How Do We Know Who Jesus Is?
by Daniel J. Harrington, S.J.
The question of Jesus’ identity is central to us as Christians. Because Christianity is an incarnational faith—centered 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 history. 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 resurrection.
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.
My goal in this series is to state what, in my judgment, current New Testament scholarship allows us to say with confidence about Jesus as a historical figure. I want to tell 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 field.
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 in 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.
Around 85-90 A.D., Matthew and Luke seem to have 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 composition.
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 explicit statements about Jesus’ identity as the Messiah and about his resurrection suggest that Christian scribes may have inserted their own convictions about Jesus.
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 could.
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” (Mt 5:34).
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 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 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 addressed God as Father and invited others to do the same. He proclaimed the possibility of the forgiveness of sins and of reconciliation with God.
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 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” Jesus.
Many of the early seekers discarded the miracles of Jesus and rejected his virginal conception and resurrection as “unhistorical.” One positive development in the 19th century 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).
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 in them.
Daniel J. Harrington, S.J., is professor of New Testament at Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge, MA, and editor of New Testament Abstracts since 1972. He is past president of the Catholic Biblical Association.