'Who Do You Say That I Am?': The Modern Quest for the Ancient Jesus

By Fredriksen, Paula | The World and I, December 1999 | Go to article overview
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'Who Do You Say That I Am?': The Modern Quest for the Ancient Jesus

Fredriksen, Paula, The World and I

Paula Fredriksen is A. William Goodwin Aurelio Professor of the Appreciation of Scripture in the Department of Religion at Boston University.

The answer to the question, "Who is Jesus?" will depend upon the commitments of the person responding. If he is a Christian, however, certain common elements will probably appear no matter what his particular church: Jesus is the son of God, the second person of the Trinity, and through him salvation comes to the world. The historian, too, whatever his personal religious beliefs, will affirm what the traditional believer also holds to be true, namely, that Jesus of Nazareth stands at the source of Christianity. But the person wishing to pursue the historical question ("Who was Jesus?") as distinct from the theological one ("Who is Jesus?") will encounter a striking anomaly when turning to the New Testament in pursuit of the historical figure. The Jesus of the Gospels is not a Christian.

The sacred texts of Judaism, from Exodus through Deuteronomy, present Moses as a Jew. The Muhammad who speaks in the Qur'an is, unquestionably, a Muslim. But the Jesus of Christianity's own foundational texts worships in the synagogue on the Sabbath (Mark 1:21, and frequently) and in the temple on the great feast days of Passover and Tabernacles (Mark 11-14; John 2:13; 7:2). He journeys to Jerusalem even for nonbiblical holidays, such as the festival celebrating the purification of the temple (the origin of the modern holiday Hanukkah, John 10:22). He wears ritual fringes, the tzitziot of Numbers and Deuteronomy, to remind himself of God's commandments (Num. 15:38-40; Deut. 22:12; Mark 6:56). He recites the Shema: "Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind and with all your strength," and teaches by quoting Leviticus: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Lev. 19:18; cf. Mark 12:29-31). The God he worships is the God of Israel. The Jesus of the Gospels is a Jew.


What accounts for this difference between Jesus' worship and the worship of Jesus? The growth and evolution of Christianity in the Greco-Roman world. From the earliest stratum of New Testament evidence, the letters of Paul--written by mid-first century, within twenty years of Jesus' execution--we know four crucial data. The first three coherently sketch the social, geographic, and linguistic consequences of the earliest movement's vigor. First, the balance of members in the movement had already, by midcentury, begun its momentous shift from primarily Jewish to increasingly Gentile. Second, the movement was spreading out from its points of origin in the communities in Judaea and Galilee to the cities of Asia Minor and the wider Mediterranean. Third, the spoken language of the movement had shifted from Aramaic to Greek, which in turn affected the version of the biblical texts that members used: The Greek translation of the Jewish Bible, the Septuagint, served as sacred Scripture.

But the fourth datum represents the most momentous change of all. In Paul's letters--and therefore within his Gentile Christian communities- -Jesus was already being spoken of as a superhuman, cosmic entity, not as "a" son of God (a common biblical locution that can refer to angels, pious persons, or indeed the whole people of Israel) but as the Son of God. According to Paul, Jesus as Son had had a life before coming into the body, dwelt presently in the heavens with God the Father, and would return to defeat the cosmic forces of wickedness: sin, the flesh, death itself (Phil. 2:6-11; 1 Thess. 4:15-17; 1 Cor. 15:20-28.

It would be a mistake to look at this theological development as some sort of Gentile mutation of an earlier, less grandiose Jewish gospel. Paul himself, its spokesman in these letters, was a Jew, Pharisaic in his scriptural orientation and impeccable, as he informs his Gentile believers, when it came to keeping the Torah: "As to righteousness under the Law [I was] blameless" (Phil.

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'Who Do You Say That I Am?': The Modern Quest for the Ancient Jesus


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