The Nazarene Way of Essenic Studies
~ The Historical Jesus ~

This section provides a historical view of Jesus, based largely on textual evidence from the 1st and 2nd centuries.


 There has been a good deal of recent research on Jesus by critical scholars: two synthetic accounts are The Historical Figure of Jesus by E.P. Sanders, a historian with a doctorate in theology, now Arts & Sciences Professor of Religion at Duke University, and the three volume A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus by John Meier, a Catholic priest, and Professor of Biblical Studies at the Catholic University of America. The following is a brief summary of the dominant position among critical scholars. 

The Gospels provide two accounts of Jesus' birth: according to one account, he is the son of Joseph, a descendant of David; according to the other account, he is the son of God, and divine (Christians do not view these two accounts as irreconcilable). Many historians and other scholars suggest that these accounts were developed after Jesus' death, in order to substantiate the Christian belief that Jesus was the messiah. Most of the material in the Gospels focus on the last year of Jesus' life, and most scholars focus on this period. 

This was a period marked by cultural and political dilemmas. Culturally, Jews had to grapple with the values of Hellenism and Hellenistic philosophy. Moreover, as many Jews lived in the Diaspora, and Judea itself was populated by many Gentiles, Jews had to confront a paradox in their own tradition: their Torah applied only to them, but revealed universal truths. This situation led to new interpretations of the Torah, influenced by Hellenic thought and in response to Gentile interest in Judaism. 

Jesus lived at a time when Judea was ruled directly by a Roman Procurator, while Galilee was ruled indirectly through the Tetrarch Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great. During this time the religion of the Jews centered on the Temple in Jerusalem, but no particular form of Judaism was established as the predominant and correct one. Some Jews formed social and political movements, such as the Sadducees the aristocratic party, aligned with the ruling priests; Pharisees who developed a non-priestly approach to Judaism and were, at this time, apolitical; Essenes who developed a non-Temple oriented but priestly approach to Judaism, and who were apolitical; and the Zealots who were politically opposed to Roman occupation. Most Jews belonged to none of these parties. Moreover, many individuals claimed to speak for God, in the prophetic tradition of Isaiah and Jeremiah, or to be able to heal people in the prophetic tradition of Elisha. 

This was moreover a volatile period in Jewish history. Most Jews were desperately poor and resented having to pay tribute to Rome. Although Jews were relatively autonomous, ruled by a Jewish high priest and tetrarch, these officials were appointed by Rome and thus had questionable legitimacy. Moreover, the Second Temple itself, rebuilt under Persian auspices, had uncertain legitimacy. 

During this time many Jews hoped that the Romans would be replaced by a Jewish king (also referred to as "the anointed", or messiah, as kings were anointed) of the line of David the last legitimate Jewish regime. However, Jews were divided over how this might occur. Most Jews believed that their history was governed by God. For example, many believed that the Babylonian Exile, the conquest of Babylon by the Persians (who allowed Jews to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem), the defeat of the Seleucids by the Jews, and the conquest of Judea by the Romans, were all divine acts. They thus believed that the Romans were instruments of God, and would be replaced by a Jewish king only through divine intervention; thus, the majority of Jews accepted Roman rule. Others (primarily the Zealots) believed that the kingdom should be restored immediately, through violent human action. 

Jesus seems not to have belonged to any particular party; Jesus was special (perhaps even unique) in combining elements of many of these different, and for most Jews, opposing  positions. Most critical scholars see Jesus as working in the prophetic tradition, both as a mouthpiece for God and as an itinerant healer. However, many of his teachings echoed the beliefs of the Qumran community (probably a branch of the Essenes). He may have engaged the Pharisees on matters of Jewish law (most scholars believe that many of the debates between Jesus and the Pharisees found in the Gospels were added after Jesus' death, at a time when the Pharisees emerged as the dominant form of Judaism and the primary competitors with Christians as interpreters of the Bible); and his declarations that the kingdom was at hand echoed the Zealots. Many historians and other scholars argue that it is more likely that, like most Jews, Jesus believed that the restoration of the monarchy would be accomplished by God, not by any movement of Jews. However, he did believe that this restoration was immanent. Jesus was enigmatic at best about his claim to actually be the presumptive monarch, but it is likely that he believed that as soon as God restored the monarchy, he would be anointed as king. That he speaks of twelve disciples is probably symbolic of the twelve tribes of Israel, and thus a metaphor for "all of Israel (the Gospels name fourteen disciples; Paul mentions a "twelve" that does not include Peter or other disciples). 

Talk of a restoration of the monarchy was seditious under Roman occupation, and Jesus entered Jerusalem at an especially risky time. Jews were required to offer sacrifices at the Temple three times a year: Passover, Sukkot, and Shavuot. Although most Jews did not have the means to travel to Jerusalem for every holiday, virtually all tried to comply with these laws as best they could. Thus, during these festivals the population of Jerusalem swelled, and outbreaks of violence and riots were common. Critical scholars argue that the high priest feared that Jesus' talk of an immanent restoration of an independent Jewish state would likely spark a riot. As maintaining the peace was one of the primary jobs of the high priest, whom the Romans held personally responsible for any major outbreak of violence, he had Jesus arrested and turned him over to the Romans for execution. 

After the destruction of the Temple in 70, the Zealots, Sadducees, and Essenes disappeared. Moreover, the followers of Jesus offered Gentiles a form of Judaism that emphasized the universal over the particular. When it became apparent that the Jews preferred Rabbinic Judaism, followers of Jesus turned primarily to Gentiles and emphasized universality even more. The result was the Christian religion. It was during this period, many scholars argue, that Christians transformed the meaning of the word messiah to be universal and divine, rather than particular and human.


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The Historical Jesus