Jesus: An Historical Approximation

  • José A. Pagola
  • Sep 6, 2011
  • Series: Volume 14 - 2011
Bookcover: Pagola

José Antonio Pagola.  Jesus: An Historical Approximation.  Trans. Margaret Wilde.  Miami: Convivium, 2009.  557 pp.  $40.00 pap.  ISBN 978-1-934996-09-6.

Not often does a scholarly Roman Catholic work on Jesus from the Basque provinces of Spain get printed in Latin America, translated into English, published in the United States, and reviewed by evangelicals.  But this book merits all these steps to give it added exposure, not least because its author, professor of St. Sebastian Seminary and of the Faculty of Theology of Northern Spain, is conversant with Catholic, Protestant, and Evangelical scholarship from the Continent, Great Britain, and the Americas.

Pagola announces his intentions at the outset:  he wants “to ‘approximate’ Jesus with historical rigor and in simple language, to bring his person and message closer to today’s men and women” (p. 16).  To those who might question whether such a task is legitimate for the Christian, Pagola replies, “if we believe in Jesus as the Son of God incarnate in our own history, how can we not use all the methods available to us to understand better his historical dimension and his concrete human life?  Our faith itself demands it” (p. 17).  Because of his goal to stay simple and readable, Pagola sometimes does not sketch how he decides which parts of the Gospels should be mined for the heart of the historical Jesus, nor why he accepts one camp of scholarship on a given issue over another.  But on the most important issues he briefly gives his rationales.  It would appear that the author has eminently succeeded in meeting his goals.

Given the thoroughly Jewish nature of rural Galilee, combined with urbanization and Hellenization present in Sepphoris and Tiberius, Jesus probably spoke mostly in Aramaic but knew enough Hebrew to read the Scriptures and enough Greek to get by talking in the most common language spoken by foreigners in the region.  The infancy narratives form haggadic midrash, so how much history can be derived from them is unknown.  Nothing much distinguished Jesus growing up as a construction worker in Nazareth.  Surprisingly, Jesus did not marry, but he replaced dedication to a spouse with wholesale commitment to God’s reign.

“Jesus had not yet worked out a plan of action when he met John the Baptist.  He was immediately seduced by this desert prophet.  He’d never seen anyone like that.  He was also fascinated by the idea of creating a ‘renewed people’ in order to start history over again, grasping for the saving intervention of God” (pp. 77-78).  Jesus’ baptism suggests he shared John’s vision of the hopeless situation of Israel under the corrupt temple leadership apart from radical repentance, forgiveness, and new living in community apart from the power brokers of his world.

Jesus thus began visiting all of the villages of Galilee, casting this vision with prophetic passion, and gathering disciples among those willing to follow him.  He was particularly concerned to heal the sick, cast out demons, and identify with and minister to the most impoverished, sinful and outcast.  “Acceptance of the reign of God begins within a person in the form of faith in Jesus, but it is realized in the life of the people wherever evil is being overcome by God’s saving justice” (p. 105).  But for all his talk of God’s kingdom, he never called God king, but Father.  “His reign would not be imposed by force, but to bring his mercy to all life and to fill the whole creation with his compassion” (p. 108).  Parables illustrated how this reign was already present in seed form but would one day fill the whole earth.  They also presented narratives upending expectations about who would be the heroes of the kingdom and who would be rejected from it.

 “Was there some connection between the oppression of Palestine by the Roman empire and the simultaneous phenomenon of so many people possessed by the devil?” (p. 170).  There was plenty of oppression from overly patriarchal culture and overly rigid hierarchical social stratification.  “In a society where some people live submerged in hunger or misery, there is only one choice: to live as fools, indifferent to the suffering of others, or to awaken hearts and move hands to help those In need . . . .  In God’s reign, there cannot be rich people living at the expense of the poor.  It is absurd to imagine that when God’s will is finally achieved, the powerful will still oppress the weak” (pp. 186-87).  Unlike the religious leaders and their system, constantly concerned to protect or restore people’s ritual purity, “those who are truly holy can spread purity and transform the impure” (p. 195).  What is most scandalous is not that Jesus associates with sinners in the course of implementing this vision, but that he does so over meals, implicitly making them his intimate friends even before they have shown signs of repentance.

In addition to parables, Jesus specialized in aphorisms.  Equally aphoristic summaries encapsulate his major themes in those pithy sayings:  “change your hearts,” “beyond the law,” “the important thing is love,” and, most radically of all, “love your enemies” (but within the context of a nonviolent struggle for justice).  Someone who taught and behaved so counterculturally as an indirect challenge to the religious and political authorities of his day would have inevitably come into more direct conflict with them, and Jesus did. 

In his trip to Jerusalem for Passover in A.D. 30, he was scarcely naïve about the possibility of danger and violence there.  Entering the city as he did on the donkey was surely an intentionally prophetic act.  The temple demonstration may have been a small-scale symbolic gesture but its meaning was clear:  Jesus was challenging the very legitimacy of the temple cult’s existence.  “He proclaims God’s judgment not on the . . . building, but against an economic, political and religious system that cannot be pleasing to God” (p. 344).  The apparent contradiction between the Synoptic and Johannine Last Supper chronologies is resolved by seeing Jesus celebrate an informal fellowship meal with his disciples the night before the Passover, which thus naturally took on some Passover features.

The illegalities surrounding the trial before the Sanhedrin and the implausibility of Jesus being convicted of blasphemy for using messianic titles suggests we should envision a much more unofficial, hurried nighttime meeting before Caiaphas and a few other authorities.  What we learn of Pilate elsewhere, especially from Josephus, however, does dovetail with the ruthlessness tempered by shrewdness (sometimes masquerading as compassion) that we see in the Gospel Passion narratives.  The crucifixion was awful but only average in its torture as Roman crucifixions went.  Of all the last “words” from the cross, the cry of dereliction has the greatest likelihood of authenticity in its existing form.  Even here, despite his sense of God-forsakenness, Jesus cries out in faith to “my God.”

Unlike many historical Jesus “questers,” Pagola does not exclude the resurrection from historical purview.  He rightly recognizes that the evangelists uniformly describe various individuals and groups of Jesus’ followers perceiving that a transformed bodily Jesus was again present in their midst.  But because there are so many indications that it is much more than mere bodily presence, “it is hard to establish an historically irrefutable conclusion” (p. 405).  It seems unlikely that all the Gospel writers would have invented women being the first and key eyewitnesses to the empty tomb or that Jesus’ “resurrection” could be proclaimed in the heart of Judaism if there was a still a body in the tomb.  But the stress in the stories is not on the empty tomb but on the messengers’ instructions to the women.  The resurrection vindicates the claims and nature of the earthly Jesus.  But the sacrifice of Christ on the cross is better seen as the ultimate expression of love rather than a substitutionary, penal atonement.

A final chapter highlights distinctive and key emphases about Jesus in each of the four Gospels and then addresses the meaning of the major Christological titles found throughout them.  In an epilogue, Pagola discloses his personal vision.  He explains that he loves the Church and that he has found Jesus in the Church, with all its failings, more than anywhere else.  But now more and more he wants to see the Church “converted to Jesus” (pp. 449-50), clearly capturing and implementing the reign of God, being the friend of sinners and seeking the lost.  A variety of appendices and indices round out the volume.

This book is filled with heart-warming values and insights for an Evangelical to read from a Spanish Catholic pen, as both our communities find themselves overwhelmed by secularism on the Iberian peninsula with a young adult generation barely interested in either, consigning both to almost total irrelevance.  There is virtually nothing in Pagola’s volume of distinctively Catholic belief or praxis and much that should challenge current status quos.

Invariably, there are points to question.  Has Pagola reflected on the strength of the case against seeing the infancy narratives as unhistorical midrash?  What makes it probable that the disciples learned the Lord’s Prayer over meals, when neither Matthew’s nor Luke’s version portrays him teaching it to them in such a context?  It is not the case that first-century Jewish women were “property” or that they were segregated in the synagogues.  It is far to sweeping to claim that Jesus never quotes the Hebrew Scriptures but only the Targumim.  More should be gleaned from the Fourth Gospel than Pagola allows, in light of the now sixty-year-old “new look on John.”  Pagola does not seem aware of the classic harmonization of the Synoptics and John with respect to the chronology of the Last Supper, nor that Jesus’ use of “Son of man” in Daniel 7:13 would indeed have afforded grounds for blasphemy.  False disjunctions occasionally appear.  Jesus’ temptations need not be the kinds of things that characterized Satan’s attacks on him throughout his ministry rather than a set of events at the beginning; it could be both.  Both the temple police and Roman guard likely came to the garden, not just the former.  The moral theory of the atonement is not an alternative to the penal one; both can go hand in hand. 

But enough of caveats.  Overall, this is a very encouraging work from a context in which Evangelicals historically have not had many reasons to look for such.  It should be widely commended in English- and Spanish-reading circles alike. 

Craig Blomberg, Ph.D.
Distinguished Professor of New Testament
Denver Seminary
September 2011