The Truth About the Historical Jesus

The leading authority on the Dead Sea Scrolls draws a portrait of Jesus the Jew

There are two kinds of truth about Jesus Christ. The first is the Gospel truth. Its veracity is vouchsafed by faith. In the believer’s eyes no contradictions do, or even can, exist in the divinely inspired Gospels. Appearances to the contrary should be ignored or reconciled.

For instance, the Gospel of John gives a historically acceptable account of the condemnation of Jesus: he was arrested a day before Passover and, without the mention of a Passover meal and a formal Jewish court process, he was brought before Pilate, accused of being a revolutionary and sentenced to crucifixion.

In the other Gospels, in a historically unlikely fashion, the arrest of Jesus, followed by a trial by the Jewish Sanhedrin on the charge of blasphemy, took place after the Passover meal (the Last Supper), and Jesus was pronounced guilty on the night of the feast itself. Yet no believing Christian asks how the supreme tribunal of Judaea could try a capital case during one of the major festivals – or, more simply, how the two stories hang together.

The second kind of truth is less certain than faith and is approximated by means of “scientific” historical inquiry. This quest strives to discover the TRUTH, but succeeds in retrieving only morsels of it. The historian’s task is to assemble a monumental jigsaw puzzle of which many parts are still missing. My catchy title for this article promises more than anyone can deliver. A more modest “Towards the truth about the historical Jesus” would be closer to what will follow.

Until the mid-18th century, Gospel truth wholly dominated the Christian world and it has continued to do so in conservative ecclesiastical circles up to the present day. This certainty did not result from the blinding effect that faith exerted on the historical evidence. As early as the second century, divergences among the New Testament records were noted by perspicacious Church fathers and a deliberate attempt was made to harmonise them, producing the so-called Diatessaron, the four Gospels in one. But after some initial success the innovation failed and the traditional four Gospels survived.

Thus later Church fathers were perfectly aware that the two genealogies of Jesus in Matthew and in Luke were incompatible, but they launched the seemingly brilliant idea that Matthew traced the ancestry of Jesus through Joseph, while Luke did so through Mary. They turned a blind eye to the fact that among Jews a genealogy was expected to follow the male line.

The quest for the human figure of Jesus began with Samuel Reimarus in the mid-18th century and has characterised academic Gospel criticism up to the present day. For the first 200 years it was essentially a German academic pursuit, although from the late 19th century onwards there was a smattering of British, French and American contributions. It aimed at the rediscovery of the “historical Jesus” and sought to distinguish him from the “Christ of faith”. Its initial stage ended with the anticlimactic Geschichte der Leben Jesu Forschung (Quest of the Historical Jesus) by Albert Schweit­zer, who in 1906 described the whole process as far too subjective to be worthy of continuation. According to Schweit­zer, each scholar produced a Jesus in his own image and resemblance.

From the 1920s to the 1950s, research into the historical Jesus became rather unfashionable under the influence of Rudolf Bultmann, the great German scholar, and his new literary-­critical school of Formgeschichte or form criticism. In 1926, he advanced the memorable statement that in effect excommunicated Life of Jesus inquiry in the wide academic circles over which he ruled: “We can know almost nothing about the life and personality of Jesus since the early Christian sources show no interest in either”. For Bultmann the setting of the Gospel message was not the life of Jesus; the evangelists were catering for the needs of the nascent church. After a 30-year silence the historical interest was slowly rekindled in Germany; it was shortlived and without noteworthy results.

In the 1970s, for the first time in two centuries, the main scene of activity left Germany. It first moved to England, and soon after to the United States. The principal emphasis lay not on the Hellenistic background of the early church as in form criticism but on the Jewishness of Jesus in the wake of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the renewal of research into post-Biblical Judaism and Flavius Josephus, the Jewish ­historian of the 1st century AD.

The trend is clearly shown by the new titles: Jesus the Jew (1973), Jesus and Judaism (1985), The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (1991); A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus (1991-2001) and Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews: A Jewish Life and the Emergence of Christianity (1999).

Indeed, during the past quarter of a century, in one way or another, the Jewish Jesus has become the dominant figure in New Testament scholarship, pursued by all researchers with or without religious belief.

Now let’s face the main issue. The student investigating the problem of the historical Jesus is confronted with a concatenation of difficulties.

Everyone except the desperately naive knows that the Gospel sources are not strictly historical and postdate the events by decades. The earlier letters of St Paul won’t help as their author never knew, or showed interest in, the Jesus of flesh and blood. The four Gospels, written between some 15 to 55 years after Paul, in the form of biographies, formulate Jesus’s teaching adapted for the needs of the early church.

Moreover, their readers had a Greek linguistic background and a Graeco-Roman cultural background, yet they were to receive a Jewish religious message originally formulated in Aramaic. We are facing the traduttore traditore syndrome.

The historical Jesus can be retrieved only within the context of 1st-century Galilean Judaism. The Gospel image must therefore be inserted into the historical canvas of Palestine in the 1st century AD, with the help of the works of Flavius Josephus, the Dead Sea Scrolls and early rabbinic literature.

Against this background, what kind of picture of Jesus emerges from the Gospels? That of a rural holy man, initially a follower of the movement of repentance launched by another holy man, John the Baptist. In the hamlets and villages of Lower Galilee and the lakeside, Jesus set out to preach the coming of the kingdom of God within the lifetime of his generation and outlined the religious duties his simple listeners were to perform to prepare themselves for the great event.

An eloquent popular preacher, Jesus manifested his spiritual power by exorcisms and healing. His audience remarked that “he taught with authority” – namely, curing the sick and liberating the possessed – and “not as the scribes”, who could only quote the Bible to prove their sayings. His cures consisted in faith-healing: they required trust on the part of the sick. He invited them to believe in his healing power as a man of God. Indeed, he went so far as to identify this faith as the cause of the recovery: “Your faith has made you well,” he reassured a sick woman (Mk 5:34).

In behaving as he did, Jesus conformed to a pattern of charismatic behaviour attested among Jews throughout the ages and down to his own time. The Biblical prophets Elisha, Elijah and Isaiah are credited with miraculous healings and resuscitations. Similar phenomena are ascribed in rabbinic literature to holy men living in the age close to the New ­Testament.

Honi in the 1st century BC and the Galilean Hanina ben Dosa in the 1st century AD were renowned for their miraculous rain-making power; Hanina’s fame also comprised healing, including healing from a distance like Jesus, and general wonderworking. Flavius Josephus (AD 37–c.100) reports not only on thaumaturgists of Old Testament vintage, such as Elisha, but explicitly mentions Honi, whose wondrous intervention ended a disastrous drought shortly before Pompey’s capture of Jerusalem in 63 BC. He also refers to Jesus in the days of Pontius Pilate and calls him a “wise man and performer of astonishing or paradoxical deeds”.

The reliability of Josephus’s notice about Jesus was rejected by many in the 19th and early 20th centuries, but it has been judged partly genuine and partly falsified by the majority of more recent critics. The Jesus portrait of Josephus, drawn by an uninvolved witness, stands halfway between the fully sympathetic picture of early Christianity and the wholly antipathetic image of the magician of Talmudic and post-Talmudic Jewish literature. “Wise man” and “performer of paradoxical deeds” are genuinely Josephan phrases that no Christian interpolator would have found potent enough to describe the divinised Christ of the later church.

The contour of the historical Jesus, lifted from the Synoptic Gospels, suggests a magnetic prophetic figure who was convinced that the aim of his mission was to bring his repentant Jewish followers into God’s new realm. This kingdom of heaven was foreseen in many of Jesus’s parables as the outcome of a quiet and imperceptible change rather than a cataclysmic transformation in the not too distant future. It would seem, according to the evangelists, that Jesus considered himself, and his well-disposed contemporaries depicted him, along such prophetic-charismatic lines.

For example, Jesus explains his rejection by his family and fellow citizens of Nazareth by the well-known saying that at home no one is recognised as a prophet. He was also regularly alluded to by non-local contemporaries as the great prophet from Nazareth. In the anecdote of Caesarea Philippi, Peter’s answer to Jesus’s question, “Who do men say that I am?”, follows a similar turn. Jesus, Peter said, was believed to be a prophet, or the returning Elijah or John the Baptist revived.

But when pressed to reveal what the circle of disciples thought of Jesus, Peter confessed, according to Mark, that he was the Messiah, or, according to Matthew, the Messiah, with the added synonym of “the Son of the living God”. The latter phrase was understood in Gentile-Christian theology as a move towards the recognition of the divine status of Jesus.

In the course of my research that led to the writing of Jesus the Jew, it was impossible not to notice that church tradition tended to attribute the maximum of significance to the honorific titles applied to Jesus by the evangelists. I decided therefore to set up a quasi-­scientific experiment. I said to myself: let’s try to establish the correlation between the features of the Jesus portrait of the Gospels and the meaning of the designations such as “Messiah”, “Lord” and “Son of God” in the mind of the contemporaries of Jesus.

To achieve this, we must forget the Greek understanding of the terms by the Gentile readers of the Gospel; get rid of 2,000 years of superimposed Christian interpretation of the New Testament, and switch instead the searchlight on Jesus’s Aramaic-speaking Jewish audience on the shore of the Lake of Galilee. What was the original meaning of the message and what did the original addressees make of it?

To start with “the Messiah”, the Greek Christos, if a pollster had interrogated the men in the street in Palestine two millennia ago, asking for a definition of “Messiah”, he would have heard people mumbling about the greatest Jewish king, who would defeat the Romans. The more religiously minded would have added that the Messiah would also be just and holy, and would subject all the nations to Israel and to God. In more peripheral circles, such as the Dead Sea sect, several Messiahs were expected, one royal, one priestly and possibly one prophetic.

But even the don’t-knows would have had an idea about the messianic age, filled chock-a-block with miraculous events. According to the words put into the mouth of Jesus, this would be the time when “The blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear?.?.?.” (Mt 11:5).

Did Jesus present himself or did the evangelists portray him as a warlike royal pretender? The answer must be no. Jesus always forbade his disciples to proclaim him the Messiah, and when confronted with the question “Are you the Christ?”, his regular reply was evasively negative: “That’s what you call me,” he kept on saying, “not I.”

By contrast, the non-­bellicose wonderworking figure standing in the shadow of the messianic age fits him perfectly. It tallies with the picture of the Galilean healer, exorcist and preacher so prominent in the Gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke. In his answer to the question of John the Baptist whether he was the one who was to come, Jesus simply pointed to the events surrounding him: the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk, the lepers are healed (Mt 11; Lk 7:22).

The title “Lord”, Kyrios in Greek, carried high associations at this time. It pointed to the emperor, the Lord Caesar, whose Latin epithet was “divine”, as in divus Augustus. In turn, among Greek-speaking Jews, whose Bible the early church appropriated, Kyrios (Lord) was the regular substitute for the Hebrew four-lettered sacred and secret name of God. Quite naturally, in the Gospel read in the Greek churches, “the Lord Christ” (Kyrios Christos) promptly acquired divine flavour. By contrast, in Jewish circles, with an infinite gap between the divine and the human reality, such a combination was well-nigh inconceivable.

Beside Caesar and God, what other meanings did the title “Lord” possess? What did the Galileans imply when they addressed Jesus as “Lord”, or Mar in Aramaic? The title, reminiscent of “Sir” in English, could refer to a variety of persons: to a secular dignitary, to the head of the family, to an authoritative teacher, to a prophet and to a miracle-worker. The last three nuances perfectly suit the Jesus portrait of the Synoptic Gospels.

Finally, the appellation “Son of God”, the title in the Hellenistic world of the deified Roman emperor and synonymous with God in early Christianity, is nowhere attested in that sense in Judaism. It is, however, capable of carrying at least five other meanings. It can designate an angel in the superhuman world. In the terrestrial domain, each Jew was entitled to call himself “son of God”. But the term underwent a series of restrictive interpretations. In the post-exilic age only the Jews whose heart was circumcised and filled with holy spirit were allotted that name. Also, both the Bible and the Dead Sea Scrolls assign filial status to the Messiah, metaphorically the son of the living God. Moreover, some charismatic contemporaries of Jesus were referred to as sons of God. For example, Honi, who managed to produce rain by pestering God, was compared to a son importuning his long-suffering and loving father.

Finally, there is the image of the divine voice from heaven proclaiming someone the “son of God”. This is reported about the Galilean Hanina ben Dosa. Both sayings indicate that in Jewish parlance “son of God” implies divine favour rather than the sharing of the divine nature.

To recapitulate, the philological, literary and historical analysis of the Semitic meaning of Jesus’s titles corroborates his image as it emerges from the Synoptic Gospels. Hence the only reasonable conclusion to draw from a combined study of the Gospel picture and the honorific titles is that the historical Jesus was a Galilean charismatic whose aim was to conduct his repentant Palestinian Jewish contemporaries into the spiritual realm called the Kingdom of God through preaching, healing and exorcising.

Traditional Christianity does not stop at this portrait of the human Jesus, but overlays it with the majestic image of the Christ of faith arising from the mystical meditations of Paul and John and the Hellenistic philosophy of the Greek Church Fathers.

In a nutshell, Jesus’s preaching was centred on God, the heavenly Father, on the dignity of all human beings as children of God, on life turned into worship by total trust, on an overwhelming sense of urgency to do one’s duty without procrastination, on the sanctification of the here and now, and above all on the love of God through the love of one’s neighbour.

To conclude, because of the cross, the task of Jesus remained unfinished. Yet despite the apparent failure of his mission, his magnetic impact was so profound that, instead of abandoning the cause, his disciples began to look forward to his imminent second coming. When by the mid-2nd century Jesus failed to return, Jewish Christianity progressively faded away, while St Paul’s Gentile church survived and after Constantine set out to flourish – albeit in a form that I believe would have perplexed Jesus the Jew.

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