Thursday, March 22, 2012

Did Jesus Gather Large Crowds?

I started volume 3 of John Meier's A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus.

Meier accepts the historicity of the Gospels' depiction of Jesus gathering large crowds. He believes that it is multiply attested, not only in the sources within the Gospels, but also in Josephus (which presents John the Baptist and Jesus gaining large followings) and Tacitus (who, for Meier, implies that Jesus got lots of followers). Meier thinks that the notion that Jesus gathered a large following among Jews is discontinuous with the Christianity that came later, which did not gain a large following among Jews, and so Meier does not believe that the early church came up with the concept of large crowds of Jews around Jesus. And Meier maintains that the large crowds around Jesus explain why Jesus was put to death, for the Romans feared large crowds around Messianic figures, especially on Jewish festivals. Meier notes that, according to Josephus, the Romans put to death other would-be Messiahs who gathered crowds.

But the Romans usually killed the would-be Messiahs and their followers, but they did not kill the followers of John the Baptist and Jesus. Why not? For Meier, the overall reason is that John the Baptist and Jesus did not seek to change "the government by force" (page 36).

I wonder how Jesus could have been a "Marginal Jew" when he gathered large crowds. Moreover, I am curious as to how Meier handles the Messianic Secret, Jesus wanting to keep secret that he was the Messiah. In the synoptic Gospels, Jesus is a public figure who proclaims the Kingdom of God and gathers crowds, but he also seeks to keep a low profile and to hide that he is the Messiah. The two seem contradictory to me.

Some say that Jesus hid his Messianic aspirations because the John the Baptist movement was on the run after John the Baptist was put to death, and Jesus was afraid that he would be put to death by the Romans before his time. My guess (which could be mistaken) is that adherents to this point-of-view believe that the Messianic secret was historical, whereas Jesus gathering large crowds was wishful thinking on the part of the early church. Others, however, view the Messianic Secret as secondary----something that was added later. One professor I know who believes this way says that the Messianic Secret was developed by the early church to explain why most Jews did not accept Jesus. According to the Messianic Secret, it was because Jesus hid who he was!

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