Was in the time and place when Jesus preached, common for someone to do so in the manner Jesus did it?

(Of course, Jesus was unique, even from the point of view of someone who completely disbelieves everything about the religious views about being the Messiah. He played a very important role in defining our culture, society and value systems. This question tries to limit itself only to the aspects of the local culture and customs of that era from a secular point of view)

So, let's reconstruct the image of a man, not too old (so not conforming to the "wise old mentor" archetype), who moves from town to town, has a very small group of loyal disciples always traveling with him, who holds religious sermons but is not part of (and does not respond to) the priestly hierarchy, but still seen by most people as having a vast and correct knowledge of the religious law. He gathers hundreds, and sometimes thousands of listeners while holding speeches. They do not gather any worldly possessions (land, buildings, infrastructure) besides what is strictly needed for day-to-day survival. He spends a lot of time helping the poor or at least comforting them. Many people start viewing him as a prophet, or even as the fulfiller of an old prophecy.

The above is just a small summary, take further descriptions about Jesus and the disciples strictly as presented in the canonical Gospels. Having done that, let's look at the non-biblical sources and what we know about the customs and culture of that time and place. Was it common or very uncommon for such preachers to be active there? Do we have sources about other people living like that and preaching like that, besides Jesus and maybe John the Baptist?

What I would like to take a look at, is that from the perspective of a man who lived in that place and time, listened to one or a few public speeches of Jesus (but was not a disciple or a closer associate), and later, after Pentecost, might have joined this new movement which later developed into Christianity, how would this person have viewed what he saw and heard? Was it likely that he listened to many similar preachers before, who were leading a similar lifestyle, preaching, traveling etc. by similar means and it was just Jesus whom he had seen as much more convincing than the other ones, or was it very likely for Jesus to be the first such person in his life?

Please note, again, that this question is not about whether it is true or not what specific religions teach. It's solely about whether we have any sources about other contemporary people having similar lifestyles and activities as Jesus is described to have had.

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    According to this learned source it was very common, though perhaps there's some fiction in there. – Gort the Robot Apr 8 '16 at 15:53
  • @StevenBurnap : That "source" played at least a very little role in me asking this question, so it was nice to see your comment. However, I hope the answers will contain somewhat more serious sources. – vsz Apr 8 '16 at 15:57
  • Well, just a comment, but his family thought he was mad! *Mark 3:21) – TheHonRose Apr 8 '16 at 15:59
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    The Bible itself names John the Baptist and (probably) Simon the Mage, and since maybe the Bible is a somewhat biased source it is fair to think that other prophets/messias that opposed Jesus did not receive the same attention that Jesus himself. Also, I remember reading (maybe Asimov's Guide to the Bible?) that Jesus teachings, while different, were not that far off from those of other pharisees teachers. Take into account that the whole century the area was in full religious/nationalistic turnoil, with riots and revolts that ended in the first Jewish-Roman war, so someone was preaching a lot – SJuan76 Apr 8 '16 at 18:27
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    @NeMo : the view that the effect of Jesus was not significantly greater on the history of the world than the effect of other religious leaders in that era is very strange, but I agree that that's not the point here. Why I mentioned this in the 2nd paragraph was to stop the question from being misunderstood. I didn't want answers and comments about the effect of Jesus on our current society. And by careful wording and notes I tried to discourage people from answering solely to express their views about religion. Despite this, many still couldn't resist the temptation to do so. – vsz Apr 15 '16 at 13:48

Yes and no.

This is one of the questions addressed in Zealot, The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, by Reza Aslan. From what I can see of the reviews, it does a good job (for an "accessible" popular book) of representing the current state of scholarly historical research on the historical Jesus.

According to Aslan, there were the following people wandering around the occupied Jewish territories claiming to be the Messiah within a couple of generations of Jesus of Nazareth:

...and others. Believe it or not, that area was even a bigger mess of oppression and radicalism then than it is today. Nazareth in particular.

Jesus of Nazareth also pretty clearly acted as a traveling miracle worker. This was an actual job back then, and he wasn't the only person plying this trade in the area. But typically a miracle worker of the era would have demanded payment up-front, and it doesn't look like Jesus did. Free healing would definitely have drawn crowds (as was depicted in the Gospels).

Other miracle workers of the time and area we know of include Honi the Circle-Drawer and his grandsons Abba Hilqia and Hanan the Hidden, and Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa.

Your typical Galilean would definitely have had an opportunity to see and listen to any number of these traveling Messiahs, Rabbis, and miracle-workers. Even if they didn't bother to avail themselves of that opportunity (and it's not like they had TV to watch instead), they would certainly have known of them from others who had.

As for the content of the message...here's where things can get a bit controversial. What exactly Jesus was preaching was actually a subject of great debate even in the early church, when some of The 12 were still alive.

I'll weasel out a bit here. Aslan distinguishes the historical Jesus of Nazareth from the modern Christian Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ, as depicted in the Gospel of John and Paul's early letters, his message would definitely have been a huge departure from anything being peddled by those others.

The historical Jewish Jesus of Nazareth? Probably not so much. Paul's letters can be thought of as one half of the world's first flamewar. We don't have a lot of written material from the other side, but we know they included multiple people who (unlike Paul) actually were followers of Jesus during his lifetime, including Peter and Jesus' own brother. As historians, we are forced to admit they likely had a better handle on what Jesus of Nazareth was historicaly preaching than Paul did. It's pretty clear from Paul that his antagonists thought Jesus had a much more traditional Jewish Messiah's message.

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  • I would love to accept your answer, but I'm having second thoughts because of parts of your last paragraph. It is certainly a viewpoint with its merits, but it is presented as The One Truth ("we are forced to admit", "it's pretty clear"). There were disagreements between Peter and Paul, but mostly due to what expectations non-Jewish converts have to fulfill. If they really did see Jesus so drastically differently, as a completely different person, they would have split up. There were schism for much lesser things than that. – vsz Jul 17 '16 at 17:01
  • However, I'm not qualified enough to go very deep into that discussion, but I guess it would be better to re-formulate parts of your last paragraph as a theory instead of as the Absolute Truth. – vsz Jul 17 '16 at 17:01
  • That and the paragraph prior go together. If you read both of them, it should be clear I'm using Aslan's term of art, and this is from his work, not mine, nor some putative objective truth. – T.E.D. Jul 17 '16 at 18:35

Apparently this was quite common. As stated in the comments the New testament mentions John the Baptist and possibly others. There is also some primary sources describing the situation: I mean the dead Sea Scrolls (a. k. a. Qumran scrolls) which describe a religious community and a leader with some similarity to Jesus.



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    It is a good rule to explain your down votes in the comments. – Alex Apr 10 '16 at 15:27
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    @Anaryl : I suspect you are overly confrontational and are assuming too much about my person. It wasn't me who downvoted this answer and if you don't believe me, you can ask a moderator. If I find a post which is very well and coherently explained and shows significant effort, I usually upvote it, even if I don't agree with everything in it. Why I didn't upvote this, is because it's short (basically just a copy of a comment), and doesn't show any effort to explain the topic. This was my guess why someone might have downvoted it. – vsz Apr 11 '16 at 6:07
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    It is oppressive to require explanations for downvotes. – Mark C. Wallace Apr 11 '16 at 8:09
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    I downvoted because saying that people acting non-violent like Jesus were common back when violence was the norm, without any single reference to who this supposed mass of other "jesus-like persons" were, is an empty answer. If you add references and examples to who were those other "jesus-like" people, then I'll reverse my vote. – Bregalad Apr 11 '16 at 15:31
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    @Bregalad: I added a reference on Dead Sea scrolls. Do you also want me to add a reference on the New Testament? People whom I mentioned were John the Baptist and the leader of Qumran community,. – Alex Apr 11 '16 at 18:13

Let's be quite clear. Jesus probably did not exist.

(Of course, Jesus was unique, even from the point of view of someone who completely disbelieves everything about the religious views about being the Messiah. He played a very important role in defining our culture, society and value systems. This question tries to limit itself only to the aspects of the local culture and customs of that era from a secular point of view)

Was Jesus unique? If he was this would then lead to the conclusion that in fact there were no other messianic apocalypse preachers such as himself. We however, know that in fact, if such "messiahs" were indeed very common.

Palestine in the first century CE was in fact awash with messianic apocalypse cults. There were were in fact many of these sects existing at the time. That Christianity arose in such a period is indeed no surprise. Carrier describes it eloquently as " yet another messiah cult in the midst of a fad for such cults."

Josephus records at least four such other messianic cults and how widely popular they are: "The Samaritan gathered followers and said he would reveal the lost relics of the Temple on Mount Gezirim", which strongly implies that the Samaritans believed in the imminent arrival of a Messiah at this time.

"Thuedas gathered followers and claimed he would part the Jordan - another act of obvious messianic significance", Joshua (the original "Jesus") also miraculously parted the Jordan before his conquest of Israel.

Josephus also mentions "The Egyptian" who preached from the Mountain of Olives and claimed he would topple the walls of Jerusalem (another allusion to the Joshua symbolism). Preaching from the Mount of Olives also held messianic symbolism.

Another 'imposter' mentioned by Josephus (code for : false messiah) gathered followers and promised them salvation if they followed him into the wilderness - a strong reference to Moses and teh Temptation in Exodus.

John the Baptist could also be considered yet another messianic figure - who preached the arrival of the Messiah (and by extension, the end times that such a figure would herald).

Acts also makes reference to Simon Magus, who is depicted as a messianic pretender.

The Dead Sea Scrolls attest to several such cults existing at the time, especially in Qumran where the keepers of the scroll were already expecting the imminent end of the world.

Philo of Alexandria also wrote a text adapting the apocalyptic expectations of the time. The Gospels also assume that messianic fervour was so high at the time that many people expected Elijah to walk among them.

The reason for this was because of religious scholars, studying of the book of Daniel had come up with a timetable that predicted that the coming of the Messiah would occur sometime in the first century CE. Many of these texts were also used by other cults at the time.

That Christianity survived to propagate is really only indicative of natural selection. That it pushed all the right buttons and mixed all the right elements as well as dodging all the bullets is simply a matter of probabilities. It is not a question of uniqueness. By the same token the Arthur myth also widely shaped British culture, but nobody seriously asserts that he was a real historical figure.

Make no mistake, 1 CE Palestine was simply awash with these kinds of cults, and and some of the surviving sources that attest to them are Josephus and the Dead Sea Scrolls. The answer to your initial question of was a possible Jesus unique in either the content or context of his life. Absolutely not. The surviving sources (Josephus and the Dead Sea Scrolls) strong imply that this kind of cult was in fact, very commonplace and very popular within the historical context.

Most of this is documented in Richard Carriers "On the Historicity of Jesus Or Why We Might Have Reason To Doubt", which collates many sources and examines the historicity and mythicism arguments in detail. http://www.amazon.com/On-Historicity-Jesus-Might-Reason/dp/1909697494

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    Almost all serious historians accept the existence of Jesus as a person (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Historical_Jesus), and most of your "answer" seems to be not much more than ranting. – vsz Apr 11 '16 at 4:12
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – T.E.D. Apr 13 '16 at 14:21

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