Historical Jesus

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 [Harrison, John B. and Richard E. Sullivan. A short history of Western civilization. New York: Knopf. 1975.] 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, 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, [Some of the historians and Biblical scholars who place the birth Jesus within this range include D. A. Carson, Douglas J. Moo and Leon Morris. "An Introduction to the New Testament." Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1992, 54, 56 Michael Grant, "Jesus: An Historian's Review of the Gospels", Scribner's, 1977, p. 71; John P. Meier, "A Marginal Jew", Doubleday, 1991–, vol. 1:214; E. P. Sanders, "The Historical Figure of Jesus", Penguin Books, 1993, pp. 10–11, and Ben Witherington III, "Primary Sources," "Christian History" 17 (1998) No. 3:12–20.] and probably in Nazareth. [John P. Meier, "A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus: The Roots of the Problem and the Person, Vol. 1", Doubleday 1991, page 216.] [Bart D. Ehrman, "Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium", Oxford University Press, 1999, page 97.] [E. P. Sanders, "The Historical Figure of Jesus", Penguin 1993, page 85.] 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". [Geza Vermes, The Nativity: History and Legend, London, Penguin, 2006, p22] E. P. Sanders describes them as "the clearest cases of invention in the Gospels". [E. P. Sanders, "The Historical Figure of Jesus", 1993, p.85]

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. [Flavius Josephus, "Jewish Antiquities", Book 18, Chapter 4] 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. [ [http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/14454b.htm The Catholic Encyclopedia - Targum] ] Some scholars speculate that because the lingua franca under Roman occupation was Greek, Jesus might have known at least some Koine Greek. [). 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, [i.e., The Infancy Gospel of James ] there is no independent or verifiable information about any aspect of Mary's life.

Jesus's siblings

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 ( 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). 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. (), (, ) 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 records Jesus' conversion of the Samaritans in ]

John the Baptist was an ascetic and perhaps a Nazirite, so he promoted celibacy like the Essenes. [ [http://jewishencyclopedia.com/view.jsp?artid=478&letter=E&search=Essenes Jewish Encyclopedia: Essenes] : "The similarity in many respects between Christianity and Essenism is striking: There were the same communism (Acts iv. 34-35); the same belief in baptism or bathing, and in the power of prophecy; the same aversion to marriage, enhanced by firmer belief in the Messianic advent; the same system of organization, and the same rules for the traveling brethren delegated to charity-work (see Apostle and Apostleship); and, above all, the same love-feasts or brotherly meals (comp. Agape; Didascalia)."] 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. 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.Vermes, Geza "Jesus the Jew", Fortress Press, New York 1981. p.209] Paolo Flores d'Arcais, "MicroMega" 3/2007, p.43] 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. [" [T] here is no reason to think that Jesus was called God in the earliest layers of New Testament tradition." in "Does the New Testament call Jesus God?" in "Theological Studies", 26, (1965) p. 545-73] 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. [" [H] is struggle against Pharisaism—according to absolute and historic right, it was the struggle of prophecy against Pharisaism. It is the struggle of the intuitive Judaism of genius against its apish inversion and petrification in pharisaic rabbinism, against the mechanical pressure of the lifeless upon life, against the mechanism of the instrument, that played endlessly and spiritlessly on itself and on the player." In "Our Christ: The Revolt of the Mystical Genius", p. 158-9]

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,

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". [cite book |last=Lewis |first=C. S. |title=The Screwtape Letters |origyear=1942 |publisher=HarperCollins |location=New York |isbn=0-06-065289-6 |pages=pp. 150–151 ] Professor C. Stephen Evans [cite web|url=http://www.baylor.edu/philosophy/index.php?id=001938|title=Biography of C Stephen Evans|publisher=Baylor University|accessdate=2007-03-16] writes that "there is no story of the historical Jesus that can be isolated from faith convictions". [cite web|url=http://www.klaxo.net/tcoto/rel/EVANBK.HTM|title=The historical Christ and the Jesus of faith|last=Evans|first=C. Stephen|publisher=Klaxo.net|accessdate=2007-03-16]

Criticism as myth

Some writers, such as Earl Doherty, G. A. Wells, and Robert M. Price [Robert M. Price, "Deconstructing Jesus", pages 9, 16-17, quoted in Michael James McClymond, "Familiar Stranger: An Introduction to Jesus of Nazareth", Eerdrmans (2004), page 163: 'Price ... calls his position "agnosticism" rather than "atheism" on the question of Jesus' existence'. ] 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.The historian Michael Grant states that, "To sum up, modern critical methods fail to support the Christ myth theory. It has 'again and again been answered and annihilated by first rank scholars.' In recent years, 'no serious scholar has ventured to postulate the non historicity of Jesus' or at any rate very few, and they have not succeeded in disposing of the much stronger, indeed very abundant, evidence to the contrary." - Michael Grant, "Jesus: An Historian's Review of the Gospels" (Scribner, 1995).] "There are those who argue that Jesus is a figment of the Church’s imagination, that there never was a Jesus at all. I have to say that I do not know any respectable critical scholar who says that any more.” Burridge, R & Gould, G, "Jesus Now and Then", Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2004, p.34.] [Michael James McClymond, "Familiar Stranger: An Introduction to Jesus of Nazareth", Eerdrmans (2004), page 24: most scholars regard the argument for Jesus' non-existence as unworthy of any response".] "Van Voorst is quite right in saying that “mainstream scholarship today finds it unimportant” [p.6, n.9] . Most of their comment (such as those quoted by Michael Grant) are limited to expressions of contempt." - Earl Doherty, "Responses to Critiques of the Mythicist Case: Four: Alleged Scholarly Refutations of Jesus Mythicism", available [http://home.ca.inter.net/~oblio/CritiquesRefut3.htm http://home.ca.inter.net/~oblio/CritiquesRefut3.htm] , accessed 05 January 2008.] In later years, especially with the arrival of the Internet, Bible scholars were put to doubt and accused of intellectual dishonesty by critics. [ [http://www.jesusneverexisted.com/scholars.html The End is Nigh – for Jesus, that is ] ] [ [http://www.sbl-site.org/publications/article.aspx?articleId=520 Society of Biblical Literature ] ] [Karlheinz Deschner "Der gefälschte Glaube", Munich, 1988 / "El Credo Falsificado" Buenos Aires, Txalaparta, 2007, page 12: "Scholars who consider the historicity of Jesus demonstrated are at least not loyal, and maybe cheaters" ISBN 978-987-23496-8-4]

See also

* The Quest for the Historical Jesus
* Cultural and historical background of Jesus
* Historicity of Jesus
* Depiction of Jesus in art
* Jesus Seminar
* New Testament view on Jesus' life
* Religious perspectives on Jesus
* Jesus
* Christ
* Tacitus on Jesus
* Jesus Myth
*Christian-Jewish reconciliation


*cite book |last=Brown |first=Raymond E. |authorlink=Raymond E. Brown |title=The Death of the Messiah: from Gethsemane to the Grave |year=1993 |publisher=Anchor Bible |location=New York |id=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.
*cite book |last=Ehrman |first=Bart D.|authorlink= |title=Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium |year=1999 |publisher=Oxford |location=New York |id=ISBN 0-19-512473-1
*cite book |last=Fredriksen |first=Paula |title=Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews: A Jewish Life and the Emergence of Christianity |year=2000 |publisher=Vintage Books |location=New York |id=ISBN 978-0679767466
* Grant, Michael. "Jesus: A Historian's Review of the Gospels." Scribner's, 1977. ISBN 0-684-14889-7.
*cite book |last=Funk |first=Robert W. |authorlink=Robert W. Funk |title=The Acts of Jesus: The Search for the Authentic Deeds of Jesus |year=1998 |publisher=HarperSanFrancisco |id=ISBN 0-06-062978-9
* Harris, by William V. "Ancient Literacy". Harvard University Press: 1989. ISBN 0-674-03380-9.
*Meier, John P., , 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.


External links

* [http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/religion/jesus/ PBS Frontline: From Jesus to Christ]
* [http://www.apollos.ws/nt-biblical-studies-articles/ NT Biblical Studies Articles] at Apollos.ws, including links to online articles on the historical Jesus
* [http://www.leaderu.com/offices/billcraig/menus/historical.html Articles about the historical Jesus] by William Lane Craig
* [http://www.ntwrightpage.com Unofficial page] of N. T. Wright, including articles on Jesus

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