Jesus As a Popular Performer, Jewish Style

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At the end of February, I visited Davidson, North Carolina, to see grandchildren who lived nearby and attended the Presbyterian Church on the campus of Davidson College. I experienced an interesting class led by Doug Ottati, the Craig Family Distinguished Professor of Theology and Justice at the college. He began a month-long examination of “The Teaching and Ministry of Jesus” by reviewing the style and topics for which Jesus was best known.

He caught everyone’s attention when he began by describing the style of Jesus as “performative.” That’s an unusual word. There were some furrowed brows in the audience in reaction. He went on to explain he was using a point made by John Dominic Crossan that the public appearances of Jesus were performances, not the kinds of sermons or general sort of teaching one might ordinarily associate with the concept of “teacher.”

My reaction was different than others in the audience. The word “performative” is a notable concept these days when talking about the oral basis for the gospels. Some scholars have questioned the assumption that the gospels were written by “authors” of the type we usually think of, just as the legendary Homer did not write the Iliad or Odyssey as a modern author would. They argue that, like the works of Homer, the gospels grew out of oral traditions recited in public situations. Both of Homer’s poems were very long, yet they were remembered with amazing fidelity as they were repeated and passed along for a long time before being recorded. Some scholars think a similar process happened to the four gospels.

Professor Ottati had a different intention. He was referring to the opening line in John Dominic Crossan’s The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant. The book starts with an “Overture” describing Jesus in action. The first line has the ring of Genesis: “In the beginning was the performance; not the word alone, not the deed alone, but both each indelibly marked with the other forever.” (p. xi) We see right away that Crossan wants to emphasize what Jesus did as well as said, who he did things with (for example, that he ate with people religious leaders would not have eaten with), and how he expected his disciples to act as they carried out his wishes.

Most scholarly discussions of Crossan’s views have focused on his use of a different word – Cynic. Crossan pictures Jesus as a version of what the ancient world knew as a Cynic philosopher. This is best understood by looking at a more popular presentation of his ideas in Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography. Before the table of contents, there is a picture of a relief in a museum in Rome dating from the 300s CE. It shows Jesus taking actions mentioned in the gospels. Crossan describes the various scenes, pointing to the significance of dress and other important decorations. He summarizes the importance of the artifact this way: “We find Jesus healing, eating, teaching, and more like a Cynic philosopher than anything else – in other words, this book in oconographic miniature.”

Most Jesus scholars today emphasize the Jewishness of Jesus and disregard Crossan’s unusual association of Jesus with a very un-Jewish Greek philosophy. The point I would like to make is that looking at Jesus in terms of performance, as emphasized by Professor Ottati, and Cynic philosophy takes us in the direction of understanding what people in Jesus’ time meant when they called him a prophet. They did not see him as a Cynic philosopher but as a prophet within a long Jewish tradition of popular prophecy, which Geza Vermes calls “charismatic prophecy.” To understand my point, we must realize that our current idea of what a prophet was is not in line with what Jesus’ contemporaries thought prophets were. Let’s not be too hasty in dismissing the ideas of performance and Cynic philosophy as we discuss ancient prophets.

Taking a closer look at expectations in Jesus’ time means, first, realizing how different current views of philosophy and prophecy are from those in ancient times. The mention of philosophy brings to mind sets of ideas and logical arguments. Greek philosophy was a more holistic approach dealing with values, practices, and ideas promoting a good life. The boundary with religion was not always clear. In fact philosophers like Socrates were seen as undermining the religions at the foundation of community life by questioning traditional values. In the lands further east around the Mediterranean, Greek philosophy was paralleled by a Wisdom tradition that was partly secular and partly religious. The Jewish version of the tradition saw meditation on Torah as essential and began to picture Wisdom herself as present at the creation with God.

In ancient Israel and Judah, prophecy flourished along with the Wisdom tradition. The Jesus scholar Geza Vermes refers to a long tradition of “charismatic” Jewish prophecy that started with Moses. Christian emphasis on messianic predictions led to the current notion that prophets talked about events in the distant future. To the contrary, they were often popular figures known for pronouncements about what was expected to happen soon. Except for Jeremiah, who used the services of a scribe, prophecy was spoken and traditions were passed orally until some of them were recorded. The recordings in scripture are selective, for a great many prophecies that did not come about were passed over.

Prophets were often charismatic in the sense of behaving strangely in public, doing things not too different from modern “speaking in tongues.” They pronounced oracles that were usually poetic speeches in public settings declaring what God told them to say. These should be seen as performances meant to have dramatic impact on the rulers and the general public. Here are a few examples of unusual behavior recorded in the Old Testament: (1) Isaiah and Hosea gave horrible names to their children, symbolizing rejection; (2) Isaiah walked naked for three years to demonstrate coming punishment for Egypt and Ethiopia; and (3) Ezekiel says God told him to lie on his left side for 360 days and then his right side for 40 days to symbolize coming punishment for Judah and Israel.

Vermes points to another role of prophets that has been overlooked. They healed, raised the dead, and performed wonders. Elijah and Elisha were popular models of what a prophet should be. Elijah was famous for working a miracle in competition with priests of Baal. He and Elisha performed healings and other wonders. Vermes notes that medicine was not part of the contribution of Jewish thought in ancient times because healing was thought of in terms of dealing with sin so that rituals in the temple or healings by prophets were sought rather than studying causes of illness.

What does this all mean for understanding Jesus? His conversation with disciples as they wandered north of Galilee in the area near Caesarea Philippi is revealing. He asked them who people thought he was. They replied that people thought of him as a prophet like John the Baptist and Elijah. Jesus did not imitate the dress of Elijah, as John the Baptist did, but working wonders, healing, and raising the dead naturally led the public to associate Jesus with Elijah. Then he asked what the disciples thought. Peter blurted out that he was the Messiah. Traditionally this is seen as the correct answer – but in Mark 8:30 Jesus did not confirm that response. Throughout Mark, Jesus silenced those who shouted out messianic pronouncements. On this occasion Jesus also gave no hint of his own thought as he “sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.” Thus we see he neither confirmed nor denied being the Messiah. A few days later came the Transfiguration experience when the disciples saw Jesus in conversation with Moses and Elijah, the two most prominent of Jewish prophets. David was not there or anyone signifying kingship that would have suggested the role of Messiah. Jesus as prophet is the message that seems to be confirmed by this series of events.

The result of our discussion is to put aside traditional emphasis on Jesus as Messiah in order to see what it meant for his contemporaries to see him as a prophet. His public actions – whether exorcising, healing, arguing with authorities, or teaching – were performances often intended for dramatic effect. He followed a lifestyle of poverty and wandering, calling on disciples to do the same. Prophets had announced “Thus sayeth the Lord.” Jesus made a more subtle claim to authority by starting many of his pronouncements with “Amen,” which is often translated as “verily.” In other words, “sit up and listen to something important.”

The distinction between religion and philosophy was not sharp in the eastern portions of the Mediterranean. One doesn’t have to see Jesus as following a Greek model to understand that similar patterns could be found in very different phenomena in neighbor parts of the ancient world. Philosophy was seen as a way of life and so was Jewish religious practice. The early name for Christianity, according to Acts, was “the way.”

Jesus was a popular Jewish performer – a prophet doing a wide variety of interesting things in public that grabbed attention and gained a following. Similarity with practices of Cynic philosophers is not surprising since Jewish lands were not far from Greece. This made it easy for some early Christians in the area of Rome to understand Jesus in terms of Cynic philosophy rather than Jewish prophecy.

Crossan’s ideas are entertaining and very stimulating. They point in the direction of appreciating the importance of prophecy – and that is the point to be emphasized to understand how Jewish contemporaries understood the public role of a very Jewish Jesus.


John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991).

John Dominic Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (New York: HarperOne, 1994).

Geza Vermes, Christian Beginnings: From Nazareth to Nicaea (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012).

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