• U.S.

Religion: Who Was Jesus?

23 minute read
Richard N. Ostling

In bygone centuries, an unorthodox vision like Martin Scorsese’s might have prompted heresy trials and burnings at the stake. Perhaps even a quick crusade mounted by ragtag armies. In the summer of 1988, the preferred methods of resistance are picket lines, economic boycotts and angry appearances on talk shows. If the furor surrounding Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ proves one thing, it is that in any era, seismic emotions are involved when people probe the nature of the man who is worshiped as God by well over a billion souls.

How is Jesus to be understood? Did he stride out of the wilderness 2,000 years ago to preach a gentle message of peace and brotherhood? Or did he perhaps advocate some form of revolution? Or did he instead look for heavenly intervention to establish the kingdom of God? What did it mean for Jesus to be tempted by sin? When did he realize that his mission would end with death upon a cross? Did he view himself as the promised Messiah? Did he understand himself to be both God and man, and what imponderable struggles of the soul would that have meant for him during his sojourn on earth?

The man from Galilee, according to the Gospel of Mark, was himself the first to raise the echoing question “Who do men say that I am?” That question is today not only at the heart of Hollywood’s latest controversy but also at the center of equally bitter, though less publicized, disputes among scholars concerning the life of Jesus and what can accurately be said about it.

In Britain, for example, distinguished Oxford Philosopher Michael Dummett charged last fall that revisionist Roman Catholic scholarship concerning the historicity of the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection is threatening to make the church a “fraud” and a “laughingstock.” In the U.S., conservative Christians are outraged by a self-appointed supreme court of professors known as the Jesus Seminar, which meets twice a year to cast ballots on whether each of the Master’s New Testament sayings is authentic or not. Sample conclusion: Jesus did say “Blessed are the poor” but not “Blessed are the meek” or “Blessed are the peacemakers,” phrases that, the group contends, were added by the Gospel authors in an echo of Old Testament writings.

The search for the historical Jesus — whether in the vivid imaginings of Hollywood scriptwriters or in the rarefied halls of academe — rests on one fundamental issue: How reliable are the Gospels? Aside from a few brief references in other ancient documents, the New Testament is the only source of information concerning the most influential life that was ever lived. Scholars generally agree that the four Gospels were written within 40 to 70 years of Jesus’ death on the Cross. In addition, existing copies of the New Testament are far older and more numerous than those of any other ancient body of literature. Thus in terms of documentation, observes Father John P. Meier of the Catholic University of America, “we’re better off with Jesus than with most people of ancient history.”

The notion of history and how to record it was, of course, rather different in the 1st century A.D. Like other ancient authors, the Gospel writers did not set out to produce records that meet modern standards of precision. Furthermore, they were clearly saturated with faith in Christ and were not necessarily objective transmitters of his story. Says Anthony Harvey, canon of Westminster Abbey and a New Testament scholar: “The writer of a Gospel is not just an editor but a creative theological intelligence, telling the story in a particular way to make a particular point.”

In the view of numerous academicians, the anonymous authors of the four Gospels (later conventionally labeled Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) were working from second- and thirdhand materials, passed along by word of mouth for some decades before being written down. Consequently, the Gospels cannot be taken as gospel; that is, they cannot in every instance be considered as describing actual events. “The New Testament is the testimony of believing people,” says the liberal Catholic Theologian Edward Schillebeeckx of the Netherlands. “What they are saying is not history but expressions of their belief in Jesus as Christ.”

The attempt by modern scholars to ferret out the real, historical Nazarene from the supposedly embellished accounts in the Bible — a process known as the historical-critical method, or “higher criticism” — has resulted in some rather unorthodox notions. A current sampling:

— Jesus did not claim to be the Messiah. Such assertions represent the church’s later belief, which Gospel writers inserted into the life of Christ.

— When Jesus said he was the “Son of God,” he did not mean to be taken literally. New Testament language of this kind, as in referring to Jesus as the “Lamb” or “Word” of God, is metaphorical.

— Some portions of the Gospel of Thomas, a text that church authorities have always considered spurious, are earlier and more authentic than the four New Testament Gospels.

— Jesus never uttered any of the numerous denunciations of the Pharisees found in the New Testament. These sentiments were put in Jesus’ mouth by 1st century church writers who considered the Pharisees their competition.

— Jesus may have been crucified by mistake. History suggests that the Romans regularly rounded up dissidents and executed them without trial. Jesus may “accidentally” have been caught in one of these periodic sweeps, suggests the Rev. Burton Mack, a Presbyterian at the School of Theology at Claremont, Calif. “Maybe he was trying out one of his kingdom of God ideas in the company of some boisterous Galileans — a bad idea at that time.”

Throughout most of Christianity’s history, such views would have been condemned as heresies. The Bible was seen as divinely inspired and thus unassailably accurate. “None can doubt that what is written took place,” proclaimed St. Jerome, who translated the Gospels into Latin in the 4th century. Multitudes today still regard the Scriptures in that fashion, not least among them estimable scholars and intellectuals.

During the 18th century, however, Enlightenment scholars began to question the whole fabric of revealed religion. In the age of Newton, they believed that the Scriptures must be subjected to the same rigorous scientific scrutiny as the laws of nature; nothing could be taken on faith. One such self- confident rationalist was Thomas Jefferson. After leaving the White House, he wrote a biography of Jesus that kept many of the teachings but discarded numerous Gospel passages that, in his judgment, could not have been authentic. The true words, he said, were “imbedded as diamonds in dunghills.”

Protestant scholars in Germany took the lead in the early 19th century, similarly sifting the New Testament for evidence of the flesh-and-blood Nazarene beneath the “myths.” Often their Jesus turned out to be an inspirational preacher who bore a suspicious resemblance to a 19th century German. But by the 20th century, the great Protestant critic Rudolf Bultmann of Marburg University had concluded that such quests were fruitless. The Bible is so much an article of faith, so laden with unprovable events and legends, he contended in 1926, that “we can now know almost nothing concerning the life and personality of Jesus.”

In the years since Bultmann, who died in 1976, scholarship has been sharply divided. His Protestant heirs continue to view the New Testament as a seriously flawed historical document. Even Catholic scholars have moved toward this theory since the Vatican modified its traditionally strict view of the accuracy of the Gospels with a 1943 encyclical and a 1964 instruction allowing broader use of higher criticism.

At the same time, however, other scholars are going in the opposite direction, turning away from skepticism toward a renewed acceptance of much of what the New Testament postulates about Jesus and his teaching. The impetus comes in part from new evidence. As a matter of principle, Bultmann never visited the sites in the Holy Land and totally neglected the influence of Jewish culture on Jesus — “a bad old German tradition with dangerous results,” according to Martin Hengel of the University of Tubingen in West Germany. Hengel and his colleagues, and scholars elsewhere, are now reversing that anti-Semitic tradition, discovering that studies of Jewish culture in 1st century Palestine shed fresh light on the historical Jesus.

Tubingen’s Rainer Riesner contends, for instance, that like most rabbis of his day, Christ probably preached in a pithy, aphoristic style that was likely to be faithfully remembered and recorded by his followers. “There is evidence that Jesus taught his disciples to recall his teachings by heart,” says Methodist Thomas Oden of New Jersey’s Drew Theological School. “We have the ipsissima verba, the exact words of Jesus. Why should they have been reported if they hadn’t been actually remembered?”

Archaeological finds have also added to the knowledge of New Testament happenings and brought new credence to Scripture. For example, an inscription unearthed in 1961 at Caesarea confirmed for the first time that Pilate was a 1st century Roman governor, as the Bible reports. More significantly, the Dead Sea Scrolls, discovered in 1947, demonstrate a deeply ingrained 1st century Jewish belief in the imminent arrival of a Messiah-like figure and the need for spiritual renewal — teachings that anticipate Christ’s message. “After the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered, you could no longer say there was no historical Jesus,” says Theologian Otto Betz of Tubingen, once a redoubt of Bultmannian doubters.

This new confidence was signaled in 1985 when Oxford University’s E.P. Sanders proclaimed in Jesus and Judaism, “The dominant view today seems to be that we can know pretty well what Jesus was out to accomplish, that we can know a lot about what he said, and that those two things make sense within the world of 1st century Judaism.” Thanks to historical and textual research, “in a sense we are much closer to the New Testament than scholars were 500 or 1,000 years ago,” says Father James Swetnam of Rome’s Pontifical Biblical Institute.

What has emerged from this modern diversity of views of Scripture is, not surprisingly, a diversity of Jesuses. One can almost take one’s pick.


For a fair number of liberal Protestant scholars, the historical Jesus was a man not unlike Gandhi, Socrates and other wandering, charismatic moralists. Those who subscribe to this theory reject the idea that Jesus was oriented toward end-of-the-world questions and apocalyptic warnings. Instead he focused on the poor, the sick, the handicapped, the injustices of the world he saw around him. “He was painfully aware of the misery of humankind,” asserts James M. Robinson, noted director of Claremont’s Institute for Antiquity and Christianity. “He felt he should do nothing to aggravate human misery. As long as there was a beggar without food tonight, how could he store up food in his rucksack?”

This version of the Nazarene, though clearly an empathic type, “is not a comforting figure,” observes Robert Funk, founder of the Jesus Seminar and former administrator of the Society of Biblical Literature. “He’s a troublemaker.” Marcus Borg of Oregon State University concurs that this “subversive sage” was, like Socrates, out “to undermine the safe assumptions of conventional wisdom.” That he chose to break bread with the lepers and outcasts of his day was a remarkable rejection of established Jewish mores, says Borg. Such scholars perceive a worldly revolutionary at work in the man who insisted, “The last will be first.”


/ An odd variation on the sage theme comes from Claremont Scholar Burton Mack, who sees Jesus as a “rather normal cynic-type figure,” using the term not in the modern sense but referring to a particular school of ancient Greek philosophers, Diogenes among them, who advocated virtue and self-control. Like them, he made ample use of a biting sense of humor (“Let the dead bury their dead”). “Jesus wasn’t reforming Judaism,” Mack insists. “He was just taking up a Hellenistic kind of social criticism.”

Mack maintains that Galilee in Jesus’ day was the “epitome of a cross- cultural mix,” with Roman and Hellenistic influences colliding with Jewish thought. The cultural upheaval, he argues, gave rise to questioning cynics, rather like the hippies of the ’60s. He theorizes that Jesus’ message was concerned with a general malaise that afflicted the land. When he spoke of the coming kingdom of God, he was not warning of the apocalypse but, in true Hellenistic fashion, urging more natural and just relationships among people of all social classes.


In stark contrast to the worldly reformer and sage is the notion of Jesus as a stern prophet who predicted the coming judgment of God. This Jesus, unlike the more secular versions, had a keen sense of his mission and knew that his death would fulfill it. He was clearly influenced by John the Baptist’s preaching of repentance and perhaps by the apocalyptic warnings of the Essenes, the Jewish sect that produced the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Some of those who subscribe to this image emphasize the dozens of places in the Gospels where Jesus refers to the forthcoming kingdom of God or kingdom of heaven, in which righteousness and peace would prevail. In some instances he directly relates the role of king to himself, in the most famous passage telling Pilate at his trial that “my kingship is not of this world.”

However, as with many matters in New Testament criticism, things are not so simple as they might seem. “Jesus expected a radical transformation of the world and that this would involve the coming of a heavenly figure,” says Adela Yarbro Collins of the University of Notre Dame. But, she adds, “Jesus did not believe himself to be this figure.” In this liberal interpretation, the disciples experienced Jesus as risen from the dead and became convinced that Jesus himself was the heavenly person who was to come. They then introduced this novel idea into Jesus’ teaching.


The stress on Jewish studies among modern New Testament scholars has produced a striking vision of Jesus as a rabbinical genius whose teachings were very much in keeping with the liberal Jewish scholarship of his day. “He represented a humanistic trend in Judaism that was then developing out of the liberal wing of the School of Hillel,” argues Israeli Historian David Flusser of the Jerusalem School for the Study of the Synoptic Gospels, a group of 15 Jewish and Christian scholars. What Jesus sought, says Flusser, was a Judaism purified of resentments and hatred. “He wanted a feeling of love and understanding and identification with one’s fellow human beings.”

The Jerusalem scholars believe that the Jesus of history is highly accessible once the Greek Gospels have been translated back into Hebrew, the language in which they say the Nazarene preached. “When you read Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount ((in Hebrew)), you feel you are right back there, hearing a rabbi speaking,” marvels the Jerusalem School’s director, David Bivin, a U.S.-born Christian. Thus, he says, “Anything that we can’t translate back into Hebrew is suspect for us.”

In fact, the translating process has led the Jerusalem team to the unusual conclusion that the Gospel of Luke is the oldest and closest to Jesus’ original words, whereas most conventional scholarship gives that distinction to Mark. Unlike most experts, they also believe that Jesus’ sayings and actions were first recorded — in a now lost Hebrew document — within a few years of his death on the Cross, not put down by his followers decades later.

While the Jewish members of the school do not accept Jesus as the Messiah, they do believe that the man from Galilee might well have seen himself in that light. In fact, a number of lesser religious figures of Jesus’ era also believed this about themselves. As for Jesus’ death, Flusser interprets it within a motif of martyrdom that stemmed from the Maccabees, rather than from the belief that the Crucifixion would take away the sins of the world. “I am sure,” says Flusser, “that there were many Jews, when Jesus was crucified, who believed this innocent victim of Roman cruelty would stop the anger of God against the people of Israel. ‘They died so that we may live’ is a common Jewish idea.”


A broad spectrum of scholars see no compelling intellectual reason to reject large portions of the Gospels, and find new inspiration in the lessons of Jewish studies and archaeology. For them, no single image of Jesus will do. These thinkers see Jesus as both apocalyptic prophet and reforming sage, as purifier of Judaism and builder of a new order. Advocates range from hard-line Fundamentalists and moderate Evangelicals, who all along have deemed the Gospels historically trustworthy, to moderate liberals who use higher criticism but have become skeptical about skepticism.

Among the latter is Peter Stuhlmacher of Tubingen, who was trained by one of Bultmann’s followers. Says he: “As a Western Scripture scholar, I am inclined to doubt these ((Gospel)) stories, but as a historian I am obliged to take them as reliable.” He now tells his own students, “The biblical texts as they stand are the best hypothesis we have until now to explain what really happened.”

Scholars like Stuhlmacher make no excuses and seek no secularized explanation for the miracles of the New Testament. “The historian has to take into account that Jesus’ opponents conceded that he did perform miracles,” notes F.F. Bruce of Manchester University in England, a leading evangelical exegete. He adds that if Jesus was God, as he claimed to be, “miracles are what one would expect.”

Conservatives also make a historical case for the bodily resurrection of Jesus. Dean John Rodgers of Pennsylvania’s Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry points out that St. Paul’s account of Jesus’ appearances after his resurrection (I Corinthians 15) was written only two decades after the events and drew on prior accounts. Says Rodgers: “This is the sort of data that historians of antiquity drool over.”

Wide differences over how to see the historical Jesus cause considerable friction in the academic world. The sniping often focuses on methodology. A favorite criterion for critics who try to sort out the supposed actual words of Jesus from the inauthentic is “dissimilarity,” a principle canonized by Bultmann and widely used by the Jesus Seminar, the controversial group that puts the authenticity of Gospel sayings to the vote.

According to this method, a text can be deemed reliable only if it contrasts with the thinking of both contemporary Jews and the first Christians; the presumption is that a saying that sounds odd or unique is unlikely to have been fabricated by the Gospel writer. For example, the hero in the famous parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10: 30-35) is not a Jew but a detested foreigner with a false religion. This surprising element makes the story distinct and, in the opinion of the Jesus Seminar, more likely to be authentic, especially since it emphasizes that the kingdom of God belongs to the outcast.

But critics of this methodology complain that it produces a Jesus who is uprooted from his Jewish surroundings and at odds with early Christianity. The Jerusalem School is particularly distressed. In 1986 it issued a stinging two- page statement tearing into the Jesus Seminar for discarding anything in the Gospels that it considered Hebraic in origin.

Another area of controversy focuses on apparent contradictions among the Gospels. For instance, while Luke and Mark report that Jesus categorically forbade divorce, Matthew says he made an exception in cases of adultery. Liberal scholars would say that one version got the facts wrong. Conservatives treat such discrepancies as either insignificant or readily explainable. “It is fair to say that all the alleged inconsistencies among the Gospels have received at least plausible resolutions,” concludes an international panel of 34 Evangelical scholars in the 1987 report The Historical Reliability of the Gospels.

Most of the methods of analysis used by liberal New Testament critics represent an attempt to be scientific and rigorous about historical fact. But to many theologians, that effort is wrong-minded from the very start. Any approach that begins by rejecting the miraculous and the supernatural “has no hope of coming to terms with the texts,” argues Oden of Drew Theological School. “Science must stick to its own field of competence,” concurs Monsignor Richard K. Malone, a professor of moral theology at the Pope John XXIII National Seminary in Massachusetts.

Others complain that the methods used by critics can never be as objective as they sometimes claim. This was a major charge leveled by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, the Vatican’s doctrinal overseer, in an important U.S. address last January. Ratzinger said many scholars make the “false claim” that they have found exact scientific methods for showing how the traditions about Jesus developed. He insists that such work is, by its nature, subjective, relative and arbitrary. “Pure objectivity is an absurd abstraction,” says the Cardinal. “It is not the uninvolved ((person)) who comes to knowledge. Rather, interest itself is a requirement for the possibility of coming to know.”

Ratzinger’s attack was not just another academic lecture, since he speaks officially for the church. Liberal New Testament scholarship, with its shredding of the Gospels, poses distinct problems for organized religion. Most Protestant groups in the West have been deeply divided by it. Indeed, America’s huge Southern Baptist Convention is close to civil war on the subject and is squeezing out employees who express the slightest twinge of doubt about Gospel fact.

Roman Catholicism has just begun to grapple with the awareness that liberal scholarship may pose a threat to dogma. “Sometimes I ask my Catholic counterparts why they must make all the same mistakes in 20 years when we Protestant theologians needed over 200 years,” jests Tubingen’s Hengel. Conservative Catholics hope Ratzinger will strike at this threat, but the Cardinal is said to oppose a return to Rome’s earlier proclamations on the Bible’s complete historical reliability. He seems to prefer intellectual counteroffensives to decrees and crackdowns.

Church struggles aside, what does the work of liberal biblical scholars mean to the ordinary believer, the average person in the pew? So far, not much. Most of the discussions have taken place within the confines of the academic world. And when New Testament experts publish their theories, they tend to turn out highly technical tomes that only fellow specialists could, or would want to, read.

Unfortunately, the implicit assumption of many higher critics is that the Gospels are too complex for the average reader to understand properly, since they mingle fact with myth and imaginative editing. The critics spin out “secret interpretations that no one knows without a Ph.D.,” snaps Paul Mickey, a conservative at Duke University. Says Father John Navone of the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome: “A kind of intellectualist bias has grown up; unless you are aware of the very latest academic theory about the Bible, you might as well not read it.” The result is a dangerous gap between the thinking at elite universities and the beliefs of thriving congregations.

The workaday Christian who does make the effort to delve into the findings of the critics will probably be frustrated. After more than a century of immense effort, surprisingly little has been settled concerning the Gospels. A riot of discord persists over which passages might be trustworthy and over the criteria for deciding so, not to mention over the fundamental issue of who Jesus was. One eminent theologian, Yale University’s George Lindbeck, finds the specialists’ theories “mutually unintelligible” and not particularly helpful. The theories are also unstable. Funk admits that the “data base” of sayings being developed by his Jesus Seminar will no doubt have to be reworked by the next generation. At conservative Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary near Boston, David Wells complains, “The machinery has ground its material — the biblical text — so fine that it yields nothing.”

In the end, does the search for the Jesus of history have any relevance for believers? Some thinkers, like Bultmann before them, are content to distinguish between a Christ of faith, who is knowable, and a historical Jesus, who is not. Other liberals, however, are searching fervently for a real-life Jesus, whether sage or prophet, to fill what they see as an urgent need for spiritual nourishment and a renewed impetus for social reform. “Jesus may be one of the finest persons who ever lived, but the average person doesn’t have any access to him,” says Robinson of Claremont. He believes that Christianity would be greatly enriched “if somehow the positive aspects of Jesus’ life could be conveyed to the person in the pew.”

Many such thinkers downplay the idea that Jesus was God, let alone a member of a complex theological partnership called the Trinity. They emphasize his human qualities, in the hope that believers might better identify with him. But will most people be inspired by this sort of Jesus, who is so different from the Christ of the New Testament, who has captivated artists and peasants alike over the centuries? Will they want to stake their lives on a person about whom so little is certain and who is only dimly divine?

One of the respected voices in England calling for moderation, Canon Harvey, remembers a mentor remarking that in any historical investigation, “if you tear up the only evidence you’ve got, you can say anything you like.” That is not a bad one-sentence summary of what has happened to higher biblical criticism. In fact, just about anything is said nowadays. Most churchgoers will prefer the assertion of Dean Robert Meye of California’s Fuller Theological Seminary that “faith depends on a robust Jesus — tangible, real, vital — and a robust view that the Jesus available to us in the Gospels was the Jesus of history.”

Indeed, one major lesson in the ruckus over Scorsese’s Last Temptation is that believers do care about the historical Jesus and urgently want him to square with the figure they know through faith. They are not likely to be stirred by the less-than-robust Jesuses resulting from higher criticism. The piling up of sheer historical fact about the Galilean, however, is not sufficient. Even a clearer, more traditional Jesus of history is inadequate if he does not evoke spiritual awe. “We can, of course, discuss our different pictures of the historical Jesus until the end of time,” says Tubingen’s Hengel, “but to examine the biblical texts and fail to deal with questions about the truth of faith is quite uninteresting.” If Jesus is uninteresting, whether in a movie or a scholar’s reconstruction of the Gospels, no one will follow him.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com