What was Jesus hoping to achieve?
New book from retired Baptist minister Roger Amos contributes to the Historical Jesus debate
Ask many Christians—including even some ministers—precisely what outcome Jesus was hoping to achieve from his earthly ministry and you are more likely to hear gasps of astonishment or admissions of ignorance (‘I’ve never thought about it’) than a considered opinion, even though the matter could hardly be more central to the Christian faith.
Probably this is because the gospels portray Jesus sometimes as reforming Judaism—the Sermon on the Mount is classic reforming material—and sometimes as starting a new religion—as in his statement to Peter, ‘on this rock I will build my church’ (Matt 16:18).
It was writing Hypocrites or Heroes? early in my retirement that first drew this ambiguity to my attention and led me to investigate it. Seeking a different angle on it, I argued that Jesus’ ministry must have been intended to meet some specific need in his society. So a study of the social and economic conditions in Galilee at that time might yield valuable clues regarding Jesus’ intention.
I’m grateful to Spurgeon’s College, where I had trained for the ministry 50 years previously, for allowing me to pursue my quest as a PhD/MPhil research project, which gave me access to full academic facilities. Moreover the advice, guidance and patience of my supervisors—Stephen Wright, now Vice-Principal, and Tony Rich, now retired—were exemplary and their knowledge seemingly boundless!
When I investigated the social and economic conditions in Galilee in search of factors that might have led Jesus to undertake his ministry, I was shocked by what I found! I’d been a practising Christian for 50 years and an ordained minister for the last 42 of them and yet until then I had no idea that at the time of Jesus the ordinary Jews of Galilee were undergoing appalling suffering.
As a consequence of Herod Antipas’ development programmes, which involved the building of new Graeco-Roman-style cities, reforms in agriculture and an influx of Greek-speaking settlers from the diaspora, Galilee was racked by deprivation—unemployment, debt, hunger and crime. Jesus was determined to confront the establishment and improve conditions for ordinary Jews. But how could a village carpenter backed by a band of fishermen accomplish that?
The discovery that Jesus began his ministry as a purely political activist threatened me with a mini-crisis of faith: the Historical Jesus suddenly seemed so totally different from the Christ of my conservative evangelical beliefs that for a while I struggled to reconcile the two.
The answer to both Jesus’ problem and mine came in the person of John the Baptist. His mentoring showed Jesus the spiritual malaise at the root of the human predicament. And at Jesus’ baptism the Holy Spirit empowered him as the mighty preacher, teacher and healer depicted in the gospels.
Jesus began his ministry like the prophets of old, attempting to reform Judaism by calling observant Jews back to a wholehearted commitment to God. When they rejected his ministry, he focussed his attention instead on the ‘sinners,’ Jews excommunicated by their peers, and founded the Christian movement as a spiritual home for these and others excluded from Judaism.
What amazed me is that much that seemed new to me is obvious in the Greek New Testament, but our English Bibles—even some of the latest translations—play down the harshness of life in first-century Galilee, for example, by rendering doulos, ‘slave,’ as ‘servant’ and ptōchos, ‘beggar,’ as ‘poor man.’
After three years of research, as my thesis was nearing completion, the university suddenly decided that my subject was too broad for a PhD and demanded that I start again with a more tightly defined one. But this was in April 2020 when the coronavirus pandemic had closed all academic libraries. There being no way I could do the research needed for a new thesis in the time left available, I had no choice but to withdraw from the PhD programme.
But my thesis told an interesting story that I reckoned needed to be heard. So I reworked it as a conventional book, suitable for students, teachers, ministers and anyone seriously interested in Jesus. Wipf and Stock were happy to publish it as What Was Jesus Hoping to Achieve?
I hope that those who read it will gain a clearer picture of the world in which Jesus ministered and therefore a deeper understanding of what he achieved for us.
Wipf and Stock published What Was Jesus Hoping to Achieve? in January 2022. It is available from the publisher (wipfandstock.com) at £32 (hardcover), £20 (paperback) or £20 (ebook), or from Amazon at £31 (hardcover), £19 (paperback) or £7.66 (Kindle edition).
The Revd Roger Amos is a retired Baptist minister who has served churches in Tenterden, Coventry, Northamptonshire and Birmingham
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