Guest Post: Dr. Craig A. Evans

Read Question 1 here and Question 2 here.

Question 3: Was Jesus an original thinker? How did he personally rework the cultural features that he inherited? What are the most original elements of his thought?

Most of what Jesus proclaimed and did have precedent and was hardly controversial, from a pious Jewish perspective. What Jesus proclaimed was rooted in the Scriptures of Israel. Jesus did not appeal to any authority other than Israel’s God and what Israel’s God has revealed in the Scriptures. But Jesus did rework, even subvert some of Israel’s sacred tradition.

In his well known “antitheses” Jesus challenged several points of the Oral Torah, as taught by the scribes and Pharisees of his day. Jesus did not challenge Moses, but the interpretation of Moses. But in some cases Jesus seems to have subverted Scripture itself. For example, whereas Daniel thanks God for revealing his insights to the wise and learned (Dan 2:21, 23), Jesus thanks God for withholding his revelation from the wise, disclosing it, instead, to mere “babes” (Matt 11:25–26). Or, for another example, whereas in Daniel the Son of Man figure will be served by the nations (Dan 7:13–14), Jesus says that the “Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). Jesus’ surprising interpretations of Scripture sometimes grow out of a conflation of texts. In the last example, the inversion of Dan 7:14 is accommodated (or necessitated?) by allusion to the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53, who suffered and “bore the sin of many” (Isa 53:12).

Sometimes Jesus tempered judgmental aspects of the Law of Moses with appeals to the prophets or other Scriptures. Mercy, forgiveness, and reconciliation figured prominently in Jesus’ teachings. The temple and sacrifice are important, but love and mercy are more important. Similarly, the Sabbath was not to be given priority over human needs. “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). Nor were purity concerns to be given priority over human needs. Hence Jesus was willing to eat with tax collectors and sinners.

One of the most surprising elements in Jesus’ thought was his teaching that “sinners” and outsiders (Samaritans and Gentiles) would be included among the righteous. Gentiles, like the centurion of Capernaum or the woman of Syro-Phoenicia, can possess more faith than Israelites themselves. Indeed, even a Samaritan can fulfill the Great Commandments of love of God and of neighbor (as in the parable of the Good Samaritan).

But perhaps the most original element of all is seen in the words of institution, where Jesus, faced with the grim reality of his approaching death, spoke of his death as in some sense bringing about the promised new covenant. We have in Jewish thought the idea that through the death or suffering of the righteous divine judgment upon Israel is ended or averted, but the idea that through the shedding of his blood (and here we have an allusion to the language of Exod 24:8) Jesus himself brings about the prophesied new covenant is truly remarkable. This teaching, in combination with the resurrection, is what gave rise to the distinctive essence of the Christian movement.