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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)

Jesus Christ

views updated May 29 2018

Jesus Christ








Jesus of Nazareth, one of the most influential humans in history, lives on as Jesus Christ. One-third of the human race, almost 2 billion people, identify with his name, calling themselves Christians. He is influential and believers identify with him because most of them see him as not merely human but as divine, whether as Son of God or in some other way uniquely bearing divine nature. Beyond the circle of believers as well as within it, many admire him, cite him, and seek to apply his teachingsespecially about lovein human affairs apart from what most Christians claim about his divine character or his deity.

This fame and acclaim are astonishing, given the humbleness of his circumstances, the obscurity of origins and details about his life, and the arguments from the beginning about the meaning of his ministry and his character as being both human and divine. As for the circumstances, he was born to Mary, a young woman of Nazareth in Galilee, probably from four to six years before Christ. That confusing calendar reference results from adjustments in chronology made in more modern times. The period found Israel, which was conceivedalso by Jesusto be Gods special people, under the rule of Romans, to whom they grudgingly paid taxes and against whom there were occasional revolts. Jesus himself came to be regarded as suspicious both by Jewish authorities in religion and in their relations to the Roman rulers as well as to the Romans themselves. In the mixture of loyalties and disloyalties, Jesus was executed by crucifixion. His dispersed followers regathered instantly, convinced that he was risen from the dead and that many among them had seen the Lord after his death. Forty days later they witnessed his Ascension and adored him as one who, in the words of the best-known Christian creed, sits at the right-hand of his Father in heaven and as invisible ruler of the world.


Historians know this information not because a single Roman or Jewish historian left a record of any sort before Jesus death, but because stories cherished by Jesus immediate followers, quotations of his sayings and parables, and ponderings of the meaning of his divine and human character inspired his followers, or disciples, to produce four documents called gospels, which were transmissions of good news about him. Three of them, called Matthew, Mark, and Luke, were edited into the forms contained in the modern Bible, probably a generation after his death. The authors or editors of these had slightly different intentions, depending upon whether they wanted to attract Jewish or Gentile readers, or for some other purpose. Yet, for all their variations and despite some conflicts in their accounts, overall they present a coherent portrait. The Fourth Gospel, called John, may have come around the end of the first century of the Common Era, and includes more reflection on the meaning of Jesus words and works. In the centuries that followed, numbers of other gospels appeared. While some of them have advocates in the twenty-first century, none of them were accepted into the canon, the authorized collection called the New Testament that was approved by church leaders in the second and third centuries.


Before the gospels appeared, however, reflection on Jesus, now called the Christ, which meant the anointed one of God who had been foreseen and promised in the Hebrew Scripturesthe Messiah whom devout Jews still awaitwas developed and spread most notably by Saul of Tarsus, called Paul the Apostle after his own conversion. In his letters collected in the New Testament and in stories within the book of Acts, which can be seen as Volume Two after Lukes Gospel as Volume One, Paul describes himself as a persecutor of Christian believers until he had an ecstatic experience of Jesus, who called him to a new vocation. Pauls letters make very few references to the life of Jesus as it is described in the Gospels, but they concentrate on the meaning of his death and resurrection. In such writings Jesus is no longer the rabbi, healer, and wonder-worker of Nazareth so much as the risen and exalted Lord of all creation. Through faith in the divine grace God gave to believers in Jesus the crucified and self-sacrificial Savior from sin and divine condemnation, these believers are gathered as a kind of mystical Body of Christ and are to be raised from the dead as he was.

The understandings of who Jesus was were vastly diverse. President Thomas Jefferson, almost eighteen hundred years after Jesus death, despised the assertions and beliefs about Jesus the miracle-maker and exalted divine Lord. Like so many other advocates of the Enlightenment in his century and many admirers of Jesus in the twenty-first century, he wanted to rescue Jesus from the priests and to see him as the greatest exemplar of love and teacher of justice. At the opposite extreme there have been through all of Christian history movements that can be classified as docetic, for in their vision Jesus only appeared to be a mortal. Attempts to reconcile the extremes, represented already in the first Christian centuries by those who stressed his human nature versus those who overstressed the divine nature, became the preoccupying agenda item for a series of church councils, whose influence extended from the fourth century into modern times and into Christian discourse and teaching on all continents.


As for these councils: According to the book of Acts and the New Testament letters of Paul, Jewish religious authorities in Jerusalem and Roman rulers there and elsewhere began to persecute followers of Jesus. Some saw them as subversive of Jewish temple practices and others as threats to Roman rule throughout the Empire. Very soon after Jesus death and resurrection, according to the book of Acts, a witness named Stephen was stoned to death in Jerusalem. According to tradition, in 64 CE both Paul and a leading disciple named Peter were executed in Rome. While many followers of Jesus in these times were basically nonpolitical, they refused to engage in simple acts of what to them looked like betrayals of Jesus, such as offering a pinch of incense on the emperors shrine, the emperors then being conceived themselves as somehow divine.

The boldness of the apostles, as early articulators and witnesses were called, and then the readiness of their followers to face whatever the authorities threatened because of their faith in Jesus, only added luster to his reputation and served to attract ever more followers. By the second century followers of Jesus, called not Jesusians or Jesusists but Christians, were spreading north and east beyond Antioch into present-day Syria and through Asia Minor, present-day Turkey. Early strongholds of belief in Jesus were in northern Africa, where notable church fathers held sway. In both Asia and Africa some followers took the call of Jesus to mean denial of the pleasures of the world, and went to the desert and other remote places, there in isolation of community to become monks. They pioneered in a practice that through the twenty centuries had led to special devotion to Jesus and self-sacrifice in his honor and following his commands.

Those commands, however, took their impetus from Gospel records that embody and impart some apparently contradictory impulses and commands. On one hand, the Gospel writers remember Jesus calling for drastic self-renunciation. Followers were to deny themselves, take up their crossa reference to the mode of his death by crucifixionand even to desert their families and familial obligations.

On the other hand, and just as emphatically, the Gospel writers depict Jesus as enjoying life and teaching others to do the same. His special form of discourse was in parables, short stories that usually included a kind of overturning of conventional ways of looking at reality. It has been said that one will not understand these preserved parables without recognizing that they turn everything topsy-turvy. The proud and powerful and respectable will be dumped and debased, while the humble and weak and outcast will be privileged in what Jesus announced as the Kingdom of God. Kingdom of God did not mean an early reign, since the Gospels have him saying that his kingdom was not of this world, but instead focused on the sovereign saving activity of God manifested in Jesus who was in their midst. So the last will be first and the first last; no one could enter the kingdom, he had said, unless they changed and became like a little child; the lost sheep matters more than those at home in the flock. More shockingly, Jesus favored the company at table of prostitutes, the hated tax collectors, and others seen as marginal or outcast by respectable people.


The Gospel portraits show Jesus as both an announcer of Gods justice and imparter of Gods love. As for justice, a series of sayings preserved as the Sermon on the Mount or, in another gospel, the Sermon on the Plain, called for radical adherence to the call of God to effect justice in the world. The discourse combines such stern language with words of blessing and comfort, sayings followers have cherished through the centuries. These announce that blessed are the peacemakers and those who hunger and thirst after righteousness.

It is not likely that Jesus would have remained such a powerful and attractive force to all conditions and sorts of people, from those in royal courts to those falsely imprisoned or abandoned by others, were it not for the Gospels portraits and preserved sayings about love. Jesus in these accounts showed extreme devotion to the law of God, also as it was believed to be condensed in the Ten Commandments and in many other laws preserved in the Hebrew Scriptures and declared as applicable in Jesus own time. He was even more extreme in declaring that this Law of God had its limits in the face of human need. He saw the value of the Sabbath, the divinely commanded day of rest, yet when his disciples were desperately hungry he allowed them to prepare grain for food, and when someone needed healing, he healed, scorning those who invoked the Law of God over the call to love. He was particularly confrontational when he faced religious authorities that overlooked human need in the name of their interpretations of divine commands. When asked to summarize all the commandments he drew them down to two: the love of God and the love of neighbors, or others. Every serious return to the teachings of Jesus focuses on both the seriousness of his demands for justice and the abundance of his calls to love, the love that followers saw in his giving of himself to death.


To believing Christians in all cultures, Jesus is not merely an historical figure, written about and admired after twenty centuries. Most of them regard him as a living presence. The Gospels hear him saying that when two or three followers are gathered in his name, he is there among them, so they regularly worship in his name. Some pray to him, but the main interest for Christians is to pray through him, following his word that they are to approach God, the one he called Abba, an endearing word for Father, in his name. Catholic Christianity in many denominational forms is sacramental, and its adherents believe that Jesus is especially present among them in the sacred meal described in the Gospels as occurring first the night before he was killed and which he commanded that they should repeat.

Second, Jesus has been present in visual representations. No one knows what he looked like, and in all societies and cultures artists portray him as an ideal figure in their own. In the Eastern Orthodox churches he appears in very formal guise in icons. In Latin (in Europe, in Spanish cultures; in the Western Hemisphere, in Latin American cultures), he is usually portrayed as a whipped, bleeding sufferer on the cross. In other cultures he is domesticated and portrayed as a kind of bourgeois comforter of children and quiet teacher.

Third, Jesus lives on in doctrine or dogma. While the gospels show him uninterested in abstractions and distant from formulations, it was natural that as Hebrew-speaking Jewish followers of Jesus moved into the larger culture today called Greco-Romanthe Gospels about Jesus and other speakers of Aramaic and Hebrew were themselves written in common Greekteachers found it important to define how Jesus differed from others for whom divine claims were made. They had to show how he related to his divine Father and, since the New Testament writings made much of this, to the Holy Spirit. In the early church councils leaders combined Hebrew biblical testimony and simple stories with Greek philosophical themes. They had to show how to make sense in their world of their belief that the human Jesus was also the exalted Lord. They were pressed to show to Jews and others that and how they were monotheists, believers in one God, and not in two or, with the Holy Spirit, in three. Out of this grew the doctrine of the divine Trinity, in which Jesus is of one being with the Father and is also a true human.


Those interested in the social scienceshistory, sociology, and political sciencemay be aware of the other three modes but they also study how devotion to Jesus inspires ethical response among those who want to be numbered as his followers. They pay attention to the movements and church bodies that exist because of the desire by believers to respond to his calls and promises. In his name leaders helped guide the persecuted believers to situations of power. After Constantine in the fourth century, both in the Roman West and the Constatinopolitan East, Jesus, as represented by bishops and other church leaders, shared earthly power with emperors and magistrates. The name of Jesus was invoked by his followers against their and, they believed, his enemies. His cross appeared on the banners of Crusaders who more than a thousand years after Jesus carried on campaigns against those who occupied lands in which he lived or sites devoted to worship of him and to his memory. In both the Christian West and East, both sides invoked his blessing on their troops and, when victorious, credited him, however all these military doings seemed to have departed from the humble portrait of one who called them to be peacemakers.

No portrait of Jesus and invocation of his memory would be fair, however, did one not notice that more than the warrior, Jesus remains the peacemaker and bears the image of the healer. He called disciples to treat the homeless, the hungry, the imprisoned, and the ill, as if they were treating himor even because they were treating him, as he lived in people of need. In prayers and hymns his name lives on as someone to be relied on and invoked by those who are troubled, ill, or dying. If these invocations seem far removed from those that see him as a ruler through representatives on Earth, as the leader of Christian soldiers, marching as to war, the anticipations of both are present in the writings of Paul, the portraits of the Gospel, and the many efforts through the ages by believers to come to terms with someone they believe is obviously human and, in faith, adored and often followed as divine.

SEE ALSO Christianity; Fundamentalism, Christian; Liberation Theology; Religion


Pelikan, Jaroslav. 1985. Jesus through the Centuries. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Martin E. Marty


views updated May 09 2018


JESUS (d. 30 c.e.), whom Christianity sees as its founder and object of faith, was a Jew who lived toward the end of the Second Commonwealth period. The martyrdom of his brother James is narrated by Josephus (Ant. 20:200–3), but the passage in the same work (18:63–64) speaking about the life and death of Jesus was either rewritten by a Christian or represents a Christian interpolation. The first Roman authors to mention Jesus are Tacitus and Suetonius. The historicity of Jesus is proved by the very nature of the records in the New Testament, especially the four Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The Gospels are records about the life of Jesus. John's Gospel is more a treatise reflecting the theology of its author than a biography of Jesus, but Matthew, Mark, and Luke present a reasonably faithful picture of Jesus as a Jew of his time. The picture of Jesus contained in them is not so much of a redeemer of mankind as of a Jewish miracle maker and preacher. The Jesus portrayed in these three Gospels is, therefore, the historical Jesus.

The Gospels

The precise date of the composition of the Gospels is not known, but all four were written before 100 c.e. and it is certain that Matthew, Mark, and Luke are interdependent. Scholars call these three the Synoptic Gospels because they can be written in parallel columns, such form being called synopsis. It is generally accepted that the main substance of the Synoptic Gospels comes from two sources: an old account of the life of Jesus which is reproduced by Mark, and a collection of Jesus' sayings used in conjuction with the old account by Matthew and Luke. Most scholars today identify the old account that lies behind Mark with the known Gospel of Mark, but a serious analysis, based especially upon the supposed Hebrew original, shows that Mark had entirely rewritten the material. It may be assumed, therefore, that the old account, and not the revision, was known to both Luke and Matthew. According to R. Lindsey (see bibliography), Matthew and Luke, besides drawing upon the sayings, also drew directly upon the old account; the editor of Mark used Luke for his version, and Matthew, besides using the old account, often drew also upon Mark. Lindsey's conclusions are also supported by other arguments.

Both of the chief sources of the Synoptic Gospels, the old account, and the collection of Jesus' sayings, were produced in the primitive Christian congregation in Jerusalem, and were translated into Greek from Aramaic or Hebrew. They contained the picture of Jesus as seen by the disciples who knew him. The present Gospels are redactions of these two sources, which were often changed as a result of ecclesiastical tendentiousness. This becomes especially clear in the description of Jesus' trial and crucifixion in which all Gospel writers to some degree exaggerate Jewish "guilt" and minimize Pilate's involvement. As the tension between the *Church and the Synagogue grew, Christians were not interested in stressing the fact that the founder of their faith was executed by a Roman magistrate. But even in the case of Jesus' trial, as in other instances, advance toward historical reality can be made by comparing the sources according to principles of literary criticism and in conjunction with the study of the Judaism of the time.

The Name, Birth, and Death Date of Jesus

Jesus is the common Greek form of the Hebrew name Joshua. Jesus' father, Joseph, his mother, Mary (in Heb. Miriam), and his brothers, James (in Heb., Jacob), Joses (Joseph), Judah, and Simon (Mark. 6:3) likewise bore very popular Hebrew names. Jesus also had sisters, but their number and names are unknown. Jesus Christ means "Jesus the Messiah" and according to Jewish belief, the Messiah was to be a descendant of David. Both Matthew (1:2–16) and Luke (3:23–38) provide a genealogy leading back to David, but the two genealogies agree only from Abraham down to David. Thus, it is evident that both genealogies were constructed to show Jesus' Davidic descent, because the early Christian community believed that he was the Messiah. Matthew and Luke set Jesus' birth in *Bethlehem, the city of David's birth. This motif is made comprehensible if it is assumed that many believed the Messiah would also be born in Bethlehem, an assumption clearly seen in John 7:41–42, which, telling of some who denied that Jesus is the Messiah, says: "Is the Christ (Messiah) to come from Galilee? Has not the Scripture said that the Christ is descended from David, and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David was?" John therefore knew neither that Jesus had been born in Bethlehem nor that he was descended from David. The home of Jesus and his family was *Nazareth in Galilee and it is possible that he was born there.

The story of Jesus' birth from the Virgin Mary and the Holy Spirit without an earthly father exists in the two independent literary versions of Matthew and Luke. It is not to be found in Mark or John, who both begin their Gospel with Jesus' baptism by *John the Baptist. Jesus' virgin birth is not presupposed in other parts of the *New Testament. Apart from Matthew and Luke, the first to mention the virgin birth is Ignatius of Antiochia (d. 107). According to Luke's data, Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist either in 27/28 or 28/29 c.e., when he was about the age of 30. On the evidence in the first three Gospels, the period between his baptism and crucifixion comprised no more than one year; although according to John it ran to two or even three years. It seems that on the point of the duration of Jesus' public ministry the Synoptic Gospels are to be trusted. Most probably, then, Jesus was baptized in 28/29 and died in the year 30 c.e.

Jesus' Family and Circle

Jesus's father, Joseph, was a carpenter in Nazareth and it is almost certain that he died before Jesus was baptized. All the Gospels state that there was a tension between Jesus and his family, although after Jesus' death his family overcame their disbelief and took an honorable place in the young Jewish-Christian community. Jesus' brother, James, became the head of the Christian congregation in Jerusalem and when he was murdered by a Sadducean high priest (62 c.e.) for the faith in his brother, he was succeeded by Simon, a cousin of Jesus. Grandsons of Jesus' brother, Judah, lived until the reign of Trajan and were leaders of Christian churches apparently in Galilee.

John the Baptist, who baptized Jesus in the river Jordan, was an important religious Jewish personality; he is recorded in Josephus (Ant. 18:116–9) as well as the New Testament. From Josephus it is seen that John's baptismal theology was identical with that of the *Essenes. According to the Gospels, in the moment of Jesus' baptism, the Holy Spirit descended upon him and a voice from heaven proclaimed his election. When he left John the Baptist, Jesus did not return to Nazareth, but preached in the area northwest of the Sea of Galilee. Later, after his unsuccessful visit to his native Nazareth, he returned again to the district around *Capernaum, performed miraculous healings, and proclaimed the Kingdom of Heaven. From his closest disciples he appointed 12 *apostles to be, at the Last Judgment, judges of the 12 tribes of Israel. After the death of Jesus the 12 apostles provided the leadership for the Jerusalem Church.

The Arrest of Jesus

Meanwhile, Herod Antipas, who had beheaded John the Baptist, also wanted to kill Jesus, whom he saw as the heir of the Baptist, but Jesus wanted to die in Jerusalem, which was reputed for "killing the prophets" (Luke 13:34). With Passover drawing near, Jesus decided to make a pilgrimage to the Temple at Jerusalem. There he openly predicted the future destruction of the Temple and the overthrow of the Temple hierarchy. According to the sources, he even tried to drive out the traders from the precincts of the Temple, saying, "It is written, 'My house shall be called a house of prayer,' but you have made it a den of robbers" (Luke 19:45–6). These actions precipitated the catastrophe. The Sadducean priesthood, despised by everyone, found its one support in the Temple, and Jesus not only attacked them but even publicly predicted the destruction of their Temple. The first three Gospels indicate that Jesus' last supper was the paschal meal. When night had fallen he reclined at the table with the 12 apostles and said: "With all my heart I have longed to eat this paschal lamb with you before I die, for I tell you: I will never eat it again until I eat it anew in the Kingdom of God." He took a cup of wine, recited the benediction over it and said: "take it and share it among you; for I tell you, I will not again drink of the fruit of the vine until I drink it new in the Kingdom of God." He took bread, recited the blessing over it and said: "This is my body" (cf. Luke 22:15–19). Thus Jesus' Passover meal under the shadow of death became the origin of the Christian sacrament of the Eucharist.

After the festive meal, Jesus left the city together with his disciples and went to the nearby Mount of Olives, to the garden of Gethsemane. There, although he had foreseen the danger of his death, he prayed for his life (Luke 22:39–46). One of the 12 apostles, Judas Iscariot, had already betrayed him from unknown motives. Judas had gone to the high priests and told them he would deliver Jesus to them and they had promised to give him money (Mark 14:10–11). The Temple guard, accompanied by Judas Iscariot, arrested Jesus and took him to the high priest.

The "Trial" and Crucifixion

The Gospels in their present form contain descriptions of the so-called "trial" of Jesus rewritten in a way making them improbable from the historical point of view. Nevertheless, a literary analysis of the sources is capable of revealing a closer approximation of the reality. In the first three Gospels, the Pharisees are not mentioned in connection with the trial, and in John, only once (18:3). Luke (22:66) and Matthew (26:59) explicitly mention the Sanhedrin once, and Mark mentions it twice (14:55; 15:1). In the whole of Luke – not just in his description of the Passion – there is no mention of the Sanhedrin's verdict against Jesus, and John records nothing about an assembly of the Sanhedrin before which Jesus appeared. Thus it seems very probable that no session of the Sanhedrin took place in the house of the high priest where Jesus was in custody and that the "chief priests and elders and scribes" who assembled there were members of the Temple committee (see also Luke 20:1): the elders were apparently the elders of the Temple and the scribes were the Temple secretaries. The deliverance of Jesus into the hands of the Romans was, it seems, the work of the Sadducean "high priests," who are often mentioned alone in the story. A man suspected of being a messianic pretender could be delivered to the Romans without a verdict of the Jewish high court. In addition, the high priests were interested in getting rid of Jesus, who had spoken against them and had predicted the destruction of the Temple. The Roman governor *Pontius Pilate ultimately had Jesus executed in the Roman way, by crucifixion. All the Gospels indicate that on the third day after the crucifixion Jesus' tomb was found empty. According to Mark an angel announced that Jesus had risen, and the other Gospels state that Jesus appeared before his believers after his death.

Jesus and the Jewish Background

The tension between the Church and the Synagogue often caused the Gospels, by means of new interpretations and later emendations, to evoke the impression that there was a necessary rift between Jesus and the Jewish way of life under the law. The first three Gospels, however, portray Jesus as a Jew who was faithful to the current practice of the law. On the matter of washing hands (Mark 7:5) and plucking ears of corn on the Sabbath (Mark 2:23ff.), it was the disciples, not the master, who were less strict in their observance of the law. According to the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus did not heal by physical means on the Sabbath but only by words, healing through speech having always been permitted on the Sabbath, even when the illness was not dangerous. The Gospels provide sufficient evidence to the effect that Jesus did not oppose any prescription of the Written or Oral Mosaic Law, and that he even performed Jewish religious commandments. On all of the foregoing points the less historical John differs from the first three Gospels.

The wording of the Gospels exaggerates the clashes between Jesus and the *Pharisees. This becomes evident after an analysis of Jesus' sayings which are a more faithful preservation than are the tendentious descriptions of the situation in which the sayings were uttered. Jesus' major polemical sayings against the Pharisees describe them as hypocrites, an accusation occurring not only in the Essene Dead Sea Scrolls and, indirectly, in a saying of the Sadducean king, Alexander Yannai, but also in rabbinic literature, which is an expression of true Pharisaism. In general, Jesus' polemical sayings against the Pharisees were far meeker than the Essene attacks and not sharper than similar utterances in the talmudic sources. Jesus was sufficiently Pharisaic in general outlook to consider the Pharisees as true heirs and successors of Moses. Although Jesus would probably not have defined himself as a Pharisee, his beliefs, especially his moral beliefs, are similar to the Pharisaic school of Hillel which stresses the love of God and neighbor. Jesus, however, pushed this precept much further than did the Jews of his time and taught that a man must love even hisenemies. Others preached mutual love and blessing one's persecutors, but the command to love one's enemies is uniquely characteristic of Jesus and he is in fact the only one to utter this commandment in the whole of the New Testament.

The liberal Pharisaic school of Hillel was not unhappy to see gentiles become Jews. In contrast, the school of Shammai made conversion as difficult as possible because it had grave reservations about proselytism, most of which Jesus shared (Matt. 23:15). As a rule he even did not heal non-Jews. It should be noted that none of the rabbinical documents says that one should not heal a non-Jew.

In beliefs and way of life, Jesus was closer to the Pharisees than to the *Essenes. He accepted, however, a part of the Essene social outlook. Although Jesus was not a social revolutionary, the social implications of his message are stronger than that of the rabbis. Like the Essenes, Jesus also regarded all possessions as a threat to true piety and held poverty, humility, purity of heart, and simplicity to be the essential religious virtues. Jesus, as did the Essenes, had an awareness of and affection for the social outcast and the oppressed. The Essene author of the *Thanksgiving Scroll (18:14–15) promises salvation to the humble, to the oppressed in spirit, and to those who mourn, while Jesus in the first three beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount promises the Kingdom of Heaven to "the poor in spirit" to "those who mourn," and to "the meek" (Matt. 5:3–5). Moreover, Jesus' rule "Do not resist one who is evil" (Matt. 5:39) has clear parallels in the Essene Dead Sea Scrolls.

Jesus as the Messiah

The early Christian Church believed Jesus to be the expected *Messiah of Israel, and he is described as such in the New Testament; but whether Jesus thought himself to be the Messiah is by no means clear. Throughout the New Testament there are indications that Jesus had seen himself as a prophet. The Ebionites and Nazarenes, *Jewish Christian sects, both ranked Jesus among the prophets and stressed his prophetic role. Jesus himself apparently never used the word "Messiah," and always spoke of the "*Son of Man" in the third person, as though he himself were not identical with that person. The "Son of Man" originally appears in the Book of Daniel (7:9–14) as the man-like judge of the Last Days. Jesus based his account of the "Son of Man" on the original biblical description of a superhuman, heavenly sublimity, who, seated upon the throne of God, will judge the whole human race. In Jewish literature of the Second Commonwealth, the "Son of Man" is frequently identified with the Messiah and it is probable that Jesus used the phrase in this way too. In his own lifetime, it is certain that Jesus became accepted by many as the Messiah. The substance of many sayings make it obvious that Jesus did not always refer to the coming "Son of Man" in the third person simply to conceal his identity, but because Jesus actually did not believe himself to be the Messiah. Yet other apparently authentic sayings of Jesus can be understood only if it is assumed that Jesus thought himself to be the "Son of Man." Thus Jesus' understanding of himself as the Messiah was probably inconsistent, or at first he was waiting for the Messiah, but at the end, he held the conviction that he himself was the Messiah.

In the faith of the Church, Jesus, the Jewish prophet from Galilee, became the object of a drama which could bring salvation to pious spectators. This drama developed from two roots: Jesus' conception of himself as being uniquely near to his Heavenly Father, his message about the coming of the "Son of Man," and other Jewish mythical and messianic doctrines; the other root was Jesus' tragic death, interpreted in terms of Jewish concepts about the expiatory power of martyrdom. If, as Christians believe, the martyr was at the same time the Messiah, then his death has a cosmic importance. Through the teachings of Jesus, as well as through other channels, the Jewish moral message entered Christianity. Thus the historical Jesus has served as a bridge between Judaism and Christianity, as well as one of the causes for their separation.

[David Flusser]

In Talmud and Midrash

Statements in rabbinic literature that explicitly mention Jesus by name or that allude to him and to his actions are few. Nothing has been transmitted in the names of the rabbis from the early half of the first century. Even those statements dating from the second century are to be regarded as reflecting the knowledge and views of Jews of that time about Christians and Jesus, which derived in part from contemporary Christian sources. They were partly a reaction to the image of Jesus as it had crystallized in the Christian tradition. Apparently, the beginnings of Christianity attracted no greater attention than did the many other sects that sprang up toward the close of the Temple period, and it is certain that the incidents connected with its founder were not at the center of events of the time, as the Gospels would lead one to believe.

Beginning with the Basle edition of the Talmud (1578–80), those passages in which Jesus was mentioned, as well as other statements alluding to Christianity, were deleted from most editions of the Babylonian Talmud by the Christian censors or even by internal Jewish censorship. These deletions were later collected in special compilations and in manuscripts (cf. R.N.N. Rabbinowicz, Ma'amar al Hadpasat ha-Talmud (1952), 28n.26). From the stories about Jesus in the Babylonian Talmud, it is evident that he was regarded as a rabbinical student who had strayed into evil ways: "May we produce no son or pupil who disgraces himself like Jesus the Nazarene" (Ber. 17b; Sanh. 103a; cf. Dik. Sof. ad loc.). The rabbis were not certain of his time or his activities. Thus he is described as a pupil of *Joshua b. Peraḥyah (Sanh. 107b; see Dik. Sof. ad loc.).

In the Middle Ages, *Jehiel of Paris claimed that there was no connection between Jesus, the pupil of Joshua b. Peraḥyah and Jesus the Nazarene (Vikku'aḥ, ed. by R. Margaliot (1928), 16f.). In one baraita Jesus appears as a sorcerer and enticer who led people astray. "They hanged Jesus on the eve of Passover. Forty days earlier a proclamation was issued that he was to be stoned for practicing sorcery and for enticing and leading Israel astray." "Let anyone who can speak in his favor come forward." "Nothing in his favor was discovered and they hanged him on the eve of Passover." The date given for the hanging, the 14th of Nisan, agrees with the date given in John 19:14. (In the Gospels the date given is the first day of the festival which is the 15th day of Nisan.) In conformity with the halakhah (Sanh. 7:4) he was sentenced to stoning, the penalty for enticing, leading astray, or practicing sorcery. After the stoning he was hanged, since all who are put to death by stoning are subsequently hanged, according to R. Eliezer who often transmits ancient halakhah (Sanh. 6:4). Jesus was crucified, i.e., hanged alive, "as is done by the non-Jewish government" (Sif. Deut. 221). In the talmudic account, however, his death conforms with the death penalty of the bet din as prescribed by the halakhah (see *Crucifixion).

Later conditions are reflected in the story of *Onkelos the proselyte who raised Titus, Balaam, and Jesus from the dead to ask their advice whether he should become a proselyte. Whereas Balaam said, "Thou shalt not seek their peace nor their prosperity all their days forever" (Deut. 23:7), Jesus answered, "Seek their peace, seek not their evil, whoever hurts them is as if hurting the pupil of his eye." The Talmud itself emphasizes the difference between Jesus and Balaam by adding, "Come and see the difference between infidel Israelites and the idol-worshiping gentile prophets" (Git. 57a, in uncensored editions). The purpose of the story is to show that Jesus warned against persecuting Jews and forbade their oppression. It can only be understood in the context of an era in which such a warning was already important, namely the fourth century.

These are all the stories about Jesus in the Talmud. Whenever his name is mentioned elsewhere, it is in connection with his disciples. It speaks about "Jesus the Nazarene having had five disciples, Matthew, Nakai, Nazar, Boneh, and Thodah," all of whom were put to death. For each of them a verse is cited in which his name is mentioned and his execution hinted at (Sanh. 43a; Dik. Sof. ad loc.; Yal. Mak. to Isa. 11:1). Only two of them, Matthew and Tadi (Thaddaeus) can be identified with certainty as the apostles. Besides these there is mention of Jacob of Kefar Sama who came in the name of Jesus b. Pantira to cure *Eleazar b. Dama of a snake bite but was prevented by Ishmael (Tosef., Ḥul. 2:22; tj, Shab. 14:4, 14d; tj, Av. Zar. 2:2, 40d). Since this Jacob was a contemporary of Ishmael, he could not be a disciple of Jesus but at the most a disciple of his disciple. It is also very doubtful whether he can be identified with Jacob of Kefar Sakhnayya of whom Eliezer told Akiva that he had transmitted to him a sectarian teaching in the name of Jesus (Tosef., Ḥul. 2:24; Av. Zar. 17a; Eccles. R. 1:8, no. 3). This Jacob, too, merely transmitted a teaching he had heard in the name of Jesus and one cannot assume that he knew him. He certainly cannot be identified with Jacob, the brother of Jesus.

In both accounts the father of Jesus is called Pantira. Epiphanius reports that Pantira was another name of Jacob, the father of Joseph, father of Jesus (Adversus Haereses 3:78, 7). It is possible that this statement should be regarded as an answer to the assertion of the Jews which is also mentioned by Origen. He mentions that Celsus heard from a Jew that Miriam had been divorced by her husband who suspected her of adultery, and that Jesus was born as the result of her secret affair with a Roman soldier, Panthera (Πανθηρα; Contra Celsum 1:28, 32). In the Tosefta there is no suggestion of anything disparaging in the name Pantira, but it is found in the statement of a third-century Babylonian amora, a young contemporary of Celsus, where it is connected with the name *Ben Stada. Ben Stada is mentioned in the Tosefta (Shab. 11:15) and in the Babylonian Talmud (Sanh. 67a; Dik. Sof. ad loc.). The reading is "And thus they did to Ben Stada in Lydda and hanged him on the eve of Passover." This reading has been taken to refer to Jesus, but there is no basis in tannaitic literature for this indentification. When Eliezer referred to Jesus he called him by name.

Since the time of Geiger (jzwl, 6 (1868), 31–37) various scholars have tried to view the name Balaam, occurring in many aggadot, as a pseudonym for Jesus. They find their proof in the passage: "A certain sectarian said to Ḥanina 'Have you heard how old Balaam was?' He replied 'It is not actually stated, but since it is written "Bloody and deceitful men shall not live out half their days" [Ps. 55:24] he must have been 33 or 34'. He rejoined 'You have spoken correctly; I personally have seen Balaam's Chronicle, in which it is stated, "Balaam the lame was 33 years of age when Phinehas the robber killed him" [Sanh. 106b].'" On the basis that Jesus lived about 33 years and is called a sectarian, it was maintained that Balaam's Chronicle is none other than the Gospels and "Phinehas the robber" Pontius Pilate. However, it is impossible to imagine that a Christian would ask a Jew how old Jesus was, and call the Gospel Balaam's Chronicle or that Pontius Pilate, who is not mentioned even once in the whole of rabbinic literature, should be referred to as Phinehas the robber. The sectarian referred to was merely a member of a Gnostic sect who was testing whether Ḥanina could answer a question which is not answered in the Torah. Balaam's Chronicle was an apocryphal book on Balaam. These books often adopted an unfavorable attitude to the patriarchs and the prophets and it was possible that Phinehas of the Bible was called in them Phinehas the robber. Efforts to find allusions to Jesus and his disciples in the Mishnah (Sanh. 10:2; Avot 5:19) have no basis at all in the sources. Nor can one justify the conjecture that the word "Such a one" (Heb. peloni) used by Ben Azzai (Yev. 4:13) refers to Jesus. The tannaim did not ascribe an illegitimate birth to Jesus and had they done so they had no reason to conceal it, any more than the amoraim later did. Similarly one cannot say that the pupils of Eliezer had Jesus in mind when they asked their master the cryptic questions, "Has such a one a portion in the world to come? Has a bastard a portion in the world to come?" (Yoma 86b).

Polemics directed against the Christian dogmas that Jesus was the Messiah, the son of God, and God, are found in homilies and sayings of amoraim in the third and fourth centuries. Some of these homilies are merely a reply to the Christological interpretations of the *Church Fathers, who sought to find proof and supports for their teachings in the Scriptures. The words of Ḥiyya b. Abba, "If the son of the harlot says to you there are two gods, say to him 'I am He of the Red Sea; I am He of Sinai'" (pr 21:100), are directed against Christian dualism (the doctrine of the Trinity not yet having been accepted in the third century). The expression "son of a harlot" has a dual meaning, referring to Jesus in person, and to his heretical teaching, i.e., "son of heresy." Simeon b. Lakish, a contemporary of Origen, explained the verse "Alas who shall live after God hath appointed him" (Num. 24:23) to mean "Woe for him who resurrects himself with the title god" (Sanh. 106a). *Abbahu, who lived in Caesarea and had many disputes with heretics, explained Balaam's words, "God is not a man that He should lie; Neither the son of man that He should repent" (Num. 23:19) in a way that left no doubt about whom it was directed against, "If a man says to you, I am god, he lies; [if he says] I am the son of man, he shall regret it; [if he says] I shall rise to heaven, he says but he shall not fulfill it" (tj, Ta'an. 2:1, 65b; Sanh. 106a; Dik. Sof. ad loc.). In this interpretation, Abbahu represents Balaam as rebuking and warning the gentiles not to be ensnared by the new religion, in the same way as his fellow citizen, the Church Father Origen, puts Christological teachings into Balaam's mouth (see his commentary on Num. 15:4). These teachings are also contradicted by Balaam in a homily to Eleazar ha-Kappar (Yal. Num., ed. Salonika, 765, from where it was published in Jellinek's Beit ha-Midrash, 5 (19673), 208). Most of it, however, is by a fourth-century preacher who had already witnessed the spread of Christianity in Caesarea.

A polemic of the amoraic era is also found in the story of Rabban Gamaliel and his sister *Imma Shalom (Shab. 116aff.), but it cannot be regarded as authentic. It contains no quotation from any early version of "the words of Jesus," but parodies the words of Matthew. The tanna and his wife ridicule their neighbor, the "philosopher" – who is simply a Christian teacher – criticizing the contradictions in the teaching of Jesus, which on the one hand appears as a different law, while on the other Jesus himself says, "I have come neither to diminish the law of Moses, nor to add to it" (cf. Matt. 5:17, "think not that I am come to destroy but to fulfill"). As an example of "another Torah," a quotation is brought from the Avon Gilyon ("sinful margin," a disparaging name for Evangelion, Gospel in Greek): "Son and daughter inherit alike." No such statement occurs in the Gospels. It is possible that the statement of the philosopher that a daughter does not inherit was intended to cast doubt on the messianic status of Jesus, whose claim to be the Messiah was dependent on his Davidic descent. If he was of virgin birth, that descent could only have been on his mother's side.

[Encyclopaedia Hebraica]


A. Schweitzer, Quest of the Historical Jesus (19543); J. Klausner, Jesus of Nazareth (1957) containing details and descriptions of Jewish scholarship on the subject of Jesus; M. Hooker, Jesus and the Servant (1959); G. Bornkamm, Jesus of Nazareth (1960); S. Pines, Jewish Christians of the Early Centuries of Christianity According to a New Source (1966); H. Cohn, The Death of Jesus (1971); D. Flusser, Jesus (1969); R.L. Lindsey, Hebrew Translation of the Gospel of Mark (1969); S. Sandmel, We Jews and Jesus (1965); S. Zeitlin, Who Crucified Jesus? (19644); S.G.F. Brandon, The Trial of Jesus of Nazareth (1968); J. Carmichael, The Death of Jesus (1962). in talmud and midrash: M. Guedemann, Religionsgeschichtliche Studien (1876), 65–97; D. Chwolson, Das lezte Passahmahl Christi (1892), 85–125; H. Laible, Jesus Christus im Thalmud (19002); S. Krauss, Das Leben Jesu nach juedischen Quellen (1902), 181–94; R.T. Herford, Christianity in Talmud and Midrash (1903); H.L. Strack, Jesus, die Haeretiker unddie Christen… (1910); Z.P. Chajes in: Ha-Goren, 4 (1923), 33–37; Kaminetzki, in: Ha-Tekufah, 18 (1923), 509–15; Guttmann, in: mgwj, 75 (1931), 250–57; J.Z. Lauterbach, Rabbinic Essays (1951), 473–570; E.E. Urbach, in: Tarbiz, 25 (1956), 272–89; idem, Ḥazal, Pirkei Emunot ve-De'ot (1969), index. add. bibliography: D. Flusser, Jesus (1969); G. Vermes, Jesus the Jew (1973); I. Wilson, Jesus: The Evidence (1984); J.D. Crossan, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (1991); J.H. Charlesworth (ed.), Jesus and the Dead Sea Scrolls (1992); E.P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus (1993); G. Vermes, The Changing Faces of Jesus (2000); T. Khalidi, The Muslim Jesus: Sayings and Stories in Islamic Literature (2001); J.D. Crossan and J.L. Reed, Excavating Jesus (2001); J. Efron, The Origins of Christianity and Apocalyptism (2004).


views updated May 21 2018


Jesus is the historical figure identified by the many forms of Christian tradition as its point of historical origin and the means of Christian believers' eternal destiny. Jesus of Nazareth was a popular Jewish teacher who reflected the tradition of his dayoften associated with the Pharisee group of Jewsadhering to a belief in a future resurrection of the dead associated with a day of judgment and a new form of the kingdom of God. After his death his disciples claimed that he had risen from the dead, a resurrection belief characterizing his disciple group that soon broke away from traditional Judaism to become the earliest Christian Church. This means that the person of Jesus became inextricably bound up with the idea of the conquest of death. Indeed, the novelty of the New Testament does not lie in a general belief in resurrection but in a commitment to the specific belief that it had already taken place in Jesus and, because of that, all who believe in him and are his followers will also be granted a resurrection to eternal life.

Christian Theologies

The significance of Jesus as far as death is concerned does not simply lie in the belief that he was resurrected, but that his death, in and of itself, achieved specific purposes. Here death becomes a symbolic vehicle for a number of ideas, largely grounded in the notions of sacrifice and salvation and traditionally spoken of as theories of atonement explaining how his death beneficially changed the relationship between God and humanity from hostility to reconciliation.

Sacrificial Death

The prime meaning given to the death of Jesus both in the New Testament and in subsequent theologies is that it was an act of atonement expressed as a sacrifice. It is important to appreciate the fullness of the extent of this symbolism and the way it has entered into many of the cultures of the world. The death of Jesus could not have been interpreted as a sacrifice without the long historical tradition of the pre-existing Hebrew Bible and the Jewish ritual practices conducted at Jerusalem's temple, especially animal sacrifices for Jerusalem was then a center for animal sacrifice in which the shed blood was the means of removing personal sin. This was a religion in which morality and sacrifice were closely bound together as a means of forgiving the sin engendered by the breaking of divine commandments. The life of the beast was reckoned to be in its blood and it was the ending of that life that made possible the forgiveness of sins.

Another important strand of this tradition regarded suffering as the means of atoning for sin as in the image of the suffering servant of God who would be an agent for the deliverance of God's chosen people, Israel. This perspective was developed by some of the rabbis in the early Christian period to argue that death was the most extreme form of suffering, one that was actually experienced by dying individuals who might thereby atone for their sins in and through their own death. The earliest Christian traditions tended to foster these ideas, emphasizing them to varying degree, but seeing in Jesus both the sacrificial lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world and the suffering servant.

Much has been made of the fact that Jesus did not die a natural death but died as a criminal by the appointed method of crucifixion. This raises an interesting issue over blood as a medium of sacrifice. Crucifixion as practiced by the Romans, and it was on Roman authority that he was crucified, did not necessarily involve the use of nails and the shedding of blood. Criminals could be tied to crosses and die of asphyxiation when they could no longer bear the weight of their body on their legs. (Indeed, their legs might be broken to ensure this took place.) It was a slow form of punishing death. None of the Gospel stories tell of Jesus being nailed to the cross and John's Gospel has to add the specific, and unusual, comment that a soldier standing by pierced his side with a spear out of which came "blood and water" (John 19:34). This is because John's Gospel has a specific interest in blood as a medium of salvation from sin. In various letters of the New Testament, especially the Letter to the Hebrews, great stress is placed upon Jesus as the High Priest who offers his own blood in a sacrificial ritual (Heb. 9:12); it also echoes the idea of being made perfect through suffering (Heb. 5:89). The overall Christian idea is that Jesus and his sacrificial death form the basis for the New Covenant between God and humanity.

Christ and Self

One aspect of Christ's sacrificial death is reflected in the idea that he was either a representative of or a substitute for believers with the result that his death is related to their ongoing life and, as significant, that their death is no longer just a personal and private event. This is because the language of death, that of Jesus and of the believer, comes to be the means of interpreting one's life and is given fullest formal expression in the language of worship and ethics. Many Christian hymns reflect upon these matters and have ensured that the death of Christ has always remained at the forefront of Christian thought. The piety that sometimes arises in connection with this focus upon Christ's suffering and death has often been profound and is one means of eliciting the responsive love of individuals to God for the love shown to them.

Death into Resurrection

For St. Paul, the combined death and resurrection of Jesus takes place at and as the turning point in history between the Jewish religion focused on a single nation and governed by the divine lawIsrael's Torahand the new international community of believers in Christ inspired by the divine revelation of the gospel. This "good news" was that God forgave the sins of all through this sacrificial death and, in the new unified community, created and led by the Spirit of God, there was a new kind of "body" of Christthe churchexisting in the world. The promises and pre-existing history of Israel had now come to fulfillment in this new community of love through God's action against humanity's sin to demonstrate the divine righteousness and to create a righteous world as expressed in different theories of atonement.

Legal Idioms

Early fathers of the church offered variations on the theme of the life and sacrificial death of Jesus within a legal framework, one that viewed relationships in terms of rights, duties, ownership, and obligations. These are sometimes called legal or juridical theories of the atonement. Origen, writing in the third century, saw Christ's death as a form of ransom paid to the devil who had gained certain rights over fallen humanity. At the close of the eleventh century, Anselm, in his famous book Why Did God Become Man?, argued that the death of Jesus was a kind of satisfaction of God's outraged sense of honor caused by human disobedience. Human sin was a kind of debt resulting from the fact that people did not render the honor due to God. Not only ought humanity to return into obedience to God but some satisfaction should also be provided for the outrage perpetrated against the divine. And this was what the voluntary death of Jesus accomplished. His death becomes a satisfaction for the sins of humanity. This view contradicted that earlier theological suggestion that Christ's death was a payment to the devil.

The Exemplary Death

One element of Anselm's thought speaks of the death of Jesus as an example of how ordinary humans ought to live by giving voluntary offerings to God. Abelard, a younger contemporary, developed his exemplary theory further arguing that the suffering death of Jesus should so stir the lives of believers that they would respond anew to God. Something of this exemplarist view also stirred the imagination of early-twentieth-century theologians as when Hastings Rashdall (18581924) saw God's love revealed in the life and death of Jesus in ways that evoked a human response to a life of service, as published in The Idea of Atonement in Christian Theology (1915).

Drama of Conquest

Another style of interpretation of Christ's death, echoing the earlier ideas that the devil was involved, was prompted by the sixteenth-century German religious reformer Martin Luther and reinforced by the early-twentieth-century Swede Gustav Aulén. Sometimes referred to as the "dramatic theory of atonement," its stress falls on Christ as one who does battle with the devil and emerges triumphant, as caught in the Latin title Christus Victor, used for the English translation of Aulén's book. This broad tradition expresses the positive accomplishment of Jesus and the sense of confident benefit received by believers through it. In more recent and popular forms this doctrine of the power of Christ over the devil has been used in Pentecostal and Charismatic forms of Christianity in relation to exorcism and gaining power over evil spirits reckoned to be afflicting the sick.

Christian Worship

The death of Jesus did not, however, simply forge the first Christian groups or give opportunity for abstract theology but became central to three ritual practices: baptism, the Eucharist, and funerals. These ensured that the image of death would be kept firmly before Christian consciousness for the next 2,000 years. Baptism is a rite in which water becomes a symbol expressing several meanings, including (1) the normal function of water to cleanse the body, in this case the cleansing of sin viewed as an impurity or stain to be removed; (2) the biological "waters" associated with birth, in this case symbolizing spiritual birth so that a baptized person can be spoken of as being "born again"; and (3) the image of death, specifically the death of Jesus, for when someone becomes a Christian through baptism he or she is said to "die with Christ." The death and life of Jesus come to be intimately linked in a ritually symbolic way with the death and life of the believer. In this way the historical death of Jesus has come to be invested with deep theological significance and forms the basis for individual believers to reflect upon the meaning of their own lives. In religious terms not only are they said to have died to their old nature and to have been born again with a new nature on the single occasion of their baptism, but they are also called to "die daily" in a spiritual commitment to live a "new life."

This emphasis on the transformation from death to life, both in the death of Jesus and in the experience of Christians, is reinforced and developed in a special way in the rite called by a variety of names including the Eucharist, the Mass, the Holy Communion, or the Lord's Supper. In major Christian traditions such as Greek and Russian Orthodoxy, Catholicism, Lutheranism, and Anglicanism, both baptism and the Lord's Supper are regarded as sacramentsspecial ritual activities in which the outward signs of water, bread, and wine reflect spiritual depths and foster the whole life in the process of salvation. The Eucharist enacts an account of the Last Supper, itself probably a traditional Jewish Passover meal that expressed God's covenant with Israel, held by Jesus with his disciples just before he undergoes the agony of commitment to God's purposes in the Garden of Gethsemane, where he is finally betrayed, arrested, and executed. The Eucharist tells how it was on that night of betrayal that he took a cup of wine and told his disciples that it was his own blood that is shed for them and that they should repeat the act of drinking it as a way of remembering him. And so too with bread that they should eat in memory of his body given for them. Different traditions have developed these themes, some stressing aspects of remembrance as a mental act and talking about wine and bread as simply wine and bread, some even use nonalcoholic wine or even water. Others, especially in the Catholic traditions, speak of the Mass as a "transubstantiation" rite in which the bread and wine "become" the body and blood of Christ through the priest's authority and the proper conducting of the ritual. A major train of thought interprets the Mass as a rite in which the death of Jesus is not simply represented but is also represented.

Modern believers enter into the foundational and epoch-making moments in the life and death of Jesus. The familiarity of these rites possibly tend to cloud the significance of what they express and yet when believers take the communion bread and wine they are engaging with symbols of death and life and bring the death and life of Jesus into intimate association with their own lives and death. Not only that, the rite also mentions the death and eternal life of various ancient saints of the church as well as of the more recently dead. Not only do many Christians pray for the dead but also invoke the saints to pray for the living. In other words, the eucharistic rite activates an entire network in which the living and the dead are caught up together within the Kingdom of God.

Finally, it is in funeral rites that the death of Jesus has come to play a significant part and these rites have become a major feature of the impact of Christian churches upon many societies. Once more, the death of individual believers is associated with the death of Jesus, their grave is symbolically linked to his and, in turn, his resurrection is proclaimed to be the basis for their future life. Christian burial has come to contain two paradoxical elements reflected in the well-known phrases, "earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust" and "in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection." These are usually said together, one following immediately after the other, and jointly assert the obvious fact of human decay and the "fact of faith" lodging its hope for the future in the resurrection of Christ.


The very existence of baptism, the Eucharist, and funerals reflected and stimulated Christian theological explorations of the death of Jesus as a creative source of life, fostering the view that death may not be a futile end but, in some way, beneficial as in the twentieth century's world wars whose millions of dead have been depicted as not dying in vain but as valiant warriors fighting for the truth. Many war memorials rehearse the saying accorded to Jesus in St. John's Gospel: "Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friend." Such memorials often incorporate or take the form of a cross so that part of the conquest of death comes by aligning the death of soldiers with the death of Christ.

In many contexts of disaster and catastrophe relatives of the dead often seek some explanation of why the loss occurred and express the hope that something good may come out of it or that some lesson may be learned in order that, as the expression holds, "this may never happen again." To speak of disasters in terms of beneficial death is, in some ways, wrong and might appear insensitive to the bereaved and yet this is how some such events are framed.


After Jesus died, the cave-tomb where he had been placed was found to be empty and the body unfound. Disciples say he appeared to them and believed that he had been raised from the dead. The contemporary popular Jewish belief in resurrection came to sharp focus: Resurrection had become personalized in Jesus. The early disciples also reckoned that a spiritual power had transformed them into a strong community, exemplifying the new message of God's love for all, irrespective of social or ethnic background. Identity within the new community of the church involved belief in the triumph over death conferred by this spiritual power coming to believers.

Historical Jesus and Christ of Faith

From the eighteenth century on scholars used historical analysis of biblical texts to interpret Jesus's life, cutting through centuries of developed dogma. Albert Schweitzer's important works, including The Quest for the Historical Jesus (1906), argue that Jesus believed the world and history were coming to an end and that he was the Messiah whose own suffering would prompt it and help deliver people from the anguish involved. Rudolph Bultmann wanted to demythologize biblical stories so that the Christ of faith could be clearly heard, calling people to decision and faith. In the 1930s Charles Dodd argued for a "realised eschatology," the idea that a degree of divine fulfillment of the Kingdom of God had already occurred in the ministry of Jesus. In the 1950s Reginald Fuller opted for a belief that fulfillment would only come after Jesus's earthly work was completed. Despite detailed research on biblical descriptions of Jesus's suffering and death, much remains open as to whether he felt abandoned by God or not. Similarly, the theme of the resurrection remains contested as an arena in which ideas of the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith remain open-ended as Edward Sanders has indicated. From a psychological viewpoint, some argue that the resurrection is grounded in grief-induced hallucinations. Whatever the case, the death of Jesus has been the major focus by which millions have reflected upon their own death and sought relief when bereaved of those they love.

See also: Catholicism; Christian Death Rites, History of; Lazarus; Osiris; Sacrifice; Socrates


Brown, Raymond E. The Death of the Messiah: From Gethsemane to the Grave: A Commentary on the Passion Narratives in the Four Gospels. New York: Doubleday, 1994.

Bultmann, Rudolph. Jesus and the Word. London: Nicholson and Watson, 1935.

Dodd, Charles H. The Parables of the Kingdom. London: Nisbet and Co., 1935.

Fuller, Reginald H. The Mission and Achievement of Jesus: An Examination of the Presuppositions of New Testament Theology. London: SCM Press, 1954.

Kent, Jack A. The Psychological Origins of the Resurrection Myth. London: Open Gate Press, 1999.

Sanders, Edward P. The Historical Figure of Jesus. London: Penguin Books, 1993.

Schweitzer, Albert. The Quest of the Historical Jesus, edited by John Bowden. 1906. Reprint, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001.


Jesus of Nazareth

views updated May 18 2018

Jesus of Nazareth

Jesus of Nazareth (ca. 4 B.C.-A.D. 29), also known as Jesus Christ, was the central personality and founder of the Christian faith.

It is likely that Jesus was born not later than 4 B.C., the year of King Herod's death. Jesus' crucifixion was probably in A.D. 29 or 30. (The term Christ is actually a title, not a proper name; it comes from the Greek Christos, meaning the anointed one; in the Bible it is the Greek equivalent for the Hebrew word Messiah.) Information about Jesus is in some ways scant, in other ways plentiful. Although such ancient historians as Tacitus and Suetonius mention him, as does the Jewish Talmud, the only detailed information comes from the New Testament. There are a few other ancient accounts of Jesus' life, called Apocryphal Gospels because of their poor historical reliability; and in 1946 a Gospel of Thomas, actually a collection of sayings attributed to Jesus, was discovered in Upper Egypt. But none of these sources adds significantly to the New Testament. The letters of Paul are the earliest biblical records that tell about Jesus. But the four Gospels by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, although written later, used sources that in some cases go back very close to the time of Jesus.

Early Years

Jesus first came to general attention at the time of his baptism, just prior to his public ministry. He was known to those around him as a carpenter of Nazareth, a town in Galilee, and as the son of Joseph (John 6:42). Matthew and Luke report that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, a town near Jerusalem, famous in Jewish history as the city of David. They further report that he was miraculously born to the Virgin Mary, although they both curiously trace his Davidic ancestry through Joseph, to whom Mary was betrothed.

Little is known of Jesus' childhood and youth. But about the year A.D. 28 or 29 his life interacted with the career of John the Baptist, a stormy prophet-preacher who emerged from the wilderness and called on the people to repent and be baptized. A controversial character, he was soon jailed and killed by Herod Antipas, the puppet ruler of Galilee under the Roman Empire. Jesus heard John's preaching and joined the crowds for baptism in the Jordan River. Following his baptism Jesus went into the desert for prayer and meditation.

It is clear that Jesus had some consciousness of a divine calling, and in the desert he thought through its meaning. The Gospels report that he was tempted there by Satan as to what kind of leader Jesus would choose to be—a miracle worker, a benefactor who would bring people what they wanted, a king wielding great power. Jesus accepted a harder and less popular mission, that of the herald of the kingdom of God.

Galilean Ministry

Returning from the desert, Jesus began preaching and teaching in Galilee. His initial proclamation was similar to John's: "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel" (Mark 1:15; Revised Standard Version). This message was both frightening and hopeful. It told people not to cling to the past, that God would overthrow old institutions and ways of life for a wonderful new future. This future would be especially welcomed by the poor, the powerless, the peacemakers. It would be threatening to the rich, the powerful, the cruel, and the unjust.

Jesus attracted 12 disciples to follow him. They were mainly fishermen and common workers. Of the 12 it seems that Peter, James, and John were closest to Jesus. Peter's home in Capernaum, a city on the Sea of Galilee, became a headquarters from which Jesus and the disciples moved out into the countryside. Sometimes he talked to large crowds. Then he might withdraw with the 12 to teach only them. Or he might go off by himself for long periods of prayer. On one occasion he sent out the disciples, two by two, to spread the message of God's kingdom.

The Miracles

The records concerning Jesus report many miracles. Through the years there have been great disagreements about these reports. For centuries most people in civilizations influenced by the Bible not only believed literally in the miracles but took them as proofs that Jesus had a supernatural power. Then, in an age of rationalism and skepticism, men often doubted the miracles and denounced the reports as fraudulent.

Today, partly because of psychosomatic medicine and therapy, people are more likely to believe in the possibilities of faith healing. The Bible candidly reports that on some occasions, when people had no faith, Jesus could do no mighty works. People were especially skeptical in his home-town, where they had known him as a boy (Mark 6:1-6). However, usually the Gospels report the healings as signs of the power of God and His coming kingdom.

Teachings of Jesus

Jesus taught people in small groups or large gatherings; his sayings are reported in friendly conversations or in arguments with those who challenged him. At times he made a particularly vivid comment in the midst of a dramatic incident.

The starting point of his message, as already noted, was the announcement of the coming of the kingdom of God. Since this kingdom was neither a geographical area nor a system of government, it might be better to translate the phrase as "God's reign."

The rest of Jesus' teaching followed from this message about the reign of God. At times he taught in stories or parables that described the kingdom or the behavior of people who acknowledged God's reign. Perhaps the most famous of his many parables are those of the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan. At times he pronounced ethical commandments detailing the demands upon men of a loving and righteous God. At times Jesus taught his disciples to pray: the words that he gave them in the Lord's Prayer are often used today.

Jesus' teaching was a subtle teaching, and often it was directed to the needs of a particular person in a specific time and place. Therefore almost any summary can be challenged by statements of Jesus that point in an opposite direction. One way to explore the dynamics of his teachings is to investigate some of its paradoxes. Five are worth mentioning here.

First, Jesus combined an utter trust in God with a brute realism about the world. On the one hand, he told men not to be anxious about life's problems, because God knows their needs and will look out for them. So if men trust God and seek His kingdom, God will look out for the rest of their needs. Yet, on the other hand, Jesus knew well that life can be tough and painful. He asked men to give up families and fortunes, to accept persecution out of faithfulness to him, thus promising them a hard life.

Second, Jesus taught both ethical rigor and forgiveness. He demanded of men more than any other prophet or teacher had asked. He criticized the sentimentalists who call him "Lord, Lord" but do not obey him, and he told men that, if they are to enter God's kingdom, their righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees, who made exceedingly conscientious efforts to obey God's laws. He told men not to be angry or contemptuous with others, not to lust after women, and not to seek revenge but to love their enemies. Yet this same Jesus understood human weakness. He was known as a friend of sinners who warned men not to make judgments of others whom they consider sinful. He forgave men their sins and told about a God who seeks to save sinners.

Third, Jesus represented a kind of practicality that offends the overly spiritual-minded; but he also espoused an expectation of a future world (God's reign) that will make the attractions of this world unimportant. As a worldly man, he wanted to relieve hunger and sickness. He wanted no escape from responsibility into worship. He taught that sometimes a man would better leave church and go to undo the wrongs he has done.

But with this attention to the world was coupled the recognition that men are foolish to seek security and happiness in wealth or possessions. They would do better to give away their riches and to accept persecution. Jesus promised—or warned—that God's reign will reverse many of the values of this world.

Fourth, Jesus paradoxically combined love and peace with conflict. His followers called him the Prince of Peace, because he sought to reconcile men to God and each other. He summed up all the commandments in two: love for God and love for men. He refused to retaliate against those who had harmed him but urged his followers to forgive endlessly—not simply seven times but seventy times seven. Yet he was not, as some have called him, "gentle Jesus, meek and mild" he attacked evil fearlessly, even in the highest places.

Fifth, Jesus promised joy, freedom, and exuberant life; yet he expected sacrifice and self-denial. He warned men not to follow him unless they were ready to suffer. But he told people to rejoice in the wonders of God's reign, to celebrate the abundant life that he brings.

Views of His Contemporaries

To some people Jesus was a teacher or rabbi. The healing ministry did not necessarily change that conception of him, because other rabbis were known as healers. But Jesus was a teacher of peculiar power, and he was sometimes thought to be a prophet.

Jesus certainly was a herald of the kingdom of God. But then a question arises: was he simply talking about God and his reign, or did he have some special relationship to that kingdom? Those who heard Jesus were frequently perplexed. In some ways he was a modest, even humble man. Instead of making claims for himself or accepting admiration, he turned people's thoughts from himself to God. But at other times he asked immense loyalty of his disciples. And he astonished people by challenging time-honored authority—even the authority of the Bible—with his new teachings. He was so audacious as to forgive sins, although men said that only God could do that.

There was also the question whether it was possible that Jesus was the Messiah. For generations some of the Jewish people had hoped that God would send a king, an heir of the great King David of past history, who would undo the oppression that the Jews suffered, would reestablish the glorious old kingdom, and would bring justice. Some expected even more—that a divine savior would come and inaugurate a radical transformation of life.

Various reports in the New Testament lead to various possible conclusions. Today some scholars think that Jesus never claimed to be the Messiah. Others feel that he clearly did. But there was one occurrence that is especially interesting. Once, in the neighborhood of Caesarea Philippi, a city north of the Sea of Galilee (Mark 8:27-30), Jesus asked his disciples, "Who do men say that I am?" They gave various answers: John the Baptist, Elijah, or another of the prophets. Then Jesus asked, "But who do you say that I am?" And Peter answered, "You are the Christ [Messiah]." Jesus' answer was curious, for "He charged them to tell no one about him."

Why, if he accepted the designation, did he want it kept a secret? One persuasive answer often given is that Jesus was radically revising the traditional idea of the Messiah. If the people thought he was the promised Messiah, they would demand that he live up to their expectations. He had no intention of becoming a conquering king who would overthrow Rome.

Jesus, who knew the Old Testament well, had read the Messianic prophecies. He had also read the poems of the suffering servant in Second Isaiah, the unknown prophet whose writings are now in Isaiah, chapters 40-55. These tell of a servant of God and man, someone despised and rejected, who would bear the cost of the sins of others and bring healing to them. It may be that Jesus combined in his own mind the roles of the Messiah and the suffering servant. The undeniable fact is that his life and character were of such a sort that they convinced his followers he was the Messiah who, through his suffering love, could bring men a new experience of foregiveness and new possibilities for human and social life.

Passion Week

Soon after Peter's confession Jesus led his disciples to Jerusalem in an atmosphere of gathering crisis. On the day now known as Palm Sunday he entered the city, while his disciples and the crowds hailed him as the Son of David, who came in the name of the Lord. The next day Jesus went to the Temple and drove out the money changers and those who sold pigeons for sacrifices, accusing them of turning "a house of prayer" into a "den of robbers." This act was a direct challenge to the small group of priests who were in charge of the Temple, and they clearly resented it. During the following days he entered into controversies with the priests and authoritative teachers of religion. Their anger led them to plot to get rid of him, but they hesitated to do anything in the daytime, since many people were gathered for the feast of Passover.

On Thursday night Jesus had a meal with his disciples. This meal is now reenacted by Christians in the Lord's Supper, the Mass, or the Holy Communion. After the meal Jesus went to the Garden of Gethsemane, where he prayed alone. His prayer shows that he expected a conflict, that he still hoped that he might avoid suffering, but that he expected to do God's will. There into the garden one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, led the priests and the temple soldiers, who seized Jesus.

That same night Jesus' captors took him to a trial before the temple court, the Sanhedrin. Several evidences indicate that this was an illegal trial, but the Sanhedrin declared that Jesus was a blasphemer deserving death. Since at that time only the Roman overlords could carry out a death sentence, the priests took Jesus to Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea.

Pilate apparently was reluctant to condemn Jesus, since it was doubtful that Jesus had disobeyed any Roman laws. But as the ruler of a conquered province, Pilate was suspicious of any mass movements that might become rebellions. And he also preferred to keep the religious leaders of the subjugated people as friendly as possible. Jesus, as a radical intruder into the conventional system, and believing that obedience to God sometimes required defiance of human authority, represented a threat to both the Sanhedrin and the Romans. Pilate thus ordered the crucifixion of Jesus. Roman soldiers beat him, put a crown of thorns on his head, and mocked him as a fraudulent king. Then they took him to the hill Golgotha ("the Skull"), or Calvary, and killed him as an insurrectionist. Pilate ordered a sign placed above his head: "King of the Jews." Among the "seven last words," or sayings, from the cross are two quotations from Jewish psalms, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" (Psalms 22:1) and "Into thy hands I commit my spirit" (Psalms 31:5); and the especially memorable "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do" (Luke 23:34). That same day (now known as Good Friday) Jesus was buried in a cavelike tomb.

The Resurrection

On Sunday morning (now celebrated as Easter), the Gospels report, Jesus rose from the dead and met his disciples. Others immediately rejected the claim of the resurrection, and the controversy has continued through the centuries.

The New Testament states very clearly that the risen Christ did not appear to everybody. "God … made him manifest; not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead" (Acts 10:40-41). Among those who saw Jesus were Cephas (Peter), the 12 disciples, "more than five hundred brethren at one time," James, "all the apostles," and finally Paul. Other records tell of appearances to Mary Magdalene and other women and of a variety of meetings with the disciples both in the Jerusalem area and in Galilee. The four Gospels all say that the tomb of Jesus was empty on Easter morning, but Paul never mentions the empty tomb. None of the records ever tells of an appearance of the risen Christ to anyone who had not been a follower of Jesus or (like Paul) had not been deeply disturbed by him.

The evidence is very clear that the followers of Jesus were absolutely convinced of his resurrection. The experience of the risen Jesus was so overwhelming that it turned their despair into courage. Even though it might have been easier, and certainly would have been safer, to regard Jesus as dead, the disciples spread the conviction that he had risen, and they persisted in telling their story at the cost of persecution and death. Furthermore they were sure that their experiences of Jesus were not private visions; rather, as in the statement quoted above, they "ate and drank with him." The faith in the resurrection (and later the ascension) of Jesus, despite differences in interpretation and detail, is a major reason for the rise and propagation of the Christian faith.

Further Reading

There are thousands of books about Jesus, written for many purposes and from many points of view. Those mentioned here are only a few of the most reputable works using the methods of modern historical scholarship. Although many scholars doubt, on the basis of the sources, that an objective biography of Jesus can be written, several noteworthy attempts should be mentioned. Vincent Taylor, The Life and Ministry of Jesus (1955), is a direct, narrative account. Two longer books that give more space to the analysis of sources are Maurice Goguel, The Life of Jesus, translated by Olive Wyon (1933), and Charles Guignebert, Jesus, translated by S. H. Hooke (1935). A very readable biography by a distinguished American scholar is Edgar J. Goodspeed, A Life of Jesus (1950).

More frequent than biographies among contemporary scholars are efforts to interpret the sources in their meaning for modern man's belief in Jesus. Probably the most notable such Protestant effort is Gunther Bornkamm, Jesus of Nazareth, translated by Irene and Fraser McLuskey with James M. Robinson (1960). A distinguished Roman Catholic work is Yves Congar, Jesus Christ, translated by Luke O'Neill (1966). Joseph Klausner, Jesus of Nazareth: His Life, Times, and Teaching, translated by Herbert Danby (1925), is a scholarly study written by a Jewish historian. Sholem Asch, an American Jew, in The Nazarene, translated by Maurice Samuel (1939), wrote a novel about Jesus that is both imaginative and scholarly.

The most important sources for all these works are the letters of Paul and the Gospels of the New Testament. Matthew, Mark, and Luke are known as Synoptic Gospels because they parallel each other in many respects, although each has its own point of view. The fourth Gospel, John, has a different structure and a more highly articulated theological position. □


views updated May 29 2018


The body of Christ was central to late medieval and early modern European culture, not merely as a symbol or an idea but as a physical presence. It hung from crosses in churches and homes and along roadsides, shone from stained-glass windows, and gestured from scaffold and wagon stages. In the form of the Eucharist, Christ's body was not only consumed daily at mass, but also paraded through city streets once per year and reverently displayed in countless chapels for perpetual adoration. It was the object of spiritual meditation and devotion that many now find startlingly physical in focus, and often unexpectedly gendered, or overtly erotic.


The fourth Lateran Council defined the long-held doctrine of transubstantiation in 1215, and devotion to the sacrament soon increased. The doctrine holds that the Eucharistic host or wafer actually becomes the body of Christ upon consecration by the priest at the words of institution, "hoc est corpus meum" (this is my body), while retaining the natural appearance and taste of bread. The Feast of Corpus Christi, first established in Liège in 1246 to celebrate the Real Presence, was formally instituted by Pope Urban IV in 1264, and again by Clement V in 1311; within the next century this midsummer feast became one of the most important events in the church calendar, associated with major processions and theatrical performances. In York, England, a processional cycle of biblical plays produced by trade guilds displaced the ecclesiastical procession of Corpus Christi to the following day; seeing Christ in the flesh, as represented by actors, apparently won out in the popular imagination over seeing Christ in a wafer. Like the procession, however, in which the consecrated host was held high and paraded through the city streets, the plays emphasized the need and desire to see Christ: Characters repeatedly drew attention to his physical presence. The ability to see, touch, or consume the true body of Christ at virtually any time, in the form of the consecrated host, continued to foster devotion, ritual, and superstition. Demand grew to see the moment of transformation, itself associated with the miraculous power to preserve the observer from danger or death, while accounts (and representations) of miraculous bleeding hosts proliferated, often in relation to anti-semitic legends of host desecration.


Many theologians unsurprisingly emphasized faith and good works over visual representation or sensory perception. The still-popular devotional treatise De imitatione Christi (The imitation of Christ), published anonymously in 1418 but now attributed to Thomas à Kempis, warns against a critical examination of spiritual mysteries such as transubstantiation, which rely on faith rather than proof or sensory perception. The treatise advocates a life of cheerful, humble devotion and virtue, filled with quiet contemplation and free of passion.

Others took a more visceral approach. The influential Pseudo-Bonaventurean Meditationes vitae Christi (Meditations on the life of Christ), composed in the fourteenth century, promoted affective piety through detailed, emotionally stirring meditation on the life of Jesus. Each moment was to be visualized in an imaginative reconstruction of events that might depart significantly from the Gospel accounts. What mattered far more than historical accuracy was a sense of immediacy, of one's personal presence at the event, and an empathetic identification with Christ or with witnesses such as his mother. Horrifying invented details of the Passion narrative such as the scourging of Jesus with knotted or metal-studded whips that repeatedly tore his naked flesh were elaborated in the visions of fourteenth-century mystics such as St. Bridget (Birgitta) of Sweden and Richard Rolle de Hampole and Margery Kempe of England, long before they were filmed for Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ (2004). The stretching of Jesus's arms on the cross to fit prebored holes for the nails, featured by all the above-mentioned authors, was also represented in the York Crucifixion pageant. Some two dozen actors would have played Jesus in a full production of the York plays, all on different wagon stages, effectively promoting the image of Jesus as Everyman more than as a particular individual. This, too, may have encouraged men and women to imagine Christ's body in a wide variety of highly personal ways.

While an emphasis on his emotional and physical suffering was common, many women in particular also dwelt at length upon more pleasurable ideas, such as the Nativity, or the physical perfection of Christ's body. In the Revelations of Bridget of Sweden, immediately after recounting the horrors of the Crucifixion, Jesus's mother describes the physical perfections of her son at the age of twenty, remarking on his hair (dark blond [crocea brunea] in the Latin version, auburn in a Middle English translation), pale skin, and red lips, and noting that even his enemies liked to look at him (4:70). Often such visions and meditations coincided with particular events in the church calendar. They were also closely associated with the physical host itself. As Caroline Walker Bynum (1991) states:

The humanity of Christ with which women joined in the eucharist was the physical Jesus of the manger and of Calvary. Women from all walks of life saw in the host and the chalice Christ the baby, Christ the Bridegroom, Christ the tortured body on the cross … Most prominent, however, was the Christ of the cross. No religious woman failed to experience Christ as wounded, bleeding, and dying.

                                    (pp. 130-131)

Women in particular participated in this suffering, through physical illness and often severe self-mortification.


Margery Kempe, who like some of her contemporaries suffered frequent uncontrollable fits of weeping at thoughts of Christ, envisioned herself not only as a witness to the Passion, having walked in his steps in Jerusalem on pilgrimage, but also as a servant first to St. Anne, at the birth of Mary, and then to Mary herself, witnessing the births of both John the Baptist and of Jesus. A married woman who bore fourteen children before demanding chastity from her husband, Margery also had visions of a relationship with the adult Jesus that strike the modern reader as remarkably intimate. In one vision she weds Jesus in the presence of his mother and a multitude of saints and angels, after which he tells her:

thu mayst boldly, whan thu art in thi bed, take me to the as for thi weddyd husbond, as thy derworthy derlyng, and as for thy swete sone, for I wyl be lovyd as a sone schuld be lovyd wyth the modyr and wil that thu love me, dowtyr, as a good wife owyth to love hir husbonde. And therfor thu mayst boldly take me in the armys of thi sowle and kyssen my mowth, myn hed, and my fete as swetly as thow wylt. (Kempe, Chap. 36: you may boldly, when you are in your bed, take me to you as your wedded husband, as your beloved darling, and as your sweet son, for I desire to be loved as a son should be loved by his mother and desire that you love me, daughter, as a good wife ought to love her husband. And therefore you may boldly take me in the arms of your soul and kiss my mouth, my head, and my feet as sweetly as you will.)

Margery takes a literal approach to the sponsa Christi motif that was common in poetic and theological writing alike: Standard allegorical interpretation of the biblical Song of Songs, attributed to Solomon, made Christ the mystical bridegroom of the church and of all Christians. In the third of his eighty-six sermons on this highly erotic and poetic text, Bernard of Clairvaux, a twelfth-century Cistercian abbot, expounds upon the opening verse: "Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth." Bernard asserts that anyone who has once experienced a mystical kiss from the mouth of Christ will seek it repeatedly, but advises anyone burdened with carnal desire to start humbly at Christ's feet, and then with his hand. In his eighth sermon on this text, alluding to Genesis 2:24, he states that "if marriage according to the flesh constitutes two in one body, why should not a spiritual union be even more efficacious in joining two in one spirit?"


Various accounts of spiritual union, by men as well as by women, nonetheless explicitly cite physical sensations and sensual pleasures, many of which seem overtly erotic. When Rupert of Deutz, a twelfth-century Benedictine monk, passionately embraced a crucifix high above an altar, the kissing, according to his account, involved not only lips but also tongues. Richard Rambuss (1998) has demonstrated evidence of "male devotional desire amorously attuned to a male Christ" (p. 238) in the work of major seventeenth-century English writers such as John Donne and Richard Crashaw. Artists and critics alike have in this regard more often taken note of the religious experiences of women. In the ecstatic vision of St. Teresa of Ávila (1515–1582), the subject of Gian Lorenzo Bernini's famous statue in Rome's Cornaro Chapel, not Christ but a handsome angel repeatedly thrust a burning spear through her heart and deep into her entrails, filling her with the fire of God's love. St. Catherine of Siena (1347–1380) not only drank blood directly from the wound in Jesus's side, his gift in recompense for her drinking pus from a woman's infected breast, but was also, like Margery and others, betrothed to Jesus in a vision. As reported by her biographer, Raymond of Capua, the ceremony was presided over by the Virgin Mary and involved a gold ring encrusted with jewels; her own description involves the circumcised foreskin of Jesus.

A cult had grown up around the holy prepuce, a potent symbol of Christ's humanity and physical suffering, and a part of his body thought singularly to have been left on earth after his ascension—a relic claimed by several institutions in the Middle Ages, including abbeys in Charroux and Coulombs in France as well as St. John Lateran in Rome, and by a church in Calcata, Italy, as late as 1983 when it was reported stolen. In The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion (1996), Leo Steinberg has argued that devotion to the foreskin and the Feast of the Circumcision (January 1), like the many fifteenth- and sixteenth-century paintings of Jesus either as an infant or after the Crucifixion that focus the viewer's attention on his penis (the ostentatio genitalium), point not merely to Christ's humanity but also to his sexuality. Some sixteenth-century illustrations, most notably a series of paintings of the "Man of Sorrows" by Maerten van Heemskerck, even indicate an erection under the cloth that drapes the loins of the resurrected Christ, his flesh rising not because of lust or any external stimulus but at his will, as Adam's own penis was said by some medieval commentators to have done before the Fall in Eden. Such pictures thus symbolize Christ as the second Adam, reversing the Fall through his resurrection (1 Cor. 15:21-22), and bringing life to all.


In his eighth sermon on the Song of Songs, Bernard discusses the verse "Your breasts are better than wine" (4:10, translating the Vulgate's "pulchriora sunt ubera tua vino," where modern texts have "Your love is better than wine"), which he applies to the bridegroom rather than to the bride as customary, referring to the sweetness and forgiveness that flows from the breast of Jesus. Other writers described Christ in explicitly feminine terms as a nurturing mother. They had biblical precedent: In Matthew 23:37, Jesus compares himself to a hen gathering and protecting her chicks under her wings; he is also conventionally identified with divine Wisdom, personified as a woman in biblical texts such as Proverbs and the book of Wisdom and, like the eternal Word of the first chapter of John's gospel, characterized as participating in the creation of the world. In her book of Shewings, an account of revelations she received in 1373, the anchorite and mystic Julian of Norwich writes, "our Lady is our Moder in whome we are all beclosid and of hir borne in Christe, for she that is moder of our Savior, is moder of all that shall be savid in our Savior. And our Savior is our very moder in whom we be endlesly borne and never shall come out of Him" (chap. 57). In the chapters that follow this passage, Julian develops the maternal image at length, noting for instance that "The Moder may geven hir child soken her mylke, but our pretious Moder Jesus, He may fedyn us with Himselfe, and doith full curtesly and full tenderly with the blissid sacrament that is pretious fode of very lif" (chap. 60). As Bynum (1991) states, "Such an identification of Christ's saving role with giving birth as well as feeding is found in a number of fourteenth-century texts" (p. 97), especially by women such as Julian, or Margaret of Oingt (d. 1310), who describes the Crucifixion as Christ giving birth to the world.


Discussion of ideas such as the femininity of God, the sexuality of Jesus, and the relationship between eroticism and religious devotion by twenty-first-century feminist and queer writers and artists, as well as by theologians, have met with controversy and sometimes outrage. Accusations that such ideas are somehow unchristian indicate a lack of awareness of Christian history. For many, religious devotion remains a matter not just of the soul, but also of the body, and centred on the desirable body of Christ.

see also Catholicism; Christianity, Early and Medieval; Homoeroticism, Female/Male, Concept.


Bernard of Clairvaux. 1971–1980. On the Song of Songs, trans. Kilian Walsh and Irene Edmonds. 4 vols. Spencer, MA / Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications.

Bridget of Sweden. 1987. The Liber Celestis of St. Bridget of Sweden, ed. Roger Ellis. Vol. 1. Oxford: Oxford University Press, published for the Early English Text Society.

Bynum, Caroline Walker. 1991. Fragmentation and Redemption: Essays on Gender and the Human Body in Medieval Religion. New York: Zone Books.

Epp, Garrett. 2001. "Ecce Homo." In Queering the Middle Ages, ed. Glenn Burger and Steven F. Kruger. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Julian of Norwich. 1993. The Shewings of Julian of Norwich, ed. Georgia Ronan Crampton. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, Western Michigan University.

Kempe, Margery. 1996. The Book of Margery Kempe, ed. Lynn Staley. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, Western Michigan University.

Matter, E. Ann. 1990. The Voice of My Beloved: The Song of Songs in Western Medieval Christianity. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

The Passion of the Christ. 2004. Directed by Mel Gibson. Equinoxe Films and Newmarket Films.

Rambuss, Richard. 1998. Closet Devotions. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Steinberg, Leo. 1996. The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion. 2nd edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

                                              Garrett P.J. Epp


views updated May 14 2018

Jesus (d. 30 or 33 CE). Jewish religious teacher, and in traditional Christian belief the unique incarnation of God. (For the name ‘Jesus Christ’ see CHRIST.)

Jesus was born before the death of King Herod (4 BCE), of pious parents Joseph and Mary, of Nazareth in Galilee. According to Matthew and Luke, Mary conceived Jesus by the operation of the Holy Spirit while remaining a virgin: see VIRGIN BIRTH. Jesus is once called a ‘carpenter’ (Mark 6. 3, unless the alternative reading referring to his believed father is preferred), but nothing is known of his life (apart from the fact that he had brothers and sisters) until he began to preach publicly. Probably his first work was alongside John the Baptist in the Jordan valley (John 3. 22 ff.), Jesus himself having been baptized by John (Mark 1. 9). The gospels, however, place most of his career in Galilee and N. Palestine generally. Probably this career lasted only two or three years, before he was arrested and executed, having made a deliberate journey to Jerusalem for Passover.

Jesus preached about the kingdom of God, and specifically of its imminent approach. Jesus, however, speaks of it sometimes as future (Matthew 6. 10), sometimes as already present (Matthew 12. 28, Luke 11. 20), and at other times as something which cannot be described except indirectly through parables (Mark 4. 30). Jesus taught and acted (especially in healing) in a way which manifested the ‘power’ (dunamis) and ‘authority’ (exousia), not of himself but of God, whom he characterized as both king and father, addressing him as Abba. This provoked the fundamental question of Mark 6. 2 which is the beginning of Christology.

How Jesus thought of himself in relation to this coming kingdom is uncertain. Clearly he mediated through himself an effect of God which transfigured his own life and transformed the lives of others. From the wellattested fact that Jesus addressed God as Abba (Aramaic, ‘father’), it could be inferred that he was Son of God; but Jesus did not use this expression as an exclusive title for himself. His most significant reference to himself seems to have been as ‘the son of man’.

Jesus selected an intimate band of twelve disciples (Mark 3. 14), but there are many sayings about the challenge of following him (e.g. Mark 8. 34) which seem to be addressed to his adherents generally. It is striking that there is no clear evidence that Jesus formed any kind of institution for his followers.

In his teaching, he often challenged the teaching of others, while remaining within the Jewish religion of the Torah (e.g. in attending synagogue, Matthew 4. 23, 9. 35; Luke 4. 16 ff.; John 6. 59). Often where he appears to criticize the biblical commandments themselves (e.g. Matthew 5. 21–48) his own dictates are more rather than less exacting, or even on a different plane altogether. His summary of Torah (kelal) was in effect a context-independent command (see ETHICS, CHRISTIAN).

The gospels record that Jesus was executed by crucifixion by the Roman authorities in Judaea. Jesus clearly made his way deliberately to Jerusalem (the Gk. uses strong words of necessity concerning his determination to leave the relative security of Galilee and to go to Jerusalem), because it was only in Jerusalem that the issue could be resolved, whether his teaching was ‘from God or men’. It is equally clear that the initial offence of Jesus had to do with his threat to the authority of the Temple in deciding the true interpretation of Torah (the same issue which was raised by Stephen, Acts 7. 11 f.). This (as an offence) goes back to Deuteronomy 17. 8–13, which states that an obstinate teacher (see REBELLIOUS ELDER), who insists on his own opinion against the majority, must be brought before ‘the judge who shall be in those days’ (i.e. the highest authority), and if he rejects the decision on his teaching, he must be executed—because two interpretations of Torah must necessarily destroy Israel. The so-called ‘trial’ of Jesus was initially an investigation to see whether he came into the category of an obstinate teacher who insisted on his own opinion. Whether it was necessary or simply convenient to hand Jesus over to the Romans for the punishment which Deuteronomy requires is uncertain; the charge then would have involved Jesus’ threat to the Roman administration by his threat to the religious establishment which co-operated with the Romans.

There is good reason, therefore, to believe that Jesus anticipated his own death (the necessity of the journey to Jerusalem carries that implication, since Jesus knew that his teaching and actions came, not from himself, but from God, and that they were not subject to human authority). If the connection with Daniel 7 is correct, then he saw his death as the fulfilment of Israel's true destiny; and he saw it also as a lutron (ransom, in terms of a current dispute between Pharisees and Sadducees) for the sins of ‘many’ (Mark 10. 45). Such an interpretation is inherent above all in the eucharistic words at the Last Supper.

Jesus was executed and laid in a tomb on Friday; according to the gospels on Sunday morning his tomb was found to be empty. Beyond this point the three gospels Matthew, Luke, and John offer various and differing accounts of appearances of Jesus to his followers. These appearances are also mentioned by Paul (1 Corinthians 15. 5–8) as among the earliest traditions he knew, and (more than the empty tomb) lie at the basis of the Christian belief that Jesus had risen from the dead (see RESURRECTION OF CHRIST).

In Islam Jesus is generally called Īsā ibn Maryam (Jesus, son of Mary) in the Qurān. He is one of the Prophets, a line which began with Adam and ended with Muḥammad. He is mentioned, together with Zakariyā, John, and Elias, as one of the ‘Righteous’ (6. 85). Like Adam, he was created from dust (3. 59). The Qurān concentrates on the beginning and the end of Īsā's earthly life; his actual teachings are not reported. He is conceived through the power of Allah, the message being conveyed to the virgin Maryam by ‘Our Spirit’ (19. 17–22), later identified with the angel Jibrīl Gabriel (cf. 3. 45–7). He speaks in the cradle, to vindicate his mother's reputation (19. 30).

His miracles are said to include making birds out of clay, healing the sick, blind, and lepers, and raising the dead, (3. 49, 5. 113). The strange story of his making a ‘table prepared’ appear from heaven is thought by some to be an echo of the miracle of the loaves and fishes, or of the Last Supper (5. 115–18; sūra 5 is named ‘the Table’). This is to be a ‘solemn festival and a sign’ (5. 117).

The crucifixion is apparently denied in the Qurān: ‘They killed him not, nor crucified him, but so it was made to appear to them’ (4. 157); but the Arabic can be taken to mean that the resurrection contradicted what they thought had happened.

Īsā has several titles: ‘Word’ from Allāh, and a ‘Spirit’ from him, though neither term corresponds to the Christian concept; ‘Servant’, ‘Prophet’, ‘Messiah’, ‘Messenger’, and ‘only a messenger’ (4. 171, 5. 78). He is ‘strengthened by the Spirit of holiness’ (rūḥ al-qudus; 5. 113, 2. 253). His humanity is emphasized, and the Christians are severely rebuked for ascribing divine status to him. The Qurān, however, objects to ideas which are not orthodox Christian teaching. There is within Arabic a distinction between ibn, ‘son’, which can be used metaphorically or to denote a spiritual relationship, and walad, ‘son’ or ‘offspring’, in a more literal sense. It is this latter term which the Qurān employs in the verses just quoted, and the point is appreciated by some Muslim commentators.

Jesus of Nazareth

views updated May 11 2018

Jesus of Nazareth

Born: 4 b.c.e.
Bethlehem, Judea
Died: c. 29 c.e.
Jerusalem, Judea

Judean religious leader

Jesus of Nazareth, also known as Jesus Christ, was the central personality and founder of the Christian faith.

Early years

Jesus first came to general attention at the time of his baptism (religious ritual performed shortly after a child's birth), just prior to his public ministry. He was known to those around him as a carpenter of Nazareth, a town in Galilee, and as the son of Joseph (John 6:42). Matthew and Luke report that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, famous in Jewish history as the city of David. They further report that he was miraculously (something that occurs that cannot be explained by nature's laws) born to the Virgin Mary, although they both curiously trace his kinship to David through Joseph, to whom Mary was engaged. It is likely that Jesus was born not later than 4 b.c.e., the year of King Herod's death. (The term Christ is actually a title, not a proper name; it comes from the Greek Christos, meaning the anointed, or the one chosen by God; in the Bible it is the Greek equivalent for the Hebrew word Messiah.)

Little is known of Jesus' childhood and youth. The letters of Paul are the earliest biblical records that tell about Jesus. But the four biblical Gospels by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, although written later, used sources that in some cases go back very close to the time of Jesus. But about the year 28 or 29 c.e. his life interacted with the career of John the Baptist. Jesus heard John's preaching and joined the crowds for baptism in the Jordan River. Following his baptism Jesus went into the desert for prayer and reflection.

Galilean ministry

Returning from the desert, Jesus began preaching and teaching in Galilee. His initial declaration was both frightening and hopeful. It told people not to cling to the past, that God would overthrow old institutions and ways of life for a wonderful new future. This future would be especially welcomed by the poor, the powerless, and the peacemakers.

Jesus attracted twelve disciples to follow him. They were mainly fishermen and common workers. Of the twelve it seems that Peter, James, and John were closest to Jesus. Peter's home in Capernaum, a city on the Sea of Galilee, became a headquarters from which Jesus and the disciples moved out into the countryside. Sometimes he talked to large crowds, with the twelve to teach only them, or he might go off by himself for long periods of prayer.

The miracles

The records concerning Jesus report many miracles (an event that goes against the laws of nature and has suggested divine influence). For centuries most people in civilizations influenced by the Bible not only believed literally in the miracles but took them as proof that Jesus had supernatural (something that is not normal, possibly with a spiritual influence) power. Then, in an age of reason and distrust, men often doubted the miracles and exposed the reports as dishonest. However, usually the Gospels report the healings as signs of the power of God and His coming kingdom.

Teachings of Jesus

Jesus taught people in small groups or large gatherings; his lessons are reported in friendly conversations or in arguments with those who challenged him. At times he made a particularly vivid comment in the midst of a dramatic incident.

The starting point of Jesus' message, as already noted, was the announcement of the coming of the kingdom of God. Since this kingdom was neither a geographical area nor a system of government, a better translation may be "God's reign" (God being in existence everywhere).

The rest of Jesus' teaching followed from this message about the reign of God. At times he taught in stories or parables that described the kingdom or the behavior of people who acknowledged God's reign. At times he pronounced moral commandments detailing the demands upon men of a loving and righteous God. At times Jesus taught his disciples to pray: the words that he gave them in the Lord's Prayer are often used today.

To some people Jesus was a teacher, or rabbi. The healing ministry did not necessarily change that impression of him because other rabbis were known as healers. But Jesus was a teacher of peculiar power, and he was sometimes thought to be a prophet (a person who tells of things that have been made known to him or her by a divine power).

Passion week

On the day now known as Palm Sunday, Jesus entered Jerusalem, while his disciples and the crowds hailed him as the Son of David, who came in the name of the Lord. The next day Jesus went to the Temple and drove out the money-changers and those who sold pigeons for sacrifices, accusing them of turning "a house of prayer" into a "den of robbers." This act was a direct challenge to the small group of priests who were in charge of the Temple, and they clearly took offense to it. During the following days he entered into disagreements with the priests and teachers of religion. Their anger led them to plot to get rid of him, but they hesitated to do anything in the daytime, since many people were gathered for the feast of Passover (a Jewish religious holiday).

On Thursday night Jesus had a meal with his disciples. This meal is now re-enacted by Christians in the Lord's Supper, the Mass, or the Holy Communion. After the meal Jesus went to the Garden of Gethsemane, where he prayed alone. His prayer shows that he expected a conflict, that he still hoped he might avoid suffering, but he expected to do God's will. There into the garden one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, led the priests and the temple soldiers, who seized Jesus.

That same night Jesus' captors took him to a trial before the temple court, the Sanhedrin. Much evidence indicates that this was an illegal trial, but the Sanhedrin declared that Jesus was a blasphemer (a person who claims to be God or godlike) deserving death. Since at that time only the Roman overlords (supreme lords) could carry out a death sentence, the priests took Jesus to Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea.

Pilate apparently was reluctant to convict Jesus, since it was doubtful Jesus had disobeyed any Roman laws. Jesus, however, represented a threat to both the Sanhedrin and the Romans. Pilate thus ordered the crucifixion of Jesus. Roman soldiers beat him, put a crown of thorns on his head, and mocked him as a false king. Then they took him to the hill Golgotha ("the Skull"), or Calvary, and killed him. Pilate ordered a sign placed above his head: "King of the Jews." Jesus died and that same day (now known as Good Friday) was buried in a cave-like tomb.

The Resurrection

On Sunday morning (now celebrated as Easter), the Gospels report, Jesus rose from the dead and met his disciples. Others immediately rejected the claim of the resurrection, and the debate has continued through the centuries.

The New Testament states very clearly that the risen Christ did not appear to everybody. Among those who saw Jesus were Cephas (Peter), the twelve disciples, "more than five hundred brethren at one time," James, and finally Paul. Other records tell of appearances to Mary Magdalene and other women and of a variety of meetings with the disciples. The four Gospels all say that the tomb of Jesus was empty on Easter morning. None of the records ever tells of an appearance of the risen Christ to anyone who had not been a follower of Jesus or (like Paul) had not been deeply disturbed by him.

The evidence is very clear that the followers of Jesus were absolutely convinced of his resurrection. The experience of the risen Jesus was so overwhelming that it turned their despair into courage. The disciples spread the conviction that he had risen, and they continued to tell their story at the cost of persecution and death. The faith in the resurrection (and later the rising up to the kingdom of God) of Jesus, despite differences in interpretation and detail, is a major reason for the rise and spread of the Christian faith.

For More Information

Crossan, John Dominic. Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography. San Francisco: HarperSan-Francisco, 1994.

Grimbol, William R. The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Life of Christ. Indianapolis: Alpha Books, 2001.

Guardini, Romano. The Lord. Chicago: Regnery, 1954. Reprint, Washington, DC: Regnery, 1996.

Harik, Ramsay M. Jesus of Nazareth: Teacher and Prophet. New York: Franklin Watts, 2001.

Oursler, Fulton. The Greatest Story Ever Told; a Tale of the Greatest Life Ever Lived. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1949. Reprint, Boston: G. K. Hall, 1979.

Pastva, Loretta. Jesus of Nazareth: The Mystery Revealed. Mission Hills, CA: Benziger, 1992.


views updated May 09 2018

79. Christ

See also 80. CHRISTIANITY ; 205. HERESY ; 349. RELIGION ; 392. THEOLOGY .

the 8th-century heretical doctrine that Christ in His human nature was the son of God only by adoption; that in His spiritual nature, however, He was truly Gods son. Also adoptianism . adoptionist , n., adj.
a 4th-century doctrine, considered heretical by orthodox Christian-ity, that Christ was merely the noblest of men and, being of a different sub-stance, was not the son of God. Cf. heteroousianism , psilanthropism . Arian , n., adj. Arianistic, Arianistical , adj.
the teachings of Athanasius, 4th-century bishop of Alexandria, asserting that Christ is of the same substance as God; adopted by the Council of Nicea as orthodox doctrine. Also called homoousianism, homoiousianism . Athanasian , n., adj.
the Calvinist doctrine of the separate existence of God the Son, derived from Calvins assertion that Christ took His person from God, but not His substance. autotheist , n. autotheistic , adj.
the doctrine that Christ will return to the world in a visible form and set up a kingdom to last 1000 years, after which the world will come to an end. chiliast , n. chiliastic , adj.
the branch of theology that studies the personality, attitudes, and life of Christ. Christological , adj.
one or all of Christs appearances to men after the resurrection, as recorded in the Gospels.
the teaching of an early heretical sect asserting that Christs body was not human or material, but celestial in substance. Docetic , adj.
a 5th-century doctrine that Christ had a dual nature, the divine and the human, united perfectly in Him, but not inextricably blended. Cf. Monophysitism . Dyophysite , n. Dyophysitic , adj.
Dyothelitism, Dyotheletism
the doctrine that Christ had two wills, the human and the divine. Cf. Monothelitism . Also Dyothetism . Dyothelite, Dyothelete , n.
Monophysitism. Eutychian , n.
a position in the 4th-century controversy over Christs nature, asserting that He and God were of different natures; Arianism. Also spelled heterousianism . heteroousian , n., adj.
a position in the 4th-century controversy over Christs nature, asserting that He and God were of similar, but not the same, natures; semi-Arianism. Also homoeanism . homoiousian , n., adj.
a position in the 4th-century controversy over Christs nature, asserting that He and God are of the same nature; Athanasianism. homoousian , n., adj.
the theological doctrine that the body and blood of Christ are present in the bread and wine after they are consecrated.
the heretical theory of Julian, 6th-century bishop of Halicarnassus, who took the extreme Monophysite position that Christs human nature had been subsumed in and altered by the divine. Julianist , n.
the theological concept that, through His incarnation, Christ humbled or emptied Himself and became a servant for mans sake. kenosis, kenoticist , n. kenotic , adj.
sayings or maxims attributed to Christ but of which there is no written record or mention in the Gospels. See also 422. WISDOM .
1. the doctrine of Christs 1000-year kingdom.
2. a belief in the millennium; chiliasm. millenarian , n., adj. millenarist , n.
a doctrine that Christ will make a second Advent and that the prophecy in the book of Revelation will be fulfilled with an earthly millennium of peace and righteousness. Also called millenarianism, chiliasm . millennialist , n.
a 5th-century heresy concerning the nature of Christ, asserting that He had only a divine nature or that the human and divine made one composite nature. Cf. Dyophysitism . Monophysite , n., adj. Monophysitic, Monophysitical , adj.
Monothelitism, Monotheletism
a heretical position of the 7th century that Christs human will had been superseded by the divine. Also Monothelism . Monothelite, Monothelete , n. Monothelitic, Monotheletic , adj.
a 5th-century heresy concerning Christs nature, asserting that the human and divine were in harmony but separate and that Mary should be considered the Mother of Christ, not of God. Nestorian , n., adj.
a heretical, monophysitic concept of the 2nd and 3rd centuries that held that, in the Crucifixion, the Father suffered equally with the Son. Patripassian, Patripassianist , n.
a 3rd-century heresy concerning the nature of Christ, denying the divine by asserting that Christ was inspired by God and was not a person in the Trinity. Paulian, Paulianist , n.
a member of an early Christian sect that denied the reality of Christs body.
the doctrine that Christ was merely a human being. Cf. Arianism . psilanthropist , n. psilanthropic , adj.
the study of fabric artifacts, especially the supposed burial shroud of Christ. sindonologist , n.
the doctrine of salvation through Jesus Christ. soteriologic, soteriological , adj.
the condition of being, simultaneously, both god and man. Also theanthropology . theanthropist , n. theanthropic , adj.
the orthodox Christian belief that God exists as the Trinity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Cf. unitarianism . trinitarian , n., adj.
the doctrines of those, including the Unitarian denomination, who hold that God exists only in one person. Cf. trinitarianism . unitarian , n.,adj.


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Title of Jesus of Nazareth. The English word Christ is derived from the Latin Christus Corresponding to the Greek Χριστός (anointed) that the Septuagint regularly used to translate the Hebrew word māšîah, from which the word messiah is derived. In the Old Testament the Israelite king was called māšîa yhwh, "the anointed one of Yahweh" (see anointing). In the last pre-Christian century the expected savior of the Jews, who was regarded as restoring the throne of David, was called simply hammāšîa, "the Anointed One," the Messiah, or in Greek Χριστός. When the disciples of Jesus recognized Him as the promised savior, they proclaimed Him Χριστός, "the Christ" (Mk 8.29; Acts 5.42; 9.22; etc., where the article is as necessary in English as it is in Greek). However, when the Greek-speaking pagans began to be converted to Christianity, the Jewish concept of the Messiah meant little to them, and they understood the word Χριστός as one of the Savior's names, Christ perhaps because it sounded practically the same as the personal name Χρηστός (good, kind). Therefore, in the New Testament Χριστός is often used without the article as the Savior's name, Christ, either alone (Rom 5.6, 8;6.4, 9; etc.) or together with the name jesus, either in the form Christ Jesus (Acts 24.24; Rom 3.24; 6.3; etc.) or, especially, in the form Jesus Christ (Mk 1.1; Jn 1.17; Acts2.38; Rom 1.4, 6, 8; etc.).

Bibliography: r. r. hawthorne, "The Significance of the Name Christ," Bibliotheca Sacra 103 (1946) 215222, 348362, 453463. s. v. mccasland, "Christ Jesus," Journal of Biblical Literature 65 (1946) 377383. Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible, tr. and adap. by l. hartman (New York 1963) 360.

[l. f. hartman]