The Historical Jesus

Making Sense of Jesus

Given the influence of Christianity in Western culture, Jesus has been the architectonic symbol of divinity and humanity for almost 2,000 years.

The interpretation of Jesus as symbol has morphed over the centuries – Jesus as shepherd, king, soldier, messiah, sage, prophet, reformer, revolutionary, friend – each nuance shaping/reflecting the broader cultural trends of the time – and each interpretation coloring the practice of Christianity and the nature of the church.

Still, Jesus remains a cipher. We will never have the definitive interpretation of his life and meaning – he is always mediated – knowing him in and of himself is impossible. The historical Jesus is lost to the past – the sources, references, and records are scant. The gospels tell us what the gospel authors thought was vital and necessary, but not the whole story – and the gospels always require interpretation.

Jesus is a symbol overladen with metaphors rich in meaning – the virgin birth, the miracle worker, the innovative teacher, the radical reformer, the sacrificed savior, the resurrected one, and Lord. The actual historical core of these metaphors, the nature of the events behind them, remain open to exploration, meditation, and debate. To overly literalize the metaphors inflicts damage and denigrates their robust meaning. To emphasize the metaphor to the point of eliminating all aspects of the historical core, no matter how varied from the gospel telling, erodes their power as well.

Jesus in Context

We gain appreciation and insight if we strive to understand Jesus in his historical context of Judea, as a Jew under the Roman Empire. Comprehending the rigidity, abusiveness, intolerance, violent and crushing aspects of Empire casts Jesus’ teaching and activities in brighter light – light that helps us better grasp the meaning of his actions and teachings both then and today. Christianity is inherently anti-Imperial, yet sadly, much of today’s Christianity has melded with current dehumanizing and controlling Imperial forces.

For the early Christian communities, Jesus was their leader, teacher, and example. He proclaimed a new order and a new way of life. He was intentionally contrasted and compared to Augustus Caesar as the Reign of God was compared to the Imperial Rule of Rome. Within the contrast was found much of the meaning of Jesus’ message.

The common religious-cultural motif of Jesus’ period was to deify the Emperors. Augustus was Lord, the son of God, a living God, born of a virgin, worker of great miracles, source of wisdom, and bringer of peace – this was the actual language used. The Roman Empire was the divinely sanctioned grantor of peace through military violence. It’s system of patronage, elitism, militarism, taxation, tribute, slavery, patriarchy, and hierarchical social structure were the norms of the First Century Mediterranean world. Rome brought order (logos, albeit a limited sense of such) and salvation (again, limitedly understood) to the world. 

The audacity of Christianity was to proclaim Jesus as Lord. The subversive claim was offered justification through similarity and contrast – Jesus, too, was born of a virgin, was the son of God, was God incarnate, and the bringer of peace – the ruler of a new Imperial system meant to co-opt the Roman Empire – the new order – a reign of love, peace through justice, equality, freedom – the inverse values of Rome.

Historical Jesus Scholarship

Our vision and understanding of Jesus determines our vision of the church and of Christian practice – and sometimes our own behavior. Yet we fail to realize that there are multiple visions of Jesus competing for our attention and allegiance. We would be wise to periodically questioning our personal vision of Jesus for accuracy and adequacy.

The scholarly consensus, while not unanimous, affirms Jesus’ historicity – he actually existed. Unfortunately, there is a poverty of historical and independent sources about Jesus. The historical Jesus is largely understood through the prism of theological statements concerning his spiritual significance as recorded in the scriptures and other early writings – subjected to various historical, cultural, and textual analysis. 

Historical Jesus scholarship is comprised of attempts to understand the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth from the perspective of his historical and cultural context in which he lived, using critical, scholarly methods including history, cultural anthropology, archeology, and hermeneutics. 

As said above, Jesus is a cipher. The considerable lack of historical evidence means that there will never be a definitive vision of Jesus. Historians, theologians, and believers will argue over his exact nature and spiritual meaning for centuries to come and there will be no closure, no way to prove anyone’s version of Jesus right or wrong. Jesus will always remain a mystery and a hero figure onto which we project our own values and hopes.

The man called Jesus has changed repeatedly, in image and in reference, down through the ages as the institutional Church and as cultural bias has demanded. Each age has applied to Jesus images and emphases consistent with that age, expressive of its philosophy and development. The Jesus that Pat Robertson reveres is a Jesus that Paul  of Tarsus or Francis of Assisi would hardly recognize or that Erasmus or Aquinas might even have contemplated.

Why is there a lack of historical resources about Jesus? The poor of the ancient world don’t speak to us. They don’t leave their voices. The writings that come to us from antiquity are the writings of the elite. The art that comes is the art of the elite. The poor do not have time or resources to record events. Jesus lived and preached among the poor, living a life on the margins and going unnoticed by most of the elites of his day.

Our primary source of knowledge of Jesus is the gospels, both the four in the Christian Canon and the several others that were rejected from the collection. The gospels are complicated works – almost biographies, but not strict historical documents, they employ myth, apocalyptic language, poetry, and engage in high use of Midrash of Hebrew Biblical texts.

Christians often naively assume that the gospels contain the actual words of Jesus. They may contain some authentic sayings, in other places somewhat accurate memories of such, and in other situations, complete fiction – sometimes to make a point desired by the ancient author or community, other times to reflect the best efforts of the authors to replicate what Jesus would have likely said.  Jesus’ teachings and dialogs in the gospels are the product of interpretation, memory, re-contextualization, and often invention.  Mark’s gospel is written thirty to forty years after Jesus’ death – even an oral culture  – which is not what the culture of time was – would not have remembered the teachings verbatim.

The gospels combine history remembered with history metaphorized. Some things reported in the gospels likely happened, others were mythic-fictionalized accounts meant to illustrate a theological point – what we call parables. The fact that the gospels generously employ myth and metaphor does not invalidate their truthfulness, but color our particular way of understanding Jesus. In other words, each gospel is a deliberate theological interpretation of Jesus – rather than a biography.

Aside from the religious writings of the period, there are only four independent, pagan-Jewish references to Jesus before 200 CE. None of these sources offer any theological insight about Jesus. They merely repeat what others have said. They indicate Jesus’ Jewishness, his preaching ministry, his death at the hands of Pilate, and his believer’s insistence that he continued to be present to them in some manner after his death.

The understandings of Jesus that have been constructed by this scholarship has differed from thinker to thinker, as well as from more traditional conceptions, often leaving people uneasy or even angry. 

Various approaches to Jesus have emerged that claim to be vital for an essential or reliable understanding of Jesus, including Jesus as Jewish Messiah, prophet, wisdom teacher, cynic philosopher, Jewish reformer, charismatic healer, social revolutionary, and apocalyptic prophet. The scholarly movement of historical Jesus research has not produced a unified vision, nor even agreed upon methods of such research. 

Critics have claimed that much of the methodology applied has been faulty and that many of the scholars involved are overly influenced by personal and political agendas that skew their findings. Given the scarcity of evidence concerning Jesus – four canonical gospels, other Christian writings, and four non-Christian historical references – Jesus can be something of a mirror. There is a consensus, which tends to take the form of a warning, that “The Jesus you set out to find, is usually the one you do, and he looks much like yourself.”

Still, from the perspective of theological realism, Jesus is at the heart of Christianity, and therefore, any and all valid methodological tools from any applicable disciplines should be employed to uncover what information and insights are possible. Failing to do so would be to turn away from the fullest vision of Jesus possible for the sake of narrow, ideological reasons.

History does not tell us exactly how to respond to Jesus. Christianity is a highly personal affair. It requires consideration of the teachings of Jesus and finding ways, through trial and error, experimentation, and courage, to integrate his way, his teachings, and his manner into your life. Spiritual maturity can only be gained after answering the question Jesus asked in the gospel “Who do you say that I am?” for our self, honestly and clearly, and then living in integrity with those convictions.

The work of Historical Jesus scholarship is a form of evidential theology at its best. Using the best of human knowledge and methods to uncover and understand the truth as we can best see it 2,000 years after the fact.