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How Do We Know
Who Jesus Is?
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.
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 human heroes.
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
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.
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 explicit statements about Jesus’ identity as the Messiah and
about his resurrection suggest that Christian scribes may have inserted their own convictions
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 Library translation).
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).
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 criteria).
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
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
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
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
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 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.
Next: The World Jesus Knew
Who is Jesus to you? How does what you know about him affect
your relationship with him? Can growing in knowledge of Jesus help you grow in
love for him?
How much are you swayed by the images of Jesus presented by
recent books and movies that are based on nonbiblical sources about Jesus? Do these
sources challenge or strengthen your faith?
The four Gospels are the major sources for what we know about
Jesus. Choose one of the Gospels and read it from beginning to end. What characteristics
of Jesus does it emphasize?
I want to order print copies of this Jesus: A Historical Portrait. Bulk discounts available!