THREE historical events frame Jesus of Nazareth. He announced God’s kingdom; he was crucified by the Romans; his followers declared him to be Messiah and Lord.
Sceptical interpretations abounded early on, and still do: perhaps Jesus was a failed revolutionary whose followers invented morale-boosting stories. This is implausible. Other Jewish kingdom-movements ended with the founder’s death, or chose a new leader. Further historical investigation is warranted, and — for Christian faith — necessary: without it, the church frequently constructs a “Jesus” to suit its own views.
Jesus of Nazareth stood between Roman justice and Jewish hopes. Rome, dependent on Egyptian grain, needed to secure the Eastern Mediterranean against external attack or internal revolt. The Jewish kingdom-hope, rooted in the long, unfinished scriptural narrative, envisaged Israel’s God returning to the Temple, overthrowing the pagan empire, rescuing his people, and ruling with justice.
How this would happen was disputed. A Messiah? An intensification of law-observance? Military revolt? The Maccabees two centuries before Jesus, and bar-Kochba a century after him, mounted three-year “kingdom” campaigns, aimed at restoring the Temple and instituting a monarchy.
Jesus’s kingdom-movement was like these in some ways, but also very different. His healings, his celebrations with unlikely people, his re-enactments of biblical scenes (such as the desert-feeding), his message of peace and forgiveness, and his warnings of disaster if this was ignored all clashed with pressure groups embracing other agendas.
His parables redefined the kingdom, often alluding to biblical themes and implying that the story was reaching a goal so shocking that it could only be hinted at (“if you have ears, then listen!”). He echoed scriptural promises of transformed hearts, hinting that this was possible for his hearers. He prioritised the poor, and warned against riches. He gave twelve of his followers a special status and task, symbolising a restored Israel, and posing the question of his own position (not simply primus inter pares). Many saw him as a prophet; some, as a false prophet; his close followers, as Messiah — even though he was not fulfilling normal messianic hopes.
Some in the early centuries, and many since, have assumed that Jesus’s redefinition of the kingdom meant abandoning an “earthly” or “political” kingdom and opting for a “heavenly” or “spiritual” one instead. The prayer Jesus taught indicates otherwise: God’s sovereign rule was coming “on earth as in heaven”. What was redefined was not the goal — heaven and earth coming together in radical renewal — but the means. Jesus’s actions and words highlighted self-giving love as the ultimate sovereign power.
Jesus’s baptism focused his vocation. It highlighted the royal “son” of Psalm 2 and the “servant” of Isaiah 42, which Jesus combined with the belief in the vindication and exaltation of Israel’s representative (the “son of man” as in Daniel 7). These kingdom-texts brought the scriptural story to a previously unimagined goal. God’s purpose for Israel — and through Israel the world — would be accomplished not by teaching alone, not by military conquest, but by Israel’s representative going into the heart of the world’s darkness and taking its full weight upon himself.
Unprecedentedly, Jesus linked scriptural strands about suffering and vindication with the messianic call. This was how the “new temple” would be constructed and inhabited. This was how the battle would be won against the ultimate enemy — “the accuser” — whose deadly grip on the world was not reducible to the brutal pagan rule. This was how the kingdom would come, how power itself would be redefined.
Jesus chose Passover, the freedom festival, to act. The first-century freedom-hope focused on the “extended exile” which in scripture (especially Daniel 9) had resulted from Israel’s sins. The “New Exodus” therefore required the “forgiveness of sins”. Jesus’s prophetic action in the Temple symbolised forthcoming divine judgment, implying, dangerously, that he was offering an alternative to the Temple itself.
Jesus focused his Passover meal on his forthcoming death, seen as the means of covenant renewal, “the forgiveness of sins”, and the establishment of the kingdom. He was arrested and charged with blasphemy by the Jewish hierarchy — a charge converted, for Rome’s benefit, into the accusation of sedition. Having warned of the consequences of Israel’s failure to heed his way of peace, he went to his death as the ultimate act of solidarity with his people. In literal historic truth, as well as theological interpretation, the one was bearing the sins of the many.
NOBODY expected Jesus to rise again. “Resurrection” (new bodily life, not the “survival” of a “soul”) meant the resurrection of everyone at the end of history, not of one person in the middle.
The early accounts are breathless, largely unadorned with scriptural interpretation, and they highlight — unthinkably at the time — women as the original witnesses. Alternative explanations have naturally been offered for the emergence of Jesus’s followers as a coherent movement claiming him as Lord. None fits the historical evidence as well as the proposition that he really was alive again, with a transformed body equally at home in heaven and on earth. The resurrection was to be seen, not so much as a bizarre event within the old creation, but as the paradigmatic event in the new one. That was dangerous nonsense in the ancient world, as it is today, not only because of science (“what normally happens”) but also because of politics (“who runs the world, and how”).
Also because of theology, Jesus’s first followers believed that, in him, Israel’s God had kept his promise to return in person. Later theories, moving away from scriptural roots, interpreted this in the language of “substance”, “person”, “nature”, and so on, raising the question of how far such language is compatible with that of Jesus himself and his earliest followers. But the claim goes back to the beginning.
The reason why Jesus of Nazareth continues to challenge the imagination and culture of the world is found in his own vision and vocation. His vision was of God’s kingdom of justice and peace, on earth as in heaven. His vocation was that, through his kingdom-work climaxing in his death, he would embody the personal presence and self-giving love of Israel’s God himself.
The Rt Revd Tom Wright is Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of St Andrews, and the author of many books, including Paul and the Faithfulness of God (SPCK, 2013) and the For Everyone biblical commentary series.