Historical Jesus

Jesus ( (Jesus Christ))

Jesus or Jesus Christ (jē´zəs krīst, jē´zəz), 1st-century Jewish teacher and prophet in whom Christians have traditionally seen the Messiah [Heb.,=annointed one, whence Christ from the Greek] and whom they have characterized as Son of God and as Word or Wisdom of God incarnate. Muslims acknowledge him as a prophet, and Hindus as an avatar (see avatara). He was born just before the death of King Herod the Great (37 BC–4 BC) and was crucified after a brief public ministry during Pontius Pilate's term as prefect of Judaea (AD 26–36).

Primary Sources of Information on Jesus

The primary sources for Jesus' life and teaching are the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John (see articles on the individual books, e.g., Matthew, Gospel according to), though these are not biographies but theologically framed accounts of the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus, i.e., of the basic subject matter of Christian preaching and teaching. Other books of the New Testament add few further details. Among non-Christian writers of antiquity, Tacitus, Suetonius, and Pliny the Younger refer to Jesus, as does Josephus (Joseph ben Matthias) in at least one passage. The 2d-century Gospel of Thomas sheds light on the development of the tradition of Jesus' sayings.

Jesus' Life and Teaching

The Gospels of Matthew and Luke contain narratives of Jesus' birth and infancy, which disagree in many points but concur in asserting that he was the miraculously conceived son of Mary, the wife of Joseph, and that he was born at Bethlehem in Judaea. All four Gospels agree in dating his call to public ministry from the time of his baptism at the hands of John "the baptizer," after which he took up the life of an itinerant preacher, teacher, and healer, accompanied by a small band of disciples (see apostle). The central theme of Jesus' teaching, often conveyed in the form of a parable, was the near advent of God's Reign or Kingdom, attested not merely by his words but by the "wonders" or "signs" that he performed. The chronology of this period in Jesus' life is entirely uncertain; what seems clear is that his activities evoked skepticism and hostility in high quarters, Roman as well as Jewish. After perhaps three years in Galilee, he went to Jerusalem to observe Passover. There he was received enthusiastically by the populace, but was eventually arrested and, with the cooperation of the Jewish authorities, executed under Roman law as a dangerous messianic pretender. The Gospels give relatively detailed and lengthy accounts of his last days, suggesting that the story of Jesus' Passion was a central element in early Christian oral tradition. They close with accounts of his empty tomb, discovered on the "third day," and of his later appearances to Mary and Mary Magdalene and to the circle of his disciples as risen from the dead.

The Christian calendar revolves around the life of Jesus; important feasts include (in the Western Church) the Annunciation (Mar. 25); Christmas (Dec. 25), with its preparatory season of Advent; the Circumcision (Jan. 1); the Epiphany (Jan. 6); Candlemas (Feb. 2); and the Transfiguration (Aug. 6). The Easter cycle of movable feasts and fasts begins with Lent, which ends in Holy Week; after Easter comes the Ascension. Sunday, the Christian sabbath, is the weekly memorial of Jesus' resurrection.

Jesus in Islamic Tradition

Jesus is highly regarded in Islamic tradition as born of the Virgin Mary and as a prophet restating divine religion. His miracles and institution of the Eucharist are attested in the Qur'an. Muslims do not believe that Jesus died on the cross. Unable to accept that crucifixion could serve the purposes of God, Islamic tradition holds that someone else died in his place, while Jesus was taken by God to return at the end of time to judge all people.

Modern Portrayals of Jesus

Starting with the advent of historical criticism in the late 18th cent. (see higher criticism), scholars increasingly recognized that the Gospels were written from the point of view of the original Christian believers, who were more likely than moderns to accept supernatural occurrences and explanations. Thus in the 19th cent. many attempts were made to reconstruct by historical and critical methods a picture of Jesus that corresponded more closely to modern ideas of reality. The most famous of these lives of Jesus is that of Ernest Renan (1863). Albert Schweitzer's Quest of the Historical Jesus (1906, tr. 1910) is in large part a survey of this literature and its shortcomings. Schweitzer's work brought an end to a series of historical reconstructions of the life of Jesus and demonstrated that the eschatological focus of the Gospels was not something to be discarded in the attempt to encounter the historical Jesus.

Many scholars in the first half of the 20th cent. argued that the Gospels were narrative proclamations imbued with faith and not in any sense objective presentations of the life and teaching of Jesus. Two leading figures of this attitude were Rudolf Bultmann and his student Ernst Käsemann; in the early 1950s they sought to link the historical Jesus and the Jesus confessed by the church.

In the 1970s research into the historical Jesus took a new turn. Geza Vermes published Jesus the Jew (1973), in which he attempted to place Jesus squarely in the Jewish milieu of the 1st cent. The Jewishness of Jesus has increasingly been the focus of Jewish and Christian scholarship. This approach takes a much more optimistic view of the historicity of the Gospel traditions. The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls has allowed comparison of the Gospels with the brand of Judaism represented in the scrolls. Still other contemporary scholars have sought to portray Jesus as a charismatic teacher of subversive wisdom.


See G. Vermes, Jesus the Jew (1973); M. Grant, Jesus: An Historian's View of the Gospels (1977); J. P. Mackey, Jesus, the Man and the Myth (1979); J. D. G. Dunn, The Evidence for Jesus (1985); E. P. Sanders, Jesus and Judaism (1985); J. D. Crossan, The Historical Jesus (1991); M. Casey, From Jewish Prophet to Gentile God (1991); D. Flusser, Jesus (2d ed. 1997); T. Cahill, Desire of the Everlasting Hills (1999); J. P. Meier, A Marginal Jew (3 vol., 1991–2001). For a survey of Jesus in art and literature, see J. Pelikan, Jesus through the Centuries (1985).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2018, The Columbia University Press.

Historical Jesus: Selected full-text books and articles

The Historical Jesus in Context By Amy-Jill Levine; Dale Allison Jr.; John Dominic Crossan Princeton University Press, 2006
The Historical Jesus of the Gospels By Craig S. Keener William B. Eerdmans, 2009
The Blackwell Companion to Jesus By Delbert Burkett Wiley-Blackwell, 2011
Authenticating the Activities of Jesus By Bruce Chilton; Craig A. Evans Brill, 1999
Jesus Research: An International Perspective : the First Princeton-Prague Symposium on Jesus Research, Prague 2005 By James H. Charlesworth; Petr Pokorný; Brian Rhea; Jan Roskovec; Jonathan Soyars William B. Eerdmans, 2009
The Quest of the Historical Jesus By Albert Schweitzer; John Bowden Fortress Press, 2001
Jesus in History and Myth By R. Joseph Hoffmann; Gerald A. Larue Prometheus Books, 1986
From the Humanity of Christ to the Historical Jesus By Loewe, William P Theological Studies, Vol. 61, No. 2, June 2000
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
Jesus at 2000 By Marcus J. Borg Westview Press, 1997
The Cambridge Companion to Jesus By Markus Bockmuehl Cambridge University Press, 2001
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