Historical Jesus and the Scholars That Have Studied and Debated the Topic

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Kristin Romey wrote in National Geographic: “In 1991 John Dominic Crossan published a bombshell of a book, The Historical Jesus, in which he put forward the theory that the real Jesus was a wandering sage whose countercultural lifestyle and subversive sayings bore striking parallels to the Cynics. These peripatetic philosophers of ancient Greece, while not cynical in the modern sense of the word, thumbed their unwashed noses at social conventions such as cleanliness and the pursuit of wealth and status. [Source: Kristin Romey, National Geographic, November 28, 2017 ^|^]

“Crossan’s unorthodox thesis was inspired partly by archaeological discoveries showing that Galilee—long thought to have been a rural backwater and an isolated Jewish enclave—was in fact becoming more urbanised and Romanised during Jesus’ day than scholars once imagined, and partly by the fact that Jesus’ boyhood home was just five kilometres from Sepphoris, the Roman provincial capital. Although the city isn’t mentioned in the Gospels, an ambitious building campaign fuelled by Galilee’s ruler, Herod Antipas, would have attracted skilled workers from all the surrounding villages. Many scholars think it’s reasonable to imagine Jesus, a young craftsman living nearby, working at Sepphoris—and, like a college freshman, testing the boundaries of his religious upbringing.” ^|^

“Scholars who study Jesus divide into two opposing camps separated by a very bright line: those who believe the wonder-working Jesus of the Gospels is the real Jesus, and those who think the real Jesus—the man who inspired the myth—hides below the surface of the Gospels and must be revealed by historical research and literary analysis. Both camps claim archaeology as their ally, leading to some fractious debates and strange bedfellows. Some scholars regard Jesus as a social revolutionary whose true mission was regime change rather than the salvation of souls.” ^|^

Websites and Resources: Jesus and the Historical Jesus Britannica on Jesus britannica.com Jesus-Christ ; Historical Jesus Theories earlychristianwritings.com ; Wikipedia article on Historical Jesus Wikipedia ; Jesus Seminar Forum virtualreligion.net; PBS Frontline From Jesus to Christ pbs.org ; Life and Ministry of Jesus Christ bible.org ; Jesus Central jesuscentral.com ; Catholic Encyclopedia: Jesus Christ newadvent.org ; Christianity BBC on Christianity bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity ; Christian Classics Ethereal Library www.ccel.org ; Sacred Texts website sacred-texts.com ; Candida Moss at the Daily Beast Daily Beast Christian Answers christiananswers.net ; Christian Classics Ethereal Library www.ccel.org ; Bible: Bible Gateway and the New International Version (NIV) of The Bible biblegateway.com ; King James Version of the Bible gutenberg.org/ebooks Biblical History: Bible History Online bible-history.com ; Biblical Archaeology Society biblicalarchaeology.org

Searching for Jesus

Elizabeth Clark of Duke University told PBS: “The quest for the historical Jesus has gone on for about three centuries. Now, the classical study of this was done by Albert Schweitzer, at the turn to the 20th century, in his book, "The Quest of the Historical Jesus." What he showed was that from the 18th century on, the attempt to find out who Jesus really was had been conditioned all the way through by the needs and wants and desires of the people who were writing the book.... So, Jesus turned out in the 19th century, for example, to look very much like somebody who would be happy with a form of relatively liberal social Christianity, such as might have been practiced in various western societies, at that time. [Source: Elizabeth Clark, John Carlisle Kilgo Professor of Religion and Director of the Graduate Program in Religion Duke University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]

“I think that this approach to the study of Jesus actually is correct in the sense that even the early Christians looked at Jesus in a way that suited their needs for the development of the church and the Christian religion at the time. The quest for historicity, though, in the way we think of it, is more a modern quest. I think that people in the early church were very eager to use the stories and sayings of Jesus for purposes of moral edification, for building up the church, exhorting congregations, and so on but they really were not wracked with this question of historicity and was it authentic, in the way that people in the 19th and 20th century, particularly, have been.

“Albert Schweitzer concluded at the end of this enormous study of all these lives of Jesus, that the Jesus that might have been the Jesus of the synoptic gospels was an apocalyptic figure who preached a fiery message of the coming of the Kingdom of God, who separated families, who told people they should have no occupations but go out and follow him and so on. He had to conclude this was quite irrelevant to the needs and wants of Western Christians at the turn to the 20th century. This was not a form of Christianity that was compatible with his day and age. And he devised, in keeping with many of the trends of his time and German Protestantism, a kind of simple message of how Jesus preached - the Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of Man - some elements of social justice and that's sort of what he got out of it. So, he, in his own way was kind of shaping and changing for his own needs and those of German Christians of his time, a portrait of Jesus, or a message of Jesus that he thought in fact, was maybe somewhat different, from what the New Testament, itself contained.”

What Can We Really Know About Jesus?

John Dominic Crossan, author of "The Historical Jesus"

Professor Wayne A. Meeks told PBS: “Every Christian sooner or later has to ask the question, "Who was Jesus really?" And we ask this in our age in a special way because we are very historically oriented. We are modern, or perhaps post-modern, people, but all of us have a sense that we want to know what things were really like. We know that the past is different from the present. We have experienced rapid change, all of us in our generation. And so we want to know what was Jesus really like. And that quest to understand what he was really like has turned out to be very disappointing. So how do we really get at that? We must, first of all, understand that in history facts always lie under interpretations and we never get to the facts. They're only interpretations. There is only an interpreted Jesus, there are many interpreted Jesuses. So where do we begin? We begin not with Jesus, we have no access to him. We begin with the responses to Jesus, by his followers, by outsiders who heard about him.... We begin with those reactions as they're enshrined in the text we have. [Source: Wayne A. Meeks, Woolsey Professor of Biblical Studies Yale University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]

“All we have from this period about Jesus is text, finally. And we try to work backwards and say, "How did we get these texts? Who wrote these texts? Where did they get the ideas?" Surely behind the written text there were oral traditions, we know that. There were oral traditions that went on after the written text, and we have evidence of those being written down later. So we try to dissect those. We say, "What kind of traditions? How were they shaped? What kinds of stories did people tell about Jesus?" Those stories have a shape to them. Do we find other stories in the culture of the Mediterranean world around Jesus? Other stories about other people that are shaped the same way? We have reports of what Jesus said. He told parables, he told stories, he told little epigrams. Those have a shape to them. Are they like any sayings that are attributed to other people at the same time? We're trying to put this whole story into a context of its own history, of its own time. And our ideal here is to be able to hear those stories, hear those sayings, as someone in the first century would have heard them, recognizing that there were conventions that if people heard a certain way of talking they would say, "Hmm, this person claims to be a prophet." Or this person about whom this story is told is a magician, someone with magical power, a healer, or this is a wise person, a person who delivers certain kinds of maxims or epigrams or tells proverbs or parables and the like. So there are socially conditioned ways of identifying people that one can see almost built into the shape of the tradition about Jesus. If we're smart enough, by comparing other sources from a similar time and place, we can retrace that history, working backwards from the text in the earliest time that we can get to.

“So how do we learn about Jesus from what he said? If we could only be sure that he said everything that's attributed to him in the various gospels.... This is complicated by several things. One of the complications most recently is the discovery in 1945 of some other gospels that we didn't know about before. One of them, the Gospel of Thomas, is nothing but sayings of Jesus. It simply goes along and says, "Jesus said this, Jesus said that." Well some of these things that Jesus said according to the Gospel of Thomas are quite familiar. They're very similar to things in the canonical gospels, but not identical. And there are other things which are quite different from any of the things that he said in the canonical gospels.

“Then, even among the canonical gospels, the way Jesus talks in the first three, the so-called synoptic gospels, is very different from the way he talks in the Gospel according to John. Now, which is right? Which is the real Jesus speaking here? We discovered that there are several different portraits of Jesus enshrined in the shape of the traditions about him, and that these seem to go back to very early times. Now this runs flatly contrary to our traditional picture in which everything begins with a nice unified beginning in which everything was clear and only later there come heresies which change things. But it's not so surprising if you think about the way human beings tend to remember things. Everybody remembers things in accord with what makes sense in their particular view of the world. We have different portraits of Jesus because from the very beginning people tried to understand the mystery about him. And they understood it within categories which were familiar in their time and place, in their particular corner of that time and place. And so we have a set of variety of ways of perceiving Jesus from the very beginning. And that's built into the earliest sources that we have....

“The really important figures in history always generate multiple traditions. Think of the different ways in which people even in our own time think about John Fitzgerald Kennedy. He is the martyr, he is the hero, he is the great liberal, no, he was really rather conservative. He's the Cold War warrior, etc., etc. And this is somebody that we have on videotape. This is the person that we have speeches from and so forth and so on. How much more difficult it is to sort out the various reactions to a figure in the ancient past....

“The temptation is, out of all of the various figures of Jesus that emerge in our sources, to pick one and say, "That's the real one." And usually we will pick one, of course, that accords with our notion of what we would like Jesus to have been like. You know, someone at the margins of society, the hero of the proletariat revolution or the anti-establishment figure, and so on. That's probably inevitable that we will all do this, but it's not very good history writing. I myself am very skeptical finally that we can describe independently of any of these traditions what the real Jesus was like.

History of the Quest for the Historical of Jesus

Hermann Samuel Reimarus (1694-1768) was one of the first scholars to study the historical Jesus

The quest for the historical Jesus began about 150 years ago. Claudia Setzer wrote in Tikkun: “The first largely Protestant quest — from the late eighteenth to the late nineteenth century — breathed the air of the Enlightenment, presenting Jesus in utterly rational terms, explaining his miracles as natural phenomena, and depicting him as a teacher of timeless wisdom. It came to a close with Albert Schweitzer's book, The Quest for the Historical Jesus, published in 1906. He concluded that the historical Jesus must be a "stranger and an enigma." The Jesus designed by nineteenth-century rationalists never had any existence. Furthermore, what little we could know about this Jesus was irrelevant to theology. Jesus means something to our world because a mighty spiritual force streams forth from Him and flows through our time also," wrote Schweitzer, "This fact can neither be shaken nor confirmed by any historical discovery." The current generation of Jesus researchers have similarly bracketed questions of theology. \~\

“The second quest was centered in Germany in the 1950s and 60s, led by Ernst Kasemann and others who were influenced by and in reaction to the towering New Testament scholar Rudolf Bultmann, who argued that most the Gospel accounts of Jesus' life grew out of the mythos of the early church. These scholars argued that Christian theology could not be cut off from history and developed a set of criteria for deciding what is historical in the gospels. Although their existentialist theology now seems dated, many of their rules for assessing historicity continue to be utilized, for example by the current "Jesus Seminar," a group of scholars re-examining the synoptic traditions and particularly the sayings of Jesus. They have produced The Five Gospels, a work that evaluates the four canonical gospels and the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas for authentic sayings of Jesus. \~\

“Despite how often the question of recovering the Jesus of history has been declared hopeless, it has nevertheless generated a vast literature. What distinguishes the latest crop of Jesus scholars from their predecessors is that they understand Jesus within the context of Jews and Judaism in the first century. Whereas some scholars in the past may have talked about the Jewish background" of the New Testament as if it were a mere backdrop to Christianity, or talked about "late Judaism" as if Judaism, on its last legs in the first century, was superseded by Christianity, no serious New Testament researcher today speaks of "the Jesus movement" or Jesus himself as outside the orbit of first-century Judaism. Books that explore the Jewishness of Jesus include Geza Vermes's Jesus the Jew, Jesus and the World of Judaism, and The Religion of Jesus the Jew and E.P. Sanders's Jesus and Judaism and The Historical Figure of Jesus. While every generation has produced scholars like George Foot Moore, who understood Jesus within the Judaism of his time, they were exceptional. Now they are the norm. Further, we have a more nuanced view of the variety of Judaisms in the first century and where Jesus and his followers might have fit in. \~\

“This generation also has access to more materials. The Dead Sea Scrolls, only recently available to a wide range of scholars, do not mention Jesus, but they do illuminate a brand of apocalyptic thought and expectation alive in the first century. The urgency of the impending apocalypse that John the Baptist and Jesus preached has been muted by 2,000 years of church history, but the Dead Sea Scrolls remind us that many expected the end of the world would be violent and imminent. \~\

“In addition to the information from the Qumran materials, recent archaeological finds correspond to details of the Gospel stories of Jesus. The skeleton of a crucified man was discovered in Israel on Giv'at ha Mivtar. His ankle bones were pierced and his legs broken, giving evidence of the nature of Roman crucifixion. In 1990, archaeologists discovered an ossuary containing the bones of Joseph Caiaphas, the high priest who interrogated Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew and is mentioned in the Gospels of Luke and John. \~\

“The current scholars draw upon many disciplines, borrowing anthropological and sociological methods. For example, Crossan relies on some of the insights of anthropology to illumine agrarian peasant Mediterranean society, Richard Horsley and others use sociological data to understand Jesus as a radical political figure responding to economic and political persecution. \~\

Historical Hypotheses

Professor Eric Meyers told PBS: “There's no greater challenge for a teacher or a scholar of antiquity than to try to put all the evidence together and come up with a plausible explanation of what occurred. Archaeology clearly gives us the setting in which great events can take place. They can help us understand the way cities get built, but they can't help us understand the content of the message of the teacher. And so archaeology is a dialogue with literary sources. It's a dialogue with the Bible. It's a dialogue with Josephus. It's a dialogue with inscriptions and all the other written evidence that we have. And when you come to put these things together then it falls upon you as a thoughtful interpreter of all these data to come to a subjective and important resolution of the tensions between these two kinds of evidence. And I would hope that I'm a sensitive interpreter of these evidence because unless you sense the dynamics between them you can't come up with a good resolution to the issues. [Source: Eric Meyers, Professor of Religion and Archaeology Duke University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]

“In the end it comes down to making plausible hypotheses. And as scholars everyone of us is bent on coming up with the most plausible hypothesis.... As an historian of religion, as an interpreter of data, whether literary or archaeological, you do the best you can. You take this dynamic between literary sources and archaeology, you look at both sides of the coin, as it were, and you put them together and you come up with the best hypothesis that you can make.

“Even though I have no doubt whatsoever that Jesus was an historical person, that he lived and had an enormous impact on his time and on subsequent time, we, in the end, have no real proof that this man lived in archaeology. It is an hypothesis.”

Can We Really Reconstruct Jesus' World?

Albert Schweitzer coined the term "Historical Jesus" with his 1906 book

Professor Helmut Koester told PBS: “For every scholar working with ancient history, the first thing to recognize is that our evidence is very, very fragmentary. In a way, we can never reconstruct history because we don't have enough pieces. It is like an archaeological excavation. If you excavate a temple you may find the foundations of the temple. They may be disturbed, though, and you may not be sure how long the temple was. But you may find a few column drums, a column capital, maybe a few pieces from the roof structure. And now you have to form a hypothesis of what this temple looked like. And it remains a hypothesis because there are never enough pieces. Even the beautifully reconstructed facades of buildings that you as a tourist can admire today are the result of a hypothesis. And therefore the actual reconstruction can be difficult because the hypothesis could be wrong. [Source: Helmut Koester, John H. Morison Professor of New Testament Studies and Winn Professor of Ecclesiastical History Harvard Divinity School, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]

“Essentially we are not dealing with a different situation with respect to the "reconstruction" of early Christian history or of the history of Jesus. That is, we cannot really reconstruct. We can learn from the evidence certain information that we can judiciously interpret, and, therefore, form an approximate picture of what happened. We know that Paul wrote such and such a letter to Corinth at such and such a time. And it tells us a few things of what's going on in the Corinthian community, but we will never know the whole story of what was going on in the Corinthian community. Only as much as we know in order to find a reason why Paul wrote his letter. But that doesn't give us a history of the community in Corinth. So one has to be very, very cautious, I would say even in using the term "reconstruction." On the other hand I think we have to learn to use "hypothesis" as a positive term. Because hypothesis is the only way in which we can understand. If we don't form a hypothesis, since we don't have brute facts that we can just take, we will know nothing. So hypothesis is a very positive term.

“Now if you want to apply this to the question of our knowledge of Jesus of Nazareth himself and his ministry, we have to face one other difficulty. Not only that our information is fragmentary, but also that the information that we have has not been preserved in order to inform us about the historical Jesus of Nazareth, but has been preserved in order to instruct the ancient Christian churches under the authority of Jesus of Nazareth. And therefore we have, in every single piece of tradition, a transformation of the character of the material. It is almost as if you find in an ancient building, an archaeological excavation, a piece that has been reused, which came from another building originally. And we have only reused pieces....

“What Jesus actually said, and what Jesus actually did, as a brute historical fact we will never know.... Because figures of past history are not necessarily remembered for what they did, but they are remembered for what the effect of the next generation was. Socrates is of course a famous example. We don't have a single saying of Socrates about which we can be certain. But we can know why Socrates was the topic of Plato's philosophy, and that a number of questions of Plato's philosophy are rooted in the figure of Socrates himself. But we cannot reconstruct his teaching. And I think we are in the same situation with Jesus, a situation in which we can be certain that all of this would not have happened without Jesus. That the disciples would not have had the miraculous experience of Jesus being among them as they broke the bread and shared the wine after Jesus' death, had not Jesus already shared bread and wine with them to the outlook of the future coming of the Kingdom of God. So we can draw lines between what we see as the effect and what might have been the causes. But we cannot peel down the tradition to an original kernel which we can ascribe to Jesus.”

Problem of Reconstructing Jesus' Life

Professor Allen D. Callahan told PBS: “It's the nature of that evidence, I think, [that] is inherently problematic, because in a way Jesus is the quintessential non-historical person. I mean here is a man who was born in the provinces, probably poor, at least in terms of all of the traditions we have at our disposal. Not only was he born in those circumstances, he lived in those circumstances and associated with other people who lived in those circumstances. This is no way to become a big shot. This is certainly no way to become somebody who establishes the end of an era and the beginning of a new age.... [Source: Allen D. Callahan, Associate Professor of New Testament, Harvard Divinity School, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]

“History isn't made to record the deeds of a person like Jesus. I mean Jesus is very much like most people, statistically speaking, who have ever existed in the world - poor, obscure, no pretensions to royalty or distinction of any kind. They live under less than desirable conditions and they die that way. There's nothing historically remarkable about that. Billions of people pass through this vale of tears in exactly that way. The argument of the gospel proclamation is that there is something distinctive about this particular individual. So that kind theological claim is on a collision course with the way that history is usually done....

Professor John Dominic Crossan told PBS: “My own method is interdisciplinary and it is hierarchical and it is interactive, which means that I begin with cross-cultural anthropology, and I try to understand the world of Jesus as anthropologists see it, as an agrarian society, as a peasant society with an abysmal gulf between the haves and the have nots. On top of that, I build all we know about Jewish history and about the Roman peace at the time of Augustus. On top of that I build a layer of archaeology, for example, the urbanization of lower Galilee with the building of Sepphoris and Tiberius. And only on top of that then do I look at the earliest texts relative to the Jesus tradition.... [Source: John Dominic Crossan, Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies DePaul University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]

“Let me take a simple illustration. The Q gospel, that is the text which is embedded in Matthew and Luke, but does not come from Mark, would probably date to around the 50s. There is also a gospel called the Gospel of Thomas, which was discovered in 1945 in Nag Hammadi in Egypt. Take a look at those two gospels. There's about a 30 percent amount of common material in them, and that's an extremely high percentage, if they're not copying from one another, which they don't seem to be. That material is earlier than its use in the Q gospel or in the Thomas gospel. That material, alongside whatever we have in Paul, is about as early as we can get. And I focus tremendously on that material.

“So this core material that you're relying on pre-dates what is generally considered the New Testament. The material that I'm relying on would predate the New Testament; the Q gospel of course is embedded in the New Testament today and is discovered in Matthew and Luke. But yes, we're talking about the 50s which is at least 20 years before Mark's gospel. But of course, about the same time that Paul is writing, so it doesn't antedate Paul really.

Portrait of Jesus as a Historical Figure

AD 3rd century image of the Good Shepherd, believed to be Jesus Christ

Claudia Setzer wrote in Tikkun: “A number of different portraits of Jesus have emerged. Marcus Borg portrays Jesus as a religious ecstatic, a teacher of wisdom and a social prophet, focused on the present. "Jesus' relation to the Spirit was the source of everything that he was", Borg claims. Burton Mack describes Jesus as a Jewish Cynic, a popular sage who shocked people into understanding with his sharp and disturbing sayings. Like Borg, he sees Jesus as focused on the present state of the world, a dispenser of timeless truths. Crossan pictures him as a preacher of radical egalitarianism, addressing a peasant society suffering in political and economic straits, offering a message of healing: "You are healed healers, so take the kingdom to others, for I am not its patron and you are not its brokers. It is, was, and always will be available to any who want it."” [Source: Claudia Setzer,Tikkun, July 17, 1995 No. 4, Vol. 10; Pg. 73. \~]

“An essential point of Crossan and others' thought is that Jesus was not preaching himself and his own aggrandizement, but preaching God's kingdom. E.P. Sanders agrees, but shifts the emphasis to the future. He sees Jesus as an eschatological prophet, a figure who prepared the people for the coming of God's kingdom, which God would bring in the future. John Meier combines present and future, suggesting Jesus is an eschatological teacher who sees God's kingly rule as already present, but not yet complete, in his ministry. God's plan to establish His rule over His people has yet to come to fullness.” /~/

Important Points from the Study of Historical of Jesus

Claudia Setzer wrote in Tikkun: “As these scholars further hone their theories, certain issues dominate the emerging picture of the historical Jesus: 1) Jesus preached the kingdom of God, not himself. In some way God would act in history (or was now acting) to effect a change in society as they knew it. Whether this would be at some future time (Sanders) or already present in his ministry (Borg, Crossan, Mack) or as a dynamic drama in its first stage, so both present and future (Meier) Jesus preached God's power to effect a reversal of values and the emergence of a just society. This kingdom is about God, not Jesus himself, and is on earth. It addresses two main concerns of peasants: bread and death. "They have too much of the second and too little of the first," quips Crossan. [Source: Claudia Setzer,Tikkun, July 17, 1995 No. 4, Vol. 10; Pg. 73. Tikkun is quarterly Jewish interfaith left-progressive magazine, published in the United States. \~]

2) “Jesus is a Jew, and the early kingdom movement'-the expectation of God's earthly rule and Israel's liberation from foreign oppression-is not the founding of a religion called Christianity but a thoroughly Jewish phenomenon. Unfortunately, we know relatively little of the Judaism of the first century, and much of what we do know derives from the New Testament. \~\

3) “The historical Jesus and the Jesus of the early church bear little resemblance to one another. Even more tenuous is the connection between the historical Jesus and later Christianity. Contemporary Jesus scholars seem to agree one can be a good Christian without knowing a bit about this Jesus of history. The flesh-and-blood Jesus in the late '20s of the first century gave way to the reconstructed and interpreted Jesus of the gospels in the 70s and '80s and was superseded by the "Christ of faith" of the later church. When believers speak of their faith in Jesus, it is this last figure to which they refer. \~\

4) “The emphasis on Jesus' divinity has often eclipsed his humanity. Many church controversies focused on creedal issues, such as Jesus' relation to the Father. From the nineteenth century on, much scholarly debate has swirled around such supernatural elements of the Jesus story as the virgin birth and the resurrection. Sanders notes the recent surge of interest in "Mary's hymen and Jesus' corpse. "Yet the human Jesus leaves hints of having been very human indeed: a colorful sort, more given to feasting than fasting and hanging around with disreputable types of which his family probably disapproved. \~\

5) “John the Baptist exerted tremendous influence over Jesus and his message. While contemporary scholars would acknowledge that the relation with the Baptist is one of the most likely authentic pieces of the gospel traditions (since the evangelists seem a trifle embarrassed by it, they probably didn't invent it), Meier develops the idea that Jesus was probably part of the Baptist's early circle and his fiery apocalyptic theology was a constant in Jesus' own ministry. When Jesus left the circle of the Baptist to start his own ministry, he seems to have taken some of the Baptist's followers with him. \~\

6)“Jesus' view of himself differed widely from the early church's. Whether he saw himself as the Messiah is debatable, but he almost certainly did not see himself as divine. As Bork puts it, "If one of Jesus' disciples had spoken of him with the words of the Nicene Creed, one can only imagine him saying, 'What?' Sanders poignantly remarks that Jesus may have died a disappointed man. The earliest gospel reports his final cry from the cross to be one of utter despair: "My God, my God why have you forsaken me?" Whether historical or not, we cannot be sure, but it points to the element of tragedy in his death. \~\

7) “His followers, and even a non-believer like the Jewish historian Josephus, recall Jesus as a healer, exorcist, and miracle worker. Interestingly, his detractors neither call him a fraud, nor say the miracles were faked, but attribute his powers to Satan or demons. \~\

8) “Except for a few of the women, the bulk of Jesus' followers abandoned him at the time of his death. Nor did his family seem to support him during his ministry. At one point (Mark 3:20-2 1), they think he is possessed. \~\

9) “Remarkably, Jesus' death did not mark the end of his movement. His followers continued to believe in his message of God's Kingdom. "The juice was not turned off," remarks Crossan.Other apocalyptic leaders have arisen throughout the course of Jewish history. Bar Kochba and Sabbatai Sevi, for example, drew significant numbers of loyal followers. But their apparent failures to bring their transformative vision to reality led to the end of their movements. When Jesus' followers, probably in hiding somewhere, heard he was dead, it did not spell the end of his group. Somehow, hope persisted and was transmuted into a force that changed history. Anyone who looks at maps of established churches in the late first, second, and third centuries cannot help but marvel at the rapid spread of Christianity. The persistence and extraordinary growth of Jesus' following after his death is the miracle on which to focus, claims Crossan, not the resurrection. Indeed, the transformation of some disappointed messianists into a dynamic movement is one of the fascinating stories of history. \~\

Jesus of History Versus Christ of Faith

Professor Bart Ehrman

Professor Elaine H. Pagels told PBS: “Today there are many scholars who are looking for the historical Jesus. Not a new endeavor, but certainly with a great new impetus provided by these new sources. There are those who say, with John Dominic Crossan, that Jesus was a peasant Jewish sage of some kind, and there are others who say, with another group of scholars, that Jesus was, on the contrary, an apocalyptic teacher of the coming end of time. Both groups claimthat they can get to the real Jesus. And that if you read the sources right, you make the right selection of the sayings and the materials, you will find the real Jesus. I have doubts about that. It seems to me that history doesn't get you there. It would be fascinating if it did. If we had videotapes, if we had transcripts. We don't have those. We have... a series of refractions of some extraordinary person, seen from a variety of quite different viewpoints. [Source: Elaine H. Pagels, The Harrington Spear Paine Foundation Professor of Religion Princeton University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]

“We have fragments, we have sayings, we have impressions, we have vignettes. That's what we have. And actually, as I read them, they're quite different, and they're quite contradictory. They may not be irreconcilable, but to me, it's not satisfactory to go back to one type of evidence and say, "this is the real Jesus," or," that's the real Jesus." What I see is that as far back as history will take us, we see an enormous range of different people. Now there's nothing really so dismaying about that. I mean, what if we saw the origins of the Christian movement as, in fact, a movement with strong disagreements, with powerfully different perspectives, people in conversation with one another struggling to understand what is the most important truth of their lives. Is that so different from the way we look for truth today?

“This might sound as though one were saying, "We'll never know who Jesus is." But that question is only because the perspective from which I spoke is a historian's perspective. I can't get back as a historian to Jesus. I don't think history will get you that far. Now that hasn't stopped Christians, all over the world, millions and millions of them, from having an intimate relationship with Jesus. Whether they're Russian Orthodox or whether they're Roman Catholics or whether they're Baptist or whether they're Quakers. So there is certainly access, religious access, in these sources to a spiritual presence of Christ, which is quite different from what would you say as a historian. Because there are many people today who base their lives on a relationship with Jesus as they perceive it.

“The fact that we don't have historical sources to get back to the so-called real Jesus has never stopped the movement from existing. It's very powerful, and that to me is totally fascinating. The sense that millions of people all over the world have found, in the figure of Jesus, a spiritual focus for their lives is absolutely extraordinary, it's fascinating. How does that happen, particularly when we don't have a guaranteed way to get you back there in some factual way?

Tensions Between Faith and History

Professor Harold W. Attridge told PBS: “I suppose it's an important part of my theological commitment that I believe that Jesus was divine in some way, but that it was Jesus who was divine. It was a human being who was divine. And that the tradition of Christianity insists very strongly on the full humanity of Jesus. And so, if I'm to understand my faith as a Christian, it's important for me to understand who Jesus was as a human being. So I see the kind of rationalist historiography that I'm engaged in as an important way of reaffirming a traditional element of Christian belief, that is, that Jesus was a full human being. [Source: Harold W. Attridge, Lillian Claus Professor of New Testament Yale Divinity School Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]

“I would see the the enterprise of critical theology, critical historical theology, as a way of deepening faith. And, certainly, it can be an intellectual tradition that's challenging. It's challenging, I think, to an inadequate faith, however. And someone who engages in the kind of enterprise that critical historical scholarship engages in can in fact, deepen and broaden their faith. It may be a different faith that emerges as a result of critical historical inquiry than it was before that inquiry began, but it's still Christian faith.

“The theologian reading the texts of scripture is very much interested in what kind of faith claims are being made by those texts. I think to analyze them critically from a historical point of view is not to do a complete and thorough analysis of what the significance of those texts might be. One of the greatest historical critics of this century is a fellow named Rudolf Bultmann who wrote a two volume theology of the New Testament, where, on the basis of his own analysis of the historicity of the texts, [he] went on to analyze the kinds of faith claims that they made. That's certainly an important part of a theological appropriation of scripture that can be enriched by and founded on a much more secure foundation of a good historical inquiry.

Faith Versus History

Elaine H Pagels

Responding to a question that historical approach is too narrow and reductionist and was an an attempt to rationalize the inherently irrational, Professor John Dominic Crossan told PBS: “Christianity in the gospels, in the creeds, in the canonical dogmas, has always made statements that are both historical and theological. "Jesus is human" is the historical statement; "Jesus is divine" is a theological statement; we've made both of them and it would be absurd to go through the creed and say "son of God, that's theological; crucified under Pontius Pilate, that's historical," but when we come out into public discourse, it becomes crucial to know, when we're making a statement, whether it's an historical statement or a theological statement, because otherwise those who deny our theological statements; in other words, whose faith is different from ours, we say are denying facts; and people who deny facts have to be either hard in the heart or soft in the head. We might start to do something about such people. So, we have to be able to say, "This is a statement of faith; it's absolutely valid as such. This is a statement of fact, and therefore I have to be able to debate that in the public arena." [Source: John Dominic Crossan, Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies DePaul University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]

Professor Helmut Koester told PBS: “Whether there's a tension in my dual status as a critical scholar of the Bible on the one hand and as active ordained Lutheran minister on the other hand, that's a question that's always asked. I have never personally experienced a tension, at all. On the contrary, I always found it extremely helpful to be a learned Biblical scholar for whatever I did in preaching and teaching in the church. There's another aspect to that. One finds among conservative theologians often a fear that critical scholarship would be distracting. But this fear is much more expressed by church leaders than by active, involved lay people in the church. I've regularly given in our church, in our adult forum on Sunday morning , an instruction about the Gospel of Matthew and talked critically [about how] does the gospel come into existence? "No, Matthew was not the disciple Matthew who wrote it." [Source: Helmut Koester, John H. Morison Professor of New Testament Studies and Winn Professor of Ecclesiastical History Harvard Divinity School, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]

“And I don't find in our church anybody who says, "No, wait a moment, aren't you destroying our faith?" On the contrary, people are very interested. People want to be well instructed, learned, modern human beings in our churches.... They want to know. And I've been giving general retreats for clergy and I've done classes... and students who came to this class at first have to do critical interpretation of the Bible before they preach about the text. They come back and say, "Hey, this is great. We finally understand what this is all about." So I think that critical scholarship has a very positive service to the church. And I've always understood my own scholarship as a positive service that for the edification of Christian believers, [to] help them [develop] a better understanding of their faith in the world in which we live today. And what is interesting is the analogies between the problems that haunted the early Christians and the problems that haunt us today.

Internal Conflict Between a Believer- Historian

Professor Wayne A. Meeks told PBS: “I think everyone who has some sense of identification with the Christian tradition, everyone who has some personal engagement with the story and this community, has got to feel in his or her own life, a condensed version of the tensions which have been embodied in the whole of modern scholarship's attempt to understand the beginnings of Christianity, which for the last 250 years have caused nothing but trouble for the church. We have undertaken as historians to find out the real facts about how it got started and we've often-times done this because we really wanted to reform the church.... [T]his starts in the reformation, for example, with an attempt to get free of all the accumulated dogmas of the Roman Catholic Church so that we can restore true Christianity, as it was in Jesus' time and in Paul's time. [Source: Wayne A. Meeks, Woolsey Professor of Biblical Studies Yale University, , Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]

“Then along comes the Enlightenment, when we undertake to produce a really rational history so that we can find out what the real facts are, which may not just vindicate Protestantism against Catholicism, but will produce a truly humane religious... faith. And then we discover that ... our very notion of rationality is itself self-interested, that each of us brings the results of our histories and our own place of standing and so we find that, if we continue to ask questions, even the place where we thought to stand, in order to criticize the tradition, is undercut. It's undercut by new facts we discovered which are embarrassing to us, or discovery of the irrationality of our own rationality, as for example a feminist scholar says, "That's not my rationality" or a member of a minority group or from some developing country says, "yeah but you're presupposing white European society, in your rationality." So, that the very place where I stood to get my leverage on the tradition is undercut.

“So, I think everyone that enters into the serious inquiry which has produced this very complicated picture of the origins of Christianity, must feel at some personal level considerable tension and considerable unease about what it all means. How do I come personally to deal with this? Two things. First of all, I was reared a Calvinist and I have this old Calvinist tradition — "I wouldn't be a Christian if I could help it, that I've been elected by God, chosen by God, to to be a Christian and I can't help myself. It could be ever so much easier, if I didn't believe these things." And this believing these things means a self-involvement, a self conscious and willing involvement in a particular tradition, a particular variegated constantly changing community....

“I stand within this tradition. Everybody has to stand within some tradition. Everybody stands somewhere. And for me to say that I still regard myself as Christian is to say that self-consciously I choose to identify myself still with that tradition.... And as I see it, the fundamental task of religious people in our time is to discover the way that we can still be loyal to the tradition in which we were born, and which is meaningful to us and which we believe has conveyed truth to us, without closing us off to other kinds of truth, which come out of different traditions that through history have been in conflict with our own. And that is a task for the future.

“I must say if you look at the history of religious traditions, including especially the Christian tradition, you find wars, you find violence, you find bloodshed, you find intolerance, the inability to accept other versions of the truth. So this is very much a task for the future. It is something we do not know how to do. We have always felt "either I must defend my tradition as it is, and there can only be one truth and that's got to be our truth and therefore I can't listen to the others, or we have to look for the lowest common denominator," which enables us to embrace everybody with a kind of truth which is so wishy-washy that it doesn't have very much power for any of us. Surely we can do better than that, though I don't know how. But it seems to me that is precisely the task which is laid upon all religious people especially for the 21st century. It's a very small world which we have now entered into, and our very survival as human beings, perhaps, and certainly our survival as civil societies, depends on our ability to maintain loyalty and conviction without pretending to have certainty.

Christian Believers Who Accept the Historical Jesus

Harold W Attridge

Professor Harold W. Attridge told PBS: “I think the exercise of historical criticism has been an important ally of my faith. It's enabled me to take both an appropriately critical and also appreciative stance toward the Biblical tradition.... The historical study of scripture in general and of the life of Jesus in particular has enriched my understanding of who Jesus was, and what his own program was, and has made me appreciate all the more what the symbols of that that proclamation that Jesus made can be. And it's intensified my devotion to the faith.” [Source: Harold W. Attridge, Lillian Claus Professor of New Testament Yale Divinity School Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]

Professor Allen D. Callahan told PBS: “Well, I acknowledge that then, as now, part of commitment to Jesus has to do with making one's own reconstruction of him, and this takes a number of very interesting forms. For example, if you look at Christian art in China, paintings on silk of scenes from the Bible, all the people in those paintings look Chinese. Now, there's no real mystery there. I mean, it's a kind of theological adaptation and appropriation that's going on there; there are no people who look quite like that in the Middle East in the 1st century, or at least, not a lot of them. But, what's happening there is the people in [China], through an aesthetic medium, are identifying themselves with Jesus.... It's that kind of theological project that's always underway when one when one encounters, in some way or another, Jesus. [Source: Allen D. CallahanAssociate Professor of New Testament, Harvard Divinity School, PBS, April 1998 ]

“I appreciate the gospel writers as theologians in this respect. I mean by this [a] kind of rough and ready definition of theologian. I also understand that the gospels were not fashioned... to answer all questions on every matter.... The kind of project that the gospel writers have undertaken, the theological commitments that inform that project, and the literature that's resulted from it, is not going to scratch where we itch, if we're looking for the kind of pronouncements and articulations that we find in systematic theology. It's a different kind of literature, with different kinds of motivations.”

Historical Jesus Scholar Who Left the Church

Professor John Dominic Crossan told PBS: “I left the church for two reasons which I cannot really disentangle anymore. The first reason was I wanted to get married. That was quite adequate right there all by itself, but I also knew that if the morning I was leaving, I was told we have a new law now, you can stay and be married, I would have left because I also wanted to get out so I could do the work I wanted to do without it being trapped in the negativity of others, trapped in opposing others. So, the two things were equally important, and I don't know exactly how they interplay. Avni said knowledge of the period has advanced over the past 20 years. "We can reconstruct precisely how the country looked," he said. [Source: John Dominic Crossan, Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies DePaul University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]

“I was working in Chicago under Cardinal Cody, and I was in constant trouble for what I said, and it was becoming more and more intolerable to sit with a Roman collar on and to say things that were.... [controversial] people couldn't understand, "how can a priest say that?" I wanted to be able to talk — I'm speaking as a scholar, and I'll take my cracks with any other scholar. I'm not speaking as a priest who would officially, maybe, be speaking for the church. So, it was a matter of dividing those two things.

“I find absolutely no conflict between being an historian and being a believer, but you have to understand two things. I spent twenty years in a Roman Catholic religious order, which was a medieval order, and the medievals believed that reason and revelation were both gifts of the same God and couldn't contradict one another unless you had blown it. I don't think Thomas Aquinas got up every morning and worried about reading Aristotle, that he might find something pagan in there. He took it for granted, if Aristotle is reasonable, Aristotle will be right; reason comes from God. I approach it the same way. Anything I find historically, I cannot imagine how it could destroy faith, since faith is about the meaning of history not about the facts of history. So, I've never experienced a conflict myself.

History of Jesus: A Exercise in Anti-Semitism?

Kate Moos wrote in the Washington Post, “James Carroll goes to painstaking lengths in his new book, “Christ Actually,” to confront millennia of undisguised anti-Semitism, scriptural fabrications and tactical misreadings of history, all of which have prevented an informed understanding of Jesus of Nazareth. Using historical and scriptural analysis, Carroll urges the Christian faithful to reexamine their theologies through a lens that begins with Jesus’s identity as a Jew among Jews, whose collective survival was repeatedly and brutally threatened by the Roman Empire during and immediately after Jesus’s lifetime. [Source: Kate Moos, Washington Post, December 19, 2014 ||||]

“Carroll’s premise is that Christian amnesia about Jewish history — the revolt against Rome that the historian Josephus called the Jewish War of the first century and the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D., as well as the persecution of Jews that led up to it — has allowed an essentially anti-Semitic set of meanings and morals to be imposed on the Christian story and the meaning of Jesus. ||||

Bloody Sentence of the Jews Against Jesus Christ the Lord and Saviour of the World - Powers

“Carroll begins the book with the 20th-century Christian martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was imprisoned and hanged for conspiring to murder Adolf Hitler. He proposes that we look at Christianity through the twin lenses of the 20th-century catastrophes of Auschwitz and Hiroshima and ask, as Bonhoeffer did, who Christ actually is for us today I’m a cradle Catholic and roughly a contemporary of Carroll, and, like him, I was raised on the Baltimore Catechism, the Cold War and the unapologetic, ritual damning of the Jews for killing Jesus in the Easter Gospel readings of my childhood. “Let the blood be on our hands and the hands of our children,” we read, and even if we didn’t dislike the Jews, we were obliged to blame them. ||||

“The tradition of casting Jesus as a non-Jew, rather than a dissenting and prophetic Jew, Carroll argues, forms the basis for the widespread, largely unexamined anti-Semitism that modern Catholicism has supported with dubious theology and misrepresentations of history. What he calls the Jesus movement of the years immediately after Jesus’s death was a Jewish movement, he reminds us, and the forces that drove a split between those Carroll calls the Jesus people and the Jews are at the same time accidents of history and intentional acts designed to control the new faith.||||

One reason Carroll wrote “Jesus Actually,” “it appears, is to take aim at two phenomena: the post-Enlightenment impoverishment of intellect and spirit which insists that the totality of reality can be described by science, and the contemporary religious impulse to consider faith immune to criticism. Such false contentiousness, Carroll insists, has nothing to do with the history of Jesus and his contemporaries. He writes, “Many of the questions asked by modern believers — and many of the notes of faith dismissed by modern skeptics — lose their bite when it is acknowledged that they were neither questions nor notes of faith for Jesus and his first interpreters.” |||| “Further, he argues, such polarizing habits of the intellect make it impossible for modern minds to understand the layered and matrixed influences from which the story of Jesus and his followers emerged. “The largest single obstacle to our authentic reimagining of Jesus Christ is the inability of contemporary thinkers to be at home in the truly foreign landscape of the ancient intellect — Greek and Hebrew, but also Babylonian, Egyptian, Sumerian, Canaanite, and the general intermingling of all these.” ||||

Outdated Ideas on the Historical Jesus

In a review of the book ‘Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth’ by Reza Aslan, Dale B. Martin wrote in the New York Times: In the study of the historical Jesus there are many “outdated and simplistic theories for phenomena now seen as more complex”. Mr. Aslan depicts earliest Christianity as surviving in two streams after Jesus: a Hellenistic movement headed by Paul, and a Jewish version headed by James. This dualism repeats 19th-century German scholarship. Nowadays, most scholars believe that the Christian movement was much more diverse, even from its very beginnings. [Source: Dale B. Martin, New York Times, August 5, 2013 |=|]

“Mr. Aslan also proposes outdated views when he insists that the idea of a “divine messiah” or a “god-man” would have been “anathema” to the Judaism of the time, or when he writes that it would have been “almost unthinkable” for a 30-year-old Jewish man to be unmarried. Studies of the past few decades — including “King and Messiah as Son of God” (Adela Yarbro Collins and John J. Collins) and my own “Sex and the Single Savior: Gender and Sexuality in Biblical Interpretation” — have overturned these once commonplace assumptions. |=|

“Given the debate surrounding this book’s publication, spurred by conservative reaction as well as its own publicity, you would expect the work to advance radical readings of the Gospels. Actually, Mr. Aslan is too credulous when reading the Gospels and Acts of the Apostles. He is rightly skeptical about some passages, like the birth narratives. But he uncritically accepts as fact many other passages, like precisely what Jesus is supposed to have said at his trial before the high priest and full Sanhedrin. In many cases regarding Jesus, as well as Paul and James, Mr. Aslan takes as accurate deeds and sayings most critical scholars would question. |=|

“He also presents as fact what may well be later Christian legend: that Jesus’ ministry lasted three years, that we know in what cities the four Gospels were composed, that Peter was already in Rome when Paul arrived there. There may be a kernel of truth in one or another of these traditions, but they are just that: traditions, not necessarily history. Some of Mr. Aslan’s other claims are just speculations with no supporting evidence, more at home in fiction than in scholarship — for example, that Jesus spent at least 10 years living and working in the city of Sepphoris.” |=|

Problems With the Populist Historical Jesus

Candida Moss wrote in the Daily Beast: There have been a number of best-selling and shocking books about Jesus of Nazareth that purport to tell us who Jesus actually was (Reza Aslan’s Zealot is just one). The historians writing these books purport to peel back the layers of history and deliver a biography of the real Jesus. These are entertaining, iconoclastic, and sometimes well-written reads, but they’re something of an intellectual hoax. The scholarly methods used to ascertain who Jesus was likely to have been are utterly reductionistic and sometimes contradictory. [Source: Candida Moss, Daily Beast, September 25, 2016]

Many of the criteria employed by scholars work with assumptions about ancient society and Jesus’ place within it. But ancient culture, like our own, is not homogenous and thus it is often impossible to evaluate whether Jesus’ words and deeds were plausible, embarrassing, commonplace, or radical. Just as you might imagine that all of the British love tea, you might imagine that all ancient Jews were obsessed with regulations about the Sabbath. But you’d be wrong in both cases. If you don’t know what context in which to place Jesus, you’re incapable of evaluating his place within that context.

When scholars engage in this kind of work they often end up with a handful of facts — he was born, he was baptized, he performed healings, he was crucified — from which they build their portrait of Jesus. But from this collection of historical scraps you could come to any number of conclusions about what Jesus was like. The end result is, as Barnard professor Elizabeth Castelli has eloquently shown, that portraits of Jesus ends up being cultural reproductions of their own day. It’s easy to criticize the selectivity of religious characterizations of Jesus, but it’s worth acknowledging that historians have their own kinds of bias.

Finally, as William Arnal has written in the conclusion to his book The Symbolic Jesus, historical portraits of Jesus don’t matter because “the Jesus who is important to our own day is not the Jesus of history but the symbolic Jesus of contemporary discourse.” It is what people say about Jesus in our own time that actually ends up mattering.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons except Elaine H Pagels, Princeton University

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Christian Origins sourcebooks.fordham.edu “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); King James Version of the Bible, gutenberg.org; New International Version (NIV) of The Bible, biblegateway.com; Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL) ccel.org , Frontline, PBS, “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures” edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, 1994); Wikipedia, BBC, National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Live Science, Encyclopedia.com, Archaeology magazine, Reuters, Associated Press, Business Insider, AFP, Library of Congress, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2024

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