The Historical Jesus

“Christ with Arms Folded” by Rembrandt

The historical Jesus certainly wasn’t a Gnostic – nor a Christian of any sort. It’s not just that Christianity didn’t exist as a recognizable religion until after Jesus’s time. It’s that the message that Jesus preached was startlingly different from the message that would later come to be attributed to him by those who thought of themselves as his followers.

In this article, we’ll be tracking the historical Jesus – the flesh-and-blood human being who lived in first-century Israel, not the spiritual/mythical figure of later times. It’s important to keep that difference in mind. This focus shouldn’t be taken as implying that the historical Jesus is more important than the spiritual/mythical Jesus, nor that the former is the standard by which the latter should be judged. Getting a clear picture of who the historical Jesus was, however, is necessary for anyone who wants to understand where Christianity, including Gnosticism, came from.

What follows is only a brief sketch of this pivotal man and his life. Limitations of space prevent an article like this from being anything like a comprehensive account of the subject. If you want to go further after reading this article, I recommend starting with Bart Ehrman’s outstanding book-length overview in Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium.

Sources and Methods

How do we know what we know about the historical Jesus?

Some people might naively suggest that we can simply read the four New Testament gospels – Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John – and take them at face value. But this approach wouldn’t particularly help, because it rests on a misunderstanding of what those four books are. They were never intended to be “histories” in our modern sense of the term – that is, providing a factual, chronological account of some phenomenon from the past. Instead, their authors’ goal was to articulate their religious beliefs about who Jesus was, and to do so through stories that portrayed him in that light. While the gospels can tell us a great deal about the beliefs of Christians who lived in the later half of the first century – decades after Jesus’s death – they don’t speak directly about the historical Jesus, but rather about a Jesus who was already several steps removed from the historical person.[1]

However, it would be equally presumptuous to dismiss everything in the New Testament gospels out of hand. We have to use critical methods to sift through them and determine which elements are most likely to reflect something the historical Jesus actually said or did, and which elements are least likely to do so.

(And unfortunately, with the partial exception of the Gospel of Thomas, there aren’t any other ancient sources that contribute much of anything to our understanding of Jesus the man, so the New Testament gospels are overwhelmingly our main sources.[2])

What, then, are those critical methods? In a nutshell, here are the five main principles scholars use to reconstruct the life and teachings of the historical Jesus:

1. Earlier sources should generally be given priority over later sources. For example, since Mark was written decades before John, it should be given priority over John.

2. The more of a theological agenda the source has, the less reliable it is. Here again, Mark, for example, should be given priority over John. This is related to the first principle, since, generally speaking, the later a gospel is, the more developed and central its theological agenda tends to be.

3. The specific claims of a source should be considered relative to its theological agenda. In other words, it makes sense to be especially skeptical about claims that tidily represent the work’s theological positions, and to take particular notice of claims that seem out of place relative to the work’s theology. Statements that don’t quite fit aren’t the sort of thing the author or others in his religious community would have been likely to have made up. This is often called the criterion of “dissimilarity.”

4. All other things being equal, a claim that’s attested by multiple, independent sources is more reliable than one that isn’t.

5. The claims have to be plausible in their historical context – in this case, that of a Jew living in early first-century Israel.[3]

To understand that fifth criterion better, let’s take a look at that historical context.

Apocalyptic Judaism

Daniel’s vision in Daniel, one of the best-known pieces of Jewish apocalyptic literature (Matthäus Merian, 1630)

Israel had been under foreign rule on and off for eight centuries prior to Jesus’s birth. When Jesus was born, the external oppressor happened to be the Romans.[4]

The Jews had two particularly big grievances against Rome. The first was a material complaint: the taxes were high, and in a subsistence economy where people produced their own food and were often at the knife’s edge of making ends meet already, high taxes were an imposition that threatened their very livelihood. The second complaint was religious: it was profoundly evil for a foreign power to rule over them in the land that God had given them.[5]

Ancient Jews believed that their ancestors had made a covenant with God, whereby he would protect them and advance their interests, and in exchange, they would live according to his Law. But when Israel was conquered by the Assyrians, and then by the Babylonians, and then by the Persians, and then by the Greeks, and then by the Syrians, and then by the Romans, Jews naturally wondered what to make of all of this in light of God’s promise to defend them as his chosen people.

The prophets of the Hebrew Bible – figures such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, and Hosea – had explained this series of disasters as punishment for failing to follow God’s law. But as time went by, this explanation began to ring hollow. After all, when the people amended their ways in accordance with the prophets’ demands, they still suffered crushing defeat after crushing defeat. Where was God in all of this? How could he still be said to be keeping up his end of the bargain?[6]

A new school of thought whose adherents believed they had figured out the answer emerged within Judaism. This new way of thinking is known as “apocalypticism,” a word that comes from the Greek apocalypsis, “revelation” or “unveiling.”[7]

The apocalypticists saw the world in terms of a sharp division between the good forces of God and the evil forces of Satan. No one could remain neutral; if they weren’t on the side of God, they were on the side of the Devil. The apocalypticists rejected the view that suffering was a punishment from God, and instead held that suffering occurred because, for unknown reasons, God had temporarily relinquished control of the world to Satan, who was terrorizing the helpless followers of God.[8]

But, they thought, a time would soon come when God would vanquish Satan – and along with him, the misery and deprivation that characterized the age in which they were living – and take back the world that was rightfully his. Then he would establish a new Kingdom of justice, righteousness, and prosperity on earth.[9]

This transformation of the world would be heralded by a figure called the “Messiah,” who was prophesied to come at some indefinite, but never very distant, time in the future. There were two main versions of this idea. In the first, the Messiah would be a human military leader who would marshal the good people to overthrow the bad. In the second, the Messiah was to be a heavenly entity who would begin the cleansing of the earth by descending from heaven to rout the demons. This heavenly Messiah was sometimes called the “Son of Man” in apocalyptic literature.[10]

In either case, once God, with the Messiah’s help, had restored the earth to his original vision for it, he would raise – bodily – anyone and everyone who had ever died. They would stand with those who were still alive and face God’s judgment. Those who were found to be righteous would get to live eternally in the bright new Kingdom of God on earth. But those who were found to be wicked would be banished from it and condemned to eternal agony.[11]

Jesus the Apocalyptic Prophet

A 4th-century painting of Jesus in a Roman catacomb

In the gospel sayings that, based on the criteria outlined above, scholars are confident go back to the historical Jesus, we find him depicted as a classic Jewish apocalyptic prophet, with his own personal twist. He prophesies the coming of the Kingdom of God, which will be a physical kingdom here on earth. This cosmic upheaval will occur so soon that some of the people to whom he’s speaking will still be alive when it happens. The privilege of living in this kingdom will be reserved for those who have heeded Jesus’s message, while everyone else will be cast down with the forces of evil who are temporarily in control of the world. The Son of Man – whom Jesus speaks of as being someone other than himself – will swoop down from heaven to execute this judgment. Even being a Jew will not, in and of itself, suffice to save one when that happens. Only those who have been pious followers of Jesus and his commands will be saved.[12]

To cite but a few examples of this, starting with Mark 8:38-9:1:

Whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of that one will the Son of Man be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels. … Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the Kingdom of God has come in power.[13]

Mark 13:24-27, 30:

And in those days, after that affliction, the sun will grow dark and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the sky will be shaken; and then they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds with great power and glory. And then he will send forth his angels and he will gather his elect from the four winds, from the end of the earth to the end of heaven. … Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away before all these things take place.[14]

Luke 17:24, 26-27; Matthew 24:27, 37-39:

For just as the flashing lightning lights up the earth from one part of the sky to the other, so will the Son of Man be in his day. … And just as it was in the days of Noah, so will it be in the days of the Son of Man. They were eating, drinking, marrying, and giving away in marriage, until the day that Noah went into the ark and the flood came and destroyed them all. So too will it be on the day when the Son of Man is revealed.[15]

Matthew 13:40-43:

Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the culmination of the age. The Son of Man will send forth his angels, and they will gather from his kingdom every cause of sin and all who do evil, and they will cast them into the furnace of fire. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine forth as the sun, in the Kingdom of their Father.[16]

Luke 21: 34-36:

But take care for yourselves so that your hearts are not overcome with wild living and drunkenness and the cares of this life, and that day come upon you unexpectedly, like a sprung trap. For it will come to all those sitting on the face of the earth. Be alert at all times, praying to have strength to flee from all these things that are about to take place and to stand in the presence of the Son of Man.[17]

These weren’t blurry indications of an end of the world that was going to arrive millennia after Jesus’s life, as Christians today often interpret them. They were testable predictions about the near-term future that turned out to be incorrect. Nor were they peripheral to Jesus’s message; they were its core. Everything else that Jesus taught makes full sense only in light of them.

This Jesus saw himself as being divinely-appointed, but not divine, let alone the son of God. He preached the salvation not of the soul, but of the body. And he didn’t attempt to found a new religion, but a new movement within apocalyptic Judaism.[18]

The Reversal of Fortunes

“The Sermon on the Mount” by Carl Bloch (1877)

One of the pillars of Jesus’s brand of apocalypticism, especially of his teachings on morality and politics, was the dramatic “reversal of fortunes” he predicted would take place in the coming Kingdom of God. Jesus taught that the age in which he was living was evil, which meant that those who were successful in such an evil age must have been evil themselves. Those who were good didn’t stand a chance, so they ended up destitute and despised.[19] But when God re-established his reign on earth, all of this would be made right. The poor and downtrodden of Jesus’s day would soon find themselves living aristocratic lives of ease and power, while those who were currently prosperous would be condemned by God and cast out of his Kingdom.[20]

He summed up this teaching in the pithy saying that those “who are first will be last and the last will be first” (Mark 10:31).[21] And he laid out his vision in greater depth in passages such as this one in Luke 6:20-26:

Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.

Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.

But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.

Woe to you who are full now,
for you will be hungry.
Woe to you who are laughing now,
for you will mourn and weep.

Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.[22]

Since the Kingdom of God was going to come very soon, Jesus preached that there was no point in caring about one’s own well-being in the time that was left before that sublime transformation, as in Matthew 5:39-42:

But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.[23]

This ascetic indifference held an additional significance for Jesus, however. Jesus didn’t preach compassion for compassion’s sake; he preached compassion specifically for those he regarded as cosmic victims, as part of his broader apocalyptic message. And since those who were unsuccessful in Jesus’s time would soon be living lavishly in the Kingdom of God, one who helped them and took their side now – at one’s own expense – would stand a better chance of making it into the Kingdom alongside them. After all, what would one become if one gave away all that one had to the poor? Poor, of course – and therefore destined for the Kingdom.[24] Hence Jesus’s exhortation to a rich man in Mark 10:21: “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.”[25]

Jesus’s Last Days

Judas’s kiss and the arrest of Jesus, by Caravaggio (1602)

When Jesus entered Jerusalem before Passover during what would be his final days, he attempted to set an example of what the coming Kingdom of God would look like by running through the Temple complex, turning over the tables of merchants and moneychangers who were there to help people arrange their sacrifices for the holy day, shouting condemnations at most of the people present, and generally causing a big scene.[26]

The Temple priests, fearing that Jesus might incite an uprising among the Jews that would be violently put down by the Romans, had Jesus arrested. Out of what was likely a mixture of concern for the well-being of their people and concern for the security of their own positions, they decided it would be best to get him out of the way permanently. Since, under the terms of the Roman occupation, the Jewish courts didn’t have the authority to execute criminals, the priests turned Jesus over to Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, on a political charge.[27]

What, specifically, was that charge? The Temple priests accused him of claiming to be the “King of the Jews” – someone who intended to overthrow the Romans and install himself as the new, rightful ruler of Israel.[28]

In light of Jesus’s teachings, the meaning of this was clear: Jesus saw himself as the human Messiah of whom the Jewish apocalypticists had spoken for centuries. At first glance, this may seem a bit odd, since nowhere in the gospels does Jesus explicitly make this claim. However, in addition to the terms of his arrest, there’s compelling evidence that he did in fact hold that he was the prophesied military leader who would at last free his people from the tyranny, indignity, and sacrilege of foreign rule.

For one thing, why did Jesus have twelve disciples, and not ten, or fifteen, or fifty? This, too, was for apocalyptic reasons. The twelve disciples represented the “true Israel” that would take the place of the earlier Israel and its twelve tribes in the coming Kingdom of God. The twelve disciples would be the rulers of this new, purified Kingdom and its inhabitants, who would be chosen by God in much the same way as the twelve tribes of Israel had been chosen by God in time immemorial.[29] If the twelve disciples were to rule in the coming Kingdom, would not Jesus, their leader now, be their leader then as well – and thus the King of the Kingdom?[30]

Furthermore, unless Jesus had taught that he was the Messiah while he was alive, it wouldn’t have made any sense for his followers to claim, as they did after his death, that he was the Messiah. Nowhere do the Hebrew scriptures claim that the Messiah would come back from the dead – let alone that he would do so after having been executed as a mere rabble-rouser. Jesus’s death would have been a scandal for his followers, a virtual disconfirmation of any claim that he had been the Messiah. It’s beyond implausible that they would have only started making that claim after he died having failed to liberate the Jews from Roman oppression as the Messiah was supposed to do. They would have only made that claim after he died if they had already believed that before he died, which means that he almost certainly told them as much while he was still alive.[31]

However, he seems to have revealed his full self-conception only to his disciples and only in private, rather than proclaiming it openly to the masses. After all, in Mark 4:11, Jesus says to his disciples, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables.”[32] His being the Messiah seems to have been one of these secrets that he divulged only to his disciples.[33]

When Jesus’s disciple Judas betrayed him to the Roman authorities, what exactly did he betray? While we can’t ever know why Judas betrayed Jesus, we can be reasonably certain of what Judas told the Romans: that Jesus believed that he was the Messiah, who was ushering in, and would one day rule over, the topsy-turvy world of the Kingdom of God.[34]

Jesus’s trial before Pilate would have likely lasted no more than a few minutes. It was probably one of a great number of matters that were brought before the Roman governor on a typically packed morning. On that same morning, in fact, two other men were convicted of the very same crime of sedition, and were crucified alongside Jesus outside of the city gates.[35]

Crucifixion was a particularly slow and agonizing way to die – just as the Romans wanted it to be. Somewhat counterintuitively, the actual cause of death for a crucified man was suffocation. The posture distended the lung cavity so much that the person could only breathe by pulling himself up to take a breath – and to get that leverage, he had to push down on the stakes that had been driven through his hands and feet to attach him to the wooden beams. Every breath would have taken immense energy and caused almost unimaginable pain. When the victim gave up or no longer had the strength to perform this torturous gesture, he would die. It could take days for him to reach that point.[36]

Jesus was fortunate, or surrendered quickly: his own death came after only a matter of hours of his having been hoisted into the air on the cross. All of his disciples had abandoned him and fled, fearing for their lives. Jesus was alone when, at mid-afternoon on the day before the Sabbath, he drew his last breath and fell into darkness.[37]


[1] Ehrman, Bart. 1999. Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium. Oxford University Press. p. 52-53.

[2] Ibid. p. 63-83.

[3] Ibid. p. 87-101.

[4] Ibid. p. 114.

[5] Ibid. p. 114-115.

[6] Ibid. p. 119-120.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid. p. 120-121.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid. p. 122.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid. p. 128.

[13] Ibid. p. 129.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid. p. 130.

[18] Ehrman, Bart, 2014. How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee. HarperOne.

[19] Ehrman, Bart. 1999. Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium. Oxford University Press. p. 175.

[20] Ibid. p. 148.

[21] Ibid. p. 149.

[22] Luke 6:20-26, NRSV. Accessed on 12-18-2017.

[23] Ehrman, Bart. 1999. Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium. Oxford University Press. p. 167-168.

[24] Ibid. p. 175.

[25] Ibid. p. 169.

[26] Ibid. p. 208-209.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid. p. 217.

[29] Ibid. p. 186.

[30] Ibid. p. 217-218.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Mark 4:11, NRSV. Accessed on 12-19-2017.

[33] Ehrman, Bart. 1999. Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium. Oxford University Press. p. 218.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid. p. 223.

[36] Ibid. p. 224.

[37] Ibid.