In this section Mark Goodacre, Senior Lecturer in New Testament at the University of Birmingham, gives a brief biography of Jesus.
We know more about Jesus than we know about many ancient historical figures, a remarkable fact given the modesty of his upbringing and the humility of his death. Jesus did not grow up in one of the great cities of the ancient world like Rome or even Jerusalem but lived in a Galilean village called Nazareth. He died an appalling, humiliating death by crucifixion, reserved by the Romans for the most contemptible criminals.
That such a person could have become so significant in world history is remarkable. But how much can we know with certainty about the Jesus of history? How reliable are the New Testament accounts about him? Opinions vary widely among scholars and students of the Bible.
Gospel accountsMap of the locations in Jesus's story
Our most important resource for the study of Jesus, though, is the literature of early Christianity and especially the Gospels. In order to understand them, it is important to realise that the Gospels are not biographies in the modern sense of that word and they often have gaps at just the points where we would like to know more.
They are books with a message, an announcement. They are, for want of a better word, propaganda for the cause of early Christianity. This is why they are called Gospels - a word derived from the old Anglo-Saxon word God spell, from the Greek evangelion: 'good news'. John's Gospel provides a clear example of how the Gospel writers, or evangelists, were thinking about their task.
The Gospel is written not simply to provide information about Jesus but in order to engender faith in him as Messiah and Son of God. This purpose is reflected throughout the Gospels, which are all about the twin themes of Jesus' identity and his work. For the Gospel writers, Jesus was the Messiah who came not only to heal and deliver, but also to suffer and die for people's sins.
If it is important to realise, however, that while the Gospels are similar in purpose, there are some radical differences in content. Most importantly, John differs substantially from the other three, Matthew, Mark and Luke (the Synoptic Gospels).
Who Jesus is
Given the similarities in wording and order between the Synoptic Gospels, it is certain that there is some kind of literary link between them. It is usually thought that Mark was the first Gospel to have been written, most likely in the late 60s of the first century AD, at the time of the Jewish war with Rome. It is unparalleled in its urgency, both in its breathless style and in its conviction that Christians were living in the end days, with the kingdom of God about to dawn.
Unlike Matthew and Luke, Mark does not even have time to include a birth narrative. Instead, he starts with a simple declaration that this is 'The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ.' (Mark 1.1). The name Jesus is actually the same name as Joshua in the Old Testament (one is Greek, one is Hebrew) and it means 'God saves'.
It is worth thinking also about the word Christ. This is not Jesus' surname. The Greek-derived Christ is the same word as the Hebrew Messiah and it means Anointed One. In the Old Testament, it is the word used for both priests and kings who were anointed to their office (just as David was anointed by Samuel as King of Israel); it means someone specially appointed by God for a task. By the time that Jesus was on the scene, many Jews were expecting the ultimate Messiah, perhaps a priest, a king or even a military figure, one who was specially anointed by God to intervene decisively to change history.
While the Gospels clearly depict Jesus as having a special relationship with God, do they actually affirm what Christianity later explicitly affirmed, that Jesus is God incarnate, God become flesh? The evidence points in different directions. Mark, the earliest of the four, certainly believes that Jesus is God's Son, but he also includes this extraordinary passage:
Jesus appears to be distancing himself from God; it is a passage that at least puts a question mark over the idea that Mark would have accepted the doctrine of the incarnation. But the Gospels differ on this point as they do on several others. John, usually thought to be the latest of the four, is the most forthright. He speaks of the role played by the "Word" in creating and sustaining the world in a passage echoing the very beginning of the Bible, in Genesis:
If John's Gospel provides the clearest indication of early Christian belief in the incarnation, it is at least clear that the other Gospels believe that in Jesus God is present with his people in a new and decisive way. Right at the beginning of Matthew's Gospel, before Jesus has been born, we are told:
What Jesus did
The Gospels narrate the story of how God's relationship with human beings manifested itself in Jesus' life and death. These books are therefore not just about Jesus' identity (who Jesus is) but also about his work (what Jesus did). There are three key areas of Jesus' activity, his healing, his preaching and his suffering.
Whatever one thinks about the historicity of the events described in the Gospels, and there are many different views, one thing is not in doubt: Jesus had an overwhelming impact on those around him. The Gospels speak regularly of huge crowds following Jesus. Perhaps they gathered because of his reputation as a healer. Perhaps they gathered because of his ability as a teacher. Whatever the cause, it seems likely that the authorities' fear of the crowd was a major factor leading to Jesus' crucifixion. In a world where there was no democracy, mobs represented a far greater threat to the Romans' rule than anything else.
Yet in spite of Jesus' popularity during his lifetime, the early Christian movement after Jesus' death was only a small group with a tiny power base in Jerusalem, a handful of Jesus' closest followers who stayed loyal to Jesus' legacy because they were convinced that Jesus was the Messiah, that he had died for everyone's sins, and that he was raised from the dead. It was a movement that received its greatest boost when the most unlikely figure joined it, the apostle Paul.
Gospels and Christology
The GospelsReverend Dr Richard Burridge, Dean of King's College London and Lecturer in New Testament Studies ©
The Gospels are a form of ancient biography and are very short. They take about an hour and a half, two hours to read out loud. They're not what we understand modern biography to be: the great life and times of somebody in multi volume works. They've got between ten and twenty thousand words and ancient biography doesn't waste time on great background details about where the person went to school or all the psychological upbringing that we now look for in our kind of post-Freudian age.
They tend to go straight to the person's arrival on the public scene, often 20 or 30 years into their lives, and then look at the two or three big key things that they did or the big two or three key ideas. They'll also spend quite a lot of time concentrating on the actual death because the ancients believe that you couldn't sum up a person's life until you saw how they died. In their death, very often, they would die as they lived and then they would conclude with the events after the death - very often on dreams or visions about the person and what happened to their ideas afterwards.
The four gospels are four angles on one person and in the four gospels there are four angles on the one Jesus. It was a wonderful insight of the early Fathers, guided by the spirit of God, who recognised that these four pictures all reflect upon the same person. It's like walking into a portrait gallery and seeing four portraits, say, of Winston Churchill: the statesman or the war leader or the Prime Minister or the painter or the family man.
Of course we actually have to do all sorts of historical critical analysis and try to get back to what this tells us about the historical Jesus. It also shows us the way in which the early church tried to make that one Jesus relevant and to apply him to the needs of their own people of that day, whether they were Jews as in Matthew's case or Gentiles as in Luke's case and so on. And so those four portraits give us a challenge and a stimulus today to actually try to work out how we can actually tell that story of the one Jesus in different ways that are relevant for the needs of people today.
Reverend Dr Richard Burridge, Dean of King's College London and Lecturer in New Testament Studies
ChristologyBen Witherington, Professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky ©
Christology is literally 'words about the Christ.' It refers to perspectives on Jesus that indicate he was more than a mere mortal. Christology can involve the humanity of Jesus, but there is often a special focus on the fact that he is more than merely a mortal person, he is divine in some way and in some sense the different gospel writers come at this somewhat differently. The synoptics - Matthew, Mark and Luke - have more a similar point of view than what you find in the Gospel of John which stands apart and alone. But none the less, they are all interested in this matter, they are certainly interested in what we would call Christology.
The Gospel of Mark, the earliest gospel, begins 'This is the good news about Jesus the Christ the son of God'. Right from the very outset of this gospel he is presenting a particular theological interpretation of Jesus as the Messiah, as the divine son of God and he is going to pursue that agenda throughout his gospel and reveal those truths about him. In Mark, at the the climax of the first part of the ministry and Peter stands up and says, 'you are the Christ, the son of God'.
There's certainly a Christological agenda in all these books, even in the earliest gospel. There really isn't a non-Christological Jesus to be found under any of the rocks in the gospel; so thoroughly are our gospel writers concerned about that issue, that the portraits in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are all Christological through and through.
Ben Witherington, Professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky
Jesus' understanding of himself
It's difficult to know how much of what's written in the Gospels is an insight into how Jesus saw himself and how much is comment of other people as to how they saw Jesus. In John's gospel for example, there are many 'I am' sayings: 'I am the light of the world', 'I am the good shepherd', 'I am the bread', 'I am the vine'. These phrases, if they came from the lips of Jesus, don't tell us a great deal about his spiritual biography, but tell us more about his purpose and they kind of hang with you and you have to think them through.
What does it mean that Jesus is the shepherd, what does it mean that Jesus is the light, what does it mean that Jesus is the bread of life? And you have to kind of puzzle over them. I don't think Jesus was interested in giving a great deal of information about himself. I mean, Jesus said that whoever saw him, saw the Father. But I don't think he was very interested in padding that out; his mission was more to redeem people, to love people into goodness, to save people from the distress and errors of their ways and he doesn't make a big issue about himself.
There's that whole thing in the gospels of Matthew and Mark about how he's very wary of people nailing him as the Messiah. He does that sometimes because I think he wants to approach everybody on an equal basis, if he comes with his entourage and a lot of hype about himself, he'll not be able to relate to folk, they'll stand in awe of him rather than relate to him.
Reverend John Bell, leader in the Iona Community and minister of the Church of Scotland
I think Jesus thought of himself very much as a healer - he saw healing as a key to his work and presumably this arose because he just found out he was able to do it. A lot of Jews in this period would have prayed for people for healing and Jesus must have done this and found that actually he was rather good at it and he had a real reputation for healing and that might have led him to Old Testament scriptures like Isaiah 35, that talks about healing in end days - maybe he thought that that was a sign that the end of days was on its way.
Did Jesus think of himself as a teacher? Probably he did. Nobody spends that much time standing up and teaching crowds of people such words that have stuck with us for centuries. Even people like Gandhi were inspired by it so it's not just Christians that are inspired by that. But I think if we limit Jesus to purely teaching and healing than we don't get the full measure of him.
I think he would also have seen himself as a prophet. There are real signs that he sees himself in continuity with Old Testament prophets and just as Old Testament prophets were persecuted and suffered, Jesus thought that was likely to be his end too. He saw himself as following a line of prophets that had suffered for what they believed and sometimes even suffered from the hands of their own people as well as from others.
The big question about Jesus is: did Jesus think of himself as Messiah, did he believe he was the distinctive person that had a really pivotal role to play in God's plan? Scholars are divided about this. I personally think that Jesus did think of himself as a Messiah, he did think that God had specifically anointed him to do his work and that he had a special task for him to do. He also was convinced that he had to suffer as part of God's plan and this caused controversy with his disciples. It seems that Jesus wanted to push the idea that he was going to suffer and his disciples were really worried about this idea, probably expecting Jesus either to be some sort of priestly Messiah or some sort of warrior Messiah but certainly not a Messiah that would end up on a cross. They saw this as hugely problematic and a lot of Christians said for years afterwards that this was still a stumbling block to many people, a scandal - the idea that the Jewish Messiah could be crucified. This just didn't make sense to a lot of people.
Mark Goodacre, Senior Lecturer in New Testament, University of Birmingham
Jesus - an audio journey
Edward Stourton presents a journey in the footsteps of Jesus. Four programmes, showing four completely different understandings of Jesus, explore the man, his image and his message.Galilee
Jesus the Jew
This first episode looks at the essentials of what can really be said about Jesus with any degree of historical certainty and places him in the context of the wandering charismatics and faith healers who were about at the time.
It also explores how his Jewish roots were gradually airbrushed out of theology, culminating in Nazi theologians who produced a Bible excised of all references to Judaism and who portrayed Jesus as an Aryan.
Jesus the God
With the crucifixion we move from the historical Jesus to the Christ of faith. But how aware was Jesus of his destiny? And at what point does Jesus the Messiah break away from his Jewish roots?
Jesus the King
When the Roman Emperor Constantine had a vision of Jesus just before his victorious battle for Rome it was arguably one of the most important moments in the history of the West.
It was the start of the process whereby Christianity would go from a persecuted minority to the official religion of the largest Empire the world had seen. But how did that change Jesus and His message?
Jesus the Guru
This final journey in the footsteps of Jesus reaches what could be one of the oldest Christian communities in the world; in Kerala on the southwest coast of India, where in around 52AD the Apostle Thomas is said to have landed with the news of the Gospel.
But it's also the place where the Jesus who is so much a part of European culture meets new worlds and new cultures and where the belief that he has a message for all humanity is really tested.
Apart from being an inspirational leader and teacher, the Gospels describe many miraculous feats performed by Jesus. They can sound unbelievable today, but what would they have meant to first-century Jews?
The raising of the widow's son
The miracle of the raising of the widow's son takes place in the village of Nain in Galilee. Jesus arrives in Nain on the occasion of a funeral when he is approached by a widow whose only son has died. When Jesus brings the man back to life the crowd are astonished, but what delights them more than this triumph over death is the meaning of the miracle.
The miracle reminds them of the great Jewish prophet Elijah who, eight centuries earlier, had also raised the only son of a widow in a town in Galilee. Elijah was famous as a miracle worker and as a prophet who rebuked those Jews who under the influence of pagan idolatry had strayed from devotion to God. Elijah never died - he was transported to heaven in a chariot of fire.
The parallels between Jesus and Elijah were hugely significant. At the time the Jews were longing for an end to Roman oppression and the return of the kingdom of God - a new age in which peace, freedom, righteousness, faithfulness and the rule of God would prevail. The first stage in that road to salvation was the arrival of a prophet who - like Elijah - would rail against sin. Maybe Jesus was that prophet - maybe even a reincarnation of Elijah?
The Gospels repeatedly make the link between Jesus and Elijah:
Clearly though, the Gospel writers believed Jesus was more than a prophet. In Matthew 17:10-13 (and Mark 9:12-13), just after the transfiguration,
The resonances between Jesus and Elijah would have been striking to first century Jews and to Christians familiar with the Old Testament. But as Christianity spread into the Roman Empire, the miracle of the raising of the widow's son acquired other meanings. The most important is that it prefigured Jesus' own resurrection. In fact the miracle in Nain is one of three times when Jesus raises the dead. He also raises Jairus' daughter (Matthew 9:18-25, Mark 5:22-42, Luke 8:41-56) and his friend Lazarus (John 11:1-44). But there was a key difference between these miracles and the resurrection of Jesus. The widow's son, Jairus' daughter and Lazarus were resuscitated or revived: they would eventually die again. Jesus on the other hand would live forever. His resurrection entailed a complete transformation in his body and spirit, a complete victory over death.
The feeding of the 5,000Jesus feeds the multitudes from a few loaves and fishes
When Jesus arrives in a deserted and remote area to preach to a crowd of 5000, he is told that the people are hungry. They discuss whether to go back to the villages to get food, but it's getting late, so instead Jesus asks the disciples to order the crowd to sit in groups of fifties and hundreds, and to gather what food is available. All they manage to collect is five loaves and two fishes. But Jesus works a miracle and there is enough to feed the multitude, so much so there are twelve basketfuls of leftovers.
The ancient meaning of this miracle would have been clear to the disciples and the crowd. Jesus had acted like Moses, the father of the Jewish faith. In every respect, the miracle echoed Moses and his miracle in the Sinai wilderness when he fed the multitude of Hebrews. Moses had left Ramesses on the fertile lands of the Nile Delta, crossed a sea - the Red Sea - and headed east towards a deserted area - the Sinai wilderness. Jesus had left Bethesda on the fertile lands of the Jordan Delta, crossed a sea - the Sea of Galilee - and headed east towards a deserted and remote area - the Golan Heights on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee. When Jesus orders the crowd to sit in fifties and hundreds he is echoing Moses the general who often ordered the Hebrews to sit in squares of fifty and one hundred. In the Sinai, Moses fed a multitude with quails and manna, the bread of heaven; in the Golan Heights Jesus fed a multitude with fish and bread. In both miracles there were basketfuls of leftovers.
To first-century Jews the miracle of the loaves and fishes signalled that Jesus was like Moses. The reason is that in Jewish minds, Moses was a role model for the Messiah. The Jews were praying for a saviour to come and free them from foreign oppression. They believed he would be someone like Moses who had freed the Israelites from Egyptian slavery. Maybe Jesus was the leader they were waiting for? The crowd certainly thought so - after the miracle, the crowd try to crown Jesus king of the Jews there and then.
Walking on waterJesus walked across the surface of the sea
After the miracle of the loaves and fishes, Jesus tells the disciples to head back to the fishing village of Bethsaida whilst he retires to the mountain to pray on his own. Later that night, the disciples are crossing the sea of Galilee and making little progress against the strong wind when they suddenly see Jesus walking on the water. At first they think it's a ghost, but Jesus reassures them, telling them - 'Take heart, it is I! Do not be afraid!' Then Jesus joins the disciples on the boat.
The miracle of the walking on water is best understood in the context of the previous miracle. The feeding of the 5000 would have reminded the disciples of Moses and the Exodus. The miracle of the walking on water would have reminded them of the climax to the Exodus - Joshua and the conquest of the land of Canaan. After wandering for 40 years in the wilderness Moses led the Israelites to the eastern shores of the river Jordan to prepare for the conquest. But Moses died on Mt Nebo before he could begin the invasion. His mission was accomplished by his right man Joshua.
Jesus' miracle of the walking on water would have reminded the disciples of Joshua. Like Joshua, Jesus was crossing waters. Ahead of Joshua was the Ark of the Covenant with the Ten Commandments carried by twelve priests. That scene was inverted and echoed on the Sea of Galilee; ahead of Jesus was a different kind of ark - the wooden boat, carrying the twelve disciples. But the biggest similarity between the two was in their names: Jesus is the Latin for the Hebrew name Joshua.
In the Jewish mindset of the time, Joshua was another role model for the Messiah - the flipside of Moses. Whereas Moses had freed the Israelites from oppression, it was Joshua who had finished the job by conquering the Promised Land for them. At the time of Jesus, the Jews were looking for a Messiah would not only free them from foreign oppression (as Moses had done), but someone who would also reclaim Judea and Galilee and restore it to the rule of God. In both the miracles of the loaves and fishes and the walking on water, Jesus seemed to fit the bill perfectly.
But the miracle of the walking on water had many other meanings, especially in that difficult period from the middle of the first century onwards when early Christianity faced hostility and persecution from Imperial tyrants. The sea miracle functioned as a metaphor for the precarious situation in which Christian churches found themselves - especially in Rome. To many Christians the Church must have felt like the fishing boat on the sea of Galilee, buffeted by strong winds and rocked by the waves. They must also have felt that Jesus had left them alone on the boat to fend for themselves. At best he was a ghostly appearance. But the message of the miracle is that they should 'take heart' and not be 'afraid': Jesus had not abandoned them, he was with them. It was a message which helped Christians endure persecution through the centuries.
The wedding at Cana
Jesus and his mother Mary are invited to a wedding in the Galilean town of Cana. Jewish wedding feasts lasted all week and everyone in the village was invited, so it's not surprising that the hosts' wine is said to run out. Jesus asks one of the servants to fill the large water jars with water, and soon there is plenty of wine again.
The miracle would have carried many messages. When the Jewish scriptures looked forward to the kingdom of God, they used a number of metaphors to describe it. One of the most frequently used images is that of a marriage. The Book of Isaiah says:
Another key image is that of a banquet overflowing with a superabundance of wine.
Healings and exorcismsJesus cast demons out of a man
The Gospels contain records of over 35 miracles and of these the majority were healings of the lame, the deaf and the blind, exorcism of those possessed by demons.
The meaning of the healings and exorcisms is best understood against the background of Jewish purity laws which stipulated that those deemed impure could not enter the sacred precinct of the Temple in Jerusalem to make their sacrifice to God. The Jewish scriptures tell us that the impure included the lame, the sick, the blind and those possessed by demons. By implication, such people could not under Jewish law enter the Kingdom of God.
In healing the sick and casting out demons Jesus was sending a powerful signal - that they were now able to fulfill their obligations as Jews, and by implication that they were now entitled to enter the Kingdom of God. The fact that the cures are done by Jesus himself carried a further layer of meaning - that Jesus had the authority to decide who could enter the Kingdom of God. This becomes explicit in the healing of the paralysed man in Capernaum. Jesus heals the man by forgiving his sin - an act that would have been considered a blasphemy by Jews: only God had the authority to forgive sins. By forgiving sins Jesus was acting with an authority that the Jews believed only God possessed.
In the healing of the Syro-Phoenician woman's daughter Jesus goes a step further and effectively signals that Gentiles too are eligible to enter the Kingdom of God. Authors have applied this first-century meaning of the miracle to modern life.
The stilling of the storm
Jesus and the disciples were on one of their many trips on the Sea of Galilee, when the Gospels say they were hit by an unexpected and violent storm. The disciples were struggling for their lives. But by comparison Jesus' reaction is bewildering. He's said to have been asleep. And when awoken, his response couldn't have been less reassuring. "Why are you afraid, O men of little faith?"
But what the disciples didn't know was that they were about to receive help in a way they could never have imagined. Jesus stood up and rebuked the wind and sea. The disciples must have wondered who on earth Jesus was: this man who appeared able to control the elements. But just as with other miracles, what amazed them wasn't what Jesus did, it was what it revealed about his identity. They would have known the ancient Jewish prophecies which said very clearly, there was only one person who had the power to control the stormy seas - God.
One passage from the Book of the Psalms recalls an occasion where God had shown his power to save his people from distress in exactly the same way as Jesus had on the Sea of Galilee - by stilling a storm. The similarities wouldn't have been lost on the disciples. Jesus' actions seemed to suggest that he had the power of God himself.
Later in the century this miracle took on a new meaning - a meaning that would resonate down the centuries. The Gospel writers saw that the miracles could speak directly to the Christians suffering persecution in Rome. Like that boat in peril, the Christians in Rome might well have feared that their Church was in danger of sinking. And like Jesus asleep on the boat, they might have worried that Jesus had forgotten them. But the message of the evangelists was this: if they had faith in Jesus, he would not abandon them; he could calm the storm on the Sea of Galilee or in Rome.
The ResurrectionJesus was executed by crucifixion
The belief that Jesus had been raised from the dead became the foundation of the early Christian Church. What the early Christians made of the resurrection can be gleaned from the letters of St Paul, the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles. It is a complex picture: did the early Christians believe that Jesus had undergone a spiritual or physical resurrection? The earliest sources are the letters of St Paul. His belief in the resurrection of Jesus is based on a vision of the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus. Like the letters of St Paul, the Gospel writers also report appearances of Jesus to the disciples. But the evangelists also report the story of the empty tomb - the discovery of the disappearance of the corpse of Jesus from his tomb on the third day after his crucifixion. The clear implication from this account is that the early Christians took Jesus to have been physically raised from the dead.
That in itself would have been hailed as a miracle. But a series of religious experiences convinced the early Christians that the resurrection meant much more than that. First, Jesus was the divine son of God. The Acts of the Apostles reports that during the feast of Pentecost the disciples were gathered together when they heard a loud noise like a wind from heaven, and saw tongues of fire descend on them. The Bible says they were filled with the Holy Spirit - and they took that as a sign that Jesus had been resurrected by God. The experience brought about a sudden and powerful transformation in the disciples. Until then Jesus had been a memory. Now for the first time Jesus became the focus of something unprecedented. A new faith flickered into life, a faith that worshipped Jesus as the son of God.
Another meaning attached to the miracle of the resurrection is that it conferred eternal life to Christians. At the time Jews believed that there would be an after-life - but only at the very end of time. Some Jews believed that at the last judgement the dead would be resurrected, and that it would begin in the cemetery on the Mt of Olives, which overlooks Jerusalem. But the dead would have to wait an eternity before they could taste resurrection. The resurrection of Jesus changed everything. There was no need to wait for the last judgement. If Jesus could conquer death so could others. All one had to do is commit completely to Jesus and follow his path. This would be the new way to an eternal life.
This meaning gave the early Christians - and Christians throughout history - the strength to endure suffering. The Romans executed thousands of Christian martyrs but the resurrection of Jesus gave people renewed hope. If his resurrection signified victory over death - if it meant eternal life - then death could hold no terror. Because of what the resurrection symbolised, Christian martyrs like St Peter and St Paul were fearless in the face of such persecution.
Evidence for the Resurrection
In this 2002 broadcast Dr Mark Goodacre, Senior Lecturer in New Testament at the University of Birmingham, and Dr Ed Kessler, executive director of the centre for Jewish-Christian Relations at Cambridge, discussed the historical evidence concerning the resurrection of Jesus with Prof Daryl Schmidt (now deceased), former Professor of New Testament at Texas Christian University and Fellow of the Jesus Seminar.
In 2008 Professor Gary Habermas, one of the USA's most respected philosophers, gave an interview to the Today Programme on BBC Radio 4. He talks about his claim that there's historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus.
The Crucified God, Jurgen Moltmann and Richard Bauckham, pub. SCM Classics (2001)
The gospels and Jesus, Graham N Stanton, pub. OUP (2002)
The Muslim Jesus: Sayings and Stories in Islamic literature, Tarif Khalidi, pub. Harvard University Press (2001)
The parables of Jesus, Joachim Jeremias, pub. SCM Press (2003)
The new illustrated companion to the Bible: Old Testament, New Testament, the life of Jesus, Early Christianity, Jesus in Art, J R Porter, pub. Duncan Baird Publishers (2003)
The historical figure of Jesus, E P Sanders, pub Penguin (1995)
Introduction to New Testament Christology, Raymond E, SS Brown, pub. Continuum International Publishing Group (1994)
The shadow of the Galilean, Gerd Theissen and James D G Dunn, pub. SCM Press (2001)
The Changing Faces of Jesus
by Geza Vermes
Viking/Compass, 324 pp., $25.95
Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews: A Jewish Life and the Emergence of Christianity
by Paula Fredriksen
Vintage, 352 pp., $14.00 (paper)
For almost one hundred years scholars have used the term “the quest of the historical Jesus” to refer to the academic effort to recover what can be known of Jesus of Nazareth, who lived in Jewish Palestine approximately between 4 BCE and 30 CE. The quest itself is more than two hundred years old, and it continues today as one of the main topics of New Testament research. Its basic assumption is that the Jesus of history, as a result of theological development, became the Christ of faith, the second person of the Trinity, but that an unadorned Jesus may be found behind or beneath early Christian literature.
The principal sources for information about the historical Jesus are the first three gospels in the New Testament—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—which are called “synoptic” because they can be studied in parallel columns in a book called a “synopsis.” John, the fourth gospel, is important theologically but contributes less to knowledge of the Jesus of history. Gospels outside the New Testament, some of which, especially the Gospel of Thomas, have recently attracted attention, are more remote from first-century Jewish Palestine and consequently are of little use in the study of the historical Jesus.1
The four gospels share common features, but each is quite distinctive. When, around 150 CE, the idea arose that Christians should have their own sacred literature in addition to the Scripture that they inherited from Judaism (which therefore had to become the “Old Testament”), there was con-siderable debate about the gospels. Many of the competing Christian groups were characterized by the number of gospels that they accepted. Irenaeus, the chief early spokesman for the party that won, emphasized that there must be four and only four true gospels. He noted that there were substantial differences. John teaches Jesus’ heavenly origin; Luke demonstrates his priestly character; Matthew is the gospel of his humanity; Mark’s cursory narrative emphasizes Jesus’ prophetic nature.2 Instead of inspiring a search for the most accurate account of Jesus the man, the differences among the gospels led Irenaeus to insist that all four had to be read together in order to obtain a true picture of Jesus as man, prophet, priest, and Son of God. The Church canonized as sacred Scripture four somewhat different books, but it did not agree on a single portrait of the man who taught in Galilee and who was executed outside the walls of Jerusalem.
During the first centuries of the Church’s existence, in addition to forming a new canon of sacred books, its leaders produced creeds, which presented summaries of what Christians should believe. The decisive statement about Jesus was the formulation of the council that took place in 451 CE at Chalcedon outside Constantinople. It decreed that Christians should believe that he was truly human (“like us in all respects, apart from sin”) and truly divine (“of one essence with the Father”). Moreover, each of the two essences was entirely true to its own character; neither altered the other. The winning party at the council intended to exclude several alternative positions that had become popular: that Jesus was not really human, that he was not really divine, and that he was half-and-half. The approved doctrine (100 percent human and 100 percent divine), which eventually became orthodox in the West and in most churches in the East, established official “Christology,” the way in which the person of Jesus should be regarded.
In the text of the Chalcedonian definition, two phrases are based on the Gospel of John, but the language otherwise corresponds to the desire to work out Christology on the basis of late Greek philosophy and does not directly rest on a study of the gospels. After the creeds established a body of correct beliefs, Christians read the New Testament through the lens of those beliefs, and so they often thought that the creed was simply a reflection of what is in the gospels and the letters of Paul. But were that the case, the Church would not have required 420 or so years to arrive at the Chalcedonian definition. When the New Testament is read with eyes that are, as Paula Fredriksen puts it in her new book, Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews, those “innocent of the future”—that is, in pretended ignorance of later beliefs—the reader sees that the accounts of Jesus in the New Testament neither require nor directly create Christian doctrine.
By 1800, many Christian thinkers had become impatient with and often hostile to creedal dogma as a whole. In 1906, looking back on almost 130 years of scholarly efforts to find the historical Jesus, Albert Schweitzer wrote that academic research had loosened the bonds by which he had been riveted to “the stony rocks of ecclesiastical doctrine.” For many Christians, the historical Jesus—a great and good man—emerged as a fresh and vital alternative to traditional Christianity. The creeds were stuffy, ponderous, and so burdened with metaphysical issues that they obscured the living voice of the Man from Galilee. The historical Jesus would give them someone to follow—if only they could get a firm grip on him.
Once the matter is put this way, it becomes clear that it would be tempting to describe a Jesus who is a suitable person to follow, someone who represents the right ideas and ideals. But, of course, people disagree about what these are. The result is that the selection of evidence often reflects the scholar’s own estimate of what is worthy of emulation. As Fredriksen puts it, far too many portrayals of Jesus yield to “the dark angels of Relevance and Anachronism.” They correspond too closely to the author’s concerns, not enough to those of first-century Judaism.
This is not to say that all scholars are equally guilty of yielding to the temptation to make Jesus fit their own day and its needs. Albert Schweitzer was a notable exception to the rule. He described the historical Jesus as an apocalyptic visionary who incorrectly expected the Kingdom of God to arrive in his own lifetime. Schweitzer then concluded that the historical figure is useless for modern, early-twentieth-century Christianity. But he thought that the Spirit of Jesus nevertheless mysteriously comes down the ages; following this Spirit—not the historical Jesus—Schweitzer began work as a medical missionary in Lambaréné (in Gabon, at that time French Equatorial Africa). Since Schweitzer, tension between a relevant, inspiring Jesus and a Jesus who was an ancient and possibly irrelevant Jew has continued. Few, however, have adopted Schweitzer’s radical solution. Most New Testament scholars want Jesus to address modern questions more or less directly.
The contemporary American reader who innocently goes into a bookstore or library to find books about Jesus walks into a morass of competing views and can only come away more puzzled than before. The distinction between an ancient Jewish Jesus (who may be partly or even largely irrelevant to modern problems) and a Jesus who speaks directly to us may help sort out the confusion. It may further help to know that there is a “mainstream” collection of views about him. The mainstream consists of agreement on major points about the life and character of Jesus, with considerable allowance for significant disagreement on lesser issues. Among the contributors to this approach have been both Geza Vermes and Paula Fredriksen in works written before those under review.
The main components of the mainstream view are these:
(1) Jesus was thoroughly Jewish, with excellent knowledge of Hebrew Scripture, and he was immersed in the issues that arise from that Scripture as well as engaged with at least some of the issues of the day. Scripture seems to have been more important to his outlook than current affairs. That is, he thought much more about how the people of Israel should behave and how and when God would redeem them from their current plight than about the details of local self-government.
(2) He did not deliberately oppose the Law of Moses; nor did he reject the view that the God of Israel is the one God of the world, who had chosen the Israelites to be his special people. Jesus accepted the fundamental Jewish view of the Covenant and the Law, though he may have had debates and disagreements over aspects of the Law, which in fact were rife in his day.
(3) Jesus was a prophet who preached the imminent arrival of the Kingdom of God. This expectation of a dramatic end of the current age is called “eschatological” or “apocalyptic.” “The End” in first-century Judaism was not the dissolution of the universe but a decisive change in the world, ushering in a new era and establishing God’s reign throughout the world, peace on earth, and plenty of food and drink for all.
(4) Jesus taught ethical perfectionism, that is, behavior that is appropriate to the Kingdom of God.
(5) He did not teach about himself, his titles, and his relationship with the Father, as he does in John. (The effect of points 3, 4, and 5 is that scholars attribute to Jesus much of the material in the synoptic gospels but exclude the teaching material that appears only in John.)
(6) In style, he made use of aphorisms (“turn the other cheek”), parables, and parable-like similes (the Kingdom of God is like…). This characteristic is also at odds with John’s long metaphorical discourses.
(7) He was a healer and miracle-worker of a sort well known in Ju-daism (and related to performers of wondrous deeds in other cultures). The commonest type of healing attrib-uted to Jesus is exorcism; John lacks exorcisms.
(8) In the way common to many prophets, he employed not only words but also symbolic gestures to convey his meaning. One of these was turning over tables in the temple complex, which is frequently taken to be a prediction of its coming destruction, perhaps preparatory to its rebuilding by God.
(9) He was crucified on the orders of Pontius Pilate, the Roman prefect of Judea, shortly after Passover (though John, who puts the crucifixion one day earlier, has some support from scholars).
(10) Jesus’ disciples and others believed that God raised him from the dead, and they started a new Jewish movement, based on the expectation of his return, which eventually spread to Gentiles.
The first point above, Jesus’ Jewishness, deserves special attention, since opinions that Jesus was either anti-Jewish or non-Jewish have been very widespread. Both Geza Vermes and Paula Fredriksen argue strongly that Jesus was completely Jewish in outlook and culture. Apart from the issue of Christian anti-Judaism, the question of Jesus’ Jewishness is crucial because scholars desperately need some sort of setting within which the sayings and actions attributed to Jesus make sense. Long usage of individual selections from this material in the teachings of the Church—which rearranged them and often provided new introductions and conclusions—led to the loss of the original immediate context of each saying or deed, and consequently it is imperative to find a broader context.
The fiercest battles now are fought over this larger setting. What was first-century Palestinian Judaism like? The answer to this question determines, to an appreciable degree, the range of possibilities for the reconstruction of the historical Jesus. The writers who maintain that Jesus was anti-Jewish or not noticeably Jewish do not use these crude terms; they say, rather, that since Jesus opposed some of the Law specifically he opposed all of it in principle; that he “harked back” to the great prophets of Israel and disregarded what Judaism had become; that Galilee had been Hellenized and was culturally more Greek than Jewish; that Galilee had remained “Israelite” but had not become “Jewish” in the way Jerusalem was.
The views that Jesus opposed central aspects of Judaism, or that culturally he was not very Jewish, have been resolutely opposed by a surprisingly small number of scholars—who have, however, the better of the argument, since their view corresponds to the evidence. To make Jesus antithetical to his own culture or removed from typical Jewish concerns, one must concentrate on a few sayings, work very hard at interpreting them as decisive, and discard vast quantities of evidence. Moreover, many of the recent views about Galilee, especially its Hellenization, draw on third- and fourth-century evidence and impose it on the events of the first half of the first century.
Among the most prominent twenty or so books by scholars who have written convincingly on Palestinian Judaism in Jesus’ day and who have seen Jesus as thoroughly immersed in that culture, several are by Jews. They include Joseph Klausner’s Jesus of Nazareth (1925); David Flusser’s Jesus (1969); Paul Winter’s On the Trial of Jesus (1961); Geza Vermes’s Jesus the Jew (1973), Jesus and the World of Judaism (1983), and The Religion of Jesus the Jew (1993); and Paula Fredriksen’s From Jesus to Christ (1988). The new books by Vermes and Fredriksen add considerably to the arguments they have already made.
Geza Vermes is one of the most distinguished living scholars of ancient Judaism. While he has specialized in the study of the Dead Sea Scrolls, in which his reputation is unsurpassed, he has an impressive command of all the Jewish sources from antiquity. He has moved from Hungary to France to Oxford, where he served with distinction as Reader and then Professor of Jewish Studies, a position from which he retired in 1991. He was born into a family that was originally Jewish but that had converted to Christianity. He himself subsequently converted to Judaism.3 For most of his life he has studied ancient Judaism and the new Jewish movement that became Christianity.
In 1973, when his book Jesus the Jew appeared, the title itself created a small stir among New Testament scholars, since it challenged the prevailing view that Jesus had initiated Christianity’s break from Judaism, if not deliberately and thoroughly at least in principle. Nevertheless, the book was enormously successful. It established basic parallels between Jesus and a previously neglected “type”: the Galilean Hasid—i.e., “pious” or “Godly” man.4 Under the heading “Jewish Charismatics,” Vermes discussed Honi the Circle-Drawer, known from both Rabbinic literature and Josephus, Hanina ben Dosa, and others. Exploring what is known about these men, he convincingly showed numerous parallels with Jesus. They performed healings and other wonders, and they had a feeling of special closeness to God, as of a son with a father; they engaged in powerful and effective prayer and even in some teaching.
One of the other principal contributions of Vermes’s work was a meticulous study of the titles that Christians eventually gave to Jesus: Prophet, Messiah or Christ (based on the Hebrew and Greek words meaning “anointed”), Lord, and Son of Man. Vermes concluded that Jesus preferred thinking of himself as a “prophet,” while Christians assigned him the other titles for diverse reasons. By 1993 Professor Vermes could note with justified satisfaction that his campaign, in which he had been joined by others, to fit the life of Jesus convincingly into other evidence from first-century Palestine, and especially Galilee, seemed to be widely accepted.5
Professor Vermes has always been interested in the question of how the Jesus of history became the Church’s divine figure. He has now given us a full account of this development. Probably having in mind the titles of books by Paula Fredriksen (From Jesus to Christ) and Maurice Casey (From Jewish Prophet to Gentile God), Vermes calls his prologue “From Christ to Jesus.” He traces the process of divinization backward, not precisely chronologically, but according to the degree of “evolution” of the Christological doctrine that Jesus was both entirely divine and entirely human. The line running from the most evolved Christology to the least can be followed, in Vermes’s account, by examining the texts of John, Paul, the Acts, and the synoptic gospels. He briefly discusses other New Testament books en route. After this presentation of various depictions of Jesus in the New Testament, Vermes gives his views of the real Jesus who is “beneath the gospels.”
Summing up his main theme, he writes: “The most prominent features of the Synoptic portrait of Jesus, those of a charismatic healer and exorcist, teacher, and champion of the Kingdom of God, are essentially dependent on the historical figure which other authors of the New Testament progressively disguised.”
The face of this Jesus, truly human, wholly theocentric, passionately faith-inspired, and under the imperative impulse of the here and now, impressed itself so deeply on the minds of his disciples that not even the shattering blow of the cross could arrest its continued real presence. It compelled them to carry on in his name with their mission as healers, exorcists, and preachers of the Kingdom of God. It was only a generation or two later, with the increasing delay of the Parousia [Jesus’ return], that the image of the Jesus familiar from experience began to fade, covered over first by the theological and mystical dreamings of Paul and John, and afterward by the dogmatic speculations of church-centered Gentile Christianity.6
The historical Jesus, Vermes concludes, “was thoroughly Jewish in his roles of teacher, exorcist, and preacher, prophet and son of God,” where “son of God” is understood as it traditionally was in Judaism, a metaphor for the people of God or for someone especially close to God.
Vermes’s substantial chapters on John and Paul are immensely perceptive. It is difficult for someone who is Jewish to read John or Paul sympathetically. John demonizes the Jews as children of the Devil; Paul is for many Jews, especially including Jewish experts in Christianity, the great apostate who destroyed the Jewish message of Jesus and began his transformation into a God of the Gentiles.7 All things considered, Vermes’s treatment is remarkably sympathetic as well as penetrating. He sees that the divinity of John’s Christ, who sometimes claims to be “one” with the Father (John 10:30), is significantly modified by statements indicating that he is inferior to and dependent on the Father (e.g., John 8:28; 14:28). Moreover, just as John’s Christ is united with the Father, so also the believers are united with him and the Father. Are they gods too? Many readers of John miss this complexity entirely.
Vermes also correctly emphasizes the mysticism of John: in his gospel the union of Christ, God, and believers is based not on their having the same “essence,” but on verbs and prepositions indicating deep personal relationships. Jesus loves the Father, the Father loves him, they love the disciples, who love them, they all abide in, or “indwell,” one another. This is quite different from the Chalcedonian assertion that Jesus has two essences, one human, one divine. It is principally John’s prologue that, by identifying Jesus with the preexistent divine communication (“In the beginning was the Word”), pushes him toward the Chalcedonian definition.
Paul, Vermes writes, relied primarily on “heavenly communications and visions” and “deliberately turned his back on the historical figure, the Jesus according to the flesh.” Vermes quite correctly emphasizes the importance of the death of Christ for Paul, who concentrated not on the historical figure, or even on the “risen and glorified Lord, but the Jesus who expired on the cross.” As in the case of John, Vermes recognizes Paul’s distinctive form of mysticism. In his analysis, Christ’s death, though sometimes described as an atoning sacrifice, more importantly provides the opportunity for the believer to participate mystically in that death and thus to leave behind the old sinful life. This mystical death and new life provide the believer “with as it were a ticket for participation in the final real resurrection,” which lay in the very near future.
Vermes goes on to argue that the Acts of the Apostles, a history of apostolic missionary work, is close to the synoptic gospels in its view of the person and work of Jesus, and that the synoptic gospels are not very far from the real Jesus, who was a charismatic prophet, healer, and ethicist.
Though Vermes often emphasizes that Jesus was eschatological in outlook, expecting the Kingdom of God to arrive, he describes in detail and strongly emphasizes the importance of the present in Jesus’ teaching. “The eyes of Jesus were resolutely focused on the present, on the duty of the moment, and closed to anything pertaining to the more distant future.” Vermes brings future and present to-gether, summing up Jesus’ message as a command to “do all that is required for the fulfillment of the plea, ‘Thy Kingdom come.'” Probably recognizing that readers might regard Jesus’ error about eschatology as making his message partly irrelevant, Vermes adds that “the absence of a literal fulfillment of his belief does not detract in any way from the fundamental truth that no religious attitude is real without an all-pervading sense of urgency which converts ideas into instant action.”
Vermes is particularly helpful in his discussion of the various titles given to Jesus—Messiah, Son of Man, etc. In fact, those who want to understand the historical Jesus and the evolving ways in which he was perceived in the following decades can do no better than to read his book. It is the masterly statement of a great scholar who has spent decades considering his topic, and whose work is gentle, irenic, relatively unargumentative, and written with exceptional skill. Although firmly insistent that Christianity has substantially disguised the historical Jesus, who, when recovered, is a recognizable Jewish figure of the first century, Vermes is not stinting in his praise of Jesus. He was, Vermes writes, a Galilean Hasid—but not just another Hasid: “Jesus stood head and shoulders above them.” He was in some respects like the great prophet Amos, but “he surpassed the prophets.” Above all, Jesus’ teaching sets him apart. “The gospel preached by him is fire, power, and poetry, one of the high peaks in the religious creativity of the people of Israel,” Vermes writes, and he cites Martin Buber and Joseph Klausner to the same effect. In Vermes Jesus has found his best Jewish interpreter.
Paula Fredriksen is not far behind Vermes. A professor at Boston University, she is a scholar of early Christianity broadly defined, having also written at length on Saint Augustine of Hippo. In her first book on the New Testament (From Jesus to Christ),8 she swiftly and accurately traced the development from Jesus to Christ, traversing much the same ground as Vermes, but in chronological order. Her new work shows no interest in the development of Christology; she concentrates on a specific problem in the study of the historical Jesus, asking “if we can draw causal and explanatory connections between what Jesus taught, why and how he died, and why and how the earliest Christian movement took the shapes it did.”
Her answer, stated briefly, is that Jesus was an eschatological prophet who expected the imminent arrival of the Kingdom of God; that he was crucified by Pilate because some of his followers and admirers claimed that he was the expected Messiah, son of David; and that his movement naturally culminated in the mission of Paul, who continued to preach Jesus’ eschatological message but followed it to its logical conclusion by persuading Gentiles both to worship the God of Israel and to have faith in Jesus as his Messiah.
Paul’s mission to Gentiles—not his Christology—is a major element in her reconstruction, since it shows the trajectory of the movement that started with John the Baptist and included Jesus and his disciples. In Fredriksen’s discussions of Jesus’ teaching and wondrous deeds, Paul is seen as having continued Jesus’ tradition of perfectionist ethics and “miracles.” Vermes, for his part, does not see that Paul can be used in these ways to clarify Jesus’ words and deeds.
Much of Fredriksen’s book is a brilliant account of the views I earlier identified as parts of the mainstream, but she faces a problem that does not trouble Vermes very much: the war that he thought was won by 1993 has flared up again. Many writers well known in the US and Canada, but without much impact in Britain, now challenge the consensus that Jesus was a charismatic and eschatological healer and prophet. Such views are associated with the scholars who have taken part in the meetings called the Jesus Seminar. Particularly prominent among them are John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg. In his most recent book Vermes briefly takes note of these conflicting views, but he still assumes that his interpretation of Jesus as a charismatic Jewish prophet has become accepted. In the US and Canada, the issue has sometimes appeared to be in doubt. Fredriksen addresses the dissenters head on and extensively. Among the views that she disputes are these:
(1) Galilee was not typically Jewish, either because it was heavily Hellenized or because its Judaism was not closely related to that of Jerusalem.
(2) Jesus was entirely noneschatological (or nonapocalyptic) in his vision of the future; he was, rather, a social and religious reformer who wanted to get rid of Jewish nationalism, purifications, blood sacrifices, and other things common to all ancient religions, patriarchal domination, and class distinctions. He was thus the first and the most ideal modern man.
(3) He was really only a teacher in the mold of the Cynics, offering wise and sometimes upsetting comments on life, trying to help poor people cope better with their daily lives, and teaching them how to organize egalitarian, nonpatriarchal families and villages.
The lack of positive evidence for these views has not, yet, sunk them, since in many ways they are very appealing. They have Jesus speak directly to the issues of contemporary American society, such as nationalism, racism, male domination, and the existence of desperate poverty alongside enormous wealth. These are genuine and serious issues on which Christianity should have something to say. Since many people believe that contemporary Christianity is based directly on the Bible, rather than being mediated by a long history, Jesus “must” have addressed such issues. The problem is to find where he did so. Alas, as Fredriksen shows, they lay outside his world view, and Christianity must deal with them with only very general help from him. As society’s problems have evolved, so must Christian teaching on those problems, but Jesus can be drawn on for no more than statements of good basic principles, such as the obligation to treat one’s neighbor as oneself.
Professor Fredriksen’s pages and the related endnotes on these modernizing interpretations are sharp and penetrating. But more importantly she does not merely demonstrate that the claims of the opposition are baseless. Hers is the best defense of the mainstream position to appear since the early to mid-1990s, when the views of the Jesus Seminar began to make a serious impression on both the public and American New Testament scholars.
Along with a defense, she provides fresh and vigorous descriptions that have the merit of conveying the feel of an ancient religion and of ancient Jewish Palestine. She gives lively accounts of how Temple worship functioned, imaginatively and convincingly describing how Jesus as a boy and his family would have seen the Temple. “It was,” she writes, “so sparkling and white in the sunshine,” it “seemed to a boy more like a huge manmade mountain.” She has much to say about the importance of purity in ancient religion, and the political situations in Galilee and Judea.
The parts of her work that break new ground are to my mind less persuasive, though they will certainly cause us all to think again. She is persuaded by two aspects of the chronology in the Gospel of John: the point in his career at which Jesus dramatically turned over tables in the Temple, and the length of his public ministry. In the synoptic gospels, Jesus makes only one trip to Jerusalem during his public career; and this was also the occasion of his prophetic act in the Temple in which, as is said in Mark, he “began to drive out those who bought and sold there. He upset the tables of the money-changers and the seats of the dealers in pigeons…” (Mark 11:15). In Mark it is especially clear that the actions in the Temple were the immediate cause of Jesus’ death, though this is evident in Matthew and Luke as well.
According to John, however, during his public career Jesus observes three Passovers (which requires a ministry of just over two years at a minimum and allows for the possibility of one of almost three years). According to John’s Chapter 2, Jesus performed his symbolic action in the Temple during his first visit to Jerusalem. And it did not lead to his death. Fredriksen interprets John’s account of Jesus’ career and itinerary rather loosely, to be sure. She suggests that Jesus’ public ministry lasted a fairly long time, possibly longer than two or three years. At each Passover during this period, he appeared in Jerusalem and proclaimed the imminent arrival of the Kingdom of God, and on one of these early trips he turned over tables in the Temple. He went home unharmed each time.
This reconstruction allows her to propose that Jesus was well known to both the high priest, Caiaphas, and the Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate. Caiaphas, with his council and advisers, had the responsibility of keeping the Roman peace in Judea on a day-to-day basis. Pilate lived in Caesarea, two days’ journey away, and came to Jerusalem with some of his soldiers (who numbered about three thousand altogether) only to ensure law and order during the three pilgrimage festivals each year. Since Jesus always preached the Kingdom of God, and since he once even acted disruptively in the Temple but had gone home unharmed, Caiaphas and Pilate knew who he was and did not regard him as dangerous. He and his followers were not revolutionaries, but only slightly wild-eyed eschatological dreamers.
Why, then, did Pilate finally execute him? Because at the last Passover, Fredriksen suggests, he “perhaps” said that this is definitely the last Passover before the Kingdom arrives. And this time, he was believed, particularly by some new followers who were caught up in the redemptionist enthusiasm of the Passover holiday, and started calling him “Messiah” and “Son of David.” This, Pilate thought, was too much. Though Jesus was harmless, his followers’ messianic expectation might lead to insurrection or upheaval, and so he had Jesus executed. While Fredriksen allows for the possibility of a hearing before the high priest or the prefect, she thinks such hearings would have been unnecessary and unlikely. “His death warrant had already been signed by the very crowd that had clamored around him, responding to his message of impending redemption. Pilate’s soldiers had their orders, and they knew what to do.”
Fredriksen argues that the messianically inspired crowds were the sole cause of Jesus’ death. Other mainstream scholars have held that two factors led to Jesus’ execution: not only did he have followers and attract crowds, but during his last Passover he showed himself to be capable of creating a disturbance—admittedly a small one—when he turned over tables in the Temple. Caiaphas’ Temple guards would have seen the commotion and reported it, even though Jesus slipped away in the crowd. Rome required those who administered its empire to maintain law and order at any cost. This was Pilate’s responsibility, and thus it was also Caiaphas’, whose guards served as the local police. Even a small crowd around one man was dangerous at a festival, when the population of the city swelled from about 25,000 to 250,000 or more. A convincing explanation of why Jesus died should, in my view, include at least two central events: the gathering of a small but enthusiastic crowd, and the violent acts in the sacred precincts of the Temple. Caiaphas did his duty and recommended execution to Pilate, who swiftly ordered it.
Geza Vermes’s work is, in his own words, “that of a scholar, of a detached historian, in search of information embedded in the surviving sources.” His position also puts him apart from the charged controversies over the life of Jesus. As a professor of Jewish studies, he only occasionally taught the New Testament, and he does not attend the conferences of New Testament scholars. The lack of explicit debate with others will be, for many readers, one of the advantages of his book. Paula Fredriksen teaches the New Testament, attends conferences, and is often a participant in debates with other scholars who do research on the historical Jesus. Part of the appeal of her book is its lively argument with others. Thus the two books under review, which are mostly complementary, are also very distinctive. Each is, in its own way, an excellent—in fact, brilliant—exposition of Jesus, the world in which he lived, his teaching, his deeds, his death, and some of the ways in which Christianity developed after him. It is hard to see how we could ask for more.9