CNS photo courtesy Catholic Communication Campaign
THE QUESTION of Jesus’
identity is central to us
as Christians. Because
Christianity is an incarnational
on Jesus, the Word of
God who became flesh and dwelt
among us—it is important to learn as
much as we can about the Jesus of
He lived in the land of Israel during
what we now call the first century.
The question of his identity still
has great relevance for us in the
early 21st century. Just consider
the recent media attention
received by Mel Gibson’s The Passion
of the Christ and Dan Brown’s
The Da Vinci Code.
When Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?”
he got several different answers:
John the Baptist, Elijah, one of the
prophets. Even when Peter identified
Jesus correctly as the Messiah, Jesus felt
the need to redefine messiahship in
terms of his coming passion, death and
A Difficult Question
While important, the question about
Jesus’ identity is difficult to answer. It
is hard to know the whole story about
any person, even someone who has
lived in our own time, let alone someone
who lived 2,000 years ago.
The major sources about Jesus—the
Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and
John—were written in light of the
authors’ convictions about Jesus’ resurrection
and continued existence with
the one whom he called Father. The
claims that these authors made about
Jesus (such as “Jesus is Lord”) go beyond
what is said about even the greatest
Here I want to tell as best as I can the “honest truth” about what we can
know about Jesus of Nazareth and thus
provide a reasonably objective account
against which the claims of Mel Gibson,
Dan Brown and others can be measured.
I write as a Roman Catholic priest, a
Jesuit and a professor of New Testament
since 1971. In my academic research
I have taken special interest in
the Dead Sea scrolls and other Jewish
texts from the time of Jesus. As editor
of New Testament Abstracts, I see all
the books and articles published in the
The four Gospels are the major sources
for what we know about Jesus. Nevertheless,
they do not allow us to write a
full biography about him. Rather, the
evangelists were primarily interested
in Jesus’ religious significance and his
impact as a moral figure.
Mark’s Gospel, written around 70
A.D., perhaps at Rome, tells the story of
Jesus’ public ministry in Galilee, his
journey with his disciples to Jerusalem
and his short ministry there, as well as
his passion, death and resurrection.
Mark gave special attention
to Jesus as the suffering Messiah
and to the mystery of the cross.
Between 85 and 90 A.D.,
Matthew and Luke independently
produced their own revised and
expanded versions of Mark’s
Gospel. They added a large
amount of teaching material from
other sources and traditions.
Matthew emphasized the Jewishness
of Jesus and his fulfillment of Israel’s
Scriptures, the books of the Bible Christians
commonly call the Old Testament.
Luke stressed Jesus’ significance
not only for Israel but also for the other
peoples of the world. Because the first
three Gospels offer a common outline
and vision of Jesus, they are often called
the synoptic Gospels, which means
“viewed with one eye or lens.”
While John’s Gospel has much in
common with the synoptic Gospels
and contains many pieces of solid historical
information, it spreads the public
ministry of Jesus over three years instead of one, introduces different
characters and focuses more on Jesus as
the revealer and revelation of God than
on the Kingdom.
These four Gospels became part of
the Church’s list of approved books
(canon) because of their wide use,
orthodox theological content and association
with the apostles.
The noncanonical gospels attributed
to Thomas, Peter, Mary Magdalene,
Philip and others did not become part
of the Church’s New Testament
canon. This was due in part to
their lack of wide usage, sometimes
unorthodox theological content
and relatively late dates of
These sources now often serve as
the basis for works like The Da
Vinci Code and other, often sensationalist
interpretations of early
Christianity—some even by well-known
scholars. They may contain
some early authentic
traditions, though it is often difficult
to isolate these from their less
credible content. Likewise, while
there are stray sayings attributed to
Jesus in other early Christian writings,
it is almost impossible to
prove they originated with Jesus.
The only substantial ancient
description of Jesus apart from
Christian sources appears in Jewish
Antiquities by Flavius Josephus, a Jewish
historian in the late first century A.D.
But the explicit statements about Jesus’
identity as the Messiah and about his
resurrection suggest that Christian
scribes may have inserted their own
convictions about Jesus.
Josephus wrote: “About this time
arose Jesus, a wise man, if indeed it be
lawful to call him a man. For he was a
doer of wonderful deeds, and a teacher
of men who...drew to himself many,
both of the Jews and the Gentiles. He
was the Christ” (18:63-64, Loeb Classical
The early Christians were more concerned
with experiencing the risen Jesus
and the Holy Spirit than with writing
books about Jesus. Jesus died around 30
A.D., and the first complete Gospel
(Mark’s) appeared 40 years later.
In those intervening decades there
was a lively process in which traditions
from and about Jesus, whether in oral or
written form, were handed on among
Christians. These traditions were often
shaped and reshaped in response to
the pastoral needs of the communities.
Understanding the process by which
the Gospels were formed requires keeping
three realities in mind: the focus of
the evangelist, the development of the
early Church and who Jesus was. The
Gospel writers composed the final
forms of their works with an eye toward
their significance for particular communities.
The gathered materials had
been formulated and adapted in various
settings over 40 or more years. And, of
course, they all sought to tell us the “honest truth” about Jesus, as best they
Getting Back to Jesus
Are there ways of going behind the
Gospel texts and the traditions of the
early Church and getting back to Jesus
himself? Biblical scholars have developed
several tools to isolate material
in the Gospels that most likely goes
back to Jesus. If a teaching is unlike
anything in Jewish and early Christian
traditions, then it probably can be
assigned directly to Jesus. An example
would be Jesus’ absolute prohibition
of taking oaths: “Do not swear at all”
Other such criteria include: when a
tradition appears in several different
sources (Last Supper); local Palestinian
coloring (Aramaic words, farming methods);
embarrassment at what might
reflect badly on Jesus (his reception of
John’s “baptism of repentance for the
forgiveness of sins”); what led to Jesus’
death (the “cleansing” of the Temple);
and coherence (what fits with
what can be established by other
These historical methods do not
tell us everything we would like to
know about Jesus. Nor do they
necessarily establish what was
most important about him. But
they do tell us something.
Study of the Gospels and application
of these historical criteria
make it possible to develop at least
an outline of Jesus’ public career.
Having been raised in Nazareth in
Galilee, Jesus accepted baptism
from John and may have been a
member of John’s movement.
When Jesus went out on his own
to continue and adapt John’s mission,
he gathered disciples near the
Sea of Galilee at Capernaum,
including some of John’s followers. He
spent much of his public life preaching
about the Kingdom of God and how to
prepare for it. He also healed the sick as
a sign of the presence of God’s Kingdom.
Before Passover in the spring of 30
A.D., Jesus and his followers made a
long journey to Jerusalem. There he
continued his ministry of teaching and
healing, but they ran into intense opposition
from some other Jews and from
the Roman authorities. Under the Roman
prefect, Pontius Pilate, Jesus was
executed by crucifixion as a rebel and
a religious troublemaker. And he was
said to have appeared alive again to
some of his followers.
Careful study of the Gospels also
allows us to reconstruct the major
themes in Jesus’ teaching. At the center was the Reign or Kingdom of God
in both its present and future dimensions.
Jesus’ relationship to God was
so close that he dared to address God as
Father and invited others to do the
same. He proclaimed the possibility of
the forgiveness of sins and of reconciliation
Jesus challenged his followers to love
their enemies and told them how to act
in anticipation of the coming Kingdom
of God. He showed special concern
for marginal persons—the poor,
the lame, “sinners and tax collectors,”
prostitutes and so on—and manifested
a free attitude toward the traditions
associated with the Jewish Law and the
Jerusalem Temple. Most of these themes
appear in the Lord’s Prayer that Jesus
taught to his disciples.
The Jesus whom modern historians can
recover and investigate by using the
tools of historical research is sometimes
called the “historical Jesus.” A more
accurate term would be the “historian’s
Jesus.” This Jesus is not the whole person
of Jesus, nor is he the traditional
object of Christian faith.
The one whom we worship is not
only the earthly Jesus but also—and
especially—the risen Jesus who will
come again in glory. Christians believe
that there is a close continuity between
the earthly Jesus and the Christ of faith
and that the two cannot be totally separated.
The quest for the historical Jesus,
however, refers to the project of separating
the earthly Jesus from the Christ
of faith. It began among liberal German
Protestants in the late 18th century in
an effort to peel away the wrappings
given to Jesus in Church tradition and
to recover the simple figure of the “real”
Many of the early seekers discarded
the miracles of Jesus and rejected his
virginal conception and resurrection
as “unhistorical.” One positive development
was the recognition of the Kingdom
of God as the focus of Jesus’
teaching and its roots in Jewish hopes
about God’s future actions on behalf of
his people (sometimes called eschatology or apocalyptic writing).
The quest in the 20th century focused
on the parables of Jesus as a way
of recovering the “voice” of Jesus about
the Kingdom, developing criteria for
identifying material from Jesus and situating
Jesus within Judaism. Recent
presentations of Jesus have depicted
him as a prophet sent to speak of the
end times, a wisdom teacher, a philosopher
and a poet skilled in his use of
parables and images.
Meaning for Today
While charged with frustration, the
quest for the historical Jesus has been
a fascinating and even irresistible topic.
It reminds us that there is no uninterpreted
Jesus and that we are dependent
on sources that historians find challenging.
For people of faith, the witness of
the Gospels is more important than
the historian’s Jesus. Nevertheless, historical
methods can help us to see the
basic reliability of the tradition about
Jesus and to encounter Jesus as the
strong personality behind the Gospels
and the traditions and truths contained
This article is adapted from the March
2006 issue of Jesus: A Historical Portrait (a new, 12-issue newsletter from
St. Anthony Messenger Press). All articles
are by Father Daniel Harrington,
S.J. Subscriptions and back issues can
be ordered through www.American
Catholic.org or by calling 1-800-488-
Father Daniel Harrington, S.J., is professor of New
Testament at Weston School of Theology in Cambridge,
Massachusetts. Since 1972, he has been
general editor of New Testament Abstracts and is a
past president of the Catholic Biblical Association. His
most recent books are What Are They Saying About
Mark? (Paulist Press) and How Do Catholics Read
the Bible? (Sheed and Ward).
The Da Vinci Code Jesus
by Carol Ann Morrow
NOVELIST DAN BROWN makes several
assertions about Jesus that
cannot be found in the New
Testament. Four of these are
1. Jesus was not the Christ or Messiah, but
was declared to be so by the Council of Nicaea
(325) as a Church power play.
2. Emperor Constantine decided which
Gospels to include and outlawed any Gospels
emphasizing Jesus’ humanity.
3. Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene.
4. Jesus and Mary Magdalene had a daughter
named Sarah. The Merovingian dynasty,
which ruled France from the fifth to the eighth centuries,
traces its ancestry to her.
Separating Fact From Fiction
The Da Vinci Code’s frontispiece, entitled “Fact,” states, “All
descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret
rituals in this novel are accurate.” Many readers of this
novel have incorrectly assumed that Brown is factual in
other areas such as theology, Church history and Scripture.
1. That Jesus is the Christ, the Savior of the world, is, of
course, an act of faith. This faith is bolstered
by the witness of the Gospels, by the actions
of the earliest Christian communities and a
belief proclaimed long before the Nicene
Creed was formulated.
In Matthew 16:16, Peter says, “You are the
Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” Acts
2:36 asserts, “...God has made him both Lord
and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.”
While Brown never cites the four Gospels
found in the canon of Scripture (written
between 70 A.D. and 100 A.D.) or the early
teachers of the Church, he frequently cites
non-canonical gospels, such as those attributed
to Peter or Mary, which were thought to
be written much later.
2. At least 150 years before Constantine
became sole emperor in 324, the canonical
Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John
were recognized by the Christian community
as inspired. They were commonly read at celebrations
of the Eucharist.
3. The New Testament does not indicate
that Jesus was ever married. Brown’s sources
are gospels that are not part of the New Testament.
The Da Vinci Code spends more time
on Mary Magdalene as wife than on Jesus as
husband. Brown presents Jesus’ marriage as
making him more human, as the natural husband
of Mary Magdalene and as a father.
These non-canonical gospels, however,
never mention a marriage but rather tell of
intimate kisses between Mary Magdalene and
Jesus. These descriptions may never have been
intended to be taken literally, since the Gospel
of Philip emphasizes the union of the soul
(symbolized by Mary Magdalene) with God (in
the person of Jesus).
The idea of a marriage between Jesus and
Mary Magdalene was popularized in a 1982
book, Holy Blood, Holy Grail. This book has little
standing among historians, but has attracted many people
drawn to conspiracy theories. It also led to an
unsuccessful lawsuit against Brown for plagiarism.
Other more reputable scholars theorize that Jewish rabbis
were expected to marry, and a married Jesus would have
had higher standing and respect. Still other biblical scholars
counter that Jesus defied many customs of his time.
Why not this one?
4. The Priory of Sion was supposedly charged with protecting
the bloodline of Jesus from extinction. Its documents
linked France’s Merovingian dynasty to
Sarah, alleged daughter of Jesus, and, thereby,
argued for a return to monarchy. In 1993,
the French courts judged that the documents
about the Priory were forgeries, part of an
For Online Immediacy: www.jesusdecoded.com. This site, established by the U.S. bishops’
Catholic Communication Campaign, offers
essays and answers to worrisome Code-inspired
questions. The site also promotes a TV special
(available for purchase after it airs on NBC affiliates),
a booklet and parish bulletin inserts.
For Serious Study: Mary of Magdala: What
the Da Vinci Code Misses (a 2006 revision of a
1995 book), by Mary R. Thompson. Paulist
Press. 156 pp. $14.95.
For Succinct Answers: De-coding Da Vinci,
by Amy Welborn. Our Sunday Visitor. 124
To Prepare for Trivial Pursuit: The Complete
Idiot’s Guide to Mary Magdalene, by Lisa Bellevie.
Alpha Books. 358 pp. $12.95.
Carol Ann Morrow is an assistant editor of this publication.
The 'Other' Gospels
by Diane Houdek
MANY SCHOLARS believe that Mark’s Gospel was completed
around 70 A.D. A decade or so later Matthew
and Luke used it as a source for their Gospels. They
may have had another source in common, known
as Q (from the German word quelle, “source”), as well
as their own separate sources. Q was most likely a collection of Jesus’
sayings, but with none of the miracle stories so familiar to us, and no
accounts of Jesus’ passion.
The Gospel of Thomas is a “sayings gospel” written perhaps as late
as the second century. Even though it contains many of the same parables
and sayings as the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, the
Church does not consider it to be authentic revelation because it was
not in widespread use among the early Christian communities.
Other texts not included in the Bible contain folktales about the life
of the boy Jesus or the childhood of Mary. The best known are the
Infancy Gospel of Thomas and the Infancy Gospel of James. They contain
fanciful tales such as Jesus making clay pigeons and clapping his
hands to bring them to life or getting mad at a playmate, causing the
child’s death by an angry word and then raising him to life again. While
these stories may be appealing, their authenticity is questionable.
Diane Houdek is editor of Bringing Home the Word and Weekday Homily Helps, two
newsletters published by St. Anthony Messenger Press.