Baker Academic

Saturday, March 23, 2013

How About This for a First Paragraph? - Le Donne

When I'm writing a book, I probably write two dozen openings.  That first paragraph of the book is so important. How is this for a first impression?
Before Jesus rode into Jerusalem, before his clever stories gave way to righteous indignation, before he marched hell-bent toward martyrdom, he was just another country boy from the North.  At least this is how he would have seemed to the people of Jerusalem.  Indeed, before his crew of castoffs entered the city, few people in Jerusalem knew much about him.  Chances are that they’d never heard his name before.  Those who wondered who he was and what he stood for wanted to know, “By what authority are you doing these things?”  Witty to the last, Jesus replied with a question of his own:  he asked them to account for the famous John the Baptist.  Was John’s authority endorsed by God, or not?  In other words, Jesus was asking, “Was John a prophet or a fake?”  The leaders of Jerusalem knew better than to disparage the recently executed Baptizer.  John, it seems, was the famous one.  Before Jesus was making outlandish claims in the holiest place on earth, he was  just another Galilean too far from home.
So, anything here that rings hollow?


ps. I can't really say what the book is about yet, but (big surprise) it relates to Jesus.


  1. Are you asking if we agree with the content, or if we think your opening paragraph is a grabber? If the first, I have a few quibbles. If the second, why are they asking by authority he is doing "these things"? What things was Jesus doing that would elicit such a question? Are you referring to him driving out the money changers? If so, then I think it would be more of a grabber if you start with that scene, or the moments just after, when they ask him the question.

    Something like this:

    "What authority did you have to drive out those people out?" they demanded. He had seemed to be just another country boy from the North....

    I think that would be a grabber.

  2. That's some great writing. Drew me right in. But I noticed that it's making a pretty substantive point right off the bat. In particular, it made me wonder if maybe some or even a lot of people could see something special about Jesus even before they knew anything about him. You suggest not here I think, but I wonder if that's right. In any case, well written.


    1. My guess is that Jesus' reputation in and around Galilee had drawn attention... I don't think that he was well known in Jerusalem until his fateful visit to Jerusalem.

  3. Does a good job of pulling the reader in and, presumably, setting up what's follows. One thing gave me a moment's pause: "marched" toward martyrdom? So you believe he intended to die, rather than, say, intended to greet the arrival of the reign of God in power (thinking of Fredriksen)?


    1. Thanks Eric, I think that Jesus imagined several possible outcomes... but I think that the probability of swift and brutal "peace keeping" was at the forefront of his mind. Did he also imagine that God would intervene? If I had to guess, I think that he sincerely hoped for this outcome.

  4. "By what authority are you doing these things?" they demanded. Before Jesus rode into Jerusalem, before his clever stories gave way to righteous indignation, before he marched hell-bent toward martyrdom, he was just another country boy from the North. At least this is how he appeared to the people of Jerusalem....

  5. I like this paragraph. I like the picture of Jesus entering Jerusalem as an unknown hick from the Galilee. That’s not exactly who he was, but it’s a great introduction. That’s probably how it looked.

    I'm not crazy for the presence of John the Baptist in this paragraph. It interrupts your introduction with a second scene, that of Jesus being interrogated by unfriendlies. If few people in Jerusalem knew about Jesus, why is he so quickly attracting this kind of attention? Yes, I know the gospel story, but the picture of Jesus as complete unknown conflicts with the picture of Jesus getting noticed by opponents. It’s fine to eventually present both pictures. If your point is to contrast one picture against the other, then I’m OK with that (“before Jesus was X, he was Y.”) But I think you’re using the second picture to help explain the first, and I found that distracting. You’re also introducing a secondary character (JTB) and plot line (what happened to JTB). Seems like too much for one paragraph to carry.

    Jesus was a "country boy"? Jesus was in his early 30s, which in those days was average life expectancy. I might prefer an appellation that does not make Jesus seem young. Hayseed? Rube?

    "Crew of castoffs"? I'm thinking "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town", and you're giving me "The Dirty Dozen".

    These are all small points. I like the paragraph.

    1. You and the hobbit are both right... the paragraph assumes too much of the previous plot line.

    2. By the way, life expectancy is tricky business... can I ask from where you're getting the age 30?

    3. Yes, "life expectancy" is tricky, particularly where there are high rates of infant mortality skewing the average. I didn't mean to say that I know ancient life expectancy numbers with any precision. I was thinking about something I recently read about a study done on ancient Egyptian skeletal remains, but I can't find it now. If I remember it right, they were surprised how few Egyptians seemed to live past 40.

      I'm struggling to find places where I've seen this issue discussed. It must be in Crossan or Meier, but I can't find it in my hard copies. Luckily for me I have a few searchable books on Kindle. In her terrific book "Women in the World of the Earliest Christians", Lynn Cohick repeats that average life expectancy in the context of early Christianity and Judaism was around 25 years. But she does not cite a source for this.

      A quick search around the internet reveals a life expectancy range from 25-40. The discussion here is typical: King and Stager in "Life in Biblical Israel" estimate "less than 40". Another good discussion is here:

      Did Jesus live an average ancient Palestinian life span? The evidence seems to indicate yes, roughly speaking. In any event, it's not likely that his contemporaries would have seen him as a "boy" of any kind.

      As for the paragraph ... when I think of Jesus entering Jerusalem, I imagine the huge crowd of pilgrims. If memory serves, the Talmud contains rules for what to do if you're stuck in traffic on the road to Jerusalem and cannot reach the city walls by Passover. I like that picture ... Jesus would have appeared as just one bearded guy among hundreds of thousands. In my mind, it's not just that he was unknown. He would have also been unnoticed.

  6. John the Baptist was the famous one. Who was this nobody with the Galilean accent making decisive gestures and statements with authority? Where did that authority come from? In the dangerous stew of Jerusalem at Passover, the answer would change history.

  7. Hollow? Just a bit, maybe.

    There are several aspects of the Gospel stories that - if acceptable - could well suggest that Judeans and Jerusalemites in particular had indeed heard of this man. For a few examples, I'm thinking of the crowds which sought him out at a previous passover season, the word spread by the 70 messengers, and the galileans who would have been present at the festival that week, and that's to venture nothing about the three earlier occasions when GJohn has Jesus visiting the city.

    More significantly, I might suggest the mention of John reflects something very different than (if I read you straight) opportunistic name dropping, as if Jesus is trying to gain notoriety by associating himself with the late prophet-type. Rather, if John's martyrdom was indeed one factor keeping Jesus from arrest, then it would seem the festival crowds had already associated John and Jesus to some degree. Thus, if these various crowds undoubtedly included a high proportion of locals, then it seems many in Jerusalem had indeed heard of him.

    At some point, in each Gospel narrative, Jesus stopped telling folks to be silent about him, and at some point he started setting up PR events like the 70 and the hosannah parade. At several points we're told the news about him spread far and wide. I see no reason this would not include Jerusalem.

    So, hollow? I guess it depends on how much of the G accounts one accepts as historically based. Yes, I think we're given the distinct impression that a good many local Jerusalemites should have very well heard of this one particular country boy.

    Again, the validity of that impression may rise and fall with one's assessment of source material, and rightly so. But fwiw, at the very least, I honestly have no idea how you can lean so hard toward the opposite idea.

    1. "lean so hard toward the opposite idea"...? Which idea am I leaning away from?


    2. I didn't say you were leaning away from any ideas, for of course I don't know if you considered those ideas or not. I said you were leaning hard toward the idea which so happens to be the opposite of mine. Although I feel like your idea inverts a great deal of the Gospels' narrative implications, I didn't mean to imply it was a deliberate inversion. Maybe we just infer differently. (?) But you asked how it "rings". So those be my ears.

      At any rate, the thing I said you're leaning *towards* is the idea that Jesus was virtually unknown to local Jerusalemites. And I can't imagine what leads you to that position. Thus, perhaps my blindness is a direct result of all my differing inferences, but I did not in any way intend to paint you as oppositional to things you may never have seen as I do.

      Sincerely and respectfully, therefore, what am I missing? What is it that leads you to take this position?

    3. Bill, why did Jerusalemers need Judas to point out who Jesus was?

    4. I don't know that they did or didn't "need" Judas to do that for any particular reason. I take it merely as a strategy they used for the arrest.

      But to your point, I'd have to say knowing someone's name and reputation versus knowing their face were two infinitely different prospects, in ancient days.

      If Anthony's point was that they wouldn't know him on sight, by his face, I didn't get that from the paragraph offered. FWIW.

    5. Bill, if the authorities did not "need" Judas, then why did they pay him, and in what sense did Judas betray Jesus?

      I'm not trying to be difficult (at least, I'm not trying very hard). But this is a difficult story to understand from a historical perspective, IMHO.

    6. Larry, I'm feeling no difficulty from you, but trying to appreciate the difficulty you find in this point.

      To me, assuming basic historicity, it's evident the authorities paid Judas because they felt he served some purpose, or provided some advantage. It's been suggested, you know, well, it was dark, or, he knew their campsite. And that might do it, or might not, but I don't think such speculation is actually required to answer your question.

      The key to me is that Judas went to them, not vice versa, and that Jesus points out an arrest could have taken place earlier in the week. If the night setting reflects the authorities desire to avoid making a scene, then I'd suppose that's also why they responded affirmatively to Judas' offer of assistance. They hoped he might somehow help in that regard. Critically, however, we are also told that the agreement to betray Jesus preceded any particular plan for how to do so. Again, a payment (or promise of payment) was agreed to simply because they liked what he offered, whatever that was. Having an inside man seemed likely to help in some way or another, and it's also possible a month's pay wasn't a huge drain on these guys at their biggest revenue season all year.

      Overall, then, the implied story of the Gospels is that this arrest could have gone any number of ways, but for some reason Judas gave them an opportunity to do it this particular way, which they preferred.

      Again, it may indeed be that a big part of Judas' advantage that some of these leader guys didn't yet know Jesus' face. Or maybe it was like a witness fingering a defendant in court, a technicality of legal procedure. Or maybe it was both. But in any event, if visual identification was even a partial factor in all this, please refer to my previous comment on that point, above.

  8. For me, a general, non-scholar historical Jesus reader, you have the “hook” just right – Jesus arriving in Jerusalem as a nobody. I want to keep reading about that. But I think the paragraph is disjointed and needs some work.

    The term “Country Boy” doesn’t work for me. Aside from the unfortunate echo of “thank God” and John Denver, this is a man. Paint him as the first century equivalent of a rural, blue collar, dems, dese, and doser with balls – OK. But not a boy. And nothing in the paragraph explains why the very few people who would even have heard about him would regard him as a boy.

    Same with “clever stories.” On my reading of the gospels, these are profound and powerful stories that attracted both crowds and serious scholarly challenges from the scribal elite. The “term “crew” seems flip and has contemporary connotations that diminish the effect. “Hell-bent” is jarring in this context, although the deliberate aim at martyrdom grabs my attention.

    As to structure, on the one hand, the paragraph stresses his anonymity entering Jerusalem – which I like very much as the hook – while on the other it has some people wondering about his authority for the things he is doing, but he isn’t doing anything yet. It feels an allusion to the temple incident with the moneychangers. Also, the “leaders” of Jerusalem seem to be taking an interest, but it isn’t clear why they care what a nobody on a donkey has to say about John the Baptist or anything else.

    Looking forward to what you are doing with this theme.

  9. I guess everyone's writing off poor old John, but if he's to be believed Jesus was on his third trip to Jerusalem when he was arrested. John, in my opinion, got a good bit of background right, e.g., the crucifixion on Thursday rather than Friday. As for your "grabber," quite possibly true regardless of how many trips he'd made to the big city, but a bit too much vernacular for me.