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Historical Jesus

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.

Scholarly methods

Historians have developed a number of methods to critically analyze historical sources:

  • Criterion of dissimilarity

More narrowly, the criterion of embarrassment, statements contrary or dissimilar to the author's agenda are likely to be more reliable. For example, a Christian source would be unlikely to claim that Jesus was from Nazareth (rather than from Bethlehem), unless his family was actually from Nazareth, as this was a cause of embarrassment.

When two or more independent sources present similar or consistent accounts, it is at least certain that the tradition predates the sources. See the Historicity of Jesus for a list of sources pertaining to this question.

  • Contextual and linguistic criteria

A source is more credible when the tradition makes sense in the context of what historians know about the cultural background. There are some interesting conclusions that can be drawn from linguistic analysis of the gospels. For example, if a dialogue only works in Greek (the language of its written source), it is quite likely the author is reporting something at least slightly different from the original.

  • Author's Agenda

This criterion is the flip side of the criterion of dissimilarity. When material serves the perceived purposes of the author or redactor, it is suspect. For example, various sections of the gospels, such as the Massacre of the Innocents, portray Jesus' life as fulfilling prophecy, and in the view of many scholars, reflect the agenda of the gospel authors rather than historical events.

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.

Jesus' Jewish background

According to the Gospels and other early sources, Jesus was active in Galilee and Judea (modern day Israel, Palestine, and Jordan) during the first half of the first century. Following the fall of earlier Jewish kingdoms, the partially-Hellenized territory was under Roman imperial rule, but there were ongoing hopes of a revival of sovereignty. The Roman Prefect’s first duty to Rome was to maintain order, but although the land was mostly peaceful, there was a continued risk of rebellion, riots, banditry, and violent resistance (see also Zealotry). Four decades after Jesus’ death, the tensions caused by Jewish hopes for a restoration of the kingdom of David culminated in the first Jewish-Roman War and the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.

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).

Biographical details of Jesus

According to Professor Paula Fredriksen, Boston University, two events in the Gospels probably happened: John's baptism, and Pilate's crucifixion of Jesus. These events are mentioned in all four gospels. John the Baptist's prominence in both the gospels and Josephus suggests that he may have been more popular than Jesus in his lifetime; also, Jesus's mission does not begin until after his baptism by John. Fredriksen suggests that it was only after Jesus's death that Jesus emerged as more influential than John. Accordingly, the gospels project Jesus's posthumous importance back to his lifetime. One way Fredriksen believes this was accomplished was by minimizing John's importance by having John resist baptizing Jesus (Matthew), by referring to the baptism in passing (Luke), or by asserting Jesus's superiority (John).

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.


Some historians conclude that Jesus was born around 7-2 BC, and probably in Nazareth. Other modern scholars believe the two Gospel accounts of Jesus's birth present two different and conflicting narratives, and view both stories as "pious fictions". E. P. Sanders describes them as "the clearest cases of invention in the Gospels".

Year and date

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.

Linguistic proficiency

The Gospels seem to indicate that Jesus spoke Aramaic, as he often uses metaphors unknown in Hebrew or Greek but common in Aramaic. If he were literate—and most peasants were not—he might have known Hebrew, but Targums also existed in Aramaic. Some scholars speculate that because the lingua franca under Roman occupation was Greek, Jesus might have known at least some Koine Greek.


The only two examples of evidence that Jesus may have been literate is a passage in the gospel of Luke where he stands up in his hometown synagogue to read from the Isaiah scroll during services, and another in John 8:1-11, where it is noted that Jesus bent down and started to write upon the ground with his finger during the Pericope Adulteræ, which is not found in the earliest biblical manuscripts. Many scholars of the historical Jesus who regard the gospels as fallible do not find this evidence convincing. Most people of Jesus' time, place, and social standing were illiterate. However, Jesus is referred to as Rabbi, or "Teacher", multiple times in the gospels, which may suggest that he was literate, at least in Hebrew or Aramaic. The issue of Jesus' literacy is debated amongst those attacking or defending biblical inerrancy.

Socioeconomic status

Jesus is identified in Mark as a tekton, or carpenter, and in Matthew as the son of a carpenter (). John Dominic Crossan puts tekton into a historical context more resembling an itinerant Irish "tinker" than a Union-card holding artisan, emphasizing his marginality in a population in which a peasant, seised with land, could become quite prosperous.

Family background and childhood


Jesus' father might have been named Yosef. Jesus' reputed descent from King David would be consistent with an attempt by the authors of Matthew and Luke to bolster his identity as the Messiah and King of the Jews. However, the names of Joseph (Yosef) and Jesus (Yeshua) or Joshua, were extremely common among Jews in the first century, as is the name Mary (Miriam).


The majority of information on Jesus' mother Mary comes from her mention in the Synoptic Gospels and the Book of Acts. The Gospel of John does not mention her by name but refers to "the mother of Jesus" or "[Jesus'] mother." Beyond the accounts given in the Gospels and a few other early Christian sources, there is no independent or verifiable information about any aspect of Mary's life.

Jesus's siblings

Both Mark and Matthew describe Jesus as having "brothers", who are named as James (Jacob), Joses (or Joseph), Jude (Judas), and Simon. In the Hebrew Bible, the word "brother" (אח) is often used to mean "kinsman" or "cousin". However, some historians maintain that these biblical passages suggest Jesus had actual brothers. Mark also mentions his sisters but here the term "sisters" might refer to other female relatives. Many of the gnostic gospels, including the Protevangelium of James, claim these were children of Joseph from an earlier marriage, making them the stepbrothers and stepsisters (or half-brothers and half-sisters) of Jesus.

Ministry of Jesus

Works and miracles

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.

Jesus and John the Baptist

According to the Mark and Matthew accounts of the gospels, Jesus began his ministry of preaching, teaching, and healing soon after he was baptized by John the Baptist, an apocalyptic ascetic preacher who called on Jews to repent. This event is considered by scholars to have high historical credibility.

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.

Ministry and teachings

The synoptic Gospels agree that Jesus grew up in Nazareth, went to the River Jordan to meet and be baptised by the prophet John (Yohannan) the Baptist, and shortly after began healing and preaching to villagers and fishermen around the Sea of Galilee (which is actually a freshwater lake). Although there were many Phoenician, Macedonian, and Roman cities nearby (e.g. Gesara and Gadara; Sidon and Tyre; Sepphoris and Tiberias), there is only one account of Jesus healing someone in the region of the Gadarenes found in the three synoptic Gospels (the demon called Legion), and another when he healed a Syro-Phoenician girl in the vicinity of Tyre and Sidon (). Otherwise, there is no record of Jesus having spent any significant amount of time in Gentile towns. The center of his work was Capernaum, a small town (about 500 by 350 meters, with a population of 1,500-2,000) where, according to the Gospels, he appeared at the town's synagogue (a non-sacred meeting house where Jews would often gather on the Sabbath to study the Torah), healed a paralytic, and continued seeking disciples.

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).

Length of ministry

Historians do not know how long Jesus preached. The Gospel of John mentions three separate Passovers during Jesus' ministry, so Jesus' ministry is traditionally said to have been three years long. However, even using this method of time calculation, just under four years is the maximum time, and two years is the minimum. Historians, however, regard John as the least reliable of the four canonical gospels, and its chronology differs from that of the synoptic gospels, which mention only one Passover.

Parables and paradoxes

Jesus taught in parables and aphorisms. A parable is a figurative image with a single message (sometimes mistaken for an analogy, in which each element has a metaphoric meaning). An aphorism is a short, memorable turn of phrase. In Jesus' case, aphorisms often involve some paradox or reversal. Authentic parables probably include the Good Samaritan and the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard. Authentic aphorisms include "turn the other cheek", "go the second mile", and "love your enemies".

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.


According to many Historical Jesus scholars, Jesus also seems to have preached the imminent end of human history and coming of the Kingdom of God, in the sense of God's direct rule over the earth. In this sense, he was an apocalyptic preacher.

The evidence for this thesis comes from several verses, including the following:

  • In Mark 8:38-9:1, Jesus says that the Son of Man will come "in the glory of the Father with the holy angels" during "this adulterous generation." Indeed, he says, "there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the Kingdom of God has come in power."
  • In Luke 21:35-36, Jesus urges constant, unremitting preparedness on the part of his followers in light of the imminence of the end of history and the final intervention of God. "Be alert at all times, praying to have strength to flee from all these things that are about to take place and to stand in the presence of the Son of Man."
  • In Mark 13:24-27, 30, Jesus describes what will happen when the end comes, saying that "the sun will grow dark and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and ... they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds with great power and glory." He gives a timeline for this event: "Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away before all these things take place."
  • The Apostle Paul also seems to have shared this expectation. Toward the end of 1 Corinthians 7, he counsels Christians to avoid getting married if they can since the end of history was imminent. Speaking to the unmarried, he writes, "I think that, in view of the impending crisis, it is well for you to remain as your are." "I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short ... For the present form of this world is passing away." (1 Corinthians 7:26, 29, 31) In 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17, Paul also seems to believe that he will live to witness the return of Jesus and the end of history.
  • Noted Christian apologist C.S. Lewis conceded that Jesus did, in fact, seem to believe that the end of history was imminent and that he was mistaken about it. Lewis accepted Jesus's "this generation shall not pass" assertion as an "exhibition of error" on Jesus's part. Lewis reconciled this with his Christian faith by simply saying that this was part of the mystery of God. "The answer of theologians is that the God-Man was omniscient as God, and ignorant as Man. This, no doubt, is true, though it cannot be imagined.

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.

Religious debates

The Gospels present Jesus as engaging in frequent "question and answer" debates with other religious figures. For example, the Gospels report that Jesus made use of a quote from the Law of Moses to answer a question posed by the Sadducees regarding the resurrection of the dead, in which they did not believe. The Gospels agree that Jesus generally opposed stringent interpretations of Jewish law, and therefore preached a more flexible understanding of it. They present an inclination to following a teleological approach, in which the spirit of the law is more important than the letter, and record him as having many disagreements with the Pharisees and Sadducees. In some places, however, Jesus suggests that the Pharisees were not strict enough in their observance of the law. The Jewish Encyclopedia article on Jesus notes: "Jesus, however, does not appear to have taken into account the fact that the Halakah was at this period just becoming crystallized, and that much variation existed as to its definite form; the disputes of the Bet Hillel and Bet Shammai were occurring about the time of his maturity."

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.

Commission of disciples and apostles

According to the Gospel of Matthew, the theme of Jesus' preaching (and also that of John the Baptist) was: "Repent, for the kingdom of the heavens has drawn near" (e.g. ). Jesus reportedly trained his disciples to do the same work: "As you go, preach, saying, The kingdom of the heavens has drawn near" (). The Jesus Seminar rated these verses as inauthentic, a case of John's apocalyptic message being attributed to Jesus.

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.


The fellows of the Jesus Seminar mostly held that Jesus was not an ascetic, and that he probably drank wine and didn't fast. He did, however, promote a simple life and the renunciation of wealth.

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.

Jesus as Messiah

Many scholars argue that, like most Jews, Jesus probably believed that the restoration of the monarchy would be accomplished by God, not by any movement of Jews. 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". According to Geza Vermes and other historians, that his followers referred to Jesus as "messiah" and "son of God" indicate that they believed he would assume the monarchy upon the restoration of the kingdom.

Jesus as Hasidean rabbi

In the synoptic gospels, the being of Jesus as "Son of God" corresponds exactly to the typical Hasid from Galilee, a "pious" holy man that by God's intervention performs miracles and exorcisms. Identification of Jesus with the divine Logos is of a later date.

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.

Entrance to Jerusalem

The Gospels report Jesus' entrance to Jerusalem as having occurred shortly before the Passover. However, some scholars have argued that this actually happened at Sukkoth or Tabernacles, based on the part of the waving of palm fronds and the Hosanna cry during that feast. The date given in the Gospels is seen as either an accidental error or a deliberate change.

Priestly and kingly messiahs

The Jewish term Messiah ("anointed") traditionally referred both to the King of Israel, epitomized in David, and to the High Priest, beginning with Aaron. The two meanings are made explicit in the Hebrew Bible, where King and High Priest are both anointed, and are also symbolized in the twin pillars of the temple and their bridging arch which unified them.

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.

Jesus and "Barabbas"

The Gospels report that Jesus was held at the same time as another, "Barabbas", the latter often considered to be a title or description rather than a name—it is Hebrew for "Son of the Father". Seeing it as improbable that two individuals both existed, both known as "Jesus" (Hebrew: Yehoshua, or "God will save", colloquially meaning "Savior") and "Son of the Father" or "Son of Man", some have questioned the identity or existence of "Barabbas".

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.

Crucifixion of Jesus

The gospels attest that Jesus was crucified by Pontius Pilate, who was the Prefect of Iudaea province from 26 AD to 36 AD. Some scholars suggest that Pilate executed Jesus as a public nuisance, perhaps with the cooperation of the Jewish authorities. Historians debate whether Jesus intended to be crucified.

Controversial details

Crucifixion was a Roman method of execution, commonly used for criminals during the time of Jesus. The assertions made in the Bible that Pilate held a trial for an alleged troublemaker and ended up crucifying Jesus because the local population insisted upon it is considered historically dubious. E. P. Sanders argued that the cleansing of the Temple was an act that seriously offended his Jewish audience and eventually led to his death, while Bart D. Ehrman argued that Jesus' actions would have been considered treasonous and thus a capital offense by the Romans.

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.

Quest for the Historical 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:

  • The First Quest applied the historical methodologies of the Enlightenment (e.g. "the historical-critical method") to the ancient sources, in the hopes of distinguishing the history of Jesus from the myths surrounding him.
  • During the "no quest" period, scholars denied the possibility and/or relevance of reconstructing a biography of Jesus.
  • The Second Quest quest sought to modernize Historical Jesus Research by using comparative textual analysis and historical context to reconstruct more or less plausible accounts.
  • The Third (and current) Quest focuses on Jesus' Jewishness and often emphasizes socio-historical context, and has not come to consensus.

Criticism of reconstructing a historical Jesus

Critics variously attack the historical reconstruction of Jesus as either a monumental distortion of Jesus' true identity and ministry or as ascribing historical status to a fictional character.

Christian criticism

In The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis had a demon explain: "The Historical Point of View, put briefly, means that when a learned man is presented with any statement in an ancient author, the one question he never asks is whether it is true". Professor C. Stephen Evans writes that "there is no story of the historical Jesus that can be isolated from faith convictions".

Criticism as myth

Some writers, such as Earl Doherty, G. A. Wells, and Robert M. Price question whether Jesus ever existed, and whether attempts to use the gospels to reconstruct his life give the gospels too much credit. This position, popularised by popular works such as the 2005 documentary The God Who Wasn't There, is very rare among Bible scholars. In later years, especially with the arrival of the Internet, Bible scholars were put to doubt and accused of intellectual dishonesty by critics.

See also


  • Brown, Raymond E. (1993). The Death of the Messiah: from Gethsemane to the Grave. New York: Anchor Bible. ISBN 0-385-49449-1.
  • Craffert, Pieter F. and Botha, Pieter J. J. "Why Jesus Could Walk On The Sea But He Could Not Read And Write". Neotestamenica. 39.1, 2005.
  • Crossan, John Dominic. Jesus : A Revolutionary Biography. Harpercollins: 1994. ISBN 0-06-061661-X.
  • Ehrman, Bart D. (1999). Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium. New York: Oxford. ISBN 0-19-512473-1.
  • Fredriksen, Paula (2000). Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews: A Jewish Life and the Emergence of Christianity. New York: Vintage Books. ISBN 978-0679767466.
  • Grant, Michael. Jesus: A Historian's Review of the Gospels. Scribner's, 1977. ISBN 0-684-14889-7.
  • Funk, Robert W. (1998). The Acts of Jesus: The Search for the Authentic Deeds of Jesus. HarperSanFrancisco. ISBN 0-06-062978-9.
  • Harris, by William V. Ancient Literacy. Harvard University Press: 1989. ISBN 0-674-03380-9.
  • Meier, John P., A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, Doubleday,

v. 1, The Roots of the Problem and the Person, 1991, ISBN 0-385-26425-9
v. 2, Mentor, Message, and Miracles, 1994, ISBN 0-385-46992-6
v. 3, Companions and Competitors, 2001, ISBN 0-385-46993-4

  • Sanders, E.P. Jesus and Judaism. Augsburg Fortress Publishers: 1987.
  • Theissen, Gerd and Merz, Annette. The Historical Jesus: A Comprehensive Guide. Fortress Press: Minneapolis, 1998. ISBN 0-8006-3122-6.
  • Witherington III, Ben. The Jesus Quest. InterVarsity Press: 1997. ISBN 0-8308-1544-9.
  • Wright, N.T. Christian Origins and the Question of God, a projected 6 volume series of which 3 have been published under: The New Testament and the People of God (Vol.1); Jesus and the Victory of God (Vol.2); The Resurrection of the Son of God (Vol.3). Fortress Press.
  • Wright, N.T. The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering who Jesus was and is. IVP 1996
  • Yaghjian, Lucretia. "Ancient Reading", in Richard Rohrbaugh, ed., The Social Sciences in New Testament Interpretation. Hendrickson Publishers: 2004. ISBN 1-56563-410-1.


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