... But whom say ye that I am?
It has to be said that there is no good evidence that Jesus
really existed. There is a respectable case that he did not*.
Some of the reasons for doubting his existence are (a) the lack
of any independent record - there are three possible references
by contemporary authors but they are ambiguous, for example
refering to people who believe in Chrestus (sic), or else are
known to have been tampered with by later Christians. If the
events recorded in the New Testament had really taken place
we would expect to find a record of them by one or more of the
dozen or so contemporary authors who would have taken an interest
in such events. (b) the New Testament cannot be relied on for
various reasons - the earliest parts were written a generation
more after the supposed lifetime of Jesus, by unidentified authors
who are known propagandists, who cannot have met the living
man and who contradict each other despite having copied from
each other (c) the earliest records, by Paul, betray pretty
much no knowledge at all of his life or teaching and a suspicious
dependency on "visions" of him (d) early traditions
give wildly different birth dates for Jesus (e) all of the elements
of Christianity including its central teachings were already
in circulation in the Middle East at that time.
Most historians, though not all, accept that Jesus existed.
If he did exist we can make deductions about his appearance
based on his ethnicity and supposed age.
If Jesus did exist he is unlikely to
have looked like the image on the left
and much more likely to have looked like the image on
For those who accept that Jesus existed, the following represents
the sum of what is generally accepted concerning his life :
- He was a Jew, probably born around 2,000 years ago.
- He came from Galilee.
- As an adult he was baptised by a man known as John the Baptist.
- He preached and taught in Palestine, and attracted a group
- He was involved in a controversy about the Jerusalem temple.
- He was crucified by the Roman authorities.
this for present purposes, there is no historically reliable
evidence that Jesus believed himself to be God incarnate, nor
that he intended to found a new religion. Such ideas stem partly
from the New Testament, which, as we have seen, is not regarded
by most Church scholars as a reliable historical account. Even
if we do accept the New Testament as a factual account of historical
events, matters are still not straightforward, and doubt remains
about who Jesus was, and what he thought himself to be. The
texts can be, and have been, interpreted in many different ways.
In the past Christian leaders have declared the biblical Jesus
to be a model for dictators and for the oppressed, soldiers
and pacifists; for capitalists, socialists and communists; and
for kings, gentlemen, peasants and revolutionaries. In the last
few decades Jesus has been acclaimed as an Essene, a Zealot,
a Buddhist, a sorcerer, a homosexual, a space alien, and the
product of hallucinogenic mushrooms.
One of thousands of sincerely believed
Christian claims about Jesus
It might seem obvious to the devout that these competing claims
about who Jesus was are all nonsense and that Jesus knew himself
to be God incarnate. After all it is well known that according
to the gospels he claimed to be Christ, the divine son of God.
As a matter of fact he did not make this claim. What he did
claim, and what others claimed, and how these various claims
were later interpreted is the subject of this chapter. We will
consider the following:
Our main purpose is to show which of these attributions are
historically realistic, and which support the central Christian
belief that he was divine.
Rabbi, when camest thou hither?
As a Jewish teacher, Jesus would naturally have been addressed
as Rabbi. The title is used in the gospels (e.g. Mark 9:5, 11:21
and 14:45), but it was traditionally translated into English
as Master. In the John gospel it was left as Rabbi
(e.g. John 1:38, 1:49, and 6:25).
This form of address was used in the original Greek texts,
and we have no reason to doubt its validity.
And he could there do no mighty work, save
that he laid hands upon a few sick folk, and healed them.
Jesus" miracles are discounted by many biblical scholars
as additions to the original texts, for reasons that we will
look at in some detail later. However, even if we accept the
miracles, there is still the question of whether they irrefutably
establish claims to Jesus" divinity, as is often asserted.
To answer this question we need to compare the reported nature
of his miracles. Are they substantially different to the equally
well-evidenced miracles attributed to ordinary mortals? The
answer has to be “no”. Historically, miracles have
always been relatively commonplace. They are not hard to find
in the Old Testament, albeit often performed with divine assistance.
Around the time of Jesus the power to perform miracles was ascribed
not only to prophets but also to respected rabbis. For example
in the first century BC Honi the Circle-Drawer was credited
with the ability to induce rain*.
In the first century AD Hanina Ben Dosa was credited with healing
the sick by divine means and with possessing the miraculous
power of withstanding the venom of poisonous snakes*.
Again Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai and Rabbi Eleazar ben Yose were
reported to have cured an emperor's daughter by exorcising a
demon*. In rabbinic literature
a number of Jewish scholars were credited with the power to
revive the dead. Pagans also enjoyed extensive miraculous powers.
The Roman Emperor Vespasian cured the lame and the blind, while
Alexander the Great was credited with emulating Moses"
parting of the sea to let his army pass. All these miracles
were at least as well attested as those reportedly performed
Ananias and his wife Sapphira sold their
land but failed to hand all of it over to the early Church.
When they dissembled about it to Saint Peter they both
mysteriously died on the spot. For many centuries these
deaths were cited as certain evidence of Peter's miraculous
power. For obvious reasons, Christians are less enthusiastic
about traditional interpretations of this story, or indeed
any interpretations. The story (at Acts Chapter 5) has
mysteriously fallen off Sunday School sylabi and from
all but the most ardent sermons.
On the evidence of the gospels a number of people had the power
to cast out devils (Mark 9:38 and Luke 10:17); according to
the Matthew author Jesus acknowledged this fact (Matthew 12:27).
The New Testament is peppered with examples of Jesus" followers
working miracles. Since
New Testament times the ability to work them has been bestowed
more liberally still. Irenaeus of Lyons refers to the raising of the
dead by the apostles and by later Christians*.
A number of saints have been credited with raising the dead:
St Dominic and St Francis Xavier to name but two. In the Middle
Ages Christian monarchs were regularly credited with miraculous
cures. Again many thousands of saints are recognised by the
mainstream Christian Churches as having possessed miraculous
powers. Even Martin Luther was credited with having performed
miraculous cures. Modern Christian groups are even more blessed.
In the United States alone there are hundreds of evangelist
ministers routinely performing miraculous deeds of healing every
day, all verified by grateful believers. Some of these miracles
are performed at great distances through the medium of television.
Proponents of many other religions perform miraculous deeds
that are as well attested as those of Christianity. Muslims
ascribe them to Mohammed and to certain Mullahs, Buddhists ascribe
them to Guatama and other Buddhas, Hindus ascribe them to Brahmins
Throughout history thousands of people have been credited with
the ability to work miracles, without being regarded as gods.
The reported working of miracles by Jesus cannot therefore be
regarded as evidence of his divinity, especially since his miracles
seem to have depended upon faith in much the same way as those
of modern miracle workers. In his own time Jesus" miracles
were not seen as evidence of divinity, but they might be evidence
of the appearance of a new prophet. They were, after all, without
exception selected from the standard menu of miracles expected
of a prophet at that time.
A prophet is not without honour, but in his
own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house.
Prophets abounded in Old Testament times, and during New Testament
times there seems to have been a widespread expectation that
some great figure from the past would reappear on Earth. Elijah
and Moses were both expected, and even the Queen of Sheba (Luke
11:31 ). Certainly there was a resurgence of prophetic claimants.
The historian Josephus mentions that many false prophets flourished
around the time of Jesus*,
a fact supported by New Testament warnings about them*.
Some prophets are named in the New Testament. John the Baptist
for example was counted a prophet*
and so was Theudas*. A
man called Bar-Jesus was another (Acts 13:6). Paul was mistaken
by a Roman tribune for a prophet known as The Egyptian*.
Simon Magus, whom Gnostic Samaritans came to regard as the redeemer,
was another*, as was
a man called Agabus (Acts 11:28 and 21:10). Herod Antipas thought
that Jesus was John the Baptist come back from the dead (Mark
6:14 and 6:16), but others believed that he was Elias or another
prophet (Mark 6:15). That his disciples regarded him as a prophet
is confirmed by Luke 24:19. His prophetic status was compared
to that of Moses*. The
masses also recognised him as a prophet (Matthew 21:11 and Matthew
21:46), and Jesus referred to himself as a prophet:
Nevertheless I must walk today, and tomorrow, and the day
following: for it cannot be that a prophet perish out of Jerusalem.
By this he meant that he must go to Jerusalem to die because,
as a prophet, it would not be fitting for him to die anywhere
else. Like other prophets he was expected to perform miracles.
The power to perform miracles was regarded as evidence that
a man was truly appointed by God. Indeed the fact that Jesus
performed miracles led people to conclude that he was a prophet
(Luke 7:16, John 6:14 and John 9:1-17). His healing miracles
followed traditional patterns, for example using folk medicine
and healing waters*.
On one occasion, after he had failed to work the miracles expected
of a prophet, he is reported to have spoken the words quoted
at the head of this section "A prophet is not without honour
...". His failure to perform as a prophet was the source
of doubt about him (Luke 7:39) and made him a butt of ridicule
after his arrest*.
We now tend to regard the foretelling of the future as the
principal function of a prophet, an idea reflected in the modern
meaning of the term prophecy, but the Jewish idea was
somewhat different. The ability to foretell aspects of the future
was only one of many preternatural powers expected of the later
prophets. Any self-respecting prophet was almost routinely expected
to heal the sick, cast out demons and raise the dead.
As we have seen, around Jesus" time such miracles were
ascribed to false prophets, to Jesus" followers, to devout
rabbis, and to other religious figures. Whether or not we ourselves
accept that anyone has ever worked a miracle, we may accept
that, on the evidence of the New Testament, Jesus was believed
by some, during his lifetime, to be a prophet. This is still
how Muslims and some Jews regard him.
And Moses took the anointing oil....
If Jesus saw himself as a prophet the question naturally arises
as to why he is now acclaimed not as a prophet but as the Messiah.
The word messiah is of Jewish origin. It means "the
anointed one". For the Jews long before the time of Jesus
the word was applied to those who had been anointed with oil,
as Aaron had been anointed by Moses (Leviticus 8:12). Since
the practice of anointing with oil was reserved for high priests
and kings, it was high priests and kings that were called messiahs.
Cyrus the Great is called a messiah in the Bible, though
many translations disguise the fact by referring to him as "anointed"
rather than as a messiah (as at Isaiah 45:1). Again,
the Jewish priest-kings from Saul onwards were all messiahs.
Even during the Roman occupation of Judæa the Jewish high
priest appointed by the Romans was known as the Priest Messiah*.
The underlying meaning of the word messiah enabled
it to be translated into languages that had no corresponding
concept it was just a matter of adapting the word for
oil. From a Greek word for oil we have the English words chrism,
denoting holy oil. A christ is simply someone anointed
with chrism. The word christ (Greek christos)
is thus a literal translation of the Hebrew messiah.
The earliest Church historian, Eusebius, was well aware of the
significance of the word:
…it was not only those honoured with the high priesthood,
anointed with prepared oil for the symbol's sake, who
were distinguished among the Hebrews with the name of Christ,
but the kings too.... *
Modern translations of the Bible sometimes retain the Hebrew
word messiah, sometimes translate it as christ,
and sometimes use the English equivalent "anointed".
Selection on doctrinal, rather than linguistic, grounds allows
translators to avoid referring to Jewish high priests and others
as "christs" or "messiahs". Incidentally,
the ancient practice of anointing priests and kings with oil
was regarded as so important that it has been carried into modern
Christianity. For example chrism is used in bestowing Holy Orders
in the Greek and Roman Churches. It is used in the Anglican
Church too. The British monarch is anointed with chrism during
the coronation service, just as the ancient Jewish kings were.
It might be expected that if Jesus was acclaimed as a christ
or messiah, then he must have laid claim to the office
of high priest or king (or both). There is no doubt about which
claim the Bible emphasises. According to the New Testament Jesus
was born of the Royal line of David (Romans 1:3), and the authors
of both the Matthew and Luke gospels (or later editors) took
the trouble to trace his ancestry back to the old Jewish kings
and beyond (Matthew 1:1-16 and Luke 3:23-38). The danger that
he might become the King of the Jews was the reason for Herod
the Great's interest in having him killed at birth*.
When he triumphantly entered Jerusalem for the last time he
was hailed as the Jewish King: "Fear not, daughter of Sion:
behold thy King cometh" (John 12:15). He was condemned
to death not because he claimed to be the son of God, but because
he claimed to be a king, and he was repeatedly referred to as
such during his trial*.
Pilate explicitly mentioned that the Jews themselves called
Jesus their king (Mark 15:12). The sign attached to the cross
reportedly read The King of the Jews.
In the gospels Jesus is referred to on two occasions as the
King of Israel*, and
the Luke author also refers to him simply as the King (Luke
19:37-8). He is represented as being expected to restore David's Kingdom (Mark 11:9-10). His claim to the Jewish kingdom was
certainly sufficient to qualify him as a messiah.
Around the time of Jesus there was an apparently widespread
belief that a new messiah would appear. This belief was not
held by all Jews or even, it seems, a majority. Those who did
look forward to the coming of a messiah expected a warrior leader
who would lead a successful uprising against the Romans. After
expelling them he would re-establish a Jewish kingdom with himself
as king. The messiah expected by the Jews was to be a human,
not a divine leader. It was therefore not a blasphemy to claim
to be a messiah. Clearly it would not be reasonable to indict
everyone who claimed to be a messiah, since sooner or later,
as they supposed, one of the claimants would be genuine. Around
Jesus" time there were many who claimed to be messiahs.
It is not certain that Jesus himself ever claimed to be one
himself. In all of the explicit references in the gospels it
is others who use the title. Jesus is evasive about it when
asked directly whether he is the Christ, and answers enigmatically
in the third person about the Son of man (Matthew 26:63-64,
Mark 14:61-62). Hegesippus, in the generation after the apostles,
mentioned that some followers had come to believe that Jesus
was the Christ, suggesting that this was a novel view*.
What seems to have happened is that Jesus was known simply as
Jesus during his lifetime. Some Jews acknowledged him to be
a messiah and styled him Jesus the messiah or Jesus
the christ. Later still someone (possibly St Paul) turned
this into Jesus Christ , making a name out of an appellation.
As a name the first part could be dropped so Jesus Christ
became Christ. Numerous ancient manuscripts capture
the transition. In many places the oldest strands talk about
Jesus, later strands talk about Jesus Christ,
and later ones still Christ. These changes were almost
certainly made by "orthodox" scribes for doctrinal
In time Jesus Christ would become the second person of the
Trinity, and divine. How far the meaning of the title Christ
has been changed can be illustrated by the application of the
term to others who have been anointed. Thus for example it would
be etymologically correct to refer to any British monarch as
a Christ. The apparent blasphemy is attributable to
the meaning of the word having been altered, so that most people
now imagine that it carries implications of uniqueness and divinity.
In short, Jesus may or may not have thought of himself as a
messiah. It is quite possible that he did. In any event, claiming
to be a messiah or a christ was far short of claiming to be
A thing is not necessarily true because a man
dies for it.
Oscar Wilde (1854-1900)
However else Jesus might have been seen, the common point of
view was that he was a danger to the state. Potentially he might
lead a rebellion against the Romans and re-establish a Jewish
kingdom. He was, therefore, liable to be seen as a trouble-maker,
a revolutionary, a freedom fighter, a royal pretender, or a
rightful king, depending upon one's point of view. There is
ample evidence from many sources that Jesus was seen in these
lights. The Bible itself shows him to have been a danger to
the state. His attitude to the Temple for example was clearly
subversive. Not only did he disturb the peace, he also threatened
the status of the priesthood along with their money-making activities,
and thus indirectly the fiscal power of the State.
Jesus causing havoc at the Temple with
his whip - inciting civil unrest.
(Mark 11:1519, 11:2733, Matthew 21:1217,
21:2327, Luke 19:4548, 20:18, John 2:1316).
No empire is likely to welcome an alternative authority, especially
one with the traditional characteristics of a ruler (the title
of King, a royal lineage, reputed adoption as a son of a god),
and especially when he claims to have come to bring not peace
but a sword. At one stage Jesus was obliged to flee into the
mountains because a mob was getting out of hand and threatening
to make him King (John 6:15); his reticence may have been due
to their timing rather than their intent. At an early stage
of his ministry he did not dare be seen in towns but was obliged
to stay in the desert because of the attentions of his supporters
(Mark 1:45, cf. Luke 5:15-16). According to the John gospel
the Jewish authorities feared that Jesus" miracle working
would precipitate a violent Roman reaction that would lead to
the destruction of the Temple and the nation (John 11:47-50).
One of Jesus" disciples was Simon the Zealot*,
a member of a fanatical anti-Roman sect (the Zealots). According
to the author of the Luke gospel, Jesus instructed his disciples
to buy swords in preparation for what was to come soon before
his arrest (Luke 22:36). By the admission of one early Christian
writer the apostles were "ruffians of the deepest dye"*.
If Jesus was not a terrorist, then he was at least liable to
be seen as one. There is indeed a good, though circumstantial,
case to be made that Jesus was himself a Zealot*.
Further supporting evidence for the view that Jesus was seen
as revolutionary comes from the fact that he was crucified.
This mode of execution was reserved for slaves and those found
guilty of treason ; and
since Jesus was not a slave, we may deduce that he was condemned
for treason. When Paul visited Thessalonica the residents had
already heard about people who turned the world upside down,
contravened the decrees of Caesar, and said that there was another
king called Jesus (Acts 17:6-7).
The early Christians, in their enthusiasm for their own version
of orthodoxy, were given to destroying or editing any material
that contradicted their beliefs. Consequently it is often difficult
to find reliable independent texts concerning Jesus. Scholars
are generally agreed for example that mention of him by the
historian Josephus has been doctored. The original version was
probably one referred to by Origen in the early third century*.
This denied that Jesus was the Messiah, but no copy of it has
survived. At least, no version was believed to have survived.
In the nineteenth century a translation in Old Russian dating
from around 1260 was discovered*.
It is known as the Slavonic Josephus. In it Jesus is described
as being a political revolutionary, and as a king who did
It is also significant that Galilee was a hotbed of dissent
and revolutionary activity directed against the Romans. It had
been a hotbed for decades before Jesus" lifetime, and was
to remain so for decades afterwards. In fact it was such an
established centre for revolutionary activity that the word
Galilæan came to be synonymous with rebel.
Many Galilæans had led abortive rebellions against the
Romans and their Herodian placemen. A group of Galilæans
incited a rebellion in Jerusalem in AD 49*.
One of the leaders of the First Jewish War against the Romans
(AD 66-70) was John the son of Levi from Gischala in upper Galilee,
who led a contingent from there*.
Another trouble-maker was a man called Ezekias, who was executed
by Herod around 47 BC for his activities in Upper Galilee*.
Similar activities were carried on by his son, Judas the Galilaean,
a man with royal aspirations who incited revolution and co-founded
the Zealot movement, and who is referred to in the New Testament*.
Two sons of Judas called Jacob and Simon were crucified around
AD 47, which suggests that they continued the Galilaean family
tradition*. A third son,
Menahem, captured Masada from the Romans in AD 66. In Jerusalem
Menahem entered the Temple wearing royal apparel but was subsequently
killed in factional fighting*.
Another relation, Jairus, is famed as the leader of the group
of Zealots who held Masada against the Romans for four years
after the fall of Jerusalem*.
In AD 67, reacting to a widespread rebellion, the Romans advanced
on the family's original home, Gamala in Galilee. Thousands
of Jews are said to have died fighting, and thousands more committed
It seems that many rebel leaders
saw themselves as messiahs. Certainly each sought to establish
himself as the new king. No fewer than three of these self appointed
kings appeared after the death of Herod the Great in 4 BC, all
of them killed by Varus*. The author of Acts and the historian
Josephus both refer to a prophet called Theudas who led a rebellion
around the time of Jesus, and who was executed for his efforts*.
Even foreigners tried their hands. One known as the Egyptian
planned to attack Jerusalem with a band of Jewish followers*.
The New Testament suggests that St Paul was mistaken for this
same Egyptian, the leader of 4,000 assassins (Acts
21:38). The best known of these messianic rebels appeared 100
years or so after Jesus" death. He was Simon Bar Kokhbar,
who led the Second Jewish Revolt against the Romans in AD 132-135*.
His name suggests a claim to messiahship, and Rabbi Akiba acclaimed
him as the king messiah*.
As Josephus pointed out, every rebel leader in Judæa was
immediately created a king.
When Judæa had come under direct Roman rule in AD 6,
it had been thought necessary to crucify more than 3,000 rebels.
In Jesus" time the Roman Prefect of Judæa, Pontius
Pilate, maintained his headquarters at Caesarea, but made a
practice of staying in Jerusalem during the Passover. He did
this because the Passover was a particularly sensitive time
when Jewish discontent was likely to boil over into violence.
The historian Eusebius reported that over 30,000 Jews were crushed
to death in Jerusalem in the course of one Passover during the
reign of the Emperor Claudius*.
Jesus could hardly be unaware of the sensitivity of this time.
In fact the Bible suggests that some form of uprising did take
place while Jesus was in Jerusalem. Writing of prisoners who
might be released, Mark 15:7 refers to an "insurrection":
And there was one named Barabbas, which lay bound with them
that had made insurrection with him, who had committed murder
in the insurrection.
It is significant that relatives of Jesus were also executed
for sedition or rebellion. According to the historian Josephus,
John the Baptist, Jesus" cousin, lost his life not because
of his views about marriage, as the New Testament suggests,
but because Herod Antipas was alarmed by the likelihood of a
revolt inspired by his hold over the people*.
This explanation fits much better with the fact that Jesus withdrew
into Galilee as soon as he heard of the arrest of his cousin
(Matthew 4:12 cf. Mark 1:14). Josephus also referred to the
execution in AD 62 of James "the brother of Jesus called
the Christ"*. A
Christian writer says that James suffered martyrdom like the
Lord and for the same reason*.
According to some sources, this was the event that led to the
First Jewish Revolt of AD 66*.
The Emperor Vespasian issued orders that descendants of David
should be rooted out and that no member of the royal house should
be left among the Jews*.
Domitian also gave orders to extirpate David's line. Two
great nephews of Jesus were brought before him because they
were of the house of David, but were released because of their
pursuit of the descendants of David continued into the reign
of Trajan, when an aged cousin of Jesus, Simon son of Clopas,
was crucified*. This
may not have been merely irrational vindictiveness. An early
Christian writer indicates that Jesus" relatives took pains
to preserve and advertise their ancient genealogies, stretching
back to King David and beyond, despite Herod's attempts
to destroy them*. In
passing the writer mentions that these relatives of Jesus referred
to themselves as Desposyni, a title that can be translated
"Ruling People" and must have invited suspicions of
The truth seems to be that Jesus was one of a long series of
rebels who sought to overthrow Roman rule and establish himself
as king. Being of the house of David he was a particularly potent
threat. Like many others he failed, and his reward was crucifixion.
And the word of the Lord came to me, saying,
Son of man, put forth a riddle, and speak a parable unto the
house of Israel ...
Jesus usually referred to himself as the son of man,
a locution that in Aramaic was a polite way to refer to oneself.
After all a son of man is only another man. Writing it Son
of man or Son of Man, with capital letters, gives
the impression that it is a title. Of course there were no capitals
in the original text, or rather all letters are capitalised
so that the initial letters are in the same style as the others.
How the expression son of man was used as a title,
or indeed whether it was used as a title at all, is still a
matter of dispute among scholars. There is some evidence that
it was. It had been applied, for example, to the King of Israel
(as traditionally ascribed in Psalms 8 and 80) and the prophet
Ezekiel reported that a heavenly voice had referred to him as
son of man*.
Jesus might well have had in mind the usage in the book of
Daniel 7:13ff where in a vision "one like the Son of man"
is given dominion, glory and a kingdom*.
If so, then like later Christian apologists, he overlooked the
fact that the visionary character was subsequently identified
in Daniel not as an individual but as the "saints of the
most high". An old book of scripture, 1 Enoch, which has
been discarded by the modern Church*,
uses the expression son of man extensively, and associates
it with a semi-divine character who bears a striking resemblance
to later Christian ideas of Jesus. Unfortunately this son
of man is explicitly identified as Enoch himself, which
perhaps explains why some Christians thought of Jesus as Enoch
returned, and why others rejected the book of 1 Enoch altogether.
It is interesting that, according to the gospels, Jesus himself
almost always used the expression son of man when speaking
of himself. His disciples never seem to have had any difficulty
with its meaning. On the other hand St Paul never used the expression,
and the Greek Churches seem to have found the idea it conveyed
unpreachable. As the grander titles were introduced the modest
ones were abandoned. Thus son of man occurs over 60
times in the synoptic gospels, less frequently in the John gospel,
and only three times elsewhere. It is not used at all by the
authors of any of the New Testament epistles.
... people were saying that he was out of his
Mark 3:21 ( NEB)
There is evidence that those close to Jesus believed that he
was insane, at least during part of his ministry. On one occasion
they attempted to take charge of him, i.e. to lock him up (Mark
3:21). His neighbours did not believe his claims to be a prophet
and ridiculed him for failing to work the miracles expected
of a genuine prophet. Many Jews said "He is possessed,
he is raving" (John 10:20 New English Bible). Modern commentators
have formed similar opinions. Havelock Ellis observed that the
whole religious complexion of the modern world is due to the
absence from Jerusalem of a lunatic asylum. Whether or not Jesus
was insane is an uncomfortable question for believers, but it
is a safe assumption that he did not believe himself to be.
... every tongue should confess that Jesus
Christ is Lord ...
Jesus is sometimes addressed as Lord (Greek kyrios).
This is another ambiguous title. It can be used simply as a
respectful form of address, which is how people generally used
it of Jesus when they wanted his help*.
Sometimes it is interchangeable with Master, and once it appears
to mean owner (Mark 11:3). At the other extreme God himself
was addressed as Lord*.
In this respect the English closely parallels the Greek: the
word lord can denote anything from a squire (Lord of
the Manor) to God himself (Lord of Heaven).
In the Bible Jesus only once refers to himself unambiguously
by the title Lord (John 13:13). Neither this nor any other usage
in the New Testament suggests that Jesus was God, though the
inherent ambiguity of the word may well have been harnessed
in later times to endorse emerging claims to divinity. By interpreting
"Lord" as Christ it was possible to read the Old Testament
as referring to Jesus. Writers like Paul helped the process
along by substituting the term "Lord" for a name or
title of God when citing ancient scriptures.
It was not merely a matter of identifying Jesus with the God
of the Jews. Greek gods were also addressed as lords. Hellenic
Christians compared their lord with the lords of various mystery
cults, such as Osiris, Serapis and Hermes, and also with Caesar,
who significantly was referred to as "our Lord and God"*.
One of the distinguishing features of ancient
Hasidic piety is its habit of alluding to God precisely as
Geza Vermes , Jesus the Jew
In the earliest gospel there is no suggestion of Jesus"
divine birth. His relationship with God begins at his baptism
when a heavenly voice announces "Thou art my son"
(Mark 1:11). This seems to be a reference to Psalm 2:7: "
... Thou art my son; this day I have begotten thee", applied
to Jewish kings. These words were probably used during the coronation
ceremony, when the king was anointed and adopted as a son of
God. The incident of Jesus" adoption as a son of Jehovah
is related elsewhere in the New Testament*.
In some manuscripts of Luke the words "Thou art my beloved
son ..." are supplemented by the rest of the quote from
Psalms "this day I have begotten thee" (Luke 3:22).
This fuller form appears in Hebrews 1:5 and is quoted by early
Christian writers*. The
clear suggestion is that an attempt is being made to identify
Jesus as a Jewish king by virtue of his adoption by God.
That God adopted sons was recognised as a biblical theme by
early Christian writers*.
Significantly the title Messiah is sometimes yoked to the sonship
in New Testament passages, for example: " ... Thou art
the Messiah, the Son of the living God"*.
It is also notable that the idea features frequently in passages
that scholars recognise to be later additions to the gospels.
Whoever added the story of Jesus" birth to the Luke gospel
used it twice within a few verses when he retrospectively predicted
that Jesus would be called the Son of the Highest (Luke
1:31-2) and the Son of God (Luke 1:35).
The description son of God is known to have been conferred
on a number of respected rabbis and charismatics around the
time of Jesus. (Remember that the use of a capital letter for
"Son" was a later development.) In the case of the
first century Galilaean rabbi Hanina ben Doza, it was even reported
that a heavenly voice acclaimed him as my son*.
The term sons of God had been used for others too.
Sometimes it referred to angels*,
and sometimes to the people of Israel. Other Jewish sources
before and around the time of Jesus identify various beings
as sons of God or sons of the Most High
men, angels, a mysterious pre-eminent (first begotten)
angel, and the Word (logos)*.
According to one biblical work God himself will call any man
who acts as "a father to the fatherless and as a husband
to their mother" his son*,
which means that all step-fathers are entitled to call themselves
sons of God. Jesus himself reputedly claimed that all
peacemakers will be called children of God (Matthew
5:9), and Paul asserted that all Christians are children
of God (Galatians 3:26). It is significant that those who
wish to give Jesus a unique status describe him not as God's son (too common), nor as God's only
but as God's only begotten son.
It is sometimes claimed that the fact that Jesus referred to
God as Father is confirmation that he saw himself as
the son of God. It is even alleged that this usage was unique,
and indicative of his exalted claims. In fact the New Testament
itself tells us that Jesus was to be merely the first born among
"many" brothers (Romans 8:29 ). Furthermore, many
other Jews referred to God as Father (Aramaic Abba).
Even an Anglican bishop has accepted that Jesus" teaching
about the Fatherhood of God is an old familiar doctrine of the
it was not an offence among the Jews to claim to be a son of
God, as is sometimes claimed*.
So, did Jesus think of himself as a son of God? If he ever
thought of himself as the rightful Jewish king, or as a notable
teacher, then the answer may well be that he did. But even if
he did, we have no reason to believe that he imagined himself
to be divine, any more than we have for the thousands of other
sons of God.
There is nothing more negative than the result
of the critical study of the life of Jesus. The Jesus of Nazareth
who came forward publicly as the Messiah, who preached the
ethic of the Kingdom of God, who founded the Kingdom of Heaven
upon Earth, and died to give his work final consecration,
never had any existence.
Albert Schweitzer , The Quest for the Historical Jesus
It rarely occurs to anyone brought up as a Christian to question
whether Jesus founded the Christian religion: it seems so obvious
that he did. But what if we look for biblical evidence that
Jesus was the first Christian, and compare it to the evidence
that he was a more or less conventional follower of the Jewish
After almost 2,000 years of Christian development of the story
of Jesus it is easy to forget that he was Jewish by descent.
In fact Jesus was quite clearly Jewish. He bore a common Jewish
name. Animal sacrifices were made by his family to mark his
birth in accordance with Jewish custom*,
purifying the mother and "redeeming" the son. He was
circumcised according to Jewish Law. He accepted the Jewish
faith throughout his life. He attended the synagogue, and was
familiar with the Jewish scriptures. Indeed he often taught
in synagogues (e.g. Mark 1:39 , Matthew 9:35, Luke 4:15). On
one occasion he even delivered the liturgical sermon after reading
the prophetic lesson for the day*.
As a Jewish teacher his followers naturally addressed him as
Rabbi. Many of his teachings were characteristic teachings of
the Pharisees, one of the many Jewish sects then popular. After
healing a leper Jesus instructed him to go to a Jewish priest
and make an offering, as required by Jewish Law*.
On a number of occasions he indicated that he was interested
only in the Jewish people. He is reported as having said:
I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel.
Furthermore Jesus specifically forbade his disciples from teaching
to the gentiles (Matthew 10:5). He characterised the gentiles
as "dogs" (Matthew 15:26 and Mark 7:27) and as "swine"
(Matthew 7:6). When a man from the gentile city of Gerasa asked
to be allowed to join Jesus" followers his offer was declined
and he was told to return home (Mark 5:18-19 and Luke 8:38-39).
Jesus" teaching was characteristically Jewish. The aspects
that are often pointed up as being new and radically different
were not at all new, as we shall see later.
Jesus worshipped in the Temple and in synagogues. He never
expressed any intention that his followers should do otherwise.
He never established a Church in the sense that the word is
now used. After his death
his immediate followers continued to worship at the Temple and
to attend synagogues. After Paul and his friends proved too
troublesome to be accommodated in synagogues, followers worshipped
at home. For generations afterwards gentile Christians worshipped
in private houses. It was not until later that buildings were
specially built or sequestered as churches. Only after this
had happened could it occur to any one to reinterpret the statement
"And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter [petros]
and upon this rock [petros], I will build my church
[ecclesian] .... " (Matthew 16:18). In the centuries
to come, new meanings would be found for this statement, but
for the time being it could be used to justify a separate Church
and separate Church buildings.
According to the Bible, Jesus never used or heard the word
Christian. It was not even coined until around AD 42,
years after his death, when it was first used in Antioch (Acts
Apart from anything else, it would not have made much sense
for Jesus to found a religion, because it is clear that he believed
the end of the world to be imminent according the New
Testament he said so on numerous occasions. There would be little
point in establishing a Church and its accompanying hierarchy
if the world was going to end within a few years at most. The
simple fact is that there is no evidence that Jesus ever intended
to found a new religion, Christian or otherwise.
For the Lord is a great God, and a great King
above all gods.
The second century philosopher Celsus noted that there were
many Palestinian prophets who had claimed to be God, or a son
of God or a Holy Spirit*.
He regarded Jesus as just another one of these, but he may have
been wrong. It is possible that Jesus never claimed to be divine.
Certainly he never made that claim for himself according to
the gospels. Here is one of the most influential Christian scholars
of the nineteenth century, Joseph Ernest Renan, discussing the
matter in his Life of Jesus (1863), chapter 15 :
That Jesus never dreamt of making himself pass for an incarnation
of God, is a matter about which there can be no doubt. Such
an idea was entirely foreign to the Jewish mind; and there
is no trace of it in the synoptic gospels.
i We only find it indicated in portions of the Gospel
of John, which cannot be accepted as expressing the thoughts
of Jesus. Sometimes Jesus even seems to take precautions to
put down such a doctrine.
ii The accusation that he made himself God, or equal to
God, is presented, even in the Gospel of John, as a calumny
of the Jews. iii In this
last gospel he declares himself less than the Father.
iv Elsewhere he avows that the Father has not revealed
everything to him. v
He believes himself to be more than an ordinary man, but separated
from God by an infinite distance. He is son of God, but all
men are, or may become so, in diverse degrees.
How Jesus came to be regarded as a god is not difficult to
reconstruct. During his lifetime he was regarded as a rabbi,
a prophet and possibly a messiah. He was seen as "a man
approved of God" (Acts 2:22). After his death his title
Messiah, with its Jewish associations of military leadership
and earthly sovereignty, became untenable. Dead men are not
good propositions as earthly kings. Christos, the Greek
word corresponding to the Hebrew messiah, soon acquired
a new significance, through the claim that Christos
had been the son of God. The Greeks and Romans knew well what
a son of a god was. They had heard about many of them, and had
even seen some of them. Gods frequently coupled with mortals
and produced sons that were at least semi-divine. As we shall
see, numerous emperors, heroes and even philosophers were acclaimed
to have been fathered by divinities. To make any headway, the
claims for Jesus would have to be improved. His titles would
need to match those of the divine emperors, his chief contenders
for a religious following. From the time of Augustus onwards
Roman emperors had born the title Divi filius, son
of God , so it was not a big step for the title to be ascribed
to Jesus. The next step was to improve on the word kyrios
or lord. In the latest gospel, written around AD 90, the resurrected
Jesus is given the title of a deified emperor: Lord and
God (John 20:28). Other familiar divine titles were adopted
too: sôtêr for example, the Greek word
rendered into English as saviour.
The development of Jesus" divinity is apparent in the
gospels. In the oldest gospel Jesus is adopted by God at his
baptism (Mark 1:11). The Matthew and
Luke gospels relate stories of a divine conception and Virgin
Birth, which many biblical scholars accept to be later additions
to the original. Incongruously, they both retain the adoption
by God at Jesus" baptism (Matthew 3:17 and Luke 3:22).
Like the author of Mark, neither of these two makes any attempt
to represent Jesus as God. The John author, writing about a
generation later, has a different story. According to this one
Jesus was the Word (logos) made flesh: in
other words an eternal supernatural being who became incarnate.
Even Paul never made a connection like this. Although he was
arguably the founder of Christianity and thoroughly at home
in the Græco-Roman world, Paul was still strictly monotheistic.
Jesus could be the son of God, but not God himself*.
Even the John author feels obliged to explain why Jesus could
describe himself as a god. When he was threatened with stoning
for having claimed to be God, Jesus denied the charge by citing
a psalm in which God refers to his audience as gods,
suggesting that it cannot therefore be blasphemous to use the
word god for those to whom the word of God is addressed,
nor for him to call himself a son of God*.
His argument was questionable (and did not convince his audience),
but the important point is that he did not claim to be God,
and indeed denied it.
He is repeatedly shown to be less than God and subject to God
(e.g. 1 Corinthians 3:23, 11:3 and 15:25-28). According to the
gospels Jesus rebuked people for calling him "Good Master"
on the grounds that only God is good. Again, on the cross he
is reported as having asked God why he had forsaken him (Mark
15:34). Such statements only make sense if Jesus did not consider
himself to be God.
Reconciling monotheism with Jesus" divinity was impossible
for many Jews, and was to prove extremely problematical for
Christians in the centuries to come. Many of Jesus" earliest
followers denied his divinity. His Jewish followers do not seem
to have regarded him as God incarnate. Neither did their successors,
who are now referred to as the Ebionites. Neither did a number
of other early Christians. According to some of them not only
the apostles but the first 12 bishops of Rome agreed that Jesus
was merely human*. They
said that the official teaching had been tampered with after
the time of Zephyrinus, Bishop of Rome (199-217), and the charge
seems to be true. Zephyrinus and his successor Callistus were
both regarded by progressive contemporary thinkers (like Tertullian
and Hippolytus) as holding heretical views, although there is
no reason to believe that they had believed anything different
from their predecessors. Certainly other contemporary bishops
and theologians agreed that Jesus was not God.
Many Christian scholars accept that to his earliest followers
Jesus was only a man, however favoured. He became God later,
in an Hellenic world where such things were possible, familiar,
popular and expected. Throughout the development of early Christianity
we shall see the same phenomenon many times over: a minority
belief becomes so popular that it becomes "orthodox"
and the old orthodoxy becomes a "heresy" a few years