The historical Jesus is Jesus of Nazareth as reconstructed by historians using historical methods. These historical methods use critical analysis of gospel texts as the primary source for the biography of Jesus, along with non-biblical sources to reconstruct the historical context of first-century Judea. These methods do not include theological or religious axioms, such as biblical infallibility. Though the reconstructions vary, they generally agree on these basic points: Jesus was a Jewish teacher who attracted a small following of Galileans and, after a period of ministry, was crucified by the Romans in the Iudaea Province during the governorship of Pontius Pilate. The quest for the historical Jesus began with the work of Hermann Samuel Reimarus.
However, N.T Wright, following Ben Meyers, rejects a criteria approach to authenticity. Instead N.T. Wright seeks to sketch out a large portrait of Jesus (hypothesis) which can find verfication in including all the data and being basically simple.
Given the historical context in which the Gospels took their final form and during which Christianity first emerged, historians have struggled to understand Jesus' ministry in terms of what is known about first-century Judaism. According to scholars such as Geza Vermes and E.P. Sanders, Jesus does not seem to have belonged to any particular party or movement; Jesus was eclectic (and perhaps unique) in combining elements of many of these different—and for most Jews, opposing—positions. Most critical scholars see Jesus as healing people and performing miracles in the prophetic tradition of the Galilee, while preaching God's desire for justice and righteousness in the prophetic tradition of Judea.
Jesus reflects the cultural milieu of his time. Many of his teachings echo the beliefs of the Qumran community (which was probably a branch of the Essenes) and of some of the Pharisees. In Jesus' day, the two main schools of thought among the Pharisees were the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai; the accusations of hypocrisy which Jesus is reported as levelling at Pharisees in general may have been directed against the stricter members of the House of Shammai, although he also agreed with their teachings on divorce (). In general, Jesus' Sermon on the Mount is stricter than the teachings of the House of Hillel.
Finally, Jesus' repeated declarations that the kingdom of God was at hand echoed popular apocalyptic views and the political views of the Zealots. Following the failure of the Maccabean revolt against the Seleucid Empire almost two centuries previously, most Jews of Jesus' time believed that the restoration of the kingdom would be accomplished by God, not by any Jewish movement. However, he did believe that this restoration was imminent. Jesus was enigmatic at best about his claim to actually be the presumptive monarch. That he speaks of twelve disciples is probably symbolic of the twelve tribes of Israel, and thus a metaphor for "all Israel". The Seventy Disciples, found only in the Gospel of Luke, may be related to the 70 nations of all humanity found in . According to Geza Vermes and others, the use of the terms "messiah" and "son of God" by Jesus' followers indicate that they believed he would assume the monarchy upon the restoration of the kingdom (see Names and titles of Jesus).
Many scholars posit that Jesus may have been a direct follower in John the Baptist's movement. Prominent Historical Jesus scholar John Dominic Crossan suggests that John the Baptist may have been killed for political reasons, not necessarily the personal grudge given in Mark's gospel. Going into the desert and baptising in the Jordan suggests that John and his followers were purifying themselves for what they believed was God's imminent deliverance. This was reminiscent of such a crossing of the Jordan after the Exodus (see Book of Joshua), leading into the promised land of their deliverance from oppression. Jesus' teachings would later diverge from John's apocalyptic vision (though it depends which scholarly view is adopted; according to Ehrman or Sanders apocalyptic vision was the core of Jesus' teaching) which warned of "the wrath to come," as "the axe is laid to the root of the trees" and those who do not bear "good fruit" are "cut down and thrown into the fire." (Luke 3:7-9) Though John's teachings remained visible in those of Jesus, Jesus would emphasize the Kingdom of God not as imminent, but as already present and manifest through the movement's communal commitment to a relationship of equality among all members, and living by the laws of divine justice. All four gospels agree that Jesus was crucified by Pontius Pilate, and this fact is consistent with Jewish accounts of Roman cruelty in general and Pilate's cruelty in particular. Crucifixion was the penalty for political insurrection, used as a symbol of Rome's absolute authority; those who stood against Rome were utterly annihilated.
Jesus Seminar scholar John Dominic Crossan points to the use of the word "kingdom" in his central teachings of the "Kingdom of God," which alone would have put Jesus on the radar of Roman authority. Rome dealt with Jesus as it commonly did with essentially non-violent dissension: the killing of its leader. It was usually violent uprisings such as those during the Roman-Jewish Wars that warranted the slaughter of leader and followers. As the balance shifted in the early Church from the Jewish community to Gentile converts, it may have sought to distance itself from rebellious Jews (those who rose up against the Roman occupation). There was also a schism developing within the Jewish community as these believers in Jesus were pushed out of the synagogues after the Roman destruction of the Second Temple in 70 AD, see Council of Jamnia. The divergent accounts of Jewish involvement in the trial of Jesus suggest some of the unfavorable sentiments between such Jews that resulted.
Aside from the fact that the gospels provide different accounts of the Jewish role in Jesus's death (for example, Mark and Matthew report two separate trials, Luke one, and John none), Fredriksen, like other scholars (see Catchpole 1971) argues that many elements of the gospel accounts could not possibly have happened: according to Jewish law, the court could not meet at night; it could not meet on a major holiday; Jesus's statements to the Sanhedrin or the High Priest (e.g. that he was the messiah) did not constitute blasphemy; the charges that the gospels purport the Jews to have made against Jesus were not capital crimes against Jewish law; even if Jesus had been accused and found guilty of a capital offense by the Sanhedrin, the punishment would have been death by stoning (the fates of Saint Stephen and James the Just for example) and not crucifixion. This necessarily assumes that the Jewish leaders were scrupulously obedient to Roman law, and never broke their own laws, customs or traditions even for their own advantage. In response it has been argued that the legal circumstances surrounding the trial have not been well understood , and that Jewish leaders were not always strictly obedient, either to Roman law or to their own. Furthermore, talk of a restoration of the Jewish monarchy was seditious under Roman occupation. Further, Jesus would have entered Jerusalem at an especially risky time, during Passover, when popular emotions were running high. Although most Jews did not have the means to travel to Jerusalem for every holiday, virtually all tried to comply with these laws as best they could. And during these festivals, such as the Passover, the population of Jerusalem would swell, and outbreaks of violence were common. Scholars suggest that the High Priest feared Jesus' talk of an imminent restoration of an independent Jewish state might spark a riot. Maintaining the peace was one of the primary jobs of the Roman-appointed High Priest, who was personally responsible to them for any major outbreak. Scholars therefore argue that he would have arrested Jesus for promoting sedition and rebellion, and turned him over to the Romans for punishment.However, Paul's preaching of the Gospel and its radical social practices were by their very definition a direct affront on the social hierarchy of Greco-Roman society itself, and thus these new teachings undermined the Empire, ultimately leading to full scale Roman persecution of Christians aimed at stamping out the new faith.
The scholarly consensus, based on Josephus' Antiquities of the Jews is that Herod died at the end of March, or early April of 4 BC. For instance, he states that Herod Philip I's death took place, after a thirty-seven year reign, in the twentieth year of Tiberius, which would imply that he took over on Herod's death in 4 BC. This would imply a date for the birth of Jesus earlier than 4 BC, based on the account in the Matthew Gospel. However, the Census of Quirinius, referred to in the Luke account, took place in 6 AD, which would imply a birth date ten years later than the Matthew version; scholars generally discount this and place the birth before the death of Herod.
Jesus, like many holy men throughout history, is said to have performed various miracles in the course of his ministry. These mostly consist of cures and exorcisms, but some show a dominion over nature.
As Albert Schweitzer showed in his Quest of the Historical Jesus, in the early 19th century, debate about the "Historical Jesus" centered on the credibility of the miracle reports. Early 19th century scholars offered three types of explanation for these miracle stories: they were regarded as supernatural events, or were rationalized (e.g. by Paulus), or were regarded as mythical (e.g. by Strauss).
Scholars in both Christian and secular traditions continue to debate how the miracles reports about Jesus should be construed. The Christian gospels claim that Jesus wielded supernatural power, but naturalistic historians, following Strauss, generally choose either to see these stories as legend or allegory, or, for some of the miracles they follow the rationalizing method. For example the healings and exorcisms are sometimes attributed to the placebo effect.
Luke's gospel records that Jesus' mother, Mary, was related to John's mother, Elizabeth although many scholars doubt this. Matthew portrays John humbly attempting to decline to baptise Jesus. The other gospels do not. This would tend to indicate a difference in the writers' theological and historical perspectives. Disciples of John are contrasted with the followers of Jesus, even as late as in the Book of Acts.
Once Jesus established a following (although there are debates over the number of followers), he moved towards the Davidic capital of Judea, Jerusalem, and began preaching in the wildernesses of the Negev and Jordan, including occasional forays into Samaria. He ended his ministry in Jerusalem (the synoptic Gospels suggest that his ministry lasted around one year and was spent mostly in the Galilee; John suggests that his ministry lasted more than two years and was spent mostly in Judea).
Jesus' use of parables was so characteristic of him that the gospel authors frequently comment on it. For example, consider and . The detailed nature of Jesus' spiritual teaching cannot be fully agreed upon because the Gospel accounts are fragmentary and their objectivity is suspect. Furthermore, he made extensive use of paradox and parable, leaving it unclear how literally he wished to be taken.
The gospels, especially John, also record Jesus speaking to the disciples in extended metaphors (not parables) about himself, but these verses are disputed. See, for example, the allegory of the Vine.
The evidence for this thesis comes from several verses, including the following:
Robert W. Funk and colleagues, on the other hand, wrote that beginning in the 1970s, some scholars have come to reject the view of Jesus as eschatological, pointing out that he rejected the asceticism of John the Baptist and his eschatological message. In this view, the Kingdom of God is not a future state, but rather a contemporary, mysterious presence.
Nonetheless, a great many -- if not a majority -- of critical Biblical scholars hold that Jesus believed, incorrectly, that the end of history was coming within his own lifetime or within the lifetime of his contemporaries. This thesis goes back to Albert Schweitzer.
The Jesus Seminar believes the debates about scripture and doctrine are rabbinic in style and not characteristic of Jesus. They believe these "conflict stories" represent the conflicts between the early Christian community and those around them: the Pharisees, Sadducees, etc. The group believes these sometimes include genuine sayings or concepts but are largely the product of the early Christian community.
These disciples were not only told to preach in public places, but were also supposed to contact people at their homes, where they were to eat and drink whatever was offered (). This openness may have violated Jewish tradition such as not eating bread baked by gentiles, if the mission was also to gentile or non-observant homes.
Jesus' ministry was based in Jewish communities and he did not preach much in the gentile communities of the same region. Nevertheless, Christians believe his message did extend to Gentiles due partly to his Sermon on the Mount. After Jesus' crucifixion, some of these apostles preached his teachings and performed healings to both Jews and Gentiles, according to Acts of the Apostles. There was not universal agreement of what Christian teachings consisted of, however, even among the apostles, so meetings such as the Council of Jerusalem were held. First century Christian writers referred to Jesus as a light for or lord of all nations, drawing connections to prophecies in Amos and Isaiah.
Christians take the Great Commission as showing that Jesus meant his message to be taken to Jews and Gentiles ("all nations"), but skeptical scholars often doubt its authenticity: versions of the Great Commission vary from gospel to gospel, Mark's version occurs in the likely unoriginal final section of Chapter 16, and these commissions are attributed to the resurrected Jesus, also the stated source of Paul of Tarsus. The Jesus Seminar rates the passage black, meaning they believe Jesus did not say what was attributed to him, and it comes from later admirers or a different tradition.
According to and , Jesus limited his mission to the Jews alone, to the "lost sheep of the house of Israel". The Jesus Seminar rated these verses as inauthentic, portraying Jesus's message instead as crossing ethnic boundaries. These verses, in their estimation, represent the influence of Peter and others (so-called Jewish Christians) who wanted to restrict their mission to fellow Jews. Matthew quotes Jesus as telling his disciples to avoid Samaritan cities, in contrast to the openness demonstrated in the Parable of the Good Samaritan.
The Gospel of John records an instance of Greeks coming to meet Jesus, which Jesus apparently approved of in , and records Jesus' conversion of the Samaritans in . Historians, however, generally regard John as the least credible account of Jesus' actions and sayings.
Jesus said that some made themselves "eunuchs" for the Kingdom of Heaven (). This aphorism might have been meant to establish solidarity with eunuchs, who were considered "incomplete" in Jewish society. Alternatively, he may have been promoting celibacy.
Jesus reportedly condoned the Genesis description of marriage (Mark 10:6-9). He is also presented as having spoken out against divorce, which would imply at least an approval of marriage.
Some suggest that Jesus himself was not celibate. They suggest that he was married to Mary Magdalene, or that he probably had a special relationship with her, or that he was married to Mary the sister of Lazarus. This is quite controversial, since nowhere in the Gospels does it state that he was married or that he was single. Jesus was not a misogynist as suggested, for instance, in the discussion with a Cananean Woman or in the episode of the anointing of Bethania.
John the Baptist was an ascetic and perhaps a Nazirite, so he promoted celibacy like the Essenes.Ascetic elements, such as fasting, appeared in Early Christianity and are mentioned by Matthew during Jesus' discourse on ostentation. Fasting is also seen in the Book of Esther.
Raymond E. Brown concluded that the earliest Christians did not call Jesus God. Similarly, Pinchas Lapide sees Jesus as a rabbi in the Hasid tradition of Hillel the Elder, Yochanan ben Zakai and Hanina Ben Dosa. Constantin Brunner, however, sees him as drawing from the prophetic strain of Judaism and standing in opposition to pharisaic/rabbinic Judaism.
The Jesus Seminar, in their Acts of Jesus, claim that Jesus was arrested, tried, and crucified in Jerusalem as a "public nuisance", specifically for overturning tables at Herod's Temple, not for claiming to be the Son of God.
Though Messianic expectations in general centred on the King Messiah, the Essenes expected both a kingly and a priestly figure in their eschatology. Some have speculated that Jesus and his brother James were seen by some as the kingly, and the priestly Messiahs, respectively. This interpretation has not found support in academia, owing to a lack of supporting evidence.
According to the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus sometimes prayed to God as אבא ['aba'], father. Furthermore, in the Aramaic language, בר אבא [bar 'aba'] means "son of the Father." Some scholars have argued that Jesus was identical to Barabbas, or in some manuscripts, Jesus Barabbas, who the Gospels report was a criminal released by Pontius Pilate instead of Jesus.
According to the Gospels, none of the disciples were present when Jesus discourses with God in the Garden (except at a distance) or with Pilate in Jerusalem. This lack of eye witnesses to the Passion and the audience with Pilate leads historians to conclude that the details of these events are later additions. However, scholars are split on the historicity of the underlying events. Indeed, no physical evidence of Pilate was known to exist until the discovery of the Pilate Stone in 1961.
Scholars are also split on whether or not Jesus was buried, and if so, whether or not the tomb was found empty. After crucifixion, bodies would have normally been exhibited for some time as a warning to the myriad other antagonists in Jerusalem, and eventually left in a shallow mass grave, exposed to wild dogs and other scavengers. Crossan, based on his unique position that the Gospel of Peter contains the oldest primary source about Jesus, argued that the burial accounts become progressively extravagant and thus found it historically unlikely that an enemy would release a corpse, contend that Jesus' followers did not have the means to know what happened to Jesus' body. His position on the Gospel of Peter has not found scholarly support, from Meyer's description of it as "eccentric and implausible", to Koester critique of it as "seriously flawed". Habermas argued against Crossan, stating that the response of Jewish authorities against Christian claims for the resurrection presupposed a burial and empty tomb, and he observed the discovery of the body of Yohanan Ben Ha'galgol, a man who died by crucifixion in the first century and was discovered at a burial site outside ancient Jerusalem in an ossuary, arguing that this find revealed important facts about crucifixion and burial in first century Palestine. Other scholars consider the burial by Joseph of Arimathea found in Mark 15 to be for the most part historically probable, and some have gone on to argue that the tomb was thereafter discovered empty; Michael Grant wrote:
However, Marcus Borg notes:
Mark, possibly the earliest of the Gospels, in the two oldest manuscripts (4th century), breaks off at 16:8 stating that the women came and found an empty tomb "and they said nothing to anyone because they were afraid". (Mk 16:8) The passages stating that he had been seen by Mary Magdelene and the eleven disciples (Mk 16:9-20) was only added later, and the hypothetical original ending was lost. Scholars have put forth a number of theories concerning the resurrection appearances of Jesus. The Jesus Seminar concluded: "In the view of the Seminar, he did not rise bodily from the dead; the resurrection is based instead on visionary experiences of Peter, Paul, and Mary. E.P. Sanders argues for the difficulty to accuse the early witnesses of any deliberate fraud:
Other scholars posit hypothetical scenarios to explain the resurrection appearances through natural means, such as the group of theories known as the swoon hypothesis, with common variants including Jesus being drugged, having fainted, or undergoing a near-death experience, according to which Jesus is revived later. However, most scholars believe supernatural events cannot be reconstructed using empirical methods, and thus consider the resurrection non-historical but instead a philosophical or theological question. What is agreed upon is that Jesus' followers at the very least claimed they saw the risen Jesus.
The Historical Jesus is the "actual" ancient person, but is only accessible to the extent that later people can reasonably and reliably describe him. The quest to attempt to use scientific principles to reconstruct a verifiable biography of Jesus has progressed for more than two centuries, and the Quest is often conceived of as having several phases: