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Jesus as a popular performer, Jewish style

In late February, I visited Davidson, North Carolina, to see the grandchildren who lived nearby and attended Presbyterian Church on the Davidson College campus. I experienced an engaging class led by Doug Ottati, the Craig Family Distinguished Professor of Theology and Justice at the university. He began a month-long examination of “The Teaching and Ministry of Jesus” reviewing the style and subjects for which Jesus was best known.

He caught everyone’s attention when he began by describing Jesus’ style as “performative.” That is an unusual word. There were a few furrowed eyebrows in the audience in reaction. He went on to explain that he was using a point made by John Dominic Crossan that the public appearances of Jesus were representations, not the kind of sermons or the general kind of teaching that one might normally associate with the concept of “teacher.”

My reaction was different from the others in the audience. The word “performative” is a remarkable concept these days when speaking of the oral basis of the gospels. Some scholars have questioned the assumption that the gospels were written by “authors” of the kind we usually think of, just as the legendary Homer did not write the Iliad gold Odyssey as would a modern author. They argue that, like the works of Homer, the gospels grew out of oral traditions recited in public situations. Homer’s two poems were very long, yet they were remembered with astonishing fidelity, as they were repeated and passed on for a long time before being recorded. Some scholars think that a similar process occurred with the four gospels.

Professor Ottati had a different intention. He was referring to the first line of John Dominic Crossan. The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant. The book begins with an “Overture” that describes Jesus in action. The first line has the tone of Genesis: “At first it was the performance; not just the word, not the fact alone, but both indelibly marked with each other forever. “(p. xi) We see immediately that Crossan wants to emphasize what Jesus did and said, with whom he did things (for example , who ate with people the religious leaders had not eaten with), and how he expected his disciples to act while fulfilling his wishes.

Most academic discussions of Crossan’s views have focused on the use of a different word: cynical. Crossan describes Jesus as a version of what the ancient world knew as a cynical philosopher. This is best understood by looking at a more popular presentation of your ideas in Jesus: a revolutionary biography. Before the table of contents, there is an image of a relief in a museum in Rome that dates back to 300 AD. It shows Jesus taking the actions mentioned in the gospels. Crossan describes the various scenes, pointing out the significance of the clothing and other important decorations. He sums up the importance of the artifact this way: “We find Jesus healing, eating, teaching, and more like a cynical philosopher than anything else; in other words, this miniature oconographic book.”

Most Jesus scholars today emphasize the Jewish character of Jesus and ignore Crossan’s unusual association of Jesus with a very un-Jewish Greek philosophy. The point I would like to make is that looking at Jesus in terms of performance, as emphasized by Professor Ottati, and cynical philosophy takes us in the direction of understanding what people in Jesus’ day meant when they called him a prophet. They did not see him as a cynical philosopher, but as a prophet within a long Jewish tradition of popular prophecy, which Geza Vermes calls “charismatic prophecy.” To understand my point, we must realize that our current idea of ​​what a prophet was is not in line with what Jesus’ contemporaries thought prophets were. Let’s not be too quick to dismiss ideas of acting and cynical philosophy when we speak of the ancient prophets.

Taking a closer look at the expectations in Jesus’ time means, first of all, realizing how different the current views of philosophy and prophecy are from those of old. Mention of philosophy brings to mind sets of ideas and logical arguments. Greek philosophy was a more holistic approach that dealt with values, practices, and ideas that promoted a good life. The boundary with religion was not always clear. In fact, philosophers like Socrates were seen as undermining religions at the base of community life by questioning traditional values. In the easternmost lands of the Mediterranean, Greek philosophy paralleled a tradition of Wisdom that was part secular and part religious. The Jewish version of the tradition saw meditation on the Torah as essential and began to imagine Wisdom itself as present in creation with God.

In ancient Israel and Judah, prophecy flourished alongside the Wisdom tradition. The Jesus scholar, Geza Vermes, refers to a long tradition of “charismatic” Jewish prophecy that began with Moses. The Christian emphasis on messianic predictions led to the current notion that the prophets spoke about events in the distant future. Rather, they were often popular figures known for speaking out on what was expected to happen soon. With the exception of Jeremiah, who used the services of a scribe, prophecy was uttered and traditions were passed down orally until some of them were recorded. The recordings in the scriptures are selective, because many prophecies that were not fulfilled were overlooked.

The prophets were often charismatic in the sense of behaving strangely in public, doing things not unlike modern “speaking in tongues.” They delivered oracles that were generally poetic speeches in public places declaring what God told them to say. These should be seen as performances intended to have a dramatic impact on rulers and the general public. Here are some examples of unusual behavior recorded in the Old Testament: (1) Isaiah and Hosea gave their sons horrible names, symbolizing rejection; (2) Isaiah walked naked for three years to demonstrate the coming punishment for Egypt and Ethiopia; and (3) Ezekiel says that God told him to lie on his left side for 360 days and then on his right side for 40 days to symbolize the coming punishment for Judah and Israel.

Vermes points out another role of the prophets that has been overlooked. They healed, raised the dead, and performed wonders. Elijah and Elisha were popular models of what a prophet should be. Elijah was famous for working a miracle in competition with the priests of Baal. He and Elisha performed healings and other wonders. Vermes points out that medicine was not part of the contribution of Jewish thought in ancient times because healing was thought in terms of dealing with sin, so rituals were sought in the temple or healings from prophets rather than studying the causes of the illness.

What does all this mean to understand Jesus? His conversation with the disciples while wandering north of Galilee in the area near Caesarea Philippi is revealing. He asked them who people thought he was. They responded that people thought of him as a prophet like John the Baptist and Elijah. Jesus did not imitate Elijah’s dress, as did John the Baptist, but working wonders, healing, and raising the dead naturally led the public to associate Jesus with Elijah. Then he asked what the disciples thought. Peter blurted out that he was the Messiah. Traditionally, this is seen as the correct answer, but in Mark 8:30 Jesus did not confirm that answer. Throughout Mark, Jesus silenced those who shouted messianic pronouncements. On this occasion, Jesus also gave no hint of his own thinking, as he “sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.” Thus we see that he neither confirmed nor denied being the Messiah. A few days later came the experience of the Transfiguration when the disciples saw Jesus conversing with Moses and Elijah, the two most prominent Jewish prophets. David was not there nor was anyone who signified royalty that would have suggested the role of Messiah. Jesus as prophet is the message that seems to be confirmed by this series of events.

The result of our discussion is to put aside the traditional emphasis on Jesus as Messiah to see what it meant for his contemporaries to see him as a prophet. His public actions, whether exorcising, curing, arguing with the authorities, or teaching, were performances often intended for dramatic effect. He followed a lifestyle of poverty and wandering, calling the disciples to do the same. The prophets had announced “Thus says the Lord.” Jesus made a more subtle claim to authority by beginning many of his pronouncements with “Amen,” which is often translated “in truth.” In other words, “sit down and listen to something important.”

The distinction between religion and philosophy was not sharp in the eastern portions of the Mediterranean. It is not necessary to see Jesus following a Greek model to understand that similar patterns can be found in very different phenomena in neighboring parts of the ancient world. Philosophy was seen as a way of life and so was Jewish religious practice. The first name of Christianity, according to Acts, was “the way.”

Jesus was a popular Jewish actor, a prophet who did a wide variety of interesting things in public that attracted attention and gained a following. The similarity with the practices of the Cynical philosophers is not surprising, since the Jewish lands were not far from Greece. This made it easier for some of the early Christians in the Rome area to understand Jesus in terms of cynical philosophy rather than Jewish prophecy.

Crossan’s ideas are entertaining and very thought-provoking. They point in the direction of appreciating the importance of prophecy, and that is the point that must be emphasized in order to understand how contemporary Jews understood the public role of a very Jewish Jesus.


John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991).

John Dominic Crossan, Jesus: a revolutionary biography (New York: HarperOne, 1994).

Geza Vermes, Christian beginnings: from Nazareth to Nicaea (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012).

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