reader’s patience is requested in the fact that these Jesus
pages are in effect a kind of sub-Web, “piggy-backing” on the
principal Web, http://www.paulonpaul.org,
and thus that the As Paul Tells It . .
. designation at the top of each page is not quite accurate.
Traditions Home Page is readily accessible by clicking on Contents,
to be found at the top and bottom of each page.
in red = Mark .. in blue
.. in green = Special Matthew ..
in fuchsia = Special Luke
Contents of Jesus
“The Kingdom of God Has Come Near”
As important as Jesus’ word and work were for the actualization of
the Kingdom, it is both noteworthy and paradoxical that he should be
remembered as proclaiming, not himself, nor the restoration of the Davidic
kingdom, but as proclaiming God, his reign or kingdom. The
Kingdom of God is already familiar in Jewish teaching, where it often has a future reference.
What distinguishes Jesus’ proclamation about the kingdom is his
declaration that they are living in a time of fulfillment, that a new
force is at work.
Matthew 4:12, 17
filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee,
and a report about him spread through all the surrounding
12Now when Jesus heard that John
had been arrested, he withdrew to
14Now after John was
arrested, Jesus came to Galilee,
17From that time Jesus began to proclaim,
“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven
has come near.”
| proclaiming the good news of God, 15and
saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come
near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
||cp. Luke 4:21
15He began to teach in the
synagogues and was praised by everyone.
Other texts make clear that the kingdom has in fact become a present reality (Matthew
12:28 || Luke 11:20), particularly in dealing with mental
illness (see the section below). The transition from the present age to the
coming age has happened, and the signs of its coming are evident.
Jesus was widely acknowledged as teacher, or as we might say today,
“professor.” He was respectfully addressed as “Rabbi” (master
teacher). There is evidence that he not only was learned in the scriptures
but was skillful in rabbinic discourse and debate as well. But to say this
is not to do him justice, for he was a marvelous combination of rabbi,
wisdom teacher, and prophet; as wisdom teacher, skillful in
speaking in parables and proverbs; as prophet, speaking out against
evil and injustice, and proclaiming God’s salvation and judgment.
His sayings will be the subject of
The gospels are full of healing narratives, in which Jesus cures all
sorts of diseases, both physical and mental (though this kind of
distinction should not be pushed too far, whether in ancient or modern
terms). We may also note that Jesus was remembered in the tradition as
being motivated in his healing (as in meeting other needs) by compassion:
Mark 1:41 (the healing of the leper); Matthew 20:34
(the healing of the two blind persons); and Luke 7:13 (the
raising of the widow’s son at Nain).
§ Physical Disease
We find accounts of people being healed of a
considerable variety of diseases which are clearly physical:
lepers, the blind and deaf, an epileptic child, and others. Click on Physical
Disease, for a listing.
Most of these are what we
would call organic disorders. In a few cases there is the possibility
of a functional disorder, as with the paralytic whose sins are forgiven,
and the woman who is bent over and crippled by a spirit. But in most of
the cases listed, with no
natural or functional explanation available, one is left with a decision between
the following kinds of choices:
• Recognizing spontaneous remission;
• acknowledging miraculous healings;
better, “deeds of power, wonders, and signs,” as
the New Testament would say (Acts 2:22); or
• attributing these accounts to a
tendency to heighten the miraculous. (Click on “Miracles?”.)
§ Mental Disease
The gospels also contain abundant examples of people with mental
disease who are healed by Jesus: a man in the synagogue with an unclean spirit,
“Legion,” The Gerasene demoniac, and others. In ancient times, abnormal personality
disorders were thought to be caused by demon possession. Click on Mental Disease,
for a listing of exorcisms, and a more detailed discussion. It is clear
that helping people with mental
disease was a high priority for Jesus.
Yet another sort of healing is evident in the “cure of souls,” a part
of Jesus’ practice of which we get a glimpse in the varied traditions that
have survived. He seems to have been helpful to people by virtue of being
accessible, non-judgmental, and straightforward, their well-being his only
Jesus acquired a reputation not only as a glutton and drunkard [a bit of
a caricature] but also as a friend of tax collectors and sinners [and of
respectable people, too!]. He took this insulting
characterization and wore it as a badge of pride.
Q = Matthew 11:18-19 ||
Luke 7:33-34, “For John came neither
eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of
Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a
drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is
vindicated by her deeds.”
He defended his policy of associating with people who had been
marginalized, with the perfectly reasonable observation that “Those who
are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick” (Mark 2:17).
There are several anecdotes which show in one way or another that Jesus
was remembered as helping people find forgiveness:
The paralytic in Mark 2:1-12, to whom Jesus pronounces
forgiveness of his sins;
• The woman in
Luke 7:36-50, whose reputation as a sinner does not discourage her
from anointing Jesus’ feet, and receiving his declaration of forgiveness;
The episode of Zacchaeus, in Luke 19:1-10, whose career as a
tax-collector for the Romans had effectively excluded him from respectable
society, but who is brought to repentance when Jesus invites himself to his
house for dinner; and
The woman caught in adultery (John 7:53 – 8:11), who
is rescued from stoning by Jesus, when he invites the one who is without sin
to cast the first stone. (Though probably not a part of the original Greek
text of the Gospel of John, and though it did not find its way into most
manuscripts of the synoptic gospels, this story nevertheless has a
reasonable claim to being derived from good tradition.)
We do not know how much these stories reflect the later teaching of the
church, or how much they represent actual episodes; but they likely
reflect at least the character of Jesus, as one who was concerned to restore
the relationship of people to each other, and to God.
§ A glance at the listing of controversial or adversarial
episodes or sayings of Jesus will bring to light several points (click on Controversy):
• The controversial units tend to be arranged in groups, especially Mark 2:1–3:6
and 11:27–12:37, and Matthew 23:1-36. (The fact
that the two blocks of such material in Mark are each followed by plots on
the life of Jesus may or may not be historically grounded, but this
phenomenon may point to the area or areas of irreconcilability which
eventually led to his death.)
• The opponents or adversaries are mostly the
religious establishment (Pharisees, scribes, and Sadducees); there
are words of denunciation for the towns of Galilee; and derisive
words about Herod (Antipas).
• The points of contention have to do mostly with Torah
(the Jewish Law), and religious belief and practice, though issues like
paying taxes to Rome also come up. Sometimes Jesus is obliged to defend
himself against personal attacks (the Beelzebul controversy).
• One cannot avoid observing that disputes between
the followers of Jesus and the Jewish leaders did not cease with the
execution of Jesus. Early Christians would likely have debated many of the
same questions with the Pharisees of their day, as Jesus did in his time.
Nor can we avoid inquiring whether the urgency of countering the
objections of the Pharisees in their day may have kept the memory of
Jesus’ sayings and actions alive in the tradition, even as it became
more and more difficult for the early Christians to differentiate between
genuine sayings of Jesus and sayings which may have originated with the
community. So we must be cautious that we not over-interpret these
controversy sayings and actions, as if we could be certain that they do in
fact go back to Jesus.
§ Inevitably the question arises over how to account for
the considerable animosity between Jesus and the religious establishment.
The answer is probably both simple and complicated. Simple, because
differences in attitudes toward Torah were fundamental and irreconcilable
(click on Torah);
and complicated, because:
• The Judaism of Jesus’ day was more pluralistic
and diverse that in the post-70 period. While there was little love lost
between Sadducees and Pharisees on quite a number of issues (click on First
Century Judaism), with differences rooted in a fundamental disagreement
over the validity and finality of oral law, they apparently had adopted a
live-and-let-live policy which they were not willing to concede to Jesus.
• We cannot be sure that the resentment toward
Jesus would have been so intense, and the Jewish leaders so desperate to
be rid of him, had he not enjoyed so great a popular following, and had he
not in effect publicly and unmistakably challenged them to reform their
institutions, when he disrupted Temple commerce during his final visit to
• For all of his compassion and willingness to deal
generously with wayward types, Jesus may well have marked the leaders of
Judaism in his day as serious obstacles to reforming and renewing the
religious life of his people. In step with the great prophets of his
people in the eighth and seventh centuries B.C.E., he had little patience
with a formalism and legalism which would block free and life-giving
access to God.
It would seem fairly straightforward to list the names of the
disciples, comment on the significance of their number, twelve, and
differentiate the terms disciple and apostle.
§ As the chart
will show (click on “The
Twelve”), there are complications. The roster of disciples
includes at least thirteen names; fourteen, if we count Nathanael,
from the Fourth Gospel; and fifteen, if Matthew and Levi the son of
Alphaeus are not the same person. We may reasonably suppose that on any
given day the composition of “the twelve” may have varied.
§ For the early church, which understood itself as the “new Israel,”
the twelve disciples, representing the twelve tribes of Israel, would have
signified the leadership of this new chosen people. There does not seem to
be any convincing reason why Jesus himself could not have appointed twelve
companions who would have symbolized a newly constituted people of God,
especially as the gap widened between
Jesus and the Jewish religious establishment.
The listing in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 of a resurrection appearance
to “the twelve” gives rise to a few comments: a) it shows how
early and how persistent “the twelve” is for its symbolic
importance, even though the same passage indicates that there were other
apostles (15:7), including probably James the brother of the Lord;
b) this symbolic value is evident in the persistence of “the twelve”
even though, according to some traditions, “the twelve” was
diminished by the suicide of Judas Iscariot. (It is beyond the scope of
this discussion to determine whether the tradition behind 1 Corinthians
15:3-8 “trumps” the traditions of Matthew
and Acts and brings
into question the authenticity of popular anecdotes about his suicide.)
§ As for the terms disciple and apostle,
the latter for the most part is reserved for the post-Easter period for
those sent out in mission, and endowed with special authority for
leadership in the church. It is rarely used in Matthew and Mark (Matthew
10:2; Mark 3:14; 6:30), and more
frequently in Luke (6:13; 9:10; 11:49;
17:5; 22:14; 24:10). The term disciple
refers to a committed follower of Jesus, especially during the years of
his public activity. It is used both of a wider circle of followers, and
of an inner circle of “the twelve,” members of which had been
specifically called by Jesus. The latter in particular spent their time as companions of Jesus, learning from him and assisting him. Mark
represents their call as one in which they were appointed “to be with
him, and to be sent out to proclaim the message, and to have authority to
cast out demons” (Mark 3:14-15), that is, to replicate in some
degree Jesus’ own ministry of the word and of healing.
It would be hard to over-estimate the importance of the relationship of
“the twelve” with Jesus, over a quite extended period of time.
“. . . Even the wind and the sea obey him” (Mark 4:41)
In addition to the healing narratives, many of which could be described
as miraculous cures, there are also episodes which qualify as nature
miracles: stilling the storm (Mark 4:35-41 ||
Matthew 8:23-27 || Luke 8:22-25), walking on the water
(Mark 6:45-52 || Matthew 14:22-33), feeding the multitude
(Mark 6:30-44 || Matthew 14:13-21 || Luke 9:10-17;
and Mark 8:1-10 || Matthew 15:32-39), and killing
the fig tree (Mark 11:12-14, 20-21; Matthew 21:18-22).
Miracles such as these function for people in different ways:
• For some people, these miracles function as a support
for their beliefs (e.g.,
because Jesus performed miracles he must be the Son of God); this
approach to miracles was not uncommon in ancient times, and it is one which persists today.
• Others may find these miracles troublesome (e.g., if you cannot believe
these stories, how can you accept the teachings and theology of the
• Yet others will recognize that, in a pre-scientific period,
these stories were the way the early Christians celebrated God’s power
working through his Son.
Click on “Miracles?” for further discussion.
| NOTE ON THE FIG TREE
One of the most curious and perplexing of the synoptic stories is the
account of the fig tree which Jesus killed. When he went up to the tree he
found no fruit to satisfy his hunger, whereupon he said, as reported in
Mark, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” The next day, when
they passed by, they saw that the tree had withered away to its roots
(Mark 11:14, 20). Was this a peevish and capricious use of his
power, especially since “it was not the season for figs”?
Apart from denying its authenticity, the best way of approaching this
text is to treat it as an independently flowing piece of tradition which
unfortunately got connected with the Passion narrative. Once it is freed
from its immediate context in Mark it becomes more intelligible. Click on The Fig Tree
for further discussion.
It seems that many people, including Charlie Brown, are familiar with
“the Christmas story” in the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke, but
remain uninformed about some of the most basic things in this material.
The information in the two gospels has quite innocently been harmonized,
often in the interests of a Christmas pageant; while problems in
the stories go unnoticed.
Regrettably, neither of our oldest and best sources have birth
narratives. Q was mostly a sayings sources, with very little
narrative material. Mark begins not with the birth of Jesus, but with
his baptism. There is no evidence that Matthew and Luke used written
sources. They were probably dependent for the most part on anecdotal
material, which may have come to them as long as seventy or eighty years after
between Matthew and Luke
• Both gospels include
genealogies (Matthew 1:1-17, and Luke 3:23-34), which though
differing in some details take pains to trace the ancestry of Jesus back
(through Joseph) to David.
• Both gospels locate
the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:1; Luke 2:4-7).
• Both gospels
date the birth of Jesus during the reign of Herod the Great (Matthew 2:1;
• Both gospels affirm the virginal conception of
Jesus (Matthew 1:18-25; Luke 1:26-38).
• In both there is an emphasis
upon the messiahship of Jesus, probably more in Matthew than in Luke
(Matthew 2:1-6; Luke 2:11-12). This emphasis explains
in part the interest of the authors in the genealogies and in a birth in
§ Differences between Matthew and Luke
• In Luke, the home of Joseph and Mary is Nazareth,
and they travel to Bethlehem because of the (presumed) census (2:4-6),
while it appears in Matthew that they were already resident in Bethlehem,
but later (after the return from Egypt) moved to Nazareth (2:22-23).
• It is in Luke that the shepherds visit the newborn
infant (2:8-18), and in Matthew, that wise men visit the child (2:1-12).
(Other issues are discussed in Birth
button below to continue, with Narratives (3).