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43–4</ref> The historical outlook on Jesus relies on critical analysis of the Bible, especially the gospels. Many scholars have sought to reconstruct Jesus' life in terms of contemporaneous political, cultural, and religious currents in Israel, including differences between Galilee and Judea, and between different sects such the Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes and Zealots,[1][2] and in terms of conflicts among Jews in the context of Roman occupation.

Peter Kirby's Historical Jesus Theories gives an overview of the conflicting answers that recent writers have given to these questions. The variety and contradictory character of these answers indicate that what follows here is not to be taken as representing a consensus among scholars.

Descriptions of historical Jesus[edit]

Historians generally describe Jesus as an healer who preached the restoration of God's kingdom.[3] Most historians agree he was baptized by John the Baptist, and was crucified by the Romans.


John the Baptist led a large apocalyptic movement. He demanded repentance and baptism. Jesus was baptized and later began his ministry. After John was executed, some of his followers apparently took Jesus as their new leader.[4]

Historians are nearly unanimous in accepting Jesus' baptism as a historical event.[5]


According to Robert Funk, Jesus taught in pithy parables and with striking images.[6] He likened the Kingdom of Heaven to small and lowly things, such as yeast or a mustard seed,[6] that have great effects. Historians often see Jesus' theological pronouncements in the gospels as coming from the Christian tradition but not from Jesus' himself.

Jesus placed a special emphasis on God as one's heavenly father.[6]

Names and titles[edit]

The name Jesus is an anglicization of the Hebrew name that would have more closely been pronounced as spelled Yeshua.[citation needed]

Jesus probably lived in Galilee for most of his life and he probably spoke Aramaic and Hebrew.[7] The name "Jesus" is an English transliteration of the Latin (Iēsus) which in turn comes from the Greek name Iesous (Ιησους). The name has also been translated into English as "Joshua".[8] Further examination of the Septuagint finds that the Greek, in turn, is a transliteration of the Hebrew/Aramaic Yeshua (ישוע) (Yeshua — he will save) a contraction of Hebrew name Yehoshua (יהושוע YehoYahweh [is] shua` — deliverance/rescue, usually Romanized as Joshua). Scholars believe that one of these was likely the name that Jesus was known by during his lifetime by his peers.[9]

Christ (which is a title and not a part of his name) is an Anglicization of the Greek term for Messiah (χριστός, from the verb χρίω "to anoint"), and literally means "anointed one." Historians have debated what this title might have meant at the time Jesus lived; some historians have suggested that other titles applied to Jesus in the New Testament had meanings in the first century quite different from those meanings ascribed today.[10]

The titles "Divine", "Son of God", "God", "God from God", "Lord", "Redeemer", "Liberator", and "Saviour of the World" were each applied to the Roman emperors. John Dominic Crossan considers that the application of them to Jesus by the early Christians would have been regarded as denying them to the emperor(s). "They were taking the identity of the Roman emperor and giving it to a Jewish peasant. Either that was a peculiar joke and a very low lampoon, or it was what the Romans called majestas and we call high treason."[11]

The title Son of God has often been taken as a claim to divinity. Likewise, Jesus claimed the title "I AM" in John 8:58 which designates God in the Hebrew Bible, especially in Exodus 3:14.[12] Some New Testament scholars, however, argue that Jesus himself made no claims to being God.[13][14][15][16][17][18][19] Most Christians identified Jesus as divine from a very early period, although holding a variety of views as to what exactly this implied.[20]

Religious groups[edit]

Scholars refer to the religious background of the early 1st-century to better reconstruct Jesus' life. Some scholars identify him with one or another group.


Pharisees were a powerful force in 1st-century Judaism. After the fall of the Temple, the Pharisee outlook was established in Rabbinic Judaism.

Some scholars speculate that Jesus was himself a Pharisee.[21] In Jesus' day, the two main schools of thought among the Pharisees were the House of Hillel, which had been founded by the eminent Tanna, Hillel the Elder, and the House of Shammai. Jesus' assertion of hypocrisy may have been directed against the stricter members of the House of Shammai, although he also agreed with their teachings on divorce (Mark 10:1–12).[22] Jesus also commented on the House of Hillel's teachings (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a) concerning the greatest commandment (Mark 12:28–34) and the Golden Rule (Matthew 7:12).


The Sadducee sect was particularly powerful in Jerusalem. They accepted the written Law only, rejecting the traditional interpretations accepted by the Pharisees, such as belief in retribution in an afterlife, resurrection of the body, angels, and spirits. They appear to have opposed Jesus' ministry, perhaps because they feared trouble from the Roman power, and in any case because they opposed his doctrines. After the fall of Jerusalem, they disappeared from history.[23]


Essenes were apocalyptic ascetics, one of the three (or four) major Jewish schools of the time, though they were not mentioned in the New Testament.[24]

Some scholars theorize that Jesus was an Essene, or close to them. Among these scholars is Pope Benedict XVI, who supposes in his book on Jesus that "it appears that not only John the Baptist, but possibly Jesus and his family as well, were close to the Qumran community."[25]

Apocalyptic movements[edit]

Still other scholars hypothesize that Jesus led a new apocalyptic sect, possibly related to John the Baptist,[26] who became early Christian after the Great Commission spread his teachings to the Gentiles.[27] This is distinct from an earlier commission Jesus gave to the twelve Apostles, limited to "the lost sheep of the house of Israel" and specifically excluding the Gentiles or Samaritans (Matthew 10).


The Gospels record that Jesus was a Nazarene, a term commonly taken to refer to his place of birth, but sometimes as a religious affiliation.[2]


The Zealots were a revolutionary party opposed to Roman rule, one of those parties that, according to Josephus inspired the fanatical stand in Jerusalem that led to its destruction in the year 70.[28] Luke identifies Simon, a disciple, as a "zealot," which might mean a member of the Zealot party (which would therefore have been already in existence in the lifetime of Jesus) or a zealous person.[28] The notion that Jesus himself was a Zealot does not do justice to the earliest Synoptic material describing him.[29]

Gospels as historical texts[edit]

Main article: Higher criticism

The New Testament, especially the synoptic gospels, were written soon after Jesus' life, making them relevant to historical analysis.[30] Modern scholars use various methods for sorting out the historical Jesus who inspired the gospels from the Jesus of faith that the gospel authors wrote about.

After the original oral stories were written down in Greek, they were transcribed, and later translated into other languages. This is not unique to the Bible — other documents of antiquity have been scrutinized for gaps between the date of an event and the date it was written. Having been written, the New Testament sources encountered insignificant changes, according to scholars such as the late Sir Frederic Kenyon (1863 - 1952).[31]

Contemporary textual critic Bart D. Ehrman cites numerous places where the gospels, and other New Testament books, were apparently altered by Christian scribes.[32] The scribes, largely amateurs, worked to make the gospels more similar and to remove verses that could be taken to support unorthodox beliefs common in early Christianity.[32] For example, Luke portrays Jesus as implacable in the face of his crucifixion, contrary to Mark, which portrays him in agony. Ehrman considers that verses in Luke in which Jesus sweats blood to be a later interpolation, made to include agony in Luke's account.[32] The views of intellectuals who entirely reject Jesus' historicity are summarized in the chapter on Jesus in Will Durant's Caesar and Christ. It is based on a scarcity of eyewitness accounts, a lack of direct archaeological evidence, the failure of specific ancient works to mention Jesus, and similarities between early Christianity and contemporary mythology.[33]

One method used to estimate the factual accuracy of stories in the gospels is known as the "criterion of embarrassment," which holds that stories about events with embarrassing aspects (such as the denial of Jesus by Peter, or the fleeing of Jesus' followers after his arrest) would likely not have been included if those accounts were fictional.[34] Biblical scholars hold that the works describing Jesus were initially communicated by oral tradition, and were not committed to writing until several decades after Jesus' crucifixion. The earliest extant texts which refer to Jesus are Paul's letters, which are usually dated from the mid-1st century. Paul wrote that he only saw Jesus in visions, but that they were divine revelations and hence authoritative (Galatians 1:11–12). The earliest extant texts describing Jesus in any detail were the four Gospels.

  1. ^ For a comparison of the Jesus movement to the Zealots, see S. G. F. Brandon, Jesus and the Zealots: a study of the political factor in primitive Christianity, Manchester University Press (1967) ISBN 0–684–31010–4
  2. ^ a b For a general comparison of Jesus' teachings to other schools of first century Judaism, see John P. Meier, Companions and Competitors (A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, Volume 3) Anchor Bible, 2001. ISBN 0–385–46993–4.
  3. ^ Shaye J.D. Cohen, From the Maccabees to the Mishnah, Westminster Press, 1987, p. 78, 93, 105, 108; John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant, HarperCollins, 1991, p. xi – xiii; Michael Grant, p. 34–35, 78, 166, 200; Paula Fredriksen, Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews, Alfred B. Knopf, 1999, p. 6–7, 105–110, 232–234, 266; John P. Meier, vol. 1:68, 146, 199, 278, 386, 2:726; E.P. Sanders, pp. 12–13; Geza Vermes, Jesus the Jew (Philadelphia: Fortress Press 1973), p. 37.;
  4. ^ Sanders, E.P. Jesus and Judaism. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1987; Vermes, Geza. Jesus the Jew: A Historian's Reading of the Gospels. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1981; Fredriksen, Paula. From Jesus to Christ. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000.
  5. ^ Sanders, E.P. Jesus and Judaism. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1987; Vermes, Geza. Jesus the Jew: A Historian's Reading of the Gospels. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1981; Fredriksen, Paula. From Jesus to Christ. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000.
  6. ^ a b c Funk, Robert W., Roy W. Hoover, and the Jesus Seminar. The five gospels. HarperSanFrancisco. 1993.
  7. ^ "Brian Knowles: Which Language Did Jesus Speak – Aramaic or Hebrew?". 
  8. ^ "Origin of the Name of Jesus Christ". Catholic Encyclopedia. Retrieved April 14, 2007.
  9. ^ Durant, Will. Caesar and Christ. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1944. p. 558; John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew. New York: Doubleday, 1991 vol. 1:205–7;
  10. ^ Vermes, "Jesus the Jew: A Historian's Reading of the Gospels"
  11. ^ Crossan, John Dominic, God and Empire, 2007, p. 28
  12. ^ "Jesus was claiming for himself the title "I AM" by which God designates himself... he was claiming to be God." - Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, page 546, Zondervan.
  13. ^ "A further point of broad agreement among New Testament scholars is ... that the historical Jesus did not make the claim to deity that later Christian thought was to make for him: he did not understand himself to be God, or God the Son, incarnate. " - John Hick, The Metaphor of God Incarnate: Christology in a Pluralistic Age, Westminster John Knox Press, page 27.
  14. ^ Michael Ramsey, Jesus and the Living Past (Oxford University Press, 1980), page 39: 'Jesus did not claim deity for himself’
  15. ^ C. F. D. Moule, The Origin of Christology : 'Any case for a "high" Christology that depended on the authenticity of the alleged claims of Jesus about himself, especially in the Fourth Gospel, would indeed be precarious'
  16. ^ James Dunn (theologian), Christology in the Making, (SCM Press 1980), page 254: 'We cannot claim that Jesus believed himself to be the incarnate Son of God' and 'There is no question in my mind that the doctrine of incarnation comes to clear expression within the NT…John 1.14 ranks as a classic formulation of the Christian belief in Jesus as incarnate God.' Page xiii. .
  17. ^ Brian Hebblethwaite, The Incarnation (Cambridge University Press, 1987), page 74: 'it is no longer possible to defend the divinity of Jesus by reference to the claims of Jesus' .
  18. ^ John A. T. Robinson, Honest to God, Westminster Press (1963), Page 47: 'It is, indeed, an open question whether Jesus ever claimed to be the Son of God, let alone God.'
  19. ^ Larry Hurtado, Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity, page 5, describes the view that Jesus made 'both his messiahship and his divinity clear to his disciples during his ministry' as 'naive and ahistorical'.
  20. ^ Larry Hurtado, Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity, (Eerdmans, 2005), page 650.
  21. ^ Based on a comparison of the Gospels with the Talmud and other Jewish literature. Maccoby, Hyam Jesus the Pharisee, Scm Press, 2003. ISBN 0–334–02914–7; Falk, Harvey Jesus the Pharisee: A New Look at the Jewishness of Jesus, Wipf & Stock Publishers (2003). ISBN 1–59244–313–3.
  22. ^ Neusner, Jacob A Rabbi Talks With Jesus, McGill-Queen's University Press, 2000. ISBN 0–7735–2046–5. Rabbi Neusner contends that Jesus' teachings were closer to the House of Shammai than the House of Hillel.
  23. ^ "Sadducees." Cross, F. L., ed. The Oxford dictionary of the Christian church. New York: Oxford University Press. 2005
  24. ^ Based on a comparison of the Gospels with the Dead Sea Scrolls, especially the Teacher of Righteousness and Pierced Messiah. Eisenman, Robert James the Brother of Jesus: The Key to Unlocking the Secrets of Early Christianity and the Dead Sea Scrolls, Penguin (Non-Classics), 1998. ISBN 0–14–025773-X; Stegemann, Hartmut The Library of Qumran: On the Essenes, Qumran, John the Baptist, and Jesus. Grand Rapids MI, 1998. See also Broshi, Magen, "What Jesus Learned from the Essenes," Biblical Archaeology Review, 30:1, pg. 32–37, 64. Magen notes similarities between Jesus' teachings on the virtue of poverty and divorce, and Essene teachings as related in Josephus' The Jewish Wars and in the Damascus Document of the Dead Sea Scrolls, respectively. See also Akers, Keith The Lost Religion of Jesus. Lantern, 2000. ISBN 1-930051-26-3.
  25. ^ Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth, p. 14
  26. ^ See Schwietzer, Albert The Quest of the Historical Jesus: A Critical Study of its Progress from Reimarus to Wrede, pp. 370–371, 402. Scribner (1968), ISBN 0–02–089240–3; Ehrman, Bart Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium, Oxford University Press USA, 1999. ISBN 0–19–512474-X. Crossan, however, makes a distinction between John's apocalyptic ministry and Jesus' ethical ministry. See Crossan, John Dominic, The Birth of Christianity: Discovering What Happened in the Years Immediately After the Execution of Jesus, pp. 305–344. Harper Collins, 1998. ISBN 0–06–061659–8.
  27. ^ This includes the belief that Jesus was the Messiah. Brown, Michael L. Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus: Messianic Prophecy Objections Baker Books, 2003. ISBN 0–8010–6423–6. Brown shows how the Christian concept of Messiah relates to ideas current in late Second Temple period Judaism. See also Klausner, Joseph, The Messianic Idea in Israel: From its Beginning to the Completion of the Mishnah, Macmillan 1955; Patai, Raphael, Messiah Texts, Wayne State University Press, 1989. ISBN 0–8143–1850–9; Crossan, John Dominic, The Birth of Christianity: Discovering What Happened in the Years Immediately After the Execution of Jesus, pg. 461. Harper Collins, 1998. ISBN 0–06–061659–8. Patai and Klausner state that one interpretation of the prophecies reveal either two Messiahs, Messiah ben Yosef (the dying Messiah) and Messiah ben David (the Davidic King), or one Messiah who comes twice. Crossan cites the Essene teachings about the twin Messiahs. Compare to the Christian doctrine of the Second Coming.
  28. ^ a b "Zealots." Cross, F. L., ed. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. New York: Oxford University Press. 2005
  29. ^ "Jesus Christ." Cross, F. L., ed. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. New York: Oxford University Press. 2005
  30. ^ "The New Testament was complete, of substantially complete, about AD 100, the majority of the writings being in existence twenty to forty years before this ...the situation is encouraging from the historian's point of view, for the first three Gospels were written at a time when many were alive who could remember the things that Jesus said and did... At any rate, the time elapsing between the evangelic events and the writing of most of the New Testament books was, from the standpoint of historical research, satisfactorily short." Bruce, F. F.: The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?, pp. 12-14, InterVarsity Press, USA, 1997.
  31. ^ "The interval then between the dates of the original composition and the earliest extant evidence becomes so small as to be in fact negligible, and the last foundation for any doubt that the Sciptures have come down to us substantially as they were written has now been removed. Both the authenticity and the general integrity of the books of the New Testament may be regarded as finally established." As quoted in Bruce, F. F.: The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?, p. 20, InterVarsity Press, USA, 1997.
  32. ^ a b c Ehrman, Bart (2005). Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why. HarperSanFrancisco. ISBN 0-06-073817-0.
  33. ^ Durant 1944:553–7
  34. ^ Meier, John P., A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, Doubleday: 1991. vol 1: p. 168–171.