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Who was the historical Jesus?

Who was the historical Jesus?


By Alasdair Belling, adapted from the Undeceptions episode Jesus Quests

The need to undeceive ourselves

That the first-century Semitic preacher Jesus of Nazareth lived, walked and died in first-century Roman-occupied Palestine is as much a historical certainty as the existence of Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar and Ghengis Kahn.

That is – it is beyond question in the mind of secular and religious scholars alike that the character – divine powers aside – walked on this earth.

It makes it all the more staggering then that a recent survey conducted in 2021 found that only half of Australians – 49 per cent in fact – viewed Jesus as a real character.

Britain only faired slightly better, with 43 per cent of citizens admitting in a 2015 survey that they didn’t believe Jesus was a true historical character.

“This is, obviously, terrible news for Christianity,” distinguished Jesus scholar Craig Evans said, speaking on the latest episode of the Undeceptions Podcast.

“One of the unique selling points of the Christian faith — in the minds of believers — is that it centres on real events that occurred in time and space. 

“Christianity is not based on someone’s solitary dream or private vision. It isn’t merely a divine dictation in a holy book that has to be believed with blind faith. Jesus was a real person, ‘crucified under Pontius Pilate’, the fifth governor of Judea, as the Apostles’ Creed puts it. It seems many Australians and Brits really don’t agree.”

That so many people view the very existence of Christ with scepticism should set alarm bells ringing for the state of historical literacy in broader society. 

But despite the overwhelming consensus that Jesus walked – and indeed seemed to have earned a reputation for “magic tricks” in the ancient world – the views of Jesus scholars – questors if you will – have shifted over the centuries.

Since his death – and reported resurrection – around AD 29, historians and researchers have tried to answer the million-dollar question – who was the historical Jesus? Not the Jesus of the Bible, but the Jesus of the real world (if those two things can be separated). 

The world of ancient academia – especially from the 4th century onwards – is stereotypically viewed as close-minded and dictated by religious fervour. However, some of the brightest minds 1700 years ago were dedicating their studies to the character of Jesus – no matter what the church decreed. 

One such scholar was Origen of Alexandria, whose work straddled the 2nd and 3rd centuries – a mere generation after Jesus’ contemporaries.

Origen Biography - Facts, Childhood, Family Life & Achievements

Origen of Alexandria depicted hard at work undeceiving himself

“Origen consulted as many manuscripts as he could find for each of the Gospels. He wanted to reconstruct the most accurate form of the text: today we call this Textual Criticism,” says John Dickson in the same episode.

While many of Origen’s findings would “leave believers today feeling a bit queasy”, his studies led him to conclude that the scriptures were divinely inspired – a conclusion reached long before the official institution of the Church was formed. 

For centuries the quest for the Jesus of history continued. The enlightenment of the 18th and 19th centuries saw a particularly strong uptick of scholarly interest in the hunt, with a desire to poke holes in the claims of the Bible about Jesus’ supposed supernatural power. Names such as Heinrich Paulus, Herman Reimarus and Ernest Renan (to name just a few) became hugely popular with various theories on the “truth” of Jesus – from hallucinations of the resurrection to the famous “stolen body” theory.

However, famed polymath Albert Schweizer (yes, the same ‘jungle doctor’) undermined centuries of historical research with his dynamite A History of the Quest for the Historical Jesus, pointing out that almost all “questors” had approached their work with a “projection of the ethical ideal”. Thus concluded the “first quest”.

The “No Quest” and Second Quest

A period dubbed the “no quest” followed (falling roughly between the two World Wars) led by “theological giant” Rudulph Bultmann, who argued that the “Jesus of faith was more important to Christianity than the Jesus of history”.  

However, this slightly defeatist stance shifted when ​​in 1953 German scholar Ernst Kasemann gave his lecture The Problem With The Historical Jesus. Kasemann questioned the teachings of the church and how it compared with the Jesus of history. The “new quest” (second quest) had begun.

Infamously, the ‘criterion of dissimilarity’ was devised during this period. John Dickson explains;

“The criterion of double dissimilarity states that only things in the Gospels that are different from both Judaism, on the one hand, and the early Christian church, on the other, can be confidently said to have come from Jesus. 

“The logic went like this: teachings of Jesus with strong parallels in Judaism could easily, so it was thought, be the result of the Gospel writers trying to make Jesus fit with the Jewish culture of their day; and teachings of Jesus with strong parallels in early church practice could be attempts to justify certain ecclesiastical traditions by having Jesus say it first. So, only things that are doubly dissimilar (from Judaism and Christianity) can be said reliably to come from Jesus.

“The famous Last Supper of Jesus obviously has strong affinities with the church’s later Lord’s Supper ritual. It may therefore be an invention designed to ground a later ceremony in the life of Christianity’s founder. It also has a lot in common with the Jewish Passover festival, the high point of the Jewish calendar. Perhaps, then, the Gospels are simply trying to make Jesus sound more Jewish at this point. The Last Supper is thereby called into question by the criterion of dissimilarity.”

This was a logic containing obvious problems (it assumed Jesus’ teachings had minimum impact on his surroundings), and contained anti-semitic undertones (doing away with Jesus’ Jewish context).

“You end up eliminating the context of Jesus,” says Evans.

“Of course, he’s going to sound like other teachers. How can he not? He’s, he’s appealing to the Old Testament and so on and interpretation. He’s engaging Jewish audiences. 

“He doesn’t reject all Jewish thought … and how do you get rid of everything that Jesus says that happens to be something that Christians love and articulate? This doesn’t make any sense.”

Christmas and Christ: What Scholars Know About the Historical Truth | Time

The quest for Jesus has captured the public imagination for centuries

The Third Quest

And so, the quest for the historical Jesus entered a new phase – the one we are currently in today – relying more on archaeology and more tried-and-tested historical methods to deduce what we can about the Jesus of extra-Biblical existence.

Professor Evans notes that – with significantly more data and resources at our disposal – there are a couple of key things we can say with confidence about the historical Jesus in 2023;

  • That he existed 
  • That he grew up in Nazareth, in Galilee 
  • That he was headquartered in Capernaum 
  • That there was tension between himself and his family members
  • That he was known for proclaiming the kingdom 
  • He was known for using parables a whole lot
  • That he was known for appointing 12 people as his key disciples who become apostles.
  • That he was linked with John the Baptist, who came to be understood as a forerunner and even confessor of him
  • That he had a reputation as a remarkably successful healer and exorcist – so much so that in his life during his ministry, other healers and exorcists invoked his name
  • That he died on a Roman cross,

….and the resurrection?

Of course, the key question in all of this is; what about the resurrection? Is there any historical evidence to corroborate this?

We have multiple resources on this but Professor Evans had this to say (in this latest episode);

“I think it’s extremely strained and problematic to say (the disciples) were just lying.”

“They’re Jewish people. They have an eschatology (theology of death and judgement), they have a narrative, they have a sacred book, and they have a sacred story. They know who they are. They don’t need fraud. 

“There were plenty of others who said, I’m important; at my command, the waters of the Jordan will be parted, or at my command, the walls of Jerusalem will fall down or come out to me in the wilderness and see signs and wonders, and they get killed. There is no following. There is no attempt to rehabilitate any of these guys. There is no church created because some fraud died in the wilderness. 

“I would argue the certainty of Jesus’ life … he had disciples, learners that he taught, and the belief that he was indeed raised up: no fraud here on the part of his family and his disciples. And that’s why they were committed to continuing to proclaim his message, even at great personal hurt and loss.”

The quest for the historical Jesus is set to continue into the 21st century with new and exciting discoveries coming to life all the time.

The question is – will scholars like what they find? As C.S. Lewis famously noted, the quest can only end in three ways – with the proclamation of Jesus as a lunatic, a liar or The Lord.

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Who was the historical Jesus?




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