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The historical Jesus is the figure of the first-century Jesus of Nazarethmarker as reconstructed by scholars using historical methods that include critical analysis of gospel texts as the primary source for his biography, and non-biblical sources for the historical and cultural context in which he lived. Use of the term "the historical Jesus" implies that the figure thus reconstructed may differ from that presented in the teaching of the ecumenical councils ("the dogmatic Christ") and in other Christian accounts ("the Christ of faith").

Though the reconstructions vary, they generally include these basic points: Jesus was a Jewish teacher who attracted a small following of Galileans and, after a period of preaching, was crucified by the Romans in Iudaea Provincemarker during the governorship of Pontius Pilate.

The historical Jesus was a Galilean Jew living in a time of messianic and apocalyptic expectations. He was baptized by John the Baptist, and after John was executed, Jesus began his own movement in Galilee. He preached the Kingdom of God, using pithy parables with startling imagery and was renowned as a teacher and a healer. Many scholars credit the apocalyptic declarations that the gospels attribute to him, while others portray his Kingdom of God as a moral one, and not apocalyptic in nature. He sent his apostles out to heal and to preach the Kingdom of God. Later, he traveled to Jerusalem in Judeamarker, where he caused a disturbance at the Temple. It was the time of Passover, when political and religious tensions were high in Jerusalem. Apparently the temple guards (believed to be Sadducees) arrested him and turned him over to Pontius Pilate for execution. The movement he had started survived his death and was carried on by his brother James the Just and the other apostles. It developed into Early Christianity, see also List of events in early Christianity.

The quest for the historical Jesus began with the work of Hermann Samuel Reimarus.

Scholarly Methods

Historians and Bible scholars analyze the Canonical Gospels, Talmud, Gospel according to the Hebrews, Gnostic Gospels, Josephus, and other early documents attempting to find the Historical Jesus. They try to separate reliable historical data from that which is not. A number of methods have been developed to critically analyze these sources:

Since the early 1980s scholars associated with the "Third Quest for the Historical Jesus" - including Géza Vermes, Ben Meyer, John Riches, Anthony Harvey, Marcus Borg, E.P. Sanders, and N.T. Wright - have argued that these authenticy criteria are far too stringent.

Criterion of dissimilarity

More narrowly, the criterion of embarrassment, statements contrary or dissimilar to the author's agenda are likely to be more reliable. For example, early Christians would be unlikely to claim that Jesus had been crucified unless he actually had been because the crucifixion was a cause of embarrassment.

Criterion of multiple attestation

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

Cultural congruency

A source is more credible if the account makes sense in the context of what is known about the culture in which the events unfold.

Linguistic criteria

There are certain conclusions that can be drawn from linguistic analysis of the Gospels. For example, if a dialogue works only in Greek (the language of its written source), it is quite likely the author is reporting something different from the original historical facts.

Author's Agenda

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

Theories of the historical Jesus

Scholars see the historical Jesus as the founder and leader of a restoration movement within Judaism. They identify a continuity between the movement that Jesus started and the religion that would eventually define itself as the Christian Church.

Current scholarship is in the so-called "third quest" of the historical Jesus. Important representatives of the third quest are E.P. Sanders, Geza Vermes, Gerd Theissen, and John Dominic Crossan. Scholarship has split into different trends, with the main point of contention over whether Jesus saw the Kingdom of God as an imminent apocalyptic, earthly victory undertaken by God or as something internal, enacted by believers. The latter, non-apocalyptic view was dominant in North American scholarship. However, work by Bart Eherman has argued that Jesus was an apocalyptic Jew. This view is now considered widely in North America.

Apocalyptic prophet

The gospels portray Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet, described by himself and by others as the Son of Man - translated as the Son of Humanity - and hailing the restoration of Israel. Jesus himself, as the Son of God, a description also used by himself and others for him, was to rule this kingdom as lord of the Twelve Apostles, the judges of the twelve tribes.

Albert Schweitzer emphasized that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet, preparing his fellow Jews for the imminent end of the world. In fact, Schweitzer saw Jesus as a failed, would-be Messiah whose ethic was suitable only for the short interim before the apocalypse. Many historians concur that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet, most notably Paula Fredriksen, Bart Ehrman, and John P. Meier. E. P. Sanders portrays Jesus as expecting to assume the "viceroy" position in God's kingdom, above the Twelve Disciples, who would judge the twelve tribes, but below God. He concludes, however, that Jesus seems to have rejected the title Messiah, and he contends that the evidence is uncertain to whether Jesus meant himself when he referred to the Son of Man coming on the clouds as a divine judge (see also Daniel's Vision of Chapter 7), and further states that biblical references to the Son of Man as a suffering figure are not genuine.

Wisdom sage

In North American scholarship, the view that Jesus did not prophesy an imminent apocalypse is common.

Historians associated with the Jesus Seminar, such as John Dominic Crossan, are often associated with this view. They reject the view that Jesus was apocalyptic, but that the kingdom was present and accessible for all Jews. Crossan emphasizes that Jesus' movement did not have a head, as John the Baptist's movement had taken John as their leader. For Crossan, Jesus called people to emulate him, and travel as itinerant preachers. Jesus' eschatology is one of personal action and social transformation, like Gandhi's, rather than apocalyptic. These scholars also explain Jesus' apocalyptic statements as later, Christian additions to the biblical narrative, likely introduced by followers of John the Baptist (who did prophecy an imminent apocalypse) who later joined Jesus' movement.

In fact, three-fifths to three-fourths of North American scholars no longer accept the apocalyptic viewpoint. The new consensus in current theological literature is that Jesus did not see the Kingdom of God as a future apocalyptic event, but as a movement toward an ethical eschatology that had not been fully completed.

Son of God

Some scholars, most notably N. T. Wright (Bishop of Durham) and Luke Timothy Johnson, defend the historicity of traditional views of Jesus as the Son of God who died for our sins (see Atonement). They demand that scholars be more cautious about what we can claim to know about the ancient period, and see no problem in accepting traditional accounts when miraculous events, such as the resurrection, are beyond the historical method to either prove or disprove.

Other Views

There are many other interpretations of Jesus. More notable ones are that of revolutionary, prophet of social change, and mystical spirit-person, e.g., Marcus Borg. In fact, one criticism of the quest for the Historical Jesus has been that each generation perceives Jesus according to the moral sentiments of its era.

Jewish background

Jesus preached in Galilee and Judeamarker (modern-day Israelmarker, Palestinian territoriesmarker, and Jordanmarker) for one to three years in the first half of the first century.

Following the fall of earlier Jewish kingdomsmarker, the partially-Hellenized territory was under Roman imperial rule, but there were ongoing hopes of a revival of independent sovereignty. The Roman Prefect’s first duty to Rome was to maintain order, but although the land was mostly peaceful (notably between 7 and 26), there were continued risks of rebellion, riots, banditry, and violent resistance (see also Zealotry). Four decades after Jesus’ death, the tensions caused by Jewish hopes for a restoration of the kingdom of David culminated in the first Jewish-Roman War and the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.

In the Judaic religion of Jesus' day, the Pharisees were a powerful party, espousing (like the first Christians) belief in the resurrection of the dead, retribution in the next world, angels, human freedom, and Divine Providence. The more conservative Sadducees held power in the Temple. The Essenes lived ascetically and looked for an imminent apocalypse. According to scholars such as Geza Vermes and E.P. Sanders, Jesus does not seem to have belonged to any particular party or movement.

Jesus' repeated declarations that the kingdom of God was at hand echoed popular apocalyptic views. According to Geza Vermes and others, the use of the terms "messiah" and "son of God" by Jesus' followers indicate that they believed he would assume the monarchy upon the restoration of the kingdom (see Names and titles of Jesus).

Personal Background


Most historians consider that Jesus was born around 4 BCE or slightly earlier, and probably in Nazarethmarker. Critical scholars view the different accounts of Jesus' birth given in the Gospel of Luke and the Gospel of Matthew as "pious fictions". E. P. Sanders describes them as "the clearest cases of invention in the Gospels". The Gospels associate Jesus' birth with the reign of Herod the Great. This first Herod, an Idumaean whom the Roman Senate elected King of the Jews over Idumea, Galilee, Judea, Samaria and neighboring lands, ruled from 37 to 4 BCE. Upon Herod's death, the Romans divided up his kingdom between his sons, and Herod Antipas ruled Galilee but not Judea (which became part of Iudaea provincemarker after Herod Archelaus was deposed in 6 CE) when Jesus was a man.

Linguistic proficiency

Jesus almost certainly spoke Aramaic. The Gospels record him using metaphors unknown in Hebrew or Greek but common in Aramaic. Some scholars speculate that because the lingua franca under Roman occupation was Greek, which was replacing Aramaic, Jesus might have known at least some Koine Greek.


There are a number of passages from the Gospels which state or imply that Jesus could at least read. In ancient societies many more could read than write. The only Gospel reference to Jesus writing is John 8:6 in the Pericope Adulterae, widely considered a later addition, where it is not even clear he is forming letters in the dust, and the Greek "εγραφεν" could equally mean he was drawing. The question of Jesus's literacy has been much discussed in modern scholarship; the Jesus Seminar and others feel references in the Gospels to Jesus reading and writing may well be fictions. In the view of John Dominic Crossan, he would not have been literate. James Dunn observes that, given importance of reading the Torah in Jewish culture of the time, a Galilean villager such as Jesus might have learned to read. John P. Meier concludes that the literacy of Jesus probably extended to the ability to read and comment on sophisticated theological and literary works.

Work as a "carpenter"

Jesus is identified in Mark as a τεκτων (tekton) and in Matthew as the son of a tekton. Like most people at the time, he presumably was trained by his parent in the family trade. Tekton has been traditionally translated into English as "carpenter", but is a rather general word (from the same root that gives us "technical" and "technology") that at the time could cover makers of objects in various materials, and builders. The specific association with woodworking is a constant in Early Christian tradition; Justin Martyr (d. ca. 165) wrote that Jesus made yokes and ploughs, and there are similar early references. Crossan puts tekton into a historical context more resembling an itinerant worker than an established artisan, emphasizing his marginality in a population in which a peasant who owns land could become quite prosperous. However, other scholars have argued that tekton could equally mean a highly-skilled craftsman in wood or the more prestigious metal, perhaps running a workshop with several employees, and noted sources recording the shortage of skilled artisans at the time.

Scholars, following S. J. Case, have noted that Nazareth is only about 6 kilometres from the city of Tzipporimarker (ancient "Sepphoris"), which was destroyed by the Romans in 4BC, and thereafter was expensively rebuilt. It has been speculated that Joseph and Jesus might have travelled daily to work on the rebuilding. Specifically the large theatre in the city has been suggested, although this has aroused much controversy over dating and other issues. Other scholars see Joseph and Jesus as the general village craftsmen, working in wood, stone and metal on a wide variety of jobs.


Jesus lived in Galilee, north of Judea on the other side of Samaria (which was hostile to Judeans). Judeans did not hold Galileans in high regard as they were often of mixed blood and open to foreign influence. The Galilean dialect was clearly distinguishable from the Judean dialect.

Family background and childhood


Jesus' father might have been named Yosef, a common name at the time. 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.


Jesus' mother was named Mary, a common name at the time. Beyond the accounts in the Gospels and a few other early Christian sources, there is no independent or verifiable information about any aspect of Mary's life.

Jesus' siblings

Jesus had brothers and sisters, as reported in Mark 6:3 and Matthew 13:55-56. The Gospels name four brothers, but only James is known to history. After Jesus' death, James, "the Lord's brother", was the head of the congregation in Jerusalem and Jesus' relatives seem to have held positions of authority in the surrounding area. As the doctrine of Perpetual virginity of Mary developed, predominantly in the East, Christians began to regard the siblings of Jesus as children of Joseph by an earlier marriage, and Jerome went on to argue that the 'brothers' and 'sisters' referred to were actually cousins. The terms "brother" and "sister" as used in this context are open to different interpretations. The most natural conclusion from what is written in the New Testament is that Jesus' siblings were children of Mary and Joseph, as accepted by some early Christian writers ; but when Helvidius proposed this idea in the fourth century, Jerome, who seems to have expressed the general opinion of the Church, maintained that Mary remained always a virgin, and held that those who were called the brothers and sisters of Jesus were children of Clopas, a brother-in-law of Mary."Brethren of the Lord" Cross, F. L., ed. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. New York: Oxford University Press. 2005 The "brothers" and "sisters" of Jesus have thus been interpreted as children of Joseph by a previous marriage, as Mary's sister's children, or as Joseph's sister's children. Certain critical scholars, on the other hand, hold that the doctrine of perpetual virginity has long obscured the recognition that Jesus had siblings. Their confidence in this opinion is not shared by all critical scholars. For instance, Raymond E. Brown says that the words used about the brothers and sisters of Jesus in the New Testament, which nowhere calls them children of Mary, do not necessarily mean that they were full siblings; he also mentions that the tradition that Mary had no children but Jesus, already existed by the early second century, and refers to evidence within the New Testament itself that suggests that at least two of the named "brothers" were sons of another woman.

Ministry of Jesus

Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist and then began healing and preaching in Galilee, proclaiming the Kingdom of God. He and his followers traveled to Jerusalem in Judea, where he caused a disturbance at the Temple and was executed.

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 appear to show a dominion over other things in nature besides people. Jesus' exorcisms in particular are well-attested, Jesus' role as an exorcist was important to his self-understanding. E.P. Sanders argued that the miracles attributed to Jesus during his life would indicate to a Jewish audience that he was a holy man on intimate terms with God but not that he was a divine being.

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 reports of Jesus' miracles 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 as divine

Jesus preached as an autonomous, charismatic holy man, teaching about the Kingdom of God. Most scholars see him as accepting a divine role in the approaching apocalypse as the divine king. We can learn something about Jesus' understanding of his divine role from studying the use of three important terms: Messiah, Son of God, and Son of Man.


In the Hebrew Bible, three classes of people are identified as "anointed," that is, "Messiahs": prophets, priests, and kings. In Jesus' time, the term Messiah was used in different ways, and no one can be sure how Jesus would even have meant it if he had accepted the term. Though Messianic expectations in general centered on the King Messiah, the Essenes expected both a kingly and a priestly figure in their eschatology

The Jews of Jesus' time waited expectantly for a divine redeemer who would restore Israel, which suffered under Roman rule. John the Baptist was apparently waiting for one greater than himself, an apocalyptic figure. Christian scripture and faith acclaim Jesus as this "Messiah" ("anointed one," "Christ").

Son of God

Paul describes God as declaring Jesus to be the Son of God by raising him from the dead, and Sanders argues Mark portrays God as adopting Jesus as his son at his baptism. although many others don't accept this interpretation of Mark. Sanders argues that for Jesus to be hailed as the Son of God does not mean that he is literally God's offspring. Rather, it indicates a very high designation, one who stands in a special relation to God.

In the synoptic Gospels, the being of Jesus as "Son of God" corresponds exactly to the typical Hasidean from Galilee, a "pious" holy man that by God's intervention performs miracles and exorcisms.

Son of Man

The most literal translation here is "Son of Humanity", or "human being". Jesus uses "Son of Man" to mean sometimes "I" or a mortal in general, sometimes a divine figure destined to suffer, and sometimes a heavenly figure of judgment soon to arrive. Jesus usage of son of man in the first way is historical but without divine claim. The Son of Man as one destined to suffer seems to be, according to some, a Christian invention that doesn't go back to Jesus, and it's not clear whether Jesus meant himself when he spoke of the divine judge. These three uses do not appear together, such as the Son of Man who suffers and returns. Others maintain, that Jesus' use of this phrase, illustrates Jesus' self understanding as the divine representative of God.

Other depictions

The title Logos, identifying Jesus as the divine word, first appears in the Gospel of John, written .

Raymond E. Brown concluded that the earliest Christians did not call Jesus "God". New Testament scholars broadly agree that Jesus did not make any implicit claims to be God. See also Divinity of Jesus and Nontrinitarianism.

Pinchas Lapide sees Jesus as a rabbi in the Hasid tradition of Hillel the Elder, Yochanan ben Zakai and Hanina Ben Dosa.

The gospels and Christian tradition depict Jesus as being executed at the insistence of Jewish leaders, who considered his claims to divinity to be blasphemous, see also Responsibility for the death of Jesus. Historically, Jesus seems instead to have been executed as a potential source of unrest.

Jesus and John the Baptist

Judean hills of Israel
Jesus began preaching, teaching, and healing after he was baptized by John the Baptist, an apocalyptic ascetic preacher who called on Jews to repent.

Jesus was apparently a follower of John, a populist and activist prophet who looked forward to divine deliverance of the Jewish homeland from the Romans. John was a major religious figure, whose movement was probably larger than Jesus' own. Herod Antipas had John executed as a threat to his power. In a saying thought to have been originally recorded in Q, the historical Jesus defended John shortly after John's death.

John's followers formed a movement that continued after his death alongside Jesus' own following. John's followers apparently believed that John might have risen from the dead, an expectation that may have influenced the expectations of Jesus' followers after his own execution. Some of Jesus' followers were former followers of John the Baptist. Fasting and baptism, elements of John's preaching, may have entered early Christian practice as John's followers joined the movement.

John Dominic Crossan portrays Jesus as rejecting John's apocalyptic eschatology in favor of a sapiential eschatology, in which cultural transformation results from humans' own actions, rather than from God's intervention.

Historians consider Jesus' baptism by John to be historical, an event that early Christians would not have included in their Gospels in the absence of a "firm report." Like Jesus, John and his execution are mentioned by Josephus.

John the Baptist's prominence in both the Gospels and Josephus suggests that he may have been more popular than Jesus in his lifetime; also, Jesus' mission does not begin until after his baptism by John. Fredriksen suggests that it was only after Jesus' death that Jesus emerged as more influential than John. Accordingly, the Gospels project Jesus's posthumous importance back to his lifetime. One way Fredriksen believes this was accomplished was by minimizing John's importance by having John resist baptizing Jesus (Matthew), by referring to the baptism in passing (Luke), or by asserting Jesus's superiority (John).

Many scholars posit that Jesus may have been a direct follower in John the Baptist's movement. Prominent Historical Jesus scholar John Dominic Crossan suggests that John the Baptist may have been killed for political reasons, not necessarily the personal grudge given in Mark's gospel. Going into the desert and baptising in the Jordan suggests that John and his followers were purifying themselves for what they believed was God's imminent deliverance. This was reminiscent of such a crossing of the Jordan after the Exodus (see Book of Joshua), leading into the promised land of their deliverance from oppression. Jesus' teachings would later diverge from John's apocalyptic vision (though it depends which scholarly view is adopted; according to Ehrman or Sanders apocalyptic vision was the core of Jesus' teaching) which warned of "the wrath to come," as "the axe is laid to the root of the trees" and those who do not bear "good fruit" are "cut down and thrown into the fire." (Luke 3:7-9) Though John's teachings remained visible in those of Jesus, Jesus would emphasize the Kingdom of God not as imminent, but as already present and manifest through the movement's communal commitment to a relationship of equality among all members, and living by the laws of divine justice. All four Gospels agree that Jesus was crucified by Pontius Pilate, and this fact is consistent with Jewish accounts of Roman cruelty in general and Pilate's cruelty in particular. Crucifixion was the penalty for political insurrection, used as a symbol of Rome's absolute authority; those who stood against Rome were utterly annihilated.

Ministry and teachings

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

Once Jesus established a following (although there are debates over the number of followers), he moved towards the Davidic capital of the United Monarchy, the city of Jerusalemmarker.

Length of ministry

Historians do not know how long Jesus preached. The synoptic Gospels suggest a period of up to one year. The Gospel of John mentions three Passovers, so Jesus' ministry is traditionally said to have been three years long. In the view of Paul N. Anderson, John's presentation is more plausible historically than that of the Synoptics.

Parables and paradoxes

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

Crossan writes that Jesus' parables worked on multiple levels at the same time, provoking discussions with his peasant audience.

Jesus' parables and aphorisms circulated orally among his followers for years before they were written down and later incorporated into the Gospels. They represent the earliest Christian traditions about Jesus.


Jesus preached mainly about the Kingdom of God. Scholars are divided over whether he was referring to an imminent apocalyptic event or the transformation of everyday life.

A great many - if not a majority - of critical Biblical scholars, going as far back as Albert Schweitzer, hold that Jesus believed that the end of history was coming within his own lifetime or within the lifetime of his contemporaries.

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

  • In Mark 8:38-9:1, Jesus says that the Son of Man will come "in the glory of the Father with the holy angels" during "this adulterous generation." Indeed, he says, "there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the Kingdom of God has come in power."

  • In Luke 21:35-36, Jesus urges constant, unremitting preparedness on the part of his followers in light of the imminence of the end of history and the final intervention of God. "Be alert at all times, praying to have strength to flee from all these things that are about to take place and to stand in the presence of the Son of Man."

  • In Mark 13:24-27, 30, Jesus describes what will happen when the end comes, saying that "the sun will grow dark and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and ... they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds with great power and glory." He gives a timeline for this event: "Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away before all these things take place."

  • The Apostle Paul also seems to have shared this expectation. Toward the end of 1 Corinthians 7, he counsels Christians to avoid getting married if they can since the end of history was imminent. Speaking to the unmarried, he writes, "I think that, in view of the impending crisis, it is well for you to remain as your are." "I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short ... For the present form of this world is passing away." (1 Corinthians 7:26, 29, 31) In 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17, Paul also seems to believe that he will live to witness the return of Jesus and the end of history.

According to Geza Vermes, Jesus' announcement of the imminent arrival of the Kingdom of God "was patently not fulfilled" and "created a serious embarrassment for the primitive church." According to E.P. Sanders, these eschatological sayings of Jesus are "passages that many Christian scholars would like to see vanish," as "the events they predict did not come to pass, which means that Jesus was wrong."

Robert W. Funk and colleagues, on the other hand, wrote that beginning in the 1970s, some scholars have come to reject the view of Jesus as eschatological, pointing out that he rejected the asceticism of John the Baptist and his eschatological message. In this view, the Kingdom of God is not a future state, but rather a contemporary, mysterious presence. John Dominic Crossan describes Jesus' eschatology as based on establishing a new, holy way of life rather than on God's redeeming intervention in history.

Evidence for the Kingdom of God as already present derives from these verses.

  • In Luke 17:20-21, Jesus says that one won't be able to observe God's Kingdom arriving, and that it "is right there in your presence."

  • In Thomas 113, Jesus says that God's Kingdom "is spread out upon the earth, and people don't see it."

  • In Luke 11:20, Jesus says that if he drives out demons by God's finger then "for you" the Kingdom of God has arrived.

  • Furthermore, the major parables of Jesus do not reflect an apocalyptic view of history.

The Jesus Seminar concludes that apocalyptic statements attributed to Jesus could have originated from early Christians, as apocalyptic ideas were common, but the statements about God's Kingdom being mysteriously present cut against the common view and could have originated only with Jesus himself.

Laconic sage

The sage of the ancient Near East was a self-effacing man of few words who did not provoke encounters. A holy man offers cures and exorcisms only when petitioned, and even then may be reluctant. Jesus seems to have displayed a similar style.

The Gospels present Jesus engaging in frequent "question and answer" religious debates with Pharisees and Sadducees. The Jesus Seminar believes the debates about scripture and doctrine are rabbinic in style and not characteristic of Jesus. They believe these "conflict stories" represent the conflicts between the early Christian community and those around them: the Pharisees, Sadducees, etc. The group believes these sometimes include genuine sayings or concepts but are largely the product of the early Christian community.

Table fellowship

Open table fellowship with outsiders was central to Jesus' ministry. His practice of eating with the lowly people that he healed defied the expectations of traditional Jewish society. He presumably taught at the meal, as would be expected in a symposium. His conduct caused enough of a scandal that he was accused of being a glutton and a drunk.

John Dominic Crossan identifies this table practice as part of Jesus' radical egalitarian program. The importance of table fellowship is seen in the prevalence of meal scenes in early Christian art and in the Eucharist, the Christian ritual of bread and wine.


Jesus recruited twelve Galilean peasants as his inner circle, including several fishermen. The fishermen in question and the tax collector Matthew would have business dealings requiring some knowledge of Greek. The father of two of the fishermen is represented as having the means to hire labourers for his fishing business, and tax collectors were seen as exploiters. The twelve were expected to rule the twelve tribes of Israel in the Kingdom of God.

The disciples of Jesus play a large role in the search for the historical Jesus. However, when looking at the four Gospels, we see that there are different words used to apply to Jesus' followers. The Greek word "ochloi" refers to the crowds who gathered around Jesus as he preached. The word "mathetes" refers to the followers who stuck around for more teaching. The word "apostolos" refers to the twelve disciples, or apostles, whom Jesus chose specifically to be his close followers. With these three categories of followers, Meier uses a model of concentric circles around Jesus in order to create a distinction among those who were closer to Jesus than others.


The outer most circle surrounding Jesus are known as Ochloi, or "the crowds." This outer circle of Jesus' followers would have been the largest and least stable of the groups following Jesus. By the criterion of multiple attestation of Mark, John, Q, Matthew, and Luke, we can be certain that Jesus attracted large crowds. This argument is bolstered by the fact that Jesus was crucified outside Jerusalem by the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate, most probably on the charge of claiming to be "King of the Jews." How a Jewish preacher, teacher, and healer from Galilee would end up executed by Romans in Jerusalem could only be plausible if he did in fact attract large, enthusiastic crowds. We can see in the Gospels that Jesus' ability to attract large crowds through preaching and healing seemed to have lasted until his final days in Jerusalem. Meier notes that the success of his ministry probably led to his arrest and execution by the nervous authorities. Although the crowds were enthusiastic at times, the enthusiasm rarely translated in deep, enduring commitment from members of the crowds. Critical remarks by the evangelists, the unrepentant cities of Galilee (Matthew 11:20-24), and the relative failure of Jesus' followers to win over the majority of Palestinian Jews to "Christianity" is all evidence that most people in the crowds never crossed over from being just curious or sympathetic audiences to deeply committed disciples or supporters. Although, we will see as we move to the inner circles surrounding Jesus that some of his closest disciples came from the crowds that surrounded Jesus.


The second ring around Jesus consists of Mathetes, or "disciples." Meier simply uses the term "disciples," but for the sake of clarity we will use the word "followers." These are the people who stayed for Jesus' teaching. As Meier puts it, "Jesus' disciples are marked by obedience to his peremptory call, denial of self, and exposure to hostility and danger." However, since the members of this group were not individually called by Jesus to be his disciples like the Twelve were, Meier therefore refers to the followers and crowds as "pseudo-disciples." In other words, these groups simply were physical followers of Jesus but not necessarily committed followers of Jesus who were with him all the time. Indeed, we will see that Meier reserves that kind of characteristic for the Twelve. It is also important that we understand that, in many cases, the term "disciples" is used to encompass both the "sympathetic audiences" and the Twelve. It is important that a distinction is made between the crowds and the disciples. On the other hand, some passages suggest that the Gospels use the terms "disciples" and "the Twelve" interchangeably. Either way, it is important to note that Jesus' ministry was primarily focused on his twelve disciples and not on the crowds and followers. It was the Twelve whom Jesus spent most of his time with and directed most of his teachings towards, as we see from the accounts of the four Gospels.


Commonly referred to as "the Twelve" in both John and Mark, this group would have been the one group that was fairly fixed because of the set number of members. What set this group of followers apart from the other two groups was that they were a set group of committed disciples who had been individually called by Jesus. Although the Twelve appeared to be a set group, there is confusion about the actual names of all of the Twelve. For example, names like Nathanael and Judas son of James are not in the lists described in the Gospels. However, as baffling as the confusion of the names of the Twelve might seem, the concept of the Twelve is far more important. Out of "the Twelve" there seems to be an even closer group of "Four", or circle, that includes Simon Peter, James (son of Zebedee), John (brother of James), and Andrew (Simon Peter's brother). However, just because the Gospels might mention these men more than the other apostles, does not mean that the other apostles were not just as close to Jesus. The Twelve remains to hold the most significant standing among all of the groups following Jesus, as each member was individually called to follow him.

Women Disciples

By using the criterion of embarrassment, we can be certain that Jesus controversially accepted women and sinners (those who violated purity laws) among his followers. Even though women were never directly called "disciples", certain passages in the Gospels seem to indicate that women followers of Jesus were equivalent to the disciples. As mentioned before, it was possible for members of the "ochloi" to cross over into the "mathetes" category. However, Meier argues that some people from the "mathetes" category actually crossed into the "apostolos" category, namely Mary Magdalene. Therein lies the problem that only males are specifically depicted as summoned to discipleship by Jesus and only males are specifically called "disciples" in the Gospels. The narration of Jesus' death and the events that accompany it mention the presence of women. Meier states that the pivotal role of the women at the cross is revealed in the subsequent narrative, where at least some of the women, notably Mary Magdalene, witnessed both the burial of Jesus (Mark 15:47) and discovered the empty tomb (Mark 16:1-8). Luke also mentions that as Jesus and the Twelve were traveling from city to city preaching the "good news", they were accompanied by women, who provided for them out of their own means. We can conclude that women did follow Jesus a considerable length of time during his Galilean ministry and his last journey to Jerusalem. Such a devoted, long-term following could not occur without the initiative or active acceptance of the women who followed him. However, most scholars would argue that it is unreasonable to say that Mary Magdalene's seemingly close relationship with Jesus suggests that she was an a disciple of Jesus or one of the Twelve. In name, the women are not historically considered "disciples" of Jesus, but the fact that he allowed them to follow and serve him proves that they were to some extent treated as disciples.

The Gospels recount Jesus commissioning disciples to spread the word, sometimes during his life (e.g., Mark 6:7-12) and sometimes during a resurrection appearance (e.g., Matthew 28:18-20). These accounts reflect early Christian practice as well as Jesus' original instructions, though some scholars contend that historical Jesus issued no such missionary commission.

According to John Dominic Crossan, Jesus sent his disciples out to heal and to proclaim the Kingdom of God. They were to eat with those they healed rather than with higher status people who might well be honored to host a healer, and Jesus directed them to eat whatever was offered them. This implicit challenge to the social hierarchy was part of Jesus' program of radical egalitarianism. These themes of healing and eating are common in early Christian art.

Jesus' instructions to the missionaries appear in the synoptic Gospels and in the Gospel of Thomas. These instructions are distinct from the commission that the resurrected Jesus gives to his followers, the Great Commission, text rated as black (inauthentic) by the Jesus Seminar.


The fellows of the Jesus Seminar mostly held that Jesus was not an ascetic, and that he probably drank wine and did not fast, other than as all observant Jews did.He did, however, promote a simple life and the renunciation of wealth.

Jesus said that some made themselves "eunuchs" for the Kingdom of Heaven ( ). This aphorism might have been meant to establish solidarity with eunuchs, who were considered "incomplete" in Jewish society. Alternatively, he may have been promoting celibacy.

Some suggest that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene, or that he probably had a special relationship with her, or that he was married to Mary the sister of Lazarus.

John the Baptist was an ascetic and perhaps a Nazirite, so he promoted celibacy like the Essenes. Ascetic elements, such as fasting, appeared in Early Christianity and are mentioned by Matthew during Jesus' discourse on ostentation.


Jesus and his followers left Galilee and traveled to Jerusalem in Judea. They may have traveled through Samaria as reported in John, or around the border of Samaria as reported in Luke, as was common practice for Jews avoiding hostile Samaritans. Jerusalem was packed with Jews who had come for Passover, perhaps comprising 300,000 to 400,000 pilgrims.

Entrance to Jerusalem

Jesus might have entered Jerusalem on a donkey as a symbolic act, possibly to contrast with the triumphant entry that a Roman conqueror would make, or to enact a prophecy in Zechariah. Christian scripture makes the reference to Zechariah explicit, perhaps because the scene was invented as scribes looked to scripture to help them flesh out the details of the gospel narratives.

Temple disturbance

Jesus taught in Jerusalem, and he caused a disturbance at the Temple. In response, the temple authorities arrested him and turned him over to the Roman authorities for execution. He might have been betrayed into the hands of the temple police, or the authorities might have arrested him with no need for a traitor.


Jesus was crucified by Pontius Pilate, the Prefect of Iudaea provincemarker (26 AD to 36 AD). Some scholars suggest that Pilate executed Jesus as a public nuisance, perhaps with the cooperation of the Jewish authorities. E. P. Sanders argued that the cleansing of the Temple was an act that seriously offended his Jewish audience and eventually led to his death, while Bart D. Ehrman argued that Jesus' actions would have been considered treasonous and thus a capital offense by the Romans. The claim that the Sadducee high-priestly leaders and their associates handed Jesus over to the Romans is strongly attested. Historians debate whether Jesus intended to be crucified.

The assertions made in the Bible that Pilate held a trial for an alleged troublemaker and ended up crucifying Jesus because the local population insisted upon it is considered historically dubious. The Jesus Seminar argued that Christian scribes seem to have drawn on scripture in order to flesh out the passion narrative, such as inventing Jesus' trial. However, scholars are split on the historicity of the underlying events.

John Dominic Crossan points to the use of the word "kingdom" in his central teachings of the "Kingdom of God," which alone would have brought Jesus to the attention of Roman authority. Rome dealt with Jesus as it commonly did with essentially non-violent dissension: the killing of its leader. It was usually violent uprisings such as those during the Roman-Jewish Wars that warranted the slaughter of leader and followers. As the balance shifted in the early Church from the Jewish community to Gentile converts, it may have sought to distance itself from rebellious Jews (those who rose up against the Roman occupation). There was also a schism developing within the Jewish community as these believers in Jesus were pushed out of the synagogues after the Roman destruction of the Second Temple in 70 AD, see Council of Jamnia. The divergent accounts of Jewish involvement in the trial of Jesus suggest some of the unfavorable sentiments between such Jews that resulted. See also List of events in early Christianity.

Aside from the fact that the Gospels provide different accounts of the Jewish role in Jesus's death (for example, Mark and Matthew report two separate trials, Luke one, and John none), Fredriksen, like other scholars (see Catchpole 1971) argues that many elements of the gospel accounts could not possibly have happened: according to Jewish law, the court could not meet at night; it could not meet on a major holiday; Jesus's statements to the Sanhedrin or the High Priest (e.g. that he was the messiah) did not constitute blasphemy; the charges that the Gospels purport the Jews to have made against Jesus were not capital crimes against Jewish law; even if Jesus had been accused and found guilty of a capital offense by the Sanhedrin, the punishment would have been death by stoning (the fates of Saint Stephen and James the Just for example) and not crucifixion. This necessarily assumes that the Jewish leaders were scrupulously obedient to Roman law, and never broke their own laws, customs or traditions even for their own advantage. In response, it has been argued that the legal circumstances surrounding the trial have not been well understood , and that Jewish leaders were not always strictly obedient, either to Roman law or to their own. Furthermore, talk of a restoration of the Jewish monarchy was seditious under Roman occupation. Further, Jesus would have entered Jerusalem at an especially risky time, during Passover, when popular emotions were running high. Although most Jews did not have the means to travel to Jerusalem for every holiday, virtually all tried to comply with these laws as best they could. And during these festivals, such as the Passover, the population of Jerusalem would swell, and outbreaks of violence were common. Scholars suggest that the High Priest feared that Jesus' talk of an imminent restoration of an independent Jewish state might spark a riot. Maintaining the peace was one of the primary jobs of the Roman-appointed High Priest, who was personally responsible to them for any major outbreak. Scholars therefore argue that he would have arrested Jesus for promoting sedition and rebellion, and turned him over to the Romans for punishment. However, Paul's preaching of the Gospel and its radical social practices were by their very definition a direct affront to 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.

Empty tomb

Scholars are split on whether Jesus was buried, and if so, whether or not the tomb was found empty. After crucifixion, bodies would have normally been exhibited for some time as a warning to the myriad other antagonists in Jerusalem, and eventually left in a shallow mass grave, exposed to wild dogs and other scavengers. Crossan, based on his unique position that the Gospel of Peter contains the oldest primary source about Jesus, argued that the burial accounts become progressively extravagant and thus found it historically unlikely that an enemy would release a corpse, contending that Jesus' followers did not have the means to know what happened to Jesus' body. His position on the Gospel of Peter has not found scholarly support, from Meyer's description of it as "eccentric and implausible", to Koester's critique of it as "seriously flawed". Habermas argued against Crossan, stating that the response of Jewish authorities against Christian claims for the resurrection presupposed a burial and empty tomb, and he observed the discovery of the body of Yohanan Ben Ha'galgol, a man who died by crucifixion in the first century and was discovered at a burial site outside ancient Jerusalem in an ossuary, arguing that this find revealed important facts about crucifixion and burial in first century Palestine. Other scholars consider the burial by Joseph of Arimathea found in Mark 15 to be for the most part historically probable, and some have gone on to argue that the tomb was thereafter discovered empty; Michael Grant wrote:

However, Marcus Borg notes:

Resurrection appearances

Peter, Paul, and Mary apparently had visionary experiences of a risen Jesus. Paul recorded his vision in an epistle and lists other reported appearances. The original Mark reports Jesus' empty tomb, and the later Gospels and later endings to Mark narrate various resurrection appearances.

The two oldest manuscripts (4th century) of Mark, the earliest Gospel, break off at 16:8 stating that the women came and found an empty tomb "and they said nothing to anyone because they were afraid". (Mk 16:8) The passages stating that he had been seen by Mary Magdelene and the eleven disciples (Mk 16:9-20) were added only later, and the hypothetical original ending was lost. Scholars have put forth a number of theories concerning the resurrection appearances of Jesus. The Jesus Seminar concluded: "In the view of the Seminar, he did not rise bodily from the dead; the resurrection is based instead on visionary experiences of Peter, Paul, and Mary." E.P. Sanders argues for the difficulty of accusing the early witnesses of any deliberate fraud:

Most scholars believe supernatural events cannot be reconstructed using empirical methods, and thus consider the resurrection a non-historical question but instead a philosophical or theological question.

Quest for the historical Jesus

Traditionally, Western scholars considered the Gospel accounts of Jesus to be authoritative and inspired by God, but starting in the late 1700s scholars began to submit the Gospels to historical scrutiny. From 1744 to 1767, Hermann Samuel Reimarus composed a treatise rejecting miracles and accusing Bible authors of fraud, but did not publish his findings. Gotthold Lessing published Reimarus's conclusions in the Wolfenbuettel fragments. D.F.Strauss's biography of Jesus set Gospel criticism on its modern course. Strauss explained gospel miracles as natural events misunderstood and misrepresented. Joseph Renan was the first of many to portray Jesus simply as a human person. Albrecht Ritschl had reservations about this project, but it became central to liberal Protestantism in Germany and to the Social Gospel movement in America. Martin Kaehler protested, arguing that the true Christ is the one preached by the whole Bible, not a historical hypothesis. William Wrede questioned the historical reliability of Mark. Albert Schweitzer showed how histories of Jesus had reflected the historians' bias. Karl Barth and Rudolph Bultmann repudiated the quest for historical Jesus, suppressing any real interest in the topic from c 1920 to c 1970. There was a brief New Quest movement in the 50s. Today, historical efforts to construct a biography of Jesus are as strong as ever.

Criticism of reconstructing a historical Jesus

Critics variously characterize the historical reconstruction of Jesus as either an unwarranted a priori rejection of all supernatural elements in Jesus' true identity, or as ascribing historical status to a fictional character.

Christian criticism

In C. S. Lewis's The Screwtape Letters, the fictional demon Screwtape writes: "The Historical Point of View, put briefly, means that when a learned man is presented with any statement in an ancient author, the one question he never asks is whether it is true". Professor C. Stephen Evans holds that the stories told by "scientific, critical historians" are based on faith convictions no less than is the account of Jesus as the Christ the Son of God, an account that he maintains can be reasonably accepted as historically true.

Criticism as myth

Some writers, such as Earl Doherty, G. A. Wells and Robert M. Price question whether Jesus ever existed, and whether attempts to use the Gospels to reconstruct his life give the Gospels too much credit. This position, put forward in works such as the 2005 documentary The God Who Wasn't There, is very rare among Historians and Bible scholars.

See also


  • Brown, Raymond E. et al. The New Jerome Biblical Commentary Prentice Hall 1990 ISBN 0-13-614934-0
  • 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.
  • Dickson, John. Jesus: A Short Life, Lion Hudson plc, 2008, ISBN 0825478022, 9780825478024, Google Books
  • Fiensy, David A.; Jesus the Galilean: soundings in a first century life, Gorgias Press LLC, 2007, ISBN 1593333137, 9781593333133, Google books
  • Grant, Michael. Jesus: A Historian's Review of the Gospels. Scribner's, 1977. ISBN 0-684-14889-7.
  • Harris, by William V. Ancient Literacy. Harvard University Press: 1989. ISBN 0-674-03380-9.
  • Meier, John P., A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, Doubleday,
v. 1, The Roots of the Problem and the Person, 1991, ISBN 0-385-26425-9
v. 2, Mentor, Message, and Miracles, 1994, ISBN 0-385-46992-6
v. 3, Companions and Competitors, 2001, ISBN 0-385-46993-4
  • Sanders, E.P. Jesus and Judaism. Augsburg Fortress Publishers: 1987.
  • Theissen, Gerd and Merz, Annette. The Historical Jesus: A Comprehensive Guide. Fortress Press: Minneapolis, 1998. ISBN 0-8006-3122-6.
  • Witherington III, Ben. The Jesus Quest. InterVarsity Press: 1997. ISBN 0-8308-1544-9.
  • Wright, N.T. Christian Origins and the Question of God, a projected 6 volume series of which 3 have been published under: The New Testament and the People of God (Vol.1); Jesus and the Victory of God (Vol.2); The Resurrection of the Son of God (Vol.3). Fortress Press.
  • Wright, N.T. The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering who Jesus was and is. IVP 1996
  • Yaghjian, Lucretia. "Ancient Reading", in Richard Rohrbaugh, ed., The Social Sciences in New Testament Interpretation. Hendrickson Publishers: 2004. ISBN 1-56563-410-1.


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