Jesus, the Divine Homeless Person;
Jesus, the Grassroots Politician;
Jesus, the Bodily and Spiritually Resurrected One

Three Attributes of the Historical Jesus

by MeeRha Hahn
Kangnam Theological Seminary, Seoul, South Korea


The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant

It is no longer significant to say that Jesus was a great or extraordinary human being in history. Friedrich Schleiermacher once said that it is God-consciousness that made Jesus distinctive from other religious prophets. However, this statement is too abstruse to understand a man who lived in the region of Mediterranean Palestine. If we take attributes of Jesus’ life in the first century, his clothing, eating and housing are the concrete elements of his life. Jesus had ajob of healing the sick; in turn, he was given food and shelter. However, that Jewish peasant’s life was unacceptable because his communal eating and healing were against the traditionally accepted values in ancient Jewish society.

How then did Jesus convince his followers to accept the reversal of traditionally held values and become the very basis of the new age and the new world? John Crossan terms the way in which Jesus lived by open eating and open healing as "open commensality."1 Crossan explains that the aphorism and parables of the historical Jesus often bespeak a radical egalitarianism. Furthermore, he affirmed this by citing the three early sources (gospel of Thomas 14:2; [Q]; and the Synoptic Gospels in Luke 10:4-1l, Matt. 10:8-14, Mark 6:8-13, Matt. 10:8-l0a,11 and Luke 9:2-6) showing that Jesus’ message was accompanied by concrete actions. Concrete actions, such as open eating and open healing, constitute Jesus’ practice and program for communal implementation.2 Jesus spoke of God as not an imminently inevitable future but as a permanently present possibility. It meant that the presence of God’s Kingdom made manifest by the reciprocity of his actual life was an indication of his radical egalitarianism. Crossan explains, "On the socio-economic level, this egalitarianism can be seen in Jesus’ particular practice of eating. On the religio-political level, it can be seen in his particular practice of healing."3

On the socio-economic level, Jesus, as a peasant of Nazareth, lived like a beggar. Jesus said to his disciples before their journey:

"Carry no purse, no bag, no money, but wear sandals and do not put on two tunics. Whatever house you enter, if they accept you, remain in the same house until you leave the house; do not go from house to house. Heal the sick among them and eat whatever they set before you, for the laborer deserves his wages (edited from the three early sources mentioned in Crossan’s study, p. 3)."

Unlike Buddhist monks, they did not carry begging bowls, and their benefactors did not attain merits for their next life by alms-giving or robes-offering. Crossan makes an important point here: What is at issue in this complex of the Jesus tradition is not alms-giving but an open table, "open commensality," in multicultural, anthropological terms.4 Crossan views that commensality, that is, the decisions about what, where, when and, above all, with whom we eat, as making a little map of our social distinctions and hierarchies. Jesus, by saying the above words to his disciples, profoundly rejected this cartography of discrimination; instead, he advocates an open commensality.

Therefore, the missionaries do not beg for alms, food, clothing or anything else. They share a miracle and a Kingdom, and they receive, in turn, a table and a house. Here is the heart of the original Jesus movement: a shared egalitarianism of spiritual and material resources where materiality and spirituality, factuality and symbolism, cannot be separated.5

On the religio-political level, Jesus’ open healing was a challenge to legal prohibitions against contact with the sick. In Crossan’s work, "illnesses" are defined as experiences of disvalued changes in states of being and in social function while diseases, in the scientific paradigm of modern medicine, are abnormalities in the structure and function of body organs and systems.6 Mark 1:40-45 illustrates the story about Jesus and the leper. However, Crossan argues, if we read the passage in biomedical terms, Jesus cured the disease known as elephas in the Greco-Roman world. Crossan also argues that "sara’at" in Hebrew or "lepra" in Greek is often mistakenly translated as our modern leprosy. Crossan believes that Jesus and his followers healed illness, but they never cured disease.7

Whatever the actual disease, the illness was in the separation of a person from their family and village - a fate close to death in the ancient Mediterranean world of face-to-face culture. Instead of staying separate from the sick person, Jesus touched him and healed his illness. By so doing, Jesus refuses to accept the official restraints and confronted others with a challenge and a choice. Crossan contends that Jesus’ open healing actions made extremely subversive claims about the authority of local government.

In summary, Jesus, in breaking the law of his society, was teaching the principles of religious and economic egalitarianism and the rule of God. Jesus deliberately united magic and meal, miracle and table, free compassion and open commensality. This was a challenge not only to Jewish purity regulations but also to the Mediterranean’s patriarchal culture.8 Thus, Jesus’ life was as unacceptable in the first century as it would be in practice today. Crossan concludes that the cause of Jesus’ death, therefore, can be found in his provocative life rather than in one specific event immediately preceding his death.9

Jesus’ Struggle against the Divinities of Death

An overall analysis of Jon Sobrino’s work finds that the cause of Jesus’ struggle indicates the true divinity in him. The distinction between true divinity and false divinity can be simply stated: there is only one true divinity and others are false; true divinity is a living God who gives life while others are not living and do not give life.10 However, the deepest aspect of the distinction between true and false divinities is not that simple, for it is found in the genesis of the false divinities. Sobrino affirms this as follows:

"And the creation of divinity by humans - in other words, idolatry - leads historically not just to the absence of life but to death. This historization of idolatry appears in two of the classic passages dealing with it (Wis. 13:4; Rom. 1:18-32): humans become dehumanized and dehumanize others; they themselves go to their death and give death to others. Thus, the final option wherein the problem of true divinity is posed is that between the living God who gives life and the gods who are not such and whose invocation leads to death. Hence, idolatry is not just an intellectual mistake but the choice of death and the fruits of death."11

Two points from the true divinity of Jesus worsened Jesus’ struggle and finally caused his death. First, Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom of God had a preferential option for the poor and the oppressed. Sobrino also explains that much of Jesus’ public ministry was aimed at unmasking false divinities by announcing the Good News of the Kingdom of God, a Kingdom of life for everyone. In its ultimate essence, that Kingdom is nothing but a full life in which everyone can participate. However, Jesus announced life first to those who had it least. God has a preferential option for the poor because they have been deprived of life for centuries. Jesus’ proclamation is partial, and that partiality was what caused a scandal (Matt. 11:6; Luke 7:23).12 The proclamation that life is offered to the poor and that God’s salvation is directed to them and, furthermore, "only to the poor" is what caused a scandal among powerful minorities and what brought about the persecution of Jesus.13

Second, Jesus did not prioritize the bread of life above earthly bread. In other words, for Jesus, these two concepts are not opposed: bread, food, is only one element of life, but it is the symbol of all life. The disciples’ hunger and their taking of another’s food to satisfy it is strictly a human matter, not a religious problem. Jesus asserts that in the case of need every law must give way to a vital need. The logion of the Sabbath would become generalized later, for human beings cannot be dehumanized in the name of religious laws. Thus, bread and food are primary mediations of the reality of God. This was revealed in Jesus’ ministry of eating with publicans and the feeding of the multitudes.14 Sobrino’s point here is consonant with that of Crossan, which asserts that Jesus’ open commensality is the practice of the presence of God. Furthermore, Sobrino, as a Latin American liberation theologian, did not forget the materiality of God’s salvation. This is why he insists that we must ask for bread and why we pluck grain from another’s field in order to satisfy hunger. However, he argues that logically and, in principle, one can understand the God of Jesus only from the positive horizon. God is a fathomless mystery, and our attempts to conceptualize him must not lose sight of this basic truth.15

In the process of Jesus’ ministry, Jesus set his activity more and more within a context of position-making, as attested to by the many controversies. The main core of the controversies is the breaking of accepted social norms: fasting, respecting private property and avoiding the company of sinners. Other controversies are related to miracles -the powers of healing and exorcism.

What caused Jesus and his disciples to be accused of wrongdoing was as follows: first, Jesus declared that he had the power not only to heal but also to forgive sins; second, Jesus worked on the Sabbath, for Jesus cured the man with the withered hand on the Sabbath, and the Pharisees conspired with the Herodians to find a way to eliminate him as a result (Mark 3:6).

Synoptic parallels obviously attested to the fact that malicious plots against Jesus were mounting even before Judas’ betrayal. However, Sobrino also argues, as Helmut Koester does in his Jesus the Victim, that the Synoptic Gospels tend to transfer the ultimate blame for Jesus’ death to the Jews and their leaders, not to Pilate. Nevertheless, Jesus died on the cross as a political criminal and by the type of death that only the Romans, the political authority of the time, could enjoin. 16 Koester simply calls Jesus the victim of this world and its political powers. Still, the portrait of the great human or even superhuman personality itself belonged to the world that killed Jesus. 17 Ironically, Sobrino discovered from an analysis of the historical fact of Jesus’ death that he was killed "in the name of God": Jesus was killed by those who wrongly invoked the name of God. Sobrino explains:

"The politico-religious trial of Jesus clearly demarcates alternative divinities: either the Kingdom of God, on the one hand, or the Jewish theocracy or Pax Romana, on the other. The divinities that are not the Father of Jesus are not only false but lethal. The mediator of the true God is killed in the name of the false divinities."18

Jesus’ Resurrection: A Historical Event or a Symbol?

According to Elaine Pagels, three points are disputed over the issue of Jesus’ resurrection between Orthodox Christians and Gnostic. Christians: first, who was the first acceptable witness; second, how could one experience the presence of the risen Christ; third, what is the function of the doctrine of the Resurrection for both Orthodox and Gnostic Christians?

First, Hans von Campenhausen insists that, because Peter was the first person Jesus appeared to after his resurrection, Peter became the first leader of the Christian community.19 Luke’s theory Supports Peter as the first witness while the Gospels of Mark and John named Mary Magdalene as the first witness of the Resurrection. However, Orthodox churches developed the tradition in which Peter had been the rightful leader of the Church and that tradition is sustained to this day among Catholic and some Protestant churches. Most Korean Protestant churches, except a few liberal churches, follow this tradition.

Whoever was the first witness of the risen Christ should be the rightful leader of the early Christian church. Pagels explains that the first must be the one who knew "the twelve" and acted as a spokesman for the Jesus group. Thus, Peter won, and Mary Magdalene lost her chance to be the rightful and official leader of the Church. Pagels adds that the Gnostic Christians rejected Luke’s theory: the Gnostic gospels recall traditions recorded in Mark and John that Mary Magdalene was the first to see the risen Christ. Pagels juxtaposes Peter, who apparently represents the Orthodox position, looks to past events, and is suspicious of those who "see the Lord" in visions against Mary, who represents the Gnostic and claims to experience his continuing presence.

Second, some Gnostic Christians hold the view that the Resurrection is the "faith of fools."20 They insist that it was not a unique historical event; instead, it symbolized how Christ’s presence could be experienced in the present. Pagels points out that what mattered was not literal seeing but spiritual vision. She adds that true disciples may never have seen the early Christ, having been born at the wrong time, as Paul said of himself.

In the gospel of Mary, one of the Gnostic texts before Nag Hammadi, the Resurrection appears as visions received in dreams or in an ecstatic trance.21 Mary Magdalene in the gospel asked the Lord, "How does he who sees the vision see it?"22 Jesus answered that the visionary perceives through the mind. Another Gnostic text, the apocalypse of Peter, tells how Peter saw Christ: Christ explained to Peter that "I am the intellectual spirit filled with radiant light." Pagels adds that Gnostic accounts often mention how the recipients responded to Christ’s presence with intense emotions - terror, awe, distress and joy. She cites the text from the gospel of Philip that ignorant Christians take the Resurrection literally; instead, they must "receive the Resurrection while they live."23

In Paul’s experience of the presence of Christ, he said that "he was caught up to the third heaven -whether the body or out of the body I do not know." Through Paul’s communication with Christ, he said that he discovered "hidden mysteries."24 However, Rudolf Bultman insists that Paul did not mean to have a secret Gnostic tradition.

Another debate of this issue is shown as the following: a Gnostic teacher, Theodotus, says that each person recognizes the Lord in his or her own way, not all are alike. On the contrary, an Orthodox leader, Irenaeus, accused the Gnostics of fraud. He declared that the Gnostic gospels are the source book for heretics, and they were trying to pass off as "apostolic" what they themselves had invented. He claims that "they really have no gospel which is not full of blasphemy."25

The gospel of Mary illustrates an argument between Peter and Mary when Mary gave her experience of the presence of the risen Christ. Peter and Andrew did not want to accept what Mary said to them. Mary argued, "Peter, you have always been hot-tempered... .If the Savior made her worthy, who are you to reject her ?"26 Pagels says that Mary - vindicated - finally joins the other apostles as they go out to preach.

Third, all Christians agreed in principle that only Christ himself -or God - can be the ultimate source of spiritual authority. Pagels, however, raises a question: Who in the present administers that authority? Valentinus, a Gnostic teacher, says that whoever comes into direct personal contact with the "living one" can administer authority.27 The Gnostics celebrated every form of creative invention as evidence that a person has become spiritually alive. On this theory, Valentinus insists that the structure of authority can never be fixed into an institutional framework: it must remain spontaneous, charismatic and open. However, I argue that such ideals of Gnostic tradition also produced charismatic spiritual leaders who are often seen as problematic in our time.

Pagels concludes that the doctrine of bodily resurrection serves an essential political function: it legitimizes the authority of certain men who claim to exercise exclusive leadership over the churches as the successors of the apostle Peter. From the second century, the doctrine served to validate the apostolic succession of bishops, which is the basis of papal authority to this day. Gnostic Christians who interpret Resurrection in other ways have a lesser claim to authority. Pagels stresses that, when they claim priority over the orthodox, they are denounced as heretics.


After Jesus’ death, his followers had to answer the question, Who was this man? Crossan says that he was a Mediterranean Jewish peasant whose lifestyle was like a wandering beggar. Sobrino argues that he was the true God who struggled against false divinities. Pagels concludes that he was the man whose bodily resurrection invokes numerous disputes.

No matter how these three scholars define Jesus, their efforts will be woven together to help to reconstruct the image of the historical Jesus. They use the early Christian sources and Gospels, including Gnostic texts, extensively. Their main tasks were to historically reconstruct and interpret Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom of God or Rule of God in light of the first century in which Jesus lived.

As Ernest Kasemann asserts, for those who are inclined to disregard the Christian kerygma and want to directly study the historical Jesus, the search will produce anything but an artificial justification for their cause, however worthy. He also rejects unequivocally studies about the life of Jesus.

In conclusion, after the Nag Hammadi discovery, we have considerable sources about and knowledge of the historical Jesus. As Crossan found in his study, Jesus’ particular open commensality and open healing were the concrete program of the Reign of God. Jesus’ message was accompanied by actual social practice that always served the poor, the oppressed and the sick. The principle of God’s Reign in an ancient Jewish peasant village broke the boundaries which were built, patrolled and controlled by the rich minorities or the Roman authority. His social program was neither about charity nor the generous giving of alms: it was strictly grassroots-oriented egalitarianism. A triple politico-religio-economic egalitarianism was sought by the historical Jesus, although he never achieved it in his time.

Lastly, if the Orthodox Christian churches employ the doctrine of Jesus’ bodily resurrection for the purpose of succession of the apostolic authorities, in Sobrino’s words, they are searching for false gods which are not life-giving. Their apostolic supremacy may also dehumanize other church groups, such as women. As long as Orthodox priests keep the spirit of the first witness of Jesus’ resurrection, there will be no religio-politico, economic egalitarianism among Christians.

Perhaps the theologians were not unlike the historical Jesus who broke the laws of his community in order to make the message of egalitarianism known. I bitterly admit, no matter how we depict the image of Jesus Christ - historically or theologically, bodily or spiritually - that he was not victorious in his struggle against this world. Accordingly, I raise a question about the historical Jesus: Why do Christians follow a man who was defeated by this world?

God asks, "Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty? Anyone who argues with God must respond."

Job answered, "I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth (Job 40:2-3)."


  1. John Dominic Crossan, "The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant," The Christian Century, December 1991, p. 1195.

  2. Ibid.

  3. Ibid.

  4. Ibid.

  5. Ibid.

  6. Ibid.,p. 1196.

  7. Ibid.,p. 1197.

  8. Ibid.

  9. Ibid.,p. 1198.

  10. Jon Sobrino, "The Epiphany of the God of Life in Jesus of Nazareth," The Idols of Death and the God of Life, by G. V. Araya et al. (New York: Orbis, no date) p. 66.

  11. Ibid., p. 67.

  12. Ibid., p. 76.

  13. Ibid.

  14. Ibid., p. 73.

  15. Ibid., p. 74.

  16. Ibid., p. 88.

  17. Helmut Koester, "Jesus the Vi& tim," Journal of Biblical Literature 11/1, 1991, p. 13.

  18. Sobrino, op. cit.

  19. Hans von Campenhausen, Ecclesiastical Authority and Spiritual Power, translated by J. A. Baker (London, 1969) p. 17.

  20. Origen, "Commentarium in 1Corinthians," Journal of Theological Studies 10, 1909, pp. 46-47.

  21. Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels (New York: Vintage Books 1989) p. 11.

  22. Ibid. (see gospel of Mary, 10.17- 21, in Nag Hammadi Library 472).

  23. Ibid., p. 12 (see gospel of Philip 73.1-3, in Nag Hammadi Library 144).

  24. Ibid., p. 15.

  25. Ibid., p. 13 (see gospel of Mary 18.1-12, in Nag Hammadi Library 473).

  26. Ibid., p. 17 (see Irenaeus, Libros Quingue Adverus Haereses [AH] 3.11.9).

  27. Ibid., p. 25.