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The Mysterious Disappearance of Jesus and the Origin of Christianity

By: Dr. Ahmad Shafaat

(1997)


 

Part II

EARLIEST TRADITIONS ABOUT JESUS' FATE AND HIS PERSON

 

Chapter 5

TRADITION OF JESUS' DISAPPEARANCE

(HIDING/EXILE)

This chapter presents:

a) sayings of Jesus in which he himself talks about his disappearance;
b) some parables that also suggest Jesus' disappearance;
c) interpretation of the sayings and parables about disappearance as misunderstood figurative speech;
d) some quite compelling indirect evidence of the existence of the tradition of Jesus' disappearance provided by some puzzling facts that are extremely difficult to explain without assuming the existence of such a tradition; and
e) consideration of some questions about the disappearance such as the question: How far Jesus anticipated the effect of his disappearance on his movement.

 

Sayings about disappearance

Considering the fact that the Christian tradition is dominated by the proclamation of his death and resurrection, it is remarkable that some sayings have survived in which Jesus himself talks about his planned disappearance. These sayings, although not given due attention by scholars, no doubt because of their unquestioning commitment to the historicity of Jesus' execution, constitute one of the most well-documented traditions about Jesus.

In Mark Jesus tells his disciples during the last supper:

Truly I say unto you, I will no more drink of the fruit of the vine, until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God (14:25=Matt. 26:29=Luke 22:18).

This is a separate saying, spoken in the context of a supper, as Mark tells us. We who know well the passion narratives immediately conclude that here Jesus is talking about his death: Since Jesus is about to be crucified, he sadly notes that the cup of wine he is about to drink is his last until the coming of the kingdom of God. But read separately, only with the context of the last supper in mind, these words can be understood to refer to Jesus' planned disappearance: Having decided to discontinue his mission and depart from his disciples, he tells them that he will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until the coming of the kingdom of God. It is noteworthy that Jesus does not say that he will not eat bread again but only that he will not drink wine again. In Palestine only the very rich could afford wine at every meal; others drank wine only on special religious or social occasions. Although Jesus was sometimes hosted by rich people such as the tax collectors when he drank wine (Matt 11:19=Luke 7:34 (Q)), at other times he had to go without a roof on his head (Matt 8:20 = Luke 9:58 (Q)). It is therefore very likely that he drank wine only on social or religious occasions. A little before his disappearance he evidently did not expect to have any of the two types of occasions for drinking wine. But he did have a simple meal of bread and fish with a multitude in Galilee before his disappearance (Ch. 28).

The reference to Jesus' disappearance becomes unmistakable in his "lament over Jerusalem" in Q:

O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, which kills the prophets, which kills the prophets, and stones them that are sent unto her! how often sent unto her! how often would I have gathered your children together, even as a hen gathers her chickens under her wings, and you would not! Behold, your house is left unto you desolate. For I say unto you, You shall not see me not see me henceforth, till you shall say, Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord (Matt 23:37-39).

O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, which kills the prophets, and stones them that are sent unto her! how often would I have gathered your children together, even as a hen gathers her own brood under her wings, and you would not! Behold, your house is left unto you: and I say unto you, You shall not see me, until you shall say, Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord (Luke 13:34-35).

(The word "desolate" in Matt 23:38, not found in the Lukan version, is also omitted from Matthew by some ancient authorities. It is in all likelihood an addition reflecting the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E.)

The words "blessed is he ..." come from Psalms 118:26, a text widely used in first-century Judaism to refer to the consummation of Israel's hope of the establishment of God's kingdom, and as such was an important feature of the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles. Closely associated in the liturgy for this feast was Zech 14, where the judgment of God on the nation and its chief city, as well as the appearance of God in the midst of his people, are announced. (See Kee, Jesus in History, pp. 82, 100; and Barnabas Lindars, New Testament Apologetic, pp. 172-173). So Jesus is probably saying here that he will remain in hiding until the coming of the kingdom of God.

In the gospel account of Jesus' entry in Jerusalem people sing Psalms 118:26, suggesting that the entry is taking place on the Feast of Tabernacles. However, the entry is said to be taking place at the time of Passover feast. Perhaps, tradition made an attempt to fulfill the words of Jesus recorded in the above passage from Q, taking Jesus' only trip to Jerusalem at Passover time as the fulfillment of those words.

The reference to a hen gathering her brood under her wings perhaps makes better sense if the first part of the above passage (Matt 23:37=Luke 13:34) is spoken by wisdom rather than Jesus, since in wisdom mythology wisdom seeks a place to dwell and finds such a place in Jerusalem (Sirach 24), which leads to the further myth that wisdom could not continue to reside in Jerusalem because of the violence done to her messengers. But the second part of the passage does not fit with the identification of the speaker with wisdom. It seems that two separate sayings, one spoken by wisdom and the other by Jesus, have been combined. The possibility is increased by the observation that in another Q saying (Matt 23:34-36=Luke 11:49-51) wisdom also talks about the killing of the prophets and her words merge into those of Jesus; indeed, in contrast to more original version in Luke, where at least part of the passage is spoken by wisdom, Matthew attributes the whole passage to Jesus. Something similar could have easily happened at an earlier stage, reflecting the view that there is no real difference between what wisdom says and what her messenger (Jesus) says.

In addition to Mark and Q, the sayings of Jesus about the disappearance are also found in John and Thomas. In John we find the following sayings:

Yet a little while am I with you, and I go unto him who sent me. You shall seek me, and shall not find me: and where I am, you cannot come (7:33-34, cf. 13:33).

I go away, and you shall seek me, and die in your sin: whither I go you cannot come (8:21).

A little while, and you see me no more; and again a little while, and you shall see me (16:16). (Cf. Q: "You shall not see me henceforth, until ...").

The Gospel of Thomas, which never refers to the death of Jesus, nevertheless records a saying similar to the above saying from John:

The days will come when you will seek me but will not find me (Logion 38).

Both the Fourth Gospel and the Gospel of Thomas use the received sayings for their own purposes and therefore often modify them. But comparing various forms quoted above shows the following to be parts of some very early sayings tradition, although complete sayings in their original forms seem difficult to reconstruct:

You see me no more...

You shall seek me, and shall not find me.

The reference to Jesus' disappearance cannot be clearer. Such disappearance is also the ultimate basis of the following saying in the Gospel of Thomas:

The disciples said to Jesus: We know that you will go from us. Who is he who shall be great over us? (Thomas 12)

The disciples want to know who will be their head when, as they know, Jesus will "go from us". The expression does not suggest a departure through death but through a journey that will keep Jesus away from the disciples, at least for some time.

Thus four of our earliest independent sources (Mark, Q, John and Thomas) contain sayings of Jesus that in their more original form can be naturally understood as referring to the disappearance of Jesus. There are few traditions that have better attestation in the entire extant Jesus tradition. Certainly, the disappearance is better attested than the crucifixion (mentioned or narrated by Mark, John and Paul) even when we discount the fact that Paul is not expected to refer to any tradition of disappearance since he rarely concerns himself with anything about the earthly Jesus except his death and resurrection.

 

Parables of a man departing and returning

Gospels frequently use the parable of a man going on a journey and then returning to see how his slaves performed their duties in his absence. Such parables are found in Mark, Q, the material unique to Luke and possibly the material unique to Matthew. In Mark, Jesus says about his return:

Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch (Mark 13:33-34).

In Q Jesus tells of a man who went to another country, giving his servants some of his money. When he returns, the servants come to him and tell him what they did with his money. Those who wisely invested the money to earn an equal amount as profit were rewarded by him by still more money while one of them who simply hid the money for himself was punished by the money having been taken from him (Matt 25:14-30=Luke 19:11-27). See also Matt 24:45-51=Luke 12:42-46, where a slave is put in charge of a household by the master whose treatment of the slave would depend on whether he finds him faithful or unfaithful. Here the journey of the master is not explicitly mentioned but may be assumed.

In Luke 12:35-36 we read:

Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks.

See also the parable of the ten bridesmaids in Matt 25:1-13. However, this parable does not talk of the return of the bridegroom but only of his coming. It is therefore possible to take the bridegroom as originally God, since in Judaism Israel was regarded as the bride of God and hence God as the bridegroom. But it is probable that for Matthew the bridegroom is Jesus himself and his coming is the parousia of Jesus as the Messiah.

Most, if not all, of these parables might have been created in the early church to exhort believers as they waited for the parousia. They are best understood if we assume a situation in which Jesus has gone to exile and would soon return. For they provide no hint that the returning master was put to death. Contrast these parables with the parable of the wicked tenants (Mark 12:1-12), where the master's son is killed but there is no indication of his return: the punishment on the tenants is inflicted by the master and not the son. It is possible that this last parable is authentic, in which case the murdered son is probably John the Baptist (Ch. 1). But if, like some of the parables of the returning master, it is a creation of the church, then it is significant that the parables which talk of the return do not talk about killing and the one parable which talks of killing does not talk about the return. In the event that the parable of the wicked tenants is a creation of the church, it probably goes back to Stephenite Hellenists who often talked about the killing of the prophets and of Jesus the Righteous One by the Jews (Acts 7:57) and who did not believe in the resurrection, messiahship or return of Jesus (Chs. 2-3).

 

Sayings about disappearance as misunderstood figurative speech

Jesus' references to his disappearance were soon understood in the light of the traditions of Jesus' execution and resurrection and/or ascension. This was done by modifying their contents and contexts and also by viewing them as "figurative talk", that is, by the theory that when Jesus was talking about his disappearance he was talking in parables or figures to refer to his death or ascension or death and resurrection. This becomes clear from two passages from Mark and John:

And he began to teach them, that the Son of Man must suffer many things, and ... after three days rise again. And he spoke the word plainly (Mark 8:31-32).

[Jesus said:] "I came from the Father and am come into the world: again, I leave the world, and go unto the Father." His disciples say, Lo, now you are speaking plainly, not in figures (John 16:28-29).

The above passages from Mark and John do not agree in their understanding of how Jesus departed: in Mark Jesus dies and then rises again after three days while in John he simply ascends to the Father with no mention whatsoever of any death. But they both describe their interpretation as "plain" using the same Greek word (parrhesia), assuming an earlier reference to the manner of Jesus' departure which was in figures or in parable form. In John the reference to the use of figurative, incomprehensible speech is explicit in the above passage but also present in 16:18, where the disciples show bewilderment at Jesus' words about his disappearance and re-appearance in a little while:

What is this that he says, A little while? We know not what he says.

It would seem that the "figurative speech" is Jesus' original references to his disappearance while "plain speech" is later understanding of the manner of Jesus' departure put in the mouth of Jesus. Jesus talked about his planned disappearance, probably in somewhat ambiguous way because he might not have made a completely final decision at the time or he found it harmful to fully reveal his plan. These ambiguous references were understood as "figurative". It is also possible, though less likely, that when the tradition regarded Jesus' talk about his departure as "figurative" it referred to the earlier parables of the man going on a journey and then returning (see above) which may or may not go back to Jesus. In any case, this "figurative" talk was understood as a veiled reference to his death and resurrection or to his ascension which the disciples were thought not to have understood. Later, however, Jesus' talk of his planned disappearance was replaced by clear predictions of his death and resurrection, as in Mark, or of his ascension, as in John.

In Mark the disciples even do not understand Jesus' plain talk about his death and resurrection. Thus after recording the second prediction of Jesus' death and resurrection, spoken as "plainly" as the first, Mark adds:

But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask (Mark 9:32).

This lack of understanding on the part of the disciples of an extremely straightforward prediction delivered a second time becomes understandable if we recall that some at least of the disciples had grave reservations about the whole story of Jesus' death and resurrection, which conflicted with some of the facts known to them. This reservation on the part of the disciples was attributed to their lack of understanding. In this way Mark has applied the earlier idea that Jesus' talk of his disappearance was misunderstood to very explicit predictions of his death and resurrection and put it to a new use.

In contrast to Mark, in John the disciples fully understand when Jesus explains his disappearance in terms of an ascension (16:29-30). Also, in John Jesus does not predict his death and resurrection, at least not in the same explicit terms as in Mark. Only after two of them visit the empty tomb do they come to understand that Jesus was to die and rise again (20:9). Thus behind John there seem to be two conflicting layers of traditions. In one tradition, representing an earlier layer, Jesus' talk of not being seen in a little while was understood as a reference only to his ascension, while in another tradition, belonging to a later layer and consisting mostly of the passion and resurrection narratives, the belief in Jesus' death and resurrection was introduced. It seems that earlier sources of John other than the source for the passion and resurrection narratives did not refer to Jesus' death and resurrection, although such a reference entered the discourses during successive editing, as in John 10:17-18. Even in the present edition of John, as a rule we find separate mention of the death and the ascension and the two concepts are generally not combined to produce the idea of resurrection except in the passion and resurrection narratives. When the two concepts are combined this is done by the ambiguous expression "lifted up" (3:14, 8:28, 12:32, 34) which in John has the effect of making the death and the ascension a composite event but which originally may have referred only to ascension or glorification as in Isaiah 52:13 (Ch. 14). A synoptic-type sequence of death, burial and resurrection/ascension appears in John only in the passion and resurrection narratives, as is also admitted in the comment in John 20:19.

 

Other evidence

Because of the extensive use of creativity in the formation of the Christian traditions (Ch. 4), much of the evidence for any construction of the events of Jesus' life and his end and the earliest history of the church can only be indirect: we find hypotheses that provide plausible and comprehensive explanation of the available sources and construct history from such hypotheses and explanations as far as possible. We have already shown how some facts find a better explanation on the basis of the disappearance of Jesus. Thus we saw in Ch. 1 that if we assume that Jesus anticipated danger to his life in Jerusalem and that he had some plan to escape from it without harm, we can explain why he avoided larger urban centers in Galilee and traveled constantly. If we further assume that Jesus was actually successful in avoiding any harm to himself by escaping from Jerusalem and then vanishing from Galilee, we can also explain why it is so difficult to make any sense of the crucifixion story in the gospels. In Chs. 2-3 we presented some evidence that at least in the beginning some of Jesus' Galilean followers and relatives did not believe in the execution of Jesus while the Jerusalem Hellenists led by Stephen made his execution the center of their message but they did not believe in his resurrection and messiahship. This would be almost impossible if the execution of Jesus was a fact.

 

SOLUTION OF SOME GOSPEL MYSTERIES

I will now present some further evidence showing the very early existence of traditions, according to which Jesus escaped from his enemies and managed to leave Jerusalem and return to Galilee, from where he disappeared. The evidence consists of an explanation, on the basis of Jesus' disappearance, of some puzzling facts about the gospel tradition, which are otherwise very difficult to explain:

** In Mark Jesus goes to Jerusalem only once towards the end of his ministry but in John he makes several trips. How could tradition be so confused as to whether Jesus went to Jerusalem once or more frequently?

** In the synoptic gospels Jesus confronts the temple traders in the very last days of his life while in John the incident takes place in the very first days of his ministry. How could tradition fail to distinguish between the beginning and end of the ministry or how could gospel writers gain such freedom in handling tradition that they could at will move events from one end to the other?

** There are some stories that can be found in tradition either before or after the death of Jesus. Thus it is widely held that the transfiguration story, now set by the gospels in the ministry, was originally a resurrection or ascension story, that is, took place after the conclusion of the ministry. Similarly, the miraculous catch of fish is found in John 21 after the death (i.e. as a resurrection story) while in Luke it appears at the beginning of the ministry. How is it possible that tradition could be so confused as to be unable to distinguish between what came before death and what came after?

** Mark describes the empty tomb where an angel tells the women that Jesus would see his brothers in Galilee but no appearances of Jesus are described in Galilee or anywhere else. How could a gospel firmly committed to the belief in a dying and rising Messiah end in this way?

** Matthew describes only one resurrection appearance to the disciples and this takes place in Galilee. Luke, however, expressly denies that any appearances took place in Galilee and consequently describes only appearances in or near Jerusalem. John describes appearances to the disciples both in Jerusalem and in Galilee. How could the evangelists differ so radically about the location of an event which is supposed to be the founding event of the church? The question remains even after the recognition of the fact that Luke is interested in showing that the church began in Jerusalem under the leadership of the twelve. This recognition only changes the form of the question: How could tradition be so uncertain about the location of the resurrection appearances that a writer could so easily reject what appears to be an earlier tradition in order to serve his purpose and then be accepted by the mainstream church?

These and many other puzzles begin to find explanation if we think in terms of two conflicting primitive sequences of Jesus' movements between Galilee and Judea and two conflicting views of his fate.

 

Sequence 1 (J1G1J2G2)

1. Jesus is baptized in Judea (J1)

2. he goes to Galilee (G1)

3. he travels to Jerusalem where he has a confrontation with temple traders (J2)

4. he returns to Galilee after escaping his enemies, meets some people and then disappears for good or ascends to heaven (G2).

 

Sequence 2 (J1G1J2D)

 

1. Jesus is baptized in Judea (J1)

2. he goes to Galilee (G1)

3. he travels to Jerusalem where he has a confrontation with temple traders (J2)

4. he is executed by his enemies in Jerusalem (D)

The two sequences are identical except in the last crucial step. One sequence ends with Jesus returning to Galilee and his disappearance, understood as exile or ascension, while the other sequence ends in Jerusalem with the death.

Now suppose that Jesus' execution is a mistaken interpretation of Jesus' disappearance. Imagine that the two sequences are combined in tradition. This could be done in a number ways. The crucial question for the tradition would be where to fit the death (D) in relation to the last Galilean stay (G2) in the first sequence. There are a number of possibilities, almost all of which are realized in tradition.

Possibility 1. One could postulate that the death takes place at the end of sequence 1 giving us the sequence: J1G1J2G2D. This sequence which implies that the execution took place in Galilee would have to assume that the execution was done by Herod. There are indeed traditions going back to very early times, according to which Jesus was executed by Herod (Ch. 6).

However, under the influence of the much stronger tradition that Jesus was executed in Jerusalem, generally one would want to keep D after a J. This could be done in three ways.

Possibility 2. D moves with J2 leaving G2 at the end: J1G1J2DG2. In this case the events that take place in Galilee at the end of the ministry become post-resurrectional events. This possibility is realized in John 21 and Matt 28:16-20, where events that took place after Jesus' return to Galilee have become resurrection stories. In Ch. 28 we will identify these events as a meeting of Jesus with Peter and possibly other disciples near the sea of Galilee, the feeding of a multitude of people, and an assembly on a mountain and see how this enables us to explain the resurrection stories.

Possibility 3. Another possibility is that one transposes G2 and J2, so that J2 moves just before D at the end, giving the sequence J1G1G2J2D, which we can write as J1GJ2D by combining G1, G2 into a single G. In this case we would have one long ministry in Galilee followed by a fatal trip to Jerusalem. There would be no resurrection stories, since the events that formed the basis of such stories have moved into the Galilean ministry. This possibility is realized in Mark and explains why in Mark there are no resurrection appearances.

Possibility 4. One could arrive at a completely different scenario by leaving sequence 1 intact and putting not just D but JD at the end. That is, Jesus is brought to Jerusalem a second time to die, ensuring in this way that he dies in Jerusalem. This would give the sequence: J1G1J2G2J3D. This possibility is realized in the earliest edition of John and also in the Christian interpolation in the Old Russian version of Josephus' Jewish War. In this case some of the events that become resurrectional stories in case 2 will be again seen as events in Jesus' ministry.

That in the earliest edition of John the sequence was J1G1J2G2J3D may be seen as follows: In John 4:54 we are told that Jesus is in Galilee. In the next verse (5:1) we are told that he went to Jerusalem because there was a festival of the Jews. We are never told in John 5 that Jesus returned to Galilee but in 6:1 it is said: "After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee." This shows that John 5 is an insertion at a later stage or at least 5:1 is a later editorial connection made in order to place the healing on the sabbath in Jerusalem. If we ignore 5:1 the sequence in John becomes:

1) John 1:1-42 -- Jesus is in Judea where the Baptist testifies about him (J1)

2) John 1:43-2:12 -- he is in Galilee where he gathers some prominent disciples and performs a miracle (G1)

3) John 2:13-3:36 -- he is in Jerusalem where he has a confrontation with the temple traders (J2)

4) John 4:1-7:9 -- he is on the way to Galilee or in Galilee, where he feeds a multitude (G2)

5) John 7:10-19:37 Jesus is in Jerusalem or Judea or nearby (11:6-7, 54) and is finally executed in Jerusalem (J3D).

In the light of the sequence J1G1J2G2J3D in John and J1GJ2D in Mark we can now also see how the confrontation with the traders happens to be found at the beginning of John and at the end of Mark, especially if we take into account the tendency in John to put in Jerusalem stories that earlier tradition placed in Galilee and/or an opposite tendency in Mark. In John the first Galilean stay (G1) has shortened and the last, fictitious, Jerusalem stay (J3) has lengthened. This pulls the second, historical, stay in Jerusalem (J2) towards the beginning. Since it is in J2 that the confrontation with the temple traders takes place, this incident in the temple moves to a very early stage in the ministry as J2 is pulled towards the beginning by the lengthening of J3 and the shortening of G1. In Mark, on the other hand, the two Galilean periods have not only been combined but also have probably been expanded, while the trip to Jerusalem during which the temple incident takes place is possibly shortened. As a result, in Mark J2 and hence the incident in the temple moves towards the end of the ministry.

It is significant that each time Jesus travels to Jerusalem in John he does so on the occasion of a feast, performs a miracle, preaches to the Jews who get offended and seek to kill him and each time he hides himself and leaves Jerusalem. Thus in John 5 we are told that "there was a feast of the Jews" when Jesus went to Jerusalem. There he healed on a Sabbath day a man who was sick for 38 years. Because of this healing and because of his subsequent speech the Jews want to kill him (5:16,18) and he departs from Jerusalem and goes to Galilee; although Galilee is not mentioned explicitly as Jesus' destination, it is understood, since he is later found in the Sea of Galilee (6:1). Later, at the time of a feast Jesus again departs for Jerusalem (7:10) and teaches in the temple. His speeches inflame the Jews and they send "officers to take him." But the officers get so impressed by his speech that they do not lay hand on him (7:45-47). This, however, does not end hostilities: Jesus continues to preach causing offence among many of the Jews. At some point some Jews actually pick up stones to cast at him, but he "hid himself and went out of the temple going through the midst of them" (8:59). As he passed by, he restored the sight of a man born blind, which starts a discourse with the Jews. Finding, as usual, Jesus' words offensive, "they sought again to take him: but he escaped out of their hand. And went away again beyond Jordan in the place where John at first baptized; and there he abode" (10:39-40). Then he is again in Bethany just outside Jerusalem, raising Lazarus from the dead. This time the "chief priests and the Pharisees" get concerned with the popularity he was gaining by his miracles and they decide to kill him. Jesus "walked no more openly with the Jews" and went "unto a country near to the wilderness" into a city called Ephraim (which is of uncertain location) (11:54). All these trips seem to be several replays of the one and the same very early and historical story according to which Jesus goes to Jerusalem, excites hostility there, hides himself and leaves Jerusalem. In actual fact the story concludes with the final disappearance. John, of course, brings his replays of the original story to a close by bringing Jesus to Jerusalem near a feast for one last time to be crucified in order to harmonize with the dominant Christian views of his time. In this process of harmonization the idea of "Jesus' hour" plays an important part: Jesus was destined to die at a definite time at Jesus' own will; before that time his enemies could not kill him and at the arrival of that time he would not try to escape.

It is remarkable that John shows Jesus leaving Jerusalem for Galilee after the so-called "cleansing" of the temple, the one event which can explain the execution and which the synoptic gospels in fact present as one of a series of events directly and quickly leading to it. What is even more remarkable is that John shows Jesus hiding and leaving Jerusalem after a meeting of the Sanhedrin in which the plan to execute Jesus was made. In the synoptic tradition also there is a plot to kill Jesus but that leads to execution in two days, with no room for Jesus to hide and leave Jerusalem and then return.

A scenario similar to the one found in John is also found in a medieval Christian interpolation in an Old Russian version of Josephus' Jewish War:

The miracle-worker was brought before [Pilate], and after he held an inquiry concerning him, he pronounced judgment as follows: "He is a benefactor ..." So he released him ... He went back to his usual place, and did his customary works ...

(interpolated immediately after 2.174).

This account of Jesus' release is followed by an account of a second arrest. This time Pilate crucifies him after accepting a bribe from the Jews, recalling the way Jesus is crucified in John after several escapes from earlier attempts at his life.

The idea that Jesus succeeded in fleeing Jerusalem has been entertained by some scholars. Thus M. Goguel suggests that Jesus went to Jerusalem twice, first at the time of Tabernacles (September or October) and then again at the Passover (April 7, 30 C.E., according to the synoptics or April 3, 33 C.E., according to John) (Life of Jesus, pp. 226, 250-251). He describes the withdrawal of Jesus beyond Jordan (John 10:40-42) as a flight in the face of danger to his life from the Jewish authorities. Jesus had said that he would destroy the temple and build it in three days, which pronounced the end of Judaism. This incited the Jewish authorities with hostility and Jesus was compelled to seek refuge in Perea. It was at that time that Jesus uttered his lament over Jerusalem which killed the prophets, and declared, "You will not see me until you say, Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord" (Matt. 23:37-39= Luke 13:34-35). Jesus hoped that on his return the masses would come out boldly for him, and that thus he would be able to brave the opposition of the priests (The Life of Jesus, p. 423). Things, however, did not go as expected and Jesus was crucified when he returned to Jerusalem a week before the Passover.

This suggestion has several difficulties. First, the synoptic gospels and John agree that the saying about the temple was spoken when Jesus went to Jerusalem "near the Passover," whereas according to Goguel's suggestion this occurred at the time of Tabernacles. Second, the suggestion does not adequately explain why all the synoptic gospels mention only one trip by Jesus to Jerusalem. It is very difficult to think of any reasons why the synoptic writers would all be ignorant of a second trip to Jerusalem or want to suppress such a trip. After all, the synoptic gospels could handle such embarrassing facts as Jesus' submission to John for the baptism of forgiveness of sins. A flight from Jerusalem followed by a fatal return does not appear to be a particularly difficult fact to deal with. The evangelists could, for example, easily find scriptures to fulfill the flight. Third, even if it was realistic for Jesus to expect support from the masses after his experience with them in Galilee, coming out of the masses in support of a leader can help leaders in the twentieth century but in the first-century Palestine it would have brought upon both Jesus and the masses the wrath of the mighty Romans and their Jewish allies.

These difficulties, however, do not mean that John is necessarily unhistorical when it tells us that Jesus hid himself and left Jerusalem after the plot to kill him, since if the confrontation with the temple traders and the plot to kill Jesus was known to lead to Jesus' execution, then there is as little reason for the Johannine tradition to invent the flight from Jerusalem as for the synoptic gospels to suppress a second trip. Jesus' hiding and fleeing actually runs counter to the view of Jesus in John as the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (1:29), so that John has to devise the theory that Jesus hid himself and ran from Jerusalem because he wanted to submit himself to his death at a particular hour on his own free will. The artificiality of this theory is apparent from the fact that when the hour does come, we are unable to see how and why this particular hour was chosen. It seems to make better sense to assume that Jesus fled from Jerusalem after his one trip at Passover time and never looked back. He had no way to win militarily and, therefore, politically and so he had no choice but to disappear. Thus the synoptic gospels give us the historical truth in relating only one journey by Jesus during his ministry to Jerusalem, near a Passover, while John preserves the equally historical fact that Jesus hid himself and left Jerusalem after his confrontation with the temple traders and the resulting hostility from the authorities. What is unhistorical is the crucifixion which is accommodated in the synoptic gospels by suppressing the flight from Jerusalem and in the Johannine tradition by bringing Jesus back to Jerusalem another time to be killed. This could raise in the mind of some readers the question, If synoptic tradition could not suppress a second trip to Jerusalem and the Johannine tradition could not invent a flight from Jerusalem, then how could they both invent the execution? The answer may be briefly summarized as follows: Neither the belief in Jesus' execution nor the single trip of Jesus to Jerusalem in the synoptic gospels nor his flight from Jerusalem followed by other trip(s) in John is an invention. The creativity in the Jesus tradition sometimes resulted from the need to make sense of partial and at times conflicting information or traditions about Jesus. This began as a spontaneous process of explaining what happened to Jesus when there were very few people, if any, who knew all the necessary facts. One of the results of the process was the belief in the execution of Jesus which was then perpetuated by its use by some Jesus groups to serve their interests. The situation was somewhat different at the time of the writing of the gospels from the situation when the Jesus story first began to be formed and when the belief in Jesus' execution originated. The gospels are not spontaneous productions but careful collections of existing traditions. Nevertheless, the evanglelists also needed to make some sense of the existing traditions known to them which reached them with all their contradictions and ambiguities. In particular, they had to deal to with the following three types of traditions whose mutual relation was not clear:

1. Jesus went to Jerusalem and had a confrontation with the temple traders.

2. He fled from Jerusalem

3. He was executed in Jerusalem.

Mark tried to make sense of these traditions by ignoring the flight from Jerusalem. The first edition of John made sense of them by bringing Jesus another time to Jerusalem to die. Matthew and Luke decided to follow Mark. But now we have to make some sense of the whole Jesus tradition, including the four gospels. The best way to do that seems to be to reject the historicity of the execution. This is possible if we assume Jesus' ministry coming to an end under unknown circumstances, so that the execution becomes a way to make sense of whatever little was known about the last days of his ministry.

To return to the two primitive sequences (J1G1J2G2 and J1G1J2D) and their harmonization, it should be noted that the four ways of harmonization mentioned earlier are only the most elementary possibilities. These could subsequently be combined again in various ways to produce more complex scenarios. Thus Matthew expands Mark, which is based on the sequence J1GJ2D (Possibility 3), with the appearance stories which are ultimately derived from the sequence J1G1J2DG2 (Possibility 2). John also expands the sequence J1G1J2G2J3D (Possibility 4) with the resurrection stories derived from J1G1J2DG2 (Possibility 2). Also, the process by which the events that took place after Jesus' return to Galilee became resurrection appearances is expected to be used differently in different churches. In one place an event taking place after the return to Galilee could be pushed into an earlier stay in Galilee (G1) and could thus become part of the ministry while in another place the same event may remain in the last stay in Galilee (G2) and thus become a resurrectional appearance. Moreover, the same process could also be applied to events that took place in Jerusalem after the Friday sunset when Jesus was supposed to be dead and just before his departure from Jerusalem on the following Sunday morning, thus producing stories of appearances in Jerusalem. In this way, one can easily explain the differences in the traditions of appearances in the various gospels (see Part VI).

It is also relevant to see what happens to the ascension when the death of Jesus enters into picture. In the primitive sequence J1G1J2G2 the ascension, of course, takes place at the end of the second stay in Galilee. When this sequence is modified to incorporate the death of Jesus and the new sequence ends with JD (becoming either J1GJ2D as in Mark or J1G1J2G2J3D as in John) the account of the ascension moves, rather strangely, into the ministry along with the rest of G, producing the story of the transfiguration. The ascension which now takes place after the death in Jerusalem, naturally from a venue in Jerusalem, remains without a narrative account. Both Mark and John lack such an account. With time, however, the account of the ascension in Galilee is shifted to venues in Jerusalem such as the Mount of Olives or Bethany (Luke-Acts) or the tomb (Peter and Codex Bobiensis). But naturally when the modified sequence ends with a G, e.g. as J1G1J2DG2 (Possibility 2), then the original account of Jesus' ascension from Galilee is retained. This is, for example, the case in Acts of Pilate, where three creditable Jews from Galilee testify:

We saw Jesus and his disciples sitting upon the mountain which is called Mamilch. And he said to his disciples: "Go into all the world and preach the gospel ..." And while we were still speaking to his disciples, we saw him taken up in heaven. (XIV.1 (NTA, II, p. 462)

In view of our considerations in Ch. 2, we can actually identify the groups from which the two primitive sequences originated. Primitive sequence 1 (J1G1J2G2) comes from the twelve and/or the relatives of Jesus while primitive sequence 2 (J1G1J2D) originated from the Stephenite Hellenists in Jerusalem.

 

THE MYSTERY OF THE CRUCIFIED MESSIAH

Still further evidence of Jesus' disappearance is provided by the problem of an executed person taken seriously as the Messiah, so as to become the foundational personality of a lasting world-wide religion. The problem arises because "Messiah" is a Jewish concept and the belief in Jesus as the Messiah arose very early among Palestinian Jews and yet within Jewish tradition a crucified Messiah is an unacceptable contradiction in terms, as we also learn from Paul (1 Cor 1:23).

In the whole history of the Jews there is only one case which may be used to explain the belief in the messiahship of Jesus in the face of a firmly established fact of crucifixion: the case of Shabbetai Zevi, the Messiah who converted to Islam. But a closer look at his case reveals that it does not provide a true parallel to early Christianity.

Shabbetai was born in 1626 on the anniversary of the destruction of the Jerusalem temple to a wealthy family with Spanish roots. He was prone to experience periods of depression and withdrawal followed by periods of elation. As a young man he was attracted by the mysticism of Luria. In 1648, the year which Kabbalists had calculated as the year of salvation, he proclaimed himself to be the Messiah. Following Kabbalist thought he sometimes deliberately broke the laws of Moses, e.g., by eating in public foods forbidden by the law. In 1656, the rabbis of his city, Smyrna in Asia Minor, expelled him and he became a wanderer from city to city. In Istanbul he declared the Torah as abrogated and later in Cairo he caused a scandal by marrying a prostitute. In one of his moods of depression, however, he felt that he must have been possessed and in 1662 decided to go to Jerusalem to a young rabbi, Nathan, to be exorcised. Nathan, instead of exorcising the troubled man, confirmed his earlier claims of being the Messiah, explaining that his depression was actually a struggle with the evil powers of the Other Side. Shabbetai's doubts, however, were not dispelled. Only after considerable encouragement by Nathan did Shabbetai return to his messianic mission in 1665. The year of salvation was now set to be 1666, the year fixed for the millennium by Christian visionaries. Although, the rabbis showed a hostile reaction to his claims, many Jews in Palestine accepted the claims. Shabbetai chose twelve disciples to be the judges of the tribes of Israel. Nathan, probably in the role of an Elijah-type forerunner of the Messiah, announced the good news of the arrival of the Messiah by letters to Jews all over the world. The response was overwhelming. There have been many Messianic claimants in Jewish history but none of them received such massive support from the Jews as did Shabbetai. It is, as if, with Nathan's help, Shabbetai had managed to share his elation with the whole Jewish people. So massive was the support for Shabbetai that it became dangerous for any Jew to publicly show reservations about his claims. In the Ottoman empire, prophets began to tell visions of Shabbetai seated on a throne and Sultan's name was replaced by his in the Sabbath prayers. At the beginning of the fateful year 1666 he was arrested as a rebel and imprisoned in Gallipoli. During his imprisonment he became quite close to the Muslims and the vizier provided for him considerable comfort. He continued to communicate with his followers, signing his letters: "I am the Lord your God, Shabbetai Zevi". The charge of rebellion carried the death penalty, but the Sultan offered him release and imperial pension if he accepted Islam, an offer that Shabbetai accepted, happily, it seems. He died as a Muslim ten years later in Albania.

While Shabbetai himself may have found peace and comfort by his conversion, his believers were devastated. If through his messianic mission he shared his capacity for elation with his people, then through his conversion to Islam, he gave them his depression. Many instantly lost their faith. But what is interesting, though not at all surprising in view of modern psychological studies of the rumor process, is that many of his followers remained loyal. Whether it is a rumor or a belief, when something has emotional appeal, many people can manage to hold on to it in the face of the most challenging facts. Nathan, who was earlier not daunted by Shabbetai's own deep doubts about his messiahship was among those who remained immune to the fact of his Messiah's conversion to Islam. He turned Shabbetai's apostasy into a mystery, teaching that by converting to Islam, Shabbetai was continuing his battle with the forces of evil from within. This interpretation convinced many and after his death some even followed Shabbetai's perceived example in battling evil by converting to Islam outwardly. There are still a small group of Dormeh (apostates) who outwardly live as Muslims but secretly practice Judaism. Later, in the 18th century the practice was used by another Jewish group, that of the followers of the prophet Jacob Frank, by converting en masse to Christianity while remaining Jews secretly. (See Armstrong, A History of God, pp. 375-383; for more details, see Graetz, History of the Jews, vol. v, ch. iv.1; Zangwill, Dreamers of the Ghetto; Scholem, The Messianic Idea in Israel and Other Essays, and Sabbati Sevi).

There are obvious parallels between the Shabbetai movement and Christianity. If Shabbetai movement had to deal with the Messiah's apostasy, then Christianity had to deal with his crucifixion. Both Shabbetai's apostasy and Jesus' crucifixion were regarded as mysteries and viewed in vicarious terms. Both movements believed that the Torah had been abrogated and replaced by the new law of the Spirit. Both held Trinitarian and Incarnational doctrines.

These similarities, however, do not in any way help us explain the belief in Jesus as the crucified Messiah. Indeed, when the following observations are kept in mind, the Shabbetai case only underlines the difficulty of the emergence or perpetuation of the belief in Jesus' messiahship in the face of his crucifixion as a firmly established fact.

1) In the seventeenth century, when Shabbetai elated his people with his claims and teachings, Jews were well acquainted with Christian ideas and were also influenced by them. This is shown by the abrogation of the Torah by Shabbetai and the Trinitarian and Incarnational ideas adopted by him and his followers. Those Jews who interpreted his apostasy as a mystery in vicarious terms might well have been influenced by the Christian theology of the cross. In other words, had there not been a precedence of a crucified Messiah, the Jews might not have conceived of an apostate Messiah.

2) Shabbetai's claim had won an unprecedented support from Jews all over the world prior to his conversion to Islam. Once a large number of people accept an idea, a sufficient number of them can always be found among them who would hold on to the idea, no matter how overwhelming is the evidence against it. It is inconceivable that even the name of Shabbetai would be known today, had his conversion taken place before his messianic mission took off.

In contrast to Shabbetai, Jesus probably never declared himself to be the Messiah and even after his departure his messiahship was ambiguous among his followers. Some did declare him to be the Messiah while others regarded him as a prophet (see Ch. 9). As many scholars have argued on the basis of strong evidence, the belief in Jesus' messiahship arose or at least was declared after Jesus' departure. His execution must therefore be assumed to take place before the belief in his messiahship was declared. But that is inconceivable. A strongly held belief in the messiahship could have survived for a while against the fact of crucifixion but it could not have been declared in the face of it.

3) Shabbetai finally was rejected by the Jews. By the 19th century, Shabbetai movement was all but dead. In contrast, Jesus movement has survived and expanded for two thousand years. This suggests that Jesus' execution was not as solid a fact as Shabbetai's apostasy.

Many scholars have used the problem of a crucified Messiah to argue for the historicity of the crucifixion: Christians would have never invented the crucifixion in the face of their belief in Jesus as the Messiah. But by thus making crucifixion more of a fact this argument only makes the mystery of the crucified Messiah more difficult rather than solve it. One can solve the mystery by arguing thus: belief in Jesus as the Messiah, which arose after Jesus, could never have arisen in the face of the known fact of crucifixion; hence the belief in the messiahship of Jesus arose among those who did not think that Jesus was crucified while those who believed that Jesus was crucified did not think that he was the Messiah. The two beliefs were originally independent, going back to two separate competing groups. Once, however, the two competing beliefs started, they, as often happens, perpetuated themselves and also at some stage were combined to produce the belief in the crucified Messiah. This harmonization met enduring success only outside Palestine among the Gentiles for whom "Messiah" or "Christ" lost much of its Jewish connotation, and hence the crucified Messiah lost much of its inherent contradiction, especially because the Gentile world was quite familiar with gods who die and still continue to be worshipped (Ch. 10).

 

Some questions about disappearance

Where does Jesus go after leaving Jerusalem? John mentions different places in the various replays of Jesus' trip to Jerusalem: Galilee, beyond Jordan where John at first baptized, and near the wilderness into a city called Ephraim. All these places may have been mentioned in the earliest traditions, speculations or reminiscences. But Galilee is the most likely final destination of Jesus after his escape and before his disappearance. This is not only supported by John and the Old Russian version of Jewish War but also by the earlier traditions about Jesus' "resurrection" appearances. A saying of Jesus in Mark also supports the view that Jesus went to Galilee after his escape:

After I am to be raised, I will go to Galilee before you (14:28).

This verse appears in Mark sandwiched between the prophecies of the disciples' scattering and Peter's denial in a rather awkward way: notice how in 14:29 Peter completely ignores the saying in 14:28 and reacts only to Jesus' words in 14:27. The verse is omitted from Mark in a papyrus fragment but the verse is original to Mark, since it is alluded to in 16:7 unless we view both 14:28 and 16:7 as interpolations in the original text of Mark. It has been suggested that the verse originally did not refer to resurrection but meant: When I am risen in the sense of awakened (tomorrow morning) I will go before you to Galilee.

Another question that arises is this: How far Jesus planned his disappearance as a strategy for his movement and not just for saving his life? Almost total ignorance on the part of tradition concerning what happened to Jesus suggests that he kept his last movements extremely secret. This level of secrecy was not necessary for Jesus' safety and suggests that Jesus acted as much for his movement as for his life. It is possible that Jesus foresaw some of the developments that took place after his disappearance and in order to make his disappearance most effective he decided to disappear in a way that would leave most people, even his close associates and relatives, ignorant about his fate.

In ancient times disappearance and re-appearance seem to have been used to substantiate supernatural claims. Herodotus (c. 484 B.C.E. - c. 425 B.C.E.) in his Histories (IV. 94f) records an oral Greek tradition about a Thracian deity Zalmoxis. The tradition says that Zalmoxis was only a man and accuses him of convincing his companions by deception that neither they nor any of their posterity "would ever perish, but that they will all go to a place where they would live for ever in the enjoyment of every conceivable good". Zalmoxis secretly built an underground apartment, presumably well furnished with provisions, into which he withdrew, vanishing suddenly from the eyes of the Thracians and leaving them mourning over him as one dead. After abiding three full years in his secret chamber, he showed himself once more to his countrymen who were thus brought to believe in his promises. They later worshipped Zalmoxis as a god and believed that after death they will live with him.

The church father Gregory of Nazianzus (c. 329- c. 389) makes a similar charge against the Greek deity Aristeas, comparing him with Trophonius and others who hide themselves in secret chambers in order to deify themselves. Neither the Thracians nor the Greeks, of course, viewed their heroes and gods in this way. Herodotus also records a Greek oral tradition about the Greek hero Aristeas (IV.14). This tradition says that Aristeas rose from the dead and then appeared twice to some persons. It would seem that the opponents' views about the pagan deities were closer to the truth. They were mortal men who either by accident or by design disappeared and were seen again, with the believers interpreting disappearance as death and reappearance as resurrection.

It is possible that with or without any knowledge of such stories Jesus realized the potential of his disappearance and subsequent reappearance at some future time. If so and if there ever was a Passover plot by Jesus, it was not to get crucified and then be taken down from the cross before death (see Schonfield, The Passover Plot) but rather it was the much less risky and far more intelligent plan to disappear and then to reappear at a suitable time in the future.

In summary, during his ministry Jesus only once went to Jerusalem. He met with hostility there, probably because of a confrontation that took place between him and the temple traders. However, he managed to escape and return to Galilee. His mission was now over and in order to save himself and his mission he had no choice but to disappear, an action he had planned for a while.

Jesus talked about his planned disappearance on more than one occasion. Out of caution or some other reason, he was somewhat ambiguous in the way he talked about the plan. His actual disappearance took place in a highly secretive manner, so that almost nobody knew what happened to him. After his departure, his disappearance was interpreted as resulting from execution or ascension to heaven and his references to his planned disappearance were modified to reflect these interpretations. This was done by the theory that Jesus' original, ambiguous, references to his disappearance were figurative speech while the modified forms put in the mouth of Jesus were their plain interpretation.

The tradition attempted to combine the fictitious event of execution with the historical return from Jerusalem to Galilee and his subsequent disappearance in various ways. This resulted in several contradictions in the gospel tradition such as: John reports the temple incident in the beginning of the ministry while Mark places it at the end; John has several trips to Jerusalem while Mark has only one; stories that appear as resurrection stories in some gospels take place during the ministry in others.

The belief in Jesus' messiahship arose among those who did not believe in the execution of Jesus. Nevertheless the belief was combined with the belief in the execution of Jesus thus producing the concept of the crucified Christ. This concept, though self-contradictory within the Jewish context, met with enduring success among the Gentiles because of their lack of concern for the original meaning of "Christ" and because of their familiarity with the worship of gods who die.

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