Welcome to the sixth stop on our blog tour of Craig A. Evans’ From Jesus to the Church: The First Christian Generation. Please keep your arms and legs inside the vehicle at all times, take a moment to locate your nearest emergency exits, and I think we just might have a lot of fun today, folks. Today I’ll be reviewing Chapter 5: Jerusalem Communities in Conflict.
In addition to the introduction of From Jesus to the Church, we have already discussed the question of whether or not Jesus intended to found a “church,” the evolution of Jesus’ theology of the Reign of God as influenced by the Aramaic Targumim, the rise of Jesus’ brother James to prominence in the Jerusalem Church, and what Evans suggests has been misunderstood as the dichotomy between faith and works in the respective theologies of Paul and James. The question that drives Chapter 5 can perhaps best be summarized: What were the cause(s) and ultimate effect(s) of Jesus’ clashes with the temple authorities?
Evans frames the initial conflict in terms of a sectarian collision between two Jewish groups: the family line of Annas (high priest from 6 – 15 ce), whose family continued in the priesthood until the fall of Jerusalem, and the “family” of Jesus of Nazareth (i.e. the Church). Evans has already established in previous chapters that the aims of Jesus never precluded the restoration of ethnic Israel under the Rule of God. In Chapter 5, he elaborates on the root of this “family feud,” as well as its initial outcome and continuing repercussions until the eventual collapse of the temple and destruction of Jerusalem.
From the moment Jesus sets foot in Jerusalem, he begins to cause trouble for the temple authorities—claiming that the temple itself has failed to “bear fruit,” that is, it has failed in its ultimate purpose to be a “house of prayer for all peoples” (Isa. 56:7), and has instead become a “den of robbers” (Jer. 7:11). Jesus’ “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem, his actions in the temple (depending on one’s perspective, either a “cleansing” or a “cursing”), and his oracles pertaining to the destruction and rebuilding of the temple had the cumulative effect of being perceived as a serious threat to the priestly family of Annas. Evans contends that Jesus’ antagonism toward the temple had little to do with a rejection of Jewish belief and practice, but rather signaled “the end of the corrupt temple establishment” (p.97). It is not difficult to see how those in power might have been threatened by Jesus’ actions—the temple was, after all, the epicenter of Judaism—and therefore seek to do away with him. Charged with sedition for his claim to messianic kingship, he is subsequently put to death by the Romans (p.98).
Yet—perhaps in more ways than one—Jesus did not “stay dead.” Evans proceeds to outline how the claim of the disciples that, following his crucifixion, Jesus of Nazareth was subsequently resurrected and elevated to the right hand of God continued to stir up trouble for the priestly family. This culminated in the sectarian persecution of early Jewish Christians by supporters of the temple priests (including, according to Acts, a Pharisee named Saul of Tarsus), and the eventual martyrdom of Stephen. Even Jesus’ brother James, who managed to remain in Jerusalem after others like Peter had been forced to leave, eventually fell victim to this sectarian struggle when Annas son of Annas conspired to have him murdered in 62 ce (pp.107-111).
One section of this chapter that I found particularly enlightening was Evans’ elaboration on the story of Jesus ben Ananias, a prophetic figure mentioned briefly by Josephus (JewishWars 6.300-309) who shortly after the death of James the brother of Jesus stood in the midst of the temple and shouted oracles against “Jerusalem and the sanctuary (i.e. the temple)” (pp.111-115). Jesus ben Ananias was arrested, flogged, and brought before the Roman governor, where he was “flayed to the bone with scourges,” before finally being released as a lunatic. Upon his release, he immediately returned to the temple and continued his prophecies until he was eventually killed by Roman a siege stone flung over the temple walls in 70 ce. Evans’ contention is that Jesus ben Ananias in fact belonged to the “family” of Jesus of Nazareth, and, perhaps inspired by the assassination of James by the temple priests, through his oracles participated in the Christian prophetic tradition of antagonism against the corrupt institution.
Evans’ writing is clear and equally engaging on both a popular and academic level. Perhaps the most significant point the author makes is to firmly situate Jesus of Nazareth’s struggle against the temple authorities within the context of Judaism. Early Christians were not persecuted by “Jews” who were put off by their claim of Jesus’ messiahship and resurrection. Rather, the early Christians were Jews themselves who were persecuted by supporters of a priestly family who were threatened by the implications of Jesus’ claim that God’s Reign was inevitably on its way to replace the established order.
I also agree with Johnny Walker’s contention that Evans’ familiarity with secondary literature is pretty astounding. I was overjoyed to discover in an endnote on p.156-7 a reference to several later rabbinic sources that contain parallels to Jesus’ final proverbial question in Luke before his crucifixion (“If they do this when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?”), a question which happens to figure significantly into my thesis.
As a few other reviewers have noted, the excursive lists plotted throughout the book are also an invaluable resource—if I ever need to look up a list of the succession of high priests in the early first century, or double-check whether Titus or Vespasian was emperor first, I will be consulting this book for its quick and easy referencing.
As a whole, I thoroughly enjoyed Evans’ book. He arrives at somewhat traditional conclusions, but not by using his own presuppositions to run willy-nilly over serious historical approaches. Instead, From Jesus to the Church offers a highly nuanced reading of the literary and historical evidence available to us. I would recommend it to students, scholars, and church groups alike.
This book was received from Westminster John Knox Press in exchange for a bias-free review.