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HOUR FOUR chronicles how the Christian movement - as it became separate from Judaism-would face new challenges--both internal and external.

In the period between 100 and 300 C.E., the Christian movement grew throughout the Roman empire. At times there were heated debates about beliefs, worship, and even about Jesus himself. The Christian movement also faced external threats; it became suspicious in the eyes of the Roman authorities and Christians were persecuted.

But the Christian movement pulled together and in the end, what started as a small sect of Judaism became a significant part of the population, enough so that the new Roman emperor Constantine decided that they should be part of the official religion of Rome. This was a momentous change for Christianity.

As the fourth century dawned, the cross was transformed into a symbol of triumph and Jesus of Nazareth became Jesus Christ. In only three hundred years, the empire that had sent Jesus to his death embraced Christianity as an official religion and worshipped him as divine.

The Diversity of Early Christianity

From the beginning, early Christians struggled to define for themselves the identity of Jesus and the meaning of his message.

Harold W. Attridge:

The Lillian Claus Professor of New Testament Yale Divinity School


What is the account that we get from Acts about the early history of the Christian church?

The Book of Acts records or reports that there was a special event that took place at Pentecost, which would have been the next pilgrimage festival after the Passover at which Jesus died. And at that time the disciples of Jesus were gathered together in Jerusalem unsure of what their future would be, when all of a sudden the spirit took hold of them and enabled them to speak in tongues, and that speaking of tongues is understood by the author of the Book of Acts to mean speaking in all of the languages of the world. So with the power of the spirit behind them, the disciples of Jesus immediately began a missionary campaign and started bringing people into the fold, converting them to belief in Christ. And from that time forward the mission moved ahead in the rather smooth way, directed by the spirit and by all of the apostles who acted in concert with one another and agreement with one another. That's the picture that we get in Acts.

The historical reality is probably much more complex. The Christian movement probably began not from a single center but from many different centers where different groups of disciples of Jesus gathered and tried to make sense of what they had experienced with him and what had happened to him at the end of his public ministry. Each of those groups probably had a very different take on what the significance of Jesus was. Some of them understanding his death and the resurrection experience, if they focused on it, in terms of exaltation. Others understanding it in terms of a resuscitation of the corpse of Jesus, others not worrying very much at all about the resurrection of Jesus, but concentrating on his teaching and trying to propagate that. We can see, even in the canonical text, in the Book of Acts, that there were different groups that were in competition with one another. Those who insisted more strongly on observance of Jewish laws in the Torah competed with those who were more open to admission of gentiles without imposing the burden of the Torah on them. There were others who we meet again in the Book of Acts, who apparently stood in continuity with the activity of John the Baptist and did not know the baptism that the Pauline Christians, at least, knew. So there was much more diversity in the early stages of the Christian movement than the Book of Acts suggest....

Holland Lee Hendrix:

President of the Faculty Union Theological Seminary


Christianity, or one would rather say "Christianities," of the second and third centuries were a highly variegated phenomenon. We really can't imagine Christianity as a unified coherent religious movement. Certainly there were some religious organizations.... There were institutions developing in some Christian churches, but only in some. And this was not universal by any means. We know from, for example, the literature recovered at Nag Hammadi, that gnostic Christianity didn't have the kind of clear hierarchy that other forms of Christianity had developed. They still clung to a charismatic leadership model. And so there was a lot of variety in 2nd and 3rd century Christianity....

There were very different views of Jesus in the various types of Christianity.... Perhaps the starkest contrast was among those who considered themselves as gnostic Christians, and those who considered themselves Christians in the old Pauline view of things. On the one hand, Paul, and Pauline Christianity, would have placed all of the emphasis on Jesus' death and resurrection, and the saving power of that death and resurrection. Gnostic Christianity, on the other hand, would have placed its prime emphasis on the message, the wisdom, the knowledge, the gnosis, that's where the word gnostic comes from, the Greek word for knowledge, the knowledge that Jesus transmits, and even the secret knowledge that Jesus transmits. So one would have on the one hand faith in the saving event of Jesus' life and death, and on the other hand knowledge as the great source of adherence to the Jesus movement on the other hand.

Helmut Koester:

John H. Morison Professor of New Testament Studies and Winn Professor of Ecclesiastical History Harvard Divinity School


Christianity did not start out as a unified movement. We have to remember that the disciples were probably dispersed at a very early time.... That is, at a time where there was no fixed formulation what the set of Christian beliefs should be. What Christian rituals should be. What they should think about Jesus or what they should tell about Jesus. The sources that we have tell us that Christianity started as a very diverse movement, as the founding of churches... moved into very different cultural and language contexts....

Paul's conversion as an apostle to the gentiles may date as early as three years after Jesus' death. No later than the year 35, but probably already 32 or 33.... He was in Damascus when he was called, according to his own witness. So we have, already, within two years or three or five years, of Jesus' death probably Greek speaking communities outside of Palestine, very early in Antioch, but we have also the founding of communities in Samaria.... We have apparently more isolated Christian communities founded very early in Galilee. Paul's mission carried Christianity all the way over Asia Minor, present Turkey into Macedonia, into Greece, within 20 years. And at the end of that period, Paul already knows that there's a Christian community in Rome which he has not founded.

With this explosive spread of Christian churches, not a very slow moderate growth, getting a few new members every few years, but an explosive spread of this movement, it cannot be expected that everywhere, everybody was doing and believing the same thing, singing the same hymns and reading the same scriptures and telling the same story. So we have a beginning with great diversity, and the slow process, particularly in the second century, to establish a greater unity among the very diverse churches. Already a process in Paul's churches themselves, because that's why Paul writes letters, because he wants to make sure that these newly converted Christians in Ephesus and Philippi and Thessaloniki and in Corinth have some unanimity in their beliefs. And his work is made even more difficult because once he had left Corinth, some people came to Corinth and told them, "Really Paul has not told you enough of the deep wisdom of the words of Jesus. Those you have to contemplate in order to learn the wisdom that comes from Jesus," and Paul has to write back and say, "Now, I taught you nothing but Christ crucified, not Christ wisdom." So you get a conflict of different traditions also at a very early stage.


One interesting problem is simply the experience of diversity. We sometimes think that it's just such a shame that we have so many Christian denominations and so many other religions all in one country. "Wouldn't it be great if we have only one belief and one religion as it was in the time of the early Christians?" No, it wasn't in the time of the early Christians. The early Christians had a hard time to discuss with each other, fight with each other to establish certain patterns and criteria for the organization of community, what was important in the churches. Was it indeed important that churches established mutual responsibility for each other and care for the poor as part of their dossier? This is what they're supposed to do. And that discussion in our church was very helpful twelve years ago, when we discussed whether we should open a shelter for homeless people in the basement of our church.

But the other aspect is the diversity of religious movements. And that in fact early Christianity, by moving into different realms of the different universes of thought and of religion in the Greco-Roman world, adopted a lot of concepts from other religions, lots of them pagan religions, which enriched the early Christian movement tremendously. This probably should encourage us to say that our discourse, not only inner Christian discourse with other denominations, but also our discourse with other religions, with the Jews, with Moslems, with Buddhists, may in fact, indeed be very fruitful..., rather than staying away from this and saying, "Oh God, now we have even more Muslims in America than we have Jews." Which some people find terrible. But they have to learn to say "maybe that is very good."

L. Michael White:

Professor of Classics and Director of the Religious Studies Program University of Texas at Austin


We tend to think of the success of Christianity in the second and third centuries just on the eve on really when it becomes the prominent religion in the Roman Empire as if it were just one form of religiosity, when in fact the opposite is true. Christianity was extremely diverse during this period, and we probably ought to think of it as a kind of regional diversity; that is, the Christianity of Rome was different than Christianity in North Africa in certain ways, and that was different from what we find in Egypt, and that different from what we find in Syria or back in Palestine. We have, in effect, different brands of Christianity living often side by side, even in the same city. So, it's a great deal of diversity.

At one point in Rome,... Justin Martyr has his Christian school in one part of the city, and the gnostic teacher Valentinus is in another school in Rome, and another so-called heretic by the name of Marcion is also in Rome just down the street somewhere. All of these along side of the official papal tradition that developed as part of St. Peter's See in Rome, all there together. So, even within one city, we can have great diversity.

Now, what's significant about this diversity is the fact that each form of Christian tradition tended to tell the story of Jesus in different ways. The image of Jesus for Justin Martyr is rather different than that that we see for Valentinus or Marcion or others as well. And this is especially true even in other parts of the empire. This is where we start to see a kind of proliferation of gospels ... all over the empire, and by the third and early fourth century [more] than you can actually count, and certainly more than you can easily read within a bible.

Wayne A. Meeks:

Woolsey Professor of Biblical Studies Yale University


Now, the early Christians put a great emphasis upon unity amongst one another, and the odd thing is they seemed always to have been squabbling with one another over what kind of unity they were to have. The earliest documents we have are Paul's letters and what do we find there? He is, ever and again, having defend himself against some other Christians who have come in and said, "No, Paul didn't tell it right. We have now to tell you the real thing." So, it is clear from the very beginning of Christianity, that there are different ways of interpreting the fundamental message. There are different kinds of practice; there are arguments over how Jewish are we to be; how Greek are we to be; how do we adapt to the surrounding culture - what is the real meaning of the death of Jesus, how important is the death of Jesus? Maybe it's the sayings of Jesus that are really the important thing and not his death and not his resurrection.

Now, this runs very contrary to the view... which the mainstream Christianity has always quite understandably wanted to convey. That is, that at the beginning, everything was unity, everything was clear, everything was understandable and only gradually, under outside influences, heresies arose and conflict resulted, so that we must get back somehow to that Golden Age, when everything was okay. One of the most difficult things which has emerged from modern historical scholarship, is precisely that that Golden Age eludes us. The harder we work to try to arrive at that first place where Christianity, were all one and everything was clear, the more it... seems a will-o'- the-wisp. There never was this pure Christianity, different from everybody else and clear, in its contours....

How did these squabbles unfold over time?

The interesting thing about Christianity is that you have diversity from the beginning, and each of the diverse groups feel so keenly about their way of of seeing things that obviously, they'd like everybody else to agree with them.... There seems to be a sense, [among] all of the various parties that somehow, it ought to be one group; it ought to be one people. Obviously, they inherit this from Judaism, the notion that there is one people of God, ... and yet, they're not one, they're different on all kinds of of things. And the drive to obtain the truth and to manifest the truth is so strong that if one group cannot convince the others that their way is right, often times, it seems the only thing they can do is separate, to make sure that the truth is embodied somewhere. And so the very drive for unity produces schism, and... quite ironically, the very existence of all the different schisms is testimony to the sense that there ought to be unity.

...The notion of Orthodoxy, which is only the flip-side of the notion of heresy, [developed in the second century]. So heresy which... simply means [in Greek], a choice, and is most commonly used to talk about a philosophical school, now takes on a negative connotation for the Christians. [It] first of all implies a schismatic group, a choice, which is different from the mainstream,... and then secondarily, [implies] people have wrong ideas, people who think wrongly about this or that, notably about the identity of Jesus Christ. The other side of that, of course, is our side, which has orthodoxy, that is, right thinking. The great controversies of the 3rd, 4th and 5th centuries, which create what we will know as orthodoxy, and in the west, Catholicism, emerge from this very drive to create a a unified body of opinion.

It sounds like these early Christians are having big turf wars over who gets to say what Christianity is all about.

Yes. Well, the early Christians did have turf wars over who had it right and you see this from the very beginning. The Apostle Paul and his opponents in Galatia, who say, "Wait a minute, Paul told you a very simplified gospel, it makes it easy for you to become a member of this new group, but we know, after all, that if you're really going to be a real Christian, first you have to be a real Jew and that means, you have to be circumcised and you have to keep certain regulations out of the Torah. So Paul has not got it right." Paul said, "No, you don't understand how radically new this thing is, which God is doing here." [And] again in Corinth, people come and say, "No no, you don't understand, Paul isn't really quite what he claims to be here and now we're here to put it right." So, from the very beginning, it seems Christianity has different ways of construing what it's all about, which will lead to divisions and lead to conflict.

Who wins?

Who wins - in some sense, nobody wins, in the sense that the result of this is schisms and ultimately, some very nasty things in the history of the church, eventually the use of force and violence.... History is always written by the victors; if one wanted to be very cynical about it, one would say "All right, the people who finally managed the most power and the most persuasive abilities win out and they write the history, which defines everybody else as a heretic." and one would have to say there's a great deal of truth in that. [On] the other side of it... is that who wins, finally, is the side that embodies the widest support of people [for] their way of symbolizing Christian truth, and so there's there's a kind of strange democracy involved here. Obviously distorted by imperial power from the 4th century on but nevertheless, a strange kind of democracy involved... It is the usage of the local churches that eventually determines which books will be included in the New Testament, for example, and which will not be included, which point of view about Jesus has the widest support and therefore will also gain political power because there are people in various places that support that. It's a very complicated picture, obviously.

The Martyrs

Treated as criminals in the second and third centuries, the early Christians were subject to empire-wide persecution.

Wayne A. Meeks:

Woolsey Professor of Biblical Studies Yale University


After a long period in which the persecutions of Christianity were really spasmodic, local, [and] involved very few people, suddenly in the middle of the 3rd century, the year 250, the Emperor Decius decides that Christians are a real enemy of the Roman order, that they must be dealt with empire-wide, with all the police power that the emperor can bring to bear upon them. And he issues a decree that everyone has to sacrifice to the Roman gods and they must produce a certificate signed by a Roman official that they have done so. Why did this happen? Clearly, one of the things which this indicates is that Christianity, which begins with such tiny groups, scattered in various cities across the empire, have become numerous, they have become a significant segment of the population in many places. There is some evidence that in many towns in North Africa, the[y] may actually be a majority already. So they have come forcibly to the attention of the Emperor. At the same time, it clearly indicates that that counter-cultural tendency, which was one aspect of the self-understanding of Christians, from the very beginning..., they are the ones who worship, as Son of God, one who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, a Roman governor. This counter-cultural implication of their most fundamental beliefs still remains, and the Emperor has recognized this counter-cultural tendency and says, "This is dangerous - we can't have this large a group, which by the way, is also very highly organized, and, unlike other religious communities, is organized not just on a local basis, but is organized on an empire-wide basis. Something has to be done about it...."

So, the Romans bring to bear all the power they have at their disposal. They say, "All right, let's hit the leaders. Let's find these bishops and bring them into court and force them to recant, and if they won't, we'll eliminate them."And so you have bishops fleeing to the countryside and you have others being martyred. You have ordinary people, for the first time, being rounded up, forced to sacrifice, or if they can buy a forgedcertificate of of sacrifice. There's some of those which have actually survived. And the odd thing is it fails.... The net effect of this is that a new cult of the martyrs appears in Christianity, which strengthens the the church, which feeds on anti-government sentiment in many segments of the empire, - those remote geographical areas distant from Rome which have always been suspicious of Rome. This simply brings those into the Christian fold and in many ways, it backfires. So the Decian persecution is very short-lived....

What else was going on at the empire at the time of the persecutions?

At the time of the major empire-wide persecution, under the Emperor Decius, you have to realize, this is also a time when the Emperor's feeling under great pressure. The middle of the 3rd century is often time identified as a crisis in the Roman Empire. There is a lot of internal dissension, there is a lot of what Ramsey MacMullen has identified as sheer corruption in the aristocracy, from the Emperor down. There is a sense that we are being besieged on the borders, that the barbarians may be coming in at any moment, the Persians are dangerous, the Germans are dangerous and so on. There's a great sense that anything that upsets this ancient contract between the Romans and the gods has got to be dangerous to us.... This is one of the factors which must be feeding into the sense of the crisis, expressed in the persecution against the church....


Why were Christians persecuted?

Why were the Christians persecuted? This is one of the great questions which is passed down. One thing we have to remember is that the old Hollywood view of Christianity as kind of an underground persecuted society that skulks around in catacombs for three centuries before they finally emerge after Constantine's conversion, clearly cannot be true. ... Before [the year 250], we hear only rarely and locally of persecution of Christians, which is small scale and often times, has purely local kinds of causes, I think. But the question remains, since the things we see them doing seem fairly innocuous, at least to our eyes, why did people persecute them? Where did the suspicion arise that they did all kinds of dangerous anti-social things like cannibalism and incestuous sexual relations, orgies, this sort of thing? They're different. They are a people that, in a way, declare their boundaries over against the larger society by their very rituals that lead to conversion - turning away from the gods and turning to the one God, living and true, as Paul puts it in his First Letter of the Thessalonians. That means that they are not going to participate in a great many of not only the religious, but the civic functions, which emerged in the ordinary society of a Roman or Greek city. This is bound to arouse suspicion. Why do the Christians not participate in these rituals that are necessary to maintain the relationship between our society and the gods?

Paula Fredriksen:

William Goodwin Aurelio Professor of the Appreciation of Scripture, Boston University


One of the most amazing documents historians of early Christianity are privileged to have is the prison diary of a young woman who was martyred in the year 202 or 203 in Carthage, as part of a civic celebration. Her name is Perpetua. And she insisted on being killed. It's an amazing, complicated story. The diary is in kind of a sandwich. The editor introduces the story, then there's the authentic diary of Perpetua, and then there are editorial conclusions, at the end.

Perpetua has brought herself to the attention of the governor. And she is really insisting on being put into the arena. There's an incredibly powerful trial scene where Perpetua's father is pleading with her and, finally, actually trying to beat her. And the Governor has him subdued by his soldiers. And the governor says, "Please, won't you cooperate?" And Perpetua, who's not even a baptized Christian, who's still catechumen, says, "No, I'm a Christian." Now, there's no dragnet out for Christians. Perpetua is visited by other Christians in prison. If the governor were trying to get all the Christians in Carthage, he just could have arrested whoever is going to visit Perpetua. But he doesn't. She's what one historian has called an overachiever in a sense. She's insisting on being martyred as part of her Christian witness. She gives her baby back over to her family, because she's still nursing. And she talks about this. And she's really insisting on being martyred because she says, and we have to believe her, this is the only word we have from her, because in so doing, she will get to God through Jesus....

The authentic diary ends before Perpetua is led into the arena. What we have concluding the diary is a description by somebody who is presenting a hero tale. The majority of Christians were not volunteering to be martyred. For one thing, there wouldn't have been an audience for these martyr stories. For another thing, we have doctrinally, the evolution of penance as a way to reincorporate Christians who lapse in the face of persecution. So Perpetua is really being preserved by her community as a role model. She marks off the heroic limit against which other Christians can measure themselves. She's led out to the arena. She, with heroic chastity, faces down the animals and gladiators, and finally, after being tormented by several animals, a young gladiator is sent into the arena to dispatch her. And it's just an incredibly moving scene; his hand is trembling so much he can't cut her. And she grabs his hand and guides his sword to her own throat. It's a kind of assisted suicide....

There are other people members who are members of her community and the person who draws me the most is a slave girl who's also part of this group. Her name is Felicitas. She is in an advanced stage of pregnancy when the group is in prison. And, they all pray around her so that she is delivered of her baby just before going into the arena. And she's also killed with this group....

There's an intense sense of community that binds together these people who are insisting on being martyred. They take care of each other. There is a very affecting scene of Perpetua and Felicitas helping... arrange each other's clothes so they're not exposed after they've been jostled by these animals. And finally they say good-bye to each other in this life with the kiss of peace.


What's the legal status of Christianity [around the time of Perpetua's death]?

It's difficult to track the legal status of Christianity in the second and third century. What's happened as a result of the spread of the movement is that we have, in Roman antiquity, an entire population of gentiles who are, in effect, claiming the legal prerogatives of Jews while insisting at the same time, rightly, that they're not Jews. Judaism had long ago come to a legal agreement with the Emperor that Jews would not be forced to participate in pagan rituals. And pagan rituals are part of the normal fabric of life in a Roman city. Jews were exempted from this because Romans knew that Jews were odd about this kind of thing. But a gentile who refused to participate in [the] civic cult had no legal standing. If they were a gentile, then the proper thing to do would be to honor the god of the Emperor and of the empire and of the city. And by insisting on not doing this, certain Christians made themselves conspicuous and invited upon themselves legal action on the part of governors....

Paganism is, in a sense, the religious articulation of citizenship. Civitas is city. A civis is a citizen, and... the analogy between family and city is made continuously, in philosophy, and in popular piety. To exempt yourself from that, then, would have real social consequences.And this is one of the reasons, I think, for the persecution of Christians. Christians, who exempt themselves from this are criticized for -- I'm going to sound like I'm speaking in California dialect, but it's really a similar idea -- confusing the vibrations, the sympathetic harmony between heaven and earth. They are exempting themselves from the peace of the gods, the Pax Deorum and therefore, one church father, Tertullian says, on the cusp of the third century, "if the Tiber overflows or the Nile doesn't, the cry goes up. Christians to the lion." Christians are ... and by this I mean, specifically, gentile Christians. There are Jewish Christians, too, but in the literature, it's ... it's gentile Christians who populate the martyr stories that we have. They are they have made themselves outlanders in their own town. And therefore, they are used as an explanatory device whenever there are the usual natural insults of human existence. Plague. Earthquake. Flood. It's because the Christians, as gentiles who are not doing their duty to heaven ... why should the gods do anything for the city then?And that's how you get Christians dragged before Governors and before these circuit courts and named as troublemakers.

Was it the official policy of the Roman Empire to persecute Christians?

Empires have better things to do than persecute nursing mothers, which is the example, of course with Perpetua. Emperors tend not to care much about what people are doing as long as the servants and horses are not disturbed, taxes are collected, and nobody starts a rebellion. So, empires in general, and I think the Roman Empire, in particular, are religiously tremendously ecumenical. If you have a huge expansive political territory with huge varieties of religions, within those boundaries, you don't care what people are doing religiously. You just want your tax money. And so the fact that we have incontrovertible evidence that Christians are being persecuted says several interesting things about the growth of movement and the social fortunes of the empire.

Before the year 250, the persecution of Christians is sporadic. It's local. It's improvised. It is at the discretion of a Governor to whom complaints are made and so on. It's not a dragnet and it's not an imperial policy. After 250, when the empire is being battered on every frontier by invading armies, when there's absolute rampant inflation, [there is] incredible governmental instability. There are an average of two or three Emperors in a year. They keep getting assassinated. It's just an incredibly fraught time. That's also the point at which you begin to get the imperial expression of persecution of Christians. Now then again, also, it's interesting. It's not a criminal offense to be a Christian. What you have to do is get a ticket, a lebevos, a chit saying that you have sacrificed for the well-being of the empire.... There [are] various response[s] on the part of different Christian communities. You can have your servant go and do it for you. He might also be a Christian, but, you know, that's his problem. Pay him. He'll get two chits and then you're covered.... Or you can pay for the ticket but not actually do the sacrifice if you can bribe a friend of yours who's a magistrate. Or you can just go ahead and sacrifice, knowing that these gods are nothing, after all. That's right in...Paul's letters, that these gods are nothing. There are all sorts of different ways that people deal with this. But some people absolutely refuse to oblige by this rule at all. And those are the people - again, it's the heroic minority - who end up being martyred by government force.

What was the impact of martyrdom? What was the impact of people like Perpetua?

The martyrs are a heroic minority. They don't represent a huge popular swelling. We don't have tens of thousands of people being martyred. What we do have, is tens of thousands of people admiring the few who are martyred. So in that sense, like any extreme, a martyr marks out a spiritual height to be admired but not necessarily emulated. In that sense, the martyr stories have an incredible effect on the imagination of Christians, because who's the first Christian martyr? Jesus, himself. Heroically witnessing to his own faith, in a sense, and against a hostile government tribunal. So there's this kind of imaginative continuity between Christ and the martyr.

What's most interesting is when the heroic age stopped and when the Church itself converted into being a form of Roman imperial culture, after the conversion of Constantine in 312. That's where you get the incredible efflorescence of the cult of the martyrs. Martyrs' shrines, bits of martyrs' bodies, liturgies being written to the martyrs. There's an incredible energy involved in worshipping at the tombs of the martyrs after the age of martyrs have ... has stopped. And I think that's, in a way, Christianity's effort to reclaim its own heroic history after it had already become an arm of government, itself, and was, of course, persecuting other Christians. More Christians were persecuted by the Roman Government after the conversion of Constantine, than before. The difference is that's it's a Christian government who's persecuting the other Christians.

Elizabeth Clark:

John Carlisle Kilgo Professor of Religion and Director of the Graduate Program in Religion Duke University


[The story of Polycarp is one of our first martyrdom stories]. Polycarp was a bishop of a place called Smyrna, which today is modern Izmir in Turkey, and at a very old age he was brought up for trial and persecution.... Probably his martyrdom occurred somewhere around 165 give or take some years. We're not too sure about that. What 's important about the story of his martyrdom that the church of Smyrna wrote... was that it tended to present Polycarp's martyrdom as copying in some respects the "martyrdom"of Jesus. That is, that there's a government official named Herod who's partly responsible for Polycarp's death. Polycarp is put upon a donkey and rides into the city.... Pagan officials are trying to make Polycarp recant. They ask him to curse Christ, which was always thought to be a sure sign that you weren't really a Christian if you had cursed Christ, and ... to offer the kind of pinch of incense to Caesar to indicate your reverence for the Roman gods and for the emporium. He refuses to do any of these things and is put to death by burning. An interesting feature of the story is that his father must go and collect his bones after he has been put to death. This becomes one of [the] first instances we have of what turns into the cult of the martyrs... [the practice] of preserving bits and pieces of the bodies of martyred people and holding these in great honor and esteem. Many of the martyrdoms written after the time of Polycarp tend to follow this basic model.


How did these [martyrdom stories] come off to shape Christianity at this time? What impact did they have?

I think the martyrdom stories that got circulated were very important for the development of early Christianity. Several of the martyrdoms talk about -- of course we don't know how to judge the historical veracity of those tales -- but they do say that there were pagans present at these martyrdoms who were so impressed by the... courage of the Christians that they came to see the truth of the Christian religion themselves and immediately converted to Christianity.... Probably, for the most part, though, these martyrdom accounts were written for other Christians to try to bolster the Christians' faith at a time of persecution. To keep up your courage in case this happened to you as well. But by and large the Christian leaders did not encourage people volunteering themselves as martyrs. We have a few notable accounts on the books where in a fit of enthusiasm somebody would run into the arena and say, "Martyr me!" and then when the wild beast came running after them they decided this wasn't such a good idea after all, and this brought some degree of shame and disgrace to Christianity. So it was thought it was quite all right not to volunteer yourself and to go to your martyrdom only if pressed and really pushed to the wall, but then you should not deny your faith.


[Did many Christians recant during the persecutions?]

After the two major persecutions of the third century and the early fourth century -- these are the persecutions under the Emperor Decius that occurred around 250 and then the persecution under Diocletian in the opening years of the fourth century -- there was a grave problem for the church because many Christians were not made of the kind of moral fiber of the people who went to their death as martyrs. They had been willing to recant the faith, to offer a pinch of incense to the emperor.... [or] to bribe the officials at the pagan temples to give them a certificate saying they had offered the sacrifice when in fact they had not. All this made a grave problem for the church when the persecutions were over because many of these people then wanted to come back into the church. It was also a problem because there were some bishops who had defected, you might say, during the persecutions, and they had baptized people. The question then was were you really baptized if you had been baptized by a bishop who fell away from the faith during the persecutions?

There were many controversies about this. Some churchmen took a very lax line on this, "Well, people are repentant. We've all committed sins. They should just be forgiven and brought back in." Others took a kind of moderate line: after a period of penance and public recantation and repentance for what they had done, then they would be allowed back into the church. There were some hard-liners who thought once you handed over scripture, recanted the faith, done these various acts, there was no way you could ever be a Christian again. [There was] a great deal of controversy among church people in this era, some of which went on for a long, long time. In North Africa, for example, the group of Christians called the Donatists held out all through the fourth century into the fifth century on some of these issues about not allowing such people back into the church.

Legitimization Under Constantine

From persecuted minority to official imperial religion - what caused this extraordinary reversal for Christianity?


Shaye I.D. Cohen:

Samuel Ungerleider Professor of Judaic Studies and Professor of Religious Studies Brown University

The triumph of Christianity is actually a very remarkable historical phenomenon. ... We begin with a small group from the backwaters of the Roman Empire and after two, three centuries go by, lo and behold that same group and its descendants have somehow taken over the Roman Empire and have become the official religion, in fact the only tolerated religion, of the Roman Empire by the end of the 4th century. That is a truly remarkable development, and a monumental historical problem, trying to understand how this happened. Of course, pious Christians have no doubt about how or why it happened: "This is the hand of God working in history." And the Christians of antiquity already made this very point; the fact that Christianity triumphed is proof of its truth.

For historians, that answer, while maybe correct on one level, on another level it is not entirely satisfactory. We historians would like to find other explanations for the triumph of Christianity and indeed, ever since Gibbon wrote his famous history, historians have been trying to understand what it was exactly that pushed Christianity to the top. I can't fully answer that question myself, but we can clearly identify various stages on the path of Christianity to its ultimate victory. ...

In its first stage, Christianity begins not as a religion, it begins rather as the movement of people around a single charismatic teacher or preacher, it's hard to know what noun to use exactly. I would call him a holy man who attracted a crowd of disciples who followed him and his various wanderings as he did his healings, as he did his teachings. But this holy man winds up in Jerusalem and winds up executed by the authorities, probably as a trouble maker, somebody who's best off dead, rather than alive because alive who knows what may happen? He's a threat to the social order. He's best off executed.

This is how Christianity begins. It very rapidly turns into something different. What began as a kind of ratter-tag assembly of followers of a holy man turns into what we might call a Jewish sect, a group of Jews which now has interpreted the life, teachings and death of its holy man somehow as having cosmic significance, as having meaning for all time, not just for the specific moment, but somehow affecting God's relationship with the Jews and ultimately with the whole world. ... This then is a Jewish sect or a Jewish school, which you might say is the next stage in the development.

After that, the next stage may be represented by Paul, who then takes this Jewish school, this Jewish philosophy, this Jewish sect, and now says that the teachings of this sect are such that the entire map of the world needs to be redrawn, so that we now no longer have the simple dichotomy of Jews and gentiles and we no longer simply have a Jewish school arguing with other Jews about interpretations of law and theology. We now have, Paul says, a new map of the world. Our teachings have within them the secret to understanding the new cosmic order. So that the old distinctions between Jews and gentiles are now obliterated. They have been supplanted by a new and truer and more wonderful and more beautiful map in which we have a new Israel that will embrace both Jews and gentiles, all those who now accept the new covenant and the new faith. This is Paul, who in his teachings has the beginnings of what we might call the breaking out of Christianity [from] Jewish social setting. ...

This of course takes place gradually over the next several decades well into the 2nd century.... It doesn't happen everywhere all at once, in the same way. It's a complex, protracted process. And we must allow for variety; the place of Christianity, let's say in the year 100 CE, may not be the same in Egypt as it is in Judah. It may not be the same in Rome as it is in Asia Minor. We have to ask ourselves constantly - How did the Christians see themselves? How did the Jews see the Christians? How did the gentiles see the Christians? How did each of these groups understand the other and how they fit into the larger society? And the answers may not be the same. There's no guarantee that the Christians and the Jews necessarily looked at each other in the same way at any given moment. We have to allow for a wide variety of opinions. But the tendency, nonetheless, I think is very clear: Christianity is becoming less "Jewish" and is turning into something new and different. ...

For some Christians, this never happens. They can't bring themselves to say that God has thoroughly redrawn the map of the cosmos and has taken them out of the Jewish world and pushed them out into the stage of history. ... Other Christians, of course, disagree with Paul on exactly how to read this new map and exactly what it means, and most importantly, where do the Jews fit in now, those Jews who are "being left behind."... But, in any case, the Christian church itself was now emerging as a new, independent group by the middle of the 2nd century. ...

The second century of our era was the age of definition before Christianity. Now that it realized it no longer was Judaism, or no longer was a form of Judaism, it had to figure out, well then, what is it exactly? What is Christianity? What makes it not Judaism, what makes it not Jewish? How is it able to somehow at one and the same time hold on to the Jewish Scriptures, what we call the Old Testament, and still not be Judaism, and still not be Jewish? This was one of the major questions confronting Christian thinkers, writers, church leaders in the second century. This was the great age of Christian diversity, sects, schools, heresies of all kinds, confronting Christian thinkers, and it was only in the second century that we begin to see the emergence of what we might call an orthodoxy, or something that might simply be called "Christianity" in a kind of uniform body of doctrines and text, that is to say, the New Testament. The New Testament as a collection of texts is a product of the second century, as the church figured out which books are sacred, which books are authoritative and which ones are not. ...

By the third century of our era, we have something called Christianity with its own sacred books, its own rituals, its own ideas, but this is the great age of confrontation with the Roman Empire. The third century, of course, the great age of persecutions, where the Roman Empire now wakes up and realizes that there is something new, and from their perspective, sinister, afoot in new groups that are threatening the social order and ultimately the political order of the Empire. And the Roman Empire was correct. The Romans correctly intuited that the victory of Christianity would mean the end of the Roman Empire, the end of the classical world. ... We often think of persecution, of course, in a Christian perspective. We see it as heroic martyrs confronting the might of Rome, which is true. And the martyrs are indeed a wonderful spectacle and do present a wonderful demonstration of Christian faith. That is certainly true. By the same token, we must realize that the Roman Empire was doing what all bureaucracies do. It was trying to protect itself, trying to perpetuate itself....

The Romans tried to beat down Christianity but failed. By the fourth century Christianity becomes the state religion and by the end of the fourth century it is illegal to do any form of public worship other than Christianity in the entire Roman Empire. There is a great mystery in how this happened -- how such an extraordinary reversal, that begins with Jesus who is executed by the Romans as a public criminal, as a threat to the social order, and somehow we wind up three centuries later with Jesus being hailed as a God, as part of the one, true God who is the God of the new Christian Roman Empire. There is a remarkable progress, a remarkable development in the course of three centuries. ... It's hard to understand exactly how it happened or why it happened, but it is important to realize that we have a progression and a set of developments, and that Christianity by the fourth century is not the same as the Christianity that we see in the first or even the second.


One of the most surprising Christian heroes in the entire tradition, I think, is Constantine. He is, first of all, a successful general. He is also the son of a successful general and at the head of the army at the West. And he's fighting another successful general, struggling for who is going to be at the top of the heap of the very higher echelons of Roman government. What happens is that Constantine has a vision. Luckily for the Church, there's a bishop nearby to interpret what the vision means. Constantine ends not converting, technically, to Christianity, but becoming a patron of one particular branch of the church. It happens to be the branch of the church that has the Old Testament as well as the New Testament as part of its canon. Which means that since this branch of Christianity includes the story about historical Israel as part of its own redemptive history, it has an entire language for articulating the relationship of government and piety. It has the model of King David. It has the model of the kings of Israel. And it's with this governmental model that the bishop explains the vision to Constantine.

In a sense Constantine becomes the embodiment of the righteous king. And once he consolidates his power by conquering, eventually, not only the West, but also the Greek East where there are many more Christians [who are] concentrated in the cities, which are the social power packets of this culture, [he] is in this amazing position of having a theology of government that he can use to consolidate his own secular power. And it works both ways. The bishops now have basically federal funding to have sponsored committee meetings so they can try to iron out creeds and get everybody to sign up.


One of the first things Constantine does, as emperor, is start persecuting other Christians. The Gnostic Christians are targeted...and other dualist Christians. Christians who don't have the Old Testament as part of their canon are targeted. The list of enemies goes on and on. There's a kind of internal purge of the church as one emperor ruling one empire tries to have this single church as part of the religious musculature of his vision of a renewed Rome. And it's with this theological vision in mind that Constantine not only helps the bishops to iron out a unitary policy of what a true Christian believes, but he also, interestingly, turns his attention to Jerusalem, and rebuilds Jerusalem just as a righteous king should do. But what Constantine does is take the city, which was something of a backwater, and he begins to build beautiful basilicas and architecturally ambitious projects in the city itself. The sacred space of the Temple Mount he abandons. It's not reclaimable. And what he does is [to] religiously relocate the center of gravity of the city around the places where Christ had suffered, where he had been buried, or where he [had] been raised. So that in the great basilicas that he built, Constantine has a new Jerusalem, that's splendid and beautiful and... his reputation as an imperial architect resonates with great figures in biblical history like David and Solomon. In a sense, Constantine is a non-apocalyptic Messiah for the church. ...

The bishops are terribly grateful for this kind of imperial attention. It's not the western Middle Ages. The lines of power are unambiguous. Constantine is absolutely the source of authority. And there's no question about that. But the bishops are able to take advantage of Constantine's mood and his curious intellectual interest in things like Christology and the Trinity and Church organization. They're able to have bibles copied at public expense. They are finally able to have public Christian architecture and big basilicas. So there's a comfortable symbiotic relationship between the empire and the church, one that, in a sense, is what defines the cultural powerhouse of Europe and the West.


There's this sentence in the gospel about rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar's and unto God what is God's. Jesus said that in the context of a pagan Caesar. Once Caesar is Christian, the things line up differently. While bishops are religious figures and you don't have a figure like a bishop king, the way you have in Plato, say a philosopher king or something like that, there's a kind of theologizing of secular power and a secularization of episcopal power. Somebody like Augustine functions as a Roman magistrate, as much as he is a premier theologian and religious figure. ...

[T]here's a beautiful mosaic in Ravenna, a city in northern Italy, which I routinely show my classes. It's of a beautiful, very handsome, well muscled, beardless man. He's dressed in a Roman officer's uniform. And he's stepping on the head of a lion, and he's holding a standard. And the standard says in Latin, "I am the way. The truth. And the life." And usually my students can't read Latin and I say, "Who's this a picture of?" And they guess, "The Roman Emperor." But it's not. It's a picture of Jesus.

Harold W. Attridge:

The Lillian Claus Professor of New Testament Yale Divinity School


Who is Eusebius?

Eusebius was the bishop of Caesarea in Palestine in the 4th century, and he played a very active role in church politics at the time. He was at the Council of Nicea, which was the first major ecumenical council. And he had contact with the Emperor Constantine. So he was a very prominent figure. He's most important to us, however, as the first church historian. He wrote several things during his long and active lifetime including a history of the martyrs of Palestine, a collection of prophetic texts. But the most important work is his ecclesiastical history, which describes the development of the church down through his own period, and then the persecutions which took place in the first decade of the fourth century. And finally the vindication of the church with the accession of Constantine and his rise to supreme power. ...

Eusebius is, first of all, valuable as an historian because he preserves a large number of sources that are not available in other forms. He clearly has an axe to grind and that axe has to do with the the status of Christians and their relationship with the imperial authorities.

Constantine, whom Eusebius describes later in "A Life of Constantine" and also in an oration on an important occasion later in his career, is a magnificent ruler endowed by God with wisdom, insight and a divine mission to vindicate the church and to bring the church and the state into unity. And so Constantine is viewed by Eusebius as a figure of God's will in human history.

And how does Eusebius portray Constantine? Constantine would have been conceived by Eusebius and portrayed by Eusebius in magnificent terms. And you have to understand that Constantine, when Eusebius portrays him, is someone who had just achieved total domination over the whole of the Roman Empire. And he was a figure of commanding stature, of commanding power and authority, a figure who by the year 324 had no rivals within the Roman world. And so clothed in imperial garments and radiating the splendor of the sun, he appears in the portraits of Eusebius in some ways as a quasi-divine figure. ...


What exactly was the Council of Nicea?

The Council of Nicea, which took place in 325, was a response to a crisis that developed in the church over the teachings of a presbyter, or priest, of the church in Alexandria. And his teachings suggested that Jesus was not fully divine, that Jesus was certainly a supernatural figure of some sort, but was not God in the fullest sense. His opponents included a fellow who came to be bishop of Alexandria, Anthanasius, and the folk on that side of the divide insisted that Jesus was fully divine. The Council of Nicea was called to try to mediate that dispute, and the Council did come down on the side of the full divinity of Jesus. It all boils down to one iota of difference. And the debates in the 4th century about the status of Jesus have to do with the Greek word that exemplifies the problem. One party said that Jesus was homo usias with the father, that is of the same being or substance as the father. The other party, the Arian party, argued that Jesus was homoi usias with the father, inserting a single letter "i" into that word. So the difference between being the same and being similar to was the heart of the debate over Arianism. And the Council of Nicea resolved that the proper teaching was that Jesus was of the same being as the father.

Who called the Council of Nicea?

The Emperor Constantine was the moving force in the Council and he, in effect, called it in order to solve this dispute. He did so because at that time he had just completed his consolidation of authority over the whole of the Roman Empire. Up until 324, he had ruled only half of the Roman Empire. And he wanted to have uniformity of belief, or at least not major disputes within the church under his rule. And so he was dismayed to hear of this controversy that had been raging in Alexandria for several years before his assumption of total imperial control. And in order to dampen that controversy he called the Council.

Allen D. Callahan:

Associate Professor of New Testament, Harvard Divinity School


Did Constantine confer real benefits on the Christian church?

The benefits of imperial patronage were enormous. There are a lot of questions about the profundity of his conversion experience, since he still seems to carry on pretty much like a pagan, even after the vision on the Milvian Bridge. But I think all those matters are matters of the apologies that are written for Constantine afterwards. What's important is that he signals a kind of detente that's reached between the church as a force to be reckoned within imperial society and the Roman state. ... I think that these were two projects in which a lot of people were very, very heavily involved, and they are on a collision course with each other and some kind of resolution has to be accomplished by somebody, otherwise they're going to destroy each other or compromise each other's integrity. And so, Constantine is a historical point man with respect to the relation of the Roman state to the growing Christian movement as an institutional force in late antique society.

What benefits does he confer, practically?

There's an imperial underwriting of pilgrimage and pilgrimage sites, and so a lot of money goes to refurbishing those pilgrimage sites that exist and making them bigger and better and even greater and grander attractions, and creating pilgrimage sites where none existed previously. ...[This] sends a kind of cultural shockwave to the entire society. Now, pilgrimage is a very important activity among Roman elites and others who now identify themselves as Christians -- to go to the holy places and see the holy things. Christianity becomes another kind of institutional force after this detente, so to speak. ...

From the beginning of the Jesus movement, there was always the problem of negotiating the proper relation between the members of the movement, who owed their allegiance to a different Lord, and the powers of the state -- the state which, incidentally, killed Jesus. [There is] the story of the coin that's produced for Jesus and they say, "Shall we pay tribute to Caesar?" and Jesus says,"Well, show me a coin. Whose face is on it? Caesar's. We'll render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's and render unto God that which is God's." [This is] Jesus' famous non-answer to the question of that relation between the Jesus movement and the powers of the state. In early Byzantine political ideology, after the detente between Rome and Jerusalem, after the so-called conversion of Constantine, it's possible to have two thrones set side by side. In one, the emperor sits. tTe other is left empty because there, Christ, the ruler of the world, is presumed to be reigning and the emperor is seen as a vice-regent of Christ. This resolution, this answer to that nagging problem, is possible after Constantine's [conversion].

How complete and how sincere was Constantine's conversion?

[To answer that] is absolutely impossible. This is one of the worst abuses of arm chair psychology in the historiography of early Christianity. Constantine continued to behave like a pagan well after his so-called conversion. It didn't stop him from killing people. It didn't stop him from doing all of the kinds of unsavory things that Roman emperors were wont to do. But again, I think from an institutional perspective, the change that was inaugurated by, let's say, the re-orientation of his personal commitments... signaled the reconfiguration of relations between institutions in the late Roman Empire. When we go farther than that, we go to Eusebius and other apologists for Constantine and we know what they really want to do. They want to put his best face forward even if they've got to put a lot of makeup on it. ... We understand Eusebius' motivations, but I think the real important thing there is that conversion experience, how we understand that that particular individual signals something for the culture and the institutions of late antiquity and that's the most important aspect of that one single conversion experience for us. ...

Source: PBS

Documentary Description

From Jesus to Christ: The First Christians

This FRONTLINE series is an intellectual and visual guide to the new and controversial historical evidence which challenges familiar assumptions about the life of Jesus and the epic rise of Christianity.

For an overview of the series read the Synopsis. It includes links to some of the stories and material on this web site which expand the narrative.

This site is anchored by the testimony of New Testament theologians, archaeologists and historians who serve as both critics and storytellers. They address dozens of key issues, disagreements and critical problems relating to Jesus' life and the evolution of Christianity. Throughout the site, maps, charts (for example, the fortress of Masada), ancient texts (including Perpetua's diary), pictures of the archaeological discoveries, ancient imagery, and audio excerpts from the television program complement and illuminate the scholars'commentary.

A new addition to this site is the edited transcript of a two-day symposium at Harvard University. This symposium was a follow-up to the FRONTLINE broadcast and featured scholars' presentations, workshops and audience discussion.

Drawing upon historical evidence, the series challenges familiar assumptions and conventional notions about Christian origins. Archaeological finds have yielded new understandings of Jesus' class and social status; fresh interpretations have transformed earlier ideas about the identity of the early Christians and their communities.

Through engaging on-camera interviews with twelve scholars--New Testament theologians, archaeologists, and historians--the series presents their contributions to this intellectual revolution. For example they talk about the quest for the historical Jesus - what can we really know? And how do we know it?

The scholars together represent a range of viewpoints and diversity of faiths and a shared commitment to bring new ways of thinking about Christianity to a public audience. They discuss the value in a historical approach to Jesus and the Bible and whether Christian faith can be reconciled with such an approach.

What Can We Really Know About Jesus?

Evaluating the fragmentary evidence.

by PBS

Wayne A. Meeks

Woolsey Professor of Biblical Studies Yale University

Every Christian sooner or later has to ask the question, "Who was Jesus really?" And we ask this in our age in a special way because we are very historically oriented. We are modern, or perhaps post-modern, people, but all of us have a sense that we want to know what things were really like. We know that the past is different from the present. We have experienced rapid change, all of us in our generation. And so we want to know what was Jesus really like. And that quest to understand what he was really like has turned out to be very disappointing. So how do we really get at that? We must, first of all, understand that in history facts always lie under interpretations and we never get to the facts. They're only interpretations. There is only an interpreted Jesus, there are many interpreted Jesuses. So where do we begin? We begin not with Jesus, we have no access to him. We begin with the responses to Jesus, by his followers, by outsiders who heard about him.... We begin with those reactions as they're enshrined in the text we have.

All we have from this period about Jesus is text, finally. And we try to work backwards and say, "How did we get these texts? Who wrote these texts? Where did they get the ideas?" Surely behind the written text there were oral traditions, we know that. There were oral traditions that went on after the written text, and we have evidence of those being written down later. So we try to dissect those. We say, "What kind of traditions? How were they shaped? What kinds of stories did people tell about Jesus?" Those stories have a shape to them. Do we find other stories in the culture of the Mediterranean world around Jesus? Other stories about other people that are shaped the same way? We have reports of what Jesus said. He told parables, he told stories, he told little epigrams. Those have a shape to them. Are they like any sayings that are attributed to other people at the same time? We're trying to put this whole story into a context of its own history, of its own time. And our ideal here is to be able to hear those stories, hear those sayings, as someone in the first century would have heard them, recognizing that there were conventions that if people heard a certain way of talking they would say, "Hmm, this person claims to be a prophet." Or this person about whom this story is told is a magician, someone with magical power, a healer, or this is a wise person, a person who delivers certain kinds of maxims or epigrams or tells proverbs or parables and the like. So there are socially conditioned ways of identifying people that one can see almost built into the shape of the tradition about Jesus. If we're smart enough, by comparing other sources from a similar time and place, we can retrace that history, working backwards from the text in the earliest time that we can get to.

Some scholars think that you can, by a process of analysis and text comparisons, figure out what Jesus said... How much more basic can you get than what somebody said? Doesn't that tell you who he is?

So how do we learn about Jesus from what he said? If we could only be sure that he said everything that's attributed to him in the various gospels.... This is complicated by several things. One of the complications most recently is the discovery in 1945 of some other gospels that we didn't know about before. One of them, the Gospel of Thomas, is nothing but sayings of Jesus. It simply goes along and says, "Jesus said this, Jesus said that." Well some of these things that Jesus said according to the Gospel of Thomas are quite familiar. They're very similar to things in the canonical gospels, but not identical. And there are other things which are quite different from any of the things that he said in the canonical gospels.

Then, even among the canonical gospels, the way Jesus talks in the first three, the so-called synoptic gospels, is very different from the way he talks in the Gospel according to John. Now, which is right? Which is the real Jesus speaking here? We discovered that there are several different portraits of Jesus enshrined in the shape of the traditions about him, and that these seem to go back to very early times. Now this runs flatly contrary to our traditional picture in which everything begins with a nice unified beginning in which everything was clear and only later there come heresies which change things. But it's not so surprising if you think about the way human beings tend to remember things. Everybody remembers things in accord with what makes sense in their particular view of the world. We have different portraits of Jesus because from the very beginning people tried to understand the mystery about him. And they understood it within categories which were familiar in their time and place, in their particular corner of that time and place. And so we have a set of variety of ways of perceiving Jesus from the very beginning. And that's built into the earliest sources that we have....

The really important figures in history always generate multiple traditions. Think of the different ways in which people even in our own time think about John Fitzgerald Kennedy. He is the martyr, he is the hero, he is the great liberal, no, he was really rather conservative. He's the Cold War warrior, etc., etc. And this is somebody that we have on videotape. This is the person that we have speeches from and so forth and so on. How much more difficult it is to sort out the various reactions to a figure in the ancient past....

The temptation is, out of all of the various figures of Jesus that emerge in our sources, to pick one and say, "That's the real one." And usually we will pick one, of course, that accords with our notion of what we would like Jesus to have been like. You know, someone at the margins of society, the hero of the proletariat revolution or the anti-establishment figure, and so on. That's probably inevitable that we will all do this, but it's not very good history writing. I myself am very skeptical finally that we can describe independently of any of these traditions what the real Jesus was like.

Harold W. Attridge

The Lillian Claus Professor of New Testament Yale Divinity School

Speaking as a historian, why is it such a problem to know anything about the life of Jesus, and what are the sources you can draw on?

The problem in understanding Jesus as a historian begins with the fact that we have rather limited sources for reconstructing his life. Those sources are primarily the gospel traditions that we have in the New Testament, some apocryphal materials from the early Christian tradition, and some sources external to the New Testament. Those sources external to the New Testament are particularly valuable because they're not directly statements of faith, the way the New Testament materials are. Chief among those external sources is Josephus, a Jewish historian who wrote at the end of the first century and who in book 18 of his "Antiquities of the Jews," has a small passage about Jesus. He also reports about John the Baptist, and about James, the brother of Jesus. And those passages constitute the first external testimonies to the existence of Jesus by someone who was not a follower. They may have been tampered with in the transmission, but at the core there probably is a reliable historical account by Josephus of the existence of Jesus.

Why do professional historians give more credence to Josephus than, say, the gospels?

Professional historians, I think, try to assemble all of the evidence that's available for reconstructing an event. And they're concerned about the bias in any of those sources that they use. And at the first stage in reconstructing an event is to analyze the bias of sources. We had to do so both with the sources internal to Christianity as well as the sources external to Christianity. So the gospels, for instance, are clearly statements of faith and they have certain takes on who Jesus was and what he meant to his followers. External sources like Josephus don't have the same faith commitment, they may have some other axes to grind, but in any case you have to see what the biases of the sources are, and try to take those into account as you do your reconstruction.

Shaye I.D. Cohen

Samuel Ungerleider Professor of Judaic Studies and Professor of Religious Studies Brown University

What can we really know about the life of Jesus? Are we dealing with facts here? Are we dealing with bits and shreds of evidence? Are we dealing with hypotheses?

Scholars have long debated what we know and what we think we can know about the historical Jesus. The quest for the historical Jesus has claimed many, many victims. Scholars have trotted out their favorite theories, and theories come and go. My own approach is to say that while we cannot possibly know the historicity of any single incident related in the gospels, we can't possibly know the authenticity of any single saying attributed to him. We can't possibly identify the truth of any given verse in the gospels, nevertheless, certain large patterns do emerge, and those patterns seem to me to likely to be true, or likely to have a certain amount of historical veracity, even if you might not be happy with the patterns as being too vague or too general, but at least here I think we can see a clear consistent pattern of evidence in all the four gospels.

The core of the gospels is Jesus as the miracle worker, Jesus as a man who made a deep impression upon those who he came in contact with, his ability to attract large crowds, his ability to attract a dedicated core group of followers or disciples, and then a much larger group of people sort of in the margins of the core group who saw him as somebody special. After all, there presumably were many Galilean teachers or preachers in the first century of the Common Era. There will have been many who were executed by Rome as trouble makers or people who are threats to the social order. They will have been many wandering holy men around about Judea or even the Roman Empire. But this man clearly was peculiar. This man clearly made a mark, left an impression, somebody you didn't forget. Somebody who had power in a social sense. Someone who actually was able to somehow attract, enchant, and hold a large group of followers already in his lifetime. And this point, I think clearly must be true. I don't see how else we can understand the stories that are told in the gospels, even if the stories themselves may not be true, but the pattern, I'm arguing, has some truth to it.

So what pattern do we see? He's a holy man, a miracle man, someone who gets in trouble with the authorities, whoever they may be - Pharisees, scribes, priests, elders, he is constantly in trouble with them as a free-spirited individual. Someone who apparently preaches in the synagogue. All of [these activities] I think are the function of his power, the power as he has as a miracle worker and a holy man. And in the final analysis this is what does him in. This is what gets him into trouble with the authorities. At some point, such a restive individual simply could no longer be tolerated by the powers that be.

Holland Lee Hendrix

President of the Faculty Union Theological Seminary


In my own view, the earliest layer of evidence is still an interpretation, so what we can know is only the range of interpretations that we first encounter in Jesus' traditions. And that is really a plurality of Jesuses. A Jesus that's understood as a sage and wise man in some traditions, a Jesus that's understood as a superhero, a great performer of miracles in another, divine person in another tradition. A Jesus who is understood as primarily the sacrificed, now risen and enthroned savior in another tradition. One finds the plurality of Jesuses even at the earliest stage of interpretation. That's why as far as we keep going and excavating the tell of Jesus, the earliest stage is still interpretation.

L. Michael White

Professor of Classics and Director of the Religious Studies Program University of Texas at Austin


From a historical perspective what we really know about the life of Jesus is very, very limited depending on which gospel you read. His actual career may be something less then one year and maybe even as little as only a few months, whereas in John's Gospel his career is nearly three years long. So there are these kinds of historical discrepancies among the gospels themselves. They range from the way his birth occurred to the actual day on which he was executed and even to the kinds of teachings and miracles that he performs throughout his career. As a result we begin to see that the gospels themselves are not as useable as historical information as we might have hoped.

The Historian's Task

What are the challenges in reconstructing Jesus' world?

Helmut Koester

John H. Morison Professor of New Testament Studies and Winn Professor of Ecclesiastical History Harvard Divinity School


For every scholar working with ancient history, the first thing to recognize is that our evidence is very, very fragmentary. In a way, we can never reconstruct history because we don't have enough pieces. It is like an archaeological excavation. If you excavate a temple you may find the foundations of the temple. They may be disturbed, though, and you may not be sure how long the temple was. But you may find a few column drums, a column capital, maybe a few pieces from the roof structure. And now you have to form a hypothesis of what this temple looked like. And it remains a hypothesis because there are never enough pieces. Even the beautifully reconstructed facades of buildings that you as a tourist can admire today are the result of a hypothesis. And therefore the actual reconstruction can be difficult because the hypothesis could be wrong.

Essentially we are not dealing with a different situation with respect to the "reconstruction" of early Christian history or of the history of Jesus. That is, we cannot really reconstruct. We can learn from the evidence certain information that we can judiciously interpret, and, therefore, form an approximate picture of what happened. We know that Paul wrote such and such a letter to Corinth at such and such a time. And it tells us a few things of what's going on in the Corinthian community, but we will never know the whole story of what was going on in the Corinthian community. Only as much as we know in order to find a reason why Paul wrote his letter. But that doesn't give us a history of the community in Corinth. So one has to be very, very cautious, I would say even in using the term "reconstruction." On the other hand I think we have to learn to use "hypothesis" as a positive term. Because hypothesis is the only way in which we can understand. If we don't form a hypothesis, since we don't have brute facts that we can just take, we will know nothing. So hypothesis is a very positive term.

Now if you want to apply this to the question of our knowledge of Jesus of Nazareth himself and his ministry, we have to face one other difficulty. Not only that our information is fragmentary, but also that the information that we have has not been preserved in order to inform us about the historical Jesus of Nazareth, but has been preserved in order to instruct the ancient Christian churches under the authority of Jesus of Nazareth. And therefore we have, in every single piece of tradition, a transformation of the character of the material. It is almost as if you find in an ancient building, an archaeological excavation, a piece that has been reused, which came from another building originally. And we have only reused pieces....

What Jesus actually said, and what Jesus actually did, as a brute historical fact we will never know.... Because figures of past history are not necessarily remembered for what they did, but they are remembered for what the effect of the next generation was. Socrates is of course a famous example. We don't have a single saying of Socrates about which we can be certain. But we can know why Socrates was the topic of Plato's philosophy, and that a number of questions of Plato's philosophy are rooted in the figure of Socrates himself. But we cannot reconstruct his teaching. And I think we are in the same situation with Jesus, a situation in which we can be certain that all of this would not have happened without Jesus. That the disciples would not have had the miraculous experience of Jesus being among them as they broke the bread and shared the wine after Jesus' death, had not Jesus already shared bread and wine with them to the outlook of the future coming of the Kingdom of God. So we can draw lines between what we see as the effect and what might have been the causes. But we cannot peel down the tradition to an original kernel which we can ascribe to Jesus.

Eric Meyers

Professor of Religion and Archaeology Duke University


There's no greater challenge for a teacher or a scholar of antiquity than to try to put all the evidence together and come up with a plausible explanation of what occurred. Archaeology clearly gives us the setting in which great events can take place. They can help us understand the way cities get built, but they can't help us understand the content of the message of the teacher. And so archaeology is a dialogue with literary sources. It's a dialogue with the Bible. It's a dialogue with Josephus. It's a dialogue with inscriptions and all the other written evidence that we have. And when you come to put these things together then it falls upon you as a thoughtful interpreter of all these data to come to a subjective and important resolution of the tensions between these two kinds of evidence. And I would hope that I'm a sensitive interpreter of these evidence because unless you sense the dynamics between them you can't come up with a good resolution to the issues.

In the end it comes down to making plausible hypotheses. And as scholars everyone of us is bent on coming up with the most plausible hypothesis.... As an historian of religion, as an interpreter of data, whether literary or archaeological, you do the best you can. You take this dynamic between literary sources and archaeology, you look at both sides of the coin, as it were, and you put them together and you come up with the best hypothesis that you can make.

Even though I have no doubt whatsoever that Jesus was an historical person, that he lived and had an enormous impact on his time and on subsequent time, we, in the end, have no real proof that this man lived in archaeology. It is an hypothesis....

Allen D. Callahan

Associate Professor of New Testament, Harvard Divinity School


Looking at the life of Jesus as a historical problem, why is it so difficult to reconstruct his life historically? There's basically plenty of evidence for it.

It's the nature of that evidence, I think, [that] is inherently problematic, because in a way Jesus is the quintessential non-historical person. I mean here is a man who was born in the provinces, probably poor, at least in terms of all of the traditions we have at our disposal. Not only was he born in those circumstances, he lived in those circumstances and associated with other people who lived in those circumstances. This is no way to become a big shot. This is certainly no way to become somebody who establishes the end of an era and the beginning of a new age....

History isn't made to record the deeds of a person like Jesus. I mean Jesus is very much like most people, statistically speaking, who have ever existed in the world - poor, obscure, no pretensions to royalty or distinction of any kind. They live under less than desirable conditions and they die that way. There's nothing historically remarkable about that. Billions of people pass through this vale of tears in exactly that way. The argument of the gospel proclamation is that there is something distinctive about this particular individual. So that kind theological claim is on a collision course with the way that history is usually done....

John Dominic Crossan

Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies DePaul University


Can you describe your method or the method of historians for trying to reconstruct who the real Jesus was?

My own method is interdisciplinary and it is hierarchical and it is interactive, which means that I begin with cross-cultural anthropology, and I try to understand the world of Jesus as anthropologists see it, as an agrarian society, as a peasant society with an abysmal gulf between the haves and the have nots. On top of that, I build all we know about Jewish history and about the Roman peace at the time of Augustus. On top of that I build a layer of archaeology, for example, the urbanization of lower Galilee with the building of Sepphoris and Tiberius. And only on top of that then do I look at the earliest texts relative to the Jesus tradition....

Step by step, how do you try to get to the hard core of fact about the life of Jesus?

Let me take a simple illustration. The Q gospel, that is the text which is embedded in Matthew and Luke, but does not come from Mark, would probably date to around the 50s. There is also a gospel called the Gospel of Thomas, which was discovered in 1945 in Nag Hammadi in Egypt. Take a look at those two gospels. There's about a 30 percent amount of common material in them, and that's an extremely high percentage, if they're not copying from one another, which they don't seem to be. That material is earlier than its use in the Q gospel or in the Thomas gospel. That material, alongside whatever we have in Paul, is about as early as we can get. And I focus tremendously on that material.

So this core material that you're relying on pre-dates what is generally considered the New Testament.

The material that I'm relying on would predate the New Testament; the Q gospel of course is embedded in the New Testament today and is discovered in Matthew and Luke. But yes, we're talking about the 50s which is at least 20 years before Mark's gospel. But of course, about the same time that Paul is writing, so it doesn't antedate Paul really.

The Tensions Between Faith and History

Can Christian faith be reconciled with an historical approach to Jesus and the Bible?

Harold W. Attridge

The Lillian Claus Professor of New Testament Yale Divinity School

How as a scholar and a historian do you reconcile studying the Bible in a rationalist way with your Christian faith?

I suppose it's an important part of my theological commitment that I believe that Jesus was divine in some way, but that it was Jesus who was divine. It was a human being who was divine. And that the tradition of Christianity insists very strongly on the full humanity of Jesus. And so, if I'm to understand my faith as a Christian, it's important for me to understand who Jesus was as a human being. So I see the kind of rationalist historiography that I'm engaged in as an important way of reaffirming a traditional element of Christian belief, that is, that Jesus was a full human being.

But isn't that kind of approach going to be criticized on the basis of what you're doing as effectively corrosive of other people's faiths, even if it's not of your own?

I would see the the enterprise of critical theology, critical historical theology, as a way of deepening faith. And, certainly, it can be an intellectual tradition that's challenging. It's challenging, I think, to an inadequate faith, however. And someone who engages in the kind of enterprise that critical historical scholarship engages in can in fact, deepen and broaden their faith. It may be a different faith that emerges as a result of critical historical inquiry than it was before that inquiry began, but it's still Christian faith.

Some people would say that in reading the New Testament or the gospels in this spirit, you're approaching them in completely the wrong spirit by trying to treat them as history when they were really written as books of faith. That it's the wrong approach to these texts.

The theologian reading the texts of scripture is very much interested in what kind of faith claims are being made by those texts. I think to analyze them critically from a historical point of view is not to do a complete and thorough analysis of what the significance of those texts might be. One of the greatest historical critics of this century is a fellow named Rudolf Bultmann who wrote a two volume theology of the New Testament, where, on the basis of his own analysis of the historicity of the texts, [he] went on to analyze the kinds of faith claims that they made. That's certainly an important part of a theological appropriation of scripture that can be enriched by and founded on a much more secure foundation of a good historical inquiry.

What's the value in a historical approach to the Bible?

I think we're, in some ways, forced to engage in a historical critical study of scripture by the problems of scripture itself. That is, the discrepancies that we see in scripture that make it difficult for us to construct a simple and coherent historical narrative out of the data of the text, which after all, are faith statements and calls to belief in Christ. At the same time, I think we're encouraged to engage in this kind of historical critical study because it enriches our understanding of the world within which Jesus operated, within which scriptural figures in general operated and with which they were interacting. We can't, for instance, understand what it means to proclaim the kingdom or reign of God unless we understand it was that proclamation was made in the context of an imperial power that had certain implications for human existence.

I think too, by a historical, critical understanding of scripture we can both enrich our own appropriation of the teachings of scripture and also sort through some problematic elements in scripture. And I think unless we adopt a historical critical attitude toward our Biblical tradition we may miss appropriate scripture. For instance, if we apply too readily or accept without some sort of critical perspective some of the controversial statements within the gospel tradition about the Jews, I think we're being unfaithful to our Biblical tradition. But in order to understand those we have to put them into some sort of historical context. So we're invited to engage in historical critical study by the problems of scripture itself, encouraged to do so by the payoff of such study for understanding and enriching our appropriation of scriptural material, and I think absolutely forced to do so by the problematic elements of scripture which can only be understood within the historical context.

What effect does the exercise have on your faith?

I think the exercise of historical criticism has been an important ally of my faith. It's enabled me to take both an appropriately critical and also appreciative stance toward the Biblical tradition.... The historical study of scripture in general and of the life of Jesus in particular has enriched my understanding of who Jesus was, and what his own program was, and has made me appreciate all the more what the symbols of that that proclamation that Jesus made can be. And it's intensified my devotion to the faith.

Allen D. Callahan

Associate Professor of New Testament, Harvard Divinity School

How, as a historian or as a believer, do you reconcile history or belief ? And what do you do as a believer when you find historical inconsistency in the gospels?

Well, I acknowledge that then, as now, part of commitment to Jesus has to do with making one's own reconstruction of him, and this takes a number of very interesting forms. For example, if you look at Christian art in China, paintings on silk of scenes from the Bible, all the people in those paintings look Chinese. Now, there's no real mystery there. I mean, it's a kind of theological adaptation and appropriation that's going on there; there are no people who look quite like that in the Middle East in the 1st century, or at least, not a lot of them. But, what's happening there is the people in [China], through an aesthetic medium, are identifying themselves with Jesus.... It's that kind of theological project that's always underway when one when one encounters, in some way or another, Jesus.

I appreciate the gospel writers as theologians in this respect. I mean by this [a] kind of rough and ready definition of theologian. I also understand that the gospels were not fashioned... to answer all questions on every matter.... The kind of project that the gospel writers have undertaken, the theological commitments that inform that project, and the literature that's resulted from it, is not going to scratch where we itch, if we're looking for the kind of pronouncements and articulations that we find in systematic theology.

It's a different kind of literature, with different kinds of motivations....

John Dominic Crossan

Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies DePaul University


How would you [respond to the charge that] this sort of narrowly historical approach is reductionist, that you're bringing a rational approach to what was never meant to be rational, and that what you're doing is effectively going to have a corrosive effect on faith and belief?

Christianity in the gospels, in the creeds, in the canonical dogmas, has always made statements that are both historical and theological. "Jesus is human" is the historical statement; "Jesus is divine" is a theological statement; we've made both of them and it would be absurd to go through the creed and say "son of God, that's theological; crucified under Pontius Pilate, that's historical," but when we come out into public discourse, it becomes crucial to know, when we're making a statement, whether it's an historical statement or a theological statement, because otherwise those who deny our theological statements; in other words, whose faith is different from ours, we say are denying facts; and people who deny facts have to be either hard in the heart or soft in the head. We might start to do something about such people. So, we have to be able to say, "This is a statement of faith; it's absolutely valid as such. This is a statement of fact, and therefore I have to be able to debate that in the public arena."

Speaking personally, has your commitment to an historical approach or at least an attempt toward an historical understanding of Jesus, is that what lead you to leave the church?

I left the church for two reasons which I cannot really disentangle anymore. The first reason was I wanted to get married. That was quite adequate right there all by itself, but I also knew that if the morning I was leaving, I was told we have a new law now, you can stay and be married, I would have left because I also wanted to get out so I could do the work I wanted to do without it being trapped in the negativity of others, trapped in opposing others. So, the two things were equally important, and I don't know exactly how they interplay.

But was the effect of your historical research bringing you into full clash with the faith, with the church?

Yes. I was working in Chicago under Cardinal Cody, and I was in constant trouble for what I said, and it was becoming more and more intolerable to sit with a Roman collar on and to say things that were....[controversial] people couldn't understand, "how can a priest say that?" I wanted to be able to talk -- I'm speaking as a scholar, and I'll take my cracks with any other scholar. I'm not speaking as a priest who would officially, maybe, be speaking for the church. So, it was a matter of dividing those two things.

Do you see an irreconcilable conflict between work as an historian and being a believer? Do you still consider yourself a believer?

I find absolutely no conflict between being an historian and being a believer, but you have to understand two things. I spent twenty years in a Roman Catholic religious order, which was a medieval order, and the medievals believed that reason and revelation were both gifts of the same God and couldn't contradict one another unless you had blown it. I don't think Thomas Aquinas got up every morning and worried about reading Aristotle, that he might find something pagan in there. He took it for granted, if Aristotle is reasonable, Aristotle will be right; reason comes from God. I approach it the same way. Anything I find historically, I cannot imagine how it could destroy faith, since faith is about the meaning of history not about the facts of history. So, I've never experienced a conflict myself.

Helmut Koester

John H. Morison Professor of New Testament Studies and Winn Professor of Ecclesiastical History Harvard Divinity School


Whether there's a tension in my dual status as a critical scholar of the Bible on the one hand and as active ordained Lutheran minister on the other hand, that's a question that's always asked. I have never personally experienced a tension, at all. On the contrary, I always found it extremely helpful to be a learned Biblical scholar for whatever I did in preaching and teaching in the church. There's another aspect to that. One finds among conservative theologians often a fear that critical scholarship would be distracting. But this fear is much more expressed by church leaders than by active, involved lay people in the church. I've regularly given in our church, in our adult forum on Sunday morning , an instruction about the Gospel of Matthew and talked critically [about how] does the gospel come into existence? "No, Matthew was not the disciple Matthew who wrote it." And I don't find in our church anybody who says, "No, wait a moment, aren't you destroying our faith?" On the contrary, people are very interested. People want to be well instructed, learned, modern human beings in our churches.... They want to know. And I've been giving general retreats for clergy and I've done classes... and students who came to this class at first have to do critical interpretation of the Bible before they preach about the text. They come back and say, "Hey, this is great. We finally understand what this is all about." So I think that critical scholarship has a very positive service to the church. And I've always understood my own scholarship as a positive service that for the edification of Christian believers, [to] help them [develop] a better understanding of their faith in the world in which we live today. And what is interesting is the analogies between the problems that haunted the early Christians and the problems that haunt us today.

Wayne A. Meeks

Woolsey Professor of Biblical Studies Yale University

I'm going to ask you to respond in a personal way. You are ordained and you are a scholar. Is there a contradiction between the work you do when you apply the lens of history to this subject matter and how you relate to it as somebody who has faith?

I think everyone who has some sense of identification with the Christian tradition, everyone who has some personal engagement with the story and this community, has got to feel in his or her own life, a condensed version of the tensions which have been embodied in the whole of modern scholarship's attempt to understand the beginnings of Christianity, which for the last 250 years have caused nothing but trouble for the church. We have undertaken as historians to find out the real facts about how it got started and we've often-times done this because we really wanted to reform the church.... [T]his starts in the reformation, for example, with an attempt to get free of all the accumulated dogmas of the Roman Catholic Church so that we can restore true Christianity, as it was in Jesus' time and in Paul's time. Then along comes the Enlightenment, when we undertake to produce a really rational history so that we can find out what the real facts are, which may not just vindicate Protestantism against Catholicism, but will produce a truly humane religious... faith. And then we discover that ... our very notion of rationality is itself self-interested, that each of us brings the results of our histories and our own place of standing and so we find that, if we continue to ask questions, even the place where we thought to stand, in order to criticize the tradition, is undercut. It's undercut by new facts we discovered which are embarrassing to us, or discovery of the irrationality of our own rationality, as for example a feminist scholar says, "That's not my rationality" or a member of a minority group or from some developing country says, "yeah but you're presupposing white European society, in your rationality." So, that the very place where I stood to get my leverage on the tradition is undercut.

So, I think everyone that enters into the serious inquiry which has produced this very complicated picture of the origins of Christianity, must feel at some personal level considerable tension and considerable unease about what it all means. How do I come personally to deal with this? Two things. First of all, I was reared a Calvinist and I have this old Calvinist tradition -- "I wouldn't be a Christian if I could help it, that I've been elected by God, chosen by God, to to be a Christian and I can't help myself. It could be ever so much easier, if I didn't believe these things." And this believing these things means a self-involvement, a self conscious and willing involvement in a particular tradition, a particular variegated constantly changing community....

I stand within this tradition. Everybody has to stand within some tradition. Everybody stands somewhere. And for me to say that I still regard myself as Christian is to say that self-consciously I choose to identify myself still with that tradition.... And as I see it, the fundamental task of religious people in our time is to discover the way that we can still be loyal to the tradition in which we were born, and which is meaningful to us and which we believe has conveyed truth to us, without closing us off to other kinds of truth, which come out of different traditions that through history have been in conflict with our own. And that is a task for the future.

I must say if you look at the history of religious traditions, including especially the Christian tradition, you find wars, you find violence, you find bloodshed, you find intolerance, the inability to accept other versions of the truth. So this is very much a task for the future. It is something we do not know how to do. We have always felt "either I must defend my tradition as it is, and there can only be one truth and that's got to be our truth and therefore I can't listen to the others, or we have to look for the lowest common denominator," which enables us to embrace everybody with a kind of truth which is so wishy-washy that it doesn't have very much power for any of us. Surely we can do better than that, though I don't know how. But it seems to me that is precisely the task which is laid upon all religious people especially for the 21st century. It's a very small world which we have now entered into, and our very survival as human beings, perhaps, and certainly our survival as civil societies, depends on our ability to maintain loyalty and conviction without pretending to have certainty.

Elaine H. Pagels

The Harrington Spear Paine Foundation Professor of Religion Princeton University


Today there are many scholars who are looking for the historical Jesus. Not a new endeavor, but certainly with a great new impetus provided by these new sources. There are those who say, with John Dominic Crossan, that Jesus was a peasant Jewish sage of some kind, and there are others who say, with another group of scholars, that Jesus was, on the contrary, an apocalyptic teacher of the coming end of time. Both groups claimthat they can get to the real Jesus. And that if you read the sources right, you make the right selection of the sayings and the materials, you will find the real Jesus. I have doubts about that. It seems to me that history doesn't get you there. It would be fascinating if it did. If we had videotapes, if we had transcripts. We don't have those. We have... a series of refractions of some extraordinary person, seen from a variety of quite different viewpoints. We have fragments, we have sayings, we have impressions, we have vignettes. That's what we have. And actually, as I read them, they're quite different, and they're quite contradictory. They may not be irreconcilable, but to me, it's not satisfactory to go back to one type of evidence and say, "this is the real Jesus," or," that's the real Jesus." What I see is that as far back as history will take us, we see an enormous range of different people. Now there's nothing really so dismaying about that. I mean, what if we saw the origins of the Christian movement as, in fact, a movement with strong disagreements, with powerfully different perspectives, people in conversation with one another struggling to understand what is the most important truth of their lives. Is that so different from the way we look for truth today?

This might sound as though one were saying, "We'll never know who Jesus is." But that question is only because the perspective from which I spoke is a historian's perspective. I can't get back as a historian to Jesus. I don't think history will get you that far. Now that hasn't stopped Christians, all over the world, millions and millions of them, from having an intimate relationship with Jesus. Whether they're Russian Orthodox or whether they're Roman Catholics or whether they're Baptist or whether they're Quakers. So there is certainly access, religious access, in these sources to a spiritual presence of Christ, which is quite different from what would you say as a historian. Because there are many people today who base their lives on a relationship with Jesus as they perceive it.

The fact that we don't have historical sources to get back to the so-called real Jesus has never stopped the movement from existing. It's very powerful, and that to me is totally fascinating. The sense that millions of people all over the world have found, in the figure of Jesus, a spiritual focus for their lives is absolutely extraordinary, it's fascinating. How does that happen, particularly when we don't have a guaranteed way to get you back there in some factual way?

He was born, lived, and died as a Jew

Jesus' identity cannot be understood apart from his Jewishness.

Harold W. Attridge

The Lillian Claus Professor of New Testament Yale Divinity School

What was the dominant religious influence on [Jesus]?

Jesus was certainly subject to the influence of the traditions of Israel, there's no doubt about that. But in what form those traditions came to him in Galilee at the beginning of the first century is somewhat unclear. He certainly would have known of the Temple in Jerusalem, and probably, as traditions report..., would have gone up to Jerusalem for the major pilgrimage festivals. He would have known of the rituals of the Temple, their atoning ignificance. He would have celebrated Passover, I suspect, with his family, and would have known of the hopes embedded in Passover for divine deliverance. He probably was aware of the growing Pharisaic movement which preached a notion of purity that was available to all Jews, not simply those who were officiating at the Temple cult. He certainly would have known Jewish scripture.... And we can see in some of his parables how he plays on images from scripture. For instance, the great Cedar of Lebanon from Ezekial probably plays a role in his description of the mustard seed, which becomes a tree, and there's probably an element of parody there. So his relationship with the scriptural heritage is a complex one, but it certainly is an important one in his formation....

Shaye I.D. Cohen

Samuel Ungerleider Professor of Judaic Studies and Professor of Religious Studies Brown University

Was Jesus Jewish and, if he was, how would that have influenced his experiences as a young man growing up in Galilee?

Was Jesus a Jew? Of course, Jesus was a Jew. He was born of a Jewish mother, in Galilee, a Jewish part of the world. All of his friends, associates, colleagues, disciples, all of them were Jews. He regularly worshipped in Jewish communal worship, what we call synagogues. He preached from Jewish text, from the Bible. He celebrated the Jewish festivals. He went on pilgrimage to the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem where he was under the authority of priests.... He lived, was born, lived, died, taught as a Jew. This is obvious to any casual reader of the gospel text. What's striking is not so much that he was a Jew but that the gospels make no pretense that he wasn't. The gospels have no sense yet that Jesus was anything other than a Jew. The gospels don't even have a sense that he came to found a new religion, an idea completely foreign to all the gospel text, and completely foreign to Paul. That is an idea which comes about only later. So, to say that he was a Jew is saying a truism, is simply stating an idea that is so obvious on the face of it, one wonders it even needs to be said. But, of course, it does need to be said because we all know what happens later in the story, where it turns out that Christianity becomes something other than Judaism and as a result, Jesus in retrospect is seen not as a Jew, but as something else, as a founder of Christianity. But, of course, he was a Jew.

Paula Fredriksen

William Goodwin Aurelio Professor of the Appreciation of Scripture, Boston University

Was Jesus Jewish? Why is it so important to us and why would it have colored his perceptions?

What astonishes me when I read the stories about Jesus in the New Testament, is how completely embedded he is in this first century... Jewish world of religious practice and piety. We tend to get distracted by the major plot line of the gospels, because we're waiting for the story to develop up to the crucifixion. But, within that story, and the stories that are told by the evangelists that fills in the gap between the Galilee and Jerusalem, Jesus presented continuously as going into the synagogue on the Sabbath. He is presented as going up to Jerusalem for the pilgrimage holidays, specifically in John, for any number of pilgrimage holidays, and in the synoptic gospels, most importantly, for Passover. Jerusalem at Passover is not the sort of place you'd want to be in unless you were really committed to doing an awful lot of ritual activity with tremendous historical resonance....

[W]hat we've learned from the gospel stories is not that Jesus was not Jewish. Quite the opposite. He's completely embedded in the Judaism of his time. What we learn from the gospels is that he's not a member of one of the groups whose identifying characteristics Josephus gave to us. He's not a Sadducee. He's not a Pharisee. He's always arguing with the Pharisees. He's not an Essene. He's not an insurrectionist. And the fact that he's arguing with other people who may be members of these other groups just simply signifies that he's a Jew, because that's what these Jews all did with each other -- argue with each other all the time...

Jesus' Social Class

Recent archaeological findings challenge the image of Jesus as a peasant preaching in a pastoral backwater.

Harold W. Attridge

The Lillian Claus Professor of New Testament Yale Divinity School

Now what do you think we can know about Jesus' social class based on recent evidence and discussions?

Recent discussions of Jesus' social class try to locate him within the social structures of Mediterranean society generally, or Galilean society, in the first century. And there seems to be a debate among many contemporary scholars of Jesus as to whether he was really a peasant or... somewhat higher in the socio-economic strata. We know in general he was low class, by the standards of the Roman imperial aristocracy or even of the ruling class of Palestine, the Herodian client kings. But he may have been an artisan. He doesn't seem to have been a peasant in the strict sense, someone who was working the land for a living. He was close, however, to peasant society; all of the images in his parables and his aphorisms are firmly rooted in peasant society and call upon everyday things like a sower, or sowing seed. But they also call upon images of land owners and relationships between slave owners and slaves, masters and servants. So Jesus seems to have been aware of that level of the socio-economic mix. And he may well have stood in some relationship to it. So an artisan of some sort is probably the best way of describing him.

L. Michael White

Professor of Classics and Director of the Religious Studies Program University of Texas at Austin


Where did Jesus grow up and how would that have affected his world outlook?

Jesus grew up in Nazareth, a village in the Galilee. Now the Galilee, by most of the traditional accounts, is always portrayed as a kind of bucolic backwater ... cherubic peasants on the hillsides. And yet, our recent archaeological discoveries have shown this not to be the case. Nazareth, itself, is a village ... a small village at that. But, it stands less than four miles from a major urban center, Sepphoris. Now, we see Jesus growing up, not in the bucolic backwater, not... in the rural outback, but rather, on the fringes of a vibrant urban life.

And what kind of a city or town was Sepphoris?

Sepphoris was founded as the capitol of the Galilee. And so, it was really invested, much like Caesarea Maritima, with all the trappings of Greek or Roman city life as a major center of political activity for that region of the country. As a result, the excavations at Sepphoris have found extensive building programs, theaters, amphitheaters, and that sort of thing, just like Caesarea. What this tells us about the story of Jesus, though, is that Jesus himself would not have been far removed from that vibrant intersection of Greek culture, on the one hand, and traditional Jewish homeland culture on the other.

How cosmopolitan was Sepphoris? Was it multi-lingual?

Sepphoris seems to have been a very cosmopolitan city. We know that it was at least trilingual and maybe tetralingual. That is to say we know that they spoke Aramaic, the vernacular language of most people of the Jewish homeland, but Greek was also quite prominent as well. Some people probably used Latin, although not very many, one would guess. And maybe there are some other languages floating around in the immediate vicinity, as well, because of the various kinds of people that would have gone through Sepphoris. Sepphoris stood right on the major overland route between Caesarea, on the coast, and the Sea of Galilee.

Now, you may have mentioned this, but did they discover weights in different languages in Sepphoris?

The impact of this cosmopolitan trade center, Sepphoris, can be seen from the fact that weights were found, presumably from the marketplace. On one side of the weight, it's registered in Aramaic, on the other side, in Greek. Showing that people could be reading it from whichever tradition they might have come.

Holland Lee Hendrix

President of the Faculty Union Theological Seminary


The recent discoveries at Sepphoris are extremely controversial..., but the findings really are requiring us completely to rethink Jesus' socio-economic setting, because we really had thought of Jesus as being really out in the hinterland, utterly removed from urban life.... What the excavations at Sepphoris suggest is that Jesus was quite proximate to a thriving and sophisticated urban environment that would have brought with it all of the diversity of the Roman Empire and would have required, just to get on, as the price of doing business, a level of sophistication that one would not have thought characteristic of Jesus, the humble carpenter....

I would locate Jesus more in the middle-class than in the lower middle-class, than in the lower class of the period. Certainly he would have been multi-lingual, and that causes us to rethink the entire literary heritage and rhetorical heritage that Jesus would have brought to his ministry. So that the discoveries at Sepphoris and the ongoing excavations really force us to recast the mold, if you will, out of which Jesus grows. It's a much more sophisticated and complex mold than had been previously thought.

John Dominic Crossan

Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies DePaul University


We know presumably that he grew up in Nazareth. What does that imply about his background and his class?

Jesus being born in Nazareth and growing up in Nazareth tells us that he was a peasant boy in a peasant village. Maybe we might estimate 100 to 200 people maximum in this tiny village perched up in a hill, within sight, by the way, of a fairly major city, Sepphoris, but one of its surrounding villages....

Tradition has it that Jesus was a carpenter. The term is in Greek "tectone" in Mark's gospel..., "artisan" would be maybe our best translation. But in the pecking order of peasant society, a peasant artisan is lower than a peasant farmer. It probably means usually a peasant farmer who had been pushed off the land and has to make his living, if he can, by laboring.

The difficulty for us in hearing a term like "carpenter" is that we immediately think of a highly skilled worker, and at least in North America, in the middle class, making a very high income. As soon as we take that into the ancient world we are totally lost. Because, first of all, there was no middle class in the ancient world. There were the haves and the have nots, to put it very simply. And in the anthropology of peasant societies, to say that somebody is an artisan or a carpenter is not to compliment them. It is to say that they are lower in the pecking order than a peasant farmer. So it's from the anthropologists that I take the idea that a peasant artisan is not a compliment.

There's a theory, though, that Jesus' place of birth gives us a clue to a rather more sophisticated character. Somebody who was just on the doorstep of a Hellenized small town, multi-lingual. He possibly spoke Greek or would have heard it spoken. Possibly could have been influenced by Greek thought or Hellenistic thought. In other words a far more sophisticated guy. Do you reconcile these images or do you flatly disagree with that?

Well, the interesting thing is that as a fact, Jesus never mentioned Sepphoris. And he doesn't use metaphors that tell us profoundly he knows urban societies. He may talk about land owners or bailiffs or stuff like that. There is no evidence that Jesus is any way involved in the urban life of Sepphoris, which is within viewing distance of Nazareth. But to live close to a city in the ancient world was not necessarily a good thing.

What's the argument against him being a more Hellenized, urbanized person? Why do you place him so firmly as a low-class peasant?

Well, a lower class peasant is somebody who is in interaction, not necessarily happy interaction, with a local city. If you take away the city, you don't have a peasant, you have a farmer, a happy farmer, probably. So, first of all, Jesus never mentions Sepphoris, although he grew up within sight of it. He doesn't seem to be talking urban images.

And if he knew anything about Sepphoris, what would he know? He would know that aqueducts take the water from the countryside into the city. And aqueducts run in only one direction. And the city people were the washed, they're the people with the public baths. So, from the countryside into the city, and I don't see any aqueduct coming back, Jesus was sophisticated [enough] to know what the city was, which was the seat of peasant oppression.

Do his travels, or the parables that he teaches, also give us a clue to his probable class, his apparent avoiding of cities?

If you take three parables that are used in the common material in the Q gospel and in the Gospel of Thomas, for example, the parable of the lost sheep, the parable of the mustard seed, or the parable of the leaven. All of those are absolutely ordinary, everyday, rural experiences. They presume no profound knowledge. Anyone would understand them. They speak strict to the rural audience of Jesus. No matter, in a way, who Jesus is or what his background, he is certainly telling his stories for a rural audience. It seems to me, born in Nazareth, speaking to a rural audience, it seems Jesus is a peasant, speaking to peasants.

Shaye I.D. Cohen

Samuel Ungerleider Professor of Judaic Studies and Professor of Religious Studies Brown University


According to the gospel accounts, Jesus himself comes from a very small town, a town that's virtually otherwise unknown, Nazareth inGalilee, and seems to spend his entire career, as it were, talking to Jews in these small towns or small villages in the Galilee. There are two substantial settlements in the Galilee, Sepphoris and Tiberius, we might call them cities, although that's perhaps a slight loose use of the term.... But Jesus avoids them. That's not where he goes. That's not where he has his followers and it's not where he feels welcome. He's much more comfortable dealing with the villages and the small towns, what we might call the peasants of the society.

And the first time he goes to the big cities of course is when he gets to Jerusalem, at the very end of his ministry or at the very end of his career, with of course, very unfortunate consequences. So primarily then he seems to be a rural phenomenon, or representative of peasant piety or peasant ways, and not the ways of the cities.

But why? Why do you think he didn't go into the cities?

In antiquity there often was social tension between town and country. Not quite the same tension that we have today, where the distinction between town and country is very distinct.... In antiquity, the division was not at all so clear, because people in towns also were agricultural. You walked outside the town walls, walked 15 feet, and there you were in the countryside. So the social contrasts in some respects were much less than they are for us. But in other respects they were a lot more pointed. There was a sense that the cities or the large towns is where the large landowners lived, where the tax collectors lived, where the government officials were, where the judges were, where any outpost of culture will have been found.There was a real cultural and social cleavage then between the peasant ways of the countryside and the towns. This can be seen not just in Judea, but really throughout the Roman Empire. And perhaps then, Jesus and his followers simply were not town types. This is not their culture, not their society, not their ways. They're more comfortable with living with their own kind out in the countryside....

Paula Fredriksen

William Goodwin Aurelio Professor of the Appreciation of Scripture, Boston University


What do recent archaeological findings at Sepphoris tell us about Jesus' occupation, his social class, how he made a living?

Sepphoris was known as the jewel of the Galilee. It was one of the capital cities of the Galilee and it's the first capital of Herod's son, who is an independent Jewish client king of Rome during the lifetime of Jesus.... Sepphoris is a beautiful, wealthy city. It's a Jewish city. But like most wealthy Jewish cities in the Greco-Roman period, it's architectural statements are done in Greco-Roman idiom. That doesn't mean that it's Greco-Roman culture. No more than we would think that Thomas Jefferson [was] because Monticello has elements of Greek architecture....

Sepphoris... was moneyed. It was the center of trade for the area. And if Jesus were growing up in Nazareth, which is just a walk for somebody healthy... I think it's something like three miles. If he were a carpenter, or some kind of craftsman, he might have done work in Sepphoris....What does this imply about Jesus' social class? It's hard to know. I think that since he's depicted as a pious Jew, and since pious Jews have a six-day work week, and since on the seventh day they have particular obligations that don't allow them to take long journeys, (on the Sabbath you really are supposed to rest. You're not supposed to hike into Sepphoris and maybe, catch a play in the afternoon, or something like that.) I don't think that culturally, Sepphoris would have made all that much difference. I think as most people in his period who are not landed gentry, Jesus would have worked for a living for six days a week and rested on the Sabbath....

Eric Meyers

Professor of Religion and Archaeology Duke University


If Sepphoris is such a cosmopolitan city, does that tell us anything about the social class of Jesus? Was he a peasant?

Well, the gospels mention that Jesus and his father were craftspeople, craftsmen. It's very likely that Jesus actually worked in Sepphoris in the time of Antipas' activity there. Of that there's probably no doubt. It's four kilometers away. It's probably the place where all teenagers would have worked, and all the people from Nazareth were crowding into this city being created out of the mound of Sepphoris. So a lot of craftsmen were at work in building up the city Sepphoris. If its high point was a hundred years or 200 years later, like all good Middle Eastern oriental cities there was an agricultural component to Sepphoris. You have a huge activity in the fields beside it. You have satellite villages and satellite industries that attach to the area around the municipal area and territory of Sepphoris. Sepphoris was not just the center, not just a city with houses and with waterworks and with things like that, but it had satellite settlements around. Nazareth to all intents and purposes was a satellite village attached to the region or municipality of Sepphoris. So from this point of view the emerging transformation of this place Sepphoris into a city, I think, affected the entire region around it all the way over to the territory and city of Tiberius, which was built in 17, or begun to be constructed in the year 17. That leaves Jesus as stepping in both worlds, stepping in the world of the city that is being created, and as well participating in the agricultural kinds of activities that all people in Palestine in the first century would have participated in.

Is he a peasant?

I think Jesus was a teacher, a wise person. He was not a peasant if by peasants you mean someone unlettered and untutored. As a wise man, certainly, Jesus participated in the normal education of a good Jewish home and Jewish upbringing in Nazareth or the region. And he was conversant in Greek to the extent that anybody living in this open territory of greater Sepphoris or Tiberius or lower Galilee would have been. You couldn't deal and wheel, either in the workplace or in the market, without knowing a good deal of Greek. And I can hardly imagine anybody worth their salt who wouldn't know some Greek. But Jesus was trilingual. Jesus participated in both the Aramaic and Hebrew culture and its literatures as well as the kind of Hellenistic Greek that he needed to do his business in his travel and his ministry.

The Surprises of Sepphoris

The archaeological excavations at Sepphoris are painting a new portrait of Jesus' world.

Paula Fredriksen

William Goodwin Aurelio Professor of the Appreciation of Scripture, Boston University

What do recent archaeological findings at Sepphoris tell us about Jesus' occupation, his social class, how he made a living?

Sepphoris was known as the jewel of the Galilee. It was one of the capital cities of the Galilee and it's the first capital of Herod's son, who is an independent Jewish client king of Rome during the lifetime of Jesus.... Sepphoris is a beautiful, wealthy city. It's a Jewish city. But like most wealthy Jewish cities in the Greco-Roman period, it's architectural statements are done in Greco-Roman idiom. That doesn't mean that it's Greco-Roman culture. No more than we would think that Thomas Jefferson [was] because Monticello has elements of Greek architecture....

Sepphoris... was moneyed. It was the center of trade for the area. And if Jesus were growing up in Nazareth, which is just a walk for somebody healthy... I think it's something like three miles. If he were a carpenter, or some kind of craftsman, he might have done work in Sepphoris....What does this imply about Jesus' social class? It's hard to know. I think that since he's depicted as a pious Jew, and since pious Jews have a six-day work week, and since on the seventh day they have particular obligations that don't allow them to take long journeys, (on the Sabbath you really are supposed to rest. You're not supposed to hike into Sepphoris and maybe, catch a play in the afternoon, or something like that.) I don't think that culturally, Sepphoris would have made all that much difference. I think as most people in his period who are not landed gentry, Jesus would have worked for a living for six days a week and rested on the Sabbath....

Eric Meyers

Professor of Religion and Archaeology Duke University

Sepphoris was a city that existed already in Hellenistic times, first, second century BCE. But it was really developed by Herod's son Antipas, when he went there in 4 or 3 before the Common Era, after his father's death. The extent of his activities, however, as described by none other than Josephus, the historian of this era, is very complicated. It's alleged by many scholars that his building scheme resembled that of his dad's in Jerusalem. But after a dozen years excavating at the site, it's very difficult to come up with the fixings of a real eastern Roman city in the time of Jesus or at the beginning of the first century in the time of Antipas....

The theater that everyone assumes was built in the time of Jesus or in the time of Antipas, in my opinion and I think now in the opinion of all of the excavators of the site, was not begun until the second half of the century, if not the beginning of the second century, C.E.... We have wonderful upper class villas in which Jews and priests lived, some of them with very close connections to Jerusalem. And we have a series of first century ritual baths, used for complete immersion, to deal with the Levitical command as found in the Hebrew Bible, to honor the commandment of ritual purity, bodily purity....

So Antipas beautified the city, but it was not yet a great city of the Roman East. I'm absolutely certain of this. This happened later when the theater is erected and when Roman Legionnaires and soldiers come and establish their presence and make themselves known at the beginning of the second century. There's one other clue that tells us very much about the character of first century Sepphoris. And that surprisingly, comes from the bones that we find in these houses and in these villas. We have virtually no pig bones attested in the early Roman period at Sepphoris. Occasionally, we find an odd bone here or there of swine, but virtually none. When we go up to other centuries, even the second century, we find a significant increase, up to 8 or 10 percent of the bones are pigs, and no doubt these are being presented, by virtue of the presence of the Roman Army. And by the fourth century when there are Christians there we've got 18 percent, 20 percent pig bones....

I think the beginnings of Jewish culture in Sepphoris, as we can reconstruct them now from archaeology in the first century, might be characterized as upscale, living very much as some of the Jews from Jerusalem might have lived at the same time in the Jewish quarter. We have frescoed rooms. We have houses, each with its own private ritual bath. That's an extravagance, considering where the water had to be brought from and the kind of technical [manueverings] it took to get pure water mixed with standing water. But it was very much in the mainstream. I don't think they were doing anything that they shouldn't have done. It was not an assimilating community. The picture we get is a community very much in the mainstream, but on the high end of the scale. It was an upscale city in the making. Not yet a real city of the east, but a city surely that was born in the time of Antipas.


One of the more exciting discoveries that we made at Sepphoris was a magnificent Roman villa with a gorgeous, gorgeous mosaic on its floor in a banquet hall. And this villa, which we call the Villa of Dionysus because so many of the scenes are concerned with the legend and mythology of the god Dionysus, has at two of its ends in this banquet hall, one very attractive woman and one not so attractive woman. The lady who is not so attractive was not depicted as well as the other, but she was also injured badly during the great earthquake which destroyed Sepphoris in 363. But the lady on the other side was dubbed "Mona Lisa" by the press when we found her because she's really an extraordinary depiction in stone of a beautiful woman of Roman antiquity. She might be one of the four seasons. But one has the feeling that behind that face was a real woman and a real figure. Because the artistry that depicts it in stone is so delicate and so exquisite and so painterly. And so she has become kind of synonymous with the site even though she's from the 3rd century, the high point of Hellenization at the site. She has now become synonymous with the Romanization of the site and Hellenization....

The discovery of these scenes of the mythology of Dionysus on the floor of a public house in a banquet hall in a Jewish town certainly blew most everyone's mind. And made us think for the first time that there was a much more liberal attitude towards the second commandment banning pictorial images in Judaism and that Jews in general were much more flexible with respect to image making and artistic presentation and activity, in the very period where the Mishna, the first major Jewish body of law to be codified in Palestine at Sepphoris in the third century, was being produced side by side with this great piece of work.

The Complexity of His Religious Identity

Jesus was viewed as healer, moral teacher, apocalyptic preacher and, ultimately, the Messiah.

Shaye I.D. Cohen

Samuel Ungerleider Professor of Judaic Studies and Professor of Religious Studies Brown University


What did it mean to be a holy man in first century Palestine?

There is a complex variety of historical traditions about Jesus. He appears in our records, primarily the gospels, in different guises, doing different kinds of things. If you have to ask Jesus to fill out the passport application, or something, where he has say, ten or twelve spaces and he must fill in a single noun and say what is he.... what could you write? Well, there are a wide range of possibilities, but I think they all come down in the final analysis to a single one which is he's a holy man. That is to say, a person who was believed by his followers, by his disciples, by eye witnesses, to somehow be diffused with a divine presence.... He is able to do things that the rest of us can't do. He sees things that the rest of us don't see. He hears things the rest of us don't hear. He is a human, of course, but somehow he is possessed by a god, or the God, or a divine spirit or an angel or something that somehow has elevated him above the ordinary, so that he is able to do things the rest of us simply can't do. This is a recognized social type, both in the history of Judaism, and in fact, virtually all the world's religions, all the world's societies and cultures who have different names for such people. And even in the Hebrew Bible we can recognize this type in the Elijah type from the Book of Kings, they are characterized by their ability to do miracles. In Jesus' case, especially healings, which seems to have been something of a specialty of his, for which he had a great reputation. People would bring from miles around, judging from the gospel, they would bring their, the sick, the frail, to Jesus to be healed, as if somehow just a touch from the holy man would suffice to effect a cure, just looking at the Holy Man might suffice to effect a cure....

If you believed in him, of course, he was a man possessed by God. If you did not believe in him you would say he was a magician, a charlatan, a faker, a pretender, just a cheap trickster, nobody of any consequence. So the same acts might be construed differently depending on where you're coming from, what your perspective was. This would be the core then of what Jesus was, I think.

Harold W. Attridge

The Lillian Claus Professor of New Testament Yale Divinity School


And how would you describe Jesus as a preacher?

Jesus was a very creative and engaging preacher, we know that. And contemporary scholars have tried to find analogies between his preaching and the images he uses, the parables he uses, the prophecies that are attributed to him... between those materials and contemporary preachers of various sorts. In recent years, it's become quite popular among some scholars to think of Jesus as a cynic. By a cynic I mean someone who was a member of a kind of countercultural movement; the hippies of the Hellenistic world were the cynics. They were very critical of conventional religion, conventional philosophy, conventional behavior. And they issued to the Hellenistic world generally a call to return to nature, to a natural and a simple way of life. There were some things in the preaching of Jesus that are analogous to that kind of call. "Consider the lilies of the field," for instance, is something that is very reminiscent of some cynic preaching.

However, there's something that I think differentiates Jesus from most cynics who seem to have been by and large very individualistic. Jesus does seem to have had a concern for the reign of God as something that effects the people as a whole.... And I take seriously the claim that he called people together in some sort of fellowship, and probably used symbols that in some way relate to the tradition of the people of Israel. That he was, in effect, constituting a call [for the] reform of the people in Israel, and that seems to be a very uncynic kind of thing. So those elements in his teaching and his proclamation that have to do with the reign of God and the people bring him closer to what we might describe as an apocalyptic preacher or someone who was concerned for God's intervention into human history to set Israel right. So, bottom line, Jesus was a very complex kind of character, and to put him in one or another of these pigeon holes, I think, is a mistake, and doesn't do justice with to the complexity of the evidence that's available....

If we take the Gospel of Mark, Chapter 13, we find a series of predictions about the end of the world. The skies will be darkened, the stars will fall from heaven, there will be earthquakes, trials and tribulations, war, and rumors of war. And then at the end of that period, a divine figure, the Son of Man, will come, will enter into human history and will inaugurate God's kingdom. That whole series of predictions is an example of apocalyptic prophesy. A prophesy of God's intervention into human history at the end of time to bring to realization all of the things that God has promised to his people. That's more or less what we mean by apocalyptic eschatology. If we take the attribution of that series of prophesies to Jesus seriously, then we'd have to classify him as an eschatological prophet.

There is, however, reason to believe that some of those prophetic statements attributed to Jesus probably were creations of the early church and put on his lips in order to help his followers to understand their relationship to their own history and to the catastrophes that were developing during the course of the first century. If we look at some of the other elements in the teaching of Jesus, there seems to be a critical stance towards some of these prophetic elements. So for instance, there are sayings where Jesus says that he does not know when the end will come. And if we look at the way in which he uses some symbols that are connected with these hopes for eschatological intervention then we seem to see Jesus using them in odd ways. Ways that suggest he may have been critical of some of those eschatological hopes.

So it's my understanding that Jesus probably grew up in an environment where some people nurtured these hopes for divine intervention into human history, that he may have shared them at some point in his life, if indeed he was a disciple of John the Baptist and was baptized by him. And if John the Baptist was such an apocalyptic preacher, it's entirely reasonable to presume that Jesus had some connection with those eschatological hopes. But the way in which he worked them out and the way in which he came to understand the reign of God or the kingdom of God suggests that he didn't buy in totally to that eschatological vision that then gets reworked by his followers into such passages as Mark 13.

Paula Fredriksen

William Goodwin Aurelio Professor of the Appreciation of Scripture, Boston University


One of the most interesting and frustrating aspects of the stories about Jesus in the gospel is that they speak about him in so many different ways. There are elements of Jesus' public career, if you want to look at it that way, where he seems like a healer.... [I]n Mark, he's first of all an exorcist, somebody who drives out demons and drives out sickness. He is depicted as a religious teacher in the Gospel of Matthew. The Beatitudes, [the] Sermon on the Mount, are part of that teaching. He's constantly having arguments about what the correct way to live Jewishly is....

He's depicted also as somebody who's talking about the coming Kingdom of God. If all we had were the gospels, if that were all we knew about this moment in the development of Christianity as a religion, we might think that the attribution of apocalyptic hope to Jesus came from a level after his lifetime, or maybe was the editorial decision of the evangelist, who, after all, is writing sometime between 70 and 100. And Jesus dies around the year 30. So there's that gap. In other words, we could look at these apocalyptic elements and see them as a kind of literary theme, but not telling us anything about Jesus.

I think, though, that [it's important to look at] Paul's letters that are written 15 years earlier than the first gospel, by a person who doesn't know Jesus, but by a person who is in a movement that is creating itself around the name and the memory of this man, Jesus. And... Paul himself is also talking about the coming Kingdom of God with a different improvised wrinkle to it: that the son of God, namely Jesus, is going to come back ...and now the Kingdom is also going to arrive. I want to put Paul between the Jesus of history and the different Jesuses that stand in the gospels, and line up what's in the gospels with what's in Paul.... [Paul is] talking about a coming Kingdom of God. He's talking about the transformation of the living and the resurrection of the dead. He's talking about a spirit of holiness transfusing Christian communities. He's talking about Jesus coming back. He's talking about God intervening definitively in history. He's talking about the end of evil. And either he, and the movement he stands in mid-century, are inventing this out of whole cloth, and it has nothing to do with the person they consider their founder and teacher had said, or Jesus himself had also said something like that. I think it's less elaborate to think of Jesus, Paul, and the early church as on this kind of continuum.

John Dominic Crossan

Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies DePaul University


Based on what evidence is left to us, who did Jesus think he was?

Jesus talks quite clearly about the Kingdom of God, and there's no hesitation about it. And that means this is the will of God. Jesus is making statements about what God wants for the earth. And there is no "The word of the Lord came to me," or there's no "I've thought about this." It seems self-evident. I think that's exactly what it is for Jesus. The Kingdom of God is radically subversive of the Kingdom of Caesar, and that's self-evident to Jesus because he's grown up, as it were, at the bottom of the heap and he knows the heap is unjust. It's so obvious for him, it is beyond revelation.... It's coming straight out of the Jewish tradition that this system is not right. Now, his followers are going to ask him, of course, a very obvious question, "Who are you?" And I find no problems that during the life of Jesus, certain of his followers could have said, "He is divine." And by divine, meaning, "This is where we see God at work. This is the way we see God" or, "He is the Messiah." But then, they'll have to interpret the Messiah in the light of what Jesus is doing. He doesn't seem to be a militant Messiah, or maybe we would like him to be a militant Messiah. All of those options could have been there during the life of Jesus. I have no evidence whatsoever that Jesus was in the least bit concerned with accepting any of them, or even discussing any of them. He was the one who announced the Kingdom of God.

But did he think he was speaking for God?

Jesus had to think he was speaking for God, yes.

But did he think he had a special relationship with God?

I do not think that Jesus thought he had any special relationship with God that wasn't there for anyone else who would look at the world and see that this is not right. It was to Jesus so obvious that anyone should be able to see it. Now, on the other hand, most people weren't able to see that in the first century or the twentieth. So in that sense, yes, it is a unique relationship. And it's that on which later theology would build, of course.

It seems to me the implication of what you're saying is, approximately, that he's not God.

If somebody says, "This is the will of God," then I'm going to say, "Well, when I hear you , I'm hearing God then?" "Yep." "Well, then, you're kind of like God?" "Yep." "But, when you die, God doesn't die?" So, I mean, it's perfectly valid for somebody to say then, "Jesus is God." But they're going to have to explain what that means. And that means for me, that Jesus speaks for God. That what Jesus says is what God wants for the world.

Jesus' Ministry and Teaching

A closer look at his parables, aphorisms, and apocalyptic message about the coming Kingdom of God.

Shaye I.D. Cohen

Samuel Ungerleider Professor of Judaic Studies and Professor of Religious Studies Brown University


Did Jesus preach, as best we know? And if he did preach what kinds of things did he preach about?

When Jesus speaks, the major verb that is used in the gospel accounts is "to teach...." He teaches his disciples, he teaches in the synagogues, he teaches the crowds.... What is he teaching? Well, we have again a complex variety of things, which don't quite hang together entirely. We, of course, have notions of repentance.... He is asking Jews to repent of their sins, to expect the end time or the Kingdom of God, that somehow that we need to improve our ways so as to prepare ourselves for whatever God has in store for us. That is one clear notion of preaching on his part, which we might say is a preaching for repentance. But we also have him teaching verses from the scripture, which he quotes, verses from Isaiah or other passages, and again dealing with the Son of God, whatever that means exactly, referring again, apparently the Messiah, or some equivalent redeemer figure of the end time. It's hard to make sense out of all these different things together.

We also of course have the parables, which seem to be a kind of social commentary on the world of Galilee. We occasionally meet in these parables the land owner and the tenant farmers or the master and the slaves, which may be veiled or not so veiled social commentary....

We put all these different things together, it's not a simple case where we can say Jesus came and preached X, as if somehow that X is clear and consistent and unambiguous. We have different messages that are ascribed to him in the gospel text. And especially once you come to Jerusalem, and we have Jesus confronting the priests of Jerusalem and the cleansing of the Temple scene, it's hard to figure out exactly what all of this means. The only common denominator seems to be the sense that the end of the world is at hand, or the end of history is at hand....

What scriptures was Jesus teaching from?

In the first century of the common era, Jews possessed a collection of sacred books, the books that we will come to call the Bible or Christians will come to call the Old Testament. Jesus apparently knew many, some, all of these books. The synagogue service on the Sabbath would consist of communal group study of various collections from these books. Jesus in his teaching referred frequently to the Laws of Moses, by which we mean the Pentateuch, the five books of the Torah, and refers frequently to the prophecies of Isaiah or passages from the Psalms. These are the most widely quoted books in the New Testament. The important thing to remember of course is that Jesus is not reading the New Testament, he is not preaching the New Testament as a book. These books do not yet exist.... Whatever it was that Jesus spoke, he was speaking words of his own, he was speaking words of common wisdom, or he was referring to or explicating verses from the Hebrew Bible, specifically from the five books of Moses, from the Torah, or more especially the prophet Isaiah or the book of the Psalms. These will have been the stuff out of which Jesus will have created his teaching and his preaching. And it is only later of course, much later, that we begin to have the creation of books that you and I call the gospels, or you and I call the New Testament. This is a product of, these are the products of the late first and early second century of our era.

John Dominic Crossan

Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies DePaul University


The core of Jesus' preaching is the kingdom of God. And the difficulty is for us to hear that term as 100 percent political and 100 percent religious. Not one, not the other. In the first century those were inextricably intertwined.... "The kingdom," if you use that expression in the first century, would have meant the Roman kingdom, it meant the Roman Empire. When you talked about the Kingdom of God..., you were making a very caustic criticism of the Roman Empire, and you were saying that its system was not the system of God.

Well, that seems to kind of limit the relevance of what Jesus had to say, if part of his preaching was considered [directed at] the Roman Empire; is it more universal than that, in your opinion?

By talking about the Kingdom of God, but by focusing it on the Roman Empire, what Jesus was focusing on was the systemic injustice, which are really the normal ways that life is run. The Roman Empire was no worse than any other empire we've ever had. And in fact, what we are criticizing there is really the normal life of discrimination and oppression and persecution and hierarchy, all the normalcies of life are what are being criticized. It applies to us; if Jesus was here today, we are Rome.


I might say that the core of his preaching are these sort of enigmatic sayings of his.... When you get back to his doctrine, if that's the right word, what do you arrive at and what you make of this?

The sayings of Jesus are very often enigmatic, only because of their lack of context. If, for example, you say "the last shall be first and the first shall be last," that can mean almost anything taken out of context. It can be a banal cliche, or it could be a call to rebellion. Put back into the context of an occupied country, a Jewish homeland occupied by the Romans, the urbanization of lower Galilee, these statements such as "blessed are the destitute" take on an acute religio-political edge and are not quite so enigmatic as they may sound to us.


Jesus is most famous, I think, for parables and aphorisms. And both of them are really ways of teaching ordinary people. Now, if you read them in the New Testament, it might take a minute to read; I imagine them as maybe an hour long interaction between Jesus and an audience, who are probably talking back to him, and interrupting him and debating with him and disagreeing with him and fighting with him. And the parable is a way, really, of getting them to think. It's a way of provoking people to think for themselves....

[For example], Jesus tells a parable about somebody who takes a mustard seed, plants it in the ground, and it grows up to be a great tree, or a bush at least, a weed, though, in plain language. Now, imagine an audience reacting to that. Presumably the Kingdom is like this, and you have to figure out, "What's it like? You mean, the Kingdom is big? But you just said it's a big weed. So why don't you say a big cedar of Lebanon? Why a big weed? And besides, this mustard, we're not sure we like this mustard. It's very dangerous in our fields. We try to control it. We try to contain it. Why do you mean the Kingdom is something that the people try to control and contain?" Every reaction in the audience ... the audience fighting with themselves, as it were, answering back to Jesus is doing exactly what he wants. It's making them think, not about mustard, of course, but about the Kingdom. But the trap is that this is a very provocative, even a weird, image for the Kingdom. To say the Kingdom is like a cedar of Lebanon, everyone would yawn, say, "Of course." It's like a mustard seed ... "What's going on here?"

Is this [style of teaching] unique to Jesus?

The parables are unique only in a very limited sense, in that the primary teaching of Jesus is not taking texts out of the Hebrew scriptures and explaining them, blasting them, commenting on them. What he is doing is telling a perfectly ordinary story. And using that as the major teaching. "The Kingdom of God is like this." Now you have to think, well, I hear the story, but how on earth is the Kingdom of God like that? That's your job as the hearer. So it's open to anyone. And that's, I think, the point of the parable.

So right from the start his teaching depends on interpretation?

If you teach in parables, you give yourself to interpretation. If you really want to tell people what to think you preach them a sermon. If you tell them a parable then you're leaving yourself open, inevitably, to interpretation.

L. Michael White

Professor of Classics and Director of the Religious Studies Program University of Texas at Austin


From a strictly historical perspective, then, we don't really know all that much about the ministry of Jesus. It might have been very brief, depending on which gospel you read, it might have been as short as only a few months or as long as three years, but if we take the smaller version of the story, if we take the more limited historical perspective that Mark's gospel offers us, for example, Jesus seems to have started preaching in the Galilee. He's associated with cities, smallish cities like Capernaum on the Sea of Galilee, market towns, fishing centers and so on. And he deals with some farmers and some city folks but that's about all we hear....

His public ministry, though, seems to have focused especially around the working of miracles, casting out demons, healing people. He was known as a miracle worker. He travels around some but mostly in the Galilee. And, at least in Mark's gospel, he never even thinks of going to Jerusalem until the very last week of his life. So the geographical frame of reference of Jesus' life, at least in Mark's gospel, is limited to the Galilean context for the most part. And that's very different than John's gospel which has Jesus in Jerusalem from a very early stage. Now from a historical perspective, these two stories don't mesh together very well, and we have to be very careful about what we say about the life of Jesus....[I]t's probably better to be safe than sorry and say "What's the least we can say? What can we really know?" And then work from there in talking about how the stories developed.

It sounds as if, when you come right down to it, you really can't know very much about it.

We don't know much about the life of Jesus in the final analysis: We know he was a public figure, we know he gathered some kind of a following, we know he eventually went to Jerusalem and there he was arrested and executed. The rest of the story is filled by the gospels by talking about his life as a significant life. But the minimalist perspective of the historian has to say, it's a life that we don't know in detail until his death.

Arrest and Execution

Jesus' tumultuous last days in Jerusalem and the actual historical evidence of the crucifixion.

L. Michael White

Professor of Classics and Director of the Religious Studies Program University of Texas at Austin


Now why did he leave Galilee and head for Jerusalem?

Jesus apparently at some point makes the decision to leave his home territory and move to Jerusalem. Precisely why he did that is not clear. It would appear that he had some sense of mission and that's clearly what the gospels suggest. That he felt compelled to go to Jerusalem. More than that is not entirely clear from the historical perspective but it seems that Jerusalem, where the temple was located, perhaps on one of the Holy Days, one of the festivals was the attraction for him to go and participate....

The traditional story has Jesus going to Jerusalem at the time of the festival of Passover. Passover is one of the two most important Jewish Holy Days or festivals in the entire year. On the one hand, coming in the spring it celebrates harvest. On the other hand, it commemorates one of the most important historical events in the Jewish tradition. Namely the deliverance from slavery in Egypt, the story of Moses and the Exodus. So it is a celebration of Jewish identity centered in the Temple itself.

Now to go to Jerusalem at one of these pilgrim feasts, as they're sometimes called, where everyone is expected to show up at some point during their life, means to join a big crowd. This is one of the really important holidays of all Jewish life. Especially in the ancient times when the Temple was standing and the Temple was the centerpiece of the whole event. If you were a pilgrim coming to Jerusalem in these days you would walk through the streets of this magnificent city, many of which are crowded. Very much like a Roman city in certain places. Very much like an older city, a Greek or even Near Eastern city in other places. But as you approach the Temple mound you come up to this massive, monumental complex that we call the Temple and there are grand staircases up which one can go and get up to the top. From the southern end they're also tunnels much like the way one goes into a football stadium today, where you proceed with all the others up through the tunnel and you come out up on top of the platform in the outer precincts of the temple complex. Now here we could imagine all kinds of people milling about. It's Passover after all. It's a holy time and so they would have come for various reasons. Some just to see, some curiosity seekers, and some there for their own religious devotion, but the temple is going to be where almost everyone would go at some point in time.

Now how did the Roman Governor respond to the atmosphere here?

It may be the case that the Roman authorities became particularly antsy at times of these festivals when there was the potential for increased political insurrection and agitation. It may be just a function of the number of people there. The size of the crowds that made them nervous, but the authorities, going even back into Herod's day and certainly under the Roman governors, tended to keep a close eye on things like that. It is alleged by Josephus in fact that Herod and then the governors after him actually locked up the garments of the high priest and only gave them out on these holy days so that there was not the occasion for religious activities prompt popular unrest. And yet at Passover they clearly are going to be in all their regalia, and this is going to be a lot of pomp and circumstance. So it's probably the case that [on] any of these holy day celebrations, that the authorities are at least going to be on careful watch and the civic magistrates of Jerusalem themselves are certainly going to be concerned with this....

So what do the Romans do?

If the Romans were convinced that the mob scene might break out into open rebellion they might shut the whole thing down. They had done so in the past, and closing the Temple or keeping the people away certainly would not have been out of the question for them.

It's probably the case that the soldiers that were garrisoned in Jerusalem were kept close to the Temple. If not in the Temple proper. Now there is an outer court in the Temple called the Court of gentiles where anyone could go including Roman soldiers and it's very possible that there were the local police officials or the odd Roman soldier standing around. But in all probability most of the Roman soldiers would have been stationed in the nearby fortress called the Antonia which literally stands adjacent to the Temple complex and kind of looks over it. They could keep an eye on things there and of course everyone in the Temple knew they were there too.


What's the traditional account of what Jesus did?

According to the traditional story, Jesus came to the Temple during the Passover season, and going up into this mob scene that you can imagine up there, proceeded to do something quite odd. He started to take the tables of the money changers in the Temple. People who would have been selling animals for sacrifice, or doing money changing, as it were, in order for people to buy their proper contributions for the Temple... Jesus is portrayed as taking these money tables, turning them over, kicking the people about, driving them out, even in one case with a whip, and claiming that to buy and sell in the house of the Lord is a transgression against God.

What are the problems with [this traditional account]?

The difficulty with the story of Jesus and the money changers in the Temple is that the story is told in slightly different ways in different gospels. For example in Mark's gospel and in fact in Matthew, Mark and Luke, all three, this event occurs in the last week of Jesus' life and is clearly the event which brings him to the attention both of the Temple leadership and the Roman authorities. It is in effect what gets him killed. John's gospel, interestingly enough, though, puts the story of the cleansing of the Temple as the very first episode in Jesus' public career. More than two years earlier, and no mention is made of it near his death. So there are a few problems with the story itself, although it is one of the stories that appears in all the gospels, so something is going on there in terms of interest in what Jesus did at the Temple.

But let's think for a moment what Jesus might have been doing if we take the story seriously as told in the gospels. To cleanse the Temple of these money changers is an act of protest against something apparently, but what? Now there's no reason to say from a perspective of the way the Temple was run that there's anything wrong with the money changers in the Temple, of buying and selling things that are part of the religious activities of the Temple. In fact it was an absolutely necessary activity within the way the Temple was run. So whatever the protest represents it must be a protest against some sort of idea of what the Temple should be, that they represent as having gone awry. It may be the case that Jesus represents the same kind of criticism that the Phariseesthemselves would have brought against the Temple, that in fact the kind of piety that happens only once a year at Passover is something that ought to happen every day and every week in your private lives. In that sense, Jesus' criticism of the Temple sounds very much like the Pharisees wanting to bring piety home. Wanting to make it much more personal. Another possibility though is that Jesus sounds more like the Essenes who were really criticizing the whole way the Temple is run as having become too worldly. Too caught up in the money of the day, or maybe just too Roman, and if that's the case then his actions look much more like an act of political subversion.

These are like three completely different ways of reading the same event.

Jesus comes across differently depending on which way you look at the story....


Now what kind of evidence do we have for what really did happen?

What happened to Jesus after the Temple incident is a bit unclear. It appears he's actually arrested, perhaps by the Temple guard or perhaps by Roman soldiers themselves. He probably had a trial but whether it was an extensive courtroom hearing or just a quick and dirty justice before the tribunal of the governor is not clear as well. But I think we have to realize that the evidence that we have by the mode of execution, by virtue of the trial stories as told in the gospels and by virtue of what appears in the story of his actual death, suggest that it ultimately fell to Pilate and Pilate alone to make the decision on what would happen to this figure Jesus.

Is it likely or plausible that the Jewish authorities did hand him over to the Romans?

What the role of the Jewish authority is in the actual arrest and execution of Jesus is difficult to say. Clearly from the traditional stories in the gospels they have a heavy role, and it might very well be that the Temple leadership were concerned with the kind of unrest that Jesus might cause. My own feeling is that there's very little role by the Jewish authorities. Maybe the Temple leadership at most but there's probably no direct historical evidence for an actual trial before the Sanhedrin and the Jewish leadership and clearly the decision to execute on a capital crime was a Roman decision. Certainly it is the case that the idea of the masses of the Jewish people gathered around the Temple had some voice in the death of Jesus is not part of history but a legacy of some later tradition.


What do we know historically about crucifixion as a method of execution? How is it carried out? It's not just another myth?

No, crucifixion was something very, very real. There are too many ancient sources that talk about it. Josephus himself describes a number of crucifixions that took place in Judea at about this time. So we can be fairly confident [of the crucifixion] as a historical event because it was a very commonplace affair in those days and very gruesome. Now different medical historians and other archaeological kinds of research have given us several different ways of understanding the actual practice of crucifixion. In all probability the feet were nailed either directly through the ankles or through the heel bone to the lower post of the cross. The hands or the arms might be tied rather than nailed. It depends but it suggests really that crucifixion was a very slow and agonizing form of death. It's not from bleeding. It's not from the wounds themselves that the death occurs. It's rather a suffocation because one can't hold oneself up enough to breathe properly, and so over time really it's really the exposure to the elements and the gradual loss of breath that produces death. It's an agonizing death at that.

... [E]vidence of crucifixion in archaeological form has been rare until the discovery that was made in recent times of an actual bone from a coffin which was found to have a nail still stuck in it. This is apparently someone who actually did experience crucifixion. .... Now what apparently happened was the nail that had been used to put him on the cross by being placed through his heel bone had stuck against a knot or bent in some way and so they couldn't pull it out without really causing massive tearing of the tissue and so they left it in, and as a result we have one of those few pieces of evidence that show us what the practice was really like.

What's the significance of a sign that they hung up on the cross?

When we look at the stories of Jesus' crucifixion in the gospels the different phases, the different episodes that occur between the arrest and the garden of Gethsemane, the trial before the Sanhedrin, the trial before Pilate, the final kind of public scene where the decision is made to send Jesus to the cross. Of all of those episodes, most of them seem to be the product, really, of literary imagination, where people later on, at the time that the gospels are being written, are trying to fill in the gaps in the story, but the one thing that most scholars do agree on is a historical artifact that tells us something about what really happened to Jesus. ...[T]he plaque that was nailed to the cross which identified him as Jesus, King of the Jews. This piece of evidence suggests that he was executed by the Roman authorities on some charge of political insurrection. Now I don't for a moment think that Pilate would have been worried that Jesus could have challenged the power of the empire. That's not the point. The point is any challenge to Roman authority, any challenge to the peace of Rome would have been met with a swift and violent response.

And that's what happened?

And that seems to be what happened with Jesus... It's probably the case that the plaque that was nailed to the cross is one of the few clear pieces of historical evidence that we have. Precisely because it reflects a legitimate charge upon which the Romans would have called for execution and it stands out so starkly, and in fact it stands in some tension with some of the rest of the story, that it could only be supposed to have been left there because it reflects one of the central events that really happened. The plaque which names him as Jesus, the king of the Jews, suggests that the charge on which he was executed was one of political insurrection. A threat to the Pax Romana but he's also now a victim of the Pax Romana.

Allen D. Callahan

Associate Professor of New Testament, Harvard Divinity School


[Why was Jesus killed?] The Roman answer is good enough for me. He was causing trouble. He constituted a security risk and he was dealt with the way the Romans always deal with security risks in the provinces. This was a matter of not even so much politics, as policy. This is how the Romans handled trouble-makers, even if they didn't intend to make trouble.

One of the questions that runs like a leitmotif in modern New Testament studies is whether Jesus was fomenting revolution, ...[whether] Jesus' self-concept had to do with being a revolutionary or being someone who was overturning the Roman establishment. For the moment anyway, I'm probably willing to leave that question unanswered. I think the Roman answer is the one that's important, and that is, whatever he was doing, it was considered dangerous enough that he'd be crucified for it. And, that's exactly what they did.


The Romans had a genius for brutality. They were good at building bridges and they were good at killing people, and they were better at it than anybody in the Mediterranean basin had ever seen before....

Crucifixion was considered such a humiliating form of punishment that if you were a Roman citizen, of course, you couldn't be crucified, no matter what the offense. It was usually the execution of choice... for slaves and people considered beneath the dignity of Roman citizenship. It was a form of public terrorism.... You would be punished by being hung out publicly, naked until you died. And this sent a very powerful message to everybody else in those quarters that if you do or even think about doing what this guy's accused of having done, you, too, can wind up this way and it was very effective; excruciating, perhaps the most excruciating form of capital punishment that we know.

Does the manner of Jesus' death effectively tell us who actually condemned him? I mean, sometimes people say the Jews killed Jesus. Is a crucifixion incompatible with that?

Absolutely.... It was a Roman job, there's no mistake about that. There has been some examination of the question of whether Jews... actually crucified people in any circumstances. There's some evidence that crucifixion did take place; members of the Pharisee party at one point were crucified, maybe a century and a half before Jesus. But that's disputed. It's a Roman form of execution and it was a public execution on a political charge.

Shaye I.D. Cohen

Samuel Ungerleider Professor of Judaic Studies and Professor of Religious Studies Brown University


What is the story about Jesus' final days?

The gospel stories about Jesus' entry into Jerusalem, the dramatic confrontation in the Temple, the celebration of Passover with his disciples and the rest, and crucifixion, of course, are very dramatic; we all know the ending when the story begins, and that sort of increases its melodramatic value or its drama or pathos. And no doubt for pious Christians the meaning or the significance ofthe story. For the historians this is one set of problems after another as we try to figure out exactly what happened or what might have happened and try to understand what happened.

And there are certainly no end to puzzles ... just to begin with a famous incident of Jesus confronting the money changers in the Temple, what does this mean? There have been two classic interpretations. One is that this is Jesus' symbolic overturning of the Temple itself, the rejection of the Temple, that is to say the rejection of Judaism... in favor of a new religion that he's about to introduce. Well, that's a wonderful Christian interpretation, of course, but it's entirely anachronistic and entirely inappropriate in the setting if we think about Jesus himself, as a Jew, as a Jewish teacher and a preacher and a man who lived and died in the social community of Judaism. It's much more likely, then, that he's not overturning in the sense of destroying the Temple, he is trying to purify the Temple. He is preparing the Temple for its new, improved, purified state that will come about shortly, in the end of days.... Passover, of course, is a festival of redemption. The time when God set the Israelites free from Egypt a millennia before, and a time when presumably God would yet set them free again. So this is all in anticipation of the great, great redemption of the end time. What we have then is Jesus making the Temple ready for its new role in the end time. He's purifying the Temple. It is then an act which is very much within the confines of Judaism, very much within the confines of the Jewish belief.

So it was not an act of political protest?

Was overturning the tables of the money changers a political act? Well, of course it's a political act. Everything is a political act. That is to say that somebody who is taking on the status quo, rejecting authority or rejecting the social norms, rejecting social values to some degree. Yes, of course, that's a political act. But by the same token it is a political act which needs to be understood in religious terms. Just to state the obvious, in antiquity, politics and religion cannot be distinguished. We think that these are separate categories because we are the products of the 18th century deistic philosophers who wrote our Constitution and who constructed our political society for us. But in antiquity nobody for a moment thought politics and religion were distinct. And of course, every political act is religious and every religious act is political.

John Dominic Crossan

Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies DePaul University


Passover in the occupied Jewish homeland was a tinderbox situation because they were celebrating freedom from imperial oppression in Egypt, while they were under imperial oppression from Rome. So, a large number of Jews in a concentrated area would be a very dangerous situation. And we would have to presume at Passover, that there would have to be certain standing orders, let's say, between the Roman Prefect who was in charge and probably came down to Jerusalem for the feasts and the High Priest, who had to collaborate with the Roman Governor, for what to do if anyone causes a riot or incites a riot, or does anything out of order during Passover, especially Passover....

I would consider the incident in the Temple historical. But this is also very delicate because we're inclined to talk about the cleansing of the Temple and we often see it as Christianity judging Judaism. Try and imagine the Temple for what it was. It was both the House of God and the seat of collaboration. It was the High Priest, Caiaphas, who had to collaborate... with the Roman occupation. Now how would Jesus as a Galilean peasant, see the Temple? I think with ferocious ambiguity. On the one had, it was the seat of God and you would die to defend it from, say, a Roman Emperor like Caligula putting a statue in there. But what would you do if it was also the place where Caiaphas collaborated with the Romans? Was the Temple really the house of God anymore? What Jesus does is not cleanse the Temple. He symbolically destroys it....

And what happens following the incident in the Temple?

The most difficult thing for us after 2000 years is to bring our imagination down when we're looking at the passion of Jesus. Because we want to think the whole world was watching, or all of the Roman Empire was watching, or all of Jerusalem was watching. I take it for granted there were standing orders between Pilate and Caiaphas about how to handle, lower class especially, dissidents who cause problems at Passover. If it was an upper class person, a very important aristocrat, of course, they would be shipped off to Rome for judgment. That would be handled completely differently. What would happen to a peasant who caused trouble in the Temple and maybe endangered a riot at Passover? Standing orders, I would take it, crucifixion, as fast as possible. Hang him out as a warning. We're not going to have any riots at Passover. That's, I think, what happened to Jesus. What happened in the Temple caused his death. And I don't imagine any, for example as we find in John's gospel, dialogues between Jesus and Pilate.

Now, as Jesus hangs on the cross, can we say what was in his mind? Is there any significance in what he said while was hanging on the cross? What scraps of evidence are there that can tell us something about him and how he died?

When you say crucifixion, you say immediately two things. Lower class, because the Romans were not in the custom of crucifying upper class. That was too dangerous. People might get ideas when they saw that aristocrats died just like everyone else. So, lower class and subversion. It tells us that Jesus was perceived, at least by his executioners, as a lower class subversive. And that's very important. The details of the last words of Jesus, for example, we're totally in the realm of gospel, and not of history. Mark tells us that Jesus died being mocked and in agony and I think Mark is writing for the experience of people in the 70's who are dying like that and who need the consolation that Jesus had died that way before, feeling abandoned by God. When you come to John, you have a totally different scenario. Jesus dies when he's good and ready. His last words are to fulfill the scriptures. When that is done he gives up his spirit. There is no mockery, of course. There really is no agony. There almost is no pain. These are different gospel visions of the brute historical fact that Jesus would have died in agony on the cross....


Do we have any evidence or any indication of what the disciples must have thought, or what the Jesus movement made of the death of their leader? Did they think they had been following the wrong person?

If I could dare to put myself in the mind of those disciples on the day after [the crucifixion], I would think the primary thing in their mind is not, "Are the Romans going to come after us?" but, "Is God going to come after us? Does this mean a divine judgment on Jesus? That he has not spoken for God? That all of this about the Kingdom of God is all wrong... We're lost." I think what they have to do, first of all, is not try and find out information about what happened. That's not the first thing on their mind. Survival, not information, is what's on their mind.

The only place they can go, eventually, is into the Hebrew Scriptures, into their tradition, and find out, "Is it possible that the elect one, the Messiah, the righteous one, the Holy One,... is it possible that such a one could be oppressed, persecuted and executed?" They go into the Hebrew Scriptures, and of course, what they find is that it's almost like a job description of being God's righteous one, to be persecuted and even executed. And slowly then, the searching of the Scriptures convinces them that Jesus is still held, as he has always been, in the hands of God....

Paula Fredriksen

William Goodwin Aurelio Professor of the Appreciation of Scripture, Boston University


It's unclear how he actually gets into trouble. He wouldn't have wandered into the crosshairs of the Priests, because compared to how the Pharisees are criticizing the Priests, what Jesus is doing is fairy minimal.... If he had been complaining about the Priests, or criticizing them, or criticizing the way the Temple was being run, this would just [be] business as usual; this is one of the aspects of being a Jew in second Temple Judaism. So it's really quite unclear how he would have gotten into trouble for religious reasons, which are the reasons the gospels are concerned to construct.

I think we have to settle firmly on the historical fact that he was crucified and therefore, killed by Rome.... I would prefer, rather than try to invent or import some kind of improbable religious reason for him getting into trouble and then trying to explain how a religious authority could somehow seduce or cajole Pilate into obliging them and executing Jesus, I prefer a simpler hypothesis. To think that he was turned over to Rome because there was a perceived danger, that Pilate, who has a terrible reputation for the way he behaved when he went up to Jerusalem for these pilgrimage holidays, was on the verge of some kind of muscular crowd control. People would get hurt or killed when Pilate felt so moved. And perhaps for this reason Jesus was turned over to Rome, and sure enough, Pilate, consistent with the record we know of him elsewhere, kills Jesus. But Pilate killed lots of people.

But, apparently not Jesus' followers. This was different.

That's right. Jesus' followers are not rounded up and killed. Only Jesus is killed. That's one of the few firm facts we have about it. What this means, at the very least, is that nobody perceived Jesus as the dangerous political leader of a revolutionary movement. If anybody had thought he was a leader of a revolutionary movement, then more than Jesus, probably, would have been killed....

I think there's some kind of cooperation between the chief priests and Pilate. The chief priests always had to cooperate with Rome because it's their job. They're mediating between the imperial government and the people. Particularly at Passover, which is a holiday that vibrates with this incredible historical memory of national creation and freedom. And there's Rome and the Roman soldiers standing among the colonnade of the Temple looking down at Jews celebrating this. So it's a politically and religiously electric holiday. And it's in this context that Jesus is turned over to Rome, lest there be, I think, some kind of popular activity. The gospels depict him as preaching about the Kingdom of God in the Temple courtyard in the days before Passover. That could be enough. That could be enough right there.

What was he saying?

I don't know what he was actually saying about the Kingdom of God, but if we can infer from the bits and pieces we have from the gospel stories, and also what we have in Josephus and other Jewish contemporary records of what other Jews are saying about the Kingdom of God, he might have been saying that it was on its way. That it was coming. That perhaps it was even coming that Passover. And we're seeing this now in American culture with certain kinds of fundamentalist forms of Christianity. If you really think the end of the world is at hand, that has a kind of liberating and frantic energy that goes along with it. It's not good for quiet crowds and social stability. And given the emotional and religious tenor of this holiday, anyway, to have somebody preaching that the Kingdom of God was really on its way, perhaps ... within that very holiday... [is]the equivalent of shouting, "Fire!" in a crowded theater. It would be enough to get somebody in trouble. Even if everybody knew perfectly well that he was not a revolutionary leader.


Let's go back to Pilate for a moment. Would Jesus have stood out as being special and unique in the eyes of Pilate?

Pilate was not a happy choice as Prefect of Judea. He had a reputation as a man who had sticky fingers. In a period where graft and corruption was the prerogative of a provincial official, he still had a high profile as somebody who was corrupt. He had a reputation for executing untried prisoners, for venality and theft.... He's not somebody you'd want to get on the wrong side of. Pilate occasioned riots in Jerusalem. He would get nervous when there were crowds of Jews. And of course he was legally responsible to be up in Jerusalem when it was the most crowded of all. He would leave this very nice, plush, seaside town in Caesarea, which was, you know, a nice pagan city. Plenty of pagan altars. All the stuff he wanted. And had to go up to Jerusalem where all these Jews were congregating and stay there for crowd control until the holiday was over. He was in a bad mood already by the time he got to town. And Passover would fray anybody's nerves.

[And] remember in this period, government depends on spies. It's particularly [important] if you're an occupying power. You need to have spies to know what's going on. People reporting came back, "Lookit, there's somebody who's really getting people excited and agitated talking about a Kingdom of God." Pilate doesn't care about theological niceties. Pilate doesn't even care about legal niceties. This is why ... ultimately, he's fired for his corruption and incompetence. Hearing that somebody is a trouble maker would be enough. Boom. He's dead. I think that's probably what happened with Jesus....

Searching for Jesus

What has propelled and influenced generations of scholars in their efforts to separate fact from legend about Jesus?

Elizabeth Clark

John Carlisle Kilgo Professor of Religion and Director of the Graduate Program in Religion Duke University

The quest for the historical Jesus has gone on for about three centuries. Now, the classical study of this was done by Albert Schweitzer, at the turn to the 20th century, in his book, "The Quest of the Historical Jesus." What he showed was that from the 18th century on, the attempt to find out who Jesus really was had been conditioned all the way through by the needs and wants and desires of the people who were writing the book.... So, Jesus turned out in the 19th century, for example, to look very much like somebody who would be happy with a form of relatively liberal social Christianity, such as might have been practiced in various western societies, at that time. I think that this approach to the study of Jesus actually is correct in the sense that even the early Christians looked at Jesus in a way that suited their needs for the development of the church and the Christian religion at the time. The quest for historicity, though, in the way we think of it, is more a modern quest. I think that people in the early church were very eager to use the stories and sayings of Jesus for purposes of moral edification, for building up the church, exhorting congregations, and so on but they really were not wracked with this question of historicity and was it authentic, in the way that people in the 19th and 20th century, particularly, have been.

You refer to Schweitzer. What did he think he found, what did he make of Jesus?

Albert Schweitzer concluded at the end of this enormous study of all these lives of Jesus, that the Jesus that might have been the Jesus of the synoptic gospels was an apocalyptic figure who preached a fiery message of the coming of the Kingdom of God, who separated families, who told people they should have no occupations but go out and follow him and so on. He had to conclude this was quite irrelevant to the needs and wants of Western Christians at the turn to the 20th century. This was not a form of Christianity that was compatible with his day and age. And he devised, in keeping with many of the trends of his time and German Protestantism, a kind of simple message of how Jesus preached - the Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of Man - some elements of social justice and that's sort of what he got out of it. So, he, in his own way was kind of shaping and changing for his own needs and those of German Christians of his time, a portrait of Jesus, or a message of Jesus that he thought in fact, was maybe somewhat different, from what the New Testament, itself contained.

Shaye I.D. Cohen

Samuel Ungerleider Professor of Judaic Studies and Professor of Religious Studies Brown University


What did Jesus imagine his role as being in this new order?

What did Jesus imagine himself to be, or what did Jesus think himself to be? This is another mystery, another question which has bedeviled the minds of many interpreters for a very long time. We really don't know. We have the famous set of passages in the gospels where he says, "Whom do men say that I am?" You know, he turns to the disciples and we get a series of answers. "You're one of the prophets, you're Jeremiah." And whom do you say that I am? "We think you are the son of the living God." Well, we don't really know what to make of these passages. It's clear that the passages show that Jesus was seen by his followers in many different ways. That strikes me as imminently reasonable and imminently historical. He will have been seen or interpreted differently by different people. Some will have seen him as a prophet. Others as a holy man. Others as John the Baptist returning from the dead. Or a wide variety of possibilities. But how he saw himself is really a mystery to us, because that is hidden from us. It is impossible to disentangle in the New Testament accounts what the later church believed Jesus to be, or the later church believed Jesus thought himself to be, from what the historical Jesus actually thought himself to be. I don't see any way to... distinguish very clearly and securely what exactly is the historical core and how it then gradually develops in the history of the church. That is lost to us. And I don't know how anybody can know what Jesus thought about himself.

If you're not a practicing, believing Christian...

And I'm not, I state for the record. Yes, a shocker. If you're not a pious believing Christian then why should we care about Jesus?


Well, the story of Jesus, his life, teachings and death, are of interest to me on two counts. One, I'm a historian of Judaism in antiquity, and Jesus was probably the most famous Jew of antiquity and in many respects one of the most interesting Jews of antiquity. And consequently it's a fascinating historical puzzle to try to figure out and understand exactly what this man did and, almost as important, what he didn't do. That is to say to distinguish between the historical Jesus and the Jesus who will play an important role in the on-going developments of Christianity. But also for me as a Jew, Jesus is important. Jesus has played an important role in the world history in the creation of Christianity. Christianity, in turn, has had a major impact, either positive or negative, on Jews and on Judaism, and clearly a better understanding of Christianity is important also to me as a Jew. The historical information about Jesus, therefore, is precious to me as a way of understanding not just the historical puzzle about Jesus, but also to understand the nature of Judaism and of its varieties...

You suggested that there's really very little that we can know in a firm historical sense about the real Jesus, and yet Jesus looms so large on the landscape of faith and culture and history. So who is this? This person whom we know only by bits and pieces?

I suppose I'd be saying the obvious if I said that we're interested in Jesus because of Christianity. But for Christianity, Jesus would simply be a minor historical puzzle, no more complex or difficult, say, than trying to understand the nature of the Roman Emperor Tiberius, his contemporary, who also exists for us as a puzzle in the historical record. We also have conflicting evidence about his personality and politics, but for us that is just a historical puzzle, and only for historians to worry about. The rest of us don't concern ourselves about the personality, life and times of the Emperor Tiberius. So, but for Christianity, Jesus would be just a puzzle, a small historical puzzle of concern only to a small group of people. But obviously, Jesus is not just that. Because for Christians Jesus is a lot more than just a historical puzzle. And because of Christianity, because of its growth and its importance in the history of the world thereby retrospectively the historical puzzle of Jesus now emerges as a big puzzle. Not a small puzzle for historians, but a big puzzle for us all....

Is there an irony in all of this that here's the kind of person that history does not normally remember, who has emerged in such a profound way?

In our own age we've come to realize in the late 20th century that truth is very elusive. That there is probably no such thing as objective truth... we realize that there are many truths, and different people construct truths differently. And the same event can be true in different ways, for different people for different reasons. We understand this now, and we realize that the pursuit of the 19th century historicists looking for history as it actually happened, or the objective truth..., is something that we will never attain, and it's probably ultimately unattainable. That doesn't mean of course that we can't try. It doesn't mean of course that we can't realize that there may well be many different kinds of truths about Jesus. And that it is interesting to see how we construct different portraits of the historical Jesus.

But what's more important than the historical Jesus, of course, is the impact of the image of Jesus on history. It's less important to me to know exactly what Jesus said or did in any given year or actually what happened to him, than to understand the impact that shifting images [of] Jesus have had on Christianity. That is a real historical question, right? That one we can discuss and analyze as a real historical question with real historical answers. So even if the ultimate historical Jesusis unknown or unknowable, nevertheless, the Jesus of myth or the Jesus of image, the "believed in" Jesus, or the Christ of faith, is a historical figure, because we can trace that figure as influence, as impact upon later Christians from the first century to our own....

It sounds as if almost every generation, whether it's believers or scholars, has a kind of impulse to reinvent Jesus, to make Jesus once again in order to understand him.

Absolutely. Modern scholars have routinely reinvented Jesus or have routinely rediscovered in Jesus that which they want to find, be it rationalist, liberal Christianity of the 19th century, be it apocalyptic miracle workers in the 20th, be it revolutionaries, or be it whatever it is that they're looking for, scholars have been able to find in Jesus almost anything that they want to find.Even in our own age scholars are still doing this. People are still trying to figure out the authentic sayings of Jesus..., all our middle class liberal Protestant scholars who will take a vote and decide what Jesus should have said, or might have said. And no doubt their votes reflect their own deep seated, very sincere, very authentic Christian values, which I don't gainsay for a moment. But their product is, of course, bedeviled by the problem that we are unable to have any secure criteria by which to distinguish the real from the mythic or what we want to be so from what actually was so....

One standard scholarly approach is to say that anything that is really odd or really eccentric that's attributed to Jesus must be authentic. Because no one would attribute anything really odd or eccentric to him, and therefore it is so. Its very oddity and eccentricity are testimony to its truth or to its historical veracity. This is a rather peculiar kind of argument, and what it means, of course, is that the only kind of sense that will emerge as historical are the man bites dog kind of sentences. Whereas the bulk of what he might have said, the dog bites man kind of sentences, will of course be rejected as simple commonplaces, the sort of thing that would be invented or projected upon Jesus by his followers. The result then is even if this method has some truth to it, it's going to wind up yielding by definition a very peculiar portrait of Jesus at odds with the world around him, and at odds with society around him, and at odds with the Judaism around him. Now perhaps some scholars want the Jesus like that, precisely because he is, after all, the founder of Christianity which we want to imagine is at odds with the world around it, with the Jewish world around him. But obviously, from the point of view of method this is a very peculiar method indeed, and seems to assume in advance the answer that it's trying to achieve.

John Dominic Crossan

Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies DePaul University

Can you describe the work of the Jesus Seminar?


The Jesus Seminar does three different things; two of them are totally regular, and one is quite surprising. It was founded by Bob Funk in 1985 to bring together scholars to talk about the historical Jesus, to come to some decision; because he says scholars never come to decisions, and to make it public. That's the most important thing. Scholars coming together happens all the time at conventions. They sometimes even vote on decisions; for example, Greek bible texts had to be voted on to see what text goes in there. But to go public, that's something very new, and Funk's argument was it was an ethical necessity that what we all knew was going on within scholarship and did within our scholarly journals and meetings should be made clear to the public, not wait for a hundred years when we tell you the decisions; come right in on the process. So, the function of the Jesus Seminar from the beginning was to be public.

Therefore, when we voted, we decided to do it not by simply raising our hands or any other way but to use colored beads; drop them into a little box, and vote. And what we were voting on is when we print this gospel, will it be red, that is, we're very certain Jesus said this; will it be pink, we're not so certain; will it be gray, we're very uncertain; and black, the original color, meaning that this will stay in this color because it does not represent anything we think Jesus said. Those were not value judgments as far as we were concerned. They were historical judgments. But the essential thing which is important to understand about the Jesus Seminar, it was programatically public, and the beads were designed so they could be visualized; they could literally be seen by a camera as distinct from raising your hands or writing on a text or something like that. The going public is the ethical question.

Could you compare the work of the Jesus Seminar with what Jefferson set out to do?

First of all, Jefferson was only one person, and he said "what I like is in; what I don't like is out," and that's a perfectly reasonable proposition. Unfortunately, if you're forty people around the table, you have to say well, we can't do it that way. You have at least to give me an argument why what you want in should be in, and so having at least forty people, fifty people, at each meeting of the Jesus Seminar, we had to justify at least our arguments, and convince our colleagues because, otherwise, we would get simply votes all over the place. If there wasn't any consistency, we'd have nothing to report.

Why was it ethically important to conduct its hearings in public?

Because in North America, the Bible is extremely important, culturally and politically. If nobody was the least bit interested in the Bible, then it would not be ethically important, it would be just talking about ancient history, as it were. The Bible has a profound influence, not as a vague cultural archetype in the background but has immediate effects on, say, creationism, on our school curriculum, on all sorts of other questions. If scholars all interpret the Bible literally so that everything that's literal must be taken literally, then we should say that. If large numbers of scholars do not, then the public should know that. They should know what is being discussed....

One of the controversial things that the Jesus Seminar has done is to take very, very seriously extra-canonical materials, and among those extra-canonical materials, at least for the words of Jesus, the Gospel of Thomas, discovered in 1945 at Nag Hammadi in Egypt, is quite crucial. This is a list of the sayings of Jesus, and they're not really even as organized as the sayings of Jesus are in the Q gospel. They're not a biographical gospel like Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John; they're a sayings gospel. But we have a lot of material which is not only unique to Thomas, which is, of course, his own work, but also common to the Q gospel or to Matthew, Luke, Mark, John. We have used this very seriously. Now, it's used primarily for the sayings of Jesus. For some people, something which is not in the canon should not be given the weight that materials in the canon should be given, but that's to confuse historical priority and theological priority. For Christians, there are four gospels in the canon, period. For historians, any gospel we find at any time has to be used. So, it's a confusion between what you might call historical priority and theological priority....

Has the Jesus Seminar increased the number of authentic sayings of Jesus from what other scholars would recommend?

It's very hard to get scholars working on the Jesus material to take a account and say, "these I take as original and these others I take as not being original." Very often a scholar will use some and not tell you about the others. The Jesus Seminar lays out a whole inventory; that's part of the ethical imperative. These, we think are original; these, we think are not. If you actually go through scholars who have done historical Jesus books and look at the ones they've based themselves on, we probably have far more sayings and far more deeds....

Helmut Koester

John H. Morison Professor of New Testament Studies and Winn Professor of Ecclesiastical History Harvard Divinity School


Is it possible to isolate the sayings of Jesus, as the Jesus Seminar attempts to do? Is that a realistic enterprise?

No, I don't think so. I think the Jesus Seminar that tries to isolate the sayings and tries to find out which sayings are most original and which ones are later editions has only a limited useful result. It may give us a little more insight in the way in which the tradition grew. But things which have been added later to the tradition may very well be much older, they just didn't happen to enter that particular writing at an early stage. So traditions appearing later in literature are not necessarily traditions that came into existence late.So the voting on, "Is this most likely what Jesus said or is it not very likely or is it unlikely or are we sure that Jesus didn't say it at all?" is a voting that is to me of very, very limited historical value, and of no value whatsoever in asking the question of the historical Jesus, of the earthly Jesus.

For example, the Jesus Seminar comes out in saying that the three beatitudes of the Sermon on the Plain -- the blessing of the poor, the blessing of those who are hungry, the blessing of those who weep -- these are the most original parts of the tradition.... But Jesus certainly did not preach, "blessed are the poor, and blessed are the hungry and blessed are those who weep, hallelujah, and I'll give you the continuation tomorrow." If Jesus was a popular preacher, he wouldn't just have issued aphorisms. He would most likely have given a good long sermon, a long speech that got people excited. These three beatitudes are a distillation of Jesus' preaching, but certainly not a mirroring of Jesus' preaching. They are formulated by people who heard what Jesus said and then recoined it into something that could be transmitted. The whole sermon of Jesus probably lasted an hour or two hours; we don't know, but certainly Jesus' preaching would have had long sermons, long debates with people, and people coming up and asking questions and what not.

Try to imagine how it was, how Jesus' ministry really happened. It certainly never happened in the way in which the tradition tells about it. Because the tradition tells about it in order to have a formulated way of understanding and transmitting and teaching. So I don't think we can go back. I don't think the attempt to reconstruct can be made in such a way, the attempt to discover Jesus can be made in such a way. There is another way to do it. I've tried to do one of those attempts in saying that perhaps the closest to historical memory of Jesus is a ritual, is a celebration of a meal. And here we have a direct continuity from Jesus' celebration of meals with an eschatological outlook, to the disciples' celebration of meals afterwards. There we may have continuity. There may be other continuities, but they can only be concluded from the whole of the tradition. So one would have to go the opposite way from the Jesus Seminar, or have to say we have to understand the entirety of that piece which is preserved and ask what kind of understanding of Jesus' message is here reflected, and how is that totality of the understanding of Jesus' message related to what Jesus actually initiated and said.

What kind of Jesus emerges from the work of the Jesus Seminar?

Well, it's very interesting that in a lot of the more recent discussion around the Jesus Seminar and around also such books that speak about Jesus the cynic, the eschatological element has been excised or has been not very much emphasized. I think it has much more to do with our own difficulty today to think in terms of eschatology. And as one scholar has said in this context, it would be so good, and this is what we want to do, to find a Jesus who is a rational advisor for the problems of our time. Now that is very revealing, and I think completely unhistorical. That early Christian community was a community that got the spirit, that spoke in tongues, where apostles performed miracles, where foreigners came into the assembly and thought these people are all mad. And that movement goes back to someone who was an eschatological prophet, I'm absolutely sure. An eschatological prophet in the tradition of Israel and Judaism. And not someone who was saying a few things that might help us today to order our society according to wise and rational principles.

Source:  PBS

From Hebrew Bible to Christian Bible: Jews, Christians and the Word of God

In his teaching, Jesus often quoted the Jewish Scriptures; after his death, his followers turned to them for clues to the meaning of his life and message. Biblical scholar Mark Hamilton discusses the history of these ancient texts and their significance for early Christians and their Jewish contemporaries.

Mark Hamilton is currently writing a PhD dissertation at Harvard University called 'The Body Royal: Kingship and Masculinity in Ancient Israel.' His article "The Past as Destiny" will appear in the October issue of the Harvard Theological Review

The Origins of the Hebrew Bible and Its Components

The sacred books that make up the anthology modern scholars call the Hebrew Bible - and Christians call the Old Testament - developed over roughly a millennium; the oldest texts appear to come from the eleventh or tenth centuries BCE. War songs such as Exodus 15 and Judges 5 are very archaic Hebrew and celebrate Israelite victories from the time preceding the Israelite monarchy under David and Solomon. However, most of the other biblical texts are somewhat later. And they are edited works, collections of various sources intricately and artistically woven together.

The five books of Pentateuch (Genesis-Deuteronomy), for example, traditionally are ascribed to Moses. But by the eighteenth century, many European scholars noticed problems with that assumption. Not only does Deuteronomy end with an account of Moses' death (a tough assignment for any writer to describe his or her own demise), but the entire Pentateuch shows anomalies of style that are hard to explain if only one author is involved.

By the nineteenth century, most scholars agreed that the Pentateuch consisted of four sources woven together. This notion of four sources came to be known as the Documentary Hypothesis, and, in various forms, it has been the prevailing theory for the past two hundred years. Israel thus created four independent strains of literature about its own origins, all drawing on oral tradition in varying degrees, and each developed over time. They were combined together to form our Pentateuch sometime in the sixth century BCE.

By this time, many of the other biblical books were coming together. Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings form what scholars call a "Deuteronomistic History" (because the work's theology is heavily influenced by Deuteronomy), a history of the Israelite states over a five-hundred-year period. This work contains much of historical value, but it also operates on the basis of a historical and theological theory: i.e., that God has given Israel its land, that Israel periodically sins, suffers punishment, repents, and then is rescued from foreign invasion. This cycle of sin and redemption shapes the work's way of writing history and gives it a powerful religious dimension, so that even when the sources behind the biblical books are "secular" accounts in which God is far in the background, the theology of the overall work places history in the service of theology. The last edition of the Deuteronomistic History, the one in our Bible, comes from the sixth century BCE, the time of the Babylonian Exile. In this context, it offers an explanation for Israel's poor condition and implicitly a reason to hope for the future.

Another section of the Hebrew Bible consists of the prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, the twelve "minor," i.e., brief, prophets). Here again, it's important to understand how these developed. In the book of Isaiah, from which Jesus quotes, the original Isaiah of Jerusalem lived in the eighth century BCE in Jerusalem, and much of Isa 6-10 clearly reflects the political and social events of his time. Another part of the book, however, comes from a prophet who lived two hundred years later: Isaiah 40-55, famous in the New Testament (early Christians thought the suffering servant of Isaiah 53 was Jesus) and prominent in Handel's Messiah, speaks of the Persian king Cyrus the Great (d. 530 BCE), and so the text must come from that time. Other parts of the book of Isaiah are even later, and the entire book was carefully edited together, perhaps by the fifth or fourth century BCE. The extraordinary poetry of the book offers the reader hope in a God who controls historical events and seeks to return his people Israel to their own land.

In addition to the prophets, the Hebrew Bible contains what Jews often call the "Writings," or the Hagiographa, hymns and philosophical discourses, love poems and charming tales. These include Psalms, Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes (or Qoheleth), Song of Songs, Esther, Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah, and Chronicles. These books were the last completed and the last to be received as Scripture, although parts of them may be very ancient indeed. The books of Psalms, for instance, contains many hymns from Israelite temple worship from the monarchic period, i.e., before the Babylonian Exile in the sixth century BCE; songs such as Psalm 29 may be borrowed from the Canaanites, while Psalm 104 closely resembles Egyptian hymns. In its current form, the 150 psalms fall into five "books," modeled on the five books of the Pentateuch.

Proverbs also has many old parts, including one apparently translated from the second-millennium BCE Egyptian text the "Instructions of Amenemope" (Proverbs 22). The remaining books in this part of the Bible are somewhat later: the latest is probably Daniel, which comes from the mid-second century.

From Many Books to the One Book

How did these various pieces come to be regarded as Scripture by Jewish and, later, Christian communities? There were no committees that sat down to decree what was or was not a holy book. To some degree, the process of Scripture-making, or canonization as it is often called (from the Greek word kanon, a "measuring rod"), involved a process, no longer completely understood, by which the Jewish community decided which works reflected most clearly its vision of God. The antiquity, real or imagined, of many of the books was clearly a factor, and this is why Psalms was eventually attributed to David, and Proverbs, Song of Songs, and Ecclesiastes (along with, by some people, Wisdom of Solomon in the Apocrypha) to Solomon. However, mere age was not enough. There had to be some way in which the Jewish community could identify its own religious experiences in the sacred books.

This occurred, at least in part, through an elaborate process of biblical interpretation. Simply reading a text involves interpretation. Interpretative choices are made even in picking up today's newspaper; one must know the literary conventions that distinguish a news report, for example, from an op-ed piece. The challenge becomes much more intense when one reads highly artistic texts from a different time and place, such as the Bible.

The earliest examples of interpretation we have appear in the Bible itself. Zechariah reinterprets Ezekiel, Jeremiah often refers to Hosea and Micah, and Chronicles substantially rewrites Kings. These reinterpretations are in themselves evidence that the older books were already becoming authoritative, canonical, even as the younger ones were still being written.

But some of the oldest extensive reinterpretations of our Bible come from the third or second centuries BCE. For example, the book of Jubilees is a rewriting of Genesis, now arranged in 50-year periods ending in a year of jubilee, or a time for forgiveness of debts. A related work is the Genesis Apocryphon, also a rewriting of Genesis. Ezekiel the Tragedian wrote a play in Greek based on the life of Moses. And the Essenes, the sect that produced the Dead Sea Scrolls, composed commentaries (peshers) on various biblical books: fragments of those on Habakkuk, Hosea, and Psalms survive. From the first century BCE or so, come additional psalms attributed to David and the Letter of Aristeas (about the miraculous translating of the Bible into Greek), among others. And during the life of Jesus himself, Philo of Alexandria wrote extensive allegorical commentaries on the Pentateuch, all with a view toward making the Bible respectable to philosophers influenced by Plato.

Despite their great variety of outlook and interests, all of these works shared certain common views. They all believed the author of the Bible was God, that it was therefore a perfect book, that it had strong moral agendas and that it was abidingly relevant. Interpretation had to show how it was relevant to changing situations. They also thought the Bible to be cryptic, a puzzle requiring piecing together. The mental gymnastics required to make the old texts ever new is one of the great contributions of this era to the history of Judaism and Christianity, and therefore Western civilization itself.

An example of interpretation: Genesis 11

Genesis 11 is the story of how humans soon after the Flood built a city centered around a tower "with its top in the heavens." The purpose of the Tower of Babel was to allow its builders to "make a name" for themselves. God, in a pique of anger, alters the builders' languages so that they cannot understand each other. In its original form, the story is an explanation of why not everyone speaks Hebrew, as well as a comment on the huge temple-towers (ziggurats) of Mesopotamian cities.

For later interpreters, however, this story cried out for explanation. Why was God afraid of these people? How high was the tower? Who led the construction, and did anyone voice objections? What did the builders expect to do when they reached the heavens? What moral lessons should one learn from the story?

To answer these questions and others, Jubilees 10 says that the builders worked for 43 years (50 years of the Jubilee period minus the mystical number seven) and built a structure one and a half miles high! Their purpose was to enter into heaven itself. Pseudo-Philo's Biblical Antiquities (first century CE) adds a story about Abraham, a model of courage, refusing to cooperate with the builders and so being thrown into a fiery furnace, much like the three young men in Daniel 3. God sends an earthquake to destroy the furnace, and then he changes both the builders' languages and their appearance, so that no one can recognize even his or her own brother. Other traditions think that the builders of the tower were either giants (Pseudo-Eupolemus), or were humans led by the mighty hunter and city-builder Nimrod mentioned in Genesis 10 (Josephus). Each interpreter imaginatively builds on some chance word or phrase in the biblical text to try to answer reasonable questions about it. Meanwhile, the first-century philosopher and biblical interpreter writes an entire book on this chapter, which he interprets as an allegory about human morality: the builders represent greed and venality.

The Book and the Once and Coming Messiah

Like their Jewish predecessors and Jewish contemporaries, early Christians believed that the Hebrew Bible was God's book, and therefore a book that should cast light on current events and moral conundrums. For Christians, of course, the most important issue was the true import of Jesus and the story of his life, death, and resurrection. Since they believed him to be the messiah ("anointed one"), God's savior and the harbinger of a new and perfect age, they sought to find mention of him in the Hebrew Bible itself. This is why so much of the story of Jesus in the gospels quotes the Bible.

This move was not without precedent. The Dead Sea community also believed that the prophets had predicted their movement and their leader, the Teacher of Righteousness, as well as the political events of their time. They go so far as to claim that the prophets did not know what they were saying, but God, the true author of the text, used them to speak of the (to them) distant future.

Christians, however, had a different set of questions than the Dead Sea sect, and so they found different texts to cite. Any texts that refer to a time of a future deliverance, or the coming of a future king, were fair game. So the suffering servant of Isaiah 53 becomes the suffering Jesus of the gospels. And Luke's quotation from Isaiah 61 becomes a reference to Jesus's ministry of healing and reconciliation. Yet in every case, as far as we can tell, the Christian reading comes after the fact. That is, they first believed in Jesus and then tried to find his life in Scripture. They then could shape their telling of stories about his life to fit the scriptures. This process may seem very circular, but given their assumptions -- namely, that Jesus is central to God's plan, that God spoke through prophets who might not understand their own words, and that the Bible was a cryptic puzzle needing solving -- this belief in prophecy and fulfillment is not incomprehensible. So Luke can have Jesus say, "Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your presence!" Jesus saw himself as the deliverer that the prophets had foreseen long before. When his followers drew the same conclusion, they could then retain the ancient Scriptures, transforming them into something new, a Christian Bible.

Bible Etymology

The English word "Bible" is from the Greek phrase ta biblia, "the books," an expression Hellenistic Jews used to describe their sacred books several centuries before the time of Jesus. Christians adopted the phrase "Old Testament" to refer to these sacred books they shared with Jews.

Jews called the same books Miqra, "Scripture," or the Tanakh, an acronym for the three divisions of the Hebrew Bible: Torah ("instructions" or less accurately "the law"), Neviim ("prophets"), and Kethuvim ("writings," including Psalms, Proverbs, and several other books). Modern scholars often use the term "Hebrew Bible" to avoid the confessional terms Old Testament and Tanakh.

As for the New Testament, its current twenty-seven book form derives from the fourth century CE, even though the constituent parts come from the first century. Christians did not agree on the exact extent of the New Testament for several centuries.

For Further Reading

Brueggemann, Walter. Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy. (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1997).

Charlesworth, James H., ed. The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha. (2 vols.; Garden City: Doubleday, 1985).

Kugel, James. The Bible as It Was. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997).

Idem. In Potiphar's House: The Interpretive Life of Biblical Texts. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990).

Leiman, Sid. The Canonization of Hebrew Scripture. (Hamden, CT: Archon, 1976).

Levenson, Jon. Sinai and Zion: An Entry into the Jewish Bible. (San Francisco: HarperSan Francisco, 1985).

Noth, Martin. A History of Pentateuchal Traditions. (1948; trans. by Bernhard Anderson; Atlanta: Scholars, 1981).

Vermes, Geza, ed. The Dead Sea Scrolls in English. (3d ed.; New York: Penguin, 1987).

Source:   PBS

Women In Ancient Christianity: The New Discoveries

Scholar Karen King examines the evidence concerning women's important place in early Christianity. She draws a surprising new portrait of Mary Magdalene and outlines the stories of previously unknown early Christian women.

by Karen L. King

Karen L. King is Professor of New Testament Studies and the History of Ancient Christianity at Harvard University in the Divinity School. She has published widely in the areas of Gnosticism, ancient Christianity, and Women's Studies.

In the last twenty years, the history of women in ancient Christianity has been almost completely revised. As women historians entered the field in record numbers, they brought with them new questions, developed new methods, and sought for evidence of women's presence in neglected texts and exciting new findings. For example, only a few names of women were widely known: Mary, the mother of Jesus; Mary Magdalene, his disciple and the first witness to the resurrection; Mary and Martha, the sisters who offered him hospitality in Bethany. Now we are learning more of the many women who contributed to the formation of Christianity in its earliest years.

Perhaps most surprising, however, is that the stories of women we thought we knew well are changing in dramatic ways. Chief among these is Mary Magdalene, a woman infamous in Western Christianity as an adulteress and repentant whore. Discoveries of new texts from the dry sands of Egypt, along with sharpened critical insight, have now proven that this portrait of Mary is entirely inaccurate. She was indeed an influential figure, but as a prominent disciple and leader of one wing of the early Christian movement that promoted women's leadership.


Certainly, the New Testament Gospels, written toward the last quarter of the first century CE, acknowledge that women were among Jesus' earliest followers. From the beginning, Jewish women disciples, including Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Susanna, had accompanied Jesus during his ministry and supported him out of their private means (Luke 8:1-3). He spoke to women both in public and private, and indeed he learned from them. According to one story, an unnamed Gentile woman taught Jesus that the ministry of God is not limited to particular groups and persons, but belongs to all who have faith (Mark 7:24-30; Matthew 15:21-28). A Jewish woman honored him with the extraordinary hospitality of washing his feet with perfume. Jesus was a frequent visitor at the home of Mary and Martha, and was in the habit of teaching and eating meals with women as well as men. When Jesus was arrested, women remained firm, even when his male disciples are said to have fled, and they accompanied him to the foot of the cross. It was women who were reported as the first witnesses to the resurrection, chief among them again Mary Magdalene. Although the details of these gospel stories may be questioned, in general they reflect the prominent historical roles women played in Jesus' ministry as disciples.


After the death of Jesus, women continued to play prominent roles in the early movement. Some scholars have even suggested that the majority of Christians in the first century may have been women.

The letters of Paul - dated to the middle of the first century CE - and his casual greetings to acquaintances offer fascinating and solid information about many Jewish and Gentile women who were prominent in the movement. His letters provide vivid clues about the kind of activities in which women engaged more generally. He greets Prisca, Junia, Julia, and Nereus' sister, who worked and traveled as missionaries in pairs with their husbands or brothers (Romans 16:3, 7, 15). He tells us that Prisca and her husband risked their lives to save his. He praises Junia as a prominent apostle, who had been imprisoned for her labor. Mary and Persis are commended for their hard work (Romans 16:6, 12). Euodia and Syntyche are called his fellow-workers in the gospel (Philippians 4:2-3). Here is clear evidence of women apostles active in the earliest work of spreading the Christian message.

Paul's letters also offer some important glimpses into the inner workings of ancient Christian churches. These groups did not own church buildings but met in homes, no doubt due in part to the fact that Christianity was not legal in the Roman world of its day and in part because of the enormous expense to such fledgling societies. Such homes were a domain in which women played key roles. It is not surprising then to see women taking leadership roles in house churches. Paul tells of women who were the leaders of such house churches (Apphia in Philemon 2; Prisca in I Corinthians 16:19). This practice is confirmed by other texts that also mention women who headed churches in their homes, such as Lydia of Thyatira (Acts 16:15) and Nympha of Laodicea (Colossians 4:15). Women held offices and played significant roles in group worship. Paul, for example, greets a deacon named Phoebe (Romans 16:1) and assumes that women are praying and prophesying during worship (I Corinthians 11). As prophets, women's roles would have included not only ecstatic public speech, but preaching, teaching, leading prayer, and perhaps even performing the eucharist meal. (A later first century work, called the Didache, assumes that this duty fell regularly to Christian prophets.)


Later texts support these early portraits of women, both in exemplifying their prominence and confirming their leadership roles (Acts 17:4, 12). Certainly the most prominent among these in the ancient church was Mary Magdalene. A series of spectacular 19th and 20th century discoveries of Christian texts in Egypt dating to the second and third century have yielded a treasury of new information. It was already known from the New Testament gospels that Mary was a Jewish woman who followed Jesus of Nazareth. Apparently of independent means, she accompanied Jesus during his ministry and supported him out of her own resources (Mark 15:40-41; Matthew 27:55-56; Luke 8:1-3; John 19:25).

Although other information about her is more fantastic, she is repeatedly portrayed as a visionary and leader of the early movement.( Mark 16:1-9; Matthew 28:1-10; Luke24:1-10; John 20:1, 11-18; Gospel of Peter ). In the Gospel of John, the risen Jesus gives her special teaching and commissions her as an apostle to the apostles to bring them the good news. She obeys and is thus the first to announce the resurrection and to play the role of an apostle, although the term is not specifically used of her. Later tradition, however, will herald her as "the apostle to the apostles." The strength of this literary tradition makes it possible to suggest that historically Mary was a prophetic visionary and leader within one sector of the early Christian movement after the death of Jesus.

The newly discovered Egyptian writings elaborate this portrait of Mary as a favored disciple. Her role as "apostle to the apostles" is frequently explored, especially in considering her faith in contrast to that of the male disciples who refuse to believe her testimony. She is most often portrayed in texts that claim to record dialogues of Jesus with his disciples, both before and after the resurrection. In the Dialogue of the Savior, for example, Mary is named along with Judas (Thomas) and Matthew in the course of an extended dialogue with Jesus. During the discussion, Mary addresses several questions to the Savior as a representative of the disciples as a group. She thus appears as a prominent member of the disciple group and is the only woman named. Moreover, in response to a particularly insightful question, the Lord says of her, "´You make clear the abundance of the revealer!'" (140.17-19). At another point, after Mary has spoken, the narrator states, "She uttered this as a woman who had understood completely"(139.11-13). These affirmations make it clear that Mary is to be counted among the disciples who fully comprehended the Lord's teaching (142.11-13).

In another text, the Sophia of Jesus Christ, Mary also plays a clear role among those whom Jesus teaches. She is one of the seven women and twelve men gathered to hear the Savior after the resurrection, but before his ascension. Of these only five are named and speak, including Mary. At the end of his discourse, he tells them, "I have given you authority over all things as children of light," and they go forth in joy to preach the gospel. Here again Mary is included among those special disciples to whom Jesus entrusted his most elevated teaching, and she takes a role in the preaching of the gospel.

In the Gospel of Philip, Mary Magdalene is mentioned as one of three Marys "who always walked with the Lord" and as his companion (59.6-11). The work also says that Lord loved her more than all the disciples, and used to kiss her often (63.34-36). The importance of this portrayal is that yet again the work affirms the special relationship of Mary Magdalene to Jesus based on her spiritual perfection.

In the Pistis Sophia, Mary again is preeminent among the disciples, especially in the first three of the four books. She asks more questions than all the rest of the disciples together, and the Savior acknowledges that: "Your heart is directed to the Kingdom of Heaven more than all your brothers" (26:17-20). Indeed, Mary steps in when the other disciples are despairing in order to intercede for them to the Savior (218:10-219:2). Her complete spiritual comprehension is repeatedly stressed.

She is, however, most prominent in the early second century Gospel of Mary, which is ascribed pseudonymously to her. More than any other early Christian text, the Gospel of Mary presents an unflinchingly favorable portrait of Mary Magdalene as a woman leader among the disciples. The Lord himself says she is blessed for not wavering when he appears to her in a vision. When all the other disciples are weeping and frightened, she alone remains steadfast in her faith because she has grasped and appropriated the salvation offered in Jesus' teachings. Mary models the ideal disciple: she steps into the role of the Savior at his departure, comforts, and instructs the other disciples. Peter asks her to tell any words of the Savior which she might know but that the other disciples have not heard. His request acknowledges that Mary was preeminent among women in Jesus' esteem, and the question itself suggests that Jesus gave her private instruction. Mary agrees and gives an account of "secret" teaching she received from the Lord in a vision. The vision is given in the form of a dialogue between the Lord and Mary; it is an extensive account that takes up seven out of the eighteen pages of the work. At the conclusion of the work, Levi confirms that indeed the Saviour loved her more than the rest of the disciples (18.14-15). While her teachings do not go unchallenged, in the end the Gospel of Mary affirms both the truth of her teachings and her authority to teach the male disciples. She is portrayed as a prophetic visionary and as a leader among the disciples.


Other women appear in later literature as well. One of the most famous woman apostles was Thecla, a virgin-martyr converted by Paul. She cut her hair, donned men's clothing, and took up the duties of a missionary apostle. Threatened with rape, prostitution, and twice put in the ring as a martyr, she persevered in her faith and her chastity. Her lively and somewhat fabulous story is recorded in the second century Acts of Thecla. From very early, an order of women who were widows served formal roles of ministry in some churches (I Timothy 5:9-10). The most numerous clear cases of women's leadership, however, are offered by prophets: Mary Magdalene, the Corinthian women, Philip's daughters, Ammia of Philadelphia, Philumene, the visionary martyr Perpetua, Maximilla, Priscilla (Prisca), and Quintilla. There were many others whose names are lost to us. The African church father Tertullian, for example, describes an unnamed woman prophet in his congregation who not only had ecstatic visions during church services, but who also served as a counselor and healer (On the Soul 9.4). A remarkable collection of oracles from another unnamed woman prophet was discovered in Egypt in 1945. She speaks in the first person as the feminine voice of God: Thunder, Perfect Mind. The prophets Prisca and Quintilla inspired a Christian movement in second century Asia Minor (called the New Prophecy or Montanism) that spread around the Mediterranean and lasted for at least four centuries. Their oracles were collected and published, including the account of a vision in which Christ appeared to the prophet in the form of a woman and "put wisdom" in her (Epiphanius, Panarion 49.1). Montanist Christians ordained women as presbyters and bishops, and women held the title of prophet. The third century African bishop Cyprian also tells of an ecstatic woman prophet from Asia Minor who celebrated the eucharist and performed baptisms (Epistle 74.10). In the early second century, the Roman governor Pliny tells of two slave women he tortured who were deacons (Letter to Trajan 10.96). Other women were ordained as priests in fifth century Italy and Sicily (Gelasius, Epistle 14.26).

Women were also prominent as martyrs and suffered violently from torture and painful execution by wild animals and paid gladiators. In fact, the earliest writing definitely by a woman is the prison diary of Perpetua, a relatively wealthy matron and nursing mother who was put to death in Carthage at the beginning of the third century on the charge of being a Christian. In it, she records her testimony before the local Roman ruler and her defiance of her father's pleas that she recant. She tells of the support and fellowship among the confessors in prison, including other women. But above all, she records her prophetic visions. Through them, she was not merely reconciled passively to her fate, but claimed the power to define the meaning of her own death. In a situation where Romans sought to use their violence against her body as a witness to their power and justice, and where the Christian editor of her story sought to turn her death into a witness to the truth of Christianity, her own writing lets us see the human being caught up in these political struggles. She actively relinquishes her female roles as mother, daughter, and sister in favor of defining her identity solely in spiritual terms. However horrifying or heroic her behavior may seem, her brief diary offers an intimate look at one early Christian woman's spiritual journey.


Study of works by and about women is making it possible to begin to reconstruct some of the theological views of early Christian women. Although they are a diverse group, certain reoccurring elements appear to be common to women's theology-making. By placing the teaching of the Gospel of Mary side-by-side with the theology of the Corinthian women prophets, the Montanist women's oracles, Thunder Perfect Mind, and Perpetua's prison diary, it is possible to discern shared views about teaching and practice that may exemplify some of the contents of women's theology:

* Jesus was understood primarily as a teacher and mediator of wisdom rather than as ruler and judge.

* Theological reflection centered on the experience of the person of the risen Christ more than the crucified savior. Interestingly enough, this is true even in the case of the martyr Perpetua. One might expect her to identify with the suffering Christ, but it is the risen Christ she encounters in her vision.

* Direct access to God is possible for all through receiving the Spirit.

* In Christian community, the unity, power, and perfection of the Spirit are present now, not just in some future time.

* Those who are more spiritually advanced give what they have freely to all without claim to a fixed, hierarchical ordering of power.

* An ethics of freedom and spiritual development is emphasized over an ethics of order and control.

* A woman's identity and spirituality could be developed apart from her roles as wife and mother (or slave), whether she actually withdrew from those roles or not. Gender is itself contested as a "natural" category in the face of the power of God's Spirit at work in the community and the world. This meant that potentially women (and men) could exercise leadership on the basis of spiritual achievement apart from gender status and without conformity to established social gender roles.

* Overcoming social injustice and human suffering are seen to be integral to spiritual life.

Women were also actively engaged in reinterpreting the texts of their tradition. For example, another new text, the Hypostasis of the Archons, contains a retelling of the Genesis story ascribed to Eve's daughter Norea, in which her mother Eve appears as the instructor of Adam and his healer.

The new texts also contain an unexpected wealth of Christian imagination of the divine as feminine. The long version of the Apocryphon of John, for example, concludes with a hymn about the descent of divine Wisdom, a feminine figure here called the Pronoia of God. She enters into the lower world and the body in order to awaken the innermost spiritual being of the soul to the truth of its power and freedom, to awaken the spiritual power it needs to escape the counterfeit powers that enslave the soul in ignorance, poverty, and the drunken sleep of spiritual deadness, and to overcome illegitimate political and sexual domination. The oracle collection Thunder Perfect Mind also adds crucial evidence to women's prophetic theology-making. This prophet speaks powerfully to women, emphasizing the presence of women in her audience and insisting upon their identity with the feminine voice of the Divine. Her speech lets the hearers transverse the distance between political exploitation and empowerment, between the experience of degradation and the knowledge of infinite self-worth, between despair and peace. It overcomes the fragmentation of the self by naming it, cherishing it, insisting upon the multiplicity of self-hood and experience.

These elements may not be unique to women's religious thought or always result in women's leadership, but as a constellation they point toward one type of theologizing that was meaningful to some early Christian women, that had a place for women's legitimate exercise of leadership, and to whose construction women contributed. If we look to these elements, we are able to discern important contributions of women to early Christian theology and praxis. These elements also provide an important location for discussing some aspects of early Christian women's spiritual lives: their exercise of leadership, their ideals, their attraction to Christianity, and what gave meaning to their self-identity as Christians.


Women's prominence did not, however, go unchallenged. Every variety of ancient Christianity that advocated the legitimacy of women's leadership was eventually declared heretical, and evidence of women's early leadership roles was erased or suppressed.

This erasure has taken many forms. Collections of prophetic oracles were destroyed. Texts were changed. For example, at least one woman's place in history was obscured by turning her into a man! In Romans 16:7, the apostle Paul sends greetings to a woman named Junia. He says of her and her male partner Andronicus that they are "my kin and my fellow prisoners, prominent among the apostles and they were in Christ before me." Concluding that women could not be apostles, textual editors and translators transformed Junia into Junias, a man.

Or women's stories could be rewritten and alternative traditions could be invented. In the case of Mary Magdalene, starting in the fourth century, Christian theologians in the Latin West associated Mary Magdalene with the unnamed sinner who anointed Jesus' feet in Luke 7:36-50. The confusion began by conflating the account in John 12:1-8, in which Mary (of Bethany) anoints Jesus, with the anointing by the unnamed woman sinner in the accounts of Luke. Once this initial, erroneous identification was secured, Mary Magdalene could be associated with every unnamed sinful woman in the gospels, including the adulteress in John 8:1-11 and the Syro-phoenician woman with her five and more "husbands" in John 4:7-30. Mary the apostle, prophet, and teacher had become Mary the repentant whore. This fiction was invented at least in part to undermine her influence and with it the appeal to her apostolic authority to support women in roles of leadership.

Until recently the texts that survived have shown only the side that won. The new texts are therefore crucial in constructing a fuller and more accurate portrait. The Gospel of Mary, for example, argued that leadership should be based on spiritual maturity, regardless of whether one is male or female. This Gospel lets us hear an alternative voice to the one dominant in canonized works like I Timothy, which tried to silence women and insist that their salvation lies in bearing children. We can now hear the other side of the controversy over women's leadership and see what arguments were given in favor of it.

It needs to be emphasized that the formal elimination of women from official roles of institutional leadership did not eliminate women's actual presence and importance to the Christian tradition, although it certainly seriously damaged their capacity to contribute fully. What is remarkable is how much evidence has survived systematic attempts to erase women from history, and with them the warrants and models for women's leadership. The evidence presented here is but the tip of an iceberg.

Source: PBS

The Gospel of Mary

In this gnostic gospel, Mary Magdalene appears as a disciple, singled out by Jesus for special teachings. In this excerpt, the other disciples are discouraged and grieving Jesus' death. Mary stands up and attempts to comfort them, reminding them that Jesus' presence remains with them. Peter asks her to tell them the words of Jesus which she remembers. To his surprise, she does not reminisce about past conversations with Jesus, but claims that Jesus spoke to her that very day in a vision.

But they were grieved. They wept greatly, saying, "How shall we go to the gentiles and preach the gospel of the kingdom of the Son of Man? If they did not spare him, how will they spare us?" Then Mary stood up, greeted them all, and said to her brethren, "Do not weep and do not grieve nor be irresolute, for His grace will be entirely with you and will protect you. But rather let us praise His greatness, for He has prepared us and made us into men." When Mary said this, she turned their hearts to the Good, and they began to discuss the words of the [Saviour].

Peter said to Mary, "Sister, we know that the Saviour loved you more than the rest of women. Tell us the words of the Saviour which you remember - which you know (but) we do not, nor have we heard them." Mary answered and said, "What is hidden from you I will proclaim to you." And she began to speak to them these words: "I," she said, "I saw the Lord in a vision and I said to him, 'Lord, I saw you today in a vision.' He answered and said to me, 'Blessed are you that you did not waver at the sight of me. For where the mind is, there is the treasure.' I said to him, 'Lord, how does he who sees the vision see it through the soul or through the spirit?' The Saviour answered and said, 'He does not see through the soul nor through the spirit, but the mind which [is] between the two - that is [what] sees the vision...'

(the mid-section of the original text is missing)

"[S] it. And desire that, 'I did not see you descending, but now I see you ascending. Why do you lie, since you belong to me?' The soul answered and said, 'I saw you. You did not see me nor recognise me. I served you as a garment, and you did not know me.' When it had said this, it went away rejoicing greatly.

"Again it came to the third power, which is called ignorance. It (the power) questioned the soul saying, 'Where are you going? In wickedness are you bound. But you are bound; do not judge!' And the soul said, 'Why do you judge me although I have not judged? I was bound though I have not bound. I was not recognised. But I have recognised that the All is being dissolved, both the earthly (things) and the heavenly'.

When the soul had overcome the third power, it went upwards and saw the fourth power, (which) took seven forms. The first form is darkness, the second desire, the third ignorance, the fourth is the excitement of death, the

fifth is the kingdom of the flesh, the sixth is the foolish wisdom of flesh, the seventh is the wrathful wisdom. These are the seven [powers] of wrath. They ask the soul, "Whence do you come, slayer of men, or where are you going, conqueror of space?" The soul answered and said, "What binds me has been slain, and what surrounds me has been overcome, and my desire has been ended and ignorance has died. In a [world] I was released from a world, [and] in a type from a heavenly type, and (from) the fetter of oblivion which is transient. From this time on will I attain to the rest of the time, of the season, of the aeon, in silence."

When Mary had said this, she fell silent, since it was to this point that the Saviour had spoken with her. But Andrew answered and said to the brethren, "Say what you (wish to) say about what she has said. I at least do not believe that the Saviour said this. For certainly these teachings are strange ideas." Peter answered and spoke concerning these same things. He questioned them about the Saviour: "Did He really speak with a woman without our knowledge (and) not openly? Are we to turn about and all listen to her? Did He prefer her to us?"

Then Mary wept and said to Peter, "My brother Peter, what do you think? Do you think that I thought this up myself in my heart, or that I am lying about the Saviour? Levi answered and said to Peter, "Peter, you have always been hot - tempered. Now I see you contending against the woman like the adversaries. But if the Saviour made her worthy, who are you indeed to reject her? Surely the Saviour knows her very well. That is why He loved her more than us. Rather let us be ashamed and put on the perfect man and acquire him for ourselves as He commanded us, and preach the gospel, not laying down any other rule or other law beyond what the Saviour said." ... and they began to go forth [to] proclaim and to preach.

From The Nag Hammadi Library in English, J M Robinson, Harper Collins

The Roles for Women

Although later pushed to the side, women in early Christian communities often owned the 'house churches' where congregations gathered to worship.

Elizabeth Clark

John Carlisle Kilgo Professor of Religion and Director of the Graduate Program in Religion Duke University

What was the status of women in the early church? Were they particularly attracted to it?

The status of women in early Christianity has been quite debated in recent decades, no doubt prompted by interest in the women's movement in Western countries today. I think the evidence is somewhat mixed. Certainly there's evidence in the New Testament itself of women doing many things within early Christianity. In Paul's letters he greets women. Calls them co-workers. Refers to one of them [with] a word in Greek that we would translate as "deaconess." Even calls one of the women an Apostle. What exactly these terms meant is a little hard to say given the distance in time, but there's plenty of evidence of women's activity. I think part of the activity in the early period, that is the New Testament period itself, perhaps is related to women's role in the house churches. The earliest Christian communities met in people's houses; they didn't have churches yet for quite some time, and throughout the New Testament, particularly Paul's letters in the Book of Acts, we find out that women owned the houses in which the early Christians met. This I think is significant because I don't think the women who owned the houses were simply providing coffee and cookies, in effect, for the Christian community. I think that this probably gave them some avenue to power... in the church.

What seems to happen within the first few centuries is that whatever limited activities women might have had in the beginning begin to get curtailed as you have the development of a hierarchy of clergy members with bishops, presbyters and deacons, and it's pretty firmly established that women should not be either bishops or priests. Many church fathers write about this. So that women tend to get excluded from those functions, [though] they do have some roles, [such] as joining a group called the widows or deaconesses in the fourth century. We have good evidence of a order of deaconesses, but they are excluded from the priesthood.


Thecla is a literary character of probably second century Christianity who comes to be thought of as an actual historical character by the fourth century. Thecla appears in a document called The Acts of Paul and Thecla which is one of the many sets of acts that came to be labeled the apocryphal acts.... Thecla's represented as being an aristocratic young woman who hears the teaching of Paul, and upon hearing the message of Paul, which is construed in this text... as a message of sexual renunciation, she gives up her fiancee and wants to go off and follow Paul on his missionary trips. Her family is very much opposed to this. Her mother goes so far as to try to have her daughter burned at the stake to prevent her from carrying out this wish, but after many lively adventures including baptizing herself in a pool of seals, Thecla does manage to become a missionary and lives to a ripe old age preaching and teaching the gospel. So this is one of several stories in the apocryphal acts where women are represented as giving up riches and particularly marriage and sexual activity for the sake of following the teachings of the Apostles....

What in essence is the moral of the Thecla story?

I think the moral of the Thecla story is that young women would be better off not marrying in the first place, but if they are already married to try to as soon as possible... to lead lives of abstinence and sexual renunciation, and in that way they will be better fulfilling the will of God. In the Acts of Thecla for example, Paul gives a speech in which he recasts the part of the bible that we call the beatitudes. That's the "blessed are the so and so...." Paul's version of this is all about blessed are the bodies of virgins, ... blessed are the chaste. It's all about sexual chastity. That those are the people who are blessed in this new recasting of the Christian message.

Read excerpts from The Acts of Paul and Thecla.

Did stories like Thecla -- the fact that the early church is urging people to abstinence, to effectively be breaking up their families, leaving their fiancees -- Does that create tension within the church, or does that create tension with society?

The fact that some young women and men wanted, on the basis of hearing these injunctions to sexual chastity, to abandon societal life, not to marry, not to have children as their parents probably wanted them to, [is] certainly depicted in early Christian writings as causing a problem. In fact, I think we would analyze this today as a case of adolescent rebellion. That you hear many stories from the fourth and early fifth century, particularly, of aristocratic young women who decide they're not going to be obey their parents' command to marry. At this [time] ... aristocratic girls marry very young, in young teenage years probably, and their refusal to do this, and concordant with that their control of enormous sums of money devolving upon them, was a very great asset to the Christian church, and these women were much celebrated and written about and praised by the male authors of this period....

Jesus is often portrayed as in the company of women. What's the significance of that?

Women appear frequently, although they're not always named, in the gospels in the company of Jesus. I think it's part of a more general tendency of the gospels to represent Jesus as having to do with the outcasts, the down and outs of society. The people who aren't necessarily the high and mighty and powerful. Just as Jesus is represented as consorting with sinners, so likewise women are part of his entourage. Some of the gospels are more eager to portray Jesus in this way than others. The Gospel of Luke for example does have Jesus in the company of women quite frequently. You have a number of the stories about Mary and Martha in the Gospel of Luke.


Tell us how the character Mary Magdalene evolved. I mean was there really such a person to begin with or was it just a story about someone like that?

Mary Magdalene is certainly one of the characters who crops up a lot in the gospels and then is very much discussed in Christian literature the fourth and fifth century particularly. It's interesting to see what happens with her character. We know practically nothing about her, but quite early on she gets conflated with the sinful woman who is said to come in to a dinner party where Jesus is being entertained at the home of a Jewish leader and who washes Jesus' feet and dries the feet with her hair and she is called a sinner. Now it doesn't say what kind of sinner she is, but this story gets conflated with the Mary Magdalene story. Mary Magdalene comes to be thought of as a repentant prostitute. Now why this would have great appeal for the early Christians I'm not entirely sure except that she is an example of somebody who is a very notable sinner and yet repentant and found great praise in the eyes of God. She's also represented as being a witness to the resurrection in the gospels, and this is an important point that here you can see the difference in Paul's letters. Paul does not have the women as witnesses to the resurrection whereas all the gospels have women as witnesses to the resurrection and Mary Magdalene very prominent among them....

Mary Magdalene's probably a good example of a character who appears a number of times in the biblical text itself who then gets raised up and developed and elaborated upon. This is probably fairly typical of what happens to a lot of characters. Their lives get embroidered upon in ways that we wouldn't really know from the biblical text itself. So Mary Magdalene is thought of as this sinner who repents. This gets elaborated into repentent prostitute particularly when Christianity takes a very ascetic turn in the fourth and fifth centuries; to repent from being a prostitute would certainly be a very wonderful thing for a woman to do if she were a Christian....


In the New Testament, we find many women mentioned, some by name, some not.... They are named as co-workers, some of them seem to be part of missionary couples that go out and help convert others to Christianity. We find less evidence of this as you move into the 2nd century and the 3rd century; as Christianity becomes more established, and a male hierarchy of the clergy is developed, women tend to get more and more excluded....

However, with the development of strong ascetic currents in Christianity and particularly the founding of monasteries in the 4th century and early 5th century, you get whole new avenue opened up for women's activity in the church. Some of these women controlled enormous amounts of money and they decided that they would use their money to found monasteries and they sometimes became head of the monasteries themselves. One such woman was named Olympias in Constantinople. She was a very good friend and, in fact, the confidante of John Chrysostom, who became the Bishop of Constantinople the last few years of the 4th century and the first years of the 5th century. She had enormous property; it's been calculated, using rather conservative estimates of how you translate ancient money into modern American dollars, that her contributions to the Church of Constantinople and surrounding areas was something like $900 million. You can see why churchmen liked women like this and why it was very important for the charity operations of the church, which were now feeding hundreds, indeed thousands, of poor people, orphans, widows; hospitals needed to be built that Christians were organizing. The church needed a lot of money poured into its coffers to keep these operations going, and women such as Olympias and others that could be mentioned, Malania the Elder, Malania the Younger, they're very instrumental, both in founding monasteries and directing them, as well as giving money for these charitable operations.


What's Paul saying here, what does it mean?

Galatians 3:28 is a statement that has had enormous influence on contemporary Christianity, particularly in the feminist branches of Christianity. This is the passage where Paul says, "In Jesus Christ, there's no slave or free, no Jew or Greek, no male" - here, one has put in a correction. It's "no male and female." That is, instead of saying, either /or, as he does in the case of Jews and Greeks, slave and free. With male and female, it's "and" that's in the middle, and scholars have asked what does it mean and why is that one different?

Of course, contemporary Christians, many of them, would like to take this as a great slogan of equality for women in the early church. I personally tend to think Paul was not terribly interested in women's equality. He was very interested in the equality of Jew and gentile. That is, people coming in to Christianity from non-Jewish religions. That was his major concern, without doubt. He took over this phrase, we know, from an earlier baptismal formula. There's some evidence in the Gospel of Thomas and other gospels that Jesus may have said phrases to this effect of "no male and female" and some people think that it's a quotation from Genesis, Chapter 1, where it says, "God created them male and female, he created them." In this case, I think at least, probably, we can't take it as a wonderful slogan for equality, although women today would like to use it that way, and maybe they can go ahead and use it whatever Paul meant by it.

Elaine H. Pagels

The Harrington Spear Paine Foundation Professor of Religion Princeton University


Some people suggest that the early Christian movement was an egalitarian one. I'm not so sure of that. It does seem to me that when it was a marginal movement, when it was dangerous to belong to it. [In his letters] Paul speaks of women as his fellow evangelists and teachers and patrons and friends, as he does of men. So it seems that the movement took anybody that it could get, and depended on them in ways that much more established groups, like for example, the Jewish community of a wealthy town like Sepphoris, might not have allowed. It's certainly true that there was a sort of fluidity of roles in this movement, the question of if slaves and free could be equally part of the movement could men and women be on a par in the movement?

Obviously we have sources that suggest that these were enormously live issues. The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, for example, shows us a Christian community in which Mary Magdalene is regarded as a disciple, as a leader, as one of the major teachers in the group. And one who claims that women should be able to teach. In that very gospel, she's challenged and silenced by her brother, Peter, suggesting that the representatives of the church that called itself orthodox and based itself in Rome did not like women setting themselves up. We know that Tertullian, one of the leaders of the church in Africa, spoke about a woman he called simply, "that viper," because she was baptizing people. And he said, "These heretical woman, how audacious they are. I mean they, they teach, they baptize, they preach, they do all kinds of things they shouldn't do. It's horrible, in short." And so we know that there was a great deal of ferment in these communities about the role of women.

I don't see a picture of a Golden Age of egalitarianism back there. I see a new, unformed, diverse, and threatened movement which allowed a lot more fluidity for women in certain roles for a while, in some places and not in others. That [also] stirred an enormous amount of resentment, which you see in some of the New Testament writers, for example, in the author of [First] Timothy, which says, "women should be silent in all the churches" and attributes that point of view to Paul.

Did women become, over time, sort of moved to the edges so to speak?

We have information from about the end of the second century that whatever roles women may have had earlier, leaders of the church were beginning to clarify the fact that women should have no official position in the church as they were establishing it. And that was seen as a characteristic of heretical groups. The orthodox church would have none of that, and did not, so far as we can tell, from about the second century on. Where women distinguished themselves in the orthodox community were as martyrs.... And there are famous women who are martyrs. There was a famous holy woman, Thecla, whose story describes enormous opposition. There's not a single woman of renown in the ancient church whose story does not show enormous opposition from some of the men in the group.


Was Mary Magdalene another apostle?

The gospels of the New Testament tell stories about Mary Magdalene, and there she appears along with the women.... [In Luke], Mary was one whom Jesus had healed. But in other gospels, she appears quite differently. She appears in fact as one of the disciples, not only one of the disciples, but one of those chosen for special teaching, for deeper teaching and wisdom. In the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, she appears as the one disciple who has courage and comforts the others in despair. She appears as the one who speaks to the others to encourage them. So she seems to be one of the great disciples according to some of these other sources. Later tradition suggested she was a prostitute and that she was the one who wiped Jesus' feet with her hair. This is not said in the gospels. It has no foundation in history at all. I suspect that there were Christians who were trying to challenge her status among certain groups who saw her as a great one of the disciples. For example, even today on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, there's a Russian Orthodox Church of Mary Magdalene as a great saint. And others countered, I suggest, by saying, "Oh no, she was a prostitute." So there, in the person of Mary Magdalene, [we see how] groups fought about the status and role of women.

Source: PBS


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