On a Sabbath, a congregation gathered at the synagogue. Pharisees comprised the congregants, as did a man with a withered arm. Jesus cured the man, breaking with the Sabbath tradition of severely restricting work of any kind, including the acts of healing. There were exceptions, of course. If someone was dying, a healer was called. But to break with Sabbath traditions was to move away from piety. Here, Jesus seemed not only unconcerned with those traditions but, in fact, disdainful of them. He questioned the Pharisees “hardness of heart” concerning Sabbath tradition. In the Pharisees’ world order, Jesus’s behavior would have been no uncommon threat. The Pharisees, Mark told us, responded by plotting to bring about Jesus’s death. They began to conspire with Antipas’s court.
In Against Mark, Josephus responded with notable words, “The reference to Herod Antipas infused some historical accuracy into the account. Remove the oversized miracles and the story of a rebellion against the old world order emerged, with Galileans massing around the central figure who carried the pseudo secrecy of a Messiah identity. That identity would have been eye-popping and, indeed, would have caught the attention of both the Pharisees and the tetrarch.”
Josephus then proved disappointing. Nowhere in his critique of Mark did he seque to Jesus’s arrest in the Galilee, or Jesus’s imprisonment, or Jesus’s death. That gap in story isn’t the biggest disappointment. Afterall, Josephus was writing some forty years after the history took place. He was basing his chronicle on the scuttlebutt and stories of his contemporaries. Maybe they didn’t talk about the arrest stage, and its aftermath. But Josephus never even addressed that stage of development. His project was a complete dissection and deconstruction of Mark’s Gospel. Not a reconstruction.
But some detail in terms of “historical accuracy,” to use Josephus’s words, would have strengthened his telling. Even noting a lack of detail regarding the arrest stage would have added a layer. When did Antipas and his men arrest Jesus? Where? Under what circumstances? Josephus missed the story. Did the Galileans protest? Did the Romans have an insurrection on their hands? Josephus missed the story. Did Antipas feel the need to quickly move Jesus south to Machaerus? Josephus missed the story. Did the Galileans’ insurrection, and Antipas’s fear of a wider rebellion, lead to the quick death of Jesus? Josephus missed the story.
9) What are we left with? A major statement – Jesus’s death at Machaerus before his supposed move up to Jerusalem – and a big hole. Certainly, to read Mark’s rendition of events is to wonder why Antipas didn’t arrest Jesus early in his mission. When Jesus struck the loud chord of insurrection, shouldn’t that have instigated his immediate downfall? Of course, Mark couldn’t have ended his story there. To use Josephus’s words in another context, “There was work there.” Mark needed to spin the story forward. Mark needed the Jerusalem section.
But some thirty-five years after Jesus’s glorified death, when Josephus heard the true version, the Galileans were in the midst of a death struggle with the Romans. Wouldn’t the Galileans, once they embarked upon the telling of the Jesus story to Josephus, have taken the story to its conclusion? Wouldn’t they have told of Jesus’s death in prison? Afterall, that part of the story might have emboldened the Jews. They might have used what the Romans and Antipas did to Jesus as a call to arms. A slogan might have been born, “In Jesus, we rise.”
It’s a very different message then the one we know today. It’s a completely different form of rising. And even with that slogan, the Galileans would have lost. The history would have spun forward as it did. With the sacking of Jerusalem, with Titus transporting the spoils back to Rome, with the triumph of Vespasian and Titus, and with the Arch of Titus rising above the Via Sacra for all of the world to see.
But we would know a different Jesus today. “In Jesus, we rise.”
10) That mantra might have been passed down through the last 2,000 years of history. We might have heard that mantra at Saratoga in 1777, or at Waterloo in 1815, or at Gettysburg in 1863, or at Midway in 1942.
Notably, Jews today might celebrate the life of Jesus of Beth Lehem Zebulun the way we celebrate the life of Judas Maccabeus. There is a curious echo there. It’s the story of Maccabeus throwing off the tyrannical power of the Seleucid Empire. It’s the story of Jewish governance taking place, with the rededicating of the Second Temple and the menorah candles burning for eight days, even though there was only oil enough to keep the candles lit for a single day. It’s indeed the story of a miracle.
The wider history is notable. The Family Maccabeus led a revolt against the Seleucid Empire. That revolt proved victorious and a new power, the Hasmoneans, came into the world. For about fifty years, Hasmoneans governed the region. Then the Romans came, and the Parthians for a few years, and the Hasmoneans settled for a form of self-governance within the wider confines of foreign rule. The Romans eventually liquidated the Hasmoneans. Liquidation was the dynamic at the time of the writing of Mark’s Gospel. Rome was in the process of physically razing Jerusalem.
Mark the Evangelist would have hated the Hasmoneans, as would his Gospel successors. The Hasmoneans were Hellenized. The early Church movement wanted, above all else, self-determination. They wanted, through their conduit Jesus, to touch God. They saw all of these layers – Romans, Greeks, Pharisees, Sadducees, the Sanhedrin – as pollutants. To them, Jesus was the way of reduction, and restoration.
But replace the Seleucids with the Romans. Replace Judas Maccabeus with Jesus of Beth Lehem Zebulun. Replace the miracle of the menorah candles with the miracles of the itinerant orator and his penchant for exorcisms. When the Talmud came along, a few centuries after the birth of Jesus, it would have recognized this Jesus as a successor to Judas Maccabeus.
Of course, the writing of history went in a completely different direction. According to that writing, Jesus did not die at Machaerus. He died on a crucifix at a place called Golgotha. He was buried in a tomb. He rose three days later. He became the Son of Man. The Jews for Jesus movement eventually morphed into Christianity. Christianity outlived the Romans. An overarching age was born: the religions of conquest. We still live in that age today. Josephus would have rendered that age as missing the “entire truth of history with His story. The neglect is glaring.” Would he have been right?