Jesus Before Christianity (In Review)

Derek Ouellette —  March 28, 2011

Jesus Before Christianity
By Albert Nolan

2 Stars (out of 5)

Jesus Before Christianity was originally published in 1976 while my copy is the 25th anniversary edition (c) 2001 (9th printing 2009). A lot has happened in the field of Jesus studies in the last thirty plus years and I would expect that any classic study of Jesus that has gone through a recent anniversary celebration would include updates and possible revisions in light of more recent discoveries. In fact, I would venture to say that one of three factors would be involved for such a work to have not been undated: 1) Pride (that the author would suppose that he or she has said everything correctly without the need of other scholars coming along afterward and mucking the waters), 2) Correctness (what the work done was “ahead of it’s time” so that most of the fantastic scholarship that has happened since then have only confirmed the author’s classic study) or 3) Antiquity sake (the author’s work is a classic – though in need of update – and for that sake alone it is worth republishing it without alteration).

In the introduction Nolan writes:

“Recent scholarship has helped us to get a better understanding of the cultural and social context in which Jesus lived and preached. I have not had the time to keep up with all of this, but as far as I can see none of it makes any substantial difference to “the man who emerges” and the significance of his life and words for us today.” -p. x

Nolan does three things here which when combined placed me on caution alert: 1) he acknowledges recent developments in the study of the historical Jesus (two forms have emerged, what is often referred to as the New Perspective on Paul which is actually a new perspective on first century Judaism, and the Third Quest for the Historical Jesus), 2) he admits to have not kept up with this work, and 3) he is somehow able to make the judgment call that “none of it” makes any “substantial difference” to the Jesus Nolan presents in this book.

Nolan’s Jesus’ At A Glance:

  • Nolan’s presentation of Jesus is governed by Jesus’ compassion so much so that his compassion defines everything else such as why he abandoned John’s practice of baptism since compassion for the poor and the need, rather than repentance from sin, became Jesus’ primary mission.
  • Everything Jesus did, from “healings ” and other “miracles”, to his sermons and actions were all governed by his compassion. For example, when Jesus “fed” the 5000 men (Nolan supposes it was an army of men who wanted Jesus to lead them to war against the Romans) Jesus did not actually multiply bread and fish. Rather, his action in sharing the few loaves available to him moved the other men who had bread to also share with those who did not have bread, and in this way compassion won out.
  • The Kingdom of God slowly emerges in Nolan’s book, but then takes center stage yet only in the context of Jesus’ compassion. Nolan tells us that “Heaven” in the time of Jesus was synonymous with “God” (this is true) and that the “Kingdom” of heaven means the “Kingdom” of God. He also emphasis that the “Kingdom” which Jesus talked about was about a future state of affairs on earth when the poor wouldn’t be so, the hungry wouldn’t be so, and so on.
  • For Nolan’s Jesus the almighty power to perform “miracles” is called “faith”, which may also be called “God”. These “miracles” are not to be thought of in terms of supernatural power, but rather real miracles are when people take care of each other, help the poor, serve one another and so on. When people do this, they do it by the almighty power of “faith” within them and in this way they bring with them the “Kingdom” of God. “Most people call this power God. It doesn’t matter what you call it. On occasion Jesus called it God” (p.100).
  • Jesus’ warnings to the Jews was to received the “Kingdom” (i.e. become non-violent social activists) or face the consequences of war and destruction against the Romans. Jesus did not need any special foresight to see the storm brewing on the horizon. The only way to avoid that destruction, for Jesus, was to take a pledge of non-violence and become socially active.
  • The turning of the tables in the Temple (which, for Nolan’s Jesus, occurred only once and at the start of Jesus’ ministry) is what started the aggression of the political leaders in Jerusalem who were in bed with the Romans. It is for this reason – says Nolan – that Jesus spent most of his ministry on the run. Jesus eventually came across the dilemma: how could he “awaken faith” and thus bring the Kingdom if he remained in hiding?
  • Jesus made no claims to a Messiahship (thou apparently many took his actions to be that) according to Nolan. His use of “son of man” was – according to Nolan, not a Jewish Messianic term, but rather it was an Aramaic Galilean idiom meaning “I”. Yet Jesus was charged with claiming to be a Messiah King. Pilot was a particularly cruel man – contrary to the Gospels portrayal of him – and has crucified men for less. Thus Pilot crucified Jesus.
  • Nolan’s Jesus did not really, actually, physically rise from the dead. Or at least, if he did Nolan does not say so in his book. Rather he says things like “Jesus was an irreplaceable leader” and “for the movement to live on, Jesus must in some spiritual or mystical way live on as well” and “some of his disciples claimed they actually saw him after he died”.
  • To have faith in Jesus today is to have “compassion” and the “spirit of Jesus” within you. One gets the sense that by “spirit” Nolan simply means some characteristic or something like to have the spirit of an athlete or to say “I don’t have the spirit for that” means you don’t have the passion or desire for that.

What’s Missing in Nolan’s Jesus

Nolan’s Jesus is a liberal social-activist Jesus. He’s a Desmond Tutu, a Mother Theresa, a Mohandas Gandhi. One thing Nolan’s Jesus is not: He is not the Jewish Jesus who lived in first century Palestine, who believed in a resurrection, whose works were in undoing the evils of creation by fulfilling the Law and bring the long endured exile to a conclusion.

Nolan’s Jesus is more of a twentieth century African mystic

At the start Nolan claims that his study will assume nothing of Jesus, but as the book takes flight a whole bunch of assumption overrule the testimony of the biblical texts. One example should suffice to show how Nolan’s imagination often ran wild. In the account when Jesus drove out those who were buying and selling in the Temple, Nolan explains how Jesus had to wait until the next day (already being too late in the evening to do anything about what he saw). So Jesus went away that night and “the next day he came back, presumably after gathering a crowd of supporters to help him… Jesus and his supporters forced the traders… out of the courtyard… Jesus used a whip. Did his followers also have whips or did they brandish swords?” (p.126).

The book is filled with such wild and groundless speculation.

In any case, without getting petty on such matters, I want to look at another claim of Nolan’s. Namely, his claim that the phrase “Son of Man” was used by Jesus purely as a Galilean idiom meaning “I”.

First I’d like to point out that the bulk of Jesus ministry takes place in Galilee and so the question arises, since most of the people Jesus interacted in conversation where Galilean (including most of the disciples), why is the phrase “Son of Man” only ever used by Jesus? If it was such a common idiom you’d expect it all over the place unless the Gospel writers were quoting Jesus in a very specialized sense.

This brings up the general story which first century Palestinian Jew’s believed they were living in. The phrase “Son of Man” first appears in Daniel 7 as a “personification” of righteous Israel. But during the life of Christ another popular document known as 1 Enoch uses Daniel’s phrase “Son of Man” in connection to Isaiah’s “Servant of YHWH and to the Davidic king”. That is, the phrase “Son of Man” in first century Palestine – including religious Galilee where all of the zealots were from – denoted the one who would represent and embody Israel.

“Thus, for the author of the Parables of Enoch, Daniel’s “one like a son of man” is recast especially as the embodiment and fulfillment of Israel’s messianic hopes, which were themselves reshaped in the Servant theology of Second Isaiah”. (The Eerdman’s Dictionary of Early Judaism, p.1250)

So the phrase “Son of Man” was very specialized and designated a messianic figure. Jesus is the only one to use the phrase in the Gospels, and only ever in reference to himself, and the Gospels – particularly, but not exclusively, Matthew – go to great lengths to emphasis Jesus’ role as the embodiment of Israel. So it is not accurate – in fact, it is terribly agenda driven – to say that “in no circumstances did Jesus ever claim, directly or indirectly, that he was the Messiah” (p.131).

I am further amazed not by what Nolan puts into the Jesus story, but what he leaves out. Even Richard Horsley who takes a similar liberal outlook to the historical Jesus in his book Jesus and the Powers (with the suspicious absence of the miraculous and the resurrection of his Jesus) recognizes the central actions of Jesus being squarely contextualized in Israel’s covenant. Jesus – though of course moved by compassion everywhere – had an agenda that was driven not by compassion, but by covenant. As important as Jesus’ social agenda was, that agenda needs to be placed in the broader context of Jesus’ fulfillment of Israel’s covenant thus making Jesus the very walking, breathing “righteousness of God” by which God’s promise to Abraham, that through him all the nations of the world would be blessed, would finally come to its climax. That Israel itself failed in its covenantal mission and found itself in the same exile as Adam and the rest of humanity when Jesus came on the scene, his mission was to put an end to the exile not just of Israel, but of all of humanity.

Nolan’s Jesus brings to light some very neglected aspects of the Gospel, what the president of World Vision recently referred to as “The Hole in Our Gospel” – social activism. But what is missing in Nolan’s presentation is more damaging because without the climax of the Gospel being what it is, God’s answer to the problem of creation, there is no Gospel at all.

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Derek Ouellette

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a husband, new dad, speaker, writer, christian. see my profile here.
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  • Ken Ramsey

    I found this review highly insightful and well balanced in its critique of both the author and his handling of historical data. Jesus was much more than the social activist portrayed in the book.