An eminent scholar investigates the recent, intriguing attempts to find the “real” Jesus.

The local oxford radio station phoned me last summer. What did I, as a theologian, make of the proposed relaxing of British blasphemy laws?

Yes, I said, we need to safeguard the sensibilities of religious groups. To scrawl rude words on a wall about Jesus—or Moses or Muhammad—would offend some. If having a statute against “blasphemy” would prevent that, so be it.

On the other hand, I said, we don’t need to defend the true God against mocking, insults, or shame. He has already suffered all that on the way to the cross, and he did so voluntarily. In the New Testament, in fact, the people shouting “blasphemy” were those bent on defending their own social, cultural, and political turf—by getting rid of the real Jesus. But Easter gives the answer to that. God can look after himself. He does not need our petty defense.

The next time the radio station rang, it was, ironically, to ask about a spate of new books on Jesus, some none too friendly toward traditional portraits. These new books are raising a host of questions. What is new about Jesus? All sorts of things, apparently:

• He was a good, Jewish lad with a brilliant flair for shrewd moral teaching, and he would have been horrified to think of a “church,” let alone people worshiping him as if he were “divine.” He certainly did not rise from the dead: that was all a mistake. Thus writes A. N. Wilson, best-selling British novelist and biographer, himself newly relapsed from Christianity to agnosticism. His book is called, simply, Jesus.

• He was part of the sect living at Qumran in Palestine; he was married and had three children; then he divorced and remarried. He did not die on the cross, but lived on and went with Paul on his missionary travels. (It was in Philippi that he met his second wife.) Thus argues Barbara Thiering, an Australian who teaches the Dead Sea Scrolls at Sydney University, in her Jesus and the Riddle of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

• He was not born of a virgin, since Mary had probably been raped. He himself was married: the wedding at Cana was probably Jesus’ own wedding. The Gospels are to be read as a Jewish midrash (exposition), defined as retellings of a story without regard for “literal truth” (which is what “fundamentalists” concern themselves with). Need I name the author of these suggestions, made in his book, Born of a Woman? Many will recognize him: John Shelby Spong, bishop of the Episcopal diocese of Newark, New Jersey.

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On it goes. The veteran writer Gore Vidal produced a scurrilous book entitled Live from Golgotha, in which Jesus and the first Christians are involved in all sorts of improbable and scandalous goings-on. As the editor of the London Times put it, Vidal comes across like a smutty schoolboy shouting rude words across the playground.


Looming behind all this feverish activity at the popular level, like the great Alpine mountains looming up behind their lesser foothills, is much serious scholarship on Jesus. In the last couple of decades, a host of works has raised questions about the “real” Jesus. While they all attempt in one way or another to locate Jesus in his first-century world, their conclusions—and plausibility—vary widely. And while in earlier generations it was Germans who majored on serious New Testament study, now it is clearly the Americans.

One of the best-known contributions comes from E. P. Sanders. Sanders produced his Jesus and Judaism in 1985. It puts Jesus on the map of the Palestine of his day and argues that Jesus’ dramatic action in overturning the tables in the temple was the focal point of his work and the probable reason the authorities had him crucified. Sanders does not deal with all the material in the Gospels, and he leaves aside the question of Easter, so he cannot actually explain the rise of the early church. But his immensely readable and learned book has become a benchmark among serious Jesus studies.

Other American scholars came up with similar but different portraits. Ben Meyer (The Aims of Jesus, 1979) sorted out the philosophical issues underlying the so-called quest for the historical Jesus and presented a Jesus who envisaged a new covenant community, a reborn Israel. Marcus Borg (Conflict, Holiness and Politics in the Teachings of Jesus, 1984) argued that Jesus opposed the Pharisees’ idea of a holiness of separateness by putting forward a holiness based on mercy. Borg says Jesus prophesied judgment on Israel if she failed to heed his warnings. Richard Horsley (Jesus and the Spiral of Violence, 1987), however, identified Jesus as part of the nonviolent social protest movement of the time. Ben Witherington’s book (The Christology of Jesus, 1990), meanwhile, argued that Jesus did indeed see himself as Messiah—something that a lot of scholars, until recently, have been very cautious about. This makes Witherington’s book the most obviously orthodox of the bunch. In the same basic genre comes a new publication by Bruce Chilton, The Temple of Jesus (1992): Jesus’ aim was to purify temple worship, but when this failed, he began to treat his regular fellowship meals with his followers as a substitute. This, claims Chilton, got him crucified.

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British scholars, too, have gotten in on the act. It may seem odd to call the Oxford scholar Geza Vermes “British”; he is Jewish, born in Hungary, and educated in Belgium and France. Yet, as he himself says in his new work The Religion of Jesus the Jew, he prides himself on being “a true British pragmatist.” In this work, and in the two others that preceded it in the last 20 years, Vermes argues for a portrait of Jesus stripped of divine attributes and innocent of the desire to found a church. (It is no accident that Vermes is the guru to whom A. N. Wilson most clearly looks for guidance.) Jesus was just a great Galilean rabbi. He was not interested in the temple in Jerusalem, or not much. Vermes’s “pragmatism” comes out in his claim to be “simply a historian,” working without theological presuppositions. It is a claim often repeated by scholars, whose widely varying conclusions, however, belie the reliability of such “objectivity.”

While these scholars work by different methods and produce different conclusions, they belong in a single, recognizable category. They all intend to study Jesus from a historical point of view, which to them means from a Jewish point of view. And, indeed, if Jesus belongs anywhere, it is within the turbulent and politically charged atmosphere of first-century Palestine, with its revolutionary movements, its Roman repression, its high taxation, its fervent hope for everything to be made new when God finally acted. To understand Jesus requires putting him in his Jewish context. I consulted a commentary just a couple of days ago wherein the writer ignored completely what the passage would have meant in its first-century setting. He thereby missed understanding what it means for today. Unless we place Jesus there, we are apt to imagine him in our own, modern image.

The famous “quest for the historical Jesus,” about which Albert Schweitzer wrote at the turn of the century, provides an important lesson. If the nineteenth century produced, as Schweitzer suggested, nothing better than a Jesus who was a deluded fanatic, then Christian theology is better off without this “quest” altogether. That is what Karl Barth said in his early writings; that is what the influential Rudolf Bultmann said throughout his life. Amazingly, the theologians obeyed, and they wrote instead about the early church.

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The so-called new quest of the 1950s and 1960s, begun by Tübingen scholar Ernst Käsemann, was really a false start. Books like G. Bornkamm’s Jesus of Nazareth (1956) tried to say something about Jesus, but they were so hedged with qualifications, so loaded in favor of Bultmann’s existentialist Lutheranism, that 30 years later Bornkamm’s book looks like a museum piece. It was with the new movement in the 1970s and 1980s, discussed above, that serious Jesus research came back on the scene. Where is it going now, in the 1990s?


The two most obvious landmarks are as different from each other as chalk and cheese. Both are by Americans (following the trend), and they are easily the two largest and most scholarly works from the last five years.

John P. Meier has produced the first volume of a longer work, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus (Doubleday). Meier is a thorough scholar, working with a method that attempts to arrive at “objective” historical conclusions: “Suppose that a Catholic, a Protestant, a Jew, and an agnostic—all honest historians cognizant of first-century religious movements—were locked up in the bowels of the Harvard Divinity School library … and not allowed to emerge until they had hammered out a consensus document on who Jesus of Nazareth was and what he intended.”

A cynic might comment that the only time they would emerge would be as ghosts or skeletons, but we take the point. However we disagree with other scholars’ conclusions, what we say about the real Jesus must be defensible in public debate; it cannot remain a “private” truth. As Paul said to Agrippa, these things weren’t done in a corner (Acts 26:26).

Meier’s own reconstruction has not got very far yet, since only his first volume has appeared. He painstakingly discusses the nature of the sources, the world in which Jesus grew up, and what can be known or inferred of his early life. He makes some shrewd points: if Jesus was a tekton, a woodworker, he possessed a fair level of technical skill, and must have been physically strong: “The airy weakling often presented to us in pious paintings and Hollywood movies would hardly have survived the rigors of being Nazareth’s tekton from his youth to his early thirties.” (It is perhaps unfortunate that just such a pious portrait adorns the front cover of Meier’s book.)

Meier’s main weaknesses lie in his accepting the distinction between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith, and insisting the two move in different spheres. According to Meier, faith knowledge is “bracketed, not betrayed” when one studies Jesus. At the same time, he admits that what we find out about Jesus by these “scientific” historical methods must be of relevance for faith. But he never says how. He never really faces the question that keeps the journalists busy with every new Jesus portrait that appears: If Jesus was quite different from what the Gospels say, where does that leave Christianity today?

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There will no doubt be a lot more to say about Meier’s work when his second volume appears. If it is as thorough as the first, it will deserve very serious attention indeed.


MOVING FROM MEIER TO THE other major recent work is like changing universes. John Dominic Crossan has broken new ground at every level in his sprawling, fascinating book The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (HarperSanFrancisco). Crossan, an Irishman teaching at Chicago’s DePaul University, is one of the most brilliant, engaging, and likable scholars in the business. Unlike many New Testament scholars, he knows how to write. Trying to summarize his book is like trying to whistle a Wagner opera, but we must try anyway.

Despite the publisher’s hype on the book jacket (“the first comprehensive determination of who Jesus was, what he did, what he said”), Crossan insists that historical inquiry proceeds by “reconstruction.” Objectivity is impossible: we all look through our own eyes and can only make the best we can of what we see. Thus, over against the brittle certainties of “modernism” (whether the assertions of the fundamentalists or the denials of the liberals), Crossan attempts a “postmodern” reading: he integrates historical knowing with the question of who the “knowers” themselves are.

What are the sources for knowing about Jesus? The Gospels, you reply. But which Gospels? Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—or perhaps Thomas, Peter, and the Gospel of the Hebrews? Crossan stands received wisdom on its head. He puts together an inventory of “Jesus sayings,” not only from the New Testament but from all sorts of other Gospels that were known in some parts of the early church and that have been rediscovered by archaeologists.

How do we assess this diverse material? First, Crossan layers it into chronological strata (A.D. 30–60, 60–80, 80–120, and 120–150). Thomas shows up in the first stratum; Mark in the second; Matthew, Luke, and John in the third; and the last edition of John (including chapter 21) in the fourth. Then Crossan determines how many times individual sayings occur in different sources and treats as more authentic any that are found at least twice.

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The appendix to his book, setting all this out, is fascinating, but completely wrong-headed. You just cannot date books like Thomas that early. Many of Crossan’s “sources” turn out to be dubious reconstructions from works that even Crossan acknowledges come from the second century. And why should a saying or parable be less likely to be authentic if we have only one version of it? Crossan has failed to allow for one aspect of the peasant culture he claims as Jesus’ true background: its highly oral nature, in which passing on stories—not just sayings—and accurately retelling them, is a whole way of life.

This analysis of the sources, however, is only one level of Crossan s reconstruction. The two larger strategies are social anthropology, through which he reconstructs the world of a first-century village peasant living in Palestine under Roman rule, and ancient history, through which he reconstructs the actual events of the time.

He characterizes the Roman world of the first century as a world of “brokered empire.” Power is “brokered” through various social layers, each dependent for favor on the one above. The governing classes ruled through those they employed—the retainer classes—with the peasants at the bottom of the pile. But in the first century this system was “embattled.” Retainers and peasants in their different ways were rebelling against the system, seeking a new order.

Into this world came Jesus, announcing “the brokerless kingdom of God.” Jesus spoke and acted with power and authority, but he refused to allow this power to be “brokered.” He was always on the move; no one village could “own” him and so boost its own status. Jesus’ actions, especially his healings and his open table fellowship, were designed to subvert the system. These actions were at the heart of his program, challenging the existing “brokerage” systems and introducing a new vision of a society living under God, with no one wielding power over anyone else. Jesus was therefore like the Cynics, the wandering popular preachers who challenged and subverted all existing authorities.

Not surprisingly, this got Jesus into trouble. But the present narratives of Jesus’ death and resurrection do not tell us what actually happened. Crossan does not think the earliest church knew anything about the reasons for, or details of, Jesus’ death, beyond the fact that he was crucified. He suggests that several years later some Christians read their Hebrew Bibles and pieced together, from prophecy, an “account” of “what happened,” which then developed into the concluding chapters of our present canonical Gospels. “Hide the prophecy, tell the narrative, invent the history”—that is Crossan’s summary of what went on.

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Crossan’s book will be dismissed by many Christian readers simply because it is unorthodox. But we must not retreat from facing serious historical questions. And when we face them, we find that Crossan’s book comes up wanting. I have three criticisms in particular.

Crossan radically misreads first-century Judaism. The hope for a new God-given future, expressed in such popular texts as Daniel 7, cannot be reduced to the elitist aspirations of a retainer class and the violent dreams of the peasantry. Virtually all Jews of Jesus’ day longed for the vindication that the prophets had foretold; if and when they spoke of the “vindication of the Son of Man,” that is what they were referring to.

Crossan errs in reconstructing the passion narratives as fantasies of scribally minded early Christians. In that oral culture, telling stories about the death of a popular and controversial teacher could not be a secret process. Cleopas’s remark on the Emmaus Road has the ring of truth (Luke 24:18): If the stranger really does not know what happened in Jerusalem the last three days, he must be unique.

Crossan misses seeing that an early Christianity with no resurrection of Jesus is an inherently contradictory idea. We know of several Jewish movements of revolt in the first century. In most cases, they ended with the death of the leader. Where such groups carried on, it was because a new leader emerged. No new leader, no continuing movement. Without the resurrection, there is a gaping hole in the middle of first-century history that nothing else can plug.

Crossan’s work, then, though brilliant, fails as history, to say nothing of its orthodoxy. Many of his discussions are worth their weight in at least silver. But he does not provide a reliable guide to the actual story of Jesus.


So what is joe typical christian to make of all this scholarly to-ing and fro-ing? It may appear as a threat: they are taking away our Lord, and we don’t know where they will put him next. Many will dismiss the whole thing as a waste of time: we have the Bible, that’s enough for us. But if we cannot say something in public about Jesus as he really was, we are turning Christianity into a private club. And speaking in public means doing history.

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What, then, can we say, as historians and as Christians? Well, try this for a start. When Jesus announced the kingdom of God, his Jewish contemporaries would have heard him say that at last the time had come when God was going to become King; all the jumped-up, alternative “kings,” the Caesars and the Herods, would be put in their place. But Jesus was not intending to start an ordinary revolutionary movement. As Marcus Borg has rightly emphazised, Jesus demanded that his contemporaries give up their agendas, including their dreams of violent revolt, and trust him for a better way. (His short way of saying this was “repent, and believe me.”)

His parables were stories that said the longed-for new day had indeed arrived—but it did not look exactly like everyone thought it would. Story after story resonates in first-century Judaism with the note of fulfillment—and of subversion. Jesus was not just claiming to fulfill the aspirations of Judaism. He was claiming to redefine Judaism and its hopes around himself. This is one of the key conclusions of Ben Meyer’s work.

In particular, Jesus was claiming by implication to do and to be all that the temple was and did. If you, as a first-century Jew, had sinned, you went to the temple to receive forgiveness. Jesus offered it right here, on the street. He was undercutting the whole system. The temple was where Israel’s God lived; Jesus offered the forgiveness and healing of God that the whole nation, not just individuals, had longed for. And he offered it to all who would trust and follow him.

No wonder this led to trouble. When Jesus arrived in Jerusalem, the place was not big enough for him and the temple. As E. P. Sanders argues, Jesus solemnly announced the temple’s imminent destruction and symbolically enacted this by driving out traders and animals, briefly preventing the sacrificial system from operating. He then celebrated a meal with his associates in which he drew onto himself all the significance that the temple had had in Judaism.

And he knew perfectly well where this would all lead. Albert Schweitzer got several things wrong, but he got this right: Jesus believed that Israel’s history, and hence the world’s history, was rushing toward a great and terrible climax. The evil of the ages would be concentrated upon one place and time. Jesus believed that he had received a great and terrible vocation, to bear that moment in himself. But he also believed (as would have any good Jew) that if he bore it in obedience to God, he would be vindicated. And the basic Jewish word for vindication is resurrection. He would, in other words, die under the weight of the world’s evil and then be raised to new life the other side of death.

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If nothing happened after Jesus’ death, then any first-century Jew would have said what many have said since: He was another deluded fanatic. That is why, as a historian, I cannot explain the rise of early Christianity unless Jesus rose again, leaving an empty tomb behind him.

And if he did indeed rise, his claims are dramatically vindicated. His claim to be the focal point of Israel’s history is vindicated; Israel’s hope for vindication has come true in him. His claim to be the focal point of world history is vindicated; Israel’s purpose always was that she should be God’s means of rescuing the whole world from the grip of evil. And his implicit claim that he, not the temple, was the place where the true God truly and uniquely dwelt is vindicated. What he has done, in Old Testament terms, is something only the true God can do.

This thumbnail sketch may serve as a reminder to ordinary Christians that there is more to Jesus than meets the eye. For me, studying Jesus in his historical context has been the most profoundly disturbing, enriching, and Christianizing activity of my life. As a historian, I meet a Jesus the church has unwittingly hushed up—a more believable Jesus, a Jesus who challenges me more deeply than any preacher, a Jesus who evokes my love and worship by what he is and does, not by the sentiment or hype that some preachers fall back on.

In addition (and more uncomfortable for me), I believe this Jesus can and will challenge our world, not least the world that thinks it already knows what “Christianity” is, but has in fact domesticated it. Let us not be on our guard against learning more about Jesus as he really was. In dismissing maverick writers and rejecting unsound scholarship, we should not miss out on the possibility of a new vision of the real Jesus that could revitalize the church and challenge the world of the twenty-first century.

We do not need to defend this Jesus against attack, as the apostle Peter wrongly imagined as Jesus went toward the cross. We need instead to be grasped and transformed by the Jesus who was despised and rejected, belittled and battered. We need to discover afresh how to be for our world what he was for his; and that can only happen because we are committed to him as the center of all history—God’s loving and subversive presence at the very heart of his bruised and bleeding world.

Loren Wilkinson is the writer/editor of Earthkeeping in the ’90s (Eerdmans) and the coauthor, with his wife, Mary Ruth Wilkinson, of Caring for Creation in Your Own Backyard (Servant). He teaches at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

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