What About the “Actions of Jesus”?

What would historical Jesus studies look like if we started with the things Jesus did first, rather than the words of Jesus? Frequently Historical Jesus studies begin with the words rather than the activities of Jesus. Sayings judged as authentic are then used to decide which things Jesus might have actually done.

In his monograph on the relationship of Jesus and Judaism, E. P. Sanders suggested that this method is backwards.  Rather than beginning with the sayings of Jesus, Sanders created a list of activities which we can be certain Jesus did. He then used this list to evaluate the words of Jesus.  For Sanders, Jesus’ activity in the Temple becomes the starting point for his study, but any certain activity might be chosen. We know without a doubt Jesus was crucified by the Romans. What might he have taught in order to attract the attention of the Romans? I doubt the Romans went around crucifying people for loving their neighbors. But if someone was implying they were some sort of an “heir of David” and hinting they might be about to restore the kingdom to Israel, perhaps the Romans would respond by arresting and executing the person for challenging the peace of Rome.

jesus-at-supperAnother example is Jesus’ table fellowship with sinners. There is little doubt that Jesus among scholars Jesus ate with sinners. This practice was nothing like that of the Pharisee or Qumran community. Neither group would have eaten with people outside of their group, let alone “sinners” who had contact with Gentiles. If there is anything certain about Jesus’ ministry it is that he ate and drank with sinners. Even some of the followers of John the Baptist questioned Jesus on his eating habits! N. T. Wright, for example, considers the fact that Jesus welcomed “sinners” into table fellowship a “fixed point” for historical Jesus studies (Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, 267).

This reputation was so well-known that Jesus is described as a “glutton and drunkard” and a friend of “tax–collectors and sinners” (Matt 11:19 / Luke 7:34). This description of Jesus is undoubtedly authentic since it is unlikely such a description would be created by a later Christian community. If you are creating legends to prove Jesus is God, you do not create stories about him eating drinking with prostitutes. Likewise, if you were creating stories to encourage holy living, perhaps you might describe Jesus as a “friend of sinners who have already repented.”

If we know with certainty Jesus ate with sinners, then sayings about welcoming sinners are consistent with those actions. The parable of the Great Banquet in Luke 14 replaces the invited guests with the poor and crippled, as does the Wedding Banquet parable in Matt 22. The often challenged sayings in Mark 2:13-22 may very well be authentic because it is related to Jesus’ practice of feasting rather than fasting.

What other challenged sayings of Jesus that would be less problematic if we started with what Jesus did?

4 thoughts on “What About the “Actions of Jesus”?

  1. I really enjoyed reading this post. The idea of looking at the actions of Jesus and see if they line of with what He said is amazing to see. I love this statement, “If you are creating legends to prove Jesus is God, you do not create stories about him eating drinking with prostitutes” (P Long). If people were creating stories of Jesus in order to prove that He was the Messiah, they wouldn’t recall all the negativity that Jesus encountered.
    One event that I did look at was when Jesus goes into the temple and flips over all of the tables and calls everyone out and proclaims the temple is a house of prayer (Matthew 21:12-17). This is not the only time that Jesus calls all of the Pharisees and religious leaders out though. He does it constantly, He tells them that the way they are running things is way wrong. They are supposedly the wisest and most scholarly people of their time, because of the knowledge they had of the law. Why in the world would they want to have Jesus killed though? He was a man of the law. He knew scripture, and He followed it.
    The religious leaders knew the law, but they also had come up with some of their own ideas of what the Messiah and the coming kingdom would look like. They developed their whole culture around it. Jesus came and abolished it, and no wonder they wanted to kill Him. Their pride was so far down their throats they could not stand it, that Jesus was opposing them. The actions of Jesus line up with His conversation with the religious leaders, and it even is logical to explain why they wanted Jesus out of the picture.

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  2. I also really appreciate the concept of looking at Jesus actions to prove the authenticity of his words, rather than the other way around. It seems that it is much easier, at least historically, to prove the actions of Jesus. One thing in particular is if instead of trying to prove that Jesus actually spoke the sermon on the mount, one could look at the life that he lived. When you do that, it seems pretty clear that he lived the things he talked about in that sermon, so, in that case, do the exact words really matter? It doesn’t really seem like it to me. Even without the words of Jesus, his life was so radically life, and love-giving that I, personally have no problem trying to live a life that is even remotely exemplary of his. Then you backtrack through those actions, and can come up with some proof, or at least backup, to the things that he said, and all of a sudden you have the perfect teacher. How many other teachers throughout history, can truly claim to live out everything they taught throughout their entire career? I don’t think that number would, truthfully, be any higher than “1”. (No offense Professor Long).

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  3. This is an idea that I’ve never really thought of. When I read the Gospels, I don’t normally look at whether Jesus talked first or acted first on a certain issue. I have always approached it in a “if Jesus said or did it, I should too” way, like all of us do as Christians. I understand that there are certain issues with the way some things about Jesus are written, but my belief in its inspiration isn’t affected by it. I do think that starting with Jesus’ actions instead of his words is an interesting idea. It can definitely add new light on a certain passage. like “turn the other cheek”. Either way, we can trust that Jesus knows what he’s doing.

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