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In Quest of the Historical Jesus


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. 8

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

  2. 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:

    Especially among certain authors now or formerly connected with the Jesus Seminar, emphasis on the Jewishness of Jesus is hardly a central concern. Whether one looks at the more serious works of writers like John Dominic Crossan and Burton L. Mack or the sensationalistic popular works of authors like Robert W. Funk, one finds Jesus the Cynic philosopher or Jesus the generic Mediterranean peasant or Jesus the social revolutionary or Jesus the religious iconoclast largely overshadowing if not obliterating the specific first-century Palestinian Jew named Jesus.

    To be sure, words like “Jew” and “Jewish” often adorn titles or subtitles of such works, and politically correct comments are made about the importance of Jesus’ Jewishness. But in most of these books, one searches in vain for detailed treatments of the various religious movements competing for influence in first-century Palestine…and of the ways in which Jesus the Jew interacted with or reacted to them….

    He concludes by saying that the “essentially Jewish nature” of Jesus’ relationships with others “needs a thorough airing,” which he proceeds to provide.

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