The Jesus of the Gospels
When I performed the exercise of reading carefully through all four gospels in at attempt to see how the gospels themselves were trying to present Jesus and his mission, trying not to impose my preconceived evangelical framework on them, and trying to make full use of the large number of scholarly books about the social-cultural background of the time that I'd read, I was quite surprised at the results. First of all, what wasn't there: The gospels spend very little time on questions of Jesus' divinity or the meaning of his death. The Evangelical "gospel" of a divine Jesus in whom we need to place faith in his atoning death in order to be saved is not the focus of the biblical gospels, nor is this depicted as the content of Jesus' preaching.
The Jesus of the gospels is presented as taking up the lead of the Kingdom of God movement, already in motion under John the Baptist. Jesus is perceived by people as a Prophet (he is called a prophet far more in the gospels than anything else). He gets into repeated arguments with people over three issues: Torah (Israelite law and customs), Temple, and Wealth. In all these areas his concern for the poor, needy, sick, and outcasts shows through. The major focus of all these is, time and again, economics! (I was very surprised) The focus is especially the plight of suffering poor compared to the wealth of the rich. His criticisms of the Temple and Torah seem to always be focused on economics and how these institutions are causing poverty and benefiting the rich. The morality discussed in the gospels is most often interpersonal economics related morality.
Jesus' criticism of Torah constantly focuses on how the Pharisees' careful following of Torah is resulting in suffering for the poor and needy. Jesus emphasizes the Torah themes of caring for the poor and marginalized, echoing many of the Prophets in Israel's tradition. His criticism of the temple returns time and again to money, as he sees it as an instrument of oppression toward the poor from whom money is extorted by it. He predicts therefore that God in an act of judgment upon it will destroy the Temple. The "Kingdom of God" idea seems to be based on the concept of a Utopia. The kingdom of God is the conceptual perfect ideal in which everything in the kingdom is as God wishes it to be. In English we might say "A Better Tomorrow" or "God's Ideal for the World".
Much space in the gospels is dedicated to focusing on Jesus building up his movement. He recruits followers and organizes them and sets them about recruiting more. Exhortation to his followers to persevere takes up an amazing amount of space in the gospels (a whopping 30% or so!). Time after time, Jesus warns his followers of hardships and persecutions they may face, of the sacrifices they will have to make, and encourages and exhorts them to persevere with the promise that God will reward them for their actions both in the present life and after death. He warns that they, like himself, may be killed for the cause. I found the theme of secrecy in the gospels particularly intriguing. First Jesus tries to hide his movement from the authorities, telling those he encounters to tell no one about it, though he tells his followers that eventually it will come out in the open. Throughout the course of the gospels his movement grows and his attempts to keep it secret increasingly fail. Finally when he is told the authorities have learned all about him and his movement he begins to confront them publicly.
The Jesus of the gospels is thus primarily presented as a social reformer. He is a social activist, a popular Prophet in the tradition of Israel's history of Prophetic reformers who challenge and are killed by the authorities, a leader of a grass-roots lower-classes movement that challenges the authorities and upper classes in an effort to achieve greater egalitarianism. Call it what you will, but by far the closest parallels are people such as Martin Luther King Jr, Mahatma Ghandi, Nelson Mandela, or Robin Hood - people who led movements against the authorities in attempted reform on a variety of social issues, and who enjoyed the popular support of the masses. This concept of Jesus was really quite different to anything I had thought or dreamed of finding in the gospels.
The other thing I found surprising was the huge extent to which Jesus is clearly depicted as a martyr for his cause in the gospels. As his movement increasing becomes known to the authorities and he enters into conflicts with them, he warns his followers of the persecutions and death they may face. He reminds them that God will reward them either now or in the afterlife for doing his will. As he realizes that if he continues his movement he will be killed for it, he makes the painful decision to continue nonetheless. He is finally captured by the authorities who execute him. But his followers then see him resurrected by God, demonstrating that everything Jesus had stood for was true, and they are inspired to carry on the movement.
Now there are certainly further questions that can be asked and issues that border on the periphery in the gospels, where the answers are left vague or unclear: Is Jesus' movement nonviolent? In what sense (if any) does he consider himself a Messiah, or would he prefer to avoid the role of Messiah thrust on him by others? Would he have been for, against, or indifferent to the armed insurrections against Roman rule that engulfed Israel about once a generation? To what extent does he believe in the "communist" type ultra-egalitarian ideals he advocates as general principles universally applicable, as opposed to seeing them as a practical solution to a particular situation at that time and place?