"He was not a modern capitalist intoning the values of individualism and free enterprise, nor was he a modern socialist calling for a bureaucratic state. He was not a militarist who believed the sword can make the world safe for his values, nor was he a pacifist who thought conflict must be avoided at all costs. He was not a freedom fighter who believed that justice can only come about through violence, nor did he turn aside from the struggle for human dignity because politics is a dirty business. He was not a champion of women’s rights, nor did he promote male power and prerogative as the bastion of civilized values. He was not a racist, hating Gentiles as foreigners, nor was he a world citizen who knew all people to be the same underneath a veneer of cultural difference…." - R.D.Kaylor
The three quests
In modern times, a succession of scholars have sought to examine the life and career of Jesus from a secular and historical point of view. This enterprise seems to have begun in the English Deist movement in the early 18th century, though it is conventionally dated to the publication of a series of texts written by the German scholar H.S.Reimarus in the 1770s.
It is usual to speak of three ‘quests for the historical Jesus’. The first wave of ‘questers’ included 19th-century biographers of Jesus like Ernest Renan and D.F.Strauss who sought to strip away or rationalise the supernatural elements of the gospels to reveal the true, human figure of the preacher from Nazareth.
This endeavour ran into problems in the 20th century, amidst the scepticism of figures like the German Lutheran Rudolf Bultmann. The second quest, which began in the 1950s, had run out of steam by the 1960s, and was followed by the current third quest. This has included such diverse spirits as the Jewish historian Geza Vermes, the fiery Irish Marxist John Dominic Crossan, the eccentric atheist A.N.Wilson and the middle-of-the-road Catholic priests John Meier and Raymond Brown.
For an exhaustive account of the various attempts through history to seek out the historical Jesus, see Charlotte Allen’s excellent book The Human Christ. A famous older work that covers much of the same ground is Albert Schweitzer’s The Quest for the Historical Jesus.
Six well-known reconstructions of the historical Jesus
Jesus the eschatological prophet (Albert Schweitzer, Geza Vermes, Bart Ehrman and others)
Jesus was a devout and observant Jew. He believed that the God of Israel had sent him to herald the end of ordinary human history and the dawning of a wonderful new era of happiness and holiness called the Kingdom of Heaven (though this optimistic conviction coexisted with a belief that the wicked and unrepentant would be severely punished). The coming of the Kingdom was imminent when he began to preach - indeed, the Kingdom had in some sense already begun to come. Jesus’ frame of reference was profoundly Jewish, and his interest in Gentiles was limited.
Jesus the freedom fighter (Hyam Maccoby and others)
Jesus was a devout and observant Jew, but his mission was essentially political in character. He desired to free his people from the oppression of the Romans and/or their own wealthy upper classes. The Kingdom of Heaven was not a supernatural entity that would be brought about by God, but rather a concrete political project to be pursued by human effort. Jesus was hence simply one in a long line of ancient revolutionaries who ended up on a Roman cross.
Jesus the cynic sage (the big boys at the Jesus Seminar and others)
Jesus may have been a Jew in the broadest sense, but his outlook and thought were as much influenced by contemporary Greek philosophy as they were by traditional Jewish piety. He was neither a prophet nor a revolutionary: he was a wandering sage, a member of a socially marginal movement of Greek orign known as cynicism. Like other cynic sages, he spoke in short, pithy, down-to-earth proverbs and aphorisms. He had no interest in politics, abstract theology or the end of the world.
Jesus the liberal Protestant (Adolf von Harnack and others)
Jesus emerged from the Jewish religious context, but he was deeply troubled by the legalistic and ritualistic aspects of Judaism [read: Catholicism] and so rebelled against his ancestral religion. In place of traditional Jewish religious observance, he advocated a pure and simple creed of love of God and love of one’s neighbour. His most important messages for us lie in his conception of God as our father and in his ethical teachings.
Jesus the unknown (Rudolf Bultmann and others)
We have no idea what the historical Jesus was like, and at this distance we have no means of finding out either.
Jesus the myth (Bruno Bauer and others)
There was no historical Jesus.
A short note on the Jesus Seminar
The Jesus Seminar has been so widely discredited among both conservative and liberal scholars that it is perhaps unnecessary for me to single it out for criticism. But I would like to borrow a few words from another writer to sum up my feelings towards it:
"Set up in 1985 by Robert Funk to vote on the historicity of the Gospels, the Seminar is known for its startling negative pronunciamentos (such as the fact that Jesus did not compose the Lord’s Prayer), which the Seminar issues to the tune of maximum media coverage. It also claims (see the preface to The Five Gospels) implicitly to represent a consensus of current New Testament scholarship, even though no more than 35 or 40 scholars (out of over 6,000 biblical specialists in the United States alone) show up on average at its semi-annual meetings.
In The Real Jesus, a 1996 critique of the Seminar and related phenomena, Luke Timothy Johnson, a professor of New Testament and Christian origins at Emory, pointed to the lacklustre curricula vitae of many of the Seminar’s participants, noting that of the leading American graduate faculties in New Testament studies, only Claremont was represented. Indeed, the roster appendixed to The Five Gospels listed two members whose place of employment was the Westar Institute in Sonoma, California, the foundation that Funk himself established to operate the Seminar; another who worked for the ‘People’s Church’; and a fourth who had ‘the Double Bar A Ranch’ as his professional address - not to mention film director Paul Verhoeven of Robocop and Basic Instinct fame, who had been attending meetings in preparation for a movie about Jesus." (From Charlotte Allen, The Human Christ)
The tools of the quest
When we read in the New Testament that Jesus did something or said something, how do we know how far to believe the report in question? In spite of their often very different conclusions, modern scholars generally agree that a series of tests are to be applied to the material relating to the life of Jesus found in the Bible. We may summarise these as follows:
Date of source. Is the saying or episode attested in a relatively early source or a relatively late one? Was it already mentioned in Q, or does it not occur until John's Gospel? Earlier sources are often assumed to be more reliable than later ones, though this assumption is not always justified.
Multiple attestation. Is the saying or episode preserved independently in more than one source? If so, it probably has a greater claim to historicity than one preserved in a single document, particularly if the sources in which it is found are relatively early. A tradition which occurs in both Matthew and John's Gospels may hence be more trustworthy than one found only in Mark (other things being equal).
Discontinuity. Is Jesus reported as doing or saying something distinctive or unusual, something which was foreign both to contemporary Judaism and to early Christianity? If so, it is unlikely that the deed or saying was made up. The classic example of a discontinuous saying is Jesus’ injunction not to take oaths. Some researchers set great store by this criterion. On the other hand, as one conservative scholar remarked, if we eliminate from the record of Jesus’ sayings everything that sounds a bit Jewish or a bit Christian, we end up arriving at the conclusion that Jesus didn’t say a whole lot.
Embarrassment. Is the saying or episode the sort of thing that the early Christian Church would not have wanted to preserve? If so, it would presumably not have been preserved unless it was known to have some basis in fact. This criterion is similar to that of discontinuity, but the two are in fact slightly different. One example of an embarrassing saying is Jesus’ statement that he did not know when the Kingdom would come, which represents an admission of ignorance.
Historical plausibility. Does the saying or episode involve some practice or institution that is historically attested in other sources? If Jesus is reported as teaching in a synagogue in Galilee, for example, we must ask whether synagogues existed in Galilee during Jesus’ lifetime (they probably did).
Linguistic plausibility. If Jesus is reported as saying something that translates easily into Aramaic (Jesus’ mother tongue), that might count in favour of the saying’s authenticity.
Consistency. Once a basic hard core of authentic words and deeds has been isolated, the rest of the evidence can be tested for its consistency with this data.
The basic facts about Jesus’ life
It is impossible to say for certain when Jesus (Yeshu(a)) was born and when he died. The gospels suggest that he was born under the reign of Herod the Great, who died in 4 BC, and report, with uncertain accuracy, that Herod died in his early childhood. Let us suggest, for the sake of argument, that he was born in 5 BC.
The timeframe of his death is delimited by the term of office of Pontius Pilate, the governor of Judaea who executed him; Pilate served from 26 to 36 AD. If we trust the chronological notice at Lk. 3.1, which refers to the terms of office of other public officials, we can narrow this frame to 28-33, with perhaps a bias towards the lower end of the bracket. This chimes with the reference to the age of the Temple at Jn 2.20, which points to 28-30. We may even be able to pinpoint the precise year of Jesus’ death. He appears to have died on a Friday, and it is generally thought that that Friday was the day of the Passover that year. The only year in the relevant time period in which Passover fell on a Friday was 30.
Jesus’ public ministry may have lasted for a couple of years, but it is notoriously difficult to work out its exact length from the data supplied in the Gospels. Let us say that he began preaching in 28. This suggestion is consistent with the tradition recorded in the gospels that he was about 30 when his ministry began.
Jesus’s parents - his earthly parents, according to traditional Christian doctrine - were called Joseph (Yosef) and Mary (Miryam). He had several brothers and sisters, among them James (Yakov), Joseph (Yosef), Simon (Shimeon) and Jude (Yehuda). Though his family seems to have disapproved of his religious activities - according to one report, they thought that he had gone mad - his brother James would later become an important leader of the early Church.
Jesus was born and brought up in the region of Galilee in northern Palestine, in a town called Nazareth. The claim made by some New Testament writers that he was born in Bethlehem looks like a secondary invention to tie him to the birthplace of King David and strengthen the claim that he was the Messiah. Nazareth was a very small, insignificant little place, and, though the provincial capital Sepphoris was only a few miles away, Jesus seems to have had little interest in urban life. During his ministry, he seems to have spent a considerable amount of time around Lake Galilee and in the fishing town of Capernaum (Kfar Nahum). Sepphoris is not mentioned in the New Testament, and the important new city of Tiberias, which was not far from Capernaum, is mentioned only in the Gospel of John.
Galilee was a fertile agricultural region, but its people were regarded as backward and hotheaded, and they had a history of political radicalism. Though they prided themselves on their devotion to the Jewish religion, their geographical remoteness from the southern, Jerusalem-based priestly establishment kept them out of the intellectual and cultural mainstream, and their knowledge of the details of the Jewish law was thought to be patchy. Jesus was hence not best placed to impress either the religious leaders of his day or the Roman occupiers.
Jesus’s everyday language was undoubtedly Aramaic, the common language of the Galilean peasantry, though it is possible that he also knew a small amount of Greek, which served as the international language of the eastern Roman Empire and was widely spoken among the urban Jews of his day. As far as formal education is concerned, Jesus seems to have been familiar with the Torah and the other Jewish scriptures, and it may be that he received a standard village education at the local synagogue in his childhood, supplemented by further study in adult life.
If Jesus had been married, we would surely have heard about it. Though it has been pointed out that celibacy did not normally have a place in the Jewish religion, there are a few examples of ancient Jewish holy men who forswore marriage for religious reasons. Given that Jesus seems to have been somewhat over the age of 30 at the time when he enters the pages of history, it is possible to hypothesise that he had married in his youth and subsequently lost his wife. His lack of children tends to tell against this suggestion, however.