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?

9 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.

  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).

  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.

  4. We have all heard the phrase “actions speak louder than words”. This article is proving that point, while maybe changing it more to say, “actions speak clearer than words”. Jesus is an extremely controversial character in life in general. Not only His existence, but His purpose, His life, His intentions, and so much else. God still remains vastly mysterious to us; despite all He has revealed to us about Himself. The example used in the article is that Jesus was crucified, which implies that what Jesus said and did was offensive to the Romans, who were the ones who crucified Him. Another example that could be used I believe would be how Jesus treated His family. He honored his father and his mother. He loved his brothers. He even went so far as to die for them. He did not rebuke them when they thought that he was crazy at the beginning of his ministry but showed them compassion. Later, Jesus tells his disciples in Luke 14:26, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple”. This seems to go against everything Jesus does and what other passages in the Bible teach. I thought we were supposed to love our neighbor, which includes all of those people? 1 Timothy 5:8 says, “But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever”. This stresses the importance of caring for one’s family. I think it is intentional how the Scriptures force us to dig deeper and to think critically. There are so many connections that can be found throughout Old and New Testament, between Christ’s life and then his death and resurrection. There are so many truths hidden throughout, but the Spirit works to reveal these things to us. “But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me” (John 15:26).

  5. Jesus was often treated poorly by those around him. The Pharisees often questioned Jesus’ every move. His own disciple even turned him in to the authorities. What can we learn from Jesus’ responses to others? We can learn that he never tried to take revenge. Matthew 5:43-44 says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” We can look at how Jesus loved and prayed for his enemies. Instead of taking revenge, he showed them the same amount of love as anyone else. McKnight says, “loving means at least praying for that person” (McKnight, 143). Jesus prayed for his enemies often. In Luke 23:34 Jesus says, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” He is talking about his persecution. Jesus even had compassion for those who wanted to kill him! In conclusion, I think there is a lot to learn from Jesus’ actions. His actions and the word of the Bible do not contradict each other. Therefore, we can rely on these words. Not only did he speak these words, but he acted upon them.

  6. E.P. Sanders took an interesting perspective on the historical authenticity of Jesus – different with what most scholars used to approach the subject matter. E.P. Sanders looked at the actions of Jesus. According to Dr. Long in his blog post, Sanders created a list of actions that we are sure He did and then compared them to what Jesus said. This is an interesting perspective on the matter of historical authenticity because usually scholars use the opposite method of Sanders. I actually really found this method interesting, and more beneficial to understanding Jesus, because it focuses on what we know about Jesus and its relationship to the word rather than the only focal point of discussion on what we do not know – may be easier to use this method as an advocate for Christ in apologetics. An example of this methods benefits comes by looking at the fact that Roman government persecuted and crucified Jesus. Why? They would not have done this based on just the principles of Jesus’ ministry. It was the fact that Jesus was a threat to them. Dr. Long says, “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.” (Long). By analyzing this statement from E.P. Sanders method it allows us to use logic to point out that because A caused B. Then when B was said by someone, it was probably true – otherwise A would also be false. This method, while reading through this week’s text in Strauss, and the blog post, my understanding of this method became much clearer in comparison to the other methods – which were a little more confusing.

  7. I think we can all learn a lot from Jesus actions because all of the things he did was for a reason and for the better of each and every person. Along with his actions his words aligned with it, which ultimately shows that we can believe in him and what his massage is, and that message was and is to be carried out by God through teachings, prayers etc.

  8. Everyday as humans we face so many things. It’s sad to say but even people today have so much hate towards people. I know that I could walk into certain places, and there are girls who “can’t stand me” or who treat me differently because I act a certain way. I lost friendships when I gave my life over to Christ. This was a bad thing to certain “friends” because I didn’t participate in certain things or because I made praise dance practice, choir rehearsal, bible study, and church services a priority. Jesus was placed on earth for a reason. He had his moments of trial and tribulations. Many people hated him for who he was. They hated him for choosing to do what God has called him to do. Jesus had so many times where he could have gone off on people or treated them poorly. What did he do? He loved those around him. He loved them so much that he prayed for them. He loved them so much that he died on a cross for them. “Love must be defined by how God loves” (McKnight, 143). It is hard for us as humans to love like God. I agree with what you put in the article when talking about the table of fellowship. Jesus literally sat at that table and ate with sinners. You are correct, the Pharisees most definitely would have never eaten with them.

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