by Jonathan Went

Why study the historical Jesus?

Because our faith is based upon a historical figure for whom more evidence exists than for Julius Caesar. Christians, Jews, journalists, theologians, historians and sceptics all take an active interest in every archaeological or manuscript discovery that might shed light or doubt on the origins of our faith. We, too, must be armed with these facts to confirm our faith and equip ourselves with reasons for the faith we hold in order to answer enquirers (1 Peter 3.15).

During the 1990s many articles have been published identifying Jesus as a Jew(1), a Christian(2), an Essene(3), a politically correct socialist(4), a Buddhist(5) and most recently a Freemason!(6) In March-April 1996 alone several articles in major newspapers and periodicals were published concerning the historical figure of Jesus. Many of these covered the recent find(7) of inscribed burial caskets from the 1st century. In one tomb were found the names of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, another Mary (suggested to be Mary Magdalene), a Matthew and a Juda son of Jesus. Inevitably this led to speculation that Jesus had not been raised from the dead which was in contrast to a survey(8) that showed that half of Britain still believed in the resurrection, more than 4 times the adult church-going population! TIMEmagazine recently(9) ran a cover story entitled "The Search for Jesus . . . What are Christians to believe?" In these pages we will do just that, search for the real Jesus, the 'Christian' God and Jewish man "in one agreed."

The Bible itself has a high view of literal historical narrative, all of it was written for our instruction (Romans 15.4; 1 Corinthians 10.11), therefore we can be instructed out of the historical life of Jesus as much as from his definitive theological statements about God. We will derive faith from history rather than divide faith from history.

Jesus of History and the Christ of Faith

"The only Jesus most people want is the mythic one. They don't want the real Jesus. They want the one they can worship. The cultic Jesus." (10)

One problem of past and present has been the division between faith and history, between the divine and the man, between worship and apologetic. Very often people are not interested in the Jesus of history, the so-called 'real Jesus' but they are content with the one they have come to worship even if the resemblance is distorted, exaggerated or quite different altogether. I, myself, have always been curious by the lack of comment or quotation from the life of the earthly Jesus within the writings of the New Testament epistles. The gospels are bursting at the seams with facts about Jesus' ministry yet Paul prefers to concentrate on the risen Christ and virtually ignore his human lifespan and teaching. It is no wonder that some have mischievously or sceptically claimed that Paul turned the brand of Judaism that Jesus taught into a new religion: Christianity.

As a result sceptics, scholars and the odd firm believer have sought to uncover the historical Jesus from the ecclesiological wrapping in which he is now presented and worshipped. Some of the plainest facts have proven to be the most shocking or surprising, but first an overview of the so-called 'quests' to find Jesus.

The Quests
The first modern quest probably began with the German sceptic Reimarus in the latter half of the 18th century in his The Aims of Jesus and His Disciples. His, and those that followed him, was no "purely historical interest" but rationalism, scepticism and the device of turning "to the Jesus of history as an ally in the struggle against the tyranny of dogma",(11) or ecclesiatical power in determining belief and practice. David Friedrich Strauss's 1830s work, Das Leben Jesu(12), brought attention to Reimarus' thinking that Jesus was a mere man, a failed 'Jewish revolutionary'. Strauss argued that one needed to unravel the historical Jesus from the overlaid myths and miracle stories of the evangelists. The Frenchman, Joseph Ernest Renan, followed with his Vie de Jésus in 1860 in which he romanticised Jesus as a great moral teacher, but no more. Martin Kähler, in The So-Called Historical Jesus and the Historic Biblical Christ, 1896, argued that the Jesus of history was inseparable from the Christ of faith and yet since the New Testament mainly concerns itself with the latter as does the church - and it is this Christ that has influenced history, so scholars should only be interested in the Christ of faith. At the turn of the 20th century Holtzmann developed the synoptic theory of Mark's priority as the first source gospel and argued that we can know the historical Jesus by unravelling the connections and borrowings between the gospels. A little later the famous Albert Schweitzer recounted the various lives of Jesus to date and the problem of whether anyhting can be safely known about him in The Quest of the Historical Jesus, 1906. Schweitzer emphasised the unrealized eschatology of Jesus' apparently failed or mistaken mission to bring in the end-time kingdom.

The Second Quest revived the so-called 'problem' in Ernst Käsemann's 1953 lecture: 'The Problem of the Historical Jesus'. Karl Barth, Paul Tillich, Rudolf Bultmann and others had accepted Kähler's conclusion that faith could not depend on the historical Christ since "we can now know almost nothing concerning the life and personality of Jesus".(13) Käsemann responded to Bultmann and suggested that information about the historial Jesus could be dug out from the gospels through critical analysis such as form criticism. During the 50s and 60s one aberration of true theological and historical inquiry was the premise that authentic and original Jesus material was to be found not in its faithfulness to his Jewish context but in its 'dissimilarity'! The paradox is that about 90% or more of Jesus' sayings are parallelled in contemporary Jewish teaching. This leaves just 10% for the real Jesus. This is exactly the Jesus that the Professor Funk's Jesus Seminar have embraced, ". . . way less than 25% of the words attributed to Jesus were his".(14) Their method (if it could be called that) is to 'vote' on Jesus' sayings to determine their authenticity, allotting them different coloured counters or beads according to what extent they 'sound like Jesus'. Were they there? The gospel writers were! Out of the Jesus Seminar two adherents Burton Mack and Dominic Crossan have promoted Jesus as 'wandering cynic preacher', a stoic Greek philosopher who gathered disciples around himself. The rejection of Jesus as a Jewish teacher wrenching him from his context inevitably leads to bland assertions that he was heavily influenced by Greek thought. Arguably Crossan sees Jesus as a Jewish form of cynic or gnostic philosopher but for Mack the least Jewish parts of the gospels are the most authentic.

The Third Quest has been so named since perhaps the 70s and overlaps with that above. One early distinction was the involvement of Jewish scholars also attempting to reclaim or recover the historical Jesus. Geza Vermes' book Jesus the Jew was provocative in its title alone - although what could be more undeniable than Jesus' Jewishness? Hyam Maccoby (and S.Brandon) promoted Jesus as a Jewish revolutionary whilst Vermes saw him as a Galilean Hasid, at least accepting some of the miraculous as a defining characteristic of this type of Jewish 'holy man'. More recently in the 90s the lapsed believer A.N.Wilson has followed Vermes' work. From a Jewish understanding E.P Sanders has also written putting Jesus into his Jewish context, harmonising and explaining apparent conflicts with the Pharisees. Other Jewish angles have seen Jesus as an Essene, a Prophet, a Pharisee, a Rabbi and more - whilst these are radical the simple assertion that Jesus was a Jew still proves the most controversial.

Jesus the Jew?

'Jesus the Jew', or the 'Jewish Jesus', has proved to be a controversial and offensive statement for something so apparently obvious. However, Gentile prejudice has not only made Jesus out to be a Western Christian, but also white, blond, blue eyed and on Hollywood's casting list. The Jewish scholar, Geza Vermes, was reprimanded by the chaplaincy at an English University for suggesting that Jesus was a Jew. American films have had the phrase, "Moses was an Hebrew, Jesus was a Christian". Friedrich Delitzsch (son of Franz, the evangelical scholar) said Jesus was a Gentile. Another German, Queen Victoria's grandson, Kaiser Wilhelm II, accepted the Germanophile Houston Stewart Chamberlain's idea that Jesus was an Aryan.(15) Pre-Hitler anti-Semitism was rife in England and Germany at the end of the nineteenth century. In the middle of this century Pope Pius XII and the Catholic church said little or nothing about the holocaust and a Catholic theologian(16)proclaimed that Jesus was a Gentile based upon the immaculate conception of Mary because his "mother Mary had no physical and moral connection with those ugly dispositions and powers which we condemn in those who are full-blooded Jews".(17) The most recent definition to come out is that of the 1993 edition New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary which redresses the balance and calls Jesus a "Jewish preacher", though this caused an outcry and a member of the General Synod described this as "a rather derogatory term".(18)

From the Jewish side comes the affirmation that, "Jesus . . . never wished to see his fellow Jews change one iota of their traditional faith. He himself remained an Orthodox Jew to his last moment".(19) So was Jesus an exemplary orthodox Jew and did he want them to change their faith?

Even as a Jew, "the cumulative effect of reading his words is to be confronted by a wholly distinctive view and voice - distinctively Jewish, distinctively of its time, but distinctive".(20)

Jesus was raised a Jew

From his birth, as is indicated by his very Jewish genealogy, Jesus was raised a Jew. He was circumcised the eighth day (Luke 2.21), bore a common Jewish name, Yeshua, 'he [God] saves' (Matthew 1.21). In fact, Yeshua was the fifth most common Jewish name, 4 out of the 28 Jewish High-Priests in Jesus' time were called Yeshua. Joseph was the second most common male name and Mary the most common amongst women, this in itself is sufficient evidence to throw doubt on the recently found tomb of 'Jesus, Mary and Joseph', as it is like finding the gravestone of Mr and Mrs John Smith! In passing, it is worth noting that we do not know for sure if Jesus was born in a stable surrounded by animals, only that he was laid in a feed trough. In fact, Justin Martyr(21) in the middle of the 2nd century said that it was in a cave that Jesus was born owing to their being "no room at the inn" (Luke 2.7). That this story was widely believed (e.g., by Origen and the Apocryphal gospels) is evident from the fact the Constantine had a church built on the site of the cave in the 4th century.

After his birth, Jesus was presented to the Lord in the Jerusalem temple (Luke 2.22; cf. Deuteronomy 18.4; Exodus 13.2,12,15) according to Mary's period of uncleanness (Leviticus 12.2-8). A sacrifice was offered for him - a pair of doves and 2 young pigeons - which indicated that his family were not wealthy (Leviticus 12.2,6,8; Luke 2.22-24). Thus Jesus was raised according to the law (Luke 2.39).

Jesus the Carpenter?

Recently, a Jesuit lecturer has painted Jesus as a "successful builder" and "relatively well off"(22) but others before have tried to suggest that Joseph's carpentry firm was more than a simple workshop. These vain attempts to raise Jesus above the level of a humble carpenter are futile since we know that his parents were not well off. As cited above they offered the poor man's sacrifice at Jesus' birth - a pair of doves and 2 young pigeons - (Leviticus 12.2,6,8; Luke 2.22-24).

But where do we get the idea from that Jesus himself was a carpenter? Another myth perhaps? Significant manuscripts of Mark support Matthew 13.55 which only describes Jesus as "son of the carpenter"not as the "carpenter, son of Mary". Indeed, the early 3rd century church writer Origen(23)writes against Celsus' assertion that Jesus was a mere carpenter, that "in none of the Gospels current in the churches is Jesus Himself ever described as being a carpenter".(24) This is still a widely debated topic(25), however Geza Vermes(26) highlights an Aramaic use of the term carpenter/craftsman (naggar) to metaphorically describe a 'scholar' or 'learned man'. Nevertheless, the majority of wandering rabbis had a trade to support their learning and teaching and there is no reason to doubt that carpentry may have been that of Jesus. Although Origen dismisses Jesus' role as carpenter, the earlier church writer Justin(27) cites it, he says that "He was considered to be the son of Joseph the carpenter; and He appeared without comeliness, as the Scriptures declared; and He was deemed a carpenter (for He was in the habit of working as a carpenter when among men, making ploughs and yokes; by which He taught the symbols of righteousness and an active life)".

Jesus and Jewish Education

During the so-called 'missing years' filled in by spurious apocryphal gospels, Jesus undoubtedly received a Jewish education perhaps along these lines: "at 5 years of age" he would be "ready for the study of the written Torah(28), at 10 years of age for the study of the Oral Torah, . . . at 20 for pursuing a vocation, at 30 for entering one's full vigour".(29) Interestingly, Jesus did just that, entering his ministry at about 30 years of age. Also at 30 a Jewish father might publicly declare his son to be the inheritor of all that he had, or an adopted son in his place. The voice that spoke out of heaven at Jesus' baptism (Luke 3.22) was God declaring Jesus to be His true son and inheritor.

The Jews of Jesus' era were world innovators in comprehensive universal education(30). The majority, if not all, were taught to read and write. The philosopher Seneca remarked that the Jews were the only people who knew the reasons for their religious faith, something which the apostle Peter continued to commend (1 Peter 3.15). We often reflect on how Christianity was the initiator behind much of our modern education system, yet that motivation derives from its Jewish educational foundations.

The remark of a contemporary Jewish Rabbi was that education began at 6 and from then on we "stuff him [with Scriptural teaching] like an ox".(31) Jesus only needed to hint at Scriptural verses for his hearers to recollect the whole contexts in their minds. Their minds worked like Strong's Concordances. The Scriptural knowledge of most Jewish children then would have surpassed that of most church leaders now, nevertheless it was faith and application that God was looking for. Lessons began with the book of Leviticus(32) at age 5 or 6 and progressed onward. Higher education began at 15 when one would embark on theological discussion with learned teachers or Rabbis.(33)

By the age of 12 we know that Jesus was growing in understanding as he was found in the temple precincts "both listening and asking questions" (Luke 2.46). The contemporary method of teaching included questioning to elicit intelligent responses, so Jesus' asking of questions may not have been just to obtain knowledge but also to teach it, indeed "they were astonished at his understanding and answers".

Memorisation was the chief technique of learning. Hence, why Jesus' followers were able to reproduce his teachings so accurately when they were later written down as our gospels. Given this fact, it means that we can have faith in the accurate transmission of Jesus' teachings. We know from early church records that Matthew's was the earliest gospel and that it was written in Hebrew. Jesus himself must have taught in Hebrew (as all rabbis did) as he says that "not one yodh or little horn(34)shall pass away from the law" (Matthew 5.18) referring to the smallest Hebrew letter yodh and the small hook or serif on others. Our Greek gospels are translations themselves of Jesus' Hebrew teachings and possibly too of an original Hebrew gospel of Matthew(35).

The study of Greek in Palestine in Jesus' day was not encouraged, although it was a necessity of daily life in the diaspora lands outside of Palestine. Greek philosophy was equally deprecated in Palestine. Early church theologians were later to remark "what has Athens to do with Jerusalem"(36)decrying Greek thinking synthesis with Christian doctrine. It is unfortunate in the least that even in the church New Testament Greek is studied in preference to Hebrew and the Greek classics instead of Jewish writings such as the Talmud and Mishnah.

Two rabbinic stories give a flavour of the Palestinian attitude towards Greek:

A Rabbi wrote "There were a 1000 pupils in my father's school, of whom 500 studied Torah and 500 studied Greek philosophy; and of the latter none are left but myself and my nephew"(37)
"A Rabbi asked 'since I have learnt the whole of Torah may I now study Greek philosophy?'", the reply came "'This book of Torah shall not depart out of your mouth but you shall meditate in it day and night (Joshua 1.8)', 'now go and search out at which hour it is neither day nor night and devote it to the study of Greek philosophy'"(38)

Access to copies of the Hebrew Scriptures was virtually universal via the synagogues and schools. In addition, every household might purchase one scroll or another according to their wealth. However, it was unlawful to make copies of small portions out of context through fear of transmission of error. Exceptions were made for certain passages though: Genesis 1-9 (the history of the world from creation to the flood); Leviticus 1-9; Numbers 1-10.35. Since Scripture was memorised from youth these manuscripts were luxuries rather than essential.

Given all of this we can see that Jesus did not have supernatural help in learning his Scripture but being a man he learnt it as any other Jewish boy, as an example to us all. Recollect Timothy who had known the Scriptures (the Old Testament) from his childhood and which were able to make him wise for salvation (2 Timothy 3.15).

Outward form!

On the outside Jesus even looked like a Jew. Certainly, being faithful to the Law, he wore the tsîtsith('tassel', Numbers 15.37-41; Matthew 9.20; 14.36; Luke 8.44; in English these are obvious by the translations 'hem' or 'fringe of his garment' which the crowds were keen to touch in order to be healed).

He may also have worn the tephillin ('phylacteries', Deuteronomy 6.8), small boxes bound to arm and head containing the Scriptural verses: Exodus 13.1-16, Deuteronomy 6.4-9 and 11.13-21. Jesus only criticised the exaggerating of these for ostentatious exhibitionism (Matthew 23.5), a practice also condemned by later rabbis. Conventionally, these were meant to be discreet and the arm one was invisible under clothing. A rabbinic source suggests that the head one should only be worn in Winter under a head band and not in Summer when it would have been conspicuous. Actually, Edersheim(39) thinks it unlikely that Jesus wore them, the practice was not universal in Jesus' time and not literally required from a reading of Deuteronomy 6.8.

Religious attendance

Every year, (perhaps the family was prospering or were particularly dutiful for most only went up to Jerusalem occasionally) Jesus' family went up to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover (Pesach) (Luke 2.41-43) a tradition which Jesus continued (John 12.12; Mark 14.12-26). Jesus also kept Tabernacles (Sukkôth, 'booths') (John 7.1-39). John 10.22-23 may also indicate that Jesus celebrated the Hanukkah festival which commemorated the 2nd century B.C. rededication of the Temple under the Maccabees.

"As was his custom" he also attended synagogue every sabbath (Luke 4.16) even during his travelling ministry (Mark 1.39; Matthew 4.23; 9.35; Luke 4.15,16-27,44).

Religious observance

In tithing, fasting and almsgiving he was totally Jewish. Although he opposed excessive worrying about the minutiae of tithing "mint, dill and cumin" (Matthew 23.23) he still argued that the crowds and his disciples should do as the scribes and Pharisees said (Matthew 23.3; "but not as they do"!). In fact the law only specified tithing of grain, wine, oil and livestock.(40)

Jesus said grace, or rather a blessing, before and/or after meals (Deuteronomy 8.10; Matthew 6.41; 26.26 and Luke 24.30 which is post resurrection; cf. Didache 10.1). The object of the blessing was not the food but God, when the New Testament inserts 'it' or 'the bread' in such verses it is not found in the Greek. It was inconceivable that a Jew would bless the object and not the originator/creator. The traditional blessing is:

"Barukh attah 'Adonai 'elohenu Melekh ha-olam ha-motsi lechem meen ha-arets"

"Blessed are You, our Lord God, King of the Ages/Universe, who brings forth bread from the earth"

In every respect, therefore, Jesus was a Jew, and was not ashamed to call himself one:

"we know what we worship, for salvation is from the Jews" (John 4.22)

Copyright © 1998 Jonathan Went. Used by permission.

Jonathan Went teaches at Christ for England Bible School and tutors Hebrew privately and by correspondence. He is a graduate of University College London. He has studied theology with London Bible College and is researching a PhD on the Hebrew nature of man. He resides in Norwich, England.

Select Bibliography

David Friedrich Strauss, Das Leben Jesu, 1835-1836

Joseph Ernest Renan, Vie de Jésus, 1860

Martin Kähler, The So-Called Historical Jesus and the Historic Biblical Christ, 1896

Schweitzer, Albert, The Quest for the Historical Jesus, A&C. Black, 1906/10

Bultmann, Jesus and the Word, NY: Scribner's, 1934

Ernst Käsemann, lecture: 'The Problem of the Historical Jesus', 1953

Günther Bornkamm, Jesus of Nazereth, 1956/60

James M. Robinson, A New Quest of the Historical Jesus, 1959

Jeremias, Joachim, The Problem of the Historical Jesus, Fortress Press, 1964

Xavier Léon-Dufour, S.J., The Gospels and the Jesus of History, Collins, 1968

D.Flusser, Jesus, Herder & Herder, New York, 1969

ed. McArthur, Harvey K., In Search of the Historical Jesus, SPCK, 1970

Geza Vermes, Jesus the Jew, London: Collins, 1973

Maccoby, Hyam, Revolution in Judaea - Jesus & the Jewish Resistance, Ocean books, 1973

Wilson, Ian, Jesus: The Evidence, Pan, 1984

Schonfield, Hugh, The Essene Odyssey, Element, 1984

Rabbi Harvey Falk, Jesus the Pharisee: A New look at the Jewishness of Jesus, NY: Paulist Press, 1985

Mack, B.H., A Myth of Innocence: Mark and Christian Origins, Fortress Press, 1988

Lindsey, Robert L., Jesus Rabbi & Lord, Cornerstone, 1990

Crossan, J.D., The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant, T&T Clark, 1991

Wilson, A.N., Jesus, Sinclair Stevenson, 1992

Barbara Thiering, Jesus the Man, Doubleday, 1992

Wright, N.T., Who was Jesus?, SPCK, 1992

E.P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus, Penguin Press: Allen Lane, 1993

W. Hamilton's Quest for the Post-Historical Jesus

E. Gruber and H. Kersten, The Original Jesus

C. Knight and R. Lomas, The Hiram Key

Witherington III, Ben, The Jesus Quest - The third search for the Jew of Nazareth, Paternoster, 1995

Shorto, Russell, Gospel Truth, Hodder&Stoughton, 1997


1. The Times, 19 September 1992 reporting on Jesus by A.N. Wilson. Also The Times, 9 October 1993 reporting on the latest definition of Jesus in the New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.

2. A common misnomer, a Christian is someone who follows Christ, if Christ were a Christian he would be following himself, like a dog chasing his own tail.

3. a member of the Dead Sea Scroll community at Qumran, an apocalyptic Jewish sect. Suggested by Barbara Thiering's book Jesus the Man, Doubleday, 1992. Also see Schonfield's The Essene Odyssey, Element, 1984

4. The Times, 23 December 1993 reporting on E.P. Sanders' The Historical Figure of Jesus and W. Hamilton's Quest for the Post-Historical Jesus.

5. The Times, 4 March 1995 and The Sunday Times, 2 April 1995, reporting on The Original Jesus by E. Gruber and H. Kersten.

6. The Sunday Times, 7 April 1996 reporting on The Hiram Key by C. Knight and R. Lomas.

7. Reported on the BBC's Heart of the Matter, 7 April 1996.

8. The Sunday Times, 7 April 1996 reporting on two separate surveys with figures of 48-50% for belief in the resurrection.

9. TIME magazine, 8 April 1996. Also see the cover story: "Who was Jesus?", TIME magazine, 15 August 1988.

10. Robert Funk of the Jesus Seminar quoted in the Los Angeles Times, 24 February 1994, View section

11. Schweitzer, Albert, The Quest for the Historical Jesus, A&C. Black, 1906/10, p.4

12. English translation by the novelist George Eliot

13. Bultmann, Jesus and the Word, NY: Scribner's, 1934, p

14. Robert Funk of the Jesus Seminar quoted in the Los Angeles Times, 5 March 1989

15. The Times, 21 October 1994

16. Karl Adam from Tubingen; cf. Küng, Judaism

17. The Times 14 January 1995

18. Tony Higton, letter, in The Times, 9 October 1993

19. Rabbi Harvey Falk, Jesus the Pharisee: A New look at the Jewishness of Jesus, NY, 1985, p.158

20. A.N.Wilson, Jesus, Sinclair Stevenson, 1992, p.68

21. Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho the Jew, 78

22. The Times, November 12 1997

23. A 3rd centuy Christian writer

24. Origen, Against Celsus, 6.36

25. cf. Vincent Taylor, Mark, p.299f versus Cranfield, Mark, p.194f

26. Geza Vermes, Jesus the Jew, p.21. Cf. D.Flusser, Jesus, Herder & Herder, New York, 1969, p.20; yYeb.9b; yKid.66a, bAZ 50b.

27. Justin Martyr, a 2nd century Christian writer writing in Dialogue with Trypho the Jew, 88

28. Torah is the Hebrew word for instruction, teaching, law, and Scripture itself.

29. Mishnah, Avot, 5.21; the Mishnah is a collection of contemporary and later Jewish sayings

30. Brought in during the 1st century B.C. and the 1st century A.D.

31. Mishnah, Baba Bathra, 21a.

32. A reason given for this is that Leviticus teaches on pure sacrifices, and the sacrifice of a child is pure.

33. Mishnah, Aboth, 5.21

34. This is the literal meaning of keraia the Greek word here

35. According to Papias an early church bishop at the beginning of the second century

36. Tertullian

37. Mishnah, Baba Kamma, 83a

38. Mishnah, Menachoth, 99b

39. Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Vol.1, p.624-5

40. A practice continued in the early church, cf. the Didache 13.5-7, an early church document.