The Historical Jesus

The historical Jesus is the scholarly reconstruction of the teachings and actions of historical person Jesus of Nazareth. Historical reconstructions are based on academic methods of history, without privileging religious claims about Jesus. The study of the historical Jesus is the studying of Jesus like any other historical person is studied. People of different faiths, or no faith, can study Jesus with similar methodologies, based on academic debate and scholarly peer review.

Although scholars attempt to be as objective as they can, all reconstructions of the historical Jesus are somewhat biased and influenced by the presuppositions of the person making the reconstruction.

Biblical scholars and theologians often make a distinction between the historical Jesus and the Christ of Faith. This distinction is based on the conclusion of mainstream or moderate scholars that the Gospels are not completely historically accurate in reporting the things Jesus said and did. The theological views of the writers of the Gospels influenced they way they portray Jesus. Sometimes gospel writers put their own views in the mouth of Jesus or told stories about Jesus that convey theological truths about Jesus, but are not necessarily based on something Jesus actually said or did.

The gospels are written in the same way other ancient biographies were written. Socrates did not say or do everything that Plato said he did. Plato wrote his own philosophical views, which were largely based on the teachings of Socrates, as if they were the words of Socrates himself. In the ancient world, teachings of a certain school of thought were attributed to the teacher himself. This was a way to honor the teacher by giving credit for students' views to their teacher.

To give another example, if a general was know to lead a certain battle, the ancient biographer or historian would compose a speech that was appropriate for the occasion and include it as the general's speech in the biography or history.

Jesus did not write anything about himself or his religious views. Material in the Gospels could be based on memories of Jesus' followers, oral traditions based on those memories (which were sometimes elaborated upon or interpreted in the storytelling process), and/or interpretations or stories added by the authors of the Gospels.

So What is Historical?

Only the most conservative scholars believe that all the sayings and deeds attributed to Jesus are 100% historically accurate. Scholars generally agree that most of the titles of Jesus (Son of God, Son of Man, Christ/Messiah, Lord, Savior, etc.) were not based of the teaching of Jesus himself, but on theological reflection about him after his death.

There is a consensus among Jesus scholars that he performed healings and exorcisms. Healings and exorcisms can be interpreted as psychosomatic or psychological healings.

Miracles and the supernatural cannot be verified historically, because they require belief in non-natural processes. Taking a miracle to be historical would be to compromise one's objectivity. History works on the principle of analogy: to accept a miracle from one religious tradition, but not others would be special pleading. The principle of analogy means that for an action to be considered historical it needs to be able to be observed objectively and repeatable. Thus, the miracles attributed to Jesus such as walking on water, miraculous feeding, turning water into wine, raising the dead, etc. (called Nature Miracles by scholars) cannot be accepted as historical. Jesus scholars may or may not believe in miracles, but historical method does not allow one to claim miracles as historical.

Scholars agree that the Kingdom of God was the focus of Jesus' teaching and actions, but they disagree about what the Kingdom of God means. Some believe that it refers to God's presence and action in the world, especially through Jesus' ministry. Others believe that the Kingdom of God means God's rule of the world after God defeats evil once and for all.

Who was the Historical Jesus?

The biggest question debated by Jesus scholars is whether or not he held apocalyptic views. The word apocalypse comes the Greek word apokalypsis and means revelation. Apocalyptic has to do the the revelation of what will happen at the end of the world, usually in a dream or vision. Writers of apocalyptic literature claim to reveal how God will defeat evil at the end of the world. This usually involves a war between the angels (who are led by an archangel, the Messiah, or some other Savior figure) against Satan and the demons.

Scholars debate about whether or not Jesus believed that God would intervene in human history in the form of a cosmic war against Satan and the demons, in order to defeat evil once and for all and to establish God's rule on Earth.

Scholars who believe that Jesus held apocalyptic beliefs characterize him as an apocalyptic prophet. In this view Jesus predicted the imminent intervention and judgment of God and warned people to prepare for God's judgment by teaching them how to live according to God's will. These kinds of apocalyptic beliefs included the defeat of the Romans who ruled over the Jewish people and the reestablishment of the Kingdom of Israel ruled by God.

Some of the main scholars who view Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet include E.P. Sanders, John Meier, Paula Fredriksen, Bart Ehrman, Dale Allison, Gerd Ludemann.

Scholars who do not think that Jesus held apocalyptic views usually characterize him as a social prophet, wisdom teacher, and/or charasmatic healer and holy man. These images of Jesus overlap to a considerable extent. For example, Marcus Borg would put Jesus in all three of these categories.

Jesus as a social prophet taught that the religious and political elites in Jerusalem cared more about proper religious observance than the needs of the common people, especially the poor and marginalized. Jesus stands in the tradition of the prophets of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament who proclaimed God's judgment on the religious leaders in Jerusalem who cared more about proper worship in the temple than on the needs of the poor. In this understanding of Jesus, the ministry of Jesus was a kind of social revolution.

Some of the main scholars who characterize Jesus as a social prophet are Richard Horsley, Marcus Borg, and Gerd Theissen.

Jesus as a wisdom teacher taught people that the Kingdom of God was present in the everyday world. He used parables and short sayings to try to get people to experience the world in a new way. He taught people to search for wisdom in the world like the writers of the wisdom literature in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament and in other early Jewish wisdom literature. However, unlike traditional Jewish wisdom teachers, Jesus taught unconventional wisdom. For example, Jesus taught that people who were among the outcasts of society were welcome in God's Kingdom.

Some of the main scholars who portray Jesus as a wisdom teacher are John Dominic Crossan, Robert Funk, Stephen Patterson, Marcus Borg, and the Jesus Seminar.

Some scholars characterize Jesus as a charismatic healer and holy man. In this view, the Kingdom of God comes into the world through Jesus' power to heal and cast out demons. Jesus was similar to other holy men and healers that were active in Galilee roughly contemporary to Jesus' time.

Some of the main scholars who portray Jesus as a charismatic healer and holy man teacher are Geza Vermes, Marcus Borg, and Stevan Davies.

Some more conservative scholars believe that the New Testament Gospels are essentially reliable in the information they provide about Jesus' teachings, actions, and identity. They would characterize Jesus as the Messiah, although Jesus' view of himself as Messiah was different from the usual Jewish expectations about the Messiah and some traditional Christian teaching about Jesus.

Some of the main scholars who portray Jesus as the Messiah are N. T. Wright and James Dunn.

For Further Reading

W. Barnes Tatum, In Quest of Jesus: Revised and Enlarged Edition

  • An overview of the quest for the historical Jesus with descriptions of the major issues and portraits of Jesus.

Mark Allen Powell, Jesus As a Figure in History: How Modern Historians View the Man from Galilee
  • A critical review of the major reconstructions of the historical Jesus and debates among scholars.

Howard Clark Kee, What Can We Know about Jesus? (Understanding Jesus Today)
  • A brief review of the sources for study of the historical Jesus and what they tell us about him.

James H. Charlesworth, The Historical Jesus: An Essential Guide
  • A brief review of the sources, issues, and controversies about Jesus and what we can know about him.

Amy-Jill Levine, Dale C. Allison Jr., and John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus in Context
  • An extensive collection of short essays about the background issues in the study of the historical Jesus (e.g. archeology, the Dead Sea Scrolls, Greco-Roman religions, miracles, Jewish theology, etc.).

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