In Quest of the Historical Jesus


For almost one hundred years scholars have used the term “the quest of the historical Jesus” to refer to the academic effort to recover what can be known of Jesus of Nazareth, who lived in Jewish Palestine approximately between 4 BCE and 30 CE. The quest itself is more than two hundred years old, and it continues today as one of the main topics of New Testament research. Its basic assumption is that the Jesus of history, as a result of theological development, became the Christ of faith, the second person of the Trinity, but that an unadorned Jesus may be found behind or beneath early Christian literature.

The principal sources for information about the historical Jesus are the first three gospels in the New Testament—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—which are called “synoptic” because they can be studied in parallel columns in a book called a “synopsis.” John, the fourth gospel, is important theologically but contributes less to knowledge of the Jesus of history. Gospels outside the New Testament, some of which, especially the Gospel of Thomas, have recently attracted attention, are more remote from first-century Jewish Palestine and consequently are of little use in the study of the historical Jesus.1

The four gospels share common features, but each is quite distinctive. When, around 150 CE, the idea arose that Christians should have their own sacred literature in addition to the Scripture that they inherited from Judaism (which therefore had to become the “Old Testament”), there was con-siderable debate about the gospels. Many of the competing Christian groups were characterized by the number of gospels that they accepted. Irenaeus, the chief early spokesman for the party that won, emphasized that there must be four and only four true gospels. He noted that there were substantial differences. John teaches Jesus’ heavenly origin; Luke demonstrates his priestly character; Matthew is the gospel of his humanity; Mark’s cursory narrative emphasizes Jesus’ prophetic nature.2 Instead of inspiring a search for the most accurate account of Jesus the man, the differences among the gospels led Irenaeus to insist that all four had to be read together in order to obtain a true picture of Jesus as man, prophet, priest, and Son of God. The Church canonized as sacred Scripture four somewhat different books, but it did not agree on a single portrait of the man who taught in Galilee and who was executed outside the walls of Jerusalem.

During the first centuries of the Church’s existence, in addition to forming a new canon of sacred books, its leaders produced creeds, which presented summaries of what Christians should believe. The decisive statement about Jesus was the formulation of the council that took place in 451 CE at Chalcedon outside Constantinople. It decreed that Christians should believe that he was truly human (“like us in all respects, apart from sin”) and truly divine (“of one essence with the Father”). Moreover, each of the two essences was entirely true to its own character; neither altered the other. The winning party at the council intended to exclude several alternative positions that had become popular: that Jesus was not really human, that he was not really divine, and that he was half-and-half. The approved doctrine (100 percent human and 100 percent divine), which eventually became orthodox in the West and in most churches in the East, established official “Christology,” the way in which the person of Jesus should be regarded.

In the text of the Chalcedonian definition, two phrases are based on the Gospel of John, but the language otherwise corresponds to the desire to work out Christology on the basis of late Greek philosophy and does not directly rest on a study of the gospels. After the creeds established a body of correct beliefs, Christians read the New Testament through the lens of those beliefs, and so they often thought that the creed was simply a reflection of what is in the gospels and the letters of Paul. But were that the case, the Church would not have required 420 or so years to arrive at the Chalcedonian definition. When the New Testament is read with eyes that are, as Paula Fredriksen puts it in her new book, Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews, those “innocent of the future”—that is, in pretended ignorance of later beliefs—the reader sees that the accounts of Jesus in the New Testament neither require nor directly create Christian doctrine.

By 1800, many Christian thinkers had become impatient with and often hostile to creedal dogma as a whole. In 1906, looking back on almost 130 years of scholarly efforts to find the historical Jesus, Albert Schweitzer wrote that academic research had loosened the bonds by which he had been riveted to “the stony rocks of ecclesiastical doctrine.” For many Christians, the historical Jesus—a great and good man—emerged as a fresh and vital alternative to traditional Christianity. The creeds were stuffy, ponderous, and so burdened with metaphysical issues that they obscured the living voice of the Man from Galilee. The historical Jesus would give them someone to follow—if only they could get a firm grip on him.

Once the matter is put this way, it becomes clear that it would be tempting to describe a Jesus who is a suitable person to follow, someone who represents the right ideas and ideals. But, of course, people disagree about what these are. The result is that the selection of evidence often reflects the scholar’s own estimate of what is worthy of emulation. As Fredriksen puts it, far too many portrayals of Jesus yield to “the dark angels of Relevance and Anachronism.” They correspond too closely to the author’s concerns, not enough to those of first-century Judaism.

This is not to say that all scholars are equally guilty of yielding to the temptation to make Jesus fit their own day and its needs. Albert Schweitzer was a notable exception to the rule. He described the historical Jesus as an apocalyptic visionary who incorrectly expected the Kingdom of God to arrive in his own lifetime. Schweitzer then concluded that the historical figure is useless for modern, early-twentieth-century Christianity. But he thought that the Spirit of Jesus nevertheless mysteriously comes down the ages; following this Spirit—not the historical Jesus—Schweitzer began work as a medical missionary in Lambaréné (in Gabon, at that time French Equatorial Africa). Since Schweitzer, tension between a relevant, inspiring Jesus and a Jesus who was an ancient and possibly irrelevant Jew has continued. Few, however, have adopted Schweitzer’s radical solution. Most New Testament scholars want Jesus to address modern questions more or less directly.


The contemporary American reader who innocently goes into a bookstore or library to find books about Jesus walks into a morass of competing views and can only come away more puzzled than before. The distinction between an ancient Jewish Jesus (who may be partly or even largely irrelevant to modern problems) and a Jesus who speaks directly to us may help sort out the confusion. It may further help to know that there is a “mainstream” collection of views about him. The mainstream consists of agreement on major points about the life and character of Jesus, with considerable allowance for significant disagreement on lesser issues. Among the contributors to this approach have been both Geza Vermes and Paula Fredriksen in works written before those under review.

The main components of the mainstream view are these:

(1) Jesus was thoroughly Jewish, with excellent knowledge of Hebrew Scripture, and he was immersed in the issues that arise from that Scripture as well as engaged with at least some of the issues of the day. Scripture seems to have been more important to his outlook than current affairs. That is, he thought much more about how the people of Israel should behave and how and when God would redeem them from their current plight than about the details of local self-government.

(2) He did not deliberately oppose the Law of Moses; nor did he reject the view that the God of Israel is the one God of the world, who had chosen the Israelites to be his special people. Jesus accepted the fundamental Jewish view of the Covenant and the Law, though he may have had debates and disagreements over aspects of the Law, which in fact were rife in his day.

(3) Jesus was a prophet who preached the imminent arrival of the Kingdom of God. This expectation of a dramatic end of the current age is called “eschatological” or “apocalyptic.” “The End” in first-century Judaism was not the dissolution of the universe but a decisive change in the world, ushering in a new era and establishing God’s reign throughout the world, peace on earth, and plenty of food and drink for all.

(4) Jesus taught ethical perfectionism, that is, behavior that is appropriate to the Kingdom of God.

(5) He did not teach about himself, his titles, and his relationship with the Father, as he does in John. (The effect of points 3, 4, and 5 is that scholars attribute to Jesus much of the material in the synoptic gospels but exclude the teaching material that appears only in John.)

(6) In style, he made use of aphorisms (“turn the other cheek”), parables, and parable-like similes (the Kingdom of God is like…). This characteristic is also at odds with John’s long metaphorical discourses.

(7) He was a healer and miracle-worker of a sort well known in Ju-daism (and related to performers of wondrous deeds in other cultures). The commonest type of healing attrib-uted to Jesus is exorcism; John lacks exorcisms.

(8) In the way common to many prophets, he employed not only words but also symbolic gestures to convey his meaning. One of these was turning over tables in the temple complex, which is frequently taken to be a prediction of its coming destruction, perhaps preparatory to its rebuilding by God.

(9) He was crucified on the orders of Pontius Pilate, the Roman prefect of Judea, shortly after Passover (though John, who puts the crucifixion one day earlier, has some support from scholars).

(10) Jesus’ disciples and others believed that God raised him from the dead, and they started a new Jewish movement, based on the expectation of his return, which eventually spread to Gentiles.

The first point above, Jesus’ Jewishness, deserves special attention, since opinions that Jesus was either anti-Jewish or non-Jewish have been very widespread. Both Geza Vermes and Paula Fredriksen argue strongly that Jesus was completely Jewish in outlook and culture. Apart from the issue of Christian anti-Judaism, the question of Jesus’ Jewishness is crucial because scholars desperately need some sort of setting within which the sayings and actions attributed to Jesus make sense. Long usage of individual selections from this material in the teachings of the Church—which rearranged them and often provided new introductions and conclusions—led to the loss of the original immediate context of each saying or deed, and consequently it is imperative to find a broader context.

The fiercest battles now are fought over this larger setting. What was first-century Palestinian Judaism like? The answer to this question determines, to an appreciable degree, the range of possibilities for the reconstruction of the historical Jesus. The writers who maintain that Jesus was anti-Jewish or not noticeably Jewish do not use these crude terms; they say, rather, that since Jesus opposed some of the Law specifically he opposed all of it in principle; that he “harked back” to the great prophets of Israel and disregarded what Judaism had become; that Galilee had been Hellenized and was culturally more Greek than Jewish; that Galilee had remained “Israelite” but had not become “Jewish” in the way Jerusalem was.

The views that Jesus opposed central aspects of Judaism, or that culturally he was not very Jewish, have been resolutely opposed by a surprisingly small number of scholars—who have, however, the better of the argument, since their view corresponds to the evidence. To make Jesus antithetical to his own culture or removed from typical Jewish concerns, one must concentrate on a few sayings, work very hard at interpreting them as decisive, and discard vast quantities of evidence. Moreover, many of the recent views about Galilee, especially its Hellenization, draw on third- and fourth-century evidence and impose it on the events of the first half of the first century.

Among the most prominent twenty or so books by scholars who have written convincingly on Palestinian Judaism in Jesus’ day and who have seen Jesus as thoroughly immersed in that culture, several are by Jews. They include Joseph Klausner’s Jesus of Nazareth (1925); David Flusser’s Jesus (1969); Paul Winter’s On the Trial of Jesus (1961); Geza Vermes’s Jesus the Jew (1973), Jesus and the World of Judaism (1983), and The Religion of Jesus the Jew (1993); and Paula Fredriksen’s From Jesus to Christ (1988). The new books by Vermes and Fredriksen add considerably to the arguments they have already made.


Geza Vermes is one of the most distinguished living scholars of ancient Judaism. While he has specialized in the study of the Dead Sea Scrolls, in which his reputation is unsurpassed, he has an impressive command of all the Jewish sources from antiquity. He has moved from Hungary to France to Oxford, where he served with distinction as Reader and then Professor of Jewish Studies, a position from which he retired in 1991. He was born into a family that was originally Jewish but that had converted to Christianity. He himself subsequently converted to Judaism.3 For most of his life he has studied ancient Judaism and the new Jewish movement that became Christianity.

In 1973, when his book Jesus the Jew appeared, the title itself created a small stir among New Testament scholars, since it challenged the prevailing view that Jesus had initiated Christianity’s break from Judaism, if not deliberately and thoroughly at least in principle. Nevertheless, the book was enormously successful. It established basic parallels between Jesus and a previously neglected “type”: the Galilean Hasid—i.e., “pious” or “Godly” man.4 Under the heading “Jewish Charismatics,” Vermes discussed Honi the Circle-Drawer, known from both Rabbinic literature and Josephus, Hanina ben Dosa, and others. Exploring what is known about these men, he convincingly showed numerous parallels with Jesus. They performed healings and other wonders, and they had a feeling of special closeness to God, as of a son with a father; they engaged in powerful and effective prayer and even in some teaching.

One of the other principal contributions of Vermes’s work was a meticulous study of the titles that Christians eventually gave to Jesus: Prophet, Messiah or Christ (based on the Hebrew and Greek words meaning “anointed”), Lord, and Son of Man. Vermes concluded that Jesus preferred thinking of himself as a “prophet,” while Christians assigned him the other titles for diverse reasons. By 1993 Professor Vermes could note with justified satisfaction that his campaign, in which he had been joined by others, to fit the life of Jesus convincingly into other evidence from first-century Palestine, and especially Galilee, seemed to be widely accepted.5

Professor Vermes has always been interested in the question of how the Jesus of history became the Church’s divine figure. He has now given us a full account of this development. Probably having in mind the titles of books by Paula Fredriksen (From Jesus to Christ) and Maurice Casey (From Jewish Prophet to Gentile God), Vermes calls his prologue “From Christ to Jesus.” He traces the process of divinization backward, not precisely chronologically, but according to the degree of “evolution” of the Christological doctrine that Jesus was both entirely divine and entirely human. The line running from the most evolved Christology to the least can be followed, in Vermes’s account, by examining the texts of John, Paul, the Acts, and the synoptic gospels. He briefly discusses other New Testament books en route. After this presentation of various depictions of Jesus in the New Testament, Vermes gives his views of the real Jesus who is “beneath the gospels.”

Summing up his main theme, he writes: “The most prominent features of the Synoptic portrait of Jesus, those of a charismatic healer and exorcist, teacher, and champion of the Kingdom of God, are essentially dependent on the historical figure which other authors of the New Testament progressively disguised.”

The face of this Jesus, truly human, wholly theocentric, passionately faith-inspired, and under the imperative impulse of the here and now, impressed itself so deeply on the minds of his disciples that not even the shattering blow of the cross could arrest its continued real presence. It compelled them to carry on in his name with their mission as healers, exorcists, and preachers of the Kingdom of God. It was only a generation or two later, with the increasing delay of the Parousia [Jesus’ return], that the image of the Jesus familiar from experience began to fade, covered over first by the theological and mystical dreamings of Paul and John, and afterward by the dogmatic speculations of church-centered Gentile Christianity.6

The historical Jesus, Vermes concludes, “was thoroughly Jewish in his roles of teacher, exorcist, and preacher, prophet and son of God,” where “son of God” is understood as it traditionally was in Judaism, a metaphor for the people of God or for someone especially close to God.

Vermes’s substantial chapters on John and Paul are immensely perceptive. It is difficult for someone who is Jewish to read John or Paul sympathetically. John demonizes the Jews as children of the Devil; Paul is for many Jews, especially including Jewish experts in Christianity, the great apostate who destroyed the Jewish message of Jesus and began his transformation into a God of the Gentiles.7 All things considered, Vermes’s treatment is remarkably sympathetic as well as penetrating. He sees that the divinity of John’s Christ, who sometimes claims to be “one” with the Father (John 10:30), is significantly modified by statements indicating that he is inferior to and dependent on the Father (e.g., John 8:28; 14:28). Moreover, just as John’s Christ is united with the Father, so also the believers are united with him and the Father. Are they gods too? Many readers of John miss this complexity entirely.

Vermes also correctly emphasizes the mysticism of John: in his gospel the union of Christ, God, and believers is based not on their having the same “essence,” but on verbs and prepositions indicating deep personal relationships. Jesus loves the Father, the Father loves him, they love the disciples, who love them, they all abide in, or “indwell,” one another. This is quite different from the Chalcedonian assertion that Jesus has two essences, one human, one divine. It is principally John’s prologue that, by identifying Jesus with the preexistent divine communication (“In the beginning was the Word”), pushes him toward the Chalcedonian definition.

Paul, Vermes writes, relied primarily on “heavenly communications and visions” and “deliberately turned his back on the historical figure, the Jesus according to the flesh.” Vermes quite correctly emphasizes the importance of the death of Christ for Paul, who concentrated not on the historical figure, or even on the “risen and glorified Lord, but the Jesus who expired on the cross.” As in the case of John, Vermes recognizes Paul’s distinctive form of mysticism. In his analysis, Christ’s death, though sometimes described as an atoning sacrifice, more importantly provides the opportunity for the believer to participate mystically in that death and thus to leave behind the old sinful life. This mystical death and new life provide the believer “with as it were a ticket for participation in the final real resurrection,” which lay in the very near future.

Vermes goes on to argue that the Acts of the Apostles, a history of apostolic missionary work, is close to the synoptic gospels in its view of the person and work of Jesus, and that the synoptic gospels are not very far from the real Jesus, who was a charismatic prophet, healer, and ethicist.

Though Vermes often emphasizes that Jesus was eschatological in outlook, expecting the Kingdom of God to arrive, he describes in detail and strongly emphasizes the importance of the present in Jesus’ teaching. “The eyes of Jesus were resolutely focused on the present, on the duty of the moment, and closed to anything pertaining to the more distant future.” Vermes brings future and present to-gether, summing up Jesus’ message as a command to “do all that is required for the fulfillment of the plea, ‘Thy Kingdom come.'” Probably recognizing that readers might regard Jesus’ error about eschatology as making his message partly irrelevant, Vermes adds that “the absence of a literal fulfillment of his belief does not detract in any way from the fundamental truth that no religious attitude is real without an all-pervading sense of urgency which converts ideas into instant action.”

Vermes is particularly helpful in his discussion of the various titles given to Jesus—Messiah, Son of Man, etc. In fact, those who want to understand the historical Jesus and the evolving ways in which he was perceived in the following decades can do no better than to read his book. It is the masterly statement of a great scholar who has spent decades considering his topic, and whose work is gentle, irenic, relatively unargumentative, and written with exceptional skill. Although firmly insistent that Christianity has substantially disguised the historical Jesus, who, when recovered, is a recognizable Jewish figure of the first century, Vermes is not stinting in his praise of Jesus. He was, Vermes writes, a Galilean Hasid—but not just another Hasid: “Jesus stood head and shoulders above them.” He was in some respects like the great prophet Amos, but “he surpassed the prophets.” Above all, Jesus’ teaching sets him apart. “The gospel preached by him is fire, power, and poetry, one of the high peaks in the religious creativity of the people of Israel,” Vermes writes, and he cites Martin Buber and Joseph Klausner to the same effect. In Vermes Jesus has found his best Jewish interpreter.


Paula Fredriksen is not far behind Vermes. A professor at Boston University, she is a scholar of early Christianity broadly defined, having also written at length on Saint Augustine of Hippo. In her first book on the New Testament (From Jesus to Christ),8 she swiftly and accurately traced the development from Jesus to Christ, traversing much the same ground as Vermes, but in chronological order. Her new work shows no interest in the development of Christology; she concentrates on a specific problem in the study of the historical Jesus, asking “if we can draw causal and explanatory connections between what Jesus taught, why and how he died, and why and how the earliest Christian movement took the shapes it did.”

Her answer, stated briefly, is that Jesus was an eschatological prophet who expected the imminent arrival of the Kingdom of God; that he was crucified by Pilate because some of his followers and admirers claimed that he was the expected Messiah, son of David; and that his movement naturally culminated in the mission of Paul, who continued to preach Jesus’ eschatological message but followed it to its logical conclusion by persuading Gentiles both to worship the God of Israel and to have faith in Jesus as his Messiah.

Paul’s mission to Gentiles—not his Christology—is a major element in her reconstruction, since it shows the trajectory of the movement that started with John the Baptist and included Jesus and his disciples. In Fredriksen’s discussions of Jesus’ teaching and wondrous deeds, Paul is seen as having continued Jesus’ tradition of perfectionist ethics and “miracles.” Vermes, for his part, does not see that Paul can be used in these ways to clarify Jesus’ words and deeds.

Much of Fredriksen’s book is a brilliant account of the views I earlier identified as parts of the mainstream, but she faces a problem that does not trouble Vermes very much: the war that he thought was won by 1993 has flared up again. Many writers well known in the US and Canada, but without much impact in Britain, now challenge the consensus that Jesus was a charismatic and eschatological healer and prophet. Such views are associated with the scholars who have taken part in the meetings called the Jesus Seminar. Particularly prominent among them are John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg. In his most recent book Vermes briefly takes note of these conflicting views, but he still assumes that his interpretation of Jesus as a charismatic Jewish prophet has become accepted. In the US and Canada, the issue has sometimes appeared to be in doubt. Fredriksen addresses the dissenters head on and extensively. Among the views that she disputes are these:

(1) Galilee was not typically Jewish, either because it was heavily Hellenized or because its Judaism was not closely related to that of Jerusalem.

(2) Jesus was entirely noneschatological (or nonapocalyptic) in his vision of the future; he was, rather, a social and religious reformer who wanted to get rid of Jewish nationalism, purifications, blood sacrifices, and other things common to all ancient religions, patriarchal domination, and class distinctions. He was thus the first and the most ideal modern man.

(3) He was really only a teacher in the mold of the Cynics, offering wise and sometimes upsetting comments on life, trying to help poor people cope better with their daily lives, and teaching them how to organize egalitarian, nonpatriarchal families and villages.

The lack of positive evidence for these views has not, yet, sunk them, since in many ways they are very appealing. They have Jesus speak directly to the issues of contemporary American society, such as nationalism, racism, male domination, and the existence of desperate poverty alongside enormous wealth. These are genuine and serious issues on which Christianity should have something to say. Since many people believe that contemporary Christianity is based directly on the Bible, rather than being mediated by a long history, Jesus “must” have addressed such issues. The problem is to find where he did so. Alas, as Fredriksen shows, they lay outside his world view, and Christianity must deal with them with only very general help from him. As society’s problems have evolved, so must Christian teaching on those problems, but Jesus can be drawn on for no more than statements of good basic principles, such as the obligation to treat one’s neighbor as oneself.

Professor Fredriksen’s pages and the related endnotes on these modernizing interpretations are sharp and penetrating. But more importantly she does not merely demonstrate that the claims of the opposition are baseless. Hers is the best defense of the mainstream position to appear since the early to mid-1990s, when the views of the Jesus Seminar began to make a serious impression on both the public and American New Testament scholars.

Along with a defense, she provides fresh and vigorous descriptions that have the merit of conveying the feel of an ancient religion and of ancient Jewish Palestine. She gives lively accounts of how Temple worship functioned, imaginatively and convincingly describing how Jesus as a boy and his family would have seen the Temple. “It was,” she writes, “so sparkling and white in the sunshine,” it “seemed to a boy more like a huge manmade mountain.” She has much to say about the importance of purity in ancient religion, and the political situations in Galilee and Judea.

The parts of her work that break new ground are to my mind less persuasive, though they will certainly cause us all to think again. She is persuaded by two aspects of the chronology in the Gospel of John: the point in his career at which Jesus dramatically turned over tables in the Temple, and the length of his public ministry. In the synoptic gospels, Jesus makes only one trip to Jerusalem during his public career; and this was also the occasion of his prophetic act in the Temple in which, as is said in Mark, he “began to drive out those who bought and sold there. He upset the tables of the money-changers and the seats of the dealers in pigeons…” (Mark 11:15). In Mark it is especially clear that the actions in the Temple were the immediate cause of Jesus’ death, though this is evident in Matthew and Luke as well.

According to John, however, during his public career Jesus observes three Passovers (which requires a ministry of just over two years at a minimum and allows for the possibility of one of almost three years). According to John’s Chapter 2, Jesus performed his symbolic action in the Temple during his first visit to Jerusalem. And it did not lead to his death. Fredriksen interprets John’s account of Jesus’ career and itinerary rather loosely, to be sure. She suggests that Jesus’ public ministry lasted a fairly long time, possibly longer than two or three years. At each Passover during this period, he appeared in Jerusalem and proclaimed the imminent arrival of the Kingdom of God, and on one of these early trips he turned over tables in the Temple. He went home unharmed each time.

This reconstruction allows her to propose that Jesus was well known to both the high priest, Caiaphas, and the Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate. Caiaphas, with his council and advisers, had the responsibility of keeping the Roman peace in Judea on a day-to-day basis. Pilate lived in Caesarea, two days’ journey away, and came to Jerusalem with some of his soldiers (who numbered about three thousand altogether) only to ensure law and order during the three pilgrimage festivals each year. Since Jesus always preached the Kingdom of God, and since he once even acted disruptively in the Temple but had gone home unharmed, Caiaphas and Pilate knew who he was and did not regard him as dangerous. He and his followers were not revolutionaries, but only slightly wild-eyed eschatological dreamers.

Why, then, did Pilate finally execute him? Because at the last Passover, Fredriksen suggests, he “perhaps” said that this is definitely the last Passover before the Kingdom arrives. And this time, he was believed, particularly by some new followers who were caught up in the redemptionist enthusiasm of the Passover holiday, and started calling him “Messiah” and “Son of David.” This, Pilate thought, was too much. Though Jesus was harmless, his followers’ messianic expectation might lead to insurrection or upheaval, and so he had Jesus executed. While Fredriksen allows for the possibility of a hearing before the high priest or the prefect, she thinks such hearings would have been unnecessary and unlikely. “His death warrant had already been signed by the very crowd that had clamored around him, responding to his message of impending redemption. Pilate’s soldiers had their orders, and they knew what to do.”

Fredriksen argues that the messianically inspired crowds were the sole cause of Jesus’ death. Other mainstream scholars have held that two factors led to Jesus’ execution: not only did he have followers and attract crowds, but during his last Passover he showed himself to be capable of creating a disturbance—admittedly a small one—when he turned over tables in the Temple. Caiaphas’ Temple guards would have seen the commotion and reported it, even though Jesus slipped away in the crowd. Rome required those who administered its empire to maintain law and order at any cost. This was Pilate’s responsibility, and thus it was also Caiaphas’, whose guards served as the local police. Even a small crowd around one man was dangerous at a festival, when the population of the city swelled from about 25,000 to 250,000 or more. A convincing explanation of why Jesus died should, in my view, include at least two central events: the gathering of a small but enthusiastic crowd, and the violent acts in the sacred precincts of the Temple. Caiaphas did his duty and recommended execution to Pilate, who swiftly ordered it.


Geza Vermes’s work is, in his own words, “that of a scholar, of a detached historian, in search of information embedded in the surviving sources.” His position also puts him apart from the charged controversies over the life of Jesus. As a professor of Jewish studies, he only occasionally taught the New Testament, and he does not attend the conferences of New Testament scholars. The lack of explicit debate with others will be, for many readers, one of the advantages of his book. Paula Fredriksen teaches the New Testament, attends conferences, and is often a participant in debates with other scholars who do research on the historical Jesus. Part of the appeal of her book is its lively argument with others. Thus the two books under review, which are mostly complementary, are also very distinctive. Each is, in its own way, an excellent—in fact, brilliant—exposition of Jesus, the world in which he lived, his teaching, his deeds, his death, and some of the ways in which Christianity developed after him. It is hard to see how we could ask for more.9

  1. 1

    There is a recent account of this issue in Philip Jenkins, Hidden Gospels: How the Search for Jesus Lost Its Way (Oxford University Press, 2001). 

  2. 2

    Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 111.11.8. 

  3. 3

    See his autobiography, Providential Accidents (London: SCM Press, 1998). 

  4. 4

    These hasidim are not to be confused with later Hasidic Jews. For a discussion of the ancient category of the Hasidim that applies the term much more broadly than does Vermes, see Adolph Büchler, Types of Jewish-Palestinian Piety from 70 BCE to 70 CE: The Ancient Pious Men (1922; reprinted by Ktav, 1968). 

  5. 5

    See his book The Religion of Jesus the Jew (Fortress Press, 1993), p. 6. 

  6. 6

    It is not accurate to say that Paul lived a generation after Jesus and his disciples; they all belonged to the same generation. Vermes occasionally confuses chronological sequence with the evolution of Christology. Paul’s letters are appreciably earlier than the syn-optic gospels and the Acts of the Apostles. 

  7. 7

    For a sensitive and highly perceptive Jewish reading of John, see Adele Reinhartz, Befriending the Beloved Disciple (Continuum, 2001). 

  8. 8

    From Jesus to Christ: The Origins of the New Testament Images of Jesus (Yale University Press, 1988). 

  9. 9

    While the books on the historical Jesus just discussed or alluded to have been appearing, John P. Meier, a Catholic priest and professor of the New Testament at Notre Dame, has been producing the most thorough and comprehensive work of research on Jesus that will be published this generation—and probably for some generations to come. Under the general title A Marginal Jew, he brought out one large volume in 1991—the background, chronology, and early years of Jesus—and another in 1994, including key sayings and deeds. The most recent volume, published in September 2001 by Anchor Books, is subtitled Companions and Competitors. A fourth volume is planned. Meier’s magnificent achievement, now three quarters complete, cannot be praised too much. With regard to the chief subject of this review, I quote the following from Meier’s new book: