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JESUS . Jesus Christ (75 bce 3033 ce) is the founder of the Christian religion.

Traditional Images of Jesus

From early times, Christians worshiped Jesus. John's gospel already speaks of him as divine (1:14), and the dominant Christian tradition makes Jesus' deity an article of faith. So just as human beings always make gods in their own image, so too have Christians done with Jesus. In popular piety, sophisticated theology, and modern historiography, he has been viewed through a half-silvered mirror: depending upon the light, one sees either one's reflection or what is on the other side. Often, the links between the historical Jesus of Nazareth and representations of him have been tenuous. At the same time, to the extent that the New Testament preserves memories of this individual, the potential influence of a real historical figure live on.


Although Christians have always considered Jesus their savior, no creed or church council has ever defined the nature of his redemptive work. The tradition in 1 Corinthians 15:37 says that Jesus "died for our sins" but does not explain how this worked. Similarly, the accounts of the last supper, which have Jesus instituting the central rite of most churches, have him saying that his body is "for you" (1 Cor. 11:24) or that his blood is "poured out for many" (Mk. 14:24), but there is no accompanying explanation. In Romans 3:25, Paul speaks of Jesus' death as a "propitiation" or "expiation"that is, in sacrificial terms. Yet again there is no theory of the atonement.

Later theologians made up the lack. Origen (c. 185c. 254 ce) argued that Jesus became a ransom to the devil, who had, with the fall of Adam and Eve, acquired ownership over them and their descendants. A popular myth, growing out of Colossians 2:14 ("erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands"), had the devil tricking the first human beings into an agreement that was written on a stone thrown into the Jordan River and destroyed by Jesus at his baptism.

In the East, Jesus' descent to hell, allegedly exegetically rooted in Matthew 27:5153 and 1 Peter 3:1820, became the great act of redemption. After expiring, Jesus descended to the realm of the dead, to which the devil, who did not realize what he was doing, gave him entrance. Once there, Jesus revealed his true nature and destroyed the chains that held all in Hades. Having ruined Satan's realm, Jesus then ascended, taking with him Adam and Eve and the saints of old (and in a few versions of this story, everybody). Orthodox celebrations of the resurrection replay this act every Easter service when the priest knocks on the doors of the church, which then open and allow him and the congregation to enter and celebrate the feast.

Western thought has focused on the language of atonement. For Anselm (10331109), offence against the infinite dignity of God, who is owed perfect obedience, creates an infinite debt. Since human beings are finite, they cannot pay the debt. So God in the person of the Son deigned to make satisfaction; that is, the Son paid a ransom to the Father. Being divine, he had the ability to do this; being human, he had the right to pay for humanity. This basic scheme was retained by the Reformers and remains alive in much popular Protestant thought, where the spotlight has been on God's justice and the punishment it demands. Yet such thinking has always had its detractors. Abelard (10791142) urged an exemplarist theory of the atonement, according to which Jesus' death is primarily a display of his love; its value lies in our imitation of such love.

Moral model

Jesus, who in the Gospels says "Follow me," has often served as a moral model. Romans 15:17 supplies an early instance, and Matthew presents Jesus as a moral example by offering numerous correlations between Jesus' imperatives and his deeds (e.g., Mt. 5:1720 and 8:4; 5:39 and 26:67; 27:30; 6:6 and 14:23). Ignatius wrote, "Be imitators of Jesus Christ, as he was of his Father" (Phil. 7:2). Origen was more expansive: "Christ is set forth as an example to all believers, because as he ever chose the goodand loved righteousness and hated iniquityso, too, should each one of us.By this means we may as far as is possible become, through our imitation of him, partakers of the divine nature; as it is written, 'The one who believes in Christ ought to walk even as he walked'" (De prin. 4.4.4). Christian monasticism shared the same outlook, taking Jesus' poverty, celibacy, and obedience to be imperatives.

The most influential presentation of Jesus as an ethical model is the fifteenth-century Imitation of Christ, written by Thomas à Kempis and translated into English many times. With the exception of the Bible, it is perhaps Christianity's most widely read work. The first chapter sets forth its theme: "'The one who follows me, walks not in darkness,' says the Lord. These are the words of Christ, by which we are admonished how we should imitate his life and manners, if we will be truly enlightened, and be delivered from all blindness of heart. So let our chief endeavor be to meditate upon the life of Jesus Christ."

Many Protestants have found this sort of devotion theologically problematic. Since Martin Luther (14831546), there has been a reaction against an unimaginative and literalistic imitatio Christi (such as that exhibited by Francis of Assisi). Some have condemned the notion of imitating the canonical Jesus as a purely human effort that, in the event, cannot be achieved. Others have argued that the idea fails to preserve Jesus' unique status as a savior whose accomplishments cannot be emulated: the Christian gospel is not imitation of a human hero.

Despite such criticism, Jesus has remained a moral model for many, including many Protestants. More than one hundred years ago, C. M. Sheldon's In His Steps (1896), in which Jesus appears more like a modern American than an ancient Jew, was a best-seller. The title indicates the main theme. Today, socially concerned Christians continue to appeal to Jesus' ministry to unfortunates as precedent for their charitable causes. Liberation theologians argue that Jesus fought social and political injustice and that his followers should do likewise. Others have supported women's causes by calling upon Jesus' supposed liberation of them. So the imitation of Christ continues to take various forms. Popular Christian jewelry worn in the West is inscribed with the question, "What would Jesus do?"

The face of God

Jesus' status as divine makes his attributes those of God. This has meant, among other things, that Christians have conceived of God as compassionate. In the Gospels, Jesus is the "friend of tax collectors and sinners"; he heals the sick and infirm; he refuses to cast the first stone. In line with all this, the traditional images of the Pantokrator (ruler of the universe) have the exalted Jesus, as lord of the universe, lifting his right hand in the posture of blessing and holding a book with the words, "Come to me all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest." Both Orthodox iconographers and Renaissance artists have favored the image of Mary embracing her infant son. Similarly, much popular Protestant art has depicted Jesus as welcoming children. This is the same compassionate Jesus to whom the so-called Jesus Prayer of Orthodox spirituality"Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me a sinner"is directed.

If Jesus has often been the face of divine compassion, no less often has he been the face of divine judgment. Already the Gospels depict him as warning repeatedly of hell, and Matthew 25:3146 depicts him as the judge of the last day, sending some into eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. How such visions of judgment harmonize with the compassionate Christ is problematic. One thinks of Peter Paul Rubens's (15771640) astounding painting of Saint Francis crouched around and protecting the world from a Jesus Christ who wants to attack it with thunderbolts. Here Francis must become the compassionate savior because Jesus is the threatening judge.

The tension between the compassionate Jesus and the damning Jesus is such that many have thought the gospel portrait, which features both, cannot in this regard be historical. Can it be that a mind that was profoundly enamored of the love of God and that counseled charity toward enemies concurrently accepted and even promoted the dismal idea of a divinely-imposed, unending agony? Anticipating some modern scholarship, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (17921822) argued in his "Essay on Christianity" that the evangelists "impute sentiments to Jesus Christ which flatly contradict each other." According to Shelley, Jesus actually "summoned his whole resources of persuasion to oppose" the idea of justice inherent in hell; Jesus believed in "a gentle and beneficent and compassionate" God, not in "a Being who shall deliberately scheme to inflict on a large portion of the human race tortures indescribably intense and indefinitely protracted." Shelley argued that "the absurd and execrable doctrine of vengeance, in all its shapes, seems to have been contemplated by this great moralist with the profoundest disapprobation." The gospel texts suggesting otherwise are for Shelley unhistorical.

Perhaps the most distinctive image of Jesus and of Christian art, and certainly the most popular in the West, is that of Jesus being crucified. One of the earliest artistic evidences for Christianity is a crude graffito with inscription ("Alexamenos worships his god") on the wall of a house in Rome on the Palatine Hill. Reflecting the ancient world's abhorrence of crucifixion, it mocks the crucified Christ by giving him the head of a donkey. But, in accordance with Paul's paradoxical theology and his boasting in the crucified Christ, Christians transformed the ancient instrument of torture into the salvific instrument par excellence. The traditional icons of the crucifixion, which typically depict a serene and majestic Christ, even seeming to sleep, are on some level a response to the problem of evil. While this has no satisfactory intellectual solution, Christians have found solace in the notion that God the Son has also suffered. Blaise Pascal (16231662) famously wrote that Christ is on the cross until the end of time. In our own day, the Holocaust haunts all reflection about Jesus' suffering. The Protestant theologian, Jürgen Moltmann (1926), has argued that Jesus' cry of dereliction on the cross should be taken at face value: on the cross, God abandoned Jesus. So the crucified Son reveals the reality of divine suffering. The Son is abandoned, the Father grieves, and God paradoxically forsakes God. In this way the reality of human suffering is taken up into the Godhead, and Christians do not feel alone in their suffering.

Images outside the church

Jesus belongs not just to Christians but also, in one way or another, to other religions and even to those with no religion. Most traditional Jewish thought, reacting against Christian polemic and persecution, turned Jesus into a deceiver, a false prophet who practiced illicit magic (see below). Not all Jewish opinion, however, has been negative. Anticipating many modern Jewish thinkers, the Kairites, a non-Talmudic sect of the Middle Ages, claimed that Jesus was an authentic Jewish martyr whose identity Christianity distorted. More recently, some, downplaying Jesus' originality, have tried to reclaim him for Judaism by turning him into a Pharisee or Essene. Martin Buber (18781965) spoke of Jesus as his "great brother," who has "a great placein Israel's history of faith." Probably the most positive Jewish evaluation of Jesus has come from the Orthodox German scholar Pinchas Lapide (1922). Denying that Jesus was the Messiah, Lapide nonetheless expressed belief in Jesus' resurrection and acknowledged him as God's prophet to the Gentiles.

In Islam, Jesus, whom the Qur˒ān mentions over a dozen times, is in the honored line of prophets that culminates in Muammad. Jesus was born of a virgin and lived without sin. He was a wise teacher and worked miracles. He was sentenced to be crucified but never was, instead ascending to heaven, from whence many Muslims expect him to return. Some believe that he will help Muammad at the last judgment. Jesus is not, however, divine, and Islamic teaching has it that the Gospels are corrupt: they contain imperfect, distorted memories of Jesus.

Popular Hinduism, although it has no place for Jesus' atoning death, has sometimes regarded him as an avatar, or incarnation, of Viu. Mahatma Gandhi (18691948) further found Jesus' teaching in the sermon on the mount, or rather that teaching as Lev Tolstoi (18281910) interpreted it, to be profoundly true; it is reported that Gandhi was fond of several Christian hymns about Jesus. (Martin Luther King Jr.'s application of the sermon on the mount, with its emphasis upon nonviolence, was, to the extent it derived from Gandhi, also derived from Tolstoi.) Another twentieth-century Hindu, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (18881975), philosopher and president of India in the 1960s, offered a sophisticated, philosophical interpretation of Jesus. Radhakrishnan maintained the superiority of his native Hinduism over Christianity by accepting the authenticity of Jesus' religious experience but distinguishing that experience from its interpretations, which were suggested to Jesus and his followers by their human traditions. One should differentiate Jesus' discovery of the universal self from his culturally determined conception of that discovery as a revelation from without.

Of the negative evaluations of Jesus, three are especially characteristic of modern times. The Grand Inquisitor in Fedor Dostoevskii's novel The Brothers Karamazov (18791880) speaks for many when he asserts that Jesus "judged humanity too highly," for "it was created weaker and lower than Christ thought." In other words, Jesus was unrealistic. One cannot love one's enemies, or do away with anger, or turn the other cheek. His utopian ethic is just thatutopian: it does not work in the real world.

Friedrich Nietzsche (18441900) offered a different criticism. For him, certain teachings in the Gospels reflect a slave mentality that should be rejected. If the unfortunate and oppressed turn the other cheek, this is only because, being without power, they can do nothing else; they are resigned in the face of their own oppression. So Jesus' nonviolence simply baptizes the status quo.

The classical Marxist critique is related: Jesus' eschatological vision acquiesces to the evils of the present instead of demanding historical change. The promises of future reward and warnings of future punishment devalue this world and discourage critical engagement with it. It is exceptional when, in his attempt to counter an oppressive bureaucracy, Milan Machoveč in A Marxist Looks at Jesus (1976) finds value in Jesus' demand for personal transformation in the light of the future's penetration of the present.

The Modern Quest for the Historical Jesus

For seventeen hundred years the canonical Gospels were approached in two different ways. The dominant approach was that of the Christian church, which accepted the texts at face value. The Gospels were thought historically accurate because divinely inspired and written by eyewitnesses or their friends. Occasionally there was recognition of inconcinnities. Augustine of Hippo (354430) admitted that sometimes the evangelists pass on the same saying with different wording and that the frailty of memory could put the same events in different orders. John Calvin (15091564) went so far as to assert that the sermon on the mount is not the record of what Jesus said on one occasion but an artificial collection of things he said on various occasions. For the most part, however, the Gospels were identified with history.

The second approach before the modern period was that of Jewish polemic. This saw Jesus and his followers as deliberate deceivers (note Mt. 28:1115). The medieval Toledoth Jesus attributes Jesus' miracles, which it does not deny, to magic. This is typical. The Toledoth tends not to assert that this or that event never happened, but rather to dispute its Christian interpretation.

The eighteenth century

Matters began to change in the middle of the eighteenth century. Modern historical methods emerged out of the rebirth of learning in the Renaissance; the Protestant Reformation introduced critical analysis of traditional religious stories (e.g., Roman Catholic legends); and the growing secularism that followed the wars of religion and the Enlightenment fostered disbelief in miracles. All of this encouraged the critical examination of the Gospels.

The most important of the early critics was Hermann Samuel Reimarus (16941768), a one-time German pastor much influenced by the English deists. Unable to believe in miracles, he compiled objections to the Bible, including the Gospels. Reimarus may have been the first in the modern periodthe third-century Greek philosopher Porphyry anticipated him in thisto distinguish between what Jesus himself said and what his disciples said he said. To the latter alone he attributed belief in the second coming and Jesus' atoning death. Reimarus also argued that Jesus' kingdom was basically political and that his tomb was empty because the disciples stole the body. Reimarus's goal was to take Christianity, subtract the bad and unbelievable things from it, and hand the world a new and improved religion.

Shying from controversy, Reimarus did not publish his own work, which did not appear until after his death, when the playwright and critic Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (17291781) edited and published it. As Reimarus was rhetorically powerful, and as his rationalistic arguments had substance, his work generated support, as well as the predictable opposition.

The nineteenth century

The next phase in research saw the proliferation of the so-called liberal lives of Jesus in Germany. Agreeing with Reimarus that miracles do not happen, but dissenting from much of his skepticism regarding the historicity of the Gospels, these liberal lives, like the old Jewish polemic, tended not to dispute the events in the Gospels but rather their supernatural explanations. Instead, however, of invoking deliberate deception, as did the polemic, these critics thought in terms of misperception. Jesus did not walk on the water; he only appeared to do so when disciples on a boat saw him afar off on the shore. Jesus did not raise anyone from the dead; rather, some he prayed over recovered from comas, leading to that belief. Jesus' own resurrection was also simple misinterpretation. He did not die on the cross; he revived in the cool of the tomb. But his disciples, who were simple and superstitious, thought he had in fact died and come back to life.

This school of thought began to lose its popularity in middle of nineteenth century for several reasons. Most important was the critical work of the German historian and theologian, David Friedrich Strauss (18081874), who disparaged the liberal lives, as well as the conservative harmonists. Like the liberals, Strauss disbelieved in miracles. Unlike the liberals, he believed the gospel narratives to be thoroughly unreliable (and he dismissed John entirely). He considered them, although not Jesus himself, to be mythological, mostly the product of reflection upon the Old Testament narratives. Illustrative for Strauss is the transfiguration, which is based upon the similar transfiguration of Moses in Exodus 24 and 34, as appears from the several motifs both share. In addition, the feeding of the five thousand is modeled upon 2 Kings 4:4244, as the striking similarities show. Strauss was able to pile up parallel after parallel and establish on a critical footing the intertextual nature of the Gospels. In doing this he was, from one point of view, just following Tertullian and Eusebius, church fathers who had also observed the parallels between the Testaments. These earlier theologians were pursuing apologetical ends: the coincidences showed the same God at work. Strauss used the very same parallels to show the mythological character of most of the tradition.

Some who came after Strauss argued that he had not gone far enough, that Jesus was not a historical figure who attracted myths but was rather a myth himself, no more real than Zeus. The future was not, however, with such radicalism, which could never really explain Paul or Josephus's two references to Jesus. Far more lasting in their influence were Johannes Weiss (18631914) and Albert Schweitzer (18751965), two German scholars who, more trusting of the synoptics than Strauss, argued that the historical Jesus was all about eschatology. When Jesus said that the kingdom was at hand, he was announcing the imminence of the new world or utopian order (compare Mk. 9:1; 13:30). His expectations were not fulfilled in Easter or Pentecost or the destruction of the temple in 70 ce. Jesus was rather a mistaken apocalyptic visionary, which is why his ethics are so unrealistic. They are not for everyday life, but are instead an ethic of perfection designed for a world about to go out of existence.

The twentieth century

Most scholars since Schweitzer would concede that he and Weiss largely set the agenda. Most have thought that they were right to the extent that the traditions about Jesus are indeed full of eschatological themes. The debate has been to what extent those traditions go back to Jesus and whether Schweitzer's more or less literal interpretation of them is correct. Schweitzer himself tried to force a choice between eschatology and historicity. That is, he urged that, if the synoptics are reliable, then we must accept that Jesus was an eschatological prophet. If, to the contrary, Jesus was not an eschatological prophet, then the synoptics are unreliable guides and we should resign ourselves to skepticism.

Joachim Jeremias (19001979) of Göttingen was probably the most important player after Schweitzer to implicitly accept Schweitzer's basic analysis. Jeremias thought that, with the exception of the miracle stories, the synoptics are relatively reliable, and he agreed with Schweitzer that Jesus believed in a near consummation, expected his death to inaugurate the great tribulation, and hoped for his own resurrection as part of the general resurrection of the dead.

Not all accepted Schweitzer's dichotomy. While Rudolf Bultmann (18841976), for instance, believed that Jesus was indeed an eschatological prophet, he was far more skeptical about the historicity of the synoptics than Schweitzer. Bultmann's views lie somewhere between Strauss's skepticism and Schweitzer's confidence. A form critic, Bultmann sought to isolate, classify, and evaluate the components of the Jesus tradition. Given that the order of events varies from gospel to gospel and that there is usually no logical connection between adjacent episodes, we cannot, Bultmann concluded, know the true order of events. When one adds that the church, in Bultmann's view, contributed as much to the sayings attributed to Jesus as did Jesus himself, it was no longer possible to write a biography of Jesus, only to sketch an outline of his teachings within a rather bare narrative.

Bultmann envisaged an oral stage during which various types of materials circulated. He attempted to reconstruct the setting in life for these types, to determine whether they were used in polemic, apologetics, moral teaching, or proclamation. Bultmann's tendency was to suppose that if a unit was used in Christian polemic, then Christian polemic created it. Yet despite his skepticism, he remained convinced that Schweitzer was basically correct about Jesus' eschatology, which Bultmann interpreted in existential terms. Assuming moderns could no longer share ancient eschatological expectations, Bultmann asked how the language functioned and, in response, stressed that it brought people to decision in the face of the future.

Another scholar who rejected Schweitzer's dichotomy was C. H. Dodd (18841973). Although he accepted the basic synoptic portrait (with the exception of Mark 13 and its parallels), he disagreed with Schweitzer regarding eschatology. Dodd famously urged that Jesus had a "realized eschatology." That is, the kingdom of God, Jesus' name for the transcendent order in which there is no before or after, had manifested itself in the crisis of his ministry. Further, Jesus expected vindication after death, which he variously spoke of as resurrection, the coming of the Son of man, and the rebuilding of the temple. But the church came to long for the future coming of the Son of man, now conceived of as Jesus' return. In this way eschatology ceased to be realized. The change of outlook was such that the church eventually, and according to Dodd regrettably, made Revelation its canonical finale.

Recent work

Probably the most prominent of recent scholars to reject Schweitzer's dichotomy is John Dominic Crossan (1934). In his several books on Jesus he has argued that while most of the material Schweitzer used in his reconstruction of Jesus came from the church, we can still know a great deal about Jesus, who is very different from Schweitzer's vision of an eschatological visionary. For Crossan, Jesus was indeed utopian, but what he envisaged was not a traditional eschatological scenario. Jesus was a Jewish peasant whose revolutionary social program is best preserved in aphorisms and parables. These depict a Cynic-like sage who welcomes outcasts as equals. Traditional eschatologyresurrection, last judgment, heaven, helland their attendant violence do not make an appearance.

Crossan was one of the founding members of the Jesus Seminar, the other cofounder being Robert Funk (1926). The Seminar is a loosely affiliated group of fewer than one hundred scholars who began, in the 1980s, meeting twice a year to discuss and vote upon questions concerning the historical Jesus. The upshot of their work is the conclusion that approximately 18 percent of the sayings attributed to Jesus in the synoptics go back to him or represent something that he said. Among their other conclusions, which have generated much controversy, are these: only one saying in John reflects something Jesus said (4:44); Jesus did not consider himself to be the messiah or Son of man; he said little or nothing about resurrection and judgment; he was a laconic sage known for pithy one-liners and parables; he did not keep kosher; and he did not often cite or refer to scripture. A major achievement of the Jesus Seminar, whose conclusions represent only one group of scholars, has been to bring contemporary critical work to public notice.

Many are now wont to divide the question for the historical Jesus into three stages. The first stage, it is claimed, was the nineteenth-century German endeavor so memorably reported by Schweitzer. The second was the "new quest" carried on in the 1950s and 1960s by some of Bultmann's students and a few others. The "third quest" is the name now often attached to the labors of the present moment. This typology, which obscures much more than it illumines, will, one hopes, eventually fall into oblivion. One fundamental failing is that it dismisses with silence the period between the first quest and the new quest. Some have even called this the period of "no quest," which scarcely fits the facts. The typology is also problematic because most work of importance that went on during and after the 1950s cannot be subsumed under the new quest, and because the third quest has no truly distinguishing features. Instead of dividing post-Schweitzerian activities into chronological segments or different quests, it is more useful to lay aside the diachronic in favor of the synchronic, to abandon periodization for a typology that allows the classification of a book, whether from the 1920s or the 1990s, with those akin to it. One should lump together books that present Jesus as a liberal social reformer, those that present him as forerunner of Christian orthodoxy, those that reconstruct him as an eschatological Jewish prophet, those that liken him to a wisdom sage, those that regard him as having been a political revolutionary, and so on. This is the best way to judge the progress of the discipline.

The most striking fact about recent research is that it resents easy generalization precisely because of its pluralism. Contemporary work has no characteristic method, it has no body of shared conclusions, and it has no common set of historiographical or theological presuppositions. Those who continue to speak of the third quest and delineate its distinctive features are engaging in an antiquated activity that needs to be deconstructed. The lists are all tendentious because the age of the easy generalization and the authentic consensus is over.

A Reconstruction

The most important sources for Jesus are found in the New TestamentPaul and the synoptics and their sources, including Q, the hypothetical sayings source used by Matthew and Luke. The Gospel of John is of less help, as are the various apocryphal gospels, although the Gospel of Thomas seems to contain some early and independent sayings of Jesus. Non-Christian sourcesthe Jewish historian Josephus, the Babylonian Talmud, the Roman historians Tacitus and Suetonius, and othersdo little more than confirm Jesus' existence and his crucifixion under Pontius Pilate.

Scholars disagree on the reliability of the extant sources and so they do not concur on how much we can know about the historical Jesus. Discussions of method have led to no consensus. Many attempt to reconstruct Jesus by passing individual units through various criteria of authenticity. Such criteria are not particularly reliable. It seems safer to base one's major conclusions upon the larger patterns and themes that run throughout the various sources. It is probably in such patterns and themes, if anywhere, that the Jesus of history has been remembered.

Before the public ministry

Aside from Matthew 12 and Luke 12, first-century Christian writings have next to nothing to say about Jesus before his public ministry, and those two chapters are poor sources for history. Some agreements between Matthew 12 and Luke 12, however, preserve memory. Jesus' parents were named Mary and Joseph, and whether or not he was born in Bethlehem, he did later live in Nazareth (Mt. 2:23; Lk. 2:39). One can also plausibly defend Jesus' Davidic descent, his birth before the death of Herod the Great in 4 bce, and perhaps the possibility that Mary became pregnant before Joseph and Mary began to live together.

John the Baptist and Jesus

John, who baptized Jesus, was an ascetic. The synoptics have him dwelling in the desert (Mk. 1:4; Jn. 1:23, 28), wearing camel's hair (Mk. 1:6), and eating locusts and wild honey (Mk. 1:6). Matthew 11:18 = Luke 7:33 (Q ) characterizes him as neither eating nor drinking, and Mark 2:18 refers to the fasting of his followers.

John's asceticism was part of a moral earnestness linked to belief in an imminent consummation: he called for repentance in view of the coming judgment (Mt. 3:710 = Lk. 3:79 [Q ]; Mk. 1:4). John the Baptist opposed the notion that all Israel has a place in the world to come. More than a few Jews probably hoped that their descent from Abraham would, as long as they did not abandon the Torah, gain them entry into the world to come. John thought otherwise (Mt. 3:9 = Lk. 3:8 [Q ]).

That Jesus submitted to John's baptism shows his essential agreement with him on many, if not most, matters. This is confirmed by his praise of the Baptist (Mt. 11:719 = Lk. 7:2435 [Q ]). It is natural that Jesus was remembered as being, like John, a preacher of repentance, as being preoccupied with eschatology, and as being convinced that membership in the covenant guarantees nothing. There is not even fundamental discontinuity in the matter of asceticism, for the missionary discourses depict a very harsh lifestyle (Mt. 10:116 = Lk. 10:116 [Q ]; Mk. 6:811), and some disciples abandoned families and business (Mt. 8:1822 = Lk. 9:5760 [Q ]; Mt. 10:37 = Lk. 14:26 [Q ]). Jesus himself was unmarried (presumably Matthew 19:12 was originally a riposte to the slander that he was a eunuch). He demanded the guarding of sexual desire (Mt. 5:2728), issued strident warnings about money and property (Mt. 8:1920 = Lk. 9:5758 [Q ]; Mt. 10:910, 13 = Lk. 10:4, 78 [Q ]), and in general lived and demanded self-discipline and rigorous self-denial (Mt. 10:38 = Lk. 14:27 [Q ]; Mk. 8:34).

Baptism and temptation

Although the baptismal narratives convey the theology of the church, one need not doubt that Jesus did, in fact, submit to John's baptism. This is not the sort of event the early church would have invented. It is, moreover, plausible that Jesus experienced his baptism as a prophetic call. This would explain why his public ministry was remembered as beginning shortly thereafter and why his followers narrated the event even though it involved Jesus submitting to John.

The accounts of Jesus' temptation also express the theology of the community. Even so, stories that do not reproduce history may convey it, and the temptation narratives highlight several themes that appear elsewhere in the sources. That Jesus overcomes Satan coheres with his being a successful exorcist. That Jesus is, as the devil's challenges assume, a miracle worker, harmonizes with the rest of the tradition. That Jesus does not perform miracles on demand matches Mark 8:1113, where he refuses to grant a sign (see also Mt. 12:3842 = Lk. 11:2930 [Q ]). And that Jesus is a person of great faith who, in need, waits upon God, also matches the rest of the tradition (see Mt. 6:11 = Lk. 11:3 [Q ]; Mt. 6:2534 = Lk. 12:2232 [Q ]).


Because he was a teacher, Jesus had disciples. Not all scholars agree, however, that he gathered a select group of twelve. Doubt comes from the fact that they appear only once in Q (Mt. 19.28 = Lk. 22:2830). Yet "the twelve" is already a fixed expression in 1 Corinthians 15:5, which guarantees its antiquity. Furthermore, Judas, who was, according to the Gospels, chosen by Jesus himself, was known as "one of the twelve" (Mk. 14:10, 43). This is unlikely to be free invention.

In selecting a group of twelve, Jesus' intent was probably the creation of a prophetic and eschatological symbol: the twelve disciples represented the twelve tribes of Israel. Jesus presumably shared the expectation of the eschatological restoration of the twelve lost, or rather hidden, tribes. In line with this, Matthew 19:28 = Luke 22:2830 (Q ) promises Jesus' followers that they will "rule over" or "judge" the twelve tribes of Israel, which assumes that those tribes will soon return to the land.

If the twelve functioned as an eschatological symbol of Israel's renewal, they also served, along with others, to spread Jesus' message. This is likely why we have reliable information about Jesus in the first place. Pre-Easter itinerants, according to Matthew 10:7 = Luke 10:9 (Q ), were instructed to proclaim the kingdom of God and its imminence. Although we do not learn what specifically they were to say, their message cannot have differed much from that of Jesus. Certainly their other activities were imitative, for their purpose was to enlarge Jesus' influence. So their proclamation must have been his proclamation. In other words, recitation of the teaching of Jesus predates the church.

The traditional image of Jesus wandering around Galilee with twelve male disciples is mistaken. Not only were the twelve presumably part of a larger group, but Mark 15:4041 tells us that, when Jesus was crucified, some women looked on from a distance, among them Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome. Luke 8:13, which in several particulars derived from non-Markan tradition, adds that Jesus was accompanied by "Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod's steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources." This text and Mark 15:4041 stand out from the rest of the synoptic tradition, which otherwise does not inform us that women were among the itinerants who followed Jesus. Notwithstanding its meager attestation in the extant sources, the existence of such a group is not a fiction.

Mark 15:41 says that the women "ministered" to Jesus. This may mean that they offered him financial support (so Luke 8:3) or served him at table. But Mark also says that the women "followed" Jesus, and this implies that they were, like the twelve, "disciples." Perhaps we should think of Mary Magdalene and the others as students of Jesus and genuine coworkers.


Jesus lived within an eschatological scenario, which he thought of as already unfolding. He anticipated the resurrection of the dead and the final judgment (Mt. 8:1112 = Lk. 13:2829 [Q ]; Mt. 12:3842 = Lk. 11:2932 [Q ]; Mk. 12:1827). He spoke in terms of rewards for the righteous and recompense for the wicked (Mt. 10:3233 = Lk. 12:89 [Q ]; Mk. 8:35; 9:4148; Mt. 25:1430, 3146). He prophesied trouble for the saints (Mt. 10:1415 = Lk. 10:1112 [Q ]; Mt. 10:16 = Lk. 10:3 [Q ]; Mk. 10:3540; Mt. 10:23, 25). He envisaged a revised, second edition of earth with the earlier deficiencies correctedparadise regained, heaven on earth. And he hoped all of this would transpire soon. There is no evidence that Jesus shared the expectation of some that the Gentiles would suffer destruction at the end, and the existence of an early Christian mission to Gentiles confirms that he did not anticipate their annihilation.

Jesus announced the beginning of God's reign in the present (Mt. 12:28 = Lk. 11:20 [Q ]; Lk. 17:20) and otherwise indicated its arrival by speaking of the defeat of Satan (Mt. 12:28 = Lk. 11:20 [Q ]; Mk. 13:27; Lk. 10:18). So eschatological expectations were being fulfilled: "Blessed are the eyes that see what you see! For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it" (Mt. 13:1617 = Lk. 10:2324 [Q ]). Matters are similar in Matthew 10:3536 = Luke 12:53 (Q ), which paraphrases the eschatological prophecy of family strife in Micah 7:6 and makes it a present reality. So once again Jesus' ministry fulfills an eschatological oracle. In this case, however, it is not the saving miracles of the end time that have entered the present, but the tribulation of the latter days.

Torah and ethics

In Mark 7:813 Jesus rebuts opponents by accusing them of not honoring their father and mother. In Mark 10:19 he enumerates and endorses the last half of the Decalogue. And in the Sabbath controversies he rejects the charge of being reckless. Jesus nowhere declares that the Sabbath has been abolished, as did some later Christians. Nor does he say that the true God did not institute the Sabbath. Instead of attacking the Sabbath, Jesus teaches that one imperative can trump another, that human need can, in some cases, overrule Sabbath keeping, which, it is assumed, remains intact. There is nothing revolutionary in this: Jewish law certainly knew that Sabbath observance might be the lesser of two goods (the law-observant Maccabees decided to take up arms on the Sabbath).

If tradition remembers Jesus upholding the Torah, it also shows another side. The question in Mark 3:33, "Who are my mother and my brothers?" does not honor Jesus' mother. Closely related is Matthew 10:37 = Luke 14:26 (Q ): "Whoever comes to me and does not hate his own father and mothercannot be my disciple." This is a deliberate contrast to Exodus 20:12 = Deuteronomy 5:16, "Honor your father and your mother." Even more far-reaching are Matthew 5:3132 = Luke 16:18 (Q ) and Mark 10:212 (cf. 1 Cor. 7:1011), where Jesus prohibits divorce, which Moses permits (Dt. 24:14).

The radical rhetoric is tied to eschatology. The kingdom relativizes Moses' imperatives by trumping them when the two conflict. If, moreover, the kingdom is at hand, then the renewal of the world is nigh; and if the renewal of the world is nigh, then paradise is about to be restored; and if paradise is about to be restored, then concessions to sin are no longer needed. This is the implicit logic of Mark 10:112. Because the last things will be as the first, and because, for Jesus, the last things have begun to come, so have the first. Jesus can therefore promulgate a prelapsarian ethic. Insofar as the law contains concessions to the fall, it requires repair.

That the coming of the kingdom impinges upon the law is explicit in Matthew 11:1213 = Luke 16:16 (Q ). Here Jesus distinguishes between the time of the law and the prophets on the one hand and the time of the kingdom on the other. This means that the time of the law has, in some sense, been superseded by the time of the eschatological kingdom.

The marginal

Jesus ministered to individuals with little social status. In Mark, he heals demoniacs, paralytics, a leper, and blind men. It is the same in Q (Mt. 11:26 = Lk. 7:1823), in which Jesus blesses the poor, those in mourning, the thirsty, and the persecuted (Mt. 5:34, 6, 1112 = Lk. 6:2023) and announces that the humble will be exalted (Mt. 23:12 = Lk. 14:11). In Luke, Jesus takes the side of poor Lazarus, not the rich man (16:1931), and he depicts Samaritans, traditionally enemies of Jews, in a good light (10:2937; 17:1119).

Even when one takes into account that healers necessarily minister to the sick, that the well have no need of a physician, one comes away with the impression that Jesus had a special interest in those on the margins of society. Perhaps this was part and parcel of the great eschatological reversal, which would see the humble exalted. Yet Q also has him healing the son or servant of a centurion, a person of great authority, without demanding any change of life (Mt. 8:513 = Lk. 7:110 [Q ]); Matthew has Jesus giving advice to those who can afford to give alms (6:14); and Luke has him eating with a well-to-do toll collector, Zacchaeus (19:110), and being supported by "Joanna, the wife of Herod's steward Chuza," who must have been prosperous (8:3). So the tradition does not depict Jesus as engaging only those in the same socioeconomic circumstances but rather being expansive in his ministry and affections.


Whether one explains the fact by appealing to divine intervention, parapsychology, or the psychosomatic phenomena of mass psychology, Jesus was known as a miracle worker during his own life. Surely the hope of being healed or beholding miracles brought much of his audience to him. His opponents themselves conceded his abilities when they attributed his success to an allegiance with Beelzebul (Mt. 12:27 = Lk. 11:19 [Q ]; Mk. 3:2227; cf. Jn. 7:20; 8:48; 10:20).

Although Jesus was a miracle worker, this does not guarantee the authenticity of any particular miracle story, and as they stand many of the stories are highly symbolic and vehicles of Christian theology. The transfiguration narrative in Mark 9:28 makes Jesus like the glowing Moses of Exodus 34 and so confirms him as the prophet foretold in Deuteronomy 18:1518. The feeding of five thousand in Mark 6:3244 and John 6:115 not only foreshadows the last supper but strongly recalls the miracle of 2 Kings 4:4244 and so makes Jesus like Elisha. The story of the widow of Nain in Luke 7:1117 makes Jesus rather like Elijah because it is clearly modeled upon 1 Kings 17:824. All this is typical.

The tradition interprets the miracles of Jesus as signs of eschatological fulfillment, and this was the interpretation of Jesus himself. According to Matthew 12:27 = Luke 11:20 (Q ), if Jesus casts out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come. The defeat of Satan's realm is what happens in the latter days, so if Satan's realm is now being conquered, the latter days have arrived.


That Jesus was arrested, not the disciples, shows that he was from the beginning the center of the new movement. This is confirmed by the title on the cross: Pilate charges Jesus alone with being "the king of the Jews" (Mk. 15:25; Jn. 19:19).

Some regarded Jesus as a prophet (Mk. 6:1416; 8:28; Lk. 7:16), and the title appears on his own lips in Mark 6:4 and Luke 13:33. As Matthew 5:36, 1112 = Luke 6:2023 (Q, the beatitudes) and Matthew 11:26 = Luke 7:1823 (Q, Jesus' answer to the Baptist) use the language of Isaiah 61:12, Jesus probably understood himself to be specifically the anointed prophet of Isaiah's oracle.

In addition to taking on the role of the prophet of Isaiah 61, there is a good chance that Jesus, like the early church (cf. Acts 3:22), reckoned himself the prophet like Moses of Deuteronomy 18:15 and 18:18 in the time of a new exodus. In Matthew 12:28 = Luke 11:20 (Q ), Jesus alludes to Exodus 8:19 in claiming that he casts out demons by the finger of God, so in this respect at least he is like the miracle-working Moses. In reversing the commandment to love parents (Mt. 10:37 = Lk. 14:26 [Q ]), Jesus sets his own words over against those of the first lawgiver. Matthew 5:2122 and 2728 do the same thing. He also characterizes his own generation with language originally descriptive of Moses' generation (cf. Mt. 12:3842 = Lk. Q 11:2930 [Q ] with Dt. 1:35).

Traditionally, Christians have taken Jesus' favorite epithet in the synoptics, "the Son of man," to indicate his true humanity. Modern scholars, however, adopt other interpretations. Some suppose that "the Son of man" was a known messianic title that Jesus used of himself or another yet to come. For others, "the Son of man" goes back to an Aramaic idiom that meant something like "one"; it was an indirect way of talking about oneself, of speaking of the particular by way of the general (cf. "One must do one's duty").

The linguistic issues surrounding "the Son of man" in first-century Aramaic remain disputed. Further, even if the phrase was common and functioned like a pronoun, one can always take an everyday expression and do something interesting with it (cf. the use of "I am" in John ). This is not an idle point given that Jesus was innovative in the linguistic sphere (e.g., in his use of "amen" at the beginning of sentences).

Some sayings link "the Son of man" with Daniel 7. Especially important is Matthew 10:3233 = Luke 12:89, which probably goes back to Jesus. This Q saying echoes Daniel 7 in that it concerns the last judgment, has as its central figure the Son of man, depicts that figure as being "before" the divine court, sets the stage with angels, and speaks to a situation of persecution. This then is evidence that Jesus associated himself and his ministry with Daniel' s vision of the judgment and "one like a son of man."

Regarding the promises to David and the title "messiah" (anointed one) or its Greek equivalent, "Christ," Mark 12:3537 (on David's son and Lord) does not help, for even if it preserves an argument from Jesus, the point has been lost. Also less than helpful are Mark 8:2730 (the confession at Caesarea Philippi) and 14:5365 (the Jewish trial in which Jesus acknowledges his messiahship). For aside from how much history lies behind these passages, in neither does Jesus comment directly on the title "messiah." The very fact that "messiah" is so rare in the Gospels but so common in the epistles has suggested to many that the title betrays a post-Easter interpretation of Jesus.

Nonetheless, the Romans did execute him as a politically dangerous "king" (Mk. 15:26), and since they surely did not invent this charge out of nothing, somebody must have perceived Jesus as such. If Jesus identified himself with the eschatological prophet of Isaiah 61:12, he would have thought of himself as an anointed one, for that figure declares, "The Lord has anointed me." Again, if either Matthew 19:28 = Luke 22:2830 (Q : Jesus is the leader of those who sit on thrones) or Mark 10:3540 (disciples sit at Jesus' right and left in the kingdom) contains authentic material, Jesus must have thought himself king. The same result follows if he spoke of rebuilding the temple, for 2 Samuel 7:417 foresees a descendant of David who will build God's house, and this was an eschatological prophecy in first-century Judaism.

Anticipation of death

Jesus presumably anticipated suffering and an untimely death. Not only do the prophetic and apocalyptic traditions, which so influenced Jesus, recognize that the saints must pass through tribulation before salvation arrives, but the Baptist's martyrdom must have served as a warning. A number of sayings furthermore depict Jesus enjoining his followers to reckon seriously with the prospect of both suffering and death; if any of them is authentic, then it is likely that Jesus himself expected to suffer and die before his time, for surely he would have anticipated for himself a fate similar to those around him.

Jesus likely imagined his future as belonging to the tribulation that would herald the end. Matthew 10:3435 = Luke 12:5153 (Q) applies Micah 7:6 to the present, and Micah 7:6 was widely understood as a prophecy of what the rabbis called "the woe of the messiah." In line with this, Luke 16:16 speaks of the kingdom of heaven suffering violence and seems to construe the death of the Baptist as belonging to the eschatological trial. According to Mark 9:49, everyone will go through the coming eschatological fire, and there is no reason to exclude Jesus from the generalization, as Luke 12:4950, if authentic, confirms.


Jesus went to Jerusalem in either 30 or 33 ce (John has him going up more than once, perhaps correctly). Whether Jesus wanted to provoke a confrontation, or even to die, Mark 11:110 and John 12:1219 have him deliberately approaching Jerusalem not on foot but on a donkey, thereby making a public display of kingship (cf. Zec. 9:9). The scenario may be historical given Jesus' exalted self-conception, as well as the probability that he engaged in another prophetic action at the same time, turning over tables in the temple (Mk. 11:11, 1517). Commentators tend to suppose that, by this disturbance, he was either symbolizing the future destruction of the temple or protesting certain corrupt practices, but the two interpretations need not be opposed. Protestation of abuses and an enacted parable of destruction probably went together.

Arrest and interrogation

Whether or not it was the incident in the temple that eventually led to Jesus' arrest, he was probably brought before some members of the Jerusalem Sanhedrin, although we should probably not speak of a formal trial (Mk. 14:5365; Jn. 18:1324). We can further accept the report that he was then accused of acting and speaking against the temple, and that the authorities, probably because they did not have the authority to execute him (Jn. 18:31), handed him over to Pilate (Mk. 15:1; Jn. 18:28), who ordered him to be crucified as a "king" or political pretender.


The traditions about Jesus' resurrection do not belong to the story of the historical Jesus but to church history. The explanations for them are manifold. (1) According to the traditional theological story, God raised Jesus from the dead. The tomb was empty, and people saw the glorified Jesus. (2) The tomb was empty, not because Jesus rose from the dead, but because followers visited the wrong tomb, because someone later moved the body to a permanent burial site (cf. Jn. 20:2, 1415), or because the authorities, not wanting a venerated tomb, moved the body. Early Christians then interpreted the empty tomb in terms of their religious hopes and dreams, and some of them then had subjective visions. (3) To turn things around, the empty tomb was a late legend and Easter faith began with the subjective christophanies of Peter and the other disciples. (4) The visions were real because the disembodied Jesus survived death and communicated to his disciples, but the story of the empty tomb is late and legendary, the creation of people who believed, on the basis of their faith alone, that, if Jesus were alive, he had been resurrected, and so the body must have disappeared. (5) There was deliberate fraud. The disciples stole the body and concocted belief in the resurrection because they wanted to be leaders of a religious movement. (6) The disciples saw Jesus in terms of a traditional cluster of motifs surrounding the persecuted righteous individual whom God rescues from death (2 Mc. 7; Wis. 34), and after his death simply posited his vindication as an act of faith. The appearance stories and empty tomb, however explained, emerged later and presuppose the resurrection.

See Also

Atonement, article on Christian Concepts; Biblical Literature, article on New Testament; God, article on God in the New Testament; Justification; Redemption; Theology, article on Christian Theology; Trinity.


Crossan, John Dominic. The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant. San Francisco, 1991. The most discussed of recent books on Jesus.

Dawes, Gregory W. The Historical Jesus Question: The Challenge of History to Religious Authority. Louisville, Ky., 2001. An instructive review of the theological and philosophical issues raised by the modern quest for Jesus.

Funk, Robert W., Roy Hoover, and the Jesus Seminar. The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus. New York, 1993. The results of the Jesus Seminar's voting on the words of Jesus.

Jeremias, Joachim. New Testament Theology. Translated by John Bowden. Vol. 1: The Proclamation of Jesus. London, 1971. A systematic presentation of Jesus' teaching by a famous German scholar.

Machoveč, Milan. A Marxist Looks at Jesus. Philadelphia, 1976. A sympathetic examination of Jesus from a Marxist perspective.

Meier, John P. A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus. 3 vols. New York, 19912001. A detailed and comprehensive discussion of all the major issues and topics by a Roman Catholic.

Pelikan, Jaroslav Jan. Jesus through the Centuries: His Place in the History of Culture. New Haven, Conn., 1985. A learned overview of how Jesus has been interpreted from the first century to the twentieth century.

Sanders, E. P. Jesus and Judaism. London, 1985. An attempt to understand Jesus within his Jewish context that focuses first on what he did rather than what he said.

Schweitzer, Albert. The Quest of the Historical Jesus. The first complete edition. Translated by W. Montgomery, J. R. Coates, Susan Cupitt, and John Bowden. Minneapolis, 2001. The classic review of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that ends with Schweitzer's own interpretation.

Theissen, Gred, and Annette Merz. The Historical Jesus: A Comprehensive Guide. Translated by John Bowden. Minneapolis, 1998. The best contemporary introduction to all facets of the discussion.

Vermes, Geza. Jesus the Jew: A Historian's Reading of the Gospels. Philadelphia, 1973. A Jewish scholar's attempt to depict Jesus as a Galilean holy man.

Weaver, Walter P. The Historical Jesus in the Twentieth Century, 19001950. Harrisburg, Pa., 1999. A capable overview of Jesus research in the first half of the twentieth century.

Dale C. Allison, Jr. (2005)

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