Chapter 2: Who is Jesus?

The Explorer’s Guide To Christianity
by Marcus Braybrooke

Chapter 2: Who is Jesus?

Christian discipleship centres on faith in and the following of Jesus Christ. It is not, however, so easy to say who Jesus is. In speaking of Jesus, people may mean the historical person, Jesus of Nazareth, who lived in Palestine nearly two thousand years ago. They may mean the Jesus of faith, the living presence, whom believers claim ‘walks and talks with them along life’s narrow way’. They may mean both, and we shall need to try to explain the relationship between the Jesus of history and the Jesus of faith. In this chapter we try to discover what the historical Jesus of Nazareth was like.

What do we know about the Jesus of history? This also is not an easy question to answer. Many thousands of books have been written about Jesus; each with its particular emphasis. Perhaps that is not so surprising. I am writing this on the day of Princess Diana’s funeral. For a week, every newspaper has been full of articles about her. Each author has his or her own memory of the Princess and even with all the words about her, the reader does not fully understand the complexity of her personality. A living person makes a particular impact on each other person he or she encounters. So with Jesus. We know him through the record left to us by those who were closest to him.

The Gospel Story

That record is in the four gospels. First I shall give an outline picture of Jesus as he has been known through the gospels to millions of Christians in many centuries and many countries. But then, we shall need to discuss the question of the accuracy of the gospels. Was Jesus really anything like the person presented in say Luke’s or John’s gospel?


The Christmas story celebrates the birth of Jesus to the Virgin Mary in a stable at Bethlehem. Luke tells us that Mary was living in Nazareth, a town in Galilee in the north of Palestine, when she had a vision of the Angel Gabriel. The angel told her that she was to give birth to a baby boy, who was to be called Jesus, which is the Greek for the Hebrew name Yeshua, which means ‘God saves’. Although Mary was promised in marriage to Joseph, who was by trade a carpenter, she was still a virgin. Joseph was descended from King David. This meant that when the Romans, who occupied Palestine, ordered a census, he and Mary had to go to Bethlehem, the city of David. When they got there after four or five days’ travelling, the town was so crowded that they could not find room at the inn, so they made do with the shelter of a cave, which was used as a stable for the animals. There Jesus was born.

Tradition has it that the first people to visit the Holy Family were local shepherds. Later, wise men, often pictured as kings, came perhaps from Persia. To escape King Herod’s plot to kill the baby King Jesus, the Holy Family fled to Egypt. After Herod’s death, they thought it was safe to return. They settled at Nazareth in Galilee. Little is known of Jesus’ childhood and youth.

Baptism and Ministry

When Jesus was a young man, his cousin John started to call people to repent and be baptized in the river Jordan. Jesus too was baptized. As he came up from the water, ‘he saw the heavens torn open and the Spirit, like a dove, descending upon him. A voice spoke from heaven, "Thou art my Son, my Beloved, on thee my favor rests’’ (Mark 1:10-11 NEB).

After a time in the wilderness, Jesus started a ministry, mostly around the lake of Galilee, preaching about God’s kingdom and healing many who were ill. He collected quite a following and had twelve special companions, who became known as the disciples or apostles. Amongst the twelve were Simon Peter and his brother Andrew, and John and James, who were also brothers. Jesus’ ministry aroused the opposition of some religious leaders, partly, it seems, because he was willing to mix with the outcasts of society and tell them of God’s love and partly because he questioned some of the contemporary interpretations of the Torah or Jewish Law.

Death and Resurrection

Jesus met with more dangerous opposition in Jerusalem. It is not clear how often Jesus went there. In what was to be the last week of his life, he and his followers journeyed to Jerusalem. When he reached the Mount of Olives and drew near to the city, his supporters, in their enthusiasm, sat Jesus on a donkey and cut down branches of palm to wave, shouting: ‘Hosanna’ Blessings on him who comes as king in the name of the Lord’ (Luke 19:38 NEB). Talk of Jesus as a king was enough to alarm the Jewish high priests and the Roman authorities. Aware of the growing danger, Jesus at his last meal with his disciples, which was perhaps a Passover meal, warned them that he was likely to be arrested and put to death. After the meal, Jesus went with his disciples to an olive orchard at the foot of the Mount of Olives. Whilst he was praying there, a band of soldiers, who had been told where to find him by Judas Iscariot, who was one of the twelve apostles, came and arrested him. Jesus was taken before the Jewish authorities who handed him over to Pontius Pilate, who was procurator, or governor of Judaea from 26 to 36. Pilate condemned Jesus to death.

Jesus, after being flogged, was nailed to a cross -- a cruel method of execution, widely practiced by the Romans - on what surprisingly has become known as Good Friday, because his death was for the ‘salvation of the world’. His body was put in a new tomb, but when early on the Sunday morning, the day after the Sabbath, some of the women who had followed Jesus went there to prepare his body for burial, they found that the stone across the entrance to the tomb, which was a cave, had been rolled away and that the tomb was empty. The women and then other disciples claimed that Jesus was not dead, but risen from the grave and that he had appeared to them. The belief that Jesus died and was raised by God to new life -- the Resurrection -- is at the heart of the Christian message. It explains why Christians believe that Jesus is alive today and is their constant companion.

After forty days, during which the Risen Jesus appeared on occasion to his disciples, he ascended into heaven ‘to the right hand of God’ (Acts 2:33). The disciples expected his imminent return to act as God’s judge and to bring in the kingdom of God.

Can we Trust the Gospels?

When Were the Gospels Written?

There are questions about almost every aspect of this story. Although we have some evidence from first-century Roman writers for the existence of a group of people who believed in Jesus Christ, we are dependent for our knowledge of Jesus on the four gospels. The first gospel to be written was probably Mark’s in the early sixties in Rome. Luke’s and Matthew’s gospels were probably written between ten and twenty years later, although there is a persistent tradition that Matthew, one of the disciples, wrote a ‘gospel’ or collection of the sayings of Jesus in Hebrew. This is why until comparatively recently, Matthew’s gospel was regarded as the earliest gospel. In fact, the present text of Matthew’s gospel, in many passages, is almost word for word the same as Mark’s gospel, which was written in Greek. Matthew, although his is the longer gospel, often abbreviates what Mark wrote. The view of the majority of scholars is that both Matthew and Luke used Mark’s gospel, as well as some other material known to both of them, which scholars often call Q’, from the German word ‘quelle’, which means ‘source’. Matthew and Luke also both include some material found only in that gospel. Because of the common material in the first three gospels and because the writers look at Jesus from the same point of view, these gospels are known as the ‘synoptic’ gospels.

John’s gospel is very different. It is debated whether John knew the other gospels. There are factual differences, John, for example, puts the incident of the cleansing of the Temple at the start of the ministry (John 2:12-22) whereas the other writers put it in the last week of Jesus’ life. John makes clear that the Last Supper was not a Passover meal, whereas the other three gospels say it was (compare John 19:31 with Mark 14:12). There are also theological differences. In the synoptic gospels, Jesus did not wish his divine status to be openly proclaimed. When a man with an unclean spirit cried out, ‘I know who you are -- the Holy One of God’, Jesus rebuked him and said, ‘Be silent!’ (Mark 1:25). In John’s gospel, Jesus openly claimed, ‘My Father and I are one’ (10:30).

It is probably best to think of John’s gospel as a meditation on the meaning of the life of Jesus rather than primarily a historical record, although at times he seems to preserve an early historical tradition. In the twentieth-century, there has been much debate about the identity of John. Was he the beloved disciple or was the book, as an ancient tradition suggested, written by an elder called John of Ephesus towards the end of the first century? It was felt that the gospel reflected Hellenistic ideas rather than a Jewish approach. In recent years, with the discovery of more Jewish literature which shows the great variety within Judaism at that time, a growing number of scholars have come to think that the fourth gospel derives from a ‘heretical’ Jewish-Christian community, maybe in Antioch, and dates to between 80 and 100.

It may be that none of the gospels is written by an eyewitness. The material that the evangelists use had already been shaped by the preaching and teaching ministry of the church. Apart from the Passion narrative, the various incidents recorded in the synoptic gospels are only loosely connected and probably the links have been supplied by the evangelists. This would be consistent with the earliest stories about Jesus being passed on by word of mouth. If people tell a funny story, they remember the punch line, but often the context or characters are changed in different versions. In the same way, Jesus’ followers would remember the key action or saying of Jesus but might be vague about where it happened.

In any case, Jesus’ followers talked about him not from historical curiosity, but because they believed that he was the agent of God. They spoke of Jesus in the context of worship, preaching and teaching. In the same way, the evangelists were not like a modern biographer, trying to write a balanced history of a person’s life. We have no reference to what Jesus looked like nor to whether he was tall or short. The evangelists wrote, as John put it in an appeal to the reader, that ‘you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name’ (John 20:31).

Stories of Jesus Circulated in the Christian Community

The stories about Jesus which are recorded in the gospels, had first been told and retold in the teaching and preaching ministry of the church. This suggests that they had already been applied to the changing situation of the early Christian community. Take, for example, chapter 7 of Mark’s gospel. A major issue in the early Christian community was whether gentiles should be welcomed into the church and if so, whether they had to observe Jewish rules about purity.1 Mark’s gospel is thought to have been written for the church in Rome, of which the majority of members were probably gentile. They would not have observed Jewish purity rules. In fact, Mark has to explain the Pharisaic practice of ceremonial washing of the hands before eating (Mark 7:3). Mark presumably included the story of the disciples eating without washing their hands as a justification for the behavior of the Christians in Rome. Later, Mark quotes a saying of Jesus, ‘Don’t you see that nothing that enters a man from the outside can make him "unclean"? For it doesn’t go into his heart but into his stomach, and then out of his body.’ To this saying, Mark adds the comment, ‘In saying this, Jesus declared all foods "clean"’(Mark 7:18-19). Matthew omits this comment.

A more significant example of the way in which the early Christian community applied the teachings of Jesus to their own situation is in the interpretation given to some of the parables. Take, for instance, the parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins (Matt. 25:1-13). Ten young women set out with oil lamps to meet a bridegroom to escort him to the bride’s home for the wedding. The groom’s arrival was delayed. The five ‘foolish’ women had not brought flasks of oil to replenish their lamps so had to go and buy some more. Whilst they were away, the groom arrived. By the time they got back, the wedding festivities had started and they were locked out. In Matthew’s gospel, the parable follows a chapter about the signs of the End of the Age. ‘No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven,’ Jesus said, ‘Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come’ (Matt. 24:36, 42). The parable, as we now have it, is a warning to be on the watch for Christ’s Second Coming.

In the context of Jesus’ ministry, it is more likely that the parable was a warning by Jesus to his immediate audience to recognize the moment -- to be aware that the kingdom of heaven was at hand and to seize the opportunity of salvation and to welcome the bridegroom, whom Jesus elsewhere identified with himself (Mark 2:19). Central to Jesus’ own preaching was the message that the ‘kingdom of God is at hand’ (Mark 1:15).

Why Context Matters

That the early Christians reapplied the sayings of Jesus to their own situation is entirely proper. It is still the task of a good preacher. But it means that if we are to reconstruct the sayings of Jesus in their original context, we have, as it were, to reverse the process. The most significant difference, of course, is that the gospels are written in the light of the death and resurrection of Jesus. When Jesus spoke to the crowds in Galilee, they had no hint of these world-changing events. At times, the evangelists themselves recognize this. For example. John tells us that it was only after Jesus was raised from the dead that the disciples understood Jesus’ saying, ‘Destroy this temple and I will raise it again in three days’ (John 2:19). Mark says that the three disciples who witnessed Jesus’ transfiguration were only. permitted to tell of this after his resurrection (Mark 9:9). Yet even if they tried, the evangelists could not put aside their knowledge of the crucifixion and resurrection and feel what the people of Galilee felt, any more than someone writing today about Jewish history in the 1930s can put aside their knowledge of the horror of the Holocaust or of the creation of the state of Israel.

Now, if the material in the gospels has been used and to some extent adapted to the changing needs of the early Christian community and it is written in the light of the belief that God had raised Jesus from the dead, there is room for much difference of opinion about what Jesus actually said and did. Traditional and conservative Christians will tend to regard the gospels as straightforward accounts of Jesus’ life and death. That is probably how the majority of Christians hear readings from the gospels. Other writers put forward their own explanations, knowing that there is never enough evidence to disprove any theory, however unlikely it may seem to sober scholars. The more unlikely the theory, the more media coverage a book is likely to get. In fact, the uncertainty about Jesus is that which pertains to all our knowledge of the past. All accounts of the past are mediated to us through people who had their own interests and concerns.

In the same way, each of the evangelists was writing for a particular audience and had his special interests. Traditionally the author of the third gospel is said to be Luke. who was a gentile doctor. This gospel shows a particular interest in the gentiles and in healing miracles. It also emphasizes the compassion of Jesus. It alone contains some of the best-loved parables, such as the story of the Prodigal Son or of the Good Samaritan, as well as Jesus’ prayer on the cross, ‘Father forgive them, they know not what they do’ (Luke 23:34) and his words to the penitent thief, ‘Today you will be with me in Paradise’ (Luke 23:43).

Recognizing the situation in which the evangelists wrote is important for several reasons. One is that at the time Matthew’s and John’s gospels were written, there was bitter argument between those Jews who believed in Jesus and those who rejected his claims. The hostility was intensified by the fact that when the Romans laid siege to the city of Jerusalem from 66 to 70, the Christian community fled (Matt 24:15-16 Luke 21:20-21). The polemic of that period has soured Christian-Jewish relations through the centuries. John 8:44 implies that the Jews are ‘children of the devil’, whilst in Matthew 27:25, the Jewish people are said to have cried out for Jesus’ crucifixion, saying ‘His blood be on us and on our children.’ Second, this polemic has also distorted our view of Jesus’ relationship to the Judaism of his day. He has been seen as critical of it and in conflict with the Jewish religious leaders. There is much evidence, however, to show that the gospels are unfair to the Pharisees and that Jesus was himself a faithful Jew.

Another reason why the context is important is that in his own ministry Jesus’ central message was that ‘the kingdom of God is near’ (Mark 1:15). After Jesus’ death and resurrection, Jesus himself became the focus of the church’s preaching. During his earthly life, did the people of Galilee, or even his disciples, recognize him as divine? Are the various titles given to Jesus in the gospels, such as ‘Lord’ or ‘Son of God’, ones that were used of him in his earthly ministry or were they first applied to the risen Christ by those who believed in him?

This bears significantly on how we picture Jesus and how we seek to reconstruct his earthly life and ministry. For many centuries, Christians have spoken of Jesus as God become man. Despite the attempts of the creeds, which we shall consider later, to balance his divinity and his humanity, the real subject of the gospels has seemed like a god in human disguise. Only gradually since the nineteenth century has it been accepted that Jesus had the knowledge of a first-century human being. He did not, for example, two thousand years ahead of his time, understand computers, although keeping the knowledge to himself! Do Christians accept that Jesus had the emotions of an ordinary human being so that he could be angry or upset?2 Did he have the sexuality of an ordinary man?

Perhaps because a historical way of thinking has become common, much liberal and critical scholarship during the last two hundred years has approached Jesus as a real and historical human being. The question then is where to locate his divinity. That is a matter to which we shall return in the next chapter.

The Life of Jesus Re-examined

Aware now of the complexity of the gospel records, we need to look again at the life of Jesus. How much of the traditional story survives the acid of historical scholarship? In my view, although details will remain uncertain, the impact of Jesus’ magnetic personality shines out from the gospels.

The Virginal Conception

There has been much debate about the Virgin Birth or, as it is properly described, the virginal conception of Jesus. The two clear references in the New Testament (Matt. 1:18-25 and Luke 1:26-38) speak of the conception of Jesus in the womb of Mary ‘from the Holy Spirit’ and not by male agency. It is only a later second-century apocryphal gospel that speaks of Mary miraculously giving birth with her sexual organs intact.

It is uncertain whether other New Testament writers refer to the virginal conception. Perhaps John hints at this when he says that those to whom Jesus gave the right to become children of God were born ‘not of natural descent, nor of human decision, nor of a husband’s will, but were born of God’ (John 1:14). Some see a reference to this tradition by Paul when he speaks of God’s Son being ‘born of a woman’ (Gal. 4:4) and being ‘as to his human nature a descendant of David’ (Rom. 1:3), but the evidence that Paul knew the tradition of the virginal conception is very uncertain. In Mark 6:3. Jesus is called ‘son of Mary’, rather than, as one would have expected, ‘son of Joseph’. His opponents seem to have circulated rumors that Jesus was illegitimate. These are also mentioned and rejected in the account of Jesus’ birth in the Qur’an, which says that in response to the angel’s message, Mary replied, ‘My Lord, how shall there be a son [born] to me, and man has not touched me?’ to which the angel replied, ‘Even so, God creates what he pleases’ (Surah 3:46-47; cp. 19:20-21).

Some scholars who reject the tradition of a virginal conception say that the idea arose from a misreading of Isaiah 7:14, which in the New English Bible reads: ‘Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign: A young woman is with child, and she will bear a son and will call him Immanuel.’ Many other translations, following the translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek known as the Septuagint, speak of a ‘virgin’ rather than a young woman, although the Hebrew word means a young woman and not necessarily a virgin.

Arguments based on biblical criticism are not decisive for or against belief in the virginal conception. The phrase in the creed, ‘born of the Virgin Mary’ emphasizes the real humanity of Jesus against docetic views that, rather like a Greek god, Jesus had only the appearance of a man. Ambrose and Augustine believed that the transmission of original sin was related to the carnal desires aroused by procreation. That Jesus was asexually conceived explained for them how Jesus was free from original sin. Some Christians today, however, reject the doctrine of the virginal conception just because it seems to undervalue human sexuality.

For some traditional Christians the doctrine of the virgin birth is integral to belief in Jesus’ divinity. More liberal Christians would however find other grounds for their belief in Jesus and may be either agnostic about or reject the tradition. The Roman Catholic church speaks of Mary as ‘ever virgin’ and holds that the brothers of Jesus (Mark 3:31) were in fact half-brothers, children of Joseph by a previous marriage. In both Catholic and Orthodox churches high veneration is paid to the Virgin Mary, who is sometimes called ‘Mother of God’ or Theotokos the ‘God-bearer’.

The Birth of Jesus

According to a tradition not mentioned in the Bible, Mary’s parents were Joachim and Anne. They are said to have lived in Jerusalem. Before Mary conceived, her cousin Elizabeth, who was thought too old to have children, also became pregnant. Luke begins his gospel by telling of the angel’s message to Elizabeth’s husband, Zechariah, and of the meeting of the two pregnant women, probably at the village of Ein Kerem, which is now on the outskirts of Jerusalem. On meeting Elizabeth, Mary praised God in a hymn known as the Magnificat. At the church built on the site, the words of the Magnificat are reproduced in many languages. Zechariah and Elizabeth’s son, who, in obedience to an angel’s instruction was called John, became as John the Baptist the precursor or herald of Jesus’ own ministry.

The exact date of Jesus’ birth is impossible to determine. The first mention of 25 December as his birthday is not until 336. The day was probably chosen in opposition to the pagan feast of the Birth of the Unconquerable Sun. Even the year of Jesus’ birth is not known for sure, although it is usually now thought to be about 6 BCE. The most definite date is for the beginning of John the Baptist’s ministry. This can be fixed with considerable certainty to 28/29 CE, the fifteenth year of the Emperor Tiberius (Luke 3:1). Matthew says that Jesus was born perhaps a couple of years before the death of Herod the Great, who died in 4 BCE. (Matt. 2, especially verse 15). Luke, who also says that Jesus was born when Herod was king (Luke 1:5), relates Jesus’ birth to a census conducted when Qurinius was the governor of Syria (Luke 2:2). This census is also mentioned by the Jewish historian Josephus as the cause of a rising against the Romans by the Zealots. The date, however, is 6 or 7 CE There is no evidence of an earlier census and it is very unlikely that a Roman census would have been held whilst Herod the Great, who was an allied king, was in power. The general view is that Luke’s chronology is mistaken. Some attempts have been made by astronomers to date ‘the star in the east’ which led the wise men to Bethlehem. It was suggested by the seventeenth century astronomer Johannes Kepler that in 7 BCE there was a conjunction of Jupiter, the planet of kings, with Saturn, the protector of the Jews. in the Zodiac sign of Pisces, which designates Palestine.

Jesus’ birth at Bethlehem has been questioned, because it seems unlikely that in a census people would be required to travel to the home of their ancestors. In Matthew’s gospel, the assumption seems to be that the Holy Family already lived in Bethlehem. Because of the threat to their baby’s life from Herod the Great, they fled to Egypt. When Herod died, they thought it was safe to return, but not to Bethlehem, so they settled in Nazareth in Galilee. Historical accuracy may, however, not have been the evangelists’ main concern. They wanted to show that Jesus the Saviour had been born in the city of David, who was the greatest king of Israel (Luke 2:11). In their genealogies both Matthew and Luke, in different ways, show that Jesus was descended from King David. The tradition of the flight into and return from Egypt may also have been developed to match the experience of the people of Israel, whom God rescued from slavery under Pharaoh. Some scholars sometimes feel that the traditions have been tailored to fit the prophecies!

Even if the date and place of Jesus’ birth may be uncertain, the claim that God entered human history is central to traditional Christian belief, as the British poet Sir John Betjeman (1906-84) indicated in his poem ‘Christmas’:

And is it true? And is it true,

This most tremendous tale of all,

Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue,

A Baby in an ox’s stall?

The Maker of the stars and sea

Become a child on earth for me?

No love that in a family dwells,

No caroling in frosty air,

Nor all the steeple-shaking bells

Can with this single Truth compare

That God was Man in Palestine

And lives to-day in Bread and Wine.3

The Jewish World in which Jesus Grew Up

We have no direct information about Jesus’ childhood, apart from stories in Luke 2. We have to fill in the picture from what we know of life in Galilee at that time. Mary’s well in the center of Nazareth was until recently the only source of water and must have been the place to which Jesus went with his mother to collect water. Many pilgrim sites are uncertain, but there are places where one can feel, despite the passing of two thousand years, the link with the historical Jesus.

Joseph is said to have been a carpenter, although since much wood was used in building, he was probably a builder as well. Presumably, when there was work, Joseph made an adequate living, although the family would have lived very simply by modern Western standards. Mary would have made the clothes for the family. They would have lived on home-made bread, fish from the Sea of Galilee, fruit, eggs and milk. Sparrows were used for meal. The lamb, killed for the Passover, was a luxury. A peasant’s home would probably have been one room. At night the family slept on a platform and the animals were brought inside as well.

Education was provided for Jewish boys at the synagogue school, where Jesus would have learned Hebrew, the language in which the Jewish scriptures were written. At the start of his ministry Luke tells us that he read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah (Luke 4:16-21). The language of the people was Aramaic.

As a Jew, Jesus would have been brought up to pray and praise God and to obey God’s teaching or Torah. He would have learned of Jewish faith and history not only at school, but also in the home, especially from observance of the Sabbath and from participating in the various festivals. Luke says that every year Jesus’ parents went up to Jerusalem for Passover and that when Jesus was twelve he went with them. He became separated from his parents who eventually found him in the Temple (Luke 2:41-50).

At the heart of Jewish faith is the belief that God, the creator the world and the Lord of History, rescued the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt and entered into a covenant with them at Sinai. In gratitude to God, the Jews responded by seeking to obey the Torah which God had given them. Torah is often translated ‘Law’, but it has a richer meaning. Torah is God’s teaching by which he shows the holy people how to live. Although Christians have sometimes spoken of the Law as a burden,4 most Jews regarded it as a privilege. The Psalmist spoke of the Law as ‘the joy of my heart’ (Ps. 119:111).

The Jewish cultic ritual centered on the Temple in Jerusalem, which had been rebuilt by Herod the Great. A model of how Jerusalem would have looked at that time, which can be seen in Jerusalem today, shows how magnificent the Temple was and how it dominated the city. Animal and cereal sacrifices were offered regularly by the priests. Pious Jews would go to Jerusalem for personal ceremonies and some of the major festivals (Luke 2:22, 41).

Sadducees and Pharisees

The high priests in Jerusalem belonged to the party of the Sadducees. Much of the creative religious leadership at the time, however, came from the Pharisees. The main dispute between the Pharisees and the Sadducees was over what was called the ‘oral Law’ or ‘oral Torah’. Both groups accepted the authority of the ‘written Torah’ -- the books of the Hebrew Bible. Particular authority attached to the first five books of the Bible -- the books of Moses. The Pharisees believed there was another source of authority called the oral Torah, the traditional interpretation of the scriptures that had been handed down from generation to generation, right from the time of Moses. The Jewish historian Josephus (c.37-c.100), who wrote in about 90 CE, described the difference in this way:

The Pharisees have delivered to the people a great many observances by succession from their fathers, which are not written in the laws of Moses: and for that reason it is that the Sadducees reject them, and say that we are to esteem those observances to be obligatory which are in the written word, but are not to observe what are derived from the tradition of our forefathers.5

A major point of dispute was about belief in the resurrection, which the Pharisees accepted and the Sadducees rejected (Acts 23:6-8).

The Pharisees, although they have had a bad press from Christians, made a creative contribution to the understanding of God. The origins of the movement are obscure, but the general view is that by the first century BCE, they were bringing about profound and lasting changes in Judaism. They had a new perception of God as concerned for the individual. God was not just the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob -- the God of the nation. God watched over and cared for each member of the people of God. Everyone, therefore, and not just the priests, was expected to observe the Torah, which the Pharisees applied to contemporary life by giving oral interpretations of it. The Pharisees gave new names to God, such as ‘the Holy One’ or ‘Our Father who art in heaven’. They developed the synagogue as a centre of teaching.

Most of our knowledge of the Pharisees comes from the second-century literature of the rabbis, who were the heirs of the Pharisees. It is not clear exactly what the Pharisees taught nor how influential they were at the time of Jesus. Certainly the gospels often refer to the Pharisees and on many occasions show Jesus in dispute with them. A growing number of scholars, however, think Jesus was close to the Pharisees. The pattern of his ministry with its emphasis on teaching and the reinterpretation of the oral Torah and on healing the sick is that of an authentic rabbi. Like the Pharisees, Jesus emphasized the Shema (‘Hear 0 Israel’) and the primacy of love. Jesus taught the resurrection of the dead. He stressed his intimate link with the Father, and his meals with his disciples are similar to the meals which the Pharisees shared with each other.

According to Matthew, Jesus said, ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law and the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them’ (Matt. 5:17). His disputes with the Pharisees were internal arguments. We know of various subgroups of Pharisees, such as the Hasidim, or ‘saints’, who went beyond the letter of the law. Rabbis often argued strenuously with each other. Indeed, those who belong to the same religious group can be fierce in their disagreements, even though they have a great deal in common, as has been shown by the recent arguments in the churches about whether women should be ordained. One leading New Testament scholar, E. P. Sanders, has said, ‘We know of no substantial disputes about the Law, nor of any substantial conflict with the Pharisees.’6 For example, arguments about Sabbath observance are recorded in the gospels. Yet there was no disagreement that the need to save life had precedence over Sabbath rules. There was however regular dispute about whether an illness was life-threatening or whether the healing could wait until tomorrow.

In their attempt to grow in holiness by carefully observing rules about food and purity’ the Pharisees may have kept themselves apart from ordinary people, rather as some vegetarians are reluctant to eat with those who have chosen meat, or as the early Methodists, with their stress on temperance, kept themselves apart from those who drank alcohol. Jesus, however, saw his mission as to the lost children of the house of Israel and was prepared to mix with those, who were regarded as sinners.


The Sadducees and the Pharisees are the two Jewish religious groups most frequently mentioned in the gospels. The term ‘scribe’ is often linked with the Pharisees. Some have suggested that they were the leading Pharisees. Others see it as a term for those who could read -- ‘clerks’ -- who offered their services to the people and who may have belonged to various religious groups, although probably most of them were Pharisees.


In the twentieth century the Essenes have attracted much interest because of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Early in 1947, a Bedouin shepherd accidentally found fragments of ancient scrolls inside some earthenware jars in caves high up on the rock face near the Dead Sea. The very dry climate had helped to preserve them. The shepherd had no idea of their significance and value. In the following decade, more scrolls were discovered in other nearby caves.

Altogether, eleven more or less complete scrolls were found, and thousands of fragments. There are extracts from all the books of the Hebrew Bible, except the book of Esther, as well as other religious compositions and works belonging to a particular Jewish sect. Gradually, the scrolls have been pieced together and translated. Subsequent excavation nearby at Qumran unearthed the buildings of a monastic community. The inhabitants are usually thought to have been Essenes, who are mentioned by Josephus as an important group, numbering about four thousand. The Essenes separated themselves from ordinary society and lived apart in communities. They did not marry. Like the early Jerusalem church (Acts 2:44). they held all goods in common. They disapproved of the temple priesthood and cult. The scrolls were presumably from the Essenes’ library and had been hidden to protect them from the Roman army.

Because John baptized not far away in the river Jordan, and because Jesus, at the start of his ministry, spent forty days in the Judean wilderness nearby, it has been suggested that John, who had an ascetic way of life, and perhaps Jesus, were influenced by the Essenes, but this remains speculation.

The Essenes expected a final cataclysmic conflict between good and evil. A rather similar picture is found in some of the Pauline and Johannine writings. Earlier in the twentieth century, scholars attributed this to the influence of Hellenistic dualism, but now scholars accept a Jewish background to the concept of a cosmic struggle of good and evil. A similar outlook is to be found in some of the apocalyptic Jewish literature of the period, such as 1 Enoch. It is important to stress that in both Christian and Jewish apocalyptic the power of God is in the end always stronger than the forces of evil.


If the Essenes avoided other people, most Jews avoided the Samaritans. When Jesus asked a Samaritan woman for a drink of water, she expressed surprise. ‘You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?’ John adds an explanatory note that ‘Jews do not associate with Samaritans’ (John 4:9). The origins of this dislike dated back to 722 BCE, when the Assyrians destroyed the capital of the northern kingdom of Israel and deported many of the inhabitants. Those who were left eventually mingled and intermarried with the pagan people who were settled in the land. When the Jews of the southern kingdom, who after the fall of Jerusalem in 597 BCE were taken into exile in Babylon, eventually returned to Judea, they would have nothing to do with the ‘impure’ northerners. Jesus on more than one occasion spoke kindly of the Samaritans. Of the ten people whom he healed of leprosy, it was a Samaritan who came back to thank Jesus (Luke 17:11-19). It was also a Samaritan in one of Jesus’ stories, who unlike the priest and Levite, stopped to help the man who had been attacked by thieves (Luke 10:25-37).


If the Essenes shunned society and expected heavenly intervention to overthrow Satanic powers, the Zealots were prepared actively to hasten the process, identifying the occupying Roman army with those forces of evil. During the period of the Maccabees, who in 168 BCE led a revolt against the Seleucid ruler Antiochus Epiphanes, the Jews had for a time reasserted their independence. Throughout the period of Roman rule, there were a series of armed uprisings against them, which the Romans cruelly suppressed. One of Jesus’ disciples was known as ‘Simon the Zealot’ (Luke 6:15), but it seems clear that Jesus rejected a military struggle against the Romans, although some of the people wanted to make him king (John 6:15). On Palm Sunday, he chose to ride into Jerusalem on a donkey, echoing the prophecy of Zechariah: ‘See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey’ (Matt. 21:5 and Zech. 9:9).

Jews of the Diaspora

To complete this picture of Judaism at the time of Jesus, it is important to remember that many Jews lived in the Diaspora, outside the land of Palestine. The two greatest centres were in Babylon and Alexandria, which was said to have contained about a quarter of a million Jews. Both were great centres of Jewish scholarship. The famous Rabbi Hillel was of Babylonian origin, whilst Philo, one of the greatest Jewish philosophers, lived in Alexandria.7 Many Jews lived at Antioch in Syria. The Acts of the Apostles shows there were Jewish communities in many cities of Asia Minor. Paul himself came from the ‘well. known city of Tarsus in Cilicia’ (Acts 21:39 JB). There were many Jews in Rome. Throughout the Roman Empire, Jews were permitted to practice their religion, which with its ethical monotheism was respected by many gentiles, even if Jews also suffered from some popular prejudice.

The Political Situation

Palestine itself was under the control of the Romans, although some areas were under puppet kings, such as Herod Antipas (Matt. 14:1). There is some mention of Jesus having contact with Roman officers. For example, he healed a centurion’s servant and marveled at the centurion’s faith (Matt. 8:5-13). In his last week in Jerusalem, he painfully experienced the power and cruelty of empire, although, as he died, it was a centurion who said, ‘Surely this man was the Son of God’ (Mark 15:39).

Palestine had been exposed to Hellenistic influence for at least two hundred years. Sepphoris, which was Herod Antipas’ capital until he built the city of Tiberias, was less than five miles from Nazareth, but is not mentioned in the gospels. Devout Jews would have avoided what they regarded as the corrupting influence of Hellenistic culture.

Jesus’ Baptism and Ministry

The centre of Jesus’ ministry was Capernaum, a town at the north end of the Sea of Galilee. The present site is dominated by the remains of a third-century synagogue, probably on the site of an earlier one. Nearby is a church over a site identified as the house of Peter. Mark tells us that at the beginning of his ministry, Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee and called Simon and Andrew and John and James, the sons of Zebedee, all of whom were fishermen, to be his followers. They went to Capernaum, where Jesus taught in the synagogue and drove out an evil spirit, and afterwards went to the home of Simon and Andrew and healed Peter’s mother-in-law who was ill in bed (Mark 1:14-31).

Jesus’ ministry, following his baptism and period in the wilderness, began, according to Mark, with the announcement, ‘The time has come, the kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!’ (Mark 1:15). Jesus made present the kingdom of God by word and deed. For the gospel writers, the miracles were signs of the kingdom. John says of the miracle at the wedding in Cana of Galilee, at which Jesus changed water into wine, that this first miracle ‘revealed his glory and his disciples put their faith in him’ (John 2:11). The driving out of demons was seen as evidence of the overthrow of Satan’s kingdom (Mark 3:20-30).

The miracles of Jesus are a problem for many people today. They ask, ‘What really happened?’ but that was not a question which interested the evangelists. Instead, they ask the reader, ‘What do you think about the person who performed the miracles?’ At the time of Jesus most people believed that holy men could perform miracles. Jesus’ opponents did not question the fact of the miracles, but said that Jesus performed them in the power of the devil (Mark 3:32).

What today might be regarded as psychiatric illness was at that time considered to be possession by evil spirits. Some people have tried to give ‘natural’ explanations to the miracles. For example, it has been suggested that most of the crowd whom Jesus is said miraculously to have fed with five loaves and two small fish, had brought packed meals with them, but were reluctant to share these until he set the example (John 6:5-15). Perhaps, when Jesus walked on the water, he knew of some stepping stones, hidden just beneath the surface (John 6:16-21). It has even been suggested that the guests at the wedding in Cana (John 2:1-11) were so drunk that they did not notice that they were being served water instead of wine! Such an approach assumes that in theory everything can be given a natural explanation and that miracle stories belong to a pre-scientific superstitious age. Today, however, with greater awareness of the psychosomatic nature of much illness, there is renewed interest in spiritual healing.

The nature miracles create more difficulty. Atheistic materialists, who do not believe in God, understandably reject the idea of divine intervention. Even Christians are divided. Those who believe that miracles are refuted by modern science may view them symbolically rather than literally, saying, for example, that the stilling of the storm (Mark 4:35-41) shows that God is with the believer in the storms of life. Other Christians are concerned about the idea of an interventionist God. Why, if God ‘miraculously’ cures some people, does he allow others to suffer excruciating pain? Are not the laws of nature an expression of God’s guiding providence? Other Christians so stress the full humanity of Jesus. that they question whether he exercised supernatural powers.

I do not myself doubt that a person of great spiritual authority can give someone who is ill release from guilt and new hope which may make recovery possible. I find the raising of Lazarus from the dead (John 12) more difficult to accept as historical, although its symbolic meaning as brought out by John is powerful. Unless the resurrection of Jesus is interpreted only as a change of attitude in the disciples from deep gloom to new hope, it seems to me difficult for Christians altogether to discount the possibility of divine intervention. God, I believe, wills the wholeness of all people, but never forces divine grace upon them. The longing of the sick for recovery and other people’s prayers for them may unstop the channels of grace.

Today probably most people primarily see the miracles as evidence of Jesus’ compassion. Indeed, Mark in introducing the account of the feeding of the crowd said that ‘Jesus had compassion on them’ (Mark 6:34). In the story of the healing of the blind beggar Bartimaeus (Mark 10:46-52) or of the healing of the woman who had a hemorrhage and who touched Jesus in the crowd (Luke 8:42-48), there can again be seen his concern for the individual.

The Kingdom of God

For the gospel writers, however, both Jesus’ miracles, especially the exorcisms, and his teaching were evidence of his authority and were signs of the kingdom. A great deal in recent times has been written about ‘the kingdom of God’. It may be better to translate the term as ‘the rule of God’, which suggests a relationship to God rather than a state. Even the term ‘rule of God’ sounds male, authoritarian and undemocratic. One modern version of the Lord’s Prayer begins: ‘Holy One, our only Home, Hallowed be your name. May your day dawn.’ In speaking of the kingdom, Jesus seems to have been talking about those who live consciously in awareness of the love of our Heavenly Parent. They have no need to worry. Themselves forgiven, they forgive others and bear no enmity. This new way of life is described in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7). Such people reflect the love .of God. It is possible to live now in this way, and where people do so, God’s gracious presence is already a reality, although the confidence is that more and more people will come to live in this way.

Some of the New Testament writers seem to have pictured the kingdom in more objective and less personal terms. They would have been influenced by the role model of contemporary rulers. For example, in Luke’s version of the Parable of the Talents, the king on his return gave orders that his enemies who did not want him to be king should be brought to him and be killed in his sight (Luke 19:27). Pictures of the terror by which rulers in the ancient world sought to maintain their authority ought not to be applied to God’s exercise of his rule and should not, in my opinion, be used to suggest that Jesus taught that the wicked would burn for ever in hell. The evangelists’ ideas of the kingdom were also colored by apocalyptic literature which pictured a sort of ‘star wars’ conclusion to world history in which God’s armies of the righteous would destroy the wicked.

Some New Testament passages suggest that there was a strong expectation that the kingdom was about to come. According to Mark, Jesus said, ‘I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God come with power’ (Mark 9:1). The second letter to the Thessalonians speaks of ‘the Lord Jesus . . . revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels. He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus’ (2 Thess. 1:8). John, however, suggests that it is not the Son’s task to punish people. Jesus, he said, came to show God’s love, and people bring suffering upon themselves by rejecting that offer of light and love. Judgment is self-inflicted. ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world but to save the world. . . Whoever does not believe stands condemned already. . . Everyone who does evil hates the light’ (John 3:16-20).

Clearly some early Christians expected the return of Jesus in their lifetime. There are, however, cautionary remarks. When, in Acts 1, the disciples just before his ascension ask Jesus if he is about to restore the kingdom to Israel, they are told, ‘It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority’ (Acts 1:7). The end of John’s gospel contradicts a rumor that John was to live until the Lord’s return. Luke’s writings, like John’s gospel, play down ideas of an imminent return.

Some Christians today, as they have through the centuries, continue to try to predict the date of Christ’s second coming. Most churches retain the belief in the Second Coming -- the Church of England Communion service includes the words, ‘Christ will come again’, which everyone is expected to say -- yet there is no great expectation that the second coming is about to take place. The belief is a way of affirming that the future belongs to God. Few Christians probably have a clear picture of what they expect will happen at the end of time. Some hope for the kingdom of God to come on earth -- as Jesus taught his disciples to pray - but others expect the denouement of history in another world. Others are more interested in a future life in the next world rather than in the destiny of human society. The law of thermodynamics suggests that eventually the world is running down -- but not for millions of years. Many Christians do not speculate about the future, but are sufficiently occupied struggling for peace and justice, for which the kingdom of God is a symbol, amidst the conflicts of the day.

The kingdom, understood as a believer’s relationship of trust in God, is the subject of many of Jesus’ parables. Just as a merchant will sell all his possessions to buy a priceless pearl, or the man who discovers buried treasure will sell his belongings to buy the land where the treasure is buried, so God’s kingdom is worth any sacrifice. Like a mustard seed or yeast, the kingdom grows through the power of God. Disciples are not to be down-hearted if there are weeds amid the crops. Although some seed is wasted, the good seed will bear a harvest (Matt. 13). The faithful are not to be discouraged by persecution and setbacks; God’s kingdom will be established.

Several parables insist that the kingdom of God’s love is offered freely to all who repent and turn to God. One of the best-known parables is the story of the Prodigal Son in Luke chapter 15. A father had two sons. The younger asked his father for his share of the inheritance and then set Out for a far-off land. There he wasted the money on riotous living. When his funds were exhausted, he tried to get work, but the only job he -- a Jew -- could get was to look after pigs. He decided to return to his home country and ask his father for work as a servant. Whilst he was still some way from home, the father saw him, ran out to greet him, kissed him, ordered that he be given a robe, a ring and sandals and arranged a celebration. The elder son, however, refused to go to the party and complained that although he had worked hard all his life for his father, he had never been given a party, so the father went out to plead with him as well. Some of Jesus’ opponents, instead of rejoicing that Jesus was mixing with and preaching to the rejects of society, criticized him for his actions. Jesus told other parables to defend his mission to sinners, such as the parables of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin (hike 15) as well as the story of the Laborers in the Vineyard.

An owner of a vineyard went out early to employ some workers. He promised to pay them a denarius each for a day’s work. He went back three times and each time found some men who still had not found work, so he engaged them as well. At the end of the day, he first paid those who had only started work in the afternoon and gave them a denarius. Those who had toiled all day expected to get more, but the master said. ‘Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ (Matt. 20:15).

There is a tendency of those who wish to live holy and upright lives to cut themselves off from those whose morals are more questionable. The Essene community, as we have seen, went to great lengths to keep themselves unspotted by the world. Jesus, however, insisted that God’s generous love is for all -- just because he had created them and they were his children. Jesus pointed out that if a man has an ox or an ass that falls into a pit, he goes to great trouble to rescue the animal. Why then, Jesus asked, is it surprising that God wants to recover his erring children?

There is however a human tendency of the righteous to want to see others punished for their wrongdoing. Jesus insisted that no one is righteous, but that all people depend on the generous mercy of God. Paul said the same: ‘All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus’(Rom. 3:23-4). It is still a matter of dispute whether people need first to repent before they can receive God’s forgiveness or whether the initiative is with God and that it is only as a person experiences the accepting love of God that they recognize their failures and wrongdoing and ask for help. Jesus in his ministry came to seek and to save, and in his teaching gave a picture of God, whose out-flowing and forgiving love seeks to draw all people to himself. Too often the church has not been so welcoming -- although it has been said that the church exists for sinners and not for saints.

This mission to the outcasts may well have been related to Jesus’ sense that his ministry was a decisive moment in God’s purposes. Some Jews expected that in the new age, God would welcome back the sinners of the children of Israel. Indeed, in Isaiah 44:22, God had promised, ‘I have swept away your offences like a cloud . . . Return to me, for I have redeemed you.’ When Jesus went to the home of Zacchaeus, who was despised because of his work as a tax-collector for the Romans, Jesus said, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost’ (Luke 19:9-10). Jesus defended his actions against his critics by stressing that God’s forgiving love was available to all and that the angels of heaven rejoiced whenever a sinner repented.

There was also some expectation that at the end time the twelve tribes of Israel would be restored. This may explain Jesus’ choice of twelve disciples. There is some disagreement in the gospel records about their names, but not about the highly significant number twelve. Another hope for the new age was that the Temple would be renewed. It may be that when Jesus drove out the moneychangers and those who sold animals for sacrifice, he was not just objecting to the commercialization of a holy place, but symbolically warning of the Temple’s forthcoming destruction and the replacement of the sacrificial cult by worship in spirit and in truth (John 4:21-4).

There was also some expectation that at the end time there would be a gathering in of the gentiles. Zechariah, for example, had promised that ‘many nations will be joined with the Lord in that day and will become my people’ (Zech. 2:11 and 8:20-22; see also Isaiah 56:6-8). The early Christian community claimed that in opening its doors to the gentiles, this prophecy was being fulfilled (Rom. 9:25).

This brings us back to the kingdom. The sense that the kingdom was at hand and that a new age was dawning gives coherence to Jesus’ ministry, but such a belief would have been controversial, just as a generation ago many white South Africans could not see how the apartheid regime could ever be changed. Those who speak of change are always threatening to those who have a vested interest in the status quo. It is not necessary, however, to vilify Jesus’ opponents, as Christians have often done with regard to the Pharisees. It is more accurate to recognize that good people can sincerely disagree.

The Death of Jesus

The gospels are probably mistaken when they on occasion suggest that the Pharisees were involved in the plot to kill Jesus. Over the centuries, Christians have blamed the Jews for the death of Jesus, even though he was crucified, which was a Roman form of execution. It may be that the high priests and some of the Sadducees wanted Jesus out of the way, lest the Romans used a ‘rebellion’ as an excuse to take away the Jews’ few remaining liberties. John pictured a meeting of the Sanhedrin, the supreme Jewish council and court of justice at that time, at which it was said, ‘If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe an him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.’ To which Caiaphas, the high priest commented, ‘You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish’ (John 11:48-50).

It seems likely that the gospel accounts try to shift the blame for the crucifixion of Jesus from the Romans to the Jews. It is interesting that in popular Christian devotion, it is often assumed that the Palm Sunday crowd which greeted Jesus with cries of ‘Hosanna’ was the same crowd that on the following Friday shouted out, ‘Crucify him’. But the latter may have been a ‘rent-a-mob’. We are told that Jesus could not be arrested in public for fear of the people and that Judas told the authorities where they could arrest Jesus when no crowd was present (Mark 12:12; Luke 22:6). As he was led to crucifixion, the women of Jerusalem wept for him (Luke 23:27, 48).

There is much uncertainty about the historicity of the gospel accounts of the various trials. According to Mark, after Jesus had celebrated his last supper with the disciples, he went with them to a place called Gethsemane, where he prayed, ‘Abba, Father, everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will’ (Mark 14:36). Whilst he was at prayer, a crowd, armed with swords and clubs, led by Judas Iscariot came to the garden and arrested him. They took him to the high priest, where accusations were made against Jesus. Then the high priest asked Jesus directly, ‘Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?’ ‘I am,’ Jesus replied, ‘And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven’ (Mark 14:61-2)8 At this, the high priest cried out, ‘Blasphemy!’, and concluded that Jesus deserved to die.

It was, as far as we know, against Jewish law to hold a meeting of the Sanhedrin at night. This may, however, have been a preliminary hearing as Mark refers later to another meeting very early in the morning (Mark 15:1). It was also unacceptable to condemn a person out of his own mouth. It is questionable whether what Jesus is reported as saying was actually blasphemous. In any case, it is quite possible that in his account of the trial, following the practice of some ancient historians, Mark wrote what he thought would have been said, rather than attempting to give a verbatim record of the trial’s proceedings. That is to say, by the time Mark wrote his gospel the key issue in dispute between the early Christians and the Jewish community was whether or not Jesus was the Christ. Mark brilliantly highlights the central issue, but it is more likely, historically, that Jesus was put to death by the Romans because he was a trouble maker. According to Mark, Jesus after the second hearing was taken before Pilate. Pilate wanted to set him free, but gave in to Jewish demands. We know, however, from other evidence that Pilate was eventually recalled to Rome for cruelty. He was not a squeamish man and had little concern for Jewish sensitivities.

By the time Mark’s gospel was written, however, some Christians, including perhaps Peter and Paul, had been put to death by the Emperor Nero. Christians were the object of Roman hostility. It would only increase Roman hostility were they to think that the founder of Christianity had himself been put to death for sedition. There seems to have been an attempt to whitewash Pilate -- with even his wife dramatically pleading for Jesus’ innocence (Matt. 27:19).

Many Christians continue to accept the historical accuracy of the gospel accounts, which have formed the basis for dramatic re-enactment of Jesus’ passion over the centuries. They need, however, to be challenged because the way in which Christians have heard the story of Jesus’ passion has inflamed prejudice and hatred of Jews and has been a cause of persecution in every century -- most of all in the horrors of the Holocaust.

Since that ghastly event, most churches have repudiated the false charge of deicide, which implied that the Jews were accursed by God because they put the Son of God to death. Some Jewish leaders may have colluded with the Romans, but Jesus suffered a Roman penalty because he was regarded by the Romans as a rebel. In any case, it is morally wrong to blame future generations for the actions of their parents. In Christian theology, responsibility for the death of Jesus rests with God (Acts 3:17-8), or with all people, because it is believed that Jesus died for the sins of all people. As a hymn writer puts it,

Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee:

I crucified thee.9

Muslims, out of respect for Jesus, deny that he really died. God, they say, would have raised a faithful servant to heaven and not allowed him to be killed. According to the Qur’an, the Jews said, ‘ "We killed the Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary, the messenger of God", though they did not kill him and did not crucify him, but he was counterfeited for them . . . Nay, God raised him to himself’ (Surah 4:155-59). The Christian creed, however, insists that Jesus died and was buried.

The Resurrection

If there is uncertainty because we lack historical evidence about who was responsible for the death of Jesus, there are questions about his resurrection because it is a supra-historical occurrence. The Christian claim that Jesus, after he had died and been placed in a tomb, was raised to new life by God, is a belief in a unique event. Historians rely on parallels, and the activity of God does not count as a historical explanation. There is some historical evidence for the resurrection, but the central issue is a matter of faith.

The biblical arguments for the resurrection of Jesus are threefold. First, his tomb was found empty. Second, several members of the early Christian community claimed that the Risen Jesus had appeared to them. Third, Jesus’ resurrection was said to fulfil Scripture.

According to John, very early on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from its entrance. She ran and told Peter and ‘the other disciple whom Jesus loved’, who also came to the tomb and saw that it was empty. Matthew’s gospel mentions a rumor that the disciples, despite an armed guard at the tomb, had stolen the body. Yet the opponents of the early Christians never produced a body. Some modern scholars cast doubt on the tradition that Jesus was buried in the tomb belonging to Joseph of Arimathea. They think it more likely that a criminal’s body, when removed from the cross, would have been flung into a common grave.

There are several accounts of the Risen Lord appearing to disciples. John says that he spoke to Mary Magdalene while she was still in the garden near the tomb, as well as later in the day to all the disciples, except Thomas, who was not there. Thomas, often called ‘Doubting Thomas’, insisted that he would only believe if he himself saw the nail marks in Jesus’ hands. A week later, the Risen Jesus appeared again to the disciples and this time Thomas was with them. Thomas, now the true believer, hailed the Risen Jesus as ‘My Lord and my God’ (John 20:28).

Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians, summed up the message that he had received in these words:

that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me, as to one abnormally born. (I Cor. 15:3-8)

It is interesting that Paul counts his vision on the Damascus road as an appearance of the Risen Lord, as this seems to conflict with the Acts of the Apostles which implies that the resurrection appearances came to an end after forty days (Acts 1:3).

Paul mentions the argument from the Hebrew Scriptures. In Luke’s gospel, there is a story of two disciples travelling to Emmaus on the first Easter day, who were joined by a stranger, who explained to them that Moses and all the prophets had said that the Christ had to suffer before entering into his glory (Luke 24:26-7; cf. Acts 3:17ff.). It is not always evident, however, that the passages quoted by the early Christians as evidence that the resurrection of Jesus Christ was foretold by the prophets, originally had the meaning that they put upon them.

Although the various scriptural arguments for the resurrection of Jesus are open to question, modern writers insist that some explanation is needed of what empowered the early disciples to spread the message of Jesus across the world. Millions of Christians today, as in every generation, witness that in their experience ‘Jesus is alive’.

This conviction is central to Christian faith, but it remains a matter of belief. Christians vary from those who picture the resurrection as the reanimation of a corpse to those who understand it in more spiritual terms and might look for a parallel in group hallucinations. Although Thomas was invited to touch the wounds made by the nails, the Risen Christ is not portrayed in the gospels as a reanimated corpse. He could pass through doors. Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 speaks of a ‘spiritual body’ (1 Cor. 15:44) The Risen Jesus was seen only by believers, not by the general public. It has been said of the empty tomb that however early the women had been, they would not have seen the stone being rolled away. The evangelists are not describing an ordinary physical happening. It seems quite likely that Mark’s gospel originally ended at chapter 16, verse 8, with the words, ‘Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.’ The resurrection could not be described; it could only be known to those who believed. It is later writers who tend to treat the resurrection as an ordinary, objective event.

Often in Christian hymns, the resurrection is sung of in triumphalistic terms as the defeat of evil and death. Both, how. ever, remain very evident in the world and this is one reason why many Jews do not believe that Jesus was ‘the Messiah’. He has not delivered the redemption that the Messiah was expected to bring. Sadly, some Christians have even used the resurrection as an argument against the Jews, suggesting that by it God showed that Jesus was right and the Jews wrong. At the same time, some Christians have so spiritualized redemption as the promised reward of the individual in the next world, that they have ignored the suffering and evil of human life in this world.

The resurrection is perhaps best understood as a hope. It is both an affirmation of faith that the way of self-giving love embodied by Jesus can never be defeated and a commitment to live in that love. John, in his gospel, was careful not to separate the death and resurrection of Jesus. Easter is not a happy ending after the horror of Good Friday. Good Friday and Easter Day belong together. John wanted his reader to see that it was the cross itself which revealed the glory of God (John 12:16, 23).John used for the crucifixion the deliberately ambiguous word ‘lifted-up’, which suggested both the physical lifting up on the cross and the exaltation to glory (12:32). Easter, for John, was the recognition that the self-giving love shown on the cross revealed the heart of God.

Further, John suggested that through Jesus’ glorification on the cross, the Spirit became present to the believer (John 7:39). Some commentators think that the words with which John records Jesus’ death, ‘He bowed his head and gave up his spirit’, were also intended to mean that as he died he handed over the Spirit to the few representative believers who stood at the foot of the cross (John 19:30).10 Luke, in the Acts of the Apostles, separates chronologically what John holds together theologically. Luke pictures Good Friday and Easter being followed by a period of forty days in which the Risen Jesus appeared to the disciples before leaving them and ascending into heaven. Ten days later, at Pentecost, the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples ‘like the blowing of a violent wind’ (Acts 2:2).

Pentecost, or Whitsun, is sometimes spoken of as ‘the birthday of the church’. But this is to move from the historical Jesus to the Jesus of Christian faith, although it is only through the sometimes distorting medium of that faith that we have a glimpse of the man from Nazareth.

Two quite short lives of Jesus are C. H. Dodd, The Founder of Christianity, (Collins, 1971) and Donald Coggan, The Servant-Son (SPCK, 1995). Rather longer are E. P. Sanders, Jesus (Penguin, 1993), and Günther Bornkamm, Jesus of Nazareth (Hodder and Stoughton, 1960).

An imaginative book which creates the atmosphere of the time is Gerd Theissen, The Shadow of the Galilean (SCM Press, 1987).

Books by E. P. Sanders and J. Jeremias are useful for the relationship of Jesus to the Judaism of his day, as is Hyam Maccoby, Judaism in the First Century. (Sheldon Press, 1989) and John Riches, The World of Jesus (Cambridge University Press, 1990).



1. See Acts 10 -11 and 15.

2. Mark 1:41, in the older manuscripts, says that Jesus was ‘moved with anger’ when he saw the man with leprosy -- perhaps because of the ravages of the illness. Matthew and Luke omit the word and most translations follow those manuscripts which have ‘moved with pity’. John 11:35 says that Jesus wept at the grave of his friend Lazarus.

3. John Betjeman’s Collected Poems, ed. The Earl of Birkenhead (Guild Publishing, 1958; 4th edn, 1980), pp. 188 -- 90.

4. For example, in the well-known hymn ‘Rock of Ages’ (Hymns and Psalms, 273), there are the lines: ‘Not the labors of my hands/Can fulfil thy law’s demands.’

5. Antiquities XIII. 10.6 (293).

6. E. P. Sanders, Jesus and Judaism (SCM Ness, 1985), p. 292.

7. The dates of both Hillel and Philo are uncertain. Hillel flourished in the last half of the first century BCE and the first quarter of the first century CE. Philo was born between 15 and 10 BCE and died in the middle of the first century CE.

8. In Matthew and Luke, Jesus’ reply is evasive.

9. From the hymn ‘Ah, holy Jesus’, by Robert Bridges: Hymns and Psalms, 164.

10. C. K Barrett, The Gospel According to St. John (SPCK, 1962), p.460.