In the Footsteps of Jesus, published by National Geographic Books, is the culmination of a very personal 15-year quest for the historical Jesus. As both a historian and practicing Christian, I have long been fascinated by any historical evidence about Jesus as a living and breathing human being, underneath the layers of Christology that have been added in the centuries since.
Naturally, I'm not alone. The topic of the "historical Jesus" has generated scores of books over the last few decades, many written by such distinguished scholars as Meier, Pagels, Theissen, Chilton, Horsley and Crossan. It is therefore reasonable to ask what new insights the Footsteps book could possibly bring to the subject. The answer is that many authors are, invariably, focused on their specialty. Archaeologists look for archaeological data; scripture experts look for literary insights, and anthropologists search for cultural clues.
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This is the early 2nd century cardo maximus or main boulevard of Gerasa, today’s Jerash in Jordan, which is the best-preserved example of a polis or Greek-style city in Roman Palestine. Since the site is rather remote, some two hours north of Amman, Jerash is relatively unknown to most visitors. But as a model of a city in the Decapolis, it is without parallel. Mark reports that Jesus visited “the country of the Gerasenes” (Mark 5:1), which may suggest that Jesus dwelt in the territory of this city, or of the nearby town of Gadara.
This fifth century funerary monument of an Athenian mother saying goodbye to her daughter is a deeply moving example of Greek art at the apex of its creative power. It also underscores the fact that for people in Antiquity, death was terminal and absolute; the Greco-Roman idea of afterlife, such as the sorrowful world of Hades, was not something one looked forward to. This is one reason why early Christianity, with its promise of heavenly redemption regardless of one’s social class, race or station, resonated so strongly with gentiles in Greece, Asia Minor and throughout the Roman Empire.
In the century after the time of Jesus, Jerusalem was twice destroyed by a vengeful Roman army, in response to Jewish revolts. In 135 C.E., Emperor Hadrian decided to erase any remaining vestige of Jerusalem, and build a Roman city named Aelia Capitolina on its ashes. Consequently, it is almost impossible to determine the exact location of Jerusalem’s walls from the time of Jesus, but the walls we see today -- built by the Muslim Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent in 1535 -- give us at least an impression of what Jesus would have seen when he walked down from Bethesda to visit the Temple.
“Footsteps” shows that notwithstanding his role as the central figure of Christianity, Jesus was a practicing Jew. “Do not think I have come to abolish the Law ... but to fulfill,” he says in Matthew 5:7, referring to the Torah, the cornerstone of Jewish faith and practice. According to tradition, the Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew Scripture, called the Old Testament by Christians) was handed down by God to Moses on the summit of Mount Sinai, traditionally associated with Jebel Musa in the heart of Sinai.
This painting by the Dutch artist Gerard van Honthorst (1592-1656) perfectly captures the Christian idea of rebirth and renewal as celebrated during Christmas. Honthorst was deeply influenced by the Italian artist Caravaggio, who first developed the technique of illuminating a scene with a single light source, thus creating a deep sense of intimacy. Like the angels, we feel privileged to witness this loving scene of Mary proudly showing her newborn son.
The Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, formerly Constantinople, is the last great masterpiece of Roman architecture. Though many visitors believe it is a mosque (an impression reinforced by the minarets added by Muslim conquerors), it was actually built as a Christian basilica by the Byzantine emperor Justinian in 532 C.E. But its floor plan, like Justinian himself, is ambiguous: although conceived as a basilica, the central nave is shaped as an elliptical hall anchored by four semicircular chapels, giving the church a uniquely Eastern feel. That this building is still standing after 1,500 years of earthquakes, plunder and neglect is nothing short of a miracle.
Just as I pointed my camera toward the dome of the Rotunda, which shelters the presumed location of Jesus’ tomb, a shaft of sunlight bore through the darkened interior. Most scholars now accept that the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, including this Rotunda, is probably the location of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial. The church was destroyed and rebuilt several times, most recently during the Crusader era, which is why walking through its interior is a rather bewildering experience—not in the least because the site is shared by seven Christian sects, who are often at loggerheads. Nevertheless, despite the crowds, the incense, and the profusion of Eastern ornaments, it is still possible to find peace in this building, and to reflect on Jesus’ last hours on earth.
This ancient cave in Jordan served as a refuge for families fleeing the Roman army in 132 C.E., including a Jewish woman named Babatha of Maoza. Her papers, found nearly 2,000 years later, have revolutionized our idea of the role of women in Roman Palestine. The documents suggest that women may have had more autonomy and control over their lives than we previously assumed -- including the right to choose her second husband after her first husband had either died or divorced her, and the right to obtain a divorce herself. This often resulted in large households, including children from multiple fathers, which is why most ancient homes were multi-family dwellings grouped around a common courtyard.
"In the Footsteps of Jesus: A Chronicle of His Life and the Origins of Christianity"
Each of these sources is very valuable, but what's often been missing is a modern, holistic portrait of Jesus, drawing from the full range of scientific disciplines, including the views of, say, economists or forensic sociologists. If there is one thing we've learned from modern historical methodology, it is that we can only understand a man or a woman in the full context of the cultural framework: the events, customs, people and places that shape one's character and mold one's purpose.
Here's an example. For me it is difficult to separate the historical Jesus from the socio-economic havoc wrought in Galilee by Herod the Great and his son, the Tetrarch Herod Antipas. Having served as governor of Galilee during the waning days of the last Hasmonean regime, Herod discovered the vast agricultural bounty of the region, and ruthlessly exploited this wealth to finance vainglorious building projects in Judea and Samaria after becoming king. Galilean farmers--as Joseph probably was, in addition to his woodworking skills--were slowly crushed under a triple layer of taxes: tithes due to the priesthood; tribute due to Rome; and lastly, taxes to sustain Herod's own lavish administration.
Inevitably, this led to foreclosures of farmers' plots on a vast scale. These were then combined into large estates, run by stewards, to produce surplus for markets outside of Galilee. After all, that was the whole point of Herod's construction of a vast harbor in Caesarea, on the Mediterranean coast: to plug into the booming global economy created by the Roman emperor Augustus.
This is why the Gospels often refer to large managed estates, tended by slaves (or serfs) and run by stewards--a phenomenon that (with the exception of land held by the Hasmonean gentry) hardly existed in Galilee prior to the Herodian era. It also explains the presence of thousands of poor, hungry and dispossessed peasants who flock to Jesus' words. And it shows why his Kingdom of God program for social and spiritual renewal resonated so strongly with his contemporaries, even outside Galilee.
As a result, the figure that emerges from the pages of Footsteps is perhaps a remarkably modern character: a man passionately devoted to the core tenets of his faith as well as to the imperative of social justice--two pillars of early Judaism, the Judaism of Amos, Micah and Jeremiah, which would later become the foundation of early Christianity.
Jesus and the Christ
People who've attended my lectures often ask me if probing into the life of the historical Jesus has affected my faith in Christ. "Are Jesus the Galilean and Christ the Lord two different figures," they ask. My answer is that reconstructing the historical Jesus can only deepen our understanding of the motives and aspirations that drove Jesus to become the astonishing figure that he was. The historical Jesus does not replace the Christ, since the essential purpose of Christianity was to make the message of a Jewish reformer relevant for the urgent needs of the world at large. Therefore, Jesus and the Christ complement each other; one is unthinkable without the other.
Whether we think of Jesus as a charismatic rabbi from rural Galilee or as the Son of God of John's Gospel, the core message is the same: Jesus offered a new and deeply intimate conduit with both God and one's fellow man, unencumbered by class, culture or status.