Scholars examining the Dead Sea Scrolls

Daniel Estrin of Associated Press wrote: “Israel is one of the most excavated places on the planet. Some 300 digs take place each year, including about 50 foreign expeditions from as far away as the United States and Japan, the Antiquities Authority said. About 40,000 artifacts are dug up in Israel each year. A third of all the antiquities found attest to the ancient Christian presence in the Holy Land, Gideon Avni, head of the archaeological division of the Israel Antiquities Authority, said. Historians now know how long it took to travel between cities and villages where Jesus preached, and what those places looked like at the time. Avni said knowledge of the period has advanced over the past 20 years. "We can reconstruct precisely how the country looked," he said. [Source: Daniel Estrin, Associated Press, March 19, 2017]

Kristin Romey wrote in National Geographic: The office of Eugenio Alliata in Jerusalem looks like the home base of any archaeologist who’d rather be in the field dirtying his hands than indoors tidying things up. A tumble of dusty, defunct computer equipment sits in one corner, and excavation reports share crowded shelves with measuring reels and other tools of the trade. It feels like the office of every archaeologist I’ve met in the Middle East, except that Alliata is wearing the chocolate brown habit of a Franciscan friar and his headquarters are in the Monastery of the Flagellation. According to church tradition, the monastery marks the spot where Jesus Christ, condemned to death, was scourged by Roman soldiers and crowned with thorns. “Tradition” is a word you hear a lot in this corner of the world, where throngs of tourists and pilgrims are drawn to dozens of sites that, according to tradition, are touchstones of the life of Christ—from his birthplace in Bethlehem to his burial place in Jerusalem. [Source: Kristin Romey, National Geographic, November 28, 2017 ^|^]

“For an archaeologist turned journalist like me, ever mindful that entire cultures rose and fell and left few traces of their time on Earth, searching an ancient landscape for shards of a single life feels like a fool’s errand, like chasing a ghost. And when that ghost is none other than Jesus Christ, believed by more than two billion of the world’s people to be the very Son of God, well, the assignment tempts one to seek divine guidance. ^|^

“Which is why, in my repeated visits to Jerusalem, I keep coming back to the Monastery of the Flagellation, where Father Alliata always welcomes me and my questions with bemused patience. As a professor of Christian archaeology and director of the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum’s museum, he’s part of a 700-year-old Franciscan mission to look after and protect ancient religious sites in the Holy Land—and, since the 19th century, to excavate them according to scientific principles. ^|^

“As a man of faith, Father Alliata seems at peace with what archaeology can—and cannot—reveal about Christianity’s central figure. “It will be something rare, strange, to have archaeological proof for [a specific person] 2,000 years ago,” he concedes, leaning back in his chair and folding his arms over his vestments. “But you can’t say Jesus doesn’t have a trace in history.” ^|^

“Rising from her baptism in the Jordan River, an Indonesian Christian wears a gown depicting Jesus undergoing the same rite in the same river 2,000 years ago. The faith that began as a tiny Jewish sect is now the world’s largest, most diverse religion, with more than two billion believers.” ^|^

Websites and Resources: Christianity Britannica on Christianity ; Religious Tolerance ; History of Christianity ; BBC on Christianity ;Wikipedia article on Christianity Wikipedia ; Early Christian Writing ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Christian Origins ; Christian Answers ; Christian Classics Ethereal Library ; Early Christian Art ; Early Christian Images ; Early Christian and Byzantine Images ; Jesus and the Historical Jesus ; Britannica on Jesus Jesus-Christ ; Historical Jesus Theories ; Wikipedia article on Historical Jesus Wikipedia ; Jesus Seminar Forum ; Life and Ministry of Jesus Christ ; Jesus Central ; Catholic Encyclopedia: Jesus Christ ; Bible and Biblical History: Bible Gateway and the New International Version (NIV) of The Bible ; King James Version of the Bible ; Bible History Online ; Biblical Archaeology Society ; Internet Jewish History Sourcebook ; Complete Works of Josephus at Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL)

Why a Non-Practicing Christian Studies the 'Historical' Jesus

Professor Shaye I D Cohen

When asked why a non-practicing Christian like himself has devoted his life to study the historical Jesus Christ, Professor Shaye I.D. Cohen told PBS: “Well, the story of Jesus, his life, teachings and death, are of interest to me on two counts. One, I'm a historian of Judaism in antiquity, and Jesus was probably the most famous Jew of antiquity and in many respects one of the most interesting Jews of antiquity. And consequently it's a fascinating historical puzzle to try to figure out and understand exactly what this man did and, almost as important, what he didn't do. That is to say to distinguish between the historical Jesus and the Jesus who will play an important role in the on-going developments of Christianity. But also for me as a Jew, Jesus is important. Jesus has played an important role in the world history in the creation of Christianity. Christianity, in turn, has had a major impact, either positive or negative, on Jews and on Judaism, and clearly a better understanding of Christianity is important also to me as a Jew. The historical information about Jesus, therefore, is precious to me as a way of understanding not just the historical puzzle about Jesus, but also to understand the nature of Judaism and of its varieties. [Source: Shaye I.D. Cohen, Samuel Ungerleider Professor of Judaic Studies and Professor of Religious Studies, Brown University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 <>]

Question: You suggested that there's really very little that we can know in a firm historical sense about the real Jesus, and yet Jesus looms so large on the landscape of faith and culture and history. “I suppose I'd be saying the obvious if I said that we're interested in Jesus because of Christianity. But for Christianity, Jesus would simply be a minor historical puzzle, no more complex or difficult, say, than trying to understand the nature of the Roman Emperor Tiberius, his contemporary, who also exists for us as a puzzle in the historical record. We also have conflicting evidence about his personality and politics, but for us that is just a historical puzzle, and only for historians to worry about. The rest of us don't concern ourselves about the personality, life and times of the Emperor Tiberius. So, but for Christianity, Jesus would be just a puzzle, a small historical puzzle of concern only to a small group of people. But obviously, Jesus is not just that. Because for Christians Jesus is a lot more than just a historical puzzle. And because of Christianity, because of its growth and its importance in the history of the world thereby retrospectively the historical puzzle of Jesus now emerges as a big puzzle. Not a small puzzle for historians, but a big puzzle for us all.... <>

“In our own age we've come to realize in the late 20th century that truth is very elusive. That there is probably no such thing as objective truth... we realize that there are many truths, and different people construct truths differently. And the same event can be true in different ways, for different people for different reasons. We understand this now, and we realize that the pursuit of the 19th century historicists looking for history as it actually happened, or the objective truth..., is something that we will never attain, and it's probably ultimately unattainable. That doesn't mean of course that we can't try. It doesn't mean of course that we can't realize that there may well be many different kinds of truths about Jesus. And that it is interesting to see how we construct different portraits of the historical Jesus. <>

“But what's more important than the historical Jesus, of course, is the impact of the image of Jesus on history. It's less important to me to know exactly what Jesus said or did in any given year or actually what happened to him, than to understand the impact that shifting images [of] Jesus have had on Christianity. That is a real historical question, right? That one we can discuss and analyze as a real historical question with real historical answers. So even if the ultimate historical Jesusis unknown or unknowable, nevertheless, the Jesus of myth or the Jesus of image, the "believed in" Jesus, or the Christ of faith, is a historical figure, because we can trace that figure as influence, as impact upon later Christians from the first century to our own.... <>

“Modern scholars have routinely reinvented Jesus or have routinely rediscovered in Jesus that which they want to find, be it rationalist, liberal Christianity of the 19th century, be it apocalyptic miracle workers in the 20th, be it revolutionaries, or be it whatever it is that they're looking for, scholars have been able to find in Jesus almost anything that they want to find.Even in our own age scholars are still doing this. People are still trying to figure out the authentic sayings of Jesus..., all our middle class liberal Protestant scholars who will take a vote and decide what Jesus should have said, or might have said. And no doubt their votes reflect their own deep seated, very sincere, very authentic Christian values, which I don't gainsay for a moment. But their product is, of course, bedeviled by the problem that we are unable to have any secure criteria by which to distinguish the real from the mythic or what we want to be so from what actually was so.... <>

“One standard scholarly approach is to say that anything that is really odd or really eccentric that's attributed to Jesus must be authentic. Because no one would attribute anything really odd or eccentric to him, and therefore it is so. Its very oddity and eccentricity are testimony to its truth or to its historical veracity. This is a rather peculiar kind of argument, and what it means, of course, is that the only kind of sense that will emerge as historical are the man bites dog kind of sentences. Whereas the bulk of what he might have said, the dog bites man kind of sentences, will of course be rejected as simple commonplaces, the sort of thing that would be invented or projected upon Jesus by his followers. The result then is even if this method has some truth to it, it's going to wind up yielding by definition a very peculiar portrait of Jesus at odds with the world around him, and at odds with society around him, and at odds with the Judaism around him. Now perhaps some scholars want the Jesus like that, precisely because he is, after all, the founder of Christianity which we want to imagine is at odds with the world around it, with the Jewish world around him. But obviously, from the point of view of method this is a very peculiar method indeed, and seems to assume in advance the answer that it's trying to achieve. <>

Jewish Scholar Teaching Christianity

Prof Eliazear Segal

Eliazear Segal of the University of Calgary wrote: “ As a staff member of the Religious Studies Department at the University of Calgary, my duties include the teaching of introductory courses in "Western Religions," including Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Coming to North America with a specialized Israel training in Jewish Studies, I was at first quite daunted by the prospect of having to teach Christianity to classes that consisted largely of Christians. In a reputed "Bible belt" like Alberta I anticipated some friction with fundamentalist students, and I recall assuring my first class that since I could not expect to avoid offending somebody, I would at least try to offend everybody in equal proportions. [Source: Eliazear Segal of the University of Calgary, Calgary Jewish Star /=\]

“In researching the material for my courses I became more and more overwhelmed by the feeling that as a Jew I had a different perspective on the text than was standard in the Christian world. I felt that these records were largely internal Jewish documents, saturated in the realities of first-century Eretz Israel and full of allusions to a variety of political, religious and halakhic questions. /=\

“The subjects are familiar to those who have been brought up in the literature and lifestyles of Talmudic Judaism. But could they possibly mean anything significant to someone from outside the fold of traditional Judaism? Closely related to these thoughts was the conviction that Jesus was after all a Jew, no less so than any of the other assorted Jewish sectarians, reformers and revivalists who proliferated during the Second Temple era, and had relatively little connection with the religion that was to build up around him. /=\

“I was aware that the above approach, which draws a sharp division between the actual teachings of Jesus and the religion called Christianity, is fairly conventional in historical studies of early Christianity, which have long distinguished between "the historical Jesus" and "the Christ of faith." I was, however, unsure to what extent such a perspective had filtered down to the level of the undergraduate classroom.” /=\

Jesus Seminar

The Jesus Seminar Forum is an introduction to the research of the Jesus Seminar of the Westar Institute & a bridge to Jesus scholarship on line. Convened in 1985 by Robert W. Funk, the Jesus Seminar has become a lightning rod for international debate about the "historical Jesus" - that is, the real facts about the person to whom various Christian gospels refer. The Seminar's on-going project has been to evaluate the historical significance of every shred of evidence about Jesus from antiquity (about 30-200 CE). Over the past twenty years more than 200 scholars from North America & beyond have participated in its semi-annual meetings. Seminar Fellows include prominent scholars from Canada, Great Britain, Germany, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand as well as the U.S. For a roster of active participants click here. [Source:

The first phases of the Seminar's work on the evaluation & interpretation of Jesus tradition are complete & the results have been published. The Seminar is now turning its attention to analysis of the historical value of materials about & by the first generation of Jesus people: e.g., the Acts of the Apostles & letters of Paul.

Two features distinguish the research of the Jesus Seminar from other scholarly forums: 1) The Seminar's deliberations are conducted as a public forum involving both dialogue between biblical scholars & reaction from lay associates. To insure candor, the debates are electronically recorded & reported through major news media.

2) The Seminar's research is measured by democratic rather than elitist methods. All of Seminar's Fellows are scholars with advanced degrees that attest to their qualification to interpret primary source materials about Jesus & Christian origins. But equally qualified scholars often come to different conclusions. The Seminar provides a forum to debate & evaluate these conflicting insights & interpretations. Debate on any item is closed by a ballot to test the degree of group consensus about the relative value of that item as historical evidence. The weighted average of the votes determines what items are accepted as the Seminar's data base of verifiable information about Jesus himself. Therefore, the Seminar's reports meticulously represent the balanced cumulative judgment of the group rather than the opinion of any individual.

Media coverage of the conclusions of the Seminar has renewed public interest in the quest of the historical Jesus & created an intense debate about the Seminar itself. Yet, ironically, much of what has been said & written about the Jesus Seminar -- as about Jesus himself -- is based more on hearsay & emotional reaction than on accurate historical information.

The Jesus Seminar is a project of the Westar Institute, a center for scholarly research on issues of cultural importance in western religion. Westar has come to rest at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon. Its official web site is at

Purpose of the Jesus Seminar

Professor John Dominic Crossan told PBS: “The Jesus Seminar does three different things; two of them are totally regular, and one is quite surprising. It was founded by Bob Funk in 1985 to bring together scholars to talk about the historical Jesus, to come to some decision; because he says scholars never come to decisions, and to make it public. That's the most important thing. Scholars coming together happens all the time at conventions. They sometimes even vote on decisions; for example, Greek bible texts had to be voted on to see what text goes in there. But to go public, that's something very new, and Funk's argument was it was an ethical necessity that what we all knew was going on within scholarship and did within our scholarly journals and meetings should be made clear to the public, not wait for a hundred years when we tell you the decisions; come right in on the process. So, the function of the Jesus Seminar from the beginning was to be public. [Source: John Dominic Crossan, Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies DePaul University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 <>]

“Therefore, when we voted, we decided to do it not by simply raising our hands or any other way but to use colored beads; drop them into a little box, and vote. And what we were voting on is when we print this gospel, will it be red, that is, we're very certain Jesus said this; will it be pink, we're not so certain; will it be gray, we're very uncertain; and black, the original color, meaning that this will stay in this color because it does not represent anything we think Jesus said. Those were not value judgments as far as we were concerned. They were historical judgments. But the essential thing which is important to understand about the Jesus Seminar, it was programatically public, and the beads were designed so they could be visualized; they could literally be seen by a camera as distinct from raising your hands or writing on a text or something like that. The going public is the ethical question. <>

John Dominic Crossan, a leading figure in the Jesus Seminar

“First of all, Jefferson was only one person, and he said "what I like is in; what I don't like is out," and that's a perfectly reasonable proposition. Unfortunately, if you're forty people around the table, you have to say well, we can't do it that way. You have at least to give me an argument why what you want in should be in, and so having at least forty people, fifty people, at each meeting of the Jesus Seminar, we had to justify at least our arguments, and convince our colleagues because, otherwise, we would get simply votes all over the place. If there wasn't any consistency, we'd have nothing to report. <>

“Because in North America, the Bible is extremely important, culturally and politically. If nobody was the least bit interested in the Bible, then it would not be ethically important, it would be just talking about ancient history, as it were. The Bible has a profound influence, not as a vague cultural archetype in the background but has immediate effects on, say, creationism, on our school curriculum, on all sorts of other questions. If scholars all interpret the Bible literally so that everything that's literal must be taken literally, then we should say that. If large numbers of scholars do not, then the public should know that. They should know what is being discussed.... <>

“One of the controversial things that the Jesus Seminar has done is to take very, very seriously extra-canonical materials, and among those extra-canonical materials, at least for the words of Jesus, the Gospel of Thomas, discovered in 1945 at Nag Hammadi in Egypt, is quite crucial. This is a list of the sayings of Jesus, and they're not really even as organized as the sayings of Jesus are in the Q gospel. They're not a biographical gospel like Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John; they're a sayings gospel. But we have a lot of material which is not only unique to Thomas, which is, of course, his own work, but also common to the Q gospel or to Matthew, Luke, Mark, John. We have used this very seriously. Now, it's used primarily for the sayings of Jesus. For some people, something which is not in the canon should not be given the weight that materials in the canon should be given, but that's to confuse historical priority and theological priority. For Christians, there are four gospels in the canon, period. For historians, any gospel we find at any time has to be used. So, it's a confusion between what you might call historical priority and theological priority.... <>

“It's very hard to get scholars working on the Jesus material to take a account and say, "these I take as original and these others I take as not being original." Very often a scholar will use some and not tell you about the others. The Jesus Seminar lays out a whole inventory; that's part of the ethical imperative. These, we think are original; these, we think are not. If you actually go through scholars who have done historical Jesus books and look at the ones they've based themselves on, we probably have far more sayings and far more deeds.... <>

Jesus Seminar’s Effort to Isolate What Is Unique to Jesus

Is it possible to isolate the sayings of Jesus, as the Jesus Seminar attempts to do? Is that a realistic enterprise? Professor Helmut Koester told PBS: “No, I don't think so. I think the Jesus Seminar that tries to isolate the sayings and tries to find out which sayings are most original and which ones are later editions has only a limited useful result. It may give us a little more insight in the way in which the tradition grew. But things which have been added later to the tradition may very well be much older, they just didn't happen to enter that particular writing at an early stage. So traditions appearing later in literature are not necessarily traditions that came into existence late.So the voting on, "Is this most likely what Jesus said or is it not very likely or is it unlikely or are we sure that Jesus didn't say it at all?" is a voting that is to me of very, very limited historical value, and of no value whatsoever in asking the question of the historical Jesus, of the earthly Jesus. [Source: Helmut Koester, John H. Morison Professor of New Testament Studies and Winn Professor of Ecclesiastical History Harvard Divinity School, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 <>]

“For example, the Jesus Seminar comes out in saying that the three beatitudes of the Sermon on the Plain -- the blessing of the poor, the blessing of those who are hungry, the blessing of those who weep -- these are the most original parts of the tradition.... But Jesus certainly did not preach, "blessed are the poor, and blessed are the hungry and blessed are those who weep, hallelujah, and I'll give you the continuation tomorrow." If Jesus was a popular preacher, he wouldn't just have issued aphorisms. He would most likely have given a good long sermon, a long speech that got people excited. These three beatitudes are a distillation of Jesus' preaching, but certainly not a mirroring of Jesus' preaching. They are formulated by people who heard what Jesus said and then recoined it into something that could be transmitted. The whole sermon of Jesus probably lasted an hour or two hours; we don't know, but certainly Jesus' preaching would have had long sermons, long debates with people, and people coming up and asking questions and what not. <>

“Try to imagine how it was, how Jesus' ministry really happened. It certainly never happened in the way in which the tradition tells about it. Because the tradition tells about it in order to have a formulated way of understanding and transmitting and teaching. So I don't think we can go back. I don't think the attempt to reconstruct can be made in such a way, the attempt to discover Jesus can be made in such a way. There is another way to do it. I've tried to do one of those attempts in saying that perhaps the closest to historical memory of Jesus is a ritual, is a celebration of a meal. And here we have a direct continuity from Jesus' celebration of meals with an eschatological outlook, to the disciples' celebration of meals afterwards. There we may have continuity. There may be other continuities, but they can only be concluded from the whole of the tradition. So one would have to go the opposite way from the Jesus Seminar, or have to say we have to understand the entirety of that piece which is preserved and ask what kind of understanding of Jesus' message is here reflected, and how is that totality of the understanding of Jesus' message related to what Jesus actually initiated and said. <>

“Well, it's very interesting that in a lot of the more recent discussion around the Jesus Seminar and around also such books that speak about Jesus the cynic, the eschatological element has been excised or has been not very much emphasized. I think it has much more to do with our own difficulty today to think in terms of eschatology. And as one scholar has said in this context, it would be so good, and this is what we want to do, to find a Jesus who is a rational advisor for the problems of our time. Now that is very revealing, and I think completely unhistorical. That early Christian community was a community that got the spirit, that spoke in tongues, where apostles performed miracles, where foreigners came into the assembly and thought these people are all mad. And that movement goes back to someone who was an eschatological prophet, I'm absolutely sure. An eschatological prophet in the tradition of Israel and Judaism. And not someone who was saying a few things that might help us today to order our society according to wise and rational principles.

Image Sources: Wikimedia, Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Christian Origins “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); King James Version of the Bible,; New International Version (NIV) of The Bible,; “Egeria's Description of the Liturgical Year in Jerusalem” ; Complete Works of Josephus at Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL), translated by William Whiston, , Metropolitan Museum of Art, Frontline, PBS, “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures” edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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