WHAT WAS JESUS
Teaching the multitudes Jesus has been viewed as healer, moral teacher, reformer, apocalyptic preacher, radical, revolutionary, and, ultimately and most importantly, the Messiah. Jesus lived during a time when, historian say, wandering charismatics and faith healers were relatively common place. Kristin Romey wrote in National Geographic: “ Scholars who understand him in strictly human terms—as a religious reformer, or a social revolutionary, or an apocalyptic prophet, or even a Jewish jihadist—plumb the political, economic, and social currents of first-century Galilee to discover the forces that gave rise to the man and his mission.” [Source: Kristin Romey, National Geographic, November 28, 2017 ^|^]
After the completion of the fast Jesus took up the role of an itinerant rabbi and wandered the countryside preaching. . People began calling him the Messiah and he began drawing people to him. Jesus did the bulk of his teachings in the fishing towns and farming communities in Galilee, a region named after the Sea of Galilee, which today is on the border of Israel and Syria.
The center of Jesus's early teaching was Caprnaum, the hometown of Simon Peter, one of his first disciples. Jesus preached in the synagogue, taught by the seaside, and healed in the home, but failed to win any converts in Capernaum, which he said would be "thrust down to hell."
Professor Eric Meyers told PBS: ““I think Jesus was a teacher, a wise person. He was not a peasant if by peasants you mean someone unlettered and untutored. As a wise man, certainly, Jesus participated in the normal education of a good Jewish home and Jewish upbringing in Nazareth or the region [Source: Eric Meyers, Professor of Religion and Archaeology Duke University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 <>]
Websites and Resources: Christianity Britannica on Christianity britannica.com//Christianity ; Religious Tolerance religioustolerance.org/christ.htm ; History of Christianity history-world.org/jesus_christ ; BBC on Christianity bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity ;Wikipedia article on Christianity Wikipedia ; Early Christian Writing earlychristianwritings.com ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Christian Origins sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Christian Answers christiananswers.net ; Christian Classics Ethereal Library www.ccel.org ; Early Christian Art oneonta.edu/farberas/arth/arth212/Early_Christian_art ; Early Christian Images jesuswalk.com/christian-symbols ; Early Christian and Byzantine Images belmont.edu/honors/byzart2001/byzindex ; Jesus and the Historical Jesus ; Britannica on Jesus britannica.com Jesus-Christ ; Historical Jesus Theories earlychristianwritings.com ; Wikipedia article on Historical Jesus Wikipedia ; Jesus Seminar Forum virtualreligion.net ; Life and Ministry of Jesus Christ bible.org ; Jesus Central jesuscentral.com ; Catholic Encyclopedia: Jesus Christ newadvent.org ; Bible and Biblical History: Bible Gateway and the New International Version (NIV) of The Bible biblegateway.com ; King James Version of the Bible gutenberg.org/ebooks ; Bible History Online bible-history.com ; Biblical Archaeology Society biblicalarchaeology.org ; Internet Jewish History Sourcebook sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Complete Works of Josephus at Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL) ccel.org
Jesus as a Religious Leader
Jesus became a major religious figure after the death of John the Baptist. Most the Gospels refers to the three year period between Jesus' baptism around A.D. 27 and his death around A.D. 30. From what we can tell Jesus began preaching in A.D. 28, about the same time that John the Baptist was arrested and beheaded.
Jesus reportedly inspired many people and won many converts with his teaching. Some scholars have theorized that large numbers of people were attracted by his message because Judea was in such a state of chaos and social unrest. Even so Jesus had very little impact on the history his time. He was one of many orators who was critical of the materialism and the decadence of the Romans and Jerusalemites.
Recent archaeological excavations in Galilee area have indicated the towns where Jesus preached were much larger than previously thought. A modest house found in Capernaum in the late 1990s offered hints of being Peter’s residence and possibly the center of Jesus’s teachings.
Jesus: the Healer- Teacher-Preacher
Professor Paula Fredriksen told PBS: “One of the most interesting and frustrating aspects of the stories about Jesus in the gospel is that they speak about him in so many different ways. There are elements of Jesus' public career, if you want to look at it that way, where he seems like a healer.... [I]n Mark, he's first of all an exorcist, somebody who drives out demons and drives out sickness. He is depicted as a religious teacher in the Gospel of Matthew. The Beatitudes, [the] Sermon on the Mount, are part of that teaching. He's constantly having arguments about what the correct way to live Jewishly is.... [Source: Paula Fredriksen. William Goodwin Aurelio Professor of the Appreciation of Scripture, Boston University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 <>]
“He's depicted also as somebody who's talking about the coming Kingdom of God. If all we had were the gospels, if that were all we knew about this moment in the development of Christianity as a religion, we might think that the attribution of apocalyptic hope to Jesus came from a level after his lifetime, or maybe was the editorial decision of the evangelist, who, after all, is writing sometime between 70 and 100. And Jesus dies around the year 30. So there's that gap. In other words, we could look at these apocalyptic elements and see them as a kind of literary theme, but not telling us anything about Jesus. <>
“I think, though, that [it's important to look at] Paul's letters that are written 15 years earlier than the first gospel, by a person who doesn't know Jesus, but by a person who is in a movement that is creating itself around the name and the memory of this man, Jesus. And... Paul himself is also talking about the coming Kingdom of God with a different improvised wrinkle to it: that the son of God, namely Jesus, is going to come back ...and now the Kingdom is also going to arrive. I want to put Paul between the Jesus of history and the different Jesuses that stand in the gospels, and line up what's in the gospels with what's in Paul.... [Paul is] talking about a coming Kingdom of God. He's talking about the transformation of the living and the resurrection of the dead. He's talking about a spirit of holiness transfusing Christian communities. He's talking about Jesus coming back. He's talking about God intervening definitively in history. He's talking about the end of evil. And either he, and the movement he stands in mid-century, are inventing this out of whole cloth, and it has nothing to do with the person they consider their founder and teacher had said, or Jesus himself had also said something like that. I think it's less elaborate to think of Jesus, Paul, and the early church as on this kind of continuum. <>
Jesus as a Holy Man
Professor Shaye I.D. Cohen says that Jesus is probably best described as a holy man. He told PBS: “That is to say, a person who was believed by his followers, by his disciples, by eye witnesses, to somehow be diffused with a divine presence.... He is able to do things that the rest of us can't do. He sees things that the rest of us don't see. He hears things the rest of us don't hear. He is a human, of course, but somehow he is possessed by a god, or the God, or a divine spirit or an angel or something that somehow has elevated him above the ordinary, so that he is able to do things the rest of us simply can't do. This is a recognized social type, both in the history of Judaism, and in fact, virtually all the world's religions, all the world's societies and cultures who have different names for such people. [Source: Shaye I.D. Cohen, Samuel Ungerleider Professor of Judaic Studies and Professor of Religious Studies, Brown University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 <>]
“And even in the Hebrew Bible we can recognize this type in the Elijah type from the Book of Kings, they are characterized by their ability to do miracles. In Jesus' case, especially healings, which seems to have been something of a specialty of his, for which he had a great reputation. People would bring from miles around, judging from the gospel, they would bring their, the sick, the frail, to Jesus to be healed, as if somehow just a touch from the holy man would suffice to effect a cure, just looking at the Holy Man might suffice to effect a cure.... <>
“If you believed in him, of course, he was a man possessed by God. If you did not believe in him you would say he was a magician, a charlatan, a faker, a pretender, just a cheap trickster, nobody of any consequence. So the same acts might be construed differently depending on where you're coming from, what your perspective was. This would be the core then of what Jesus was, I think.” <>
Jesus, a Cynic, an Apocalyptic Preacher?
Professor Harold W. Attridge told PBS: “Jesus was a very creative and engaging preacher, we know that. And contemporary scholars have tried to find analogies between his preaching and the images he uses, the parables he uses, the prophecies that are attributed to him... between those materials and contemporary preachers of various sorts. In recent years, it's become quite popular among some scholars to think of Jesus as a cynic. By a cynic I mean someone who was a member of a kind of countercultural movement; the hippies of the Hellenistic world were the cynics. They were very critical of conventional religion, conventional philosophy, conventional behavior. And they issued to the Hellenistic world generally a call to return to nature, to a natural and a simple way of life. There were some things in the preaching of Jesus that are analogous to that kind of call. "Consider the lilies of the field," for instance, is something that is very reminiscent of some cynic preaching. [Source: Harold W. Attridge, The Lillian Claus Professor of New Testament Yale Divinity School, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 <>]
“However, there's something that I think differentiates Jesus from most cynics who seem to have been by and large very individualistic. Jesus does seem to have had a concern for the reign of God as something that effects the people as a whole.... And I take seriously the claim that he called people together in some sort of fellowship, and probably used symbols that in some way relate to the tradition of the people of Israel. That he was, in effect, constituting a call [for the] reform of the people in Israel, and that seems to be a very uncynic kind of thing. So those elements in his teaching and his proclamation that have to do with the reign of God and the people bring him closer to what we might describe as an apocalyptic preacher or someone who was concerned for God's intervention into human history to set Israel right. So, bottom line, Jesus was a very complex kind of character, and to put him in one or another of these pigeon holes, I think, is a mistake, and doesn't do justice with to the complexity of the evidence that's available.... <>
“If we take the Gospel of Mark, Chapter 13, we find a series of predictions about the end of the world. The skies will be darkened, the stars will fall from heaven, there will be earthquakes, trials and tribulations, war, and rumors of war. And then at the end of that period, a divine figure, the Son of Man, will come, will enter into human history and will inaugurate God's kingdom. That whole series of predictions is an example of apocalyptic prophesy. A prophesy of God's intervention into human history at the end of time to bring to realization all of the things that God has promised to his people. That's more or less what we mean by apocalyptic eschatology. If we take the attribution of that series of prophesies to Jesus seriously, then we'd have to classify him as an eschatological prophet. <>
“There is, however, reason to believe that some of those prophetic statements attributed to Jesus probably were creations of the early church and put on his lips in order to help his followers to understand their relationship to their own history and to the catastrophes that were developing during the course of the first century. If we look at some of the other elements in the teaching of Jesus, there seems to be a critical stance towards some of these prophetic elements. So for instance, there are sayings where Jesus says that he does not know when the end will come. And if we look at the way in which he uses some symbols that are connected with these hopes for eschatological intervention then we seem to see Jesus using them in odd ways. Ways that suggest he may have been critical of some of those eschatological hopes. <>
“So it's my understanding that Jesus probably grew up in an environment where some people nurtured these hopes for divine intervention into human history, that he may have shared them at some point in his life, if indeed he was a disciple of John the Baptist and was baptized by him. And if John the Baptist was such an apocalyptic preacher, it's entirely reasonable to presume that Jesus had some connection with those eschatological hopes. But the way in which he worked them out and the way in which he came to understand the reign of God or the kingdom of God suggests that he didn't buy in totally to that eschatological vision that then gets reworked by his followers into such passages as Mark 13. <>
Who Did Jesus Think He Was?
Professor John Dominic Crossan told PBS: “Jesus talks quite clearly about the Kingdom of God, and there's no hesitation about it. And that means this is the will of God. Jesus is making statements about what God wants for the earth. And there is no "The word of the Lord came to me," or there's no "I've thought about this." It seems self-evident. I think that's exactly what it is for Jesus. The Kingdom of God is radically subversive of the Kingdom of Caesar, and that's self-evident to Jesus because he's grown up, as it were, at the bottom of the heap and he knows the heap is unjust. It's so obvious for him, it is beyond revelation.... It's coming straight out of the Jewish tradition that this system is not right. [Source: John Dominic Crossan, Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies DePaul University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 <>]
“Now, his followers are going to ask him, of course, a very obvious question, "Who are you?" And I find no problems that during the life of Jesus, certain of his followers could have said, "He is divine." And by divine, meaning, "This is where we see God at work. This is the way we see God" or, "He is the Messiah." But then, they'll have to interpret the Messiah in the light of what Jesus is doing. He doesn't seem to be a militant Messiah, or maybe we would like him to be a militant Messiah. All of those options could have been there during the life of Jesus. I have no evidence whatsoever that Jesus was in the least bit concerned with accepting any of them, or even discussing any of them. He was the one who announced the Kingdom of God. <>
“Jesus had to think he was speaking for God, yes...I do not think that Jesus thought he had any special relationship with God that wasn't there for anyone else who would look at the world and see that this is not right. It was to Jesus so obvious that anyone should be able to see it. Now, on the other hand, most people weren't able to see that in the first century or the twentieth. So in that sense, yes, it is a unique relationship. And it's that on which later theology would build, of course. <>
“If somebody says, "This is the will of God," then I'm going to say, "Well, when I hear you , I'm hearing God then?" "Yep." "Well, then, you're kind of like God?" "Yep." "But, when you die, God doesn't die?" So, I mean, it's perfectly valid for somebody to say then, "Jesus is God." But they're going to have to explain what that means. And that means for me, that Jesus speaks for God. That what Jesus says is what God wants for the world. <>
Jesus, the Revolutionary
Professor Harold W.Attridge told PBS: Jesus “probably was aware of the growing Pharisaic movement which preached a notion of purity that was available to all Jews, not simply those who were officiating at the Temple cult. He certainly would have known Jewish scripture.... And we can see in some of his parables how he plays on images from scripture. For instance, the great Cedar of Lebanon from Ezekial probably plays a role in his description of the mustard seed, which becomes a tree, and there's probably an element of parody there. So his relationship with the scriptural heritage is a complex one, but it certainly is an important one in his formation.” [Source: Harold W. Attridge, Lillian Claus Professor of New Testament Yale Divinity School, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 <>]
Dale B. Martin wrote in the New York Times: “In his book “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth,” Reza Aslan follows this long tradition, settling on the hypothesis, also around for hundreds of years, that Jesus was a Jewish zealot, a rebel against Rome and the Romans’ local agents.According to Mr. Aslan, Jesus was born in Nazareth and grew up a poor laborer. He was a disciple of John the Baptist until John’s arrest. Like John, Jesus preached the imminent arrival of the kingdom of God, which would be an earthly, political state ruled by God or his anointed, a messiah. Jesus never intended to found a church, much less a new religion. He was loyal to the law of Moses as he interpreted it. Jesus opposed not only the Roman overlords, Mr. Aslan writes, but also their representatives in Palestine: “the Temple priests, the wealthy Jewish aristocracy, the Herodian elite.” [Source: Dale B. Martin, New York Times, August 5, 2013 |=|]
“In the last week of Jesus’ life, Mr. Aslan writes, he entered Jerusalem with his disciples in a provocative way that recalled royal entrances described in Jewish scripture. He then enacted a violent cleansing of the Temple: something like radical street theater, except that it took place in a site of supreme holiness. |=|
“Provoked by that action and his other rantings against the Temple and its caretakers, the authorities arrested Jesus. The Romans crucified him as a rebel, a zealot and a pretender to the Judean throne. The charge on the cross is historical: the Romans took Jesus as claiming to be the messianic king of the Jews. Since only the Roman Senate could appoint kings within the Empire, claiming to be a king was treasonous and punishable by the worst kind of death: torture and crucifixion. |=|
“Mr. Aslan’s thesis is not as startling, original or “entirely new” as the book’s publicity claims. Nor is it as outlandish as described by his detractors. That Jesus was a Jewish peasant who attempted to foment a rebellion against the Romans and their Jewish clients has been suggested at least since the posthumous publication of Hermann Samuel Reimarus’s “Fragments” (1774-78). The most famous case for the thesis is the 1967 book by S. G. F. Brandon, “Jesus and the Zealots.” Mr. Aslan follows Mr. Brandon in his general thesis as well as in many details, a borrowing that should have been better acknowledged. (Mr. Brandon gets only a cursory mention in the notes.) And the basic premise that Jesus was zealous for the political future of Israel as the kingdom of God on earth is neither new nor controversial”. Mr. Aslan does not fall into the anachronism of making Jesus a member of the Zealot Party as described by Josephus. He knows that party did not exist in Jesus’ day but arose later. Mr. Aslan means zealot with a small “z.”“ |=|
Book “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth” by Reza Aslan, Random House. $27.
Image Sources: Wikimedia, Commons
Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Christian Origins sourcebooks.fordham.edu “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, gutenberg.org; New International Version (NIV) of The Bible, biblegateway.com; “Egeria's Description of the Liturgical Year in Jerusalem” users.ox.ac.uk ; Complete Works of Josephus at Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL), translated by William Whiston, ccel.org , Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org, 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